Sunday, 19 November 2017

One at a time

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First, a disclaimer: I am no publishing/marketing expert. If you want to get a really savvy opinion on how to sell books and gain followers, you'll probably have to look elsewhere. But if you want to know my personal strategy, it would be, "One at a time".

Books are written one word at a time.
Followers are gained one person at a time.
Sales are made one book at a time.

In other words, there is no fast dash to succeess, but rather, compunded progress over a long stretch of diligent work.

Granted, some books come out and become instant bestsellers. One can sit around and wait for this big discovery to happen. If people just go crazy over a certain book, its author doesn't really have to worry very much about a platform. But these cases are few and far between. This is why I consider it a worthwhile investment of time and planning for me to build a platform.

This means consistent presence online on my blog and social media, engaging with people on a personal basis, and collecting emails for my mailing list, which consists of fellow authors, bloggers who have previously reviewed my books, and readers who have contacted me out of interest in my writing.

And, of course, in between all that, I mustn't forget what makes me a writer in the first place, which is, naturally, writing. This is something I like to tell to every overwhelmed indie. If all your marketing and networking activities leave you no time to actually write, it's time to reevaluate your priorities. The more you write, the better you become at writing, and the more books you have out, the easier it is for people to find you.

Being an author means constantly chipping away at stones made of writer's block, rejection letters, a tough market, and various disappointments along the way. Patience wins; each day may seem like the one before, but when I look at what I have accomplished, I am reasonably satisfied. I currently have six fiction novels out, with more coming soon; I have a publishing contract, some sales, some good reviews, and some people who know my writing - considerably more than a year ago. I will keep moving forward to the next steps and climb them. One at a time.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Author interview: Wild Children and writing


Angela of The Contents Page was kind enough to invite me over for an author interview focused on my dystopian novel, Wild Children, its upcoming sequels, and writing in the context of a busy family life. Pop over to read the interview:

"What are you working on at the moment?

Right now I’m focusing on the sequel to Wild ChildrenThe Hourglass, which will feature, like the first book in the series, a great deal of bravery, resourcefulness and friendship on the side of the underdog orphans, plenty of conspiracy, greed and corruption on part of the unprincipled government, and the heart-wrenching dilemmas of some courageous individuals trapped in between, the most important of whom is Priscilla, the President’s daughter, who is determined to make her father lose the elections. Like in Wild Children, the action flits between the dense urban areas which are the last stronghold of civilization as we know it, and the vast empty remnants of the war-ravaged country.
I’m very excited about this upcoming book and the one that is due to follow it, Freeborn, the third volume in the series."

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Accuracy vs Realism in Historical Fiction

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This week, I was lucky enough to stumble upon this excellent, very comprehensive post discussing realism and truthfulness in historical fiction. This is a question many historical novelists grapple with: how accurate should I be? How much can I allow myself to deviate from the truth for the sake of narrative?

Accuracy and realism, however, are two distinct issues. Realism is anything that constitutes the environment and spirit of the epoch and place - culture, politics, food, clothing, music, literature and, of course, geography and climate. With all these, you should strive to get as close to reality as you can, because it really hampers credibility when, say, a journey that should take a week is performed in a day, or when Queen Victoria is 20 years early in succeeding to the throne.

Accuracy, however, is a bird of a different color. Some writers deliberately work in the realm of alternative history, and this is totally legit (as long as you make the appropriate disclaimers, of course). And even when one doesn't write alternative history, it's still important to remember we're dealing with historical fiction, which by definitions thrives upon embellishment, fancy and imagination.

Another thing to consider is that historical events get murkier and murkier as one goes farther into the past. It's easy enough to be accurate if your historical novel centers on the Russian Revolution, World War I or Victorian England - on any epoch that is relatively recent and well-documented. But what happens if your book is based on the Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls or, as in the case of my Viking exploration novel, The Greenlanders, on Icelandic sagas? In this case, any event or character you describe is most likely controversial, and however you choose to present your preferred version of history, it can be disputed.

This can be a good thing or a bad thing. It's a good thing because you get more leeway for your fancy - especially when writing about semi-legendary characters such as the heroes of sagas. You are free to describe your characters, as well as many events in their life, however you want, to an extent that two novels centered around largely the same historical events can present a very different narrative. One could ask me, why write The Greenlanders if a novel such as Tom Holt's Meadowland already exists? Well, for this very reason - we both took the same epoch, the same events, the same characters, but the two books are vastly different.

It is a bad thing because you are constantly questioning and doubting yourself, and wondering whether your book might not fall into the hands of some real, serious academic researcher who will read two pages and burst into a Homeric HA HA HA!! followed by a scathing one-star review on Amazon. I have found it considerably easier to write The Landlord, my Regency era novel, than The Greenlanders. I had plenty of literature of the epoch to draw on, and almost anything I was in doubt about could be verified by a quick and easy search, from "How much did a maid earn per annum in Georgian England?" to "What products were commonly smuggled in by sea?"

In contrast, try searching for "How much did a slave cost in Babylonia in the 9-th century?" You just try it. I challenge you. This, among many other questions, was something I have grappled with while writing my latest (now in the process of editing) historical novel, centered once more on a semi-legendary character - Eldad ha-Dani, a Jewish travelers whose origins are shrouded in mystery.

Writing historical fiction is a pursuit of endless interest, learning and discovery, and I wouldn't give it up for the world. But at the bottom line, it is still fiction, and should not be treated as an academic work or a historical tractate. Read, enjoy, and be generous to the author.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Small Press or Indie? Author dilemmas

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Following a discussion with a friend last week, I'm touching upon this subject again.

Many newbie authors are convinced that having a contract with a publisher, any publisher, is better than no contract at all. And after you've received a few rejections from literary agents ("Dear Author, please don't take this personally. We receive 10,000 queries a week, and only proceed with one or two"), and realized how tough the competition is within the Big Pub, someone's wishing to snag your book may be very soothing for your wounded self-esteem, and you may be tempted to close with the first offer that comes your way, thinking, "at least it's better than nothing".

However, a bad publishing contract - one that exploits the author, or is signed with a disreputable publisher - is far, far worse than nothing.

Always read your publishing contract carefully, and make sure you understand every clause before you sign. Beware of anything that limits your writing and publishing freedom for a time, such as the warning against so-called "competing titles". It may mean just the sequels/prequels of a series, or it may mean a whole genre - and if you write within one genre, like many authors do, this essentially means that you can't do anything independently of your publisher for a year, or however long your contract stipulates.

Another thing that is important to understand is, the way digital publishing opened the floodgates of the book world so that anyone can call themselves an author, similarly anyone can call themselves a publisher. No credentials are needed for that. Technically, I can set up a website for myself tomorrow, call myself a publisher, lure people into exclusive contracts snatching away their book rights, and then upload said books on Amazon, with a cover I made myself on Canva. Now, I'm not going to do that, because I realize I don't know near enough about the industry, nor have any connections that would enable me to dip my feet into the publishing industry, but not everyone is so scrupulous.

I have encountered several instances of authors who would have been much, much better off as indies than under their publishing contracts. Authors whose publishers put absolutely no effort into editing, cover design or promotion, and release books with embarrassing mistakes and crappy covers. Authors who can't get sales reports from their publisher (in years!) no matter how many times they ask. Authors who find themselves with all their book rights taken away, and nothing gained in return.

It isn't always a question of a publisher deliberately being a crook. Sometimes people jump into this business with the best intentions and, without being aware of it, make their first clients into guinea pigs. I have dodged one such offer a while back. For more information, read my post Publishing Pitfalls.

Small presses aren't always a no-no. I am working with Mason Marshall Press on my Wild Children series, and am happy with their professionalism, dedication and integrity. It is also very likely I get a lot more personal attention than I would have with a bigger company. But then, I had known my publisher by reputation before signing up. I knew that, however much of a success or failure my book would be, I would never be cheated, and I trusted he wouldn't flake out and go out of business tomorrow, leaving me in the lurch.

In short, before you sign with a small, little-known publisher, check out the following:

1. Who is running the business, and what credentials do these people have? How long have they been in business?
2. What books have they published, and how well have they done? Do the covers and blurbs look professional? How many reviews are on the books, and how do they rank?
3. Realistically, what will this publisher do for me that I cannot do for myself, in terms of book production and promotion? Does this offset my giving up 85% of book royalties to them?
4. Do a thorough internet search. Are there any negative reports of authors about this publisher? Any stories that sound dodgy? If there are, don't risk it, just run for the hills.
5. What sort of contract are they offering me? Is it something I might struggle getting out of if the publisher flukes? Does it limit my freedom in other venues I might pursue as an author?

Don't be dazzled by the words "publishing deal", and don't be in a hurry to sign away your rights, because it won't be so easy getting them back. Being an indie - carrying all responsibility, but also reaping all the profits - is much better than depending on the goodwill of an unprofessional, untrustworthy publisher.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Patchwork Quilt Books

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I used to scoff at outlines and planning - after all, wasn't writing supposed to be a divinely inspired art done quite spontaneously and freely? That, of course, was before I realized such mentality gets me stuck around the middle of the manuscript, scratching my head and not having the least idea (or rather, having about ten different ideas) of how I go from here.

In fact, of the six novels I currently have out, five were outlined from beginning to end, including lists of major and minor characters with their appearance, age and family connections, well before I started actually writing. The only novel that was not, The Greenlanders, was started in my pre-planning era, and it took six years of starting, stopping and tearing my hair out in frustration to complete. Ergo: I need a path to follow, even if I mean to step out of it from time to time, or I will get lost in the woods of subplots and characters.

When I started The Hourglass, my current WIP (sequel to Wild Children), I had the very best intentions, and created an outline, which led to a first draft that, as far as first drafts go, was fine. Then I sent it to my publisher, who had some suggestions for me; I had some suggestions for myself as well, which resulted in my having lots of 'aha!' moments and adding a scene here, a chapter there, all the while fervently praying that I don't irrevocably mess up the timeline or create plot holes the size of the moon craters.

Do I have another Ergo? Not really, except that I still think outlines are one of the most helpful tools an organized writer can have - and if you are like me, writing on a very limited time, you have to be organized. Depending on inspiration alone to blow wind into your sails will eventually get you stuck in the middle of a calm in a vast ocean, no land in sight.

Even an outline you deviate from is better than none at all. And even if you already have a complete manuscript, do make an outline - or, in this case, a synopsis - and look at it with a detached eye to see if it makes sense.

Admittedly, following my own plots and plans is easier for projects in which I work as an indie. Once I have completed my plot goals, reached my planned word count, and gotten the approval of my beta readers, there isn't anyone left to challenge me to take the book farther. It can be a good thing or a bad thing, but it is doubtless convenient.

Also, sometimes books and characters just take on a life of their own, and a character we were sure is a square peg turns out to be a round one. Plot twists we thought would be brilliant just don't seem to work. My suggestion? Learn to roll with it. Insert and omit, change and tweak. Patchwork quilts can be very pretty things.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Series: Seriously?

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I will make a confession: I am yet to write a book series by planning and design (that is, drawing a story arc that initially spans more than one book).

With Quest of the Messenger, I started all backwards - from what eventually became the second book of the trilogy - proceeded to book 1 because the mythology and back story were just too good to pass, and eventually finished with book 3, because it was quite impossible to wrap up the whole thing without it.

In Wild Children, I encountered even more of a challenge, because I had really set my heart on a standalone novel, and found it hard to accept the truth when a wise friend pointed out that I'm simply trying to cram too much into one book (albeit one of close to 120K words). So I began working on the sequel - even before the first book was published - and, as soon as it was done, realized at least another book is needed to make the story complete.

I know several reverse cases - book series that really could, and should, have been wrapped up in a single volume, or series that started off with a good pace, were successful, and then began to drag because the author and publishers simply couldn't relinquish the steady income of an audience waiting for the books. It is eventually a big letdown, though, and unfair to the readers, who feel like they are being duped, and justly resent it.

Ideally, I believe it's probably best to plan a series before starting to write it - at least to the extent of how many books it will include, and the approximate outline of each volume. I know that, had I initially planned Wild Children as a series, I would have chosen to do a few things differently in the first book, but as it was already written when I realized there would be a sequel, I had to work around this.

I guess it all comes down to a simple but tricky principle: know when to start, and know when to stop. Don't be afraid to jump ahead into a sequel, but don't let a series drag on when it's obviously done all it could, either. Also check out this great post about writing series.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Writing for an Audience

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In the very long, latent stage of my life as an author, I wrote entirely for the drawer, with no idea whatsoever of showing my work to anyone at any point. There was a certain sublime pleasure and satisfaction in this time of writing entirely for myself, with no other purpose than to put some order in the multitude of images and ideas swirling in my head.

Most authors, however, leave the drawer at some point or another, and so did I. It began with publishing poems and short fiction on hobby writing sites, which enabled me, for the first time in my life, to receive feedback. After some years my writing took a more professional approach, with serious long fiction, submissions to agents and publishers, and indie publishing. Today, when I'm working on anything, it is a given that my writing will be read - and probably read by impartial strangers who won't go out of their way to be considerate and kind.

Furthermore, I know more or less that the people who read this particular book will be people who like other books in the genre; I have an estimate of whether my readers are mostly men or women, teens or adults. In other words, I have a global vision of my audience even before I start actually writing.

Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Some will argue that writers shouldn't think about their readers at all, that it hampers the creative process and should be avoided. I take a milder view on this, and so do most authors - there is a reason why books go through editors and beta readers before they are published. After all, we all want to end up with a believable, consistent and harmonious story, and it's difficult to be impartial judges of our own writing.

Sometimes we need to make considerations not from an artistic, but from a cultural/public perspective. Thomas Hardy had to tone down some of his writing to make it fit for his Victorian audience. None of us live in a cultural vacuum, and even wearing clothes or observing traffic rules are concessions that we make to fit in a society.

When working on Wild Children, I received a suggestion from my publisher to narrow down a certain theme that, in the opinion of the editing team, had no real place in the narrative. After that was done and the book was published, one of the early reviewers commented on how glad they were to see this particular theme wasn't developed (without knowing, of course, what went behind the scenes). I was quite amazed - this is something I would never have thought of if I relied on my judgment alone.

Knowing that I write for readers does not take away my confidence or stultify my creative genius (if I ever had such a thing). If anything, it spurs me on to write more, better and faster.