Monday, 11 February 2019

The man who would be Moses

The Ethiopian Jews (the Beta Israel) are a living, breathing miracle. It simply doesn't seem natural that a Jewish community could exist for thousands of years in complete isolation from the rest of their brethren, without the support network that every other Jewish community has had, and still adhere to the traditions of their ancestors. They strictly kept the laws of ritual purity as described in Leviticus, and made animal sacrifices, long after these two practices were cast aside by rabbinical Judaism as obsolete without the existence of a Temple. Their religious practice ran along a parallel line, developing its own customs and beautiful liturgy.

If it sounds like I love these people, it's because I do. I can't find a more perfect example of the resilience of the Jewish people, who had preserved their identity despite many generations of hardship, privation and apparent hopelessness, and who remained one nation despite being scattered worldwide for so long. The fascinating cultural mosaic of modern Israel can bear evidence to that.

Fascinated as I am with Ethiopian Israelite history, I had long inner debates on whether I dare to venture into it as an author. The vocal pitch of #ownvoices and #notyourstory demands that the ethnicity of the author should match that of their protagonists, which is ridiculous and limiting to a degree I can hardly describe. Finally, I said, Hang it all! I'm Jewish! If someone is part of my people, their story is, in a way, my story too. Thus Land of the Lost Tribe was born.

I am currently working on another novel set in Ethiopia of over a thousand years ago, but in the meantime, I let my creative bunnies run wild and produced this complementary short story, Mahari, which fast-forwards a few centuries all the way to 1862. At that time, the condition of the Beta Israel was probably at an all-time low. The glory of their independent kingdom, which at one point ruled over extensive regions of Ethiopia, was long past. Contact with the rest of the Jewish world was nonexistent. Oppression, isolation, hopelessness, and missionaries took a heavy toll, and many of the Beta Israel converted to Christianity, much in the same way as the Marranos of Spain. 

Abba Mahari, an Ethiopian Jewish monk, was a charismatic religious leader who, in the year 1862, organized and led a desperate but inspiring exodus from Ethiopia in the hopes of reaching Jerusalem. Abba Mahari failed, but his heroic journey helped to keep the dream alive and paved the road to the eventual repatriation of Ethiopian Jews in Israel. 

You can download Mahari for free in epub format here, and in PDF here.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Blood Heir: the book totalitarian police reaches new levels

Image result for thought police

The Blood Heir controversy is a predictable climax to all the #ownvoices, cultural appropriation police and PC culture craze that has been raging in the writing world unrestrained these past couple of years. It's like we can no longer put our fingers to the keyboard without fear of offending someone. 

For those who haven't heard of this outrage yet, here's a recap: debut author Amelie Zhao was bullied into pulling her soon-to-be-published fantasy novel because some ARC readers decided it was "racist" and started an online shaming campaign.

I haven't read the book, but I do know this: it's impossible to create when you have to keep walking on eggshells for fear of hurting the feelings of some precious snowflake. It's like some people are just waiting to spot anything related to race/culture and latch upon it, charging with burning torches and screaming "racism! Insensitivity! Cultural appropriation!"

You can't please everyone. It's kind of useless to try. 

Here's the deal: belonging to a historically oppressed group doesn't give you a carte blanche to make unreasonable demands of ownership over historical narratives. I'm Jewish; I'm not offended when non-Jewish people write about Jews. I'm a woman; I don't get my feathers all ruffled when male authors write female characters. 

Some of my fiction is set in Ethiopia, and I suppose I'm only spared the accusations of cultural appropriation thanks to the fact that my books aren't popular enough to draw fire. I will keep writing whatever the heck I want. I will do my best to be sensitive and thorough in my research, but I won't ask anyone's permission to write. I was drawn to writing for the FREEDOM to create. No one will take this away from me. No one will tell me that a subject is off limits because I belong to the wrong gender/ethnicity. 

Another issue is the infamous 'representation' thing. Apparently, you can get a red flag not just for what you write, but for what you fail to include in your book. Newsflash: authors don't owe anyone anything. I refuse to make a character black, white, tall, short, gay, straight, or whatever, to 'represent' a group. I write my characters the way they work with my vision for my particular story. I hate racism and oppression of any kind - and that's why I won't let anyone oppress me as an author. 

I have long been saying that this whole PC obsession in literature is blown way out of proportion. We, as authors, should have the freedom to focus on what the readers want - a darn good story - without dodging rotten tomatoes for failing to support militant agendas. 

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Dragon Diplomacy: the birth of a book

Dragon Diplomacymy first Middle Grade fantasy novel, is now available in print and on Kindle. It was the last project I had tried to query, and I kept at it a long time, because children's books are notoriously difficult to promote without having the validation and resources trad pub gives. I eventually gave up on finding an agent, which is actually liberating. I can now focus on writing and getting my books to readers.

Dragon Diplomacy was written with my children's active contribution, and the reading aloud of each chapter was beautiful family time I can fondly look back on. We also drew the characters and made maps (not included in the book) and thought of ideas for sequels (working on that now).
The most important lessons I learned from writing this book are probably, 1) Kid love dragons, and 2) Kids are a brutally honest audience. My daughters had no qualms to say, "this is boring" or "change the ending". I followed their advice, of course. What choice did I have? 

Sunday, 27 January 2019

Canva 2.0 - the magic tool for designer dummies

Beginner̢۪s challenge

Are you an artistically challenged author with low to no budget? This post is for you.

With us authors, the strong side is usually the written, not the visual. Yet we all need graphics, and I'm not just talking book covers, but also book banners, Facebook and Twitter headers, post graphics, and more. We need plenty of these, we need them regularly, and outsourcing each and every one is not just expensive, but also inconvenient. It is highly useful to be able to log into a clean, simple design tool, and produce a decent-looking banner or header in 5 minutes. 

That's why I love Canva so much. No other tool can compare with the ease of use and target price (free - not just a few free templates to lure you, but you can actually get by very decently with just the unpaid options). I actually went from wanting to bury my head in the sand every time I looked at my covers and graphics, to having fun designing my own banners, post graphics and, eventually, even covers. Yes, you should absolutely buy a professionally designed cover for your book if at all possible, but if you are on a very low budget and produce several books each year, costs may quickly add up, and you may never make your investment back. I do not believe authors should delay publishing their work and sit around in frustration while they wait to save up for an editor and cover designer, either. There are options.

These are happy days as Canva launches its 2.0 version, complete with nifty options I look forward to fully exploring, and a design school for people with no background (like me!), presenting information in a straightforward, accessible way. There are videos on fonts, alignment, and templates, more advanced series on things like branding, and interactive tutorials, too - and it's all free. Count me in!

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Free books: a mark of no value or a useful marketing tool?

Image result for free books

Once in a while, I'll come across an article or post along the lines of this one, titled Indie Authors: Stop Giving Away Free Books

The point is always the same: no price = no value, so don't imply your work is worth zero by giving it away for free. If people want to read your book, they will purchase it. 

To each their own, of course, but the question is... why would people want to read your book? I'm not being cynical, I promise. It's just that, when people point out that in the Olden Days, we would hear about a book, go into a bookstore and buy it without any incentive in the form of freebies, they disregard the fact that back then, readers did not have as many distractions or as many things competing for their attention as they have now. 

Even if you have a great cover, an enticing blurb, and glowing reviews, the book market is swamped, and the lure of other entertainment, such as social media and video content, is ever-present. Even I, an avid reader for most of my life, have been recently sucked into hopping from one YouTube video to the next, and forgetting all about the pile of books on my Kindle. Thankfully, I caught this in time and am now making a conscious effort to turn my phone to Flight mode when I read in bed at night, and also to read more paperbacks. 

What I'm driving at is, if you grab a stranger by their arm and say, "here, I wrote a great book, buy it!", they are unlikely to do so. But if you say, "here, I wrote something entertaining you can try out for free and see how you like it", you have a better chance of catching that stranger's attention and turning them into a reader and, hopefully, a fan of your work. 

The 10% or 20% preview won't do the trick. Readers want a complete arc, or they won't bother.

This marketing strategy is successfully used by many thriving indie authors, by those people who give away free samples in supermarkets, and by dope dealers. The idea is the same each time: use a free sample to get a consumer hooked so that they get addicted to your stuff and buy it. 

Check out this article,Why I’m Giving My Book Away For Free For the First Five DaysTypically, someone doesn’t become your true fan overnight. Reading a really good blog post of yours might get them some of the way there, but reading a good book that you wrote will really move the needle.
The more copies of my book that I can give away, the more true fans I have a chance of creating. I miss one potential sale now in exchange for the opportunity to make many sales in the future.

Free books are a great way to funnel new readers into a series. I have a short story, The Frozen Shore, that I wrote as a prequel to my Antarctic sci-fi series. It was always meant as a freebie, and is serving its purpose well: I have seen a spike in sales and page reads since releasing it. I also intend to make Paths of the Shadow free on Smashwords once I get all my books into wide distribution. 

Bottom line: free is a strategy that works and, in many cases, works well. Try it and you might be surprised.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Grammarly: can it replace an editor?


I have refrained from using Grammarly for a while now, in a manifestation of obstinate professional pride: I'm an editor! I do know how to spot mistakes. I don't want to be dumbed down by software that will make me lazy and unfocused.

This held up until recently, when I've accepted a long-term position of editing Chinese web novels. We're talking super-long novels originally written in Mandarin Chinese and translated into English by people who are not native English speakers. The result requires some very heavy copy editing and proofreading, and no matter how much of a pro one might be, some mistakes and typos are guaranteed to slip through the cracks, simply due to the sheer amount of them. 

Hence, I installed Grammarly. 

If you haven't been using Grammarly, you should definitely give it a try. On the other hand, if you've been relying heavily on Grammarly, you should be careful with how much you count on this software to spot every issue. Spoiler: it misses some things. 

Here are some very good, comprehensive articles on Grammarly:

Should You Hire An Editor Or Just Subscribe To Grammarly? Spoiler: human editors and proofreaders aren't going anywhere (yet). Trust me, if those Chinese publishers could get away with only using AI, they would have. 

"When it comes right down to it, no computer program catches everything. It can’t determine if there are contradictions between information presented in one part of the book and information presented in another part of the book. It also can’t determine whether or not something doesn’t make sense, or is boring.
Because of this, if your budget permits, I recommend hiring a professional editor for your book. You can still use Grammarly to clean up your first draft before handing the book over to an editor. That can save you some cash since editors tend to charge based on either the quality of the manuscript or by the hour."

Grammarly vs. Human: An In-Depth Review of Grammarly Compared to Professional Editors - some very informative case studies here.

And here's also an article by the fabulous Joanna Penn, who really leaves no writing-related topic untouched: 

How To Use Grammarly To Improve Your Writing

"We always want to use professional editors and proofreaders when we're publishing our books. Nothing can replace the editing and proofreading of a human being, especially one who specializes in your genre.
However, the messier a manuscript is when you send it to a professional for proofreading or editing, the more it's going to cost you to improve and fix."

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Publishing: KDP Select vs. wide, again

Image result for kdp select vs going wide

I have a love-hate relationship with KDP Select. More specifically, I love the extra money and rank boost KU reads bring, but hate being 100% dependent on Amazon. I tried going wide before, was disappointed with the results, went back to Select, and am now wavering again.

The past year has marked some not so author-friendly changes in Amazon's policy. More specifically, the great behemoth decided taking 30% of our royalties isn't enough; it made paid ads a must to play the game. Can't afford those? Tough luck.

Joanna Penn writes about this in her end-of-year wrap-up post

It used to be the case that a new author could self-publish a book, put it up on Amazon and be assured of at least a few sales using free tools like KDP Select free days or countdown deals. Most authors used some form of paid marketing, but there were options for those with little to no budget.
But in mid-2018, things shifted as Amazon, the most egalitarian of publishing platforms, pretty much became a pay-to-play environment.
There's no point lamenting this shift. All businesses have marketing costs and although indie authors had free options that actually sold books for a while, it looks like that time is gone.
Joanna's right, of course. There's no point wondering or lamenting that a big greedy conglomerate is getting even bigger and greedier. It's time to think how we adapt. Joanna Penn has stated that only 11% of her income is from Amazon. For many authors this number is close to 100%. No wonder they feel free to play us.
Going over my backlist, I realized that, while some of my books indeed have a lot of KU reads and really benefit from being in Select, others have very few page reads and are still in Select just because I never bothered to uncheck the automatic renewal box. So the first thing I did was make sure none of these titles remain in Select after the end of the current 90 day period. It was very timely, too - some of my books have their Select period ending in just a few days, and if I had missed that, I would need to wait another 90 days to un-enroll them. That's another underhanded tactic by Amazon - they don't let you know that the current Select period is about to end, and just automatically enroll your book again, because they don't want you to reconsider your options.
So in a few days, I will begin moving my books to wide distribution, and in a couple of months most of my titles will be wide, with the exception of my Frozen World Antarctic sci-fi series, which really gets a lot of KU reads, and the Wild Children series, which is under contract with my publisher. I will be sure to let you know how this venture goes.