Saturday, 30 December 2017

Setting, World-building and Research

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World-building is something you will inevitably encounter if you are writing in anything but a contemporary setting. I, being a writer of fantasy, sci-fi and historical fiction, do a great deal of it. 

There are some fantasy writers who, a la Tolkien or GRRM, create a big wide rambling world and basically move to live in it, which is wonderful. I was more or less the same during the time I wrote Quest of the Messenger, my epic fantasy trilogy. There were layers upon layers to this onion, maps and myths and poetry, and the reader only sees the outer layer, as a rule. 

Fantasy is supposedly easier, because while good fantasy takes a rich imagination to make, you don't have to check any facts, because there are none. You just create a system that works consistently and go along with it. 

Historical fiction is tougher, because it involves lots of research, and there's always the fear that someone will point a finger and say, Hahaha, this writer is clueless! That is why many historical fiction authors settle to write in a time and epoch they have read extensively about, and are comfortable in. It also helps build a brand, such as, "aha, author X = Victorian England." I love different settings too much to settle on this, and have written in the Viking era, Regency England, and medieval Ethiopia and Middle East. 

Right now I'm working on a sci-fi novel set in Antarctica. Sci-fi provides a double challenge, because on the one hand you still have to do a lot of research, and on the other you must put a great deal of time and effort to create a spin-off from the real world that seems realistic enough. Ideally, your readers should be left wondering, What if something like that really happened?"

And, inevitably, if you have done your work right, only about 10% of your research ends up in the text. All you dig up or line out isn't supposed to come to the reader in the form of information dump. It is for you, to make you confident and at ease with the world of your story. 

Right now, working on my Antarctica novel, I read a great deal about the geography, fauna, flora and climate of this mysterious continent, as well as many, many details about the McMurdo research station, as part of the story takes place there. So I watch hours of documentaries on penguins, take in the scenery, and dig into blogs by McMurdo station workers. Only a tiny part of it all is integrated into the text, but to write about Antarctica, I must immerse myself in it. Short of actually booking a ticket down there, YouTube and blogs are my best friends. 

It's also one of my favorite parts about writing. It's like an education in itself. I have found out so many things I would otherwise have no clue about, and I hope I am able to pass this spirit, the thrill of discovery, on to my readers. 

Saturday, 23 December 2017

The bone I have to pick with Facebook

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Fact: we all hate spammy self-promotional social media posts - I, perhaps, more passionately than usual, because I have very limited time, in particular very limited social media time, and I want to either catch up with people I care about, or to see posts of genuine content value.

Apparently, most people feel the same, so Facebook decided to weed out self-centered spam by adjusting its algorithms. But when I read this post carefully, I was left seething. Because apparently, spamming is approved as long as it's paid for.

From time to time, I get people clogging my Facebook feed with "please share my new book" posts, or people who keep adding me to author promotion groups or inviting me to online book release events. I'll be honest, there's no quicker way to make me press the "Unfriend" button (on Facebook) or "Unfollow" on Twitter.

This doesn't mean I don't want to hear about new books by fellow authors. I'm a voracious reader, and I know how hard it is for indie authors, some very worthy ones, to get noticed. It's quite natural for an author to share about their work from time to time, and I will sometimes keep the snowball rolling by sharing new release posts. If you see something like that on my social media, however, you can be sure that, 1. Nobody asked me to do that, 2. This is something I have read and liked, or checked out and think it's a promising book, and 3. It will always only be a tiny part of my posts.

I follow the same rule for my own work, and hardly ever share sale pages except on release days. Very, very occasionally will I ask for input from people on a book cover or a plot point, and I don't mind when others do it sometimes. The key here is how often this happens. Being self-centered is the surest way to make people bored with you, either on social media or in real life.

But back to Facebook, and their supposedly spam-free policy. It essentially means that organic reach (the percentage of your friends and page fans who see your, say, new release post) is a tiny fraction of the actual number of said friends/fans. I'm sure you have all seen that, as well as gotten a call from Facebook saying, "boost this post and reach more readers!" (this isn't free, of course). I keep getting these alerts from Facebook on my phone several times a day, and if this isn't spam, I don't know what is.

I also keep seeing ads and boosted posts that have very little to do with my interests and preferences. I report and tell Facebook that I don't want to see this, and I get slightly different ads shoved in my face instead. But the thing is, my problem is with ads altogether, I don't care which.

So, bottom line: Facebook doesn't care about our spam free experience. It cares about its own profits.

And here is where I stand up and tell Facebook: no, I'm not going to pay for reaching people with my posts. Not a dime. This isn't fair, and besides, I just don't have the money.

So where does this leave me as an author without a huge fan base or a big publisher to back me up? Admittedly, there is no easy solution. I will keep doing what I have been doing; being genuine and passionate about my work, sharing with people who (hopefully) want to hear about it, optimizing my Amazon search engine categories, and building my email list of bloggers, reviewers and readers on basis of personal contact.

I wish us all to strike the golden path of human, non-spammy book marketing in 2018.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

Why are indie books a no-no?

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Despite indie publishing having gained substantial ground in the past few years, trad pub with a big publisher is still the trademark of the "serious" writer. Those books are the ones that are nominated for literary prizes and reviewed by respectable publications. If you're an indie, your only chance to be taken seriously is to sell a millions copies, because money talks, right?

But isn't it all a hurdle put in our way by the Big Pub monopoly? It's so unfair, this lack of equal opportunities, isn't it?

Well, yes and no.

Around the release of Land of the Lost Tribe, I started looking for book bloggers who might be interested in reviewing historical fiction. Bloggers, I am sure everyone will agree, are independent individuals. And you know what I read in the submission guidelines, time and time again? "No indie books. No self published books. Only books traditionally published by a reputable house."

Well, people are prejudiced, aren't they? They must be dinosaurs who have yet to discover the wonders of indie pub.

No, not quite.

Check this out: "I used to be open to self published books, but due to the unmanageable volume of poor quality fiction I was thus swamped with, I regretfully close the doors to self published authors, and will only review traditionally published books henceforth." I have read something along these lines in the submission guidelines of several book bloggers, and I don't believe this was written without a good reason.

Quite simply, indie publishing is a 100% democracy. There are no gatekeepers. No limits. No police. Anyone can call themselves an author, a publisher, an author-publisher, or whatever. But you know what? With freedom comes responsibility.

There are some terrific indie writers out there, whose books would never have seen the light if it depended on Big Pub. They aren't commercial enough. Or their work doesn't fit neatly enough into any specific genre mold. I'm thankful for indie publishing, but when there's no quality control, some people will always cut corners, and sometimes it's hard to pan for gold, so readers might decide to stick with trad pub, where it's safe.

It's like going into McDonald's - you might not get a gourmet meal, but at least you're pretty safe from food poisoning. Be daring and try a snug little backyard restaurant, and you might walk out with salmonella if the owner isn't conscientious enough.

Improving the overall quality of indie books isn't a hopeless matter, but it's a collective responsibility, and like it or not, we all bear the consequence of our fellow authors' choices.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Recapping 2017, or how on earth do you find the time?!

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2017 had seen the release of four books of mine: The Greenlanders (February), Wild Children (April), The Landlord (July) and Land of the Lost Tribe (December). On average, that's a book release every three months - not unheard of, but still a lot, especially for a busy homeschooling mother of three young kids. So how did I pull this off?

First off, I have to make a disclaimer and say that it's not like all these books were started and finished in the same year. Wild Children, in particular, was in the works since 2014. The Greenlanders had been floating in several unfinished versions for six years. Still, finalizing and publishing it all has been one heck of a marathon.

I managed this by staying really focused (translation: no life outside family and writing). I asked myself, how badly do I want this? And the answer prompted me to sacrifice leisure, recreation, hobbies and, in a measure, rest and sleep (in other words, my friends have despaired of getting return calls, and there were days when I didn't remember when I last had something to eat).

I'm not saying that in order to be a writer, you have to give up everything else, but sometimes a little prioritizing can do wonders. A couple of years back, I used to play computer games. I wouldn't hesitate to click on a YouTube video that looked entertaining. I let myself get sucked, for hours, into draining phone chats with people who treated me as a free therapist. Reexamining the value of my time really put things in perspective. In the past months, I've been encouraged to stay on track by knowing that we are expecting a new baby at the end of March, and thus that 2018 will by necessity be a slower year.

Here are a few more tips that have enabled me to make most of my time:

1. Set your goals and stick to them (as much as you can) - a consistent 1,000 words a day will get you further than a sporadic 4,000 once a week. Editing a chapter a day is a realistic goal that will help you keep your butt glued to the chair. Always outline so that you know, at least approximately, where you're going.

2. Write whenever you can - don't wait for that quiet uninterrupted stretch of two hours at the computer, because it might never happen. A few minutes, a few paragraphs that toll towards your daily word count goal are far better than nothing. I have done a remarkable amount of writing on my phone while getting the youngest kid to sleep, or while supervising the kids at the playground. It wasn't very effective, but it was all I had, and it enabled me to get on.

3. Reduce time on social media - yes, yes, we have all heard that social media is useful for writers and helps us network, build a platform, etc. It may be true, but social media can also be a huge time suck. Limit yourself to catching up with each social media account once a day - log in for a few minutes to FB, the same on Twitter/Goodreads/whatever, and be done with it till tomorrow.

For more time-saving tips for authors, download my free ebook, Writing Tips for Busy People.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Land of the Lost Tribe: ending the year with a new release

2017 has been a big year for me, and I'm finishing it with a new release - my latest speculative historical novel, Land of the Lost Tribewhich traces the steps of the mysterious dark-skinned traveler named Eldad ha-Dani, who had set the Jewish world astir by his tales of a Hebrew kingdom far to the south:

"The 9-th century A.D. is drawing to a close, and Simien, a Hebrew domain in the heart of Africa, feels the threat of its powerful Christian neighbor, the Kingdom of Aksum.

A courageous traveler named Eldad ha-Dani sets out upon a journey to rediscover his long-lost Jewish brethren and save his kin from spiritual isolation. But when his only companion meets a brutal end and Eldad remains alone in the desert, it looks like the people of Simien might never be known to the rest of the Jewish world."

The book is now available on Kindle and Smashwords (I've set the launch price to 0.99$ for a limited time), and will be in print in a few days.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Diversity and #ownvoices: is it fair?

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My post from last week seems to have released a genie from a bottle - I received many comments, here, on social media and in private, from writers who are perplexed as to what the publishing industry wants these days. After we have created an engaging plot and sparkling characters, after we have nailed the word count and polished our opening pages to perfection, we are told our manuscript won't sell because there isn't enough representation of racial, social and sexual minorities; to put it simply, because we are too white, bourgeois, middle class.

But what about fighting social injustice? What about giving a voice to groups that had been hitherto underrepresented?

Let me tell you a little anecdote. Once, my husband was put in charge of collecting a small local committee for a certain cause. Of the dozen or so applicants, he chose 3 or 4 individuals best fitted by their knowledge and experience.

Those several individuals happened to be all male.

Now, I am thoroughly familiar with the case in question, and I know with a certainty of 100% that my husband never had a hint of either misogyny or feminism in his decision making process. It's just not the way he thinks or works. Quite simply, he chose people according to their capabilities, not their gender.

Unfortunately, the public didn't see it that way. There was a general outcry about the absolute need to include a female representative, even though the women who applied were clearly less well suited to the purpose, and even though the committee in question had absolutely nothing to do with women or family issues. Not only my husband, but even I was besieged, until he had put his foot down and listed the qualifications he wouldn't compromise on.

You know what? Had I been one of those women, I would have been ashamed to say plainly and unequivocally, "pick me because I'm a woman, even though I'm ill qualified for the task." It's degrading quite as much, if not more, as being rejected because one is a woman (or a Jew, a person of color, or lgbt).

I am guided by this conviction in work, education, and yes, in literature as well. Diversity means, or should mean, that books featuring minority characters are given equal opportunity, not pushed towards representation, contracts and wide distribution despite their inferiority, at the expense of more conventional and better-written work. Naturally, I don't have precise data, but I have plenty of anecdotal evidence of talented authors who were told, "I loved your book, but we're looking for something similar with a female/minority character", and of literary agents who are tweeting "looking for diversity and #ownvoices", rather than focusing on giving the reader a good story.

This attitude is biased, unprofessional and arrogant. Unprofessional, because the gatekeepers of the publishing industry will tend to overlook weaknesses that would otherwise be deal-breakers for the sake of promoting an agenda, and arrogant, because said gatekeepers put on the hat of social revolutionaries who are determined to shape public views by pushing the "right" kind of books into mainstream literature.

This goes so far that I have personally seen websites of literary agencies which in general don't accept unsolicited queries at all, yet declare they are nevertheless open to books promoting diversity and #ownvoices, and even invite #ownvoices authors to submit full manuscripts, making a commitment to read them!!

Speaking of, #ownvoices is another pet peeve of mine. It's taking the whole diversity thing a step further, and saying that not only POC/lgbt/other minorities are supposed to be given due representation in books, but that said representation can only be properly done by those very groups - that is, if white, I'm not supposed to have the audacity to write about black people, and if one is of normal weight, one can't possibly identify with a severely obese MC. The next step, I suppose, is to say that books about animals should be written by animals.

Well, as you might know, I'm Jewish. Does this mean that I'm only qualified to write about Jews? Does this mean that I think only Jewish people should write about Jews? The answer is negative in both cases. Most of my characters aren't Jewish, and I have read some great pieces of Jewish fiction written by non-Jewish authors. In fact, if we can only write about what we personally know, what we personally are, I think we might as well stop writing altogether. Writing is about imagination and empathy, remember? It's about putting oneself in someone else's shoes. If I can't do that, I can hardly call myself a writer.

So what am I saying? Writers, keep writing. Give us the best story you can. Write whatever strikes your fancy. Write it any way you want. And don't mind anyone who tells you you can't or shouldn't.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

If The Hobbit were written today...

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I think that if Tolkien had written The Hobbit today, he would have trouble pitching it to literary agents. Why, you ask?

Well, first off, what is the targeted age group? I can't define The Hobbit as a book for adults, yet the main character is an adult, and how are kids or teens supposed to relate to someone outside their age range?! *eyeroll*

Second, women and girls are shockingly underrepresented in this book. Gandalf or Thorin Oakenshield should have been female to amend that. What's up with the all-male dwarves, anyway? Time for a female dwarf protagonist, with or without a beard.

Three, diversity. Do you recall even one person of color in The Hobbit? Me neither. Why not make Bilbo the scion of the one black family in the WASP Shire, struggling against racism and bigotry? It would be a good thing if he has confused sexual identity, too, and finds himself entangled in a romance with Thorin (whether the latter is male or female).

What about some action in the beginning, huh? What is it with the pipe smoking and tea drinking? Give us a dragon falling out of the sky, or an earthquake that destroys half of the hobbit holes on the first page, or we'll lose interest.

Finally, what about #ownvoices? How can Tolkien be trusted to represent dwarves in literature, when he was of average height himself? I say this is shameless cultural appropriation.

Bottom line: I'm thankful that Tolkien lived back in the time when one could simply tell a good story without worrying about social agendas, when one didn't have to dance on eggshells trying to accommodate diversity, whatever that means, when it wasn't a point of shame to be white, male and straight, and when readers were expected to have an attention span exceeding five milliseconds.

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.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Time Saving Tips for Authors (Especially Moms)

I often say that writing is 5% brilliant ideas, and 95% diligent work. And, while "I don't have time to write!" can be used as an excuse, often it isn't. I can certainly relate to this. With a growing family, homeschooling, my husband and I both working from home, and a bunch of animals to take care of, my writing time is both limited and fragmented. Nevertheless, I have reached some very respectable accomplishments, at least in word count. Here's how. 

1. I have a little notebook. It might be old-fashioned, but jotting a few words, a paragraph, a page in a notebook can make the difference between catching the wave of plot and characters, or losing it.

2. I write on my phone. It's not very efficient, but as opposed to my laptop (which, by the way, is a new acquirement), my phone is always with me, and I can write while lying down with a kid and waiting for them to go to sleep, or at the playground when I have just 5 minutes. I have finished an 80,000 word manuscript draft, writing exclusively on my phone, in just a few months.

3. I don't wait. If I said, "well, I only have 10 minutes now, it isn't worth sitting down to write", I would have hardly completed any book in recent years. Seize the moment - even two paragraphs are infinitely better than nothing at all.

4. I don't procrastinate. Once I'm writing, I'm writing. I don't pop just for a moment to check my social media or emails, and I don't even answer the phone. This requires some self-discipline, but it's amazing what you can do in 30 minutes if you just stay focused.

5. I don't fret. If a phrase or a paragraph don't sound like quite the thing, I don't get stuck - I just plow through them as best I can, and go on. Nobody produces a perfect first draft, and every good book benefits from lots and lots of editing.

For more insight on finding time to write when it seems like you have hardly any time to breathe, check out my free ebook, Writing Tips for Busy People.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

How clean should a book be? On curse words and sex scenes

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This post was inspired by my Facebook friend and talented author Sherri Giddens, who brought up the topic. Sherri, who is committed to making all her books clean and family friendly, has been told that she is missing out on a whole lot of sales by keeping sex and swear words out of her writing.

In my fantasy books, which were influenced by George Martin, I did allow a glimpse of nudity (though never explicit sex) and a swear word now and then. But as I grow and mature as a writer, I become more and more convinced that this is quite unnecessary - putting aside my own standards of family friendly reading as an Orthodox Jewish author, I am now of the opinion that it is in better style, more sophisticated, and far less vulgar to describe passion - whether it is love or hate - in subtle, understated shades. A glance, a movement, a few words can show just as much emotion as the steamiest bedroom scene, and villains don't need to assert their evil nature by cursing - there are plenty of other, more sinister ways to do that.

Do I pretend to say that writers should work in whatever way they see fit, disregarding their audience and whatever anyone may think about their books? Not really; none of us writes in a vacuum, and I suppose that many of us ask ourselves, "Will I be comfortable with my preteen children reading this? Or my mom?" Some of us choose pen names and separate social networks for our author selves, preferring to be someone as writers who we can't be in our personal life.

By the way, it's not just about making a book suitable for all audiences, but also about avoiding prose that is like chopping wood with a blunt axe. I have a dislike for tacky scenes in general. I like to convey love without having my characters say "I love you". I avoid breakup scenes with shouting, tears and protracted conversations in the "we need to talk" style. Subtlety and delicate shades are what I seek in my writing these days.

Ultimately, of course, it's all a matter of style and personal choices, and about staying true to one's own self. I don't believe writers should include sex or profanity in their work if they feel uncomfortable about it, or simply don't like it, just as I don't think authors should write in a genre they don't like to gain sales. Yes, sex sells. So what? A lot of books sell without any such added spice. It's all about about a good story, told in a captivating manner - and there are endless ways to do that.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Why you shouldn't worry that someone will steal your book

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This is a very common question among new writers, or authors new to the age of digital books: "But What If Someone Steals My Work?!"

Actually, this fear can be divided into two parts. The first is the concern about one's ideas being stolen, up to the point that newbie authors discuss their plot twists with a cautiousness and secrecy that wouldn't have shamed KGB, and are reluctant to show their work to anyone else. Here is where I say: humility, humility, humility.

Let's put it this way: writers are a narcissistic bunch (saying this to emphasize a point, yes?). The ideas each writer admires most are... that's right, their own. So while your idea for a novel about dolphins with confused sexual identity might seem like a genius and an instant bestseller to you, another writer will probably roll their eyes at it and stick to their idea of a post-apocalyptic epic about deranged penguins attacking the McMurdo Antarctic research station.

Bottom line: writers have plenty of ideas, probably more than they can use in a lifetime. Mine are always flitting around like crazy bats in the light of a lone streetlamp. I can catch a dozen with a lazy sweep of a net. It makes little difference, as an idea is nothing without good writing and months, possibly years, of diligent work on a manuscript.

Another fear, perhaps a little more valid one, is the concern about book piracy. I just had a discussion about this not long ago with a writer to whom I suggested uploading her books to Kindle (she has dealt in print books exclusively until now). Her concern was, "but... but... this is a digital file!! People may pass it on and spread it around, and there will be nothing I can do about it!". My reply was, "yes, but if you don't go digital, you are missing on a whole massive chunk of market!!" Does it make sense to give up on the entire world of digital publishing out of concern that some unscrupulous people might spread your book illegitimately?

Book piracy is a rotten thing, and it can be a real concern. There are some laws against it, too, though enforcement might not be very effective. But... once again, humility. I can testify, for instance, that I ran a Google search, and nobody is stealing and spreading my books. I kind of wish they were, sometimes. It would be a bit of free publicity.

Decent people still buy books, and even indecent people are sometimes too lazy to seek out a pirate copy of a book, and the more you put your work out there, in as many formats as possible - print, digital, audio - the higher is your chance to get noticed (and earn money). Visibility, not plagiarism or book piracy, is the big challenge for a new author. Just try it and see for yourself.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Timelines for novel series

These days, working on The Hourglass (sequel to Wild Children), I got a note from my publisher pointing out that some stages in the timeline are murky. Indeed, after making an examination, I had to confess I have a tendency to glide over things such as what season the action is taking place, or even when the main hero was born. The longer a series is, the more such vagueness is felt, as the effect accumulates.

So I sat myself down and started working on a timeline, and here are some thoughts I came up with:

1. If possible, make a detailed timeline even before you begin writing. It will make things a lot easier later on.

2. Double check everything. You don't want a character to be twenty in the first book, and twenty-five in the second book that is supposed to take place a year later.

3. Pay attention to points such as when characters travel or work on specific projects. Make sure everything takes a logical amount of time.

4. For different scenes that are supposed to take place simultaneously, make sure that characters don't participate in both scenes.

A thorough timeline helps plan everything out. Happy writing!

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Between fantasy and sci-fi

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As insanely busy as I have been lately, I can't help already squinting ahead into the horizon and looking to the next book I'm going to write. The concept, while not directly connected to any of my existing works, is sci-fi/dystopia again. And this, together with some preliminary research I'm doing, makes me think about how different writing fantasy is from writing sci-fi.

In fantasy, you can get away with pretty much anything, as long as it makes sense in the context of your story. Say, your protagonist isn't attacked by dragons because the great bloodthirsty beasts are afraid of the bright yellow color of his waterproof coat. It can and should make a rich, detailed, harmonious tapestry, but ultimately, you're the creator of this world.

In sci-fi, you operate within the limits of our world, be it on planet earth or in space. You use real laws of physics, real geography, and real history, and you have to be sure you don't make any blunders. So you will sometimes find yourself learning all you can about how spaceships work or how to build an igloo. What you suggest in your books must be at least plausible.

The book I have just finished writing, Mountains of Gold, is a historical novel set mainly in Africa. My next book will be quite a jump down the globe, in Antarctic setting (details will be coming later). So I find myself watching documentaries and learning all I can about the ice layers, the currents, the geography, the patterns of light and darkness, and the research stations. If nothing else, it's going to contribute to my education!

Read more about sci-fi vs. fantasy here.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Distant places, foreign cultures, and diversity in literature

I might be a little late to jump on the bandwagon of discussing this, but I have only recently chanced to hear about the scary beast called cultural appropriation.

That is, when, say, a white male author describes the travails of a poor Korean immigrant girl, he isn't applauded for bringing up minority, cultural and racial issues, but rather, he gets cold shouldered for presuming to describe what he can have no real idea about, being male and white. Masterpieces such as Kathryn Stockett's The Help were blamed for this issue as well.

I, personally, consider this to be yet another piece of ridiculousness cooked by the PC movement, which is so mortally afraid of anything that might even faintly smell of disrespect towards disadvantaged or minority groups, that it would stifle us in tiny cubicles of writing about what we actually are, not daring to step onto someone else's territory.

My latest novel-in-progress focuses on the Beta Israel Jewish community of Ethiopia. Am I making a transgression by writing about it, or am I given leeway because I'm Jewish? Did I cross the line by making the main character a dark-skinned man, while I'm a white woman?

Frankly, these considerations appear outlandish to me. Writing would become extremely dull if we became limited in what we can describe ("novels about slavery should be written by people of color! Holocaust stories should only be written by Jews!"). None of us have lived in the times of the Romans, or Vikings, or Jane Austen, yet historical fiction thrives. I'm planning to write a novel set in Antarctica. I have never been in Antarctica, nor am I likely to visit in the foreseeable future. But I believe that my imagination and my descriptive skills, coupled with as much research as I can muster, are capable of creating a rich, believable world.

Having said that, it's important to me to stress that I don't justify by any means things such as poor research or superficiality. I become annoyed when a non-Russian writer describes Russians as a bunch of vodka-slugging troglodytes, or when non-Jewish authors limit the scope of Jewish cuisine to gefilte fish. If you write about a foreign culture, kindly don't lump all representatives of said culture together in one unrecognizable mass. We are all individuals, and a good writer will never tire of creating unique characters.

Another thing is the much-celebrated diversity, about which I just have to say one thing. In Soviet Russia, to be successful, writers had to come from a certain end of the political spectrum. Characters had to display communist ideology, which would be worked into the story whether or not it was relevant. I can't help but think about it when I read statements from publishers and agents saying they are looking for "diverse" books. Does this mean that a great novel will be overlooked because the main character's best friend isn't gay? Please don't force the writers' hand into conforming to the latest social agendas. It is cheap, dreadfully unoriginal, and has nothing to do with literature.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

The things my kids say

I think I've mentioned before that I work on the family computer in the living room, which means I often have a kid or two peering behind my shoulder and making comments on whatever I'm doing. Here are some examples:

"Is this the book about dragons?" (No, it's a Regency era novel) "You should put some dragons in all the same!" Did Jane Austen ever hear the like, I wonder? Probably not. She didn't have kids.

"Who is going to buy this book?" (Boy, am I asking myself the same question) "I hope loads of people do!" (I'm with you on this one, kiddo). "I hope you sell millions of copies!" (A coupla thousand would be nice as well).

"You should have the text in purple. It's way prettier" (That's an idea I haven't tried yet). "Actually, you should put in all sorts of pretty colors and fonts" (I'm sure the literary agent I'm sending this to will appreciate it).

"This cover doesn't look good" (Thanks for your honesty, baby). "You should put a fairy on it" (that would be an original element for a Viking novel). "Why are you putting your name on this?" (You know what, sometimes I'm not sure if I should).

Working in the same space with my kids may be a lot of things, but it's never boring.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

When Your Client Doesn't Pay

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If you are an indie writer, chances are you aren't getting a six-figure income from your books alone. It is possible that at some point, you will decide to supplement your income by freelancing, whether it's writing articles,  ghost writing, being a virtual assistant or, like me, providing editing and proofreading services.

Thankfully, up until now I have dealt with nice people who are very scrupulous about paying on time. Having gotten used to this, I admittedly became a little lax about payment terms and conditions, at some point not even clarifying exactly when I expect to be paid. A recent experience with a client who has been dodging my emails for weeks now promptly cured me of this negligent attitude.

Let me just say it once: there are few things more rotten than neglecting to pay a hard-working freelancer who has toiled for weeks or months over a difficult project. There is no excuse to cheating someone just because you can get away with it.

There is some potentially helpful advice on dealing with a client who avoids paying, but it doesn't really apply in my case. The best thing I can do is probably just write this client off, never work for them again, and resolve to be clearer and firmer about terms of payment in the future. Oh, and possibly warn other people about them, because dishonesty is a habit, and if someone cheated you, you can be almost sure they had more people taken in in the course of their career.

So here is my future work policy: I'm not going to just assume everyone is spotlessly honest, especially because I also get commissions from sites like Freelancer, where all sorts of people hang out. I'm going to ask for half the payment once half the work is done (or I might even make third or quarter milestones for larger projects); until that arrives, I will do no more work. I will also limit payment methods to direct transfer and PayPal, to eliminate excuses such as "the check must have been lost in the mail".

Having three young children at home, I am extremely busy, and freelancing for other people cuts into my already limited writing time. The least I can do is ensure that I get paid for every hour I invest in someone else's work.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Ditching KDP Select: First Month

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I thought I should write a follow-up post about my opting out of KDP Select with my latest book, The Landlord. Now that almost a month has elapsed since book launch, how are the results?

Well, not very dramatic, to tell the truth.

To be precise, I have only sold a few copies so far - and all of them through Amazon. It doesn't take a genius to figure out why, either - if I have a Facebook ad, a promotional post, or any link space anywhere, I have to make a choice of what link to my book page I put in, and practically, I will almost always opt for the Amazon link, because I know most people shop there. So at first glance, it doesn't look like I gained anything by going for wide distribution.

On the other hand, it's not like I lost anything significant, either. My KU reads aren't very great for the books enrolled in KDP Select. If I want to run the book at a reduced price for a while, I can do it manually, without Kindle Countdown. The only thing I appear to lose is the promotional free days, but I find this more useful for series (make first book free and hook readers that way) than stand-alones.

So I guess my conclusion, so far, is pretty bland; as an author who, let's face it, doesn't sell tons of books, I might as well make things easier for myself by choosing KDP Select and not bothering with other distributors. On the other hand, I'm not discounting the potential benefits of wide distribution just yet. I have made The Landlord available on Payhip, at a lower price than on Amazon, as my small way to support this very convenient and author-friendly platform.

KDP Select or not, getting your name out there is a slow uphill journey, and there are no miracles - just lots of hard work and, hopefully, some satisfaction... eventually.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Payhip: an undervalued platform

I decided to write this post in order to raise awareness of Payhip, a direct sales website which, in my opinion, has great potential for increasing authors' independence.

Payhip is by far the easiest and most convenient platform for selling digital books online I have encountered so far. It's neat, simple and quick; it allows you to set any price with no restrictions, including permafree; it enables you to instantly generate coupons for any or all of your products. And there's very little interference - just upload your product file and a cover image, insert a description, and you're good to go.

And the best part? It only takes a 5% commission, compared to Amazon, where you can get at most 70%. And you get paid by PayPal instantly, every time someone makes a purchase. There's no waiting or threshold sums. This is the most author-friendly arrangement I know.

I realize that Payhip isn't a mainstream book retailer, but if you have a good-sized platform, and don't opt to have your book enrolled in KDP Select, you can advertise your Payhip sales page through your blog, social media and newsletter, and entice readers to buy from there by setting a slightly lower price on Payhip than on Amazon. You can also mention that by choosing Payhip as their purchase website, they make sure more money comes directly to you, rather than to the Amazon Godzilla.

Naturally, on Amazon you can have both your digital and your print book conveniently together on the same product page, but if the bulk of your sales comes from ebooks, as it does for most indie authors, this is not very significant.

We can all help make Payhip more popular by choosing to support authors we love by buying books from them via Payhip, bypassing Amazon and the thick slice of pie it gets from our book sales.

Also check out (on Payhip, of course) my free ebook, Writing Tips for Busy People.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Can you edit your own books?

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Writing, in a large measure, is rewriting, revising and editing, and if you aim to be a professional author, you are going to do a lot of that, possibly spending more time on revision than on writing that first draft. But you can't do it alone.

Even if you happen to be a very skilled editor, none of us has the objectivity to properly evaluate our own work. We all absolutely need another pair of eyes, preferably many pairs of eyes, to help us take it to the next level.

What about beta readers, then? Is it enough to send your manuscript to several of those? Beta readers can be worth their weight in gold, but at best, they will point out plot inconsistencies or say they have noticed some minor typos. You can't expect beta readers to actually sit down and correct every grammar awkwardness and insert or remove a comma whenever appropriate. This is work that takes a high level of commitment and many hours, and people generally won't do it for free.

But I can't afford an editor, or even a proofreader, you say. I get this; sometimes this is an excuse, but sometimes it isn't. I recently had to face a choice between buying a 45$ book cover or a pair of shoes for one of my children whose old shoes were falling apart, and I think you can all guess what I chose. The advice of putting off your dream of publishing a book until you have enough money to pay for professional editing, cover design, formatting, etc, can be very cruel. At this rate, some of us will never be able to get our books out into the world.

Editing is probably the most expensive part of getting your book ready for publication - and, in my eyes, one of the biggest advantages of traditional publishing is that someone else takes care of this - but if you can in any way afford a good editor for your book, by all means make that investment. If you can't, try partnering with another author for a critique and proofreading exchange. This will only work if you are both equally committed and don't cut corners.

Being an author on a tight budget myself, and knowing the need of authors for committed copy-editors and proofreaders working for reasonable rates, led me to open Word for Word Editing and Proofreading Services. I feel tremendous satisfaction in knowing that I helped someone clean up their manuscript or avoid a plot hole. I like to work in close reciprocation with authors and see my clients succeed, and consider my business to be part of the great author network that is so important to our mutual support.