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.