Monday, 31 December 2018

Down the rabbit hole: historical fiction and medieval Ethiopia

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One of the biggest perks of writing historical fiction, for me, is that it basically gives me an excuse to get lost in a whole fascinating world. I read about customs and myths, battles and kings, faith and liturgy, I study languages and listen to music, I watch documentaries... and I get to do this guilt-free, because it's research, right? Yay!

Whether it's a voyage through a stormy sea with a host of Vikings, or a trip to the sleepy countryside in 19th century England, historical fiction is an escape to a different, faraway world. In this way, it's similar to fantasy and sci-fi (though futuristic sci-fi and dystopia tend to give these chilling feels of "oh my, can this really happen?"). Historical fiction is safe, because it deals with something that has already happened - and we can sink into it with a greater feeling of emotional security. On the other hand, part of its magic is in the very fact of its being real - which is a basic question we all, from children to adults, ask when hearing or reading a story: "Did this really happen?"

The setting of my current historical fiction WIP is the same as in Land of the Lost Tribe - Ethiopia at the end of 9th and the beginning of 10th century. In particular, I'm drawing on the historical roots of the community of Ethiopian Jews, the Beta Israel, also known as the Falashas.

Ethiopia is unique in the way of being Jewish before it was Christian. There are several theories as to how exactly this happened - some swear by the legend of King Solomon and Queen Sheba giving a start to a dynasty of Jewish kings; others, among them some of the more prominent Biblical historians, believe that an Israelite tribe, or tribes, migrated south via Egypt following the destruction of the first Temple. Either way, when Christianity did arrive in Ethiopia, it grafted itself not on paganism, as in almost every other part of the world, but on Judaism, which led to the formation of a church very closely associated with its Jewish sources (as the Ethiopian church remains to this day).

My Ethiopian novels, both the published one and the one I'm currently working on, take place close to the decline of Aksum, a mighty Christian empire that was at one point reckoned among the greatest forces of the ancient world. The records from that time period, especially regarding the Beta Israel community, are far from precise, which is a good thing and a bad thing. Obviously, the more information an author has to draw upon, the better, but on the other hand, as I don't aim to write scholarly books, and my work is more in the realm of alternative history, vague data gives me more leeway to use my imagination without being accused of inaccuracy.

Initially, writing in this setting began with my deep fascination with the history of Ethiopian Jews, and with searching for fiction to read. I wasn't looking for a scholarly work - I have read some of those, but what I really craved was a rich, intricately plotted novel to transport me to a long-gone world. As I didn't find it, what choice did I have but to write it myself?

I admit I had some apprehensions due to the #notyourculture and #ownvoices tags which are pushed so hard today that people speak of kid toy teepees as "cultural appropriation". Was I allowed to write about the Beta Israel of Ethiopia without belonging to that particular ethnic group? Eventually I realized that, 1) it's better to share a story than have it remain untold, and 2) I will never be able to rest until I actually write it down.

The novel I am currently working on focuses on Judith (Gudit), a legendary Ethiopian queen whose origins are shrouded in mystery. The Beta Israel tales claim Judith as their own, and this is the narrative I am going with, portraying Judith as a Jewish-African Daenerys Targaryen. Writing her story is one awesome journey, and in due time, I hope to take my readers along.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Why I gave up querying

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Yes, Gave. Up. I know it sounds very unfashionable, with all the positive upbeat advice out there: "Never give up! You never know when it happens for you! The next query might just be the one!"

Well, folks, I do give up. Mind, I don't give up writing, publishing, making it as an author or earning money through my books. I give up the uphill task of researching agents, sending queries, waiting (or giving up on waiting) for feedback, and receiving another form rejection or, at best, an "I like your style, but it won't sell" type of message. '

Why, you ask?

1. I've already done too much of it. I lost count a long time ago, but I estimate I have about 250 rejections (for a number of projects) under my belt. I don't even want to think how much time I have put into writing, rewriting, tweaking and sending my queries.

2. I have limited time and energy. I have four kids, including a baby. I homeschool; I freelance to help my family make ends meet. I can't afford to spend time on something that has consistently, for years, provided zero results.

3. Agents are swamped. You can be the most amazingly talented author, and you still have about 1% chance of landing an agent if you go the slush pile route. It may be different, indeed, if you have connections in the industry and/or can afford to go to conferences where you might grab the attention of the right people, but that's not the case for me.

4. That's not why I wanted to go professional anyway. My initial motivation, what propelled me to go from stay-at-home mom who dabbles in writing, to a writer-entrepreneur with a professional mindset, was mainly financial. We need extra money, so I made the leap of taking my writing to the next level. But being traditionally published isn't really about making money. It's more about prestige and recognition. It's a very slow haul, too. Even under the best of circumstances, an author will likely spend months getting an agent, the agent may easily spend up to a year pitching the book to publishers, and then it will likely spend another year in production.

Bestselling indie author Alec Hutson has talked about how self-publishing his novel enabled him to write full-time, while had he been bent on trad pub, he'd still be querying and slugging away at his day job. No, self-publishing is not a get rich quick scheme, but it has a much faster turnaround than trad pub, which moves at a glacial pace.

I have no regrets. I have learned so much about the publishing industry, writing, and the author community since I first started querying in 2014. I'm not bitter or negative; on the contrary, from now on I'm going to focus all my time and energy on the success of my indie writing enterprise, and stop hoping that someone is going to answer my call and take over from me. It's liberating and I feel at peace with my decision.

That's not to say anything is written in stone. I might query in the future. I might decide to partner with agents/traditional publishers if certain projects become successful and are solicited. But for now, it's full steam ahead with this solo venture.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Excuse me while I go play

In the past four years, I've made the journey from solitary writing in my private corner to researching the book industry, querying, being rejected, blundering onto KDP Select, getting to know the indie author community, editing, improving, tearing my hair out, signing with a publisher, reading all I can about writing, publishing, content marketing, writing to market, setting goals and mapping out plots, and... whew.

It's been a long journey, and I most definitely haven't "arrived" yet. And somewhere along the way, I lost the pure joy of creation, the poetry and maps and drawings of dragons, and all that allowed me to become a writer in the first place. I got so caught up in word counts and deadlines, in content marketing and selling, in being grown-up and businesslike, that I forgot that in its basis, my writing was rooted in my refusal to ever grow up. I might be the mom of a large family, the dish do-er and diaper changer, but at the end of the day I still enjoy boarding the Hogwarts Express together with my children. 

So recently I've decided to let go. I have worked so hard and learned so much during the past couple of years, and it's so very important, but I can't go on writing if it isn't FUN. Writing has always been my creative outlet, my place of freedom. Giving that up means I'm left with NO creative outlet, and it isn't healthy for me. And let's get real, I'm not making that much money anyway.

Next month, I'm planning to release my first Middle Grade novel, Dragon Diplomacy. It was written, like so many other children's books, to amuse my kids. I know this is unlikely to turn into a huge bestseller, but if I can share the joy of magic, dragons and fairies with a few more people, it's enough. There will be a sequel, even if the first book doesn't sell. Just for the fun and joy of it.

At this moment I'm working on a historical novel which is unlikely to become a bestseller either. I have let go of the pressure of word count and am not thinking at all of when it might be finished or how much it will sell. It's an important story, it needs to be told, and I'm going to tell it, even if only a few people get to read it. I'm just celebrating every page I get to write and feel satisfied rather than drained.

After this project is done and I emerge from my writing cave, I'll think about Amazon algorithms, book marketing and budgeting for covers and promotions again. But for now, excuse me while I charge my creative batteries.

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Make your own fantasy maps with Inkarnate

Maps are a popular feature in several genres, especially fantasy and historical fiction, making it easier to keep track of characters' relative location and travels among key landmarks. Some of them are true masterpieces, and there are talented cartographers specializing in making fantasy maps, but their services are pricey. I was, therefore, forced to do without maps until recently, when someone pointed me to Inkarnate.
The map above is for my Middle Grade fantasy novel, Dragon Diplomacy, which is going to be released at the beginning of 2019. It is not the work of a professional cartographer, but it's cute and illustrative. There's the option of various colors and textures, objects such as mountains and trees, and you can add traditional fantasy landmarks such as castles, towers and dragons. You can even upload custom colors to the brush tool, in JPG format - I uploaded the blue for rivers and lakes

The website is still in development so there are some glitches here and there, but overall I'm very happy that I found it. There's a pro plan which is supposed to give you more options, but for now the free plan is enough for me.
Here's another map, this time of Tilir, my primary setting in the Quest of the Messenger trilogy. 
I have no doubt I will keep having fun with this tool in days to come!

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Design Wizard: a new design tool for authors

As a follow-up to my post about design resources for authors, today I'm doing a little spotlight on Design Wizard, a new design tool I recently came across. It has many of the same options as Canva, but with a few upgrades. 

The website is very easy to use for people who are accustomed to Canva and, unlike Canva, it offers image and video editing services. One of Design Wizard's most notable features is the magic resize button that allows you to change the size of an image while you are creating a design, which is pretty cool. 

If I had to compare the two, I'd probably say that Design Wizard is one rung up the professional ladder, and possibly a better option for people who have a little more budget and a little less time.  Now, those who have been reading my blog for any length of time know I'm a real cheapskate, and usually advocate for exhausting all your free options before paying for anything at all. That's mainly because I'm a stay-at-home mom with four kids, so money is a more precious commodity than time. For many of you, the situation may be just the reverse.

Bottom line: Canva has a bit more free templates, but Design Wizard has a larger choice of cool fonts, as well as a smoother interface, and could give you stunning graphics with very little investment, so definitely play around with both websites and see which you like best. 

Also check out DW's blog,which is packed with advice on content marketing, creating visual content and capturing an audience.

Friday, 16 November 2018

Writing Insights from Hugh Howey

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There are plenty of books, manuals and courses on writing, editing, publishing and book marketing out there. Their authors often swag some pretty nice cash, and have quite a number of happy clients. But you know what? Before you even consider throwing money at writing workshops, books or courses, go and (if you haven't already) read this series of posts by Hugh Howey. Seriously, they are that good. 

Had the author been any less generous, he could have easily bundled those posts into an e-book and launched it onto Amazon. But as it is, authors at the beginning of their road have a basic, condensed, down-to-earth, no-nonsense guide to becoming a writer without going broke - or getting oneself locked up in a mental hospital.

So, without further ado...

Writing Insights Part One: Becoming a Writer (and why you shouldn't let anyone stop you)

Writing Insights Part Two: The Rough Draft (and why you should ditch perfection)

Writing Insights Part Three: The Revision Process (and why you should never skip it)

Writing Insights Part Four: Publishing Your Book (and the benefits of doing it yourself)

For those who have been living under a rock, Hugh Howey is a mega-successful self-publisher who celebrates never giving away his rights to his intellectual property (i.e. his books). If you are just beginning to query, or have been querying for some time and are thinking of self-publishing, go read what he has to say. I can guarantee that about 90% of your questions will be answered.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Make your own book covers and graphics: an easy tutorial

Making one's own book covers is usually anathema in the professional indie book publishing community. It's considered amateurish and cheapskate-y, and you will be warned over and over again not to do it unless you're also a designer.

Disclaimer: if you have the budget, by all means don't skimp and invest in a quality cover. It can make or break any book marketing efforts you mean to make. This is especially true if you don't have many titles out and your book is a long-time project you've poured your heart and blood into.

However - hear me out - many indie authors make their money not from a couple of books that rock the charts and sell like hot buns, but from a large backlist in which each title provides a steady trickle of income. In that case, a pricey cover for each book is an investment you might never recoup.

Sometimes you can get lucky and snag a gorgeous inexpensive premade cover. But often, the cheap covers aren't worth paying for at all and, while passable, are no better than a simple cover you can make yourself with very basic skills and without Photoshop. The fact is, design isn't some esoteric ability, it's a skill that can be learned, even if you aren't superbly gifted.

In the following simple tutorial, I will show you how to make a basic cover for free, using two very handy, easy tools - Pixabay and Canva.

Pixabay is my go-to site for free images; anything you find there, you can use for commercial purposes with no attribution. But, you might be saying, someone else might have used the same image already! Well, yes, that's true. You won't easily find a good stock photo that hasn't been used multiple times. But let's get real - only a fraction of people in the world will read your book, or any individual book, for that matter. The chances of readers stumbling upon both your book and the other book with the same image are not high. And even if it happens, it's unlikely the two titles will be confused.

Remember, if there is a problem, you can always change the cover later on. That's the beauty of indie publishing.

So let's say I'm looking for a cover image for a medieval fantasy/adventure titled The Lost Knight. I search Pixabay for "knight".

This image catches my eye; it conveys the genre well, but at the same time doesn't seem to be insanely popular, so I can hope not too many people have used it. 

I then log on to Canva and choose Book Cover from the design options. After uploading my image and choosing one of the free templates, I play with the fonts a bit and get the following:

The white lettering against black or dark backdrop isn't anything very original, but it does the job. I could play with some special effect options Canva offers, but I decide to pass. I like my image as it is.

This simple cover was made in about 5 minutes. I could probably get a much better result if I invested more time in playing with the effects and fonts. 

Now I want to make a promotional banner with a 3D mockup. I could buy a graphics bundle, but as I'm on a budget, I simply log on to Derek Murphy's free 3D mockup generator and choose a template. It's a nifty little tool that, in a minute, gives me this:
I download my mockup in Png format, which essentially means it has no backdrop and can blend in with any background I choose.

I go back to Canva and choose a Facebook banner template. In the Background option, I choose a free image of a scenic mountain backdrop. Then I pop on to Pixabay again in the search of some extra element for my banner, something knightly and medieval, also in Png format. I find this sword: perfect!
I then combine all the elements in a promotional banner with bold old-style font:

I could probably do much better with more time and practice, but here I just wanted to show you how easy and fun this is. If you release a lot of books, it is very useful to gain some degree of independence in making your own covers and graphics. So don't be afraid to try it - if you or your beta readers don't like the result, you don't have to use it. Either way, there is nothing to lose.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Writing in different genres, with Karen King

As an avowed eclectic writer, today I am pleased to host Karen King, a fellow multi-genre author and writing coach who goes against the conventional advice of sticking to a single genre and, preferably, sub-genre. So, Karen, please tell us a little about how you first started your career.

I’ve been a published writer for over thirty years and whilst nowadays I mainly write romantic novels and Young Adult books, in the early years I wrote solely for children.  Most people are fascinated to discover that I started my writing career with the iconic Jackie magazine way back in the early eighties, but it was when I turned to writing for younger children’s magazines that I got my big break and was able to earn a living as a writer. I’ve written comic strips, stories, activities and quizzes for a variety of magazines – Rainbow, My Little Pony, Winnie the Pooh, Rosie & Jim, Barbie, Sindy, Postman Pat – as well as numerous children’s books. I’ve written for all age groups and in a variety of genres; pictures books, story books, activity books, joke books, educational readers, even a folder of 27 plays!

I’m often asked how I can turn my hand to writing for so many different genres, and the answer is that no matter what I’m writing my mantra is ‘know your market know your reader.’ I study the market, read other books in the genre I’m writing to get a feel of the characters and story plots that are popular, and I think about my reader. What are they expecting from the story? What age group are they? What are they interested in? This is especially important when writing for children, as the younger the age group the simpler the storyline and vocabulary, but it can also be applied to the different genres when writing for adults. Yes, people of all ages will read YA books, for example, but the average YA reader is thought to be eighteen or under and the average chicklit reader to be early thirties or younger. So this is the readership that the storyline, characters and vocabulary need to be aimed at. If you write a story about the dating pitfalls of a thirty-year-old it’s no good marketing it as a YA, or a wartime romance as a chicklit.

Another favourite mantra is ‘write the story as it comes, in the viewpoint and tense that feels right for it’.  Rise of the Soul Catchers is my second YA, and like my first one (Perfect Summer) and the YA I’m working on now, it is written in the first-person viewpoint but my romance novels are all written in the third person. It’s not a conscious decision, but with my YA novels the characters speak to me as if they are personally telling me their story whereas with my romance novels I am telling the character’s story for them. Actually, Rise of the Soul Catchers has dual viewpoint, as although Sapphire is the lead character, some of the story is told through Will’s viewpoint too, but I’ve changed to third person narration here because Will’s voice isn’t as strong as Sapphire’s and I wanted to differentiate between them both. The book is written in the present tense, whereas my romance novels are written in the past tense. Again, this wasn’t a conscious decision, it was the way the story flowed. Rise of the Soul Catchers is a romantic suspense novel, with some dramatic scenes and worked better in the present tense as it added pace,

My final mantra is ‘Don’t be scared to try something new’. When I sold my article to Jackie magazine all those years ago I’d never have guessed that I’d have 120 children’s books, several short stories, seven romance novels and two YA’s published.  You never know what you can do until you try!

Karen King writes sassy, fun, heart-warming romance and edgy YA with a heart. Karen has also written several short stories for women’s magazine and had 120 children's books published. She started her writing career writing scripts and articles for Jackie and other teen/children's magazines. When she isn’t writing, Karen likes travelling, watching the ‘soaps’ and reading. Give her a good book and a box of chocolates and she thinks she’s in Heaven. Check out Karen's website, follow her on Facebook and Twitter, and take a look at her books on her Amazon page.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

How Writing Works

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I've been looking for this graphic for a long time, and wouldn't rest until I found it, because it's too true.

As a young author, I discarded all writing that was not that glorious inspired first draft stage with stars pouring from your fingertips, the stage where you're rocking it and getting high on your muse and you are the Creator of Worlds and... you get the idea.

What was written in inspiration could not be wrong. The inspired first draft was a gift to humanity. Any editing and correcting was menial drudgery and was beneath me. So was plotting, because it took away from the spontaneous artistic expression.

No wonder I never finished a book before I changed my mindset.

Today, I still live for the beauty of that first stage - of creating a story and characters from nothing. But as an author, I don't exist in a vacuum, and if I ever want to share something I wrote with the public, I owe my readers a plot that works, a text with no inconsistencies, and as few grammar errors and typos as possible. 

In this sense, writing a book is like cooking - the core is the inspiration (the recipe), but you can't make a dish without the seemingly mundane tasks of peeling vegetables, chopping, stirring, kneading... and, if you want people to enjoy the meal, you must clean up as well. 

You don't have to do it all yourself - you can have sous chefs (editors and proofreaders), but the work must be done if you want to end up with something edible... I mean, readable. Nor can you blindly trust an editor/proofreader. As someone who is an editor as well as a writer, I always work closely with my clients and expect them to review whatever I send in. The final responsibility is still the author's. 

I might also compare this to raising a child - what makes parenting all worthwhile are those magical moments when a little child wraps their arms around your neck, or when a child first learns to read, or when you see your kids peacefully playing together or absorbed in something creative around the table... but you can't have parenting without a whole lot of dirty diapers, messy rooms, sibling fights and mud tracks on your clean kitchen floor. 

Bottom line: all great projects require the support of little acts. Don't shy away from it; embrace it, and you will be rewarded.

Monday, 22 October 2018

2018: a (somewhat early) recap

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There are still over 2 months left till the end of 2018, but I feel I can already do a yearly recap, since most of my work plan for 2018 is complete.

Like in 2017, four of my books came out this year:

In January, I opened the year by releasing The Last Outpost, a sci-fi/government conspiracy/dystopian novel set in Antarctica. This soon became, and still is, the book that earns me my highest number of KU monthly reads, and confirmed me in the decision of sticking, for now, with KDP Select, despite Amazon's underhanded tactics that often harm authors.

This busy start was interrupted by some months of Real Life - in March, I had a baby girl who joined the merry bunch of her three siblings. The upping of our total kid number to four resulted in a long period of happy chaos.

Meanwhile, we prepared for a house move, which was completed in August and turned our lives upside down for a time. Thank goodness, most of the boxes are unpacked now, but it will take a while until everything is quite in order.

In September, just as I was fighting to get out of the mess of cardboard, I celebrated the release of not one, but two books: The Hourglass and Freeborn, books 2 and 3 in the Wild Children dystopian series. The decision to release them both at once was based on the reasoning that the promotion of a series always leans heavily on the first book, and the more subsequent books you have available for your new fans, the better.

October was the official release month of The Ice Fortress, sequel to The Last Outpost and the second book in my Frozen World Antarctic series. I say official, because I actually uploaded the book back in August, but didn't do any promotion at all while I was busy with the release of the Wild Children sequels.

Phew! This has been a whirlwind year, and I feel like I can reward myself by sitting back for a bit, having a nice cup of coffee, and fueling my creativity by some good books and movies.

So what are my plans for 2019?

Four books a year isn't a crazy pace for an indie author, but for me, it has been really intense because balancing writing and family time isn't easy when you have a houseful of young kids. Therefore, 2019 is definitely going to be a slower year for me.

Nevertheless, I am tinkering with some new projects.

I already have the overall concept for the next book in the Frozen World series, which will include more world cataclysms, climate change, and government corruption.

After a long while of writing primarily sci-fi and dystopia, I have started working on another historical fiction novel set in Ethiopia, in the same world as Land of the Lost Tribe. I'm not rushing it, because to my chagrin I realized that readership interested in that epoch and place is extremely small, but I also know that this story will drive me crazy if I don't get it written.

I'm toying with the idea of self-publishing a Middle Grade fantasy novel I've had sitting on the shelf for a while in the hopes of finding an agent, because trad pub is still the best deal for Middle Grade. Meanwhile, I've mapped out the sequel and started writing it.

So 2019 is going to be a year with more diversity of genre and less deadlines. I look forward to it.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Different hats, different genres

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Check out this excellent post on Joanna Penn's blog, about writing in multiple genres and wearing many hats as a writer. This really resonated with me, an author who has published books in genres as different as dystopia/sci-fi, Regency with a paranormal touch, and epic fantasy. Oh, and I also write nonfiction, under a different pen name.

Beginner authors are commonly advised to choose a genre and stick to it, as part of building their brand. From a commercial point of view this makes excellent sense, as the readers grow to associate a name with a genre and know exactly what to expect (i.e., "Nicholas Sparks = romance in small Southern towns"). If I see the name "Dan Brown" or "Stephen King" on a new title in the bookstore, I'll pick up the book almost without a second glance at the blurb, because I already know pretty much what I'm getting.

However, I kind of defy this rule - not because I find branching out to be more profitable, but because  I feel limiting myself to only one genre would make me stagnate as a writer and, ultimately, become bored with my work. To me, writing is more than a way to make a living; it is my passion, creative outlet and favorite escape, and I need variety. It's like limiting myself to watching nothing but Jane Austen film adaptations; as much as I love the genre (and, really, I am almost embarrassed to admit how many times I've watched the 1995 BBC version of Sense and Sensibility), eventually I'd find myself longing for a contemporary romantic comedy, an Alejandro Amenabar film, or even some Game of Thrones.

Is it optimal? Is it wise from a marketability point of view? I'm not sure; but this is who I am, and this is how I write. The world is so wide and there are so many things to explore; for me, narrowing down my choices is nearly impossible.
For some useful insight on author branding when writing in multiple genres, check out this blog post:

"The first step is figuring out what exactly does all of your work have in common?  Do they have a common audience, common themes, etc?  I always ask my clients to list at least three things all their books have in common.   At first most of them say “nothing, they are all different.”  But when pressed, they can usually find many more common traits than just three.

For me, it is the escapism element; I hardly ever touch upon the contemporary - my books all transport the reader to a different world, whether it is the past, the future, or an alternate reality. I'm still figuring out how I can brand this, but I know that writing across multiple genres is something I will continue doing for a long time to come. 

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

The Raveling: a story of indie publishing success

The Silver Sorceress (The Raveling Book 2) by [Hutson, Alec]

I don't usually post book reviews on this blog, but The Silver Sorceress, sequel to The Crimson Queen, isn't just a delightful read for every lover of epic fantasy - it's another page in the success story of an indie author who thoroughly deserves it. 

I was privileged to watch Alec Hutson's self-publishing journey unfold, basically from the ground up. He started out as one of the Wattpad crowd, did the usual cold querying route, and eventually self published with a very modest platform and no particularly aggressive book promotion. The Crimson Queen began to roll, and I've been waiting for the sequel ever since. 

So what is the secret? Alec has put a lot of time and work into his project, and delivered not just a brilliantly written book, but a high quality product all around, with a beautiful cover, professional formatting, and gorgeous maps made by a talented fantasy cartographer. He cut no corners. The book was so good that it tapped into the ultimate advertising venue - word of mouth. People genuinely loved it and recommended it, which is something you can't buy. I'm sure there was also an element of luck, but not the kind of luck that makes you shrug and say, "I don't know what people find in this". 

In case you haven't heard of these books yet, they are like The Song of Ice and Fire without the smut. It's epic fantasy at its best, with a complex, intricately built world, and thoroughly believable, very well-rounded characters with highly realistic motives. 

The Raveling features classic sword and sorcery elements: an epic quest, a battle between good and evil, a Chosen One... Which just goes to show that people still love and read traditional fantasy that doesn't try to reinvent the wheel. As literary agents try to force something groundbreaking into fantasy and scoff at what the public knows, loves and seeks as "unoriginal", readers turn to indie fantasy authors that focus on the important thing in writing fiction: delivering a good, really good story. Do I need to say this makes me happy?

So, epic fantasy readers, if you haven't started on The Raveling yet, you are in for a treat. The books can be found on Alec Hutson's Amazon page.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Books, Publishing and Hamburgers

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Re-posting this following a social media thread:


Warning: this is a long-suppressed rant. Speshul sensitive snowflakes are welcome to leave now, to avoid any harsh feelings. 

In the trad publishing vs. indie publishing debate, I keep hearing the following argument: "But trad pub produces plenty of crap too!"

Does it? 

Let's say, for the sake of the argument, that you want to open a restaurant.

You might decide to open a classy gourmet place where elegant waiters in tuxedos saunter around the candlelit hall,  carrying silver trays, and live piano music can be enjoyed every weekend. 

Or you may say, "You know what? Not many people are willing to spend a month's rent's worth on one dinner. I'd better open a hamburger bar."

And that's OK.  

Hamburgers are legit. There’s a market for hamburgers. By choosing this option, you can feed people and make an honest buck a lot easier than by charging a gazillion dollars for half a dozen fresh oysters on crushed ice (or whatever.  I'm Orthodox Jewish. What do I know about oysters?).

You know what you can't do, though? 

You can't poison your clients. 

You can't say, "this meat fell on the floor and got trodden on, but I'll use it anyway."

You can't use the same black rancid oil for French fries, over and over, for a month. 

You can't stick unwashed vegetables in salads and hope that salmonella will miss the target.  

You can't serve food on half-washed dishes and unwiped tables.

You must, in short, adhere to certain Ministry of Health hygiene standards, or your business will be closed pretty fast, with a nasty biting fine thrown in.  

Trad publishing is that Ministry of Health.  

I am yet to encounter a single traditionally published book with consistently missing commas, or a chapter title at the bottom of a page, or periods in the middle of a sentence.  

I have never seen a trad published book in which Mindy suddenly turns into Cindy on page 278, or which makes the reader want to puke and run away by phrases such as, "her eager and responsive body eagerly responded to his amorous advances". 

Indie books, though?  I've seen all this and more, just this week. There is nobody to put their foot down and say, "this is illegal. We are closing this restaurant".

You don't have to be the next Dostoyevsky. You can aim to be the next SciFi McHorror, or Nicholas Sparking Sparks, or whatever. 

You can serve hamburgers. 

But you can't serve shawarma made of a donkey with tuberculosis. 

Because if people come out of your fast food joint barfing and writhing with stomach pain, you'll soon go broke. 

So... I've said this. I'm quite prepared for an influx of voodoo dolls and Anthrax envelopes coming my way, but at least I got this off my chest.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Double release: Wild Children sequel strategy

These are exciting days for me: almost a year and a half since Wild Children was first released, my readers get to find out what happens in the world of illegally born outcasts living on the fringes of society.

This project has been a long time in the making, because my publisher and I made the decision to release not one, but two sequels simultaneously. The reasoning behind this was a marketing strategy: since we were planning to give a really big push to promoting Wild Children, the first book in the series, once the sequel were released, we wanted to give the book's potential new readers a larger foray into the world of the series. Once they had read the first book, we wanted them to have the opportunity to purchase two additional books, instead of just one. I plan to write another post about this a few weeks later and tell you guys how this has turned out.

 The Hourglass is told from the perspective of Priscilla Dahl, a 16-year-old girl who forfeits her privileged position in society to seek justice. Freeborn is the story of the backlash that occurs when the government decides to rein in the outlaws it has shunned for many years. The beloved characters from the first book - the children from the orphanage, Benjamin Grey, his parents Rebecca and Daniel, and the new friends he makes in the world of freedom and precarious life on the edge - are all there in the sequels, too.

In celebration of this double new release, Wild Children will be free on September 15th and 16th, so be sure to download your copy. Your support in the form of shares, reviews and social media mentions is always appreciated.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Writing: art or craft? (Pssst: it's both)

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I avoid subscribing to many newsletters because I don't want to clog my mailbox, but I really love Derek Murphy's. He always gives solid, useful, practical advice and isn't afraid to cut it out like it is. I highly recommend you subscribe. Here's an excerpt from his latest newsletter:

"People assume writing for others or considering the market, or even OUTLINING will suck the joy out of the process; the truth is, writing good books is hard, and most people never finish anything - those who finish something probably have a total mess. Writing doesn't always have to be puppies and rainbows. Sometimes it's just work. Sometimes it's frustrating and difficult. That's OK! If you don't do the hard stuff, you won't improve! (Most writers never improve, because they keep circling back to the fun easy stuff but avoiding all the hard stuff)."

I used to despise the grind of outlining, revising and editing, and only appreciated those starry-eyed moments of conceiving a story and flying through the first draft on the wings of inspiration. But some years down the road, I realized that if I make it all about inspiration and my creative enjoyment, I will never end up with anything I can show others without making a fool of myself. Now I celebrate the process of revising and fine-tuning a manuscript as a part of my professionalism as an author and my dedication to giving readers the best value I can possibly provide. I might still enjoy the first draft stage most of all, because it's then that I can let my imagination really run loose, but I realize this first step is worthless without all the rest. 

I also used to scoff about keeping the reader in mind as one writes, writing to market and, without thinking about it, put more value into so-called "pure art" - high-quality books that supposedly only a handful of refined readers can enjoy, while most of the market consumes primarily "trash" in the form of romance novels and thrillers. I totally ignored the fact that I, myself, may enjoy the mental labor of reading Tolstoy and Fielding, but to relax and escape, I go to Nicholas Sparks and Dan Brown. 

Good books don't necessarily need to be heavy, intellectually burdening, or only enjoyed by a select few. Consider Jane Austen, one of my all-time favorite writers - I love her books because they are both lighthearted and engaging, beautifully written, and intelligent and psychologically accurate at the same time. No wonder they have withstood the test of centuries, and are as much enjoyed today as they were 200 years ago!

Quoting Derek again:

The truth is, nobody has time to read it all: people buy what's useful, relevant or entertaining for THEM. Years ago I discovered I can create work I love, that other people enjoy. I can make art AND money. I can enjoy the process AND make sure others do as well. If I do this, I will get paid for the value I put into the world, which will let me create more great art.

Let's face it - writing isn't just an art, it's also a craft. It's like jewelry making; inspiration will enable you to produce a great design, but only lots and lots of polishing will give an actual product. 

Thursday, 30 August 2018

7 social media mistakes authors make

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"Get on social media" is one of the most common bits of advice given to authors looking for ways to grow their platform and promote their books. It is not bad advice, either, as long as you keep in mind two things: one, social media is not a fast track to book sales (for direct sales, AMS ads are far more effective); and two, in all things social, you only get as much as you give. 

So here, in my opinion, are the most common mistakes authors make when they try to approach social media as part of their professional platform: 

1. Making it all about you - this one is perhaps the most obvious, but it's incredible how many people try to force sales through social media, and/or tire their followers with constant cover reveals, reviews, banners, teasers and promos. I can't think of a more effective way to make people mute or unfollow you. Also very annoying is when you are thrust into some obscure group as soon as you accept someone's friend request. Don't do that! 

2. Getting too personal - a personal touch is perfectly acceptable. In fact, it's great. Social media is, after all, about making connections, so there's a place for posting pictures from your latest trip or your kitchen makeover. But if all you ever post are photos of your cat at different angles, it won't contribute much to growing your professional network or enhancing your fan base. 

3. Not posting any actual content - memes, games and funny videos will get you some likes and make some people engage with you, but it won't do much for you in the long term. You have to be selective. Seek out content that will educate, uplift, surprise or entertain your audience on a deeper level, and add something personal: a phrase, an anecdote, a comment. It's much better than just sharing or re-tweeting without saying anything. Show that you've actually put a moment of thought into what you're sharing.

4. Being sporadic - many authors are very active on social media in the period surrounding their book launch, and disappear for weeks or months afterwards. It doesn't work this way. The social media world is very dynamic and fast-paced, and you must keep up a steady presence to build and maintain connections. 

5. Getting off-topic - I have seen many author accounts where 90% of the time the author posts about how much they hate Trump. Or about dog shelters. Or pollution. This is called getting off track: you open an account for one purpose and get caught in something completely different. Stay focused! I personally try to keep away from politics and hot topics such as gay rights. 

6. Trying to do too much - if you are new to social media and open a Facebook account and a Twitter account and get on Instagram and Pinterest and YouTube and try to keep up a podcast and two blogs, you will most likely be overwhelmed. It's better to stick to one or two platforms and really engage there, than do a perfunctory social media rush without the time to really develop meaningful connections. 

7. Choosing the wrong platform - what platforms to choose depends both on your personality and the audience you want to address. If you write for teens and want to hang out with your crowd, you most likely won't find it on Facebook. If you love photography, you might find a good place on Instagram. Use your common sense and play to your strengths. 

One last thing: I don't spend much time on social media, and there's no real need to. It's more about distribution of your allotted time. Here's approximately how I split mine:

1. 30%-40% - checking out other people's stuff, liking and commenting, participating in group discussions. 
2. 20% - sharing non-commercial content - writing posts, uploading photos and videos, passing on other people's interesting stuff. 
3. 10%... OK, 20% - goofing off. 
4. 10% - Optimizing and updating my profiles, banners and pages. 
5. 10% - sharing stuff about my books, including cover reveals, quotes, reviews, giveaways and releases. 

I get good response (engagement, sharing, etc) on my commercial stuff because I've "paid" for the right to post it by making it only a tiny fraction of my overall social media activity, and also by helping others promote themselves. 

Monday, 27 August 2018

My most-used photography, graphics and cover design resources

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Every indie author with a limited budget for book production has struggled with this: how much money do I invest in a cover design for a book that might never give me much ROI? Do I order a custom cover? Do I purchase stock photography? If you release multiple novels each year, it's hard to shell out a lot of money for covers and graphics out of pocket. Here are my top five helpful, constantly-in-use tools all indies should be familiar with:

Pixabay - my default go-to for free photography. All Pixabay photos are free for commercial use and don't require crediting, so are 100% safe to use for any purpose. There are some true gems out there but, of course, the risk is that someone else has used the same image already.

Canva - Canva has tons of free templates for book covers and social media banners. Their designs aren't usually anything groundbreaking, but they're simple, clean and adequate. No more messing up with sizes and getting it wrong!

Design Wizard (updated!) - a new design tool that has many of the same options as Canva, but with a few upgrades. Design Wizard, unlike Canva, offers image and video editing services. One of Design Wizard's most notable features is the magic resize button that allows you to change the size of an image while you are creating a design, which is pretty cool. If I had to compare the two, I'd probably say that Canva has a bit more free templates, but Design Wizard has a larger choice of cool fonts, as well as a smoother interface, and could give you stunning graphics with very little investment, so definitely play around with both websites and see which you like best.

The Book Cover Designer - a huge, constantly updated source of premade book covers sold for very reasonable prices, many of them real bargains. Each cover is guaranteed to be only sold once. All designers from this site I've dealt with have been super helpful and responsive. Payments are processed through PayPal and are 100% secure.

Derek Murphy's free 3D mockups - I absolutely love this little tool for creating 3D book mockups. All you need for most of those is a front cover image, and you can play with it and get single and composite mockups of paperback, Kindle or mobile. Great for promos and banners. Thank you, Derek Murphy, for giving this tool to those of us who don't mess with Photoshop!

These are some of my favorite graphic and cover design resources. What are yours?

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

My Top 5 Helpful People In Indie Publishing

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It would seem that the days of vanity publishers and publishing scams are supposed to be over, with all the wealth of information out there about how to put a book together. But not long ago, while hanging around a writers' forum, I was simultaneously saddened and infuriated by someone's post about how her dad is seriously considering giving 10,000$ to a "publisher" who raves about their book and is offering to "include all costs in the package". Older folks who are not very tech-savvy, or newbies, or people who have gone through round after round of rejections and are just desperate for validation, still fall prey to scammers. And there's absolutely no reason why this should happen.

10,000$ for a book? Man, if you can cash out 2000$, that's a generous budget that would cover everything: editing services, formatting, cover design and promotion. A good-quality book can be published for much less, actually. Uploading to KDP is no rocket science.

It's at moments such as these, when I hear/read about someone about to be lured into a trap set by unsavory "publishers", that I'm particularly happy to be able to point to those champs who are like beacons of light helping navigate the murky waters of publishing. So, without further ado:

Joanna Penn - Joanna is probably my top go-to for anything that has to do with indie publishing. Her website and blog are just packed with practical, step-by-step advice that will get you started and keep you going. Her free Author Blueprint is my favorite all-encompassing how-to author guide.

David Gaughran - David Gaughran gets right into the nitty gritty of Amazon, the biggest digital store out there and the bread-and-butter of most indie authors. He shares helpful tips on choosing categories and keywords, building your email list and keeping it engaged, and more.

Derek Murphy, also known as Creativindie, generously shares many no-nonsense hacks. Also check out his book covers website here - reading Derek's book cover guide completely revolutionized my approach to covers (in a nutshell: a book cover is not a piece of art, it's a graphic statement of your genre and what readers can expect from your book).

Jane Friedman offers tips on both sides of the coin: traditional publishing and self-publishing. More and more authors are choosing to do both.

Chuck Wendig' s blog posts often feel like a punch in the face, like for example this one. But if you are ready to take a good honest sober look at your writing and publishing attempts, Chuck is your man. That's the indie publishing place I go when I want to laugh (at myself).

So don't let scammers rob you of your hard-earned money, time, energy and self-esteem. Learn all the time. Read everything you can get your hands on. And keep climbing up.

Friday, 17 August 2018

Criticism: developing a thick skin

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I have heard more than one aspiring writer say they are reluctant to show their work to agents and publishers out of fear of harsh criticism. I thought I'd touch on this here. 
First off, if you garner any personal response at all from agents and publishers, you can congratulate yourself on at least grabbing someone's attention. From my experience, most commonly you'll receive lots and lots of silence and some impersonal rejection notes. 
If someone does take the trouble to point out flaws in your work, even if you disagree with their opinion, reply in a polite, courteous manner and thank them for their time and attention (unless, of course, we're dealing with "constructive criticism" along the lines of, "this is complete rubbish. You should give up writing altogether"). Also, even if your critic is rude, sit down and think if maybe, just maybe, there's a grain of truth in what they are saying. For example, if someone says, "I couldn't get past the first pages. They are filled with excruciatingly boring, meaningless detail", of course it will make you bristle. But is it actually true? Be honest. Maybe your opening chapter can, in fact, benefit from some trimming down of details. 
Finally, if you want to put yourself out there, either via traditional publishing or self-publishing, you absolutely must NOT let criticism get to you. There will always be people who dislike your writing and even you, personally (yes, even though they don't know you, personally). Maybe you remind them of their elementary school principal. Maybe they suspect you voted for Trump. I can testify to having actually received death threats (yep). You must develop a thick skin, if you want to go public and live to tell the tale. 
That is not to say you ought to ignore feedback altogether and claim that your work is a perfect and impeccable product of a genius. But you just cannot afford to topple over every rejection letter or scathing review, taking them personally and letting them get you down.
Look at the big picture. View your work with a critical eye, with honesty and good sense. And just always keep writing, reading and improving.ding and improving; always strive to make the most of your abilities.

Monday, 13 August 2018

How To Write Humor, with Catherine Weaver

Catherine Weaver
Today's post is brought to you by Catherine Weaver, a Middle Grade fiction author who brings us down-to-earth, practical advice on how to incorporate humor into writing. 

I write for middle graders, and the one thing they demand is that you make them laugh. There’s a serious school of writing for kids which teaches that the best kids’ books talk about bad things that happen to people and how they deal with them. But, believe, me, this school was not invented by an 11-year-old.
People in this age bracket want to laugh, and if your book is not funny in any way, they do not enjoy it.

So, how can you be funny on demand? This is a question comedians get asked. “How can you be funny out of nowhere? Isn’t comedy something spontaneous, that just falls on your head like Newton’s apple? Doesn’t there have to be a cause that you can then react to in a funny way?”

Well, comedy doesn’t follow the laws of physics. “For every action there is an equal and opposite joke” is not a law in comedy. Comedy is something that starts with you, and your observations.

The first, and my most favorite method of comedy is what is known as the physical gag. Sure, you can easily throw in a fart or stepping in dog do for a cheap laugh, but those only go so far. For a funny scene that will last, I go to the masters like Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, The Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, Dick Van Dyke and Mel Brooks. Slipping and falling on your butt (prat falls), hitting people with ladders forward and backward, dropping things that won’t stop bouncing, and other physically awkward scenarios are their specialties. As a writer, one then simply describes a scene in which these things happen. This is where the maxim, “Show, don’t tell,” comes into its own.

Here is an example in an excerpt from my book Phoenix Down:

            The next morning found me skidding down the marble halls, bouncing off walls and down stairs like some kind of crazy pinball, late for my first day in Amazon school.
            How could I help it? The school uniform was some kind of complicated thing with a white tunic, a gold armor-bra, a jacket and boots made of rabbit fur and lots of leather straps to hold everything together. There were also some leather things to hold weapons that were empty right now, and a leather pouch. The first class started at dawn, and I had to try to put all this gear on in the dark.
            The good news was the boots were slippery, so I slid down the halls faster than I could run. The bad news was the boots were slippery, and by the time I got to the classroom I couldn't stop. I sped through the open door, hollering at the top of my lungs, crashed into some desks, sent them clattering to the floor, and landed on a table in the middle of the room on my back.”

            Another form of comedy is absurdist humor, which is another favorite of mine, and great for kids’ books. This form involves nonsense or surreal situations or non-sequiturs. Bugs Bunny is a great example of this type of humor, or Alice in Wonderland, or any number of shows or books that have become classics in children’s literature.

For this one, as an author, you have to be brave. Everyone thinks of bizarre things that stretch the audience’s suspension of disbelief past its limits, and authors tend to hit the delete key as soon as they’ve written them down. But if you are brave, and stretch that disbelief of nonsense to the limit, the tension can evoke laughter.

            For example, from my book Gold Dust:

“’Oh, Alex, since you're late, you can be the first to recite your poem on the theme of the color blue.’
‘Uh . . .’ I could hear giggles and little snorts from people in the front of the class.
             ‘Go on, dear,’ said Mrs. Douglas.
‘Okay, um, well, here it is...
             I like blue,
              It is true.
             Why don't you
             Like blue, too?’
             I don't have to tell you what everyone thought of that. I tried to just sneak back to my desk and pretend I didn't exist.
             ‘Wait, Alex, you haven't offered a rationale for your poem. Give us an analysis, please.’
             ‘Well, it represents the . . . conflict . . . between people who like blue and people who don't,’ I said quickly, and then ran back to my seat so fast I skidded into my chair with a crash.”

            Another form of humor that kids thrive on is is irony, and its relative, sarcasm. Kids love feeling that they are smarter than the characters in books or that they know more about what’s happening. You can get in easy one-liners with sarcasm, like, “I just love it when the rain does an extra rinse cycle on the clothes I just washed this morning,” or build a whole ironic scene. I think Lemony Snicket and his Series of Unfortunate Events gives some of the best examples of irony in children’s fiction.

            And then there are the too-well-known, for tweens and teenagers, embarrassing experiences. They are horrible to have, but can’t help but be funny when they happen to others. They can be anything from farting in an elevator to being stuck in a tree and having to be rescued by the fire department, but for middle-graders and teenagers, the most embarrassing, and therefore most funny, usually have to do with misunderstandings about people you are attracted to.

            You can find great examples of embarrassing experiences in the Harry Potter books. Poor Harry spends at least half of these books wanting to crawl under a desk in embarrassment.

            Here is another example from my own works, showing how I used this method of comedy:

            “I was riding my bike to school and this boy named Todd, who was so cute the way he smiled, was riding his bike right behind me. I kept looking back at him (discreetly of course), but he wasn't looking at me at all. He kept talking to his friend. So in desperation I whipped off my helmet and let my long brown hair fly free in the wind.
            No one seemed to notice me at all except one person: a cop. I can't believe I got pulled over! He asked me why I wasn't wearing my helmet.
            ‘I forgot it,’ I stammered stupidly.
             ‘But Miss, you have it in your hand!’”

            Armed with these examples and a study of the masters of the different types of comedy (some of which I’ve listed above), you can write humor whenever you want, and not have to wait for it to fall on your head.

Catherine is an educator and musician who makes her home in the Silicon Valley. She is a 5th-generation Californian and comes from a family of writers. Since she raised her children in Palo Alto, she believes a book about a girl in Palo Alto is due. She has had several short works of poetry and non-fiction articles published, but Gold Dust is her first novel for children. She is looking forward to many more in the future. Visit Catherine's website and connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads