Friday, 9 August 2019

Little Victories


This week, I wrote those two glorious words - The End - at the bottom of the first draft of The Breath of Earth, the third book in my Frozen World series. Yes, it's a first draft, and yes, it's a hot mess, and yes, it will probably (OK, certainly) require a whole lot of editing, but I still got this novel out of me, and I'm taking full advantage of this opportunity to celebrate. 

I don't remember ever working so hard to finish a first draft. Most of it was due to sheer exhaustion. I would spend the day taking care of the house and the kids and working on editing projects for the company I work with, and then, finally, the house would be quiet and I'd carve out some time for writing, and I'd sit down to my laptop and write a few paragraphs, and then my eyelids would droop and I'd wake up half an hour later, slumped forward with a crick in my neck. 

Or I would write in the living room, surrounded by my kids, who are always busy making sure my life wouldn't be boring. I'd type on, with the sounds of "Mom, mom, mom, mom!!" in my ears, and eventually I would stare at the screen and realize I've written total nonsense. 

Please don't think I've been intentionally neglecting my family. I'm an extremely efficient writer intent on making the most of the minuscule amount of time I have, and can churn out a 1,000 words in half an hour. Usually I split this into two 15-minute daily writing sessions. My kids can survive without having my undivided attention for 15 minutes. 

I'm not telling you all this to complain, but rather to reaffirm the efforts of anyone who is struggling. If you really want to, you can do it! It may be slower and harder, and building a backlist will take longer, but you will have that book in your hand eventually, and then another and another. 

Having very limited time, I've been focusing entirely on Frozen World during the past months, because it's my best-received series, and the only one for which I have mostly organic reviews. I have some thoughts about subsequent books, too - four and beyond - with plans for a POV shift and new characters. 

I'm also tweaking the first book's cover and changing the second book's cover entirely to create consistent branding for the series. But that's a subject for another post. 

Saturday, 27 July 2019

Mental health for writers

It has taken me years to acknowledge that I do indeed suffer from legitimate emotional/mental issues and do need help to cope from time to time. During my first session with my therapist, when I mentioned that I'm a writer, she smiled and said, "Well, you know, depression and anxiety are something like professional diseases."

Indeed, depression and anxiety do seem to be something like an athlete's foot for writers. The same acute receptivity that makes us good at transmitting shades of emotion into words makes us extra sensitive to existential fears, insecurities and mood swings. Throw in the loneliness of the writer's work, the long-term uncertainty and struggle, and oftentimes the financial instability, and you've got the makings of General Anxiety Disorder.

Obviously, mental health issues are something anyone might struggle with, but I do believe writers had better pay attention to themselves because sometimes those things are elusive. Are you suffering from writer's block or are you simply too anxious to think straight? Is your home extra messy because of your irregular work hours or because of depression?

What made me more open about this was the loss of a dear friend to suicide caused by depression. I would never have believed it of her, such a sunny person overflowing with life. Apparently she was struggling by herself and few people knew about it. So please, please don't suffer in silence.

1. Acknowledge there is a problem. Don't try to push through, holding it all together at any cost. You don't deserve this, and neither do your loved ones.

2. Be kind to yourself. Get enough sleep, eat well, exercise, keep a healthy posture while you work. Avoid unhealthy habits such as overeating and smoking.

3. Writing is an excellent therapy, and I certainly have found that putting words down helps me feel grounded even during the toughest of times, but keeping one's hands busy is therapeutic in a whole different way. I garden, bake, and crochet. Many of my writer friends are also painters, crafters, bakers, etc. Try it - you might just discover a new hobby you love.

4. Don't be alone. Find your tribe, whether in real life or online. Whatever you are going through, chances are many people are in the same boat as you, and things are easier to deal with together.

Thursday, 20 June 2019

Making it as an author: diversify your strategies

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Making it as an author (however you define "making it") can be a twisting, steep path, and if you ask established authors to tell their success stories, their breakthroughs, you'll likely hear very different tales as to what finally got the snowball rolling for each of them. One thing all the stories are almost guaranteed to have in common, however, is persistence - nobody has succeeded by quitting yet, as far as I know!

This doesn't mean, however, that you should just keep going on doing the same old thing, the same old way. That would be like banging into the wall again and again, insisting that there MUST be a door. That's probably true - but the door might be a few steps away, and you need to make those steps to find it!

Stepping back and taking a break for a while might be necessary for your mental health. I had once reached a point when my fingers would shake and my heart would race whenever I sat down to check my email, and when I attempted to write, my eyes would just roll back in my head and I'd doze off (even if it was midmorning). I had been running on an empty battery for too long and I was exhausted. It took some good sober reassessment (and plenty of paperbacks and yarn) to help me recover.

Next, ask yourself some questions:

1. Have I chosen the right genre? Of course, when it comes to book genres, there is no right or wrong, but some genres are more niche than others. I don't suggest that you write something which does not inspire you, because that won't work, but maybe you have a way to tweak your writing to match a more popular genre.

For example, when I began promoting my Viking era novel, The Greenlanders, I discovered that had I included more romance in the plot, I could have gotten into the historical romance category, which has more voracious readers than just historical fiction.

2. Have I delivered the best product I possibly can? I realize this is a tricky one, because the perfect is the enemy of the good. There's literally no end to the amount of money you can pour into a book, including editing, cover design, formatting, and marketing. So set a reasonable budget and work within it.

You can also publish on no budget at all, despite what some literary snobs would have you believe. It will just take more time because you'll likely have to swap services with other people and/or do a lot yourself. I know of an author who doesn't even read their first draft - it just goes straight to the editor, but that's an exception. Most of us don't have enough money to pay an editor for taking care of a messy early draft.

3. Have I chosen the right publishing strategy? If you have been querying, consider the responses you got so far. If you only get form rejections, it might be time to tweak your query letter. If you get feedback along the lines of "I like it, but this will never sell" consider that traditional publishing is a conservative world, and also that many rejected authors have gone on to succeed as indies.

If you are an indie, consider whether you are locked onto ways and means that don't work, or don't work as well as you'd like. Do you try and try to get a BookBub ad, and get frustrated when you fail? Do you expend a lot of energy on blog tours that don't really help you get sales? Do you leave your books in KDP Select by default because exploring the possibilities of wide distribution seems daunting, or because it's easier than logging in and opting to check out of the program?

4. Am I still enjoying this? Writers are very often introverted people, which doesn't work to our advantage when it comes to marketing and PR, but there must still be some solid kernel of enjoyment left in this whole thing, or you won't be able to go on.

It must still be, at the core, about the writing, telling your story, creating your world. So make mental space for that. Read some really good books, put on some inspiring music. Exercise your creativity in other ways - plant a garden, cook, do crafts. Take walks. Connect with nature. Throw expectations out of the window - if someone is telling you it's no use if you don't manage to bang out two full-length novels each year, tell them to get lost. Guard that inner core of joy and creativity in your writing, because that's your biggest long-term asset.

Monday, 3 June 2019

Reaching new readers in the Asian market


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Have you ever asked yourself, "How on earth will I reach readers with so many indie authors out there?"

It's true that the indie book market is so vast that trying to stand out seems almost impossible, with literally millions of titles being published each year. You might find yourself getting desperate, envying those folks who had jumped on the bandwagon earlier, when competition was less aggressive and Amazon's algorithms were easier to game.

Here's the good news, though: there might be a lot more authors to compete with these days, but there are also more readers - and not all of them on Amazon.

At the beginning of the indie author boom, it was obvious that the target audience is English speaking and Western, primarily in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and, to a lesser extent, Europe.

These days, however, many countries in Asia and the Far East are going through a rapid process of globalization, technological advancement, and economical development. They are avid consumers of online content, primarily on mobile, and many of them speak and read English fluently. This means the pie is growing apace - there's a whole new market of potential readers for us. Hurray!

There are now over 800 million Internet users in China and over 500 million in India. You can bet some of these people, like everywhere in the world, can appreciate a good story. Can you imagine how fantastic it would be to reach even a fraction of them and have your books before such a huge fresh audience?

A popular reading medium is book serialization through platforms on which users pay a small fee to unlock subsequent chapters or the whole novel. The system is made sustainable thanks to sheer numbers of users, and popular authors can find a very nice income stream there. If this reminds you of Amazon's Kindle Unlimited, it's because there's definitely some similarity - but the beauty of it is that this is an audience largely unreached by Amazon.

I first became aware of this market through my collaboration with Nyoibo Studio, an imprint of Jianlai Global - an international digital publisher based in China and, more recently, the US. They have started out by bringing translated Chinese novels (usually extra long ones) to an English-speaking audience, which I thought was pretty exciting.

So when I heard of their new project of signing up novels originally written in English, I decided to enroll at once. I had a few books which I had sitting in Kindle Unlimited for a couple of years, without any significant benefit. I had decided to pull them out of KDP Select and go wide. And what could be wider than a whole new market?

Here's what made this a very easy decision for me:

1. There is zero risk. That's the most important thing for me - there is literally nothing to lose and everything to gain. The authors do not pay any fees to enroll and are not required to give up any book rights. You remain free to publish your work elsewhere, and your only limitation is the inability to partake in the KDP Select program (but, as I said, I had already decided to go wide anyway).

2. The absolute straightforwardness and transparency of the process. Authors who choose to enroll sign a clear, no-nonsense contract that covers their share of the royalties, payment thresholds, any legal liabilities, copyright issues, etc. The company takes book rights very seriously and will never distribute any content without the author's permission.

3. My inner knowledge of how the company works - I knew that it is honest, legitimate, and makes money off readers, not authors (so you won't have to dodge all sorts of offers of author services, promotion packages, etc).

4. The possibility of being translated into Chinese if your book is especially popular. For me, this is really the cherry on top. I'd love to reach such an enormous audience in its native language.

The English language novel project is launching now, and I am sharing this knowledge with you because I genuinely want to see my fellow indie authors succeed. Nothing will make me happier than getting a message from some of you a little down the road, saying "Hey, I signed up for that project you mentioned and have tapped into a new crowd of overseas fans."

To read more about the project and find out if your work is eligible for participation, visit Jianlai Global's website here, or contact me directly. I would be happy to chat and answer any questions you might have.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Of Mad Queens, plot arcs, and audience expectations

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Disclaimer: this post is less about writing and more about pandering to my obsession with Game of Thrones.

This week, after eight heart-rending, nail-biting, roller-coasting seasons, we saw the ugliest barbed iron chair in the world go the way of scrap metal by one dragon's wrath - not before Daenerys Targaryen, First of Her Name, The Unburned, etc, was stabbed to death by her lover right in front of the throne she had always fought for but never got to sit on.

A lot of people expressed their disappointment with the way the show handled Daenerys's arc, but to me it made perfect sense. Daenerys wanted that throne so badly, and was ready to do so much to occupy it, that it kind of seemed to me it would never happen (because it's George Martin, you know). She was probably the most epic character in the series; moreover, she was a Targaryen, and that line isn't known for their mental stability. It is only fitting that her end should be tragic, culminating in the loss of friends, sanity, goals and, ultimately, life.

It is also very fitting, in my opinion, that the one who thwarted the madness of the Dragon Queen should be no other than Jon Snow, a.k.a Aegon Targaryen, the ultimate embodiment of A Song of Ice (Lyanna) and Fire (Rhaegar). 

Was Dany's descent into madness rushed? Uncharacteristic? Crudely handled? In my opinion, the seed had been planted a long time ago. The lovely queen was never averse to spilling a few gallons of blood for the supposed greater good, and again, she is a volatile Targaryen. A few provocations, the hint of disloyalty from those close to her, a threat to her claim to the throne, and things naturally go downhill really fast. 

Perhaps most importantly, however, this plot twist follows the principle of Killing Your Darlings. Everyone loved Daenerys (except those people who hated her). Everyone admired her (even those who hated her). Her death leaves us shocked, indignant, bereaved. That's the genius of both the books and the show. There are no promises. No guarantees. No character is safe. 

I'm off, my friends. I'm going with Jon Snow and Tormund into the vast wilderness beyond the Wall (which apparently had been rebuilt in record time). I hope Tyrion joins us soon. If you ask me, he has paid his debts to humanity ten times over.

Monday, 6 May 2019

Blood Heir again: the victory of sanity


A couple of months ago, I wrote about the insane blow-up of PC culture around the soon-to-be released fantasy novel Blood Heir, in which some precious snowflake allegedly found some gross insensitivity to offend their delicate feelings. This resulted in an online shaming and bullying campaign which ultimately caused the poor overwhelmed author, Amelie Zhao, to pull the book and write an apology letter.

In the past few days, I have found out, to my delight, that the book is going to be published after all, and is due to be released in November of this year. I can't express how immensely pleased I am. I don't know the author and haven't read the book, but no one deserves to be ganged upon that way because of some stupid hyped-up charge.

"When the controversy over “Blood Heir” erupted, battle lines were quickly drawn within the close-knit children’s publishing community. A small but influential group of authors argued that the novel dealt insensitively with race and the legacy of slavery, and was an affront to nonwhite communities."

Is it only me, or does it sound like someone was looking for a reason to be offended?

I only hope that the author and editing team did not decide to make any major changes in the text, pandering to the violent righteousness of our Thought Police.

So let's just take a moment to celebrate the victory of sanity, creativity, and artistic freedom, over a PC crazy, hypersensitive cultural movement obsessed with #ownvoices, 'representation', cultural appropriation, and trying to shut people up because #notyourstory.

I hate racism, oppression, and bigotry with a passion, and I firmly believe that so do 99% of the thinking, feeling, writing human beings the author community consists of. One would be hard pressed to find a single expression of real racism, sexism, fascism, or any other infamous 'ism' in mainstream modern fiction. It appears that this is no longer enough, though. Nope, these days one can be punished for not expressing enough loyalty to a certain agenda.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Working from home: can you pull it off?



D.C. McNaughton offers some solid no-nonsense advice on time management and productivity when working from home, and you should definitely read it if you're straddling the fence between an office job and switching to working remotely - or if you've been working from home for a while and feel like somehow, you just aren't getting anything done.

Writing is no different from any other freelancing in that sense, except perhaps in having even less interaction with people and upfront payments.

There are many different reasons for wanting a flexible remote position, and mine pretty much guarantee that I will be interrupted often and in very challenging ways.

As the readers of my blog know, I am a homeschooling mother of four young children, and I have no hired childcare or household help. I have to be extremely disciplined in order to accomplish anything at all, and when I compare myself to other writers, I remind myself that I shouldn't measure my productivity up against anyone who doesn't have little people tugging at their leg and whining "mom.... MOM... Momomomom" all day long.

But anyhow, there are those people. Those who think that if you don't commute to work, it means you don't work. Those who disrespect your time because you don't have anyone but you dictating your work hours, and who feel that they can drop in on you at all hours because you're always home. Those who get offended when you get off a lengthy phone call because you actually have stuff to do.

Things get more challenging when you live with "those people". You can shout yourself hoarse saying you're working, but it's unlikely to make much difference in someone else's attitude.

You had better just make sure you have the right one - keep going on with a balance of flexibility and self-discipline - you got this!

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Writer's block vs. burnout, and how to get over it

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You know I'm big on writing discipline and scoff at writer's block, usually wishing I had the luxury to complain about it (rather than do the impossible feat of trying to cram a few hundred words while the kids are messing up the living room).

However, even though writer's block per se can be overcome, if its source is actually burnout, there's only so long you can keep yourself going on a mix of determination, coffee, and chocolate. 

So how do you tell between writer's block and burnout? With block, you're often avoiding a difficult plot twist or the saggy (but necessary) middle section of a book. Or maybe you are trying to force yourself to write something that doesn't really inspire you anymore. You still find creative joy and energy in writing other things, maybe nonfiction, poetry or short fiction completely unrelated to your big WIP. 

With burnout, you feel like your brain has turned into banana mush, and you start wishing you would never need to write a single damn thing again, including emails, holiday greetings, and shopping lists. 

Sounds familiar? 

Whether it's block or burnout, it's useful to step back and recharge your creative batteries. This isn't laziness or procrastination - as writers, we don't create in a vacuum. We need the right ambiance to fuel our imagination.

Inspiration sources include:

Books - in your genre or not, classic or contemporary, choose really good books you love (and not those in your TBR pile you have promised to beta read or review six months ago).

Movies - sometimes reading takes more energy than you currently have. Movies in your genre can really help you visualize similar settings in your own book (plus, if you write historical fiction or epic fantasy, it's a great excuse to watch Game of Thrones). 

Music - I used to write to epic playlists of Lord of the Rings or ambient Saami music. At some point I stopped, figuring it's more productive to write offline without the distraction of YouTube. It turned out to be a mistake, because music really helps me to get into that deep concentration zone that's like oxygen for really inspired writing. 

Scenery - a nature walk is always great on so many levels, but if it's out of reach, it may be helpful to look at albums or slideshows of beautiful nature scenery, gorgeous mansions, epic castles, and anything that might help you get into your book's atmosphere. With my Frozen World series, nowadays it's usually documentaries about Antarctica for me. 

Recharging activities and digital detox - get away from social media, set your phone aside, and you'll see that the world doesn't tumble down. Roll up your sleeves and work in the garden, exercise, knit, bake, or play with your children. 

Longhand - for many years, I would be intoxicated by that delightful feeling of holding a brand new notebook, feeling its weight, and envisioning the words that would fill it. Sadly, it is no longer sustainable for me to write whole novels in longhand and then type them down, but it's still a great way to get back to that mindful and passionate space in writing. 

Above all, don't let writing become a chore you just want to leave behind as soon as you can. My wake-up call (literally) was the realization that I slump and nod off after writing a paragraph or two of my WIP. If my book has this soporific effect on me, what would it do to my readers? So I'm extra careful to keep writing what it has always been for me - a creative outlet and something I can't imagine my life without. 

Friday, 5 April 2019

Image layering in Canva: a basic tutorial

You all know I'm a big fan of Canva, a great online tool that allows those authors who are not Photoshop pros to create decent-looking book covers for free.

Disclaimer: if you have any budget at all for a book cover, buy or commission the best you can afford. After actually having a decent book, a good cover may make the difference between succeeding and failing. It is one of the best investments you can make. If, however, you do need to design your own covers, Canva can be a lifesaver. I don't believe you need to wait until you make enough money to publish a book. You can publish with a decent cover, make some sales, and then funnel your earnings into a re-launch with an awesome cover that will take your marketing to a whole new level.

So let's begin. For me, it usually starts with Pixabay, the safest and least confusing image source. You can freely use any image there for commercial purposes. Of course, someone else might have used it in a book cover already, but that's the case with all stock photography, even if you pay for it.

Let's say I'm making a cover for a historical fiction novel titled "Lady of the Fire". I find this image, which is fantastic:


... But I also want a fiery theme, with a background such as this:

It appears that my best option in this case is to make the woman's image semi-transparent and layer it over the fiery background. To do that, I go to Canva, choose the book cover design option, and upload both images. As I adjust the sizes and placing, I select the lady's image, press "Position" and choose "Forward". This means that the fire remains in the background.

Then there is the fading checkers image. These are the transparency settings. I play around with them until I'm satisfied and adjust both images over each other until they merge perfectly. 

Add the title and pronto:

The semi-transparency of the front image adds a touch I really like. I could play with the fonts some more, but this will do for now.

I hope you found this tutorial useful! Please feel free to share.

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

Paths of the Shadow now permafree!

After considering the pros and cons of this for a while, I finally pulled Quest of the Messenger from KDP Select to wide distribution and made the first book of the trilogy, Paths of the Shadow, permafree.

Some authors firmly believe in the principle of "zero price = zero value", and are offended by the mere idea of giving their book away for free, but I disagree. As a matter of fact, this ability to make a book permafree and not worry about setting up free promotional days once a quarter, was part of what swayed me in the direction of going wide.

The concept of taking something you have poured blood, sweat and time into, and just offer it for download, may rankle when you only have a book or two out, but the more books you publish, the more it makes sense. There's nothing like offering the first in a series (or a stand-alone book that is one of several in a similar setting) for free to funnel new readers to buy the rest.

This tactic is successfully used by those people who promote new products in supermarket stalls, as well as by dope dealers - give a free sample to get people hooked so that they will pay for the rest.

Naysayers will claim that people who download free books are only looking for freebies and don't often bother to read what they grabbed anyway. But if a series has been sitting on a shelf for years and doesn't get much traction, the chance of getting some readers - even without getting paid - is better than nothing.

If you get a 1,000 people to download your book, 100 of them might read it, 10 might like it, and one might love it so much that they become your diehard fan and buy all of your books, give you a bunch of glowing, genuine reviews and recommend your book to others. It's all about numbers - the more pebbles you throw into a pond, the more ripples you create.

So if you like epic fantasy, medieval settings, dark magic and lots of intrigue, go ahead and grab your copy of Paths of the Shadow.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

How to survive with no support network: for authors

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You know those heart-warming statements by successful authors who say, "I would never have been able to get to this point without my spouse/family/significant other. Their support meant everything to me along the way"? 

This is great, it really is. I'm always happy for authors who had that support from their nearest and dearest while they were clawing their way up the rocky, lonely path from first draft to publishing success (whatever success means to them - a trad publishing deal, critical acclaim, a significant income stream). But what you don't often hear, despite how common it is, are experiences such as, "My wife would pull faces and come up with random to-do lists every time I sat down to write, and just couldn't stand me 'wasting my time' like that. Whatever I have achieved, I have achieved despite her lack of support and appreciation."

A fellow author once told me, "My husband and kids complained constantly that I never paid attention to them. I was always writing, they said. Cooked dinners, housecleaning, and the full time paycheck I made went unnoticed. What mattered was the fact that not every single second of my day was focused on them or serving their needs."

It's hard not to grow resentful. It does chafe and grate when your husband looks up from his phone, on which he's been busy browsing AliExpress, and asks, "are you sure you can afford to waste so much time on this?" - which brings me to my first point of advice:

Don't hate them. As popular as it is to say that our spouses/family are supposed to stand 100% behind our every venture and give unconditional support, the fact is that writing, like any entrepreneurial venture really, is a steep, uphill climb with a very uncertain outcome. Your family/spouse may be genuinely concerned that you are investing your all into something that is unlikely to ever pay off. It really is easy to neglect our own needs and the needs of our families, and to pour money into something that may yield no return, which brings me to point number two:

Balance, balance, balance. When you're on your own, it means you're also the one responsible for taking care of yourself. If you find yourself hovering over the keyboard with your fingers shaking, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep and faint with hunger; if you find yourself resenting  your bladder for demanding relief and your kids for asking, at 3 PM, whether lunch will be happening anytime today, you should probably slow down, or you risk going the fast track to burnout. Few writers at the start of their road can afford to write full-time. I know I'm not even part-way there.

But don't give up, either. Carve out every possible moment to write. Make use of those little pockets of time that inevitably occur each day. We all have them; on the train, waiting in line to the doctor's office, or when you catch yourself goofing around on Pinterest. Don't worry about efficiency. Just write a few paragraphs, even on your phone or in longhand. Don't wait for that perfect moment when you're on your computer with a cup of tea at hand, the house quiet and you're at leisure. For more advice on how to find time for writing, check out my free e-book, Writing Tips for Busy People.

Finally...

Make sure you aren't all alone. The online writing community is amazing. It can make the difference between giving up and plunging onward. There are so many people out there just like you, just like me - or people who had been in the same place until not too long ago. A supportive network is worth its weight in gold, and I'm so thankful for it.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

Writing to market: why and how

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It is popular to say, "write what you love", "don't short-sell your art" and "money won't buy happiness", and... yeah, money might not be the most important thing in the world. 

Until, you know, it is. 

Because money might not make you happy, but lack of it can surely make you extremely miserable. Money might not buy health, but it will sure buy good health insurance; money won't buy love, but the day-to-day battle for financial survival saps out energy and joy of life. 

As someone who has been through major financial straits with my family, I can definitely tell you that, hypothetically, if someone offered me lifelong financial competence (paid off house, new car every few years, college savings for all the kids) under the condition that I won't write another word ever again, I'd accept in a heartbeat. 

No such cheeky little fairy is likely to come my way, however, so I'm free to go on writing while I try to figure out how to also make a living of it and have balanced family time.

I came to writing as a career from a point of financial crisis and major strain, which is probably not the best place to start with, as you do preferably want some funds you would invest in your books, like in any other business, but it did help me focus. 

One of the reasons why I'm not no longer looking for an agent is that, even if someone could guarantee that I will land a good one, I can't afford the long-term haul of chasing a book deal. I'm not interested in literary recognition or winning contests for its own sake, either. Please give me the money, preferably soon so I can pay the electric bill. 

That's also why, after casting my net far and wide with several genres I love, I am currently focusing on my Frozen World Antarctic sci-fi series, which is garnering me the best and steadiest reader response I have ever experienced. More established authors would probably see this as small potatoes, but for me it really is a cause for celebration when I get unsolicited sales and reviews. 

Some authors are laboring under the misconception that "writing to market" means picking up the most popular genre of the moment and starting to work in that genre even if you absolutely hate it. Actually, writing to market means picking the one genre of those YOU love which is doing best commercially, and focusing on it. 

This makes sense on more levels than just money. We writers, the cultural heirs of those storytellers gathering an eager audience around the cave fire, don't create in a vacuum. We thrive on the love, interest and engagement of our readers, and can only keep so long at something no one seems to want to read. 

This doesn't mean that you should lower your standards with the reasoning of, "fans of the genre will swallow anything". Nor do you have to follow tropes, as is explained in this excellent post: "Formula writing means that by chapter two this has to happen and by the midpoint this other thing has to happen. Or, there has to be a rival for the heroine’s affections, or the dreaded misunderstanding. There are perhaps writers who write to formula, but that isn’t what’s meant by writing to market."

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Are you a good boss?

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Once upon a time, I used to work for a real douchebag. If there were a competition for the title of World's Worst Boss, that stinker would take it. I mean it.

I was fresh out of high school, and this was my first "real" job. It was the post of a secretary which entailed some simple administrative tasks like filing, answering phone calls, and making coffee.

It didn't take me long to figure out that my boss was a crook. I was besieged with phone calls from angry people to whom he owed money. I was instructed to say he's abroad every time. When an important client came for a visit, I was requested to put on a show to make them believe that more people than the three or four of us worked in the office. I was made to "dress-up" empty desks like active work spaces, with landline phones and masses of papers.

This propensity of cheating people was not limited to outsiders. The salary we settled on was ridiculous in proportion to the number of hours I put it, but somehow, at the end of the month the paycheck showed an even lower number, and he "had no idea how it happened".

If that isn't enough, my boss was an arrogant, presumptuous, ill-tempered bully. He drank twenty cups of coffee a day, and was particular about always wanting to drink from the same cup, which I likewise had to wash twenty times a day. He yelled at me when I dared to serve him coffee in a different cup. He yelled at me when I didn't answer the phone fast enough. He didn't have the basic decency to maintain a tidy working space. He was a chain smoker and his ashtray was always overflowing.

To top it off, this disgusting blown-up fart refused to step into the elevator together with the cleaning lady, claiming that "she stinks". He stank himself - like a million week-old stale cigarettes. By the way, the cleaning lady came to ask about her payment again and again, too. He swindled that poor woman who was working for a minimum wage and had a family to feed.

You will be glad to know that I left his office at the end of two months, never to see or hear from this ugly swine again. He had given me a lifelong acute aversion to dishonest crooks who abuse their authority.

While my former boss was a humongous cowpie, however, I sometimes have to stop and wonder if I'm being a much better employer to myself. As a freelancer, and thus my own boss, am I giving myself fair working conditions, a fair wage, and fair prospects? With no one to breathe down our necks, it's easy to loaf on Pinterest... but equally easy to succumb to burnout.

So fellow indie authors, just a reminder: put in the work, but don't burn yourself out. Take that walk. Have that cup of tea. Unplug from social media. Catch the moment when you are just spinning your wheels, and take a break. Cuddle your cat. Do some knitting.

This is a marathon. Be good to yourself to keep your productivity for the long term.

Monday, 11 February 2019

The man who would be Moses

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sunday, 3 February 2019

Blood Heir: the book totalitarian police reaches new levels

Image result for thought police

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 31 January 2019

Dragon Diplomacy: the birth of a book

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


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

Sunday, 27 January 2019

Canva 2.0 - the magic tool for designer dummies

Beginner̢۪s challenge

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

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

Image result for free books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Grammarly: can it replace an editor?

grammarly

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

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

Hence, I installed Grammarly. 

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

Here are some very good, comprehensive articles on Grammarly:

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

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

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


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

How To Use Grammarly To Improve Your Writing

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

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Publishing: KDP Select vs. wide, again

Image result for kdp select vs going wide

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

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

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


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

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Book pre-orders: yes or no?

First, a confession: I never did pre-orders with any of my previous self-published books. As someone who loathes excessive self-promotion, I prefer to do a big social media, blog coverage and mailing list push once the book is available, and capitalize on the impulse buy factor - I, myself, am a lot likelier to buy a book I can begin reading right away. The publisher for my Wild Children series did hold a pre-order, which didn't appear to make a material difference in sales.

Nevertheless, many authors swear by pre-orders, and they have their reasons:

* Pre-orders may help you build momentum on release day, when your book gets delivered to lots of people (hopefully) at once.

* Pre-orders make you look professional and successful - traditional publishers use them; therefore, making your book available for pre-order is a kind of social proof.

* Pre-orders are a way you can tell your mailing list subscribers or the people in your Facebook readers group, "psst! My book is almost here, and you get to hear about it first because you're such a loyal fan." 

However, what cinched it for me, and made me determined to try a pre-order with my current book release, is the following:

There are no reviews on a pre-order page; therefore, it's your chance to sell your book to people based solely on the strength of your cover and blurb. 

Getting reviews, for me, is like pulling teeth, so if I get a sales period during which I legitimately don't need those customer-given stars, I'll definitely take it, especially as I'm venturing into a whole new sub-genre of Middle Grade fantasy. 

I am, therefore, happy to announce that the Kindle edition of my very first Middle Grade fantasy novel, Dragon Diplomacy, is available for pre-order now, and will release at the end of the month. 


Still in doubt whether or not you should set up a pre-order for your book? There are two sides to the coin:


Derek Murphy, on the other hand, tells how preorders killed his book launch

Do you set up preorders? Or have you decided it isn't worth the effort? I'd love to hear what works for you!