Posts Tagged The Creative Penn

Are you an author or a publisher? How indies are making their own rules

Tomorrow (or maybe today or last week, depending on when you’re served this post) I’ll be taking part in a Book Industry Communication debate on the future of ISBNs. I’m providing the author perspective, so as part of my research I canvassed opinions to see what the mood is.

Much of the feedback centred on whether authors should buy ISBNs or use the free ones from CreateSpace, Smashwords et al. There were sound arguments on each side. But what emerged for me was the way self-publishers view ourselves. It’s a snapshot of our times that goes a lot further than a little piece of industry bureaucracy.

For and against

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Julia Jones

Julia Jones, one of my co-conspirators at Authors Electric, said she bought ISBNs ‘to behave like a publisher in every way’ – a view shared by many. Plenty of authors feel to have their own ISBN is more professional, lets you be seen and counted, and gives you control.

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Joanna Penn

Other writers – among them author-entrepreneur Joanna Penn – feel having their own ISBN makes no difference: ‘I can’t see any benefit, or evidence that having a paid ISBN helps you sell more books’. As Joanna sells whopping numbers of her novels and non-fiction books, we certainly can’t argue with that. (I agree with her. Personally I’d rather put the money towards a better cover or more editing time.)

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Michael N Marcus

But it was a comment from Michael N Marcus, who writes and publishes books about self-publishing that hit a bullseye for me: ‘If you want to be known as an author, the ownership of the ISBN is unimportant. If you want to be known as a publisher, own the ISBNs you use.’

Now that’s a very interesting view. We’ll return to that in a moment.

But look, no ISBNs at all

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Dan Holloway

Most striking was Dan Holloway, who publishes experimental fiction and poetry – both his own and that of others. He doesn’t use ISBNs at all – even for printed books. He says: ‘I write and publish for a niche, dedicated audience, providing an experience they can’t get elsewhere. I work with selected independent bookstores and galleries and send customers to them for my books, rather than having my books available everywhere.’ He’s not even on Amazon.

Dan is a firm believer in direct selling: ‘We should be trying to get our fans to buy direct from our websites if we can to foster community – we want to nurture fans with stickability, who will become our bedrock over the years, and the best way to do that is to have a hub that exposes them to us, our ideas and worlds, and all that we have to offer. I buy all my music direct from bands, for example.’
You might think this is a recipe for obscurity. Au contraire, Dan’s ISBN-free books have twice received special mentions for the Guardian‘s first book award, been shortlisted for the Guardian‘s Not the Booker Prize, and been voted ‘favourite Oxford novel’ by readers at the Oxford branch of Blackwell’s.

Author or publisher? Or something else?

I keep coming back to Michael’s interesting distinction and I think he’s nailed something important. Certainly I put most effort into building an identity as an author rather than a publisher. Like Dan, I am most keen to find people who like my imagination and preoccupations, my way of thinking. Having said that, I like publishing and I want to publish myself; I enjoy the control and creativity. I can also, if needed, wave a CV that demonstrates years as a production editor/chief sub/editorial manager, so perhaps that’s why it’s no big deal for me and you should discount my view as I’m not typical of self-publishers.

Other authors feel ISBNs are an important part of their brand and image – one of many signifiers of their professionalism.

Now, more than ever, there is no ‘one right way’ to self-publish well. We’re all finding our own paths. You might be a Dan, a Julia, a Roz, a Joanna. Most probably you’re something else again. I’d love to know. Oh, and wish me luck tomorrow.

What kind of self-publisher are you?

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Why fiction characters matter and how we make them memorable – video and podcast with Joanna Penn

jocharsWhy is all good fiction driven by characters? How can we widen our repertoire so our fictional people aren’t carbon copies of ourselves? What kind of research can give us greater understanding of situations we have no experience of? Should we bother to create our villains with as much empathy and insight as we lavish on our protagonists? If our MC’s enemy is utterly evil, how can we possibly crawl inside their minds – and why would we?

In the yellow corner is Joanna Penn. In the pinkish corner is me, answering her questions. We’re at her blog The Creative Penn, and you can read a text summary,  download a 50-minute audio podcast or watch us grin and and wave our hands while we discuss how to write convincing and compelling fictional people. Do come over.

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Before you spend money on publishing services, read this

old ropeAs indies get ever more professional, an entire service industry is springing up to offer us services for every occasion. At this year’s London Book Fair, the Authors’ Lounge was heaving with suppliers, and no shortage of willing customers. While it’s great to have access to these, authors are ripe for rip-off.

This week David Gaughran highlighted unscrupulous companies that charge exorbitant prices, or hoodwink authors into paying for services that could be obtained for very little or no cost.

So this post is a self-publishing 101; a catch-up for those who are wondering what they need to spend money on. In some cases, knowledge is the answer; all books, authors and genres are different, and one supplier does not fit all.

It’s virtually impossible to publish a book without any expenditure, but we can make sure we use our budgets wisely – and stop writers filling the pockets of unscrupulous suppliers who are getting rich on our dreams.

Publisher accounts

Some authors don’t know they can create their own user accounts on Smashwords, Kindle Direct Publishing, Kobo and CreateSpace. Or how simple it is – basically, no more difficult than entering your details in a mail-order website.

Some companies offer to upload your books through their account, but this is unnecessary. Even if you don’t make the files yourself, you can still upload them. If your service company went out of business, what would happen to your book listings? Moreover, if a third party controls your access to these publishing platforms, it’s harder to adjust your book’s appearance and description – which as you’ll see is essential to successful self-publishing.

Ebook formatting

This week, as you may have gathered, I published the follow-up to Nail Your Novel. I was rusty with the e-platforms, but it didn’t take long to get reacquainted.

Basic ebook formatting is dead simple if you can use Word on an everyday average level. You don’t need to be a wizard, but you do have to be meticulous. The best instructions are at the Smashwords Style Guide, a free book with diagrams and reassuringly clear instructions. There are a couple of other useful links in this post I wrote 2 years ago when I first ventured onto Kindle. I reread them when I uploaded my new book last week and it all went smoothly.

Indeed, if you have Scrivener, it will format ebooks for you.

Print book interiors

Print books are more tricky than ebooks, and amateur ones can look dreadful. But there are various tools to help beginners do a good job for very little money.

cathI recommend you read Catherine Ryan Howard’s book Self-Printed, which I used the first time I ventured onto CreateSpace and I still keep to hand to remind myself how to set up a book. She also has a ton of other useful guidance on book formatting.

How do you make the interior? CreateSpace provides Word templates, if you need help (although I make my books in a design program and upload a PDF).  CS templates are pretty plain, and Word isn’t ideal for interior formatting, but it’s fine for novels, which require hardly any design. In any case, a neat finish isn’t created by fancy typesetting, it’s from consistency and readability – and you can find a post I wrote on that here.

If you want a slicker look for little money, try Joel Friedlander’s book design templates for use in Word.   Joel has created interiors that you graft your text into – which is exactly what happens when books are designed in mainstream publishers (although they don’t use Word).

Which print-on-demand company should you use? There are two main options: Lightning Source and CreateSpace. LS isn’t suitable for beginners. It costs to start a book project and proofs are expensive. CS, though, is free to set up and holds your hand. Here’s a post I wrote comparing the two for novice publishers.

Covers

A great cover is money well spent. But you need to take creative control because you could end up with something unsuitable, horrible, or even illegal if the designer downloaded images from Google instead of sourcing them legitimately. This happens.

When you hire a cover designer, you need to know how to choose them and how to know when the job has been done properly. Identify your genre, familiarise yourself with its most successful covers, then you’ll know how to judge which designer is right for your book. Here’s a post I wrote recently on getting a cover designed.

Marketing

At LBF I talked to a publicity company to find out how they’d publicise a literary novel. They hadn’t tackled literary fiction before, and seemed unwilling to admit it until I pressed them hard. If I’d been a newbie, they’d have been selling me expensive packages that were unsuitable for my book. (I wasn’t looking to buy anyway; I was asking out of curiosity.)

With marketing, learn as much as you can before you hire publicists or buy advertising. I’ve learned a lot from Joanna Penn’s blog, and this is where I’d send you too.

Not all marketing has to cost money. Book descriptions, price point, tagging, titling and categorisation will all affect whether your book can be found by its ideal readers and you can experiment and tweak ad infinitum. (Remember I said you don’t want to have to ask a third party whenever you adjust your book’s back end? This is a good reason why.)  You might find you know more about marketing than you realise, as I did when I was asked to write this guest post.

Two more books I’m going to recommend:allibook

psst… Editorial services

First, of course, you need a book that’s fit to be published. In a publisher, there would be a team of people handling different editing stages:

  • developmental (the big picture: book structure, characters, narrative voice, plot etc)
  • copyediting (niggly details like plot consistency, names, timelines)
  • proofing (looking for typos and other mistakes)

It’s worth hiring expertise to help you with these and it’s unlikely that you can do it cheap. But you can choose wisely: here’s my post on issues to be aware of.

Thanks for the pic Horia Varlan

What other warnings and tips would you add to my self-publishing 101?

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Nail Your Novel: Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivatednyn2 2014 sml

Alive and sparking now on all ebook formats

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Blogging for authors – should you be self-hosted? Part 2: two bloggers who favour self-hosting

Yesterday I discussed why an author might not want to self-host their blog and how to make the best of platform-hosted blogging. But many authors strongly advocate self-hosting – so today I’m going to ask two of them why.

First up is author-entrepreneur Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn. Joanna has built a formidable following among writers who want to take charge of their publishing careers and make the best of what the internet can offer. She also develops multimedia courses and she’s hit the bestseller lists with her two thrillers.

Joanna, why did you chose self-hosting?
I have control over everything – including affiliate sales and plugins that you can’t use on free blogs. Google takes you more seriously so you get better SEO results and rank better on Google.

You use a paid-for theme, don’t you? Why?
I use Thesis, which has SEO design in the back end and is very easy to customise so it looks professional. I model success and all the top blogs are self-hosted and use premium or custom design themes. Why look like a second-rate blog?

Is self-hosting and/or using a paid-for theme more hassle? Do you need to be more tech literate?
I have Joel the Blog Tech guy as help but once the site is set up, the back end is the same as WordPress. So no, you don’t have to be tech literate.

How much does this all cost you?
My hosting is less than USD $10 per month, my premium theme was USD $70.

How much do novel-writers need to worry about search engine optimisation (SEO) and what key things should they do?
You need basic SEO – good site design, so that spiders can crawl you. Free themes have a particular SEO rating and my first blog was really crappy for this until I learned about it. Then you should use an SEO plugin. I use All-in-One SEO. Also you should use consistent keywords for your niche and have a lot of relevant content.

My second self-hosted blogger is Jane Friedman, web editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review. Jane is a former publisher at Writer’s Digest and a prolific and respected speaker on writing, publishing, and the future of media. Her expertise has been featured by sources such as NPR’s Morning Edition, Publishers Weekly, GalleyCat, PBS, The Huffington Post, and Mr. Media. She has consulted with a range of nonprofits, businesses, and creative professionals, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the Creative Work Fund, and the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati.

Jane, prevailing wisdom seems to be that self-hosted is always better. Why is this?
Because not self-hosting means:

  • You’ll have a weaker functioning site overall (customisation is usually quite limited)
  • You rarely have access to advanced analytics unless you’re allowed to install Google Analytics (which can be important, see below)
  • You’re not fully in control of what happens to your site. Over time, services ARE discontinued, bought, changed, etc.

Are these considerations relevant to novelists?
If you’re planning to be a novelist for life, yes. You should be concerned about the long-term potential, growth, and stability of your site.

Whether self-hosted or not, why might authors use a paid-for or upgraded theme – apart from being able to look distinctive? How much does it generally cost?
The cost is very little (generally less than USD $100), given that a premium theme offers robust or improved functionality, as well as better looks (and often better readability). Also, premium themes generally have better SEO tools.

How much do novelists need to worry about SEO? Do readers really find them through Google searches?
If readers buy your book, or hear about your book through any medium, they might be likely to google your name – in which case, your site should be easily found. Often, you don’t have to ‘worry’ about SEO for this to happen as long as your site meets basic standards (usually the case with any premium-theme sites) and you don’t have an exceptionally common name.

I like to say that if no one can find you through Google, it’s like you don’t exist.

Is Google all there is to SEO? What key things should writers do to increase visibility?
Not exactly, but Google is 70% of the search market. The best thing to do is to use a premium theme that focuses on SEO, which will help ensure your site is looking its best when search engine crawlers visit.

This is my SEO strategy – how does it look to you? I write attention-grabbing headlines with key words, and use plenty of tags, including my name, my book titles and keywords for my subject area (in this case ‘writing a novel’).
This looks fine! There are other steps, such as making sure your site’s meta title, meta description, and meta tags are appropriate for the type of reader you’re trying to attract. These things are also adjustable on a post-by-post basis if you’re blogging. When you get a premium theme focused on SEO, generally these fields are available for you to adjust as needed. It helps you customise what exactly appears when your single posts (or when your site) comes up in Google search (site title, site description, brief description of post, etc).

How can writers check how well their measures are working?
You can tell whether your efforts are working if you improve your search ranking for your name or book titles (how high in the listings you appear), and/or if you see your organic search results increase—something you can watch, over time, in Google Analytics.

……

Thanks Joanna and Jane – and thanks also to Catherine Ryan Howard for helping me argue for platform-hosted blogs yesterday.

Anything to add? Cautionary tales, theories…. has your mind been changed by anything you’ve read here? I’m sticking with WordPress hosting for now, but Jane’s suggestions have sent me back to my site descriptions to make them work harder at grabbing readers. If you’re going to do anything new, tell me in the comments!

If you’re new to blogging and want some basics, you might find this post of mine helpful – How I get time to blog as well as write  and Your new writing blog: avoid these faux-pas.

If you are thinking of upgrading to a bespoke theme, you might like this by Dan Blank – How I redesigned my website.

Joanna has scores of helpful posts about blogging – starting here. (And we’ve joined forces to create a multimedia course How To Write A Novel. More than 4 hours of video and audio with 86-page transcription and slides)


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Blogging – should authors go self-hosted or not? Part 1: two bloggers who don’t

You must self-host. You mustn’t use an off-the-peg theme. You mustn’t, on pain of ethernal damnation, have links in blue Times Roman.

There’s a lot of strident advice about blogging. Even that remark about blue Times Roman came from serious advice on a high-profile site trying to tell quivering newbies what they should do. Perhaps blue links matter in some quarters, but what matters to an author who wants to connect with readers? Should you be spending money on hosting, and on customised, SEO-friendly blog themes?

Today and tomorrow I’m going to examine both sides of the electric fence. Four bloggers, evenly split between self-hosted and not. On the ‘not’ side are me and Catherine Ryan Howard. On the self-hosting side are writer and author entrepreneur Joanna Penn and digital publishing guru Jane Friedman.

In a way I speak from both sides. I started with a self-hosted blog, when a friend insisted I camp out in a corner of his webspace (because he felt it was infra dig to be anything but self-hosted). And it didn’t go well. More about that in a moment.

You’ve lost me already. What does all this mean?

Quick tutorial – your blog is kept on a server so anyone in the world can read it and lots of people can access it at the same time. With self-hosting, you pay for disk space (also known as a domain) and you can put whatever you like on it – blog software of your choice, websites, pay buttons, video, anything. With platform-hosted, like WordPress.com and Blogger, your files are kept by WordPress and Blogger, you can’t customise the design or have pay buttons or video – although paid upgrades will allow some features. It’s like the difference between renting a house – with landlord’s furniture and rules – and owning the whole space outright.

Just to confuse you, there’s a version of WordPress for use on self-hosted blogs – WordPress.org.

With freedom comes responsibility

The biggest difference between the two is, obviously, freedom. This can go rather wrong. When I was self-hosted, I imported a cool plugin that broke my entire blog. I would never have got up again if not for (another) expert friend who was prepared to poke around the upper, scary database levels and unravel the damage. (Note to self: self-hosting is not for the insanely curious.)

The other problem is security. Most blogging systems are open source – which means the code is available for anyone to read, and hackers can find the loopholes easily. WordPress.com and Blogger don’t let you change anything that threatens security, but on self-hosted blogs there are no padlocks. My self-hosted blog got hacked – which might or might not have been because I was sharing with a friend of less secure habits. But after the stress of that I decided I was out of my depth and didn’t have time to sort out software and security headaches. I rebooted on WordPress.com, which has been able to do everything I need.

Get  customising

Obviously you don’t want your blog to look like everyone else’s, but there are only a limited number of visual templates (themes). However, there’s a lot you can do to customise. My blogs all use the same template, Fusion, which I’ve tweaked with my own headers and logos. You can buy upgrades to let you customise even more, but everything I’ve done is free.

Fusion tweaked for my main author site

…and for my novel’s blog

But themes aren’t just about the blog’s appearance. Themes also allow you to draw in new readers through the hocus-pocus of SEO – search engine optimisation.

SEO

Here, the paid-for themes have an advantage as they are designed to worm their way more effectively into search pathways. Tomorrow I’ll discuss this in more detail with Jane and Joanna, but there are ways you can optimise your free non-self-hosted blog:

  • use attention-grabbing headlines with key words
  • optimise post URLs – Google looks at post URLs, so I make sure mine show the headline, not the post date or number. Your blog will probably have an option for changing this
  • use plenty of tags – you’ll see my posts all have shoals of tags, including my name, my book titles, and general tags like ‘write a novel’. Those tags are not for you, reading this page – you already know every post is related to writing novels. Those tags are for Google. Make sure each post contains the keywords for the specific post and the keywords for your blog in general.

Buy a URL

I also bought my own general blog URL and pointed it to the free one. The rationale is that when someone hears about you they search for you.com or yourbook.com. (It’s usually .com they plump for first, even if you’re as English as Earl Grey tea). So the actual web address of this blog is nailyournovel.wordpress.com but for a few dollars I bought nailyournovel.com and through a very easy process, pointed it at this blog. I did it for My Memories of a Future Life too.

Over to Catherine

Anyway, I promised you a second opinion on platform-hosted blogs, so here’s Catherine Ryan Howard, of the indefatigable and unfatiguable Catherine, Caffeinated…

How did you start?

‘I started off with Blogger.com, but I always felt there was something about Blogger templates that said ‘amateur’. This was back in late 2009 so chances are they’ve improved since then but when I went to WordPress, it felt like a whole new level of professionalism and the choice of themes was just fantastic. I think it’s a credit to WordPress that I’ve had enquiries about who designed my blog – people think it’s been done professionally but it’s a free WordPress theme (Bueno) I love how easy WordPress.com blogs are to use, how easy it is to integrate them with the rest of your online activities (Twitter, Facebook, etc) And my all-time fave WP feature is their custom menu, which enables you to link to external sites (or wherever you like) from the menu at the top. For example, on top of my blog I have a ‘newsletter’ tab, and when you click it on it, you’re brought to the MailChimp sign up form.’

Is there anything you pay for?

‘The only thing I pay for is the domain upgrade, i.e. www.catherineryanhoward.com instead of www.catherineryanhoward.wordpress.com.’

What limitations are there on a WordPress-hosted blog?

‘Paypal buttons is the big thing – you can’t sell anything on your WP blog although you can have a donate button.’ (editor’s ahem!… it’s possible to fudge it – see the How To Write A Novel course in my sidebar…)

‘Also a lot of external widgets don’t work. BUT I think this is a tiny price to pay for such a great, easy service that lets me have a professional home online for very little cost.’

What about SEO?

‘I don’t worry about SEO at all. Not one tiny bit. Maybe I should, but I’m quite happy with the way things are for me and my blog at the moment. The only thing I want – and I have it – is for my blog to be the first result when people google my name. I think if your blog is the core of your business, you should worry about things like that. But for a writer, their books are the core – or should be, anyway.’

Roz again… I couldn’t agree more. So here are my tips for making the most of a non-self-hosted blog, if we can use such a horrible term…

  1.  Tag your posts with an eye on SEO
  2. Get your own URL
  3. Check your URLs show your post headline, not just a date or a post number
  4. Find a theme that you can shape to look distinctive (so people really feel it’s your online home)
  5. Remember your online presence isn’t just a blog – you reach much further if you use social media as well.

If you blog, what platform do you use and why? Do you have any thoughts on self-hosted versus platform hosted? Share in the comments…. and come back tomorrow when Jane Friedman and Joanna Penn give their reasons for self-hosting.

The first edition of my newsletter is out now, including useful links and snippets about the next Nail Your Novel book!  You can read it here and you can add your name to the mailing list here.

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Final edits – what do you look for?

When your novel is as familiar as the sight of your two hands typing, what do you miss?

I always find that when I’ve got the plot watertight, the physical consistencies sorted, there’s another pass I need to do to make sure I don’t lose the reader. I’m now making final tweaks to my second novel, Life Form 3, after an extensive rewrite and I thought I’d share the kinds of change I’m making before it goes back to my agent.

Making sure we stay with the main character #1

There are points where I haven’t allowed the reader a beat to catch up with the main character’s reaction to something important. While I don’t want to slow the pace down or overstate, there are moments when the reader expects a beat before the next line of dialogue or action. So every time there’s a significant revelation, I’m asking myself have we got a reaction?

Making sure we stay with the main character #2

The novel is third person, although the main character is in every scene. But sometimes when the action is centred on other characters we need to be reminded of his presence or he can seem like a passive observer. Or it might dislocate the reader by looking like I’ve drifted to a different point of view. So if, for instance, several characters are talking and my main character doesn’t have a line of dialogue or needs to listen to them, I add a beat of reaction from him.

Making dialogue bookish, not filmic

When I write dialogue, I envisage it as a scene in a movie. For some dramatic scenes, I had the pauses and reactions in my head. On the page, the reader doesn’t have my head movie, so this can look sparse and the eye slides off it too easily. Also, this can be quite a distanced way to see a scene. Where I had sparse dialogue, I included the reader more by fleshing out some details.

Culling the fancy stuff

Can you hear that screaming? That’s me, drowning my darlings. I’m wailing at least as loud as they are. I am removing metaphors and similes that, although lovely, interfere with the reader’s immersion in the scene.

For instance, the main character finds an abandoned underwater room. On the floor are dead, dried fish – ‘like’ (I wrote) ‘soles that have dropped off shoes’. Yes it’s lovely, but the scene has so much sensory detail already that this stops the flow, like a record jumping a groove (I hope you’ll allow me that one). Out it goes (with me weeping a tear). This is what ruthless revision means.

Adapting my style for the demands of the book

In case you’re wondering, I didn’t even realise I’d written two novels with the word Life in the title. And no, I’m not planning a whole series of them. In fact, Life Form 3 has given me quite a different set of challenges from those in My Memories of a Future Life – and one of the biggest was writing style.

The main reason is the setting. Life Form 3 is set in a strange, unusual place, so I have had to curb my natural love for the flamboyant and weird. It’s all very well to describe the familiar in an unfamiliar way – that’s fresh and poetic. In My Memories of a Future Life I revelled in it. But in Life Form 3, the story is already flamboyant and extravagant. To add more weirdness, in terms of descriptions and comparisons, gets confusing. The moral? If you’re already describing the unfamiliar, don’t gild the lily by adding more oddness. Keep something simple.

We all do our last passes differently – what do you look for? Share in the comments!

For more tips on novel-writing, from first twinkling idea to final fix, you might like my book Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books And How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence or my multimedia course with Joanna Penn aka The Creative Penn

Thanks for the pic BryanKennedy

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Should you publish your novel to build your platform?

Here’s a phrase I’m hearing alarmingly often: ‘I’m going to self-publish my novel and use it to build my platform’.

Sorry, but that’s the wrong way round.

Except in a very few cases, it doesn’t work.

Non-fiction

You can build a platform with a non-fiction book. If you’re offering expertise, it’s easy to find the people who need it. If you write about a life experience, you can connect with readers who seek similar support. And there are far fewer of you – and more room to be heard.

But novels?

Before you use your novel to launch your platform, go and look at Facebook. Goodreads. Twitter. Everyone is waving a novel.

The number of people you will reach by starting this way is negligible.

Successful self-publishers

There are many examples, of course, of successful self-published fiction authors. Everyone has their favourites to brandish. I’m going to talk about Joanna Penn. She didn’t start with a novel. She started with a blog – The Creative Penn  – and built a loyal following while she taught herself about the writing and publishing world. By the time she launched her first novel, Pentecost, she had a great relationship with a lot of people.

Relationships rock

Relationships are what sell books, both fiction and non-fiction. That’s what a platform is.

So to build your platform, get out there and blog, tweet, Facebook or whatever. Be natural, be yourself and build relationships. It’s also much less of a strain if you’re not trying to sell something.

And since you’re not using your novel to build your platform, what are you going to do with it?

You might as well, um, query with it.

Yes, query

Stop grinding your teeth at the back there. We’re agreed that relationships sell books? Agents have relationships with publishers. Publishers have relationships with distributors, the press, the places you cannot get reviewed if you do it all yourself. Yes, agents and publishers take their cut, but that’s because they have a much bigger reach than one little writer on their own.

If you don’t like the way a deal adds up, you can always refuse it. Or negotiate. But if you never try, you don’t know what might have happened. If you want to have a publishing career (and why otherwise would you build a platform) it make sense to explore all the options.

‘But every agent has different taste…’

Good writing is good writing. All agents are able to spot it. If you target enough agents who are a good fit for you, you will find out whether you are ready to go into print (or pixels) – or whether you should develop more. It is worth knowing that, isn’t it?

‘But it takes time…’

You’re going to have to spend that time building your network anyway. And what’s the hurry? You can’t – or didn’t – learn to write overnight.

‘But everyone’s publishing…’

I understand you’re impatient to get out into the big publishing party. Really I do. When I first held a book that was filled with my words I felt the earth quiver.

But I’m now seeing a lot of people who have whizzed onto Kindle, are finding their novel doesn’t sell, and are getting dispirited. That’s a shame. That’s the sound of dreams shattering.

Please don’t mutter the name of Amanda, the lady my friend Porter Anderson dubbed Amanda Hocking [example of everything]. That’s exactly what she is – an example of anything you like, including holy amounts of luck (and I wish her plenty more luck, BTW). But will the law of probabilities allow that to happen to you?

Build the relationship first

Relationships sell books. Build the relationship first, in whatever way you like, partnering with whoever seems right. That may be conventional industry routes; it may be creative collectives. Then you will have a platform, and you will have readers.

Thanks for the pic, Scottnj

While we’re on the subject of being grown-up about platforms, I’m planning a newsletter! Add your name to the mailing list here.

So, agree? Disagree? Sending the lynch mob…? I’m sure you’ll have plenty to say in the comments

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2 misconceptions of new writers

People often ask me what advice I’d give new writers. Here are the two misconceptions I find myself tackling most frequently

1 Rules give you cookie-cutter books

On Facebook the other day, an indie author asked me for feedback on her back cover (bear with me, this is about writing, not covers or indie publishing). Having recently designed my own back cover I’d figured out what worked and what didn’t, so I could see quite a lot that wasn’t right about her back cover. After offering specific pointers, one of the things I recommended she did was look at books that would potentially be her shelf-mates in her genre and follow their style. She replied: ‘I feel my book shouldn’t be a cookie-cutter version of all the others… you know?’

I do indeed know. You are absolutely right that your book is not part of a set of tablemats. It is its own thing, written with heartfelt sincerity and mined from your perceptions and experiences. You have delved deep to make it individual and true to itself. It is not meant to fit in. It was written to stand out.

But if you throw all the rules away and try to reinvent what a back cover should look like, from scratch, unless you’re a genius you’re likely to end up with a mess.

And so it is with writing. This is the age-old problem for creatives everywhere. We don’t want rules. Of course we don’t. We make our books from nothing but the ideas in our very individual grey matter. We want to make something beyond rules. But many of the stories I see that don’t work because of the same generic problems.

Writing rules don’t fetter you. They are observations of what works. Think of them not as templates and strictures, but as the results of experiments, on millions of readers. Knowing the rules means you can use your material to write, more effectively, a great book.

You’ll have characters that readers care about. A story that unfolds at a pace that keeps their interest. A reason why the story has to be as long as it is, rather than a plot that seems contrived to fill pages. Surprises that are astonishing but play fair. An ending that feels satisfying and perhaps leaves the reader with a tear in the eye.

All because you did what other writers did.

2 The book is finished when you type The End

The first draft is just a first draft. But I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard this: ‘I’m five chapters away from the end of my book, then I can send it out.’ Please: no.

Writers often think that because their sentences are careful and fluent, their novel is ready. But a novel isn’t an essay or a blog post. Under the words, there’s a whole machine that needs to run right.

So much of the valuable work on a novel can only be done once you have a full manuscript. Themes will take shape, plotlines will need to be destruction tested. Pacing and flow need to be assessed. Inconsistencies need to be sorted out, timelines unwarped. Characters may have developed their own agendas and you may need to revise the way you set them up. Motivations and developments that only revealed themselves to you in the course of the writing may now change the entire flavour of the book. When you finish the first draft, hard as that is, the real work starts. (There’s a lot more on this in my book Nail Your Novel.)

Repeat after me: your first draft is not your final draft.

Quick, but not insignificant announcement: I’m teaming up with Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn to produce a webinar series starting in November. How to write a novel will be three in-depth, interactive sessions from bestselling me and bestselling her. Cost $99.  Find more details and sign up here.

And My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full, undivided form on Kindle (US and UK) and  also in print (and Amazon.com have knocked USD$4 off the price so grab it now). If you’re my side of the Atlantic you can now get the print version from Amazon UK and save on postage. The price of the individual episodes will stay at the launch offer of 0.99c until 15 October, and will then go to their full price of USD$2.99. They’ll always be available, but if you want to get them at the launch price, hop over to your Amazon of choice (UK, DE, rest of world) now. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.

Okay, back to the post. First of all, thanks Toucanradio for the pic. And here’s my question: If you’ve got a bit of writing experience under your belt, tell me – what writers’ misconceptions would you tackle?

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Four tips for writing good prose

Last week I was interviewed by Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, and one of the questions that attracted the most discussion is how to develop our use of language in our novels. It was the hardest question to answer in a short time, so I thought I’d give it more space here.

First of all, what is good language?

I see many writers who seem in thrall to their school English teachers, as if they are on a sponsored exercise to use the thesaurus as often as possible. We’ve all seen writing that waxes far too lyrical, and looks self-conscious and overdone – the dreaded purple prose.

But at least these writers have understood there’s an aesthetic involved. And I want to applaud them for trying to unpeel what’s in their hearts. Worse is the writer who goes for tortuous obfuscation (sorry), as if they want to scare the reader into feeling dumb. Just for a giggle, look at The Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest. Here’s a taster, from an English professor:

‘If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.’

Now that’s criticism (as far as I can tell), not fiction, but I sense this writer imagines he is being profound and much more clever than his readers. This kind of writing is an act of superiority, not communication.

Tip 1: Be clear

Good prose doesn’t try to put up barriers. It might make interesting word choices and deploy an image stylishly, but it wants to be understood – deeply and completely.

So before we write a good sentence we need clarity ourselves. What do we want the reader to feel?

Let’s take an example – describing characters. These are probably some of the most complex descriptions we might attempt as writers. Try these:

‘Someone advanced from the sea of faces, someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheekbones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face…’ Daphne du Maurier

‘He was a snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy enough, and as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see, but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man.’ Charles Dickens

There is not a difficult word in either of those descriptions; the effectiveness comes from the writer knowing first what he wants to say.

Tip 2: Develop an ear

Note also that those two examples are long sentences, but easy to read. The writer has a sense for how the words beat in the reader’s mind.

By contrast, here’s a famous sentence by Edward Bulwer-Lytton that strangles itself, quoted, funnily enough, on Wikipedia’s Purple Prose entry:

 ‘It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.’

It’s not a bad concept but the writing is full of tripwires:

  • ‘Except at occasional intervals’ destroys the storyteller’s spell by wresting the reader’s attention away and sounding like a news bulletin.
  • ‘When it was checked by’ is another leaden construction, and indirect for no good reason.
  • ‘Fiercely agitating the scanty….. blah’ – there is too much going on here for me to stay with the thread. ‘Scanty flame of the lamps…’ does it even matter if the flames are scanty, fat or orange (which he forgot to put but I didn’t mind)? And do we need to derail the reader by pointing out that life is hard for the lamps? Only if it adds to the experience, which this doesn’t.

As I said, there’s nothing wrong with the concept of the sentence, following the wind and rain through the streets. But the writer’s thinking is cluttered, clogged and complicated.

Tip 3: Suit the material

The language dictates the way a story is experienced. It’s the filter over the lens, the music on the soundtrack, the way the shots linger or race across the screen. For instance, thriller writers would like you to be gripped by a pacy beat.

More than that, the language operates other senses. Patrick Suskind’s Perfume begins with a description of Paris purely through its smells. Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker is told in its own post-apocalyptic pidgen English to connect you deeply to the narrator’s mind.

Both these choices of language are deliberate and serve the material.

Tip 4: Using notebooks

In my interview with Joanna, we discussed how to develop our sense of language and an individual style, especially making notes as we read. One commenter afterwards said he used to feel self-conscious about what he wrote down, but now it’s part of his normal process of reading. Joanna says she’s got heaps of notebooks, which she doubts she’ll look at again. I don’t make physical notes but often find myself trapped by a marvellous phrase and reread it over and over, trying to decode the magic.

Thanks for the pic, StephenMitchell on flickr

How do you develop your literary ear? Do you keep notebooks? Do you ever look at them again? Does that matter? Share in the comments

My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full, undivided form on Kindle (US and UK) and  also in print (and Amazon have knocked USD$4 off the price so grab it now). The price of the individual episodes will stay at the launch offer of 0.99c until 15 October, and will then go to their full price of USD$2.99. They’ll always be available, but if you want to get them at the launch price, hie on over to your Amazon of choice (UK, DE, rest of world) now. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.

 

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Writing literary fiction – podcast and video interview with Joanna Penn

Today – roughly 24 hours ahead of schedule if you saw the note on the red blog – I’m at Joanna Penn’s online home, The Creative Penn. Joanna’s one of my favourite podcasters and her interviewees run the gamut of book marketing specialists to fiction authors to creativity consultants to anyone else you never knew you needed to know. A recent podcast of hers is on how to write fight scenes – which is cued up on my Creative Muvo to accompany my run today. (If you meet me, don’t get in my way.)

Earlier this year, when she was writing her best-selling religious thriller Pentecost, she interviewed me about my book Nail Your Novel. Now she’s invited me back to quiz me about writing My Memories of a Future Life – and we discuss the differences between literary and genre fiction, developing characters, using research and honing prose style. We also laughed rather a lot.

You can read a text summary, listen to a podcast, or even watch us on video. Whatever your pleasure, come and join us for a jolly discussion.

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