Saturday, 19 July 2014

Interview with an author

Smashwords author interview, an idea from the people at Smashwords to bring the author and the reader together.

The first question came before I started the interview; how to answer?  Do I think about it for hours and come up with something deep and meaningful, or as a live interview, taking each question in turn and answering off the cuff. I stayed with the pre-set questions and answered off the cuff and published. There is an option to write your own questions, to unpublish, edit the answers and republish; effectively giving the chance of re-interviewing the author on  a regular basis. 

A couple of the questions made me, asking me to reach back into the recesses of my memory for the first story I wrote and the first book that had a major impact; I tweaked the answers, I honestly don't remember the first story I wrote,and so many stories have made an impact it is difficult to choose the one which made the greatest.

Put something in front of me and I will read it, even the cereal packet at breakfast has been seconded as reading material. As a youngster I read very little fiction, apart from the weekly comics and Commando war stories (Kurt Langhers' name comes from a character in the Commando War Stories), Instead I devoured reference books and factual accounts. This may be why I prefer to write stories based in reality rather than science fiction, fantasy, or any other genre.

I was challenged to read a Mills and Boon romance after making  disparaging comments and forced to admit I hadn't actually read one (Cautionary note; research first then open mouth). I was pleasantly surprised, a well crafted story in an enjoyable style. Judging by the number of romance novels sold and distributed through ebook channels the readers are not a community any writer would wish to hack off.

I digress, flying off at a tangent again. The upshot of the questions was a look at where The Grange came from, along with the inhabitants and visitors. The original idea was focused on an officially sanctioned security team based in the country house scenario, the shift to a freelance operation came slowly and by degrees.

The idea was kicked around and played with for the best part of twenty years before Iceline was written and back then Steel wasn't Steel and Josie was someone else too. Bill Jardine appeared with the house, and I really must find out how he came to be there. It feels like that sometimes, that the writing process is based on an interview with the characters, and every so often a new one appears, like a guest arriving for the week-end.

The Thirty Nine Steps, Casino Royale. Ice Station Zebra, Where Eagles Dare, The Eagle Has Landed are all part of a long list of books which have influenced me, and the authors; Ian Fleming, John Buchan, Alistair Maclean, and Jack Higgins. There are others, remembered for fragments rather than the whole story.

John Buchan's The Thirty Nine Steps is always a favourite, a simple plot of one man against the conspiracy with only his wits and stamina, unsure of who he can trust. I like the idea that he's a relatively ordinary man, given the period he may have had some military experience. Richard Hannay, a mining engineer had recently arrived from South Africa and grown tired of London, he is on the point of going back when his adventures begin. 

Jack Higgins is different, "The Eagle Has Landed" was his breakout. He was advised to allow his characters to tell the story, not force them to fit the plot.  "The Eagle Has Landed" was a massive success.

That idea: of letting the characters tell the story struck a chord with me. The first Grange Novel was the culmination of a long journey and arrived at a distinct way point (Twenty Five years service in post), and through a lot of forced planning and preparation, false starts and frustration. The more detailed the planning and preparation the greater the frustration. I was itching to get on with telling the story!

In NaNOWriMo terms I write by the seat of my pants, start at the beginning, usually with an end in sight and let the characters show me the way. Bare notes and jottings are the sum of my preparation, years of fighting the frustration ended in the local bookstore chatting about an interview with Philip Pullman. Who apparently admitted that he rarely planned his novels, and the one occasion he did the planning found he couldn't write the story because he had already done so. 

Pieces fell into place with a battered laptop and printer and the determination, or desperation that it was now or never happen kick started a four month dash through a hundred thousand words and the first draft was finished by the second week in December 2002.

I struggled for years, frustrated by the detailed planning everyone said was involved and  fighting the urge to throw it all away and sit down and write. I finally sat down, told the story and bounded through Iceline, and then I discovered NanoWriMo.

I'll talk about that another day...

Saturday, 12 July 2014

How do you read it?

What is your eReader of choice? One of the pre-selected questions in the Smashwords author interview. The simple answer is a Kobo mini; pocket sized - well, at least jacket pocket sized.

The not so simple answer depends on what I am doing and the device I am working with. If the cost of purchasing an eReader makes you hesitate before taking the plunge, look at what you  have in the electronic cupboard at home and see what will fit. The majority of the ereader software to  can be downloaded on to a variety of machines and will run with operating system and is available free.

I often  work on a 7 inch Acer Iconia tablet loaded the with software for Kobo, Kindle, Nook, Aldiko, 'txtr, FBReader and Diesel eReaders (the Diesel eBookstore and Sony readerstore closed March 2014) Most of them require an acccount; usually a simple process of creating an account name, adding an email and providing a password. With the exception of the Kindle, all are linked to sites where my books are available. As Iceline is permanently free they all have copy downloaded from Smashwords. 

Why install them all;  to find out what my book looks like and how it works with the different formats provided by Smashwords' Meatgrinder conversion process and  to discover how the book will look to you, the reader. I am converted to the electronic format. Why the variability of the font, changeable background colour and all the other options that are available makes the reading experience easier.

It's obvious from my profile photo that I wear glasses; my eyesight has never been brilliant and my optician insists that the small print is the same size as it always was!

That may be true, but my reality is difficulty reading the small print. Peering over the top of your glasses at something close to the end of your nose looks and feels wrong and this is where the eReader comes into it's own. The choice of font size, background colour, day or night setting all swing into gear and ease the process.

Print too small, enlarge it, change the colour and the contrast, and  change the settings from Day to Night to read in bed with the lights out. The illuminated screen of the eReader does change one of the great delights of childhood, sneaking a torch upstairs and hiding it under the pillow to wait until everyone is asleep and then dive into whatever volume is tucked away waiting. Keep reading until the batteries begin to fade and even shaking the torch won't make the bulb glow brighter.

It may have changed a childhood adventure; it has transformed my reading. The flexibility of the electronic format makes it a boon for anyone with less than perfect vision.

You can tailor the settings to suit your own comfort, bookmark page you are reading, suggest new titles to read and with the links to the right websites, connect you with titles that have been out of print for years.

The Kobo mini eReader is a no frills device designed for reading in daylight or under artificial light; the Kobo software download on a tablet or smartphone has all the bells and whistles you might want.

Take the plunge; find one that works for you on your device and enjoy the experience.
Have fun and find some great writing from talented writers!

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Myths and Legends.

How much of what we know, or think we know about writing is down to a strange communal memory. Somewhere way back in the mists of time, or just a couple of years ago it was said that such and such was true, maybe.

The strongest myth is that self-published books are by default of inferior quality to traditionally published. That may not be a given truth anymore, Yvonne Hertzberger made a comment to a blog post on Indies Unlimited that the standards of traditional publishers are falling, and now expect authors to arrange their own editing and proofing. Leading to a decline in standards and the likelihood of sub-par volumes hitting the bookstore shelves.

There are three particular strands that intrigue me; the first draft is always rubbish; the first book is always bad and that the longer you spend on a book the better it is.

Taking the last first; it is true that Iceline went to publish ten years after I sat down to write, so I could say that I spent ten years working on it. Sorry, honesty outbreak coming up; nothing like that;  a year, maybe a year and a half actually working on the manuscript, editing and proof reading, then it sat on file for a couple of years before I had another look at it.

Working in a literary environment it is easy to take things literally, we forget that we also spend our time making it up, fiction is not lying it's more about being  creative with the truth.

By all means spend the time polishing but bringing out the best needs one crucial piece of knowledge; knowing when to stop. It is as easy to under polish as it is to over polish. Taking  a moment to stand back, or put the manuscript back in the file may be the moment that reveals the polish is at its best, the lustre at its most luminous.

The first draft is always rubbish, sorry, that's rubbish. We all have a natural talent for storytelling, it is a basic human trait, the variation comes with the degree and the ability to entertain that comes with it. Think about your favourite subject, how, long can you talk about it for? Five, ten, fifteen minutes, half an hour or can you rabbit for hours; long beyond the point where you're listener has crawled into a room somewhere in the back of the mind until it blows over.

That story is always a good one, thinking as you go and supplying the details as the story unfolds: now apply that to your first draft. The beauty of NaNoWriMo for me is the release of the mental brakes and the constant looming of the deadline versus the word count forces me to think on my feet and allow the story to develop a natural flow, often surprising myself in the process.

Writers talk about the characters taking over, of pushing the story in a way not envisaged at the planning stage. Who are they, where do they come from, but how often do we ask where are they going. Once they are released into our conscious world, where might they go from here?

With an inherent ability for crafting a fascinating tale on the go, why should we ever accept that our first draft is rubbish. There is a good solid argument for making the first draft the best you can; it reduces the amount of subsequent  work required to achieve the desired level of polish.

The first book is always a bad one, OK, if we accept that the first draft is bad (No!) then the first draft of the first book must need work far beyond our capabilities to make the grade, whatever that or the grade setter might be! Sorry guys, I don't buy it!

Are any of these myths true? Do they hold a truth within them, or are they simply retold stories about how the odds are stacked against the independent and self published. Fairy tales to frighten the children and make them behave, to follow tradition blindly or the bogeyman will get you!

So what are your myths; the odd stories that tap into your psyche when you switch on and attack the keyboard?

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Smashing!

The World Cup is well on its and Wimbledon is close to finding this  year's champion and to prove that great things come in threes.  Smashword summer/ winter promotion has just kicked off. From now until the end of July Control Escape is half price with the code SSW50.

Check out the other titles on offer this month at www.smashwords.com

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Mr Angry

Mr Angry was a character on the BBC Radio DJ Steve Wright's afternoon show some years ago, one of a number of characters who would respond to various prompts in the format of the show; his was a half throttled voice on the edge of screaming, the pent up rage evident through the strain on his vocal chords, and then there is the classic scene from Fawlty Towers; John Cleese beating his broken down vehicle and pouring out his anger and frustration at life's persistent little defeats.

I didn't become that angry, but reading a writing magazine article a few weeks ago did notch up the blood pressure. The continuing discussion about the merits of taking the self-publishing route occasionally throws out some odd remarks and one touched a raw nerve. I closed the magazine and stuck it back on the shelf with a few uncharitable thoughts running through my head. The comment, oh, yes, the comment was that the self-published independent author had more to prove than the traditionally published;  frankly the remark pissed me off.

So what do we have to prove; that working by ourselves or with a smidgeon of carefully selected professional assistance paid for out of our own pockets we can produce a book of the same quality as a multinational conglomerate with a huge workforce and  a marketing budget that looks like a telephone number. Duh, yes, that's the challenge thrown down by the Trads, and a lot of Self-Pubs do just that.

There is no point the traditionally published being high minded about standards and quality when they're already dining with the demons of Vanity, sidling up and buying them out, taking a cut of the harvest and shoring up their defences against the sea change taking place all around them.

OK, I keep banging on about smashwords, and why not, they've helped me reach further than I thought possible when I published Iceline almost two years ago, and I have a great respect for Mark Coker and the staff of smashwords. I read his indie author manifesto when he posted it at the smashwords blog and agreed with it, all of it.

The sea change is startlingly simple, the shift has nudged traditional publishers into partnerships they would have avoided with a ten foot barge pole a handful of years ago because the old gatekeepers have been bypassed by the Internet.

The Internet revolution in self-publishing  has changed the landscape as much as the introduction of the printing press. Small independents are laying the foundations of more than a game changing situation. This is digging up the sacred turf and carting it away then dismantling the stadium and rebuilding it, and that is what they are doing. Independent authors/publishers are doing the groundwork of a whole new way of reaching the public and giving them what they want; good quality writing, equal to any.

This is happening and the roll of Hugh Howey, Amanda Hocking, John Locke and others is the proof. The independents with a brand and a readership in place, the prospect of more books on the way, with an established franchise that can be marketed and backed by an already existing word of mouth promotional network spreading the word makes a better sounding investment than the old method of taking a chance. Let's be fair, if picking a bestseller was easy we would all be doing it, and the truth of it to quote Mark Coker in an interview with LateNightLibrary  "is like throwing spaghetti at a wall and seeing what sticks."

Not the best method of picking your next big thing, and the greatest shift between the independent authors and the traditional is cost effective print on demand and distribution, a way forward for the self-published without the snares of Vanity publishing. The manuscript stored electronically and printed when a copy is needed may generate slower sales but without the constant jostle for shelf space the factor of time over sales dissipates.

Does any of this mean that the independent author has more to prove than their traditional counterpart? No. absolutely not. The challenge; traditional or self-published, bought in store or delivered by post, is that the end product should be of the finest quality across the board.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

One degree more...

I briefly touched on the labyrinthine links between vanity presses and the publishing houses dotted around the world and the Internet in Come into my parlour...  and this last week has seen Writer's Digest break their connection with Author Solutions and their own imprint Abbott Press. David Gaughran who has spent considerable blogging time and energy on the Author Solutions situation comments on recent developments. Both sides are being cagey, but as David describes in his blog website links have already been taken down.

A small step in the right direction and veering away by degrees, rather than closing in. There is still a long way to go.



Saturday, 21 June 2014

To market, to market...

To market to market went my Uncle Jim,
somebody threw a tomato at him, 
tomatoes are usually soft to the skin, 
this bugger hurt - it was still in the tin.


One of those daft ditties that you hear in the school-yard and they hang around in the back of your mind, waiting for the prompt to pop out, and the nudge came thinking about marketing.

It does what it says on the tin, a wood preservative manufacturer used it recently and a variation is floating around as a verbal guarantee that something is genuine; it is what it says on the tin.

Marketing is not the favourite subject for many independent authors, and probably for a number of traditionally published writers who market their own works, but it is important. Pushing the novel to a point where it is noticeable. David Gaughran has a good piece about discoverability. Readers don't have a problem discovering books they want to read, the real headache is finding the time to read the massive list downloaded. So marketing must be about pushing the book to the top of the stashed list of down loads racked up for the days on the beach, lazy summer evenings with a nice wine, good beer, whisky, coffee or your personal choice of favourite beverage and nibbles.

Website and Blog links are straightforward, have a look  at cheekyseagull.co.uk  particularly the skyscrapers on the book pages. I have reduced the clicks to reach the point of purchase to a minimum. It takes a little while, but the effort is worth it. 

One of the links goes to Feedbooks.com, a source of traditional and self-published books. For the self-published author the deal is you can publish your book but it must be free.  With a selection of books available through retailers and toying with the idea of setting one at free on all channels this can be a useful site to add to the list. (Don't put your only book permanently to free, but if you have a series one offered as a taster may be worth considering.) Newly published novels are featured for a month after release; easy for yourself and the readers to find. The results can be reassuring, Iceline was posted in the New Year and in the first month netted over five hundred downloads. 

The analytics include a world map with downloads pinned by country and number. The daily download graph isn't 100% reliable, but a bit of simple math will give you a reasonably accurate total. They give an interesting picture of where a traditional British thriller was being picked up and enjoyed. 

Publicity will involve press releases,  (list of free PR sites here) ask the question and a host of search engine responses will leave you stuck for choice, an alternative might be to ask around on your favourite blog site and see what they can offer. A successful author is as good a place as any to start looking, the press release will have played it. The hook, well baited is what grabs the attention and we've already seen what such a hook can do to the unwary author looking to publish. If the horror stories are making you hesitate about taking the plunge, remember, you're not. There are hundreds, thousands of writers who have been where you are now and...jumped in!

"There is no stigma to success" is RjCrayton's call in her recent blog on publishing, a self-published author who enjoys success will be hunted by the traditional publishers (You are probably already familiar with the roll call of Hocking, Howey, Locke and others). She also comments that "There is a stigma to slow sales in traditional publishing," but definitely not in self-publishing. As a self-published author you have control, time is your ally not an opponent. The dearth of immediate post publication sales will not see your work remaindered or pulped.

There is time to reflect on what worked and what didn't, and the marketing doesn't have to be complicated or expensive. I carry business cards, contact details on the front, book links and a discount code on the back. Vistaprint has some good designs and ideas, or you can upload your own image or book cover. Originally supplying business cards they now offer a range of materials. Brian Marggraf offers a few pointers and an encouraging post about guerrilla marketing, a low key approach fuelled by your ingenuity.... after all, you are the best advertisement for your book.