Monday, 24 December 2012

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Swoon - you may when you read the contract

SW♥♥N will be launched next spring by MacMillan Children's Publishing. It sounds a bit like a YA version of Authonomy; writers will load their unpublished novels, and other members will vote on them. The inducement is that MacMillan may publish successful books. 

Anyone like me who has experience of Authonomy will view this project with a jaundiced eye. Writers are a desperate lot, and many will do anything for a chance of publication. This means it is very easy to attract them to a site run by an established publisher, and very difficult to stop them gaming the system. Another problem is that editors think they know better than readers, and tend not to put much faith in the wisdom of crowds, even when that is what they set out to do. Plus these sites are time-sinks, using energy that would be better spent writing or self-publishing.

For the 'lucky' chosen authors, this is what they will get:

Once a manuscript is chosen by the community and the SW♥♥N Reads publishing team, the author will receive a $10,000 advance and a standard royalty-based publishing contract for world rights, including the following royalty rates:
  • Hardcover – 10% of list price
  • Trade Paperback – 6% of list price
  • Paper Over Board – 8% of list price
  • Mass Market Paperback – 6% of list price
  • E-book – 25% of amount received
  • Graphic Book – 6% of list price
  • Electronic Graphic Book – 10% of amount received
  • Audio – 10% of amount received
  • Digital Audio – 20% of amount received
  • Multimedia/Gaming – 10% of amount received
So other people will take between 90% and 94% of the profits of each print book, leaving 6 - 10% for the author. For ebooks, which cost nothing at point of sale, the publisher takes three quarters of the 'amount received'. They will own world rights, and modern publishing contracts take the rights for a very, very long time.

Stingy and mean are words that come to mind. Exploitative, that's another. It's depressing to think that plenty of writers will view this as an opportunity.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Are publishers missing a trick?

Steven Pressfield wrote a fascinating article going into the financial details of two recent book deals; EL James's, which has received major publicity, and Hugh Howey's, which passed almost unremarked by journalists. But it's Hugh's publishing contract which may change the face of publishing. 

Here it is in Hugh's own words:

"After three rounds of publishers winking, flirting, and making passes at WOOL this year -- after a dozen or so offers that I would've fallen over myself to accept earlier in my career -- after walking away from two 7-figure deals last month that would've meant giving up all control of my publishing future and all of my rights -- Simon and Schuster blew my agent and myself out of the water with a deal that is everything we've been looking for from the very beginning (and never expected to get).

"Less money. More respect. Ultimate freedom.

"This is the contract I've been hoping for, and not just for myself. To be honest, I didn't think it would happen to me. I thought this was a contract for the future -- for other authors. But my agent and I went into these several rounds of discussions telling each other that it was crucial to have these conversations with publishers so that they would get used to hearing what was important to authors. And what's important to authors isn't *always* large advances. We want long-term stability; we want to retain our rights; we want the freedom to publish our way; we think digital rights should either remain in our hands or pay a whole lot better. 

"By keeping my digital rights, I'll be able to retain the sensible (i.e. cheap) price of my ebooks so that they will (hopefully) continue to sell. I can lower the price and do promotions anytime I want. I can see my sales in real-time like I always have so I know what works and what doesn't. I can keep the first book at perma-free. 

"Simon and Schuster, meanwhile, will do what they do best: they are releasing WOOL in March. They are also doing something awesome here at my behest (read: begging) by releasing the hardback and paperback simultaneously! This means a major push with an affordable paperback in bookstores, with a hardback available for libraries and the handful of people who might prefer one (i.e. my mother). 

"We were told by other major publishers that they don't ever see doing print-only deals. When I praised Kristin [Hugh's agent] for pulling this off, she told me it was all about having a client willing to say 'no'. For three rounds, we turned down unfair contracts hidden behind large advances. What we ended up with in the end, of course, is far more valuable to me."

Hugh Howey is an outlier; his staggering success with Wool surprised even him. It started life as a short story he didn't bother to promote, and word of mouth made it a best-seller. Ridley Scott is to make the film version. Right now, only a stellar writer would be so much in demand that he can negotiate his own terms. But I've often thought, if an indie author can sell significant numbers of ebooks, there remains a virtually untapped market (still the major part of the market) for his print books. Why aren't publishers making print deals with authors with a proven sales record? These books are as safe a bet as you'll find in publishing.

If I, all on my own, doing my own proofreading, editing, formatting, cover and marketing, can sell over 40,000 copies of Remix, how many print copies could a publisher sell? And there are hundreds of self-publishers who have done better than me with ebooks, while barely scraping the surface of print sales. This is a huge opportunity, currently wasted.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

The problem with animals and pets in novels...

I've just finished reading Hollowland by Amanda Hocking. I felt I owed it to such a successful indie, a self-made millionaire by the age of twenty-eight, to check out a novel of hers. And this one is free.

Though I'm not the target reader, I rather enjoyed it, as the heroine is level-headed and ruthless on occasion and the story though episodic moves along briskly. It's the first zombie novel I've ever read. It ended when I wasn't expecting, but a) it's the first in a series and b) I was misled by the percentage read indicator - the Kindle edition included another book's extract at the end.

My major criticism was the lioness that the heroine, Remy, acquires along the way. She sees the animal trapped in a truck, releases her and calls her Ripley. Ripley turns out to be friendly towards humans, but eats zombies. And I took Ripley altogether too seriously. I worried a lot about her.

She has a chain attached to a collar round her neck. It bothered me that she has to drag this around for most of the book. It must have got in her way when tackling zombies. I fretted when she went for a swim - wouldn't the chain drag her under? One of the first things Remy does for the lioness is give her a drink. It's the only drink Ripley gets in the book, poor thing. She fends for herself whenever Remy's little group are away doing something, then magically reappears and jumps in their truck when they are off somewhere new. She's very convenient, no trouble at all.

Had I included a pet lion in a novel, I'd have reread Born Free and tried to make it as realistic as possible, because ideally an animal in a novel should be as convincing as the human characters. Just like a real pet, it is not to be undertaken lightly. For starters, you have to account for the darned thing the whole time. If you forget, your reader may fret. Instead of being gripped by your plot, she will be concerned the dog hasn't been taken for a walk in days, the parrot must be lonely, or what is that dragon living on?

Perhaps I'm too literal minded. Amanda's fans all think Ripley's cool, just the way she's written.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Why fiction genres are a Bad Thing

Publishers and bookshop owners love genres

It makes their life so much easier, not just to know which shelf to put a book on, but also how to market it. Enjoyed last year's big steampunk hit? Then (handing over shiny new book) you'll love this steampunk novel that's just come out.

Newbie writers are told that to have a hope of securing an agent and a publisher, their novel must fit neatly inside a genre. Some genres, like Young Adult, have very restrictive rules. Apparently, teenagers can only relate to heroes their own age or a little older (luckily no one told me this when I was that age). But the 'rules' change. Sometimes a surprise hit makes publishers accept a new genre. Since Fifty Shades, we all know about Mommy Porn, God help us. Now Thursdays in the Park has sprung back to digital life and topped the charts after a lacklustre print launch a few years ago, we must expect an avalanche of Gran Lit. Because when publishers are not busy curating content, such a vital part of their jobs, they are pouncing on whatever seems likely to be the next big money-spinner.

I got to thinking about this while trying to decide what categories to put Ice Diaries into when loading it to Amazon's KDP.  Two years ago, you were allowed five. Now it's two, and for anyone whose novels cross genres this makes for hard choices. Fiction...that was easy. Now, Action & Adventure, Contemporary Romance, Romantic Suspense, Thrillers, or Science Fiction? Darned if I know. 

I recently started reading Divergent, because the sample looked promising. About 15% into the book it occurred to me, this is Harry Potter meets The Hunger Games, and I bet that's how the book was sold to a publisher, too. This thought was so off-putting I stopped reading.

Rigid genres are a bad thing, as bad as narrowly specifying ages on children's books. Readers don't really care about genres, even if they think they do. What readers want is an absorbing story that will take them away from their lives for a brief spell and preferably leave them with something to think about afterwards. That's all. 

Suppose publishers published only the best books, regardless of all other considerations? They'll never try it, but if they did, it just might be the answer to their current self-inflicted woes.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

How to format ebooks for Kindle KF8

EDIT July 2020: I've just formatted my latest book, The Last Enforcer, for KDP and realized the advice in this post is out of date. Amazon has improved its systems to the point where you can load a Word document and get a perfectly formatted ebook. You still need to check thoroughly on the KDP Previewer and make the odd adjustment, but the process is much quicker and easier than the one below. Hurrah!

When I realized Ice Diaries' formatting was not changing size/fonts correctly on the Paperwhite Kindle, I did some research and reformatted all my books using Kia Zi Shiru's method you can find here. It worked for me. I'm writing my own version hoping it may help other indie writers. Be warned, this is an exacting fiddly process that took me a day the first time - the second was quicker. If you want to see what the end product looks like by this method, download Ice Diaries' sample, or better still buy it :o)

IMPORTANT NOTE: to demonstrate without fusing Blogger, I have changed pointy brackets for square, i. e. < for [, and > for ]. If you are going to format my way, I'd advise pasting this post into Word and changing the brackets so you can copy and paste the codes into your HTML document. Print it, and you can cross off each stage as you go.
  • Make a new copy of your book in Word and call it 'TITLE for formatting'. Make sure the chapter headings are consistent, and the text is single-spaced. Remove any extraneous spaces at the ends of paragraphs by selecting the whole text, centre justify the selection and then left justify the selection. All the extra spaces will disappear. Do a Search and Replace replacing two spaces with one. Mark each pagebreak PB on its own line. 
  • To format italics, go to Search and Replace. Leave the search box blank, but in the Find/Replace dialogue box, under the Replace box, is a More button. Click it, then click Format at the bottom of the box. From the list that pops up select Font, and from that dialogue box, under Font Style, select Italic. In the replace box put:
    [I]^&[/I] (remember to change the brackets)
    Click Replace All.
  • Download Libre Office and Notepad++  which are free.
  • Copy your Word document into Notepad++ in order to strip the formatting.
  • Copy the text from Notepad++, open a new document in Libre Office and paste it in. Libre Office is good because unlike Word, it produces nice clean HTML. Close the Notepad++ file without saving, as you have finished with it now.
  • Change the character set that LibreOffice uses for HTML, under Tools, Options, Load/Save, HTML compatibility. In the lower right there is Character set with a drop down menu next to it. Change this to Western Europe (ASCII/US).
  • Go to File, Save As and save as TITLE html, as an HTML Document (Writer) (.html) from the drop down menu. When asked if you are sure, you are.
  • At this stage, your whole text should show as Default in the top left box. If it doesn't, Select All and change it to Default.
  • Go through the text making changes. Select the chapter headings and change them to Heading 1 in the box in the top left corner which otherwise says Default. I use H1 for the title on the title page, too. Don't bother centring at this point.
  • Select each chapter title, if you have them, and change them to Heading 2.
  • I change my name on the title page and Contents to bold.
  • Put in bold and underlined in the text as required.
  • Table of Contents: Amazon requires this at the front of the book. Highlight the heading Chapter 1 at the start of your first chapter, go to Insert and click on Bookmark. Type in Chapter 1 and OK. Do this for all your chapter headings.
  • Go to your Table of Contents list. Click on Chapter 1. Go to Insert, Hyperlink. In the pop-up screen click on Document. Click on the circle with a dot on the second row, which opens a new pop-up. Click the + sign next to Bookmarks, and select Chapter 1. Click Apply, then Apply in the other window. Do this for all your chapters.
  • Select the title CONTENTS and add a bookmark; call it TOC. Bookmark where you want the book to start; call it Start. This is for Kindle navigation.
  • To add links to your website or other books, highlight, click Insert, Hyperlink, and click on Internet. Paste the URL of the site you want the link to go to, and click Apply.
  • Click File, Preview in Web Browser to check your links work. Don't worry that it looks kind of plain.
  • Open Notepad++, click File, Open and open your Libre document, 'TITLE html'.
  • Add your title in line 5, between the tags. Delete lines 7 and 8.
  • Look at the first of your [P] tags (Paragraph tags, in your normal text). Anything between the [P and the last ] can be cut; copy the whole tag and go to Search and Replace. Paste the whole tag in the top line, [P] in the bottom, and Replace all
  • Do the same for [H1] and [H2] tags, but leave the [A] tags well alone, as they are your link tags.
  • Go to everything coloured green between [STYLE] and [/STYLE], delete what is there and paste the following - but remember to change the square brackets in the code to < and >:


p { text-indent:1.2em;} { margin-top:0em; margin-bottom:0em; }

.center { text-indent:0em; text-align:center; }

.noindent {text-indent:0em;}

* {

margin: 0;

padding: 0;



  • Now to add the page breaks. Do Search and Replace all, replacing [P]PB[/P] with [mbp:pagebreak/]
  • Centre lines you want centred: to do this, add  class="center" between the first tag. So [P] becomes [P class="center"] (note there's a space after P) and [H1] becomes [H1 class="center"]. Do [H1] and [H2] all at once with Replace all. Woohoo!
  • If, like me, you like the first line of a chapter or scene with no indent, then you need to change [P] to [P  class="noindent"] where you want no indent. You will have to do each individually, I'm afraid.
  • Save, and open Kindle Previewer on the KDP Upload page. Open your book and check every single page. Looks good? Then email the file to your own Kindle for a final read-through and check. If you find any problems, go back to the Notepad++ version and tweak.
  • You're done. Pat yourself on the back and have a stiff drink.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Clicking Publish on Ice Diaries

I have now clicked Publish, and ICE DIARIES is available to buy (or indeed ignore, according to taste) on Amazon UK and US.

It's an extraordinary moment for any self-publisher. Traditional publishing is very different; your book won't be on sale until about two years after you write THE END. By that time you've probably written another couple of books and have almost forgotten the one you now have to promote.

For indies like me, it's all much more immediate, and the buck doesn't just stop here, it's in permanent residence. I really hope readers are going to enjoy the story of Tori and her life in a post-apocalyptic London. They'll let me know.

Here's a virtual toast to Ice Diaries - and readers, without whom writers would be nowhere.

N.B. I've loaded pictures relevant to the story here on my website.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Title, cover and blurb - your opinion?

I'm nearly ready to publish my latest novel, and I'm doing my usual dithering over the title. Ice Diaries and Snow Globe are the current contenders. So I thought I'd ask you, my trusty blog readers, for your opinion. While you are here, would you cast an eye over the cover - figure/no figure - and the blurb for Amazon too?


It’s 2018 and Tory’s managing. Okay, so London is under twenty metres of snow, almost everybody has died in a pandemic or been airlifted south, and the only animals around are rats. Plus her boyfriend never returned from going to find his parents a year ago when the snow began. But she’s doing fine. Really.

Home is an apartment that’s luxurious, if short on amenities, in a block which used to be home to rich City bankers. A handful of fellow survivors are her friends, and together they forage for food and firewood, have parties once a month and even run a book club. It’s all very civilized. The problem is that long-term they have no future; eventually the food will run out. Tory needs to find a way to make the two-thousand-mile journey south to a warm climate and start again.

Enter Morgan, a disturbingly hot cage fighter from a tougher, meaner world where it’s a mistake to trust people. He’s on the run from Mike, leader of the gang he used to work with. And he has a snowmobile.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

No paid professional will care as much as you do

I'm sure you all recognize the quote...
Passive Guy posted recently from a US agent's blog a piece entitled Why agents collect your money for you

The agent, Janet Kobobel Grant, explained that having publishers send the entire amount to the agent, instead of her 15% commission to her and the author's share to the author, was really for the author's benefit. She could check the amount (she didn't explain why a statement wouldn't do just as well) thus saving the author "happily skipping off to the bank to deposit an incorrect check".

This picture of the naive little author saying, "Ooh! Money!" and in her enthusiasm failing to notice it was the wrong amount is typical of the patronizing way writers are treated by the publishing industry.  We are told there are all sorts of things we can't possibly do for ourselves, so we need to pay most of our earnings to others in order to get them done for us. Of course this learned helplessness is handy for getting rights-grab contracts signed - don't worry your pretty little head with the details, just sign on the dotted line.

When dealing with professionals, it's best to bear in mind that you care an awful lot more about your job than they do. Whether it's a plumber, a solicitor or a literary agent, to them you are just one customer among many. 

I've learned not to let other people do my thinking for me. I still remember the time I paid a for an opinion from a QC on the advice of my solicitor. The combined hourly charge was mind-boggling. I mentioned a possible problem I'd noticed, and they shook their heads in unison while reassuring me. I turned out to be right, they were wrong; they moved on to the next client and I paid for their bad advice each month for the next nine years.

Look at the comments on Janet Kobobel Grant's page from grateful authors agreeing with her. Then check out the comments beneath Passive Guy's post. It's herbivores and carnivores.

Don't be a herbivore. They'll chew you up and spit you out.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Excellent Editing Software

Part of Ice Diaries on Pro Writing Aid
Yesterday I reached the end of the WIP, Ice Diaries. This is not quite as good as it sounds, as the last couple of chapters are sketchy and need more work, after which it has to go out to beta readers and have further adjustments, but it's still a pleasing moment. 

As well as improving the end and tweaking the whole novel, this is the stage when I put the text chapter by chapter through editing software. For me this is an essential process because of my word echo habit - I'm capable of repeating a word three times in a short blog comment. My awareness of the problem enables me to catch a lot of instances, but not all. I've used Autocrit for the past three years, but discovered my subscription lapsed in July, and it was $77 to renew. This struck me as too much - three years ago I paid $35. So I searched Google for an alternative, and found Pro Writing Aid.

And it's really good - I'm so enthusiastic about it I probably need to add that I am unaffiliated with PRW and if you click on the link I make no money. The design and layout are nice and clear, and the window you paste into is large. The software will check your prose for all sorts of things, most of which I won't be using, but Repeated Words and Phrases and Overused Words are invaluable to me. I especially love the way Repeated Words shows repeats in a range of pretty colours, so you can see the twins (or worse, triplets) at a glance.

Best of all, Pro Writing Aid is free. Woot!

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

How many words a day do you write?

There's a terrifying thread on Kindleboards on this topic calculated to make the average writer feel inadequate. Here are a few sample comments:

"In a half hour session I can do up to 3k but 2,200 is my preferred comfortable pace. If I'm on deadline I get 15 - 20k done in a day. But 10k is my usual daily output if I'm working on something. But I have days where I'm just lazy."

"I tend to write in short bits, most days, say 500-1000 words. But I am a burst writer. My last four novels have had the final 20-25k words all written in one day."

"Under deadline, it can peak at 1k per hour some hours. Without a deadline, 3-4k per day."

"I write generally 1000 to 1400 words per 45 minute writing session.  I aim for at least 4k a day, but 7k is better. My best day ever was about 14,000 words."

I tell myself these writers belong to the majority who forge ahead with a first draft, not rereading or correcting till they get to the end, when they face an equally large task of editing from scratch. I hope so anyway, because my output is tiny compared to these.

With the WIP, Ice Diaries, I've kept track of my daily word total, and it averages just under 400 words a day. I was aiming for 500. But I edit and tweak a great deal as I go, so when I reach The End a book is polished enough to go straight out to the first beta reader. Writing at that rate it's possible to finish a novel in about six months. In theory.

I think there are some lucky prolific writers who are able to write multiple books a year that please their readers - Amanda Hocking is a current example - but they are quite rare. Most of us, if we are honest, take a lot longer to finish a book, and are well advised not to rush the process. But perhaps I'm just making excuses...

What do you think?

Friday, 28 September 2012

The price of ebooks and JK Rowling

JK Rowling's first non-Potter novel was published yesterday, and The Casual Vacancy now sits at the top of the ebook and hardback charts in the UK and the US. Amazon is obliged to charge the price set by the publisher for the ebook; in the UK, this is £11.99, and £9.00 including free delivery for the hardback. This means the hardback is 25% cheaper than the digital version, which cannot be lent or passed on or sold second hand (Amazon will buy the hardback from you once you have read it for £4.50). Although ebooks include VAT, Amazon charges the Luxembourg rate of 3%.

Unsurprisingly, some readers who prefer the convenience of reading on a Kindle are fed up about this. Go to the book's reviews and (at time of writing) half of them are one star, mostly because of the price. Almost none of the people posting reviews, favourable or not, have read the book.

My view is the price is extortionate; Hachette are milking JKR's fans in a shameless way just because they can. I am surprised JKR has let them do this. Though setting the price is the province of the publisher, I'd be astonished if a writer with her clout had no hand in deciding on it. There is nothing about JoRo to suggest she is not one shrewd cookie.

Joe Konrath says it will be good for indie authors when the US Department of Justice's ruling on the Price-Fix Six (the five publishers who colluded with Apple to keep ebook prices high) comes into effect, as readers will have cash to buy more books if they spend less on well-known authors. I hope he is right.

(Any of my readers read TCV yet? I wasn't enamoured of the sample or what I've read in the newspaper reviews; I prefer novels with some likeable characters.)

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Fanfiction and why I don't approve

Fanfiction has been in the news lately. Can anyone not know that EL James wrote an erotic series based on Twilight characters Bella and Edward, called Master of the Universe? She then changed the characters' names and 11% of the text. Benefiting from her own fans as well as piggy-backing on Stephanie Meyer's, the book, now called Fifty Shades of Grey, was bought by everyone on this planet except me.

I don't approve of fanfiction. An author writes the story she means to, no more and no less, and it's gross impertinence of her 'fans' to attempt to write what she chose not to. Real fans would have more respect. Had Jane Austen wanted there to be a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, she'd have written it herself. Had JK Rowling envisioned Draco Malfoy and Hermione overcome by mutual lust, she'd have mentioned it in one of Harry Potter's seven volumes.

It doesn't help that the standard of writing is generally poor.

My stance on this clarified for me this week, when I was tracking down the last Mary Renault novel I haven't read, Kind Are Her Answers. It's an early one, so not one of her best, but I still want to read it. And I came across links to Mary Renault fanfiction sites. There's no way I was going to visit them, but it seems most of the stories add in the homosexual sex that Mary Renault chose not to describe in detail. Her view on the subject was: 

"I have sometimes been asked whether I would have written this book more explicitly in a more permissive decade. No; I have always been as explicit as I wanted to be, and have not been much more so in recent books. If characters have come to life, one should know how they will make love; if not it doesn't matter. Inch-by-inch physical descriptions are the ketchup of the literary cuisine, only required by the insipid dish or by the diner without a palate." 

She also, like any sensible person, disliked being pigeon-holed, and having some of her novels on the Gay and Lesbian shelves in libraries like my local one would, I feel sure, have annoyed her.

Yes, I know Shakespeare based some of his plays on other people's plots, using the same names. That's no excuse for us lesser mortals. Some writers argue that copying another's work is acceptable as a means of learning to write, like using training wheels on a bike. But a bike doesn't have an opinion on the matter, whereas most authors do. I'd certainly hate my characters to figure in another person's writing, and behave in ways I know they wouldn't.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Creating isn't normal reality...

When I was doing a post-graduate jewellery course at the Royal College of Art, we all cared too much. Most of us spent our time straining to produce the ultimate piece of jewellery; something so ground-breaking and fabulous no one had ever seen its like before. This had a curiously stultifying effect on the students. One girl only produced six pieces in the three-year course. To get a degree, a modest nine were required, so the technician made up three designs for her.

Later, when working as a self-employed jeweller, and turning out the equivalent of a degree show every three months, I realized we'd been on the wrong tack. What we should have been doing was creating a body of work; making lots of things, including mistakes, then at the end of each term assessing what worked and what didn't, and moving on from there.

If you look at all of a writer's books, or an exhibition of a designer's work, there will be some things you love, others you don't. Mary Renault has written books I will reread for the rest of my life, and others (some of her early work) I've read once. Lalique was a genius, but a few of his pieces do nothing for me at all. And this is fine; fine for them, and for the rest of us too. Few mistakes are fatal. Let's all take risks, get things wrong, and care less about it. We're more likely to get it right in the end.

I have Jerry Cleaver’s Rules of the Page copied to the notes of each book I write. Here they are:
  • Creating isn't normal reality. 
  • You will make a mess. 
  • You must write badly first. 
  • Mistakes lead to discovery. 
  • Letting yourself be bad is the best way to become good. 
  • Everything can be fixed. 
  • The less you care, the better you write. 
  • Everything that happens is OK. 
  • Progress is never even. 
  • It will get good again—always. 
  • Keep writing no matter how awful it feels. 

Friday, 31 August 2012

Modern iconic architecture in the WIP

Most large scale modern architecture does not appeal to me
; it's too big, too in-your-face and lacks manners towards neighbouring buildings. Often boringly simple, too; I'm prejudiced against the sort of building you can take in at one glance. Try doing that with St Paul's, or the Palace of Westminster; there's too much subtlety of form and wealth of decoration. But in Ice Diaries, the novel I'm currently two thirds through writing, London is covered in twenty metres of snow from which only the tallest buildings emerge, and they are almost exclusively new buildings. 

  • Bézier: This is a luxury block of flats on Old Street roundabout where my heroine, Tory, lives. Her flat is at snow level on the tenth floor. It's a distinctive building shaped like two half barrels. The manager very kindly showed me round, which was useful.
  • The Gherkin: I'm quite fond of the Gherkin. It's an interesting addition to London's skyline, though it's now disappearing behind the tedious rectangular blocks of more recent even taller buildings. It has an innovative double skin that makes it extremely energy-efficient. My cage fighter hero hides his snowmobile there.
  • The Barbican: brutalist sixties concrete, for a while the tallest residential blocks in Europe, built on an area bombed to rubble by the Germans in WW2. An historical part of London where Pepys once bought a table, it's a great loss to the City. The Barbican's layout is so maze-like it's unwise to try to cut across it. Beth Two in Replica was chased through the Barbican by MI5. In Ice Diaries, Tory and Morgan go to a ceilidh there in Shakespeare Tower.
  • Strata: also known locally as Isengard or the Razor, this is a 43 storey block of flats of supreme ugliness at the Elephant and Castle on the south side of the Thames. It won the Carbuncle Award 2010 for 'the ugliest building in the United Kingdom completed in the last twelve months'. It has three wind turbines on top. In my novel, this enables the commune living there to have electricity.
I feel the novel really should include the Shard, for the sake of completeness. But, unless the end of my book surprises me, its only appearance will be on the cover. (I've just redone the cover, and am as pleased as Punch and Judy with it.)

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Problems with guns

In the post-apocalyptic world of my WIP, the villain wants to get hold of a gun. With no police or legal system, a man with a gun is top dog and can get away with murder. So I did some research on guns. 

London's Metropolitan Police authorized firearms officers use Glock 17s. As my novel is set in London, that's the most likely gun to be available. A Glock 17 is semi-automatic, and has seventeen cartridges in the standard magazine. They are extremely reliable and don't go off if dropped. Pulling the trigger deactivates the safety catches. Fine so far. Then I did more research (so easy with Google - writers are spoiled these days).

When a gun is fired, the noise is 140 - 160 decibels. Loud enough for one shot to permanently damage the hearing of the firer and anyone close by. (A silencer will bring that down to 120 - 130, not actually all that silent as it is in movies.) I found some worrying forums where young men had fired a friend's gun a few times and were asking whether the tinnitus and muffled hearing they now experienced would ever go away. Watch any action film, and you can understand why people don't realize the danger; heroes without ear muffs/plugs shoot away like mad, are shot at, then don't spend the rest of the film with most of their dialogue consisting of, What was that you just said?

I also discovered that you need hearing protection if you are going to spend more than fifteen minutes on a snowmobile (100 decibels). My characters do that. So I have a choice between irresponsibly promulgating the idea that guns and sleds don't require earplugs, or holding up the action with a Health and Safety message. 


Thursday, 9 August 2012

Looking back on two years as an indie author

Two years ago today I self-published my first book, Remix. It was a book I felt sure was publishable, so I'd wasted spent a year attempting to find an agent, confident of success. As those of you who hang on my every word will know, I got close but no cigar. So I decided to go it alone.

Two years on, I've self-published four novels and a collection of short stories, and sold 58,648 ebooks, plus some paperbacks. I sold more books the first year, but made more money the second - much more money than a publisher would have been likely to offer me. I still own all the rights to my work, and all the profits come straight to me without an agent's deductions or a publisher's delay (mwahahahahaha).

Even better, I know from readers' reviews and emails that my books have entertained quite a lot of people for a few hours, and a writer can't ask for more than that. I now know that if I write a book that I think is good, a proportion of readers are likely to agree with me.

There have been huge changes in the publishing industry in those two years, and it's still changing. Self-publishing has gone from being the province of the deluded to the best way to reach readers for all but top-earning established authors. A considerable number of authors have had mega-success, the most recent I've noticed being Hugh Howey and Nick Spalding, while many are enjoying more modest rewards that would have been unimaginable two years ago. 

Writers like me, rejected by traditional publishing, have no reason to love it; but it's interesting that most of the grumbling and criticism is coming the other way, from publishers, agents and legacy authors who feel threatened by this unruly mob of indies who had the temerity to succeed when by everything they have ever believed, we should have failed miserably.

I like success. I'm impressed by anyone who can get a traditional publishing deal in these hard times. I'm also impressed by anyone who does well self-publishing. I can't wait to see how the next two years work out.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

A thought on easy reads

One remark people often make about my books is that they are an easy read. Discerning readers mark me up for this, realizing that there is no virtue in a book being difficult - that doesn't make it clever or deep, it's just a sign of bad writing.

Who wants confusing paragraphs you have to reread to get the sense of, or dialogue where it's not clear who is speaking, or passages where you are not certain what is going on? Good prose becomes invisible, and never stands between the reader and the story.

I spend a lot of time going over my books as I write, tweaking and improving, adding bits and changing words, thinking about the characters. As well as clarity, this adds depth and detail that makes for a more rewarding read. I'm doing it now with Ice Diaries, the WIP. (I know some schools of thought maintain an author should plough straight through the first draft, never looking back until it is complete; but in my opinion the only rules worth abiding by are those for spelling, punctuation and grammar. Otherwise, I believe in doing whatever works for you.)

So I don't get irked when a reader races through one of my books and assumes it was as easy for me to write as for her to read. I take it as a huge compliment.

Friday, 27 July 2012

More on Writer's Angst

Writing for publication is, I always say, one of the most angst-prone things you can do. I bet even the richest and most-read novelist of the day, JK Rowling, has her worries about the forthcoming release of  The Casual Vacancy in September. Here is a handy cut-out-and-keep list of many of the ways Writer's Angst can get you:

  • The writers I admire are so brilliant, is there any point my trying to write at all? I'll never be as good as they are.
  • Isn't it hugely hubristic to believe that anyone will want to spend time reading something that is effectively no more than the contents of my mind? Who do I think I am?
  • Eek! It's going to be complete at 30,000 words. Way too short.
  • The plot's rambling out of control! 150,000 words already. I'll never reach the end!
  • No! I've come across another book written two years ago on a very similar theme. Everyone will think I stole the idea.
  • Supposing it's rubbish and no one wants to tell me?
  • Gah! A writer I respect was very critical about the bit he read. I'm doing it all wrong. Sob.
  • It must be rubbish because I've got all these form rejections from agents. They know what readers want, surely. Proper writers get agents and a publishing deal.
  • Supposing when I put it for sale on Amazon no one buys it?
And later:
  • My first book is a success, hurrah - has actually sold well, readers have said they enjoyed it, I've made good money - but I'll never be able to repeat my success because...
  • I used up all my ideas in the first book. Now I am but an empty husk, who will never create an interesting character or story line ever again.
  • This book is a struggle. I don't remember the last one being as hard to write. Probably because this one is No Good.
  • I've forgotten how to write! Every sentence is convoluted and awkward. Woe!
  • Other people write loads more words per day than I do. Why am I so slow?
  • By the time I get this one finished, the people who loved my first book will have forgotten my name.
  • Okay, so Book Two is out and doing rather well - some readers even prefer it to Book One - but I'll definitely never be able to do it a third time...
MORAL: Do not fret.

Everything will be all right. Do not be self-critical - in an imperfect world, you do not need to be perfect. No one else is. Lighten up. Keep writing, one word at a time. You can do it.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

The appeal of the bad boy

Fiction is different from life, and nowhere is it more important to remember this than with bad boy love interests. A health warning: readers, don't try this at home.

Typical bad boy behaviour, fictional and in real life:

1. Relentless promiscuity, until he meets our heroine, falls deeply in love and changes his ways, becoming forever monogamous. Hmm. Remember that proverb concerning leopards and spots? Much more likely you'll turn out to be just one of the crowd.

2. Dangerous driving, particularly of large motorbikes. Don't get too fond of him;  doctors refer to motorcyclists as organ donors.

3. Drug use and/or excessive drinking, possibly smoking. This will spoil his gorgeous looks and his health, given time.

4. An explosive temper with a tendency to beat up people he is in conflict with. You'll be visiting him in prison if he makes a habit of physical assault. Plus, cauliflower ears and chipped teeth are not attractive.

So why do we writers keep on writing about these guys? I'm doing it myself in the WIP. I think it's because they are more fun to write/read about than the sort of man one would actually want to get involved with; kind, sensible, non-violent, steady, willing to do his share of the chores.

I'm yawning already...

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Go indie, young writer!

Recently I read Jamie McGuire's indie hit, Beautiful Disaster. The novel has its flaws, but a huge number of readers on both sides of the Atlantic find its account of a tempestuous romance compelling, and have made it into a best seller.

It's now been signed up by Atria books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, for immediate release as an ebook with print books to follow.

Hugh Howey is the successful self-published author whose novel Wool is to be made into a film with the director Ridley Scott. He said on Kindleboards, on a thread about indies being picked up by traditional publishers:

"You wanna know what's interesting? I started threads about this possibility on another writing forum and was laughed at, mocked, and bullied right out of there. [Lexi: hmm, no prizes for guessing which forum that was.] One thread was about the possibility that agents would begin scouring the bestselling indies for clients. I was ridiculed. I suggested that self-pubbing was always the best way to begin one's career, no matter the quality of the work. My argument was that flawed works were better off published at all rather than in slush piles; mid-list quality work was better off with a lifetime trickle rather than a few months spine-out in crumbling bookstores; and stellar work is better off in the author's possession when it makes it big with readers. There's no work of any quality that is better served on the traditional route, not with the disparity in rights and royalties."

Anyone still in denial about this?

Monday, 2 July 2012

When to let the reader do the work...

I believe in fiction the particular is more interesting than the general. His London flat? His Mayfair flat or his Willesden flat will tell the reader more for the same number of words. So Nick Cavanagh in Replica drives an Audi TT Coupé 1.8, while in Remix Jeff Pike smokes Marlboros, and a celebration takes place at the Dorchester. To my amusement, one reviewer remarked on this, and speculated that I was making up the meagre income from writing with product placement fees.

But there are exceptions to this rule. Jane Austen seldom describes the physical features of her characters. But she is such a good writer that I am sure all her readers have a clear image of them in their minds. I am certain for instance that in Emma, Emma is a brunette and Harriet a blonde, though we are never told.  All we know about Elizabeth Bennett's appearance is that she is not bad-looking and has fine eyes - and this we are told by Mr Darcy. I think it wise to resist the impulse to convey every detail the author sees so plainly in his imagination to the novel's readers. Keep description brief and vivid. Leave a little room between the lines for their imagination to work, and the book will be partly theirs and stay with them forever.

There is a passage in Replica where Nick opens the front door on to a snowy street clad only in his boxers. I asked my daughter, who is nearer the character's age group than I, what his boxers should look like. (After online research, I favoured black Calvin Kleins.) She said, don't describe them, then every woman reading it will imagine him wearing her favourite type of boxers. She was right.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Trad or Indie - All Argued Out

Recently I got involved on The Writers' Workshop in one of those arguments which as Jane Austen has it, is too much like a dispute. It was over whether self-publishing is a viable alternative to traditional publishing. The blog owner, Harry Bingham, asked me to write a post, which you can see here. The definitive article on the subject has already been written by Robert Bidinotto: 10 Reasons Why You Should Skip Traditional Publishers and Self-Publish Ebooks Instead.

Today I came across a new site, Write-Connections, and blow me, what were they discussing on the forum but: Self publishing or traditional publishing?? A topic so hot it demanded two question marks. My mind reeled away at the prospect of the same old points being made, the prejudice and ignorance, the denial and defensiveness. And I realized I'm all argued out. Plus it doesn't matter what anyone says, publishing has changed with the advent of digital, is still changing, and will never be the same again.

If anyone wants to turn a blind eye to what is happening, that is his prerogative. I will in future wander past, smiling. I might even pat him on the head, if it wasn't stuck beneath the sand.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Suspending disbelief

Writers tread a narrow line. The stories we tell are made up, and readers know this; but we need to make them forget that fact while immersed. The appeal of a novel is that it imposes shape and meaning on the chaos that is life. Fiction has a beginning, middle and end, and life does not. But woe betide the writer who strains his reader's credulity to the point where it gives way and he/she says, "That wouldn't happen."

I think there are two kinds of implausibility in fiction; the big stuff, like dragons, magic, sparkly vampires, aliens etc. which readers tend to swallow whole, and the little improbabilities readers or viewers tend to choke on.

An example of the second type: recently I treated myself to the complete series of Firefly, and am enjoying an episode each evening. For those who haven't seen it, it was conceived by Joss Whedon, who went on to make Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Fox cancelled the series after only fourteen episodes; insane, as it had the quality, set-up and characters to have been as long running and successful as MASH. In one episode, Out of Gas, the space ship Serenity is stranded in space with only a few hours' air due to the failure of a part of the engine; something about the shape and size of a hair drier. And I thought, if the failure of that part is so catastrophic, you'd carry at least two spares. It wouldn't be bad luck if you got stranded that way, it would be the mechanic's fault, or the captain's. [EDIT: I'm wrong. See Wyndes' comment right at the bottom of the comments on this post.]

I put a lot of effort into making my stories plausible and removing plot holes - some improbable things may happen, but I hope my characters' reactions to them are believable. Readers do not always agree with me. "The best science-fiction should surely hold a smidgeon of credibility but the premise of this tale was utterly absurd," is one comment on Replica. Ah well. I have the same problem with most chick lit, James Bond and Dan Brown.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

You don't have to be right, just convincing

I've just biked from my workshop in Hoxton to the Gherkin, 30 St Mary Axe. A good day to do it, though the weather is cold and blustery. (Call this June? Huh!) Few cars and vans, just red buses careering around in packs with a gleeful freedom non-Bank Holiday traffic does not allow.

I went to get a feel for the building close to, and take some photos, as part of my WIP is set there. In my fictional 2018 London, twenty metres of snow cover the city, and only the taller buildings are visible. One of my characters conceals his snowmobile inside the Gherkin. I've studied the website carefully. Of course, what I'd really like is to wander round the building, camera in hand, but this is not possible. Luckily, it's not necessary either. I can make it up.

Because in fiction, you don't need to be right, just convincing. I don't know any Security Service officers, but no readers have yet complained that Nick Cavanagh in Replica is an unbelievable MI5 spec op. Probably because they don't know any either. Nor has anyone said the scene set in the Dorchester in Remix with information gleaned from their website and Google Street View lacks verisimilitude.

My advice: do all the research you can, go to the places that figure in your books, talk to people doing the jobs your characters do if at all possible - then make the rest up. Do it well, and nobody will know.

N.B. If any Security Service Officers are reading this and wish to put me right, email me - I'm very discreet :o)

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Book sales and earnings - the numbers

Last week I read a fascinating post by Stroppy Author on earning out - including the information that just because the author's royalties never add up to the advance (earn out) this does not mean the publisher is not making a fat profit. This is because the publisher makes so much more per book than the author. Obvious when you think about it, but something I'd never considered. (Tell me I'm not alone, please.)

This got me thinking about sales and earnings in general. It is often asserted that most indie authors make negligible sums, with a few famous exceptions, Amanda Hocking, Hugh Howey, John Locke et al.  Should we attempt to correct this misinformation, we are accused of bragging. Chuck Wendig said, "Stop using your sales numbers as a bludgeon. BUT I SELL FOUR BILLION EVERY TEN MINUTES may or may not be true, but what it most certainly is is irrelevant." In what way irrelevant, Chuck? Isn't it what the discussion is about?

I've noticed that traditionally-published writers are far more reticent about their sales and earnings than indies. They will tell you if they have just got a six-figure deal, but that's about it. The exception to this is when trads go indie, and blow the gaffe about the appallingly stingy royalties and advances they have decided to leave behind.

What writers as a group need is more openness from the traditionally published. As long as they keep quiet about the measly nature of the contract they have just signed, focusing instead on the fact that they are about to be published at all (Squeeeeeee!) then publishers will continue to get away with offering the same stringent terms and low pay. Terms that, spookily, are identical among all the big publishers, almost as if they'd got together to agree on them...

But publishers would never behave like that, would they?

Monday, 21 May 2012

The One Question to ask a prospective agent

Ah, I remember those long ago days when I used to submit to agents; how young I was, how naive, how filled with hope. It was a frustrating business - enough to make a writer get a bit sarky. I spent a surprising amount of money on paper, ink cartridges and postage, plus time researching which agents to approach, and the differing submission requirements of individual agents. I had faith in Remix (then called Catch a Falling Star or Heart of Rock) so I also spent time working out Questions to Ask an Agent ready for when I got The Call. I bookmarked several sites that dealt with this topic, and followed agents' blogs.

I now know there is only one question you need to ask a prospective agent:

What can you do for me?

And if the answer is not precise, persuasive and pretty damn exciting, forget it. Keep your 15% (notional if she doesn't find you a publisher). You don't need that agent. In the great upheaval that is going on in publishing today, agents will have to make drastic changes to the way they work in order to stay in business. Some are. Trident Media in New York is signing successful indie authors, a sensible change of approach. Some are turning e-publisher for their clients, with varying success. Others get defensive, expending energy assuring the world how essential they are.

Remember that although you pay an agent to work for you,  so she should be on your side, maintaining a good relationship with the publishers she knows is more important to her than any individual contract. She makes her money from the advance, so a poor royalty rate will not affect her as it will you. And she is unlikely to want to rock the boat on your behalf.

Illustration by LittleBluePaws on Deviant Art

I love this quote from Tom Simon, commenting on Passive Guy's blog: 
"What was that story I read in Aesop the other day?
There was this wolf, see, and this sheep, who needed to do business with the wolf but knew it was going to be dangerous. So the sheep hired a fox to be her agent.
The fox got 15 percent of the sheep."