Writer’s Retreat

I have next week booked off work, which will be awesome, and I’ll be using the time as a writer’s retreat. My intention is to get some peace and quiet and really focus on writing for a few days.

I always have several projects on the go but there are three in particular I intend to focus on for this holiday:

  • finishing the second draft of the final book in the Shadows of Tomorrow trilogy
  • writing the first draft fourth book in the Codename Omega series
  • getting the m/m monster romance novella ready to go out to publishers

I will probably work on all of these at some point over the week, but the question is where I should prioritise my efforts.

The first of those projects is probably the most urgent one as it’s been ages since the second book came out and the publishing process will take about a year even after I’ve finished it. One of my coworkers keeps asking when that book will be out, and since she’s still not forgiven me for killing her favourite character, I probably should finish the book at some point.

But having said that, tidying up the novella will probably be a shorter task. If I focus on that, I can probably get it done and have the book ready to go to publishers by the end of the week and it will feel great to have something definitively done out of this focus time.

But it would also be amazing if I could buckle down and get a complete first draft of Codename Blank Slate written.

I want to set myself definite goals because otherwise what will probably end up happening is that I’ll flit between all three of these and spend half the time writing fanfic instead. I will write some fanfic this week, but that’s not the point of doing this.

I’ve decided to set general writing goals as well as specific goals for each of these three projects. My goal is to spend at least half an hour a day on each of these three projects. That’s a small enough target that it doesn’t seem too daunting and over the course of the week off work, I should make decent progress on all of them, but it allows me the freedom to work longer on whatever happens to be flowing better that day.

I’m also going to set myself a word count target: 10000 words a day across everything, including fanfic and whatever other random stuff I end up writing. They won’t all necessarily be new words if I’m editing the novella which is why I think I can get away with setting the target so high. I can reevaluate after a couple of days if that seems like it’s going to be too much.

The Problem of the Shiny New Idea

I’ve never been very good at focus when it comes to my writing. I can write a lot in a short period of time, but it’s not always for the thing that I feel I should be working on. At any given time, I might be actively working on a couple of books, another couple of fanfics, a short story, and have the ideas for half a dozen other stories bubbling away in my head like something on the backburner of the stove, ready to boil over.

The advantage of this is that I’ve never really struggled with writer’s block. If one of my stories is at an awkward place, I can write something else until I have a bit of inspiration about how to fix whatever is flagging. Sometimes this happens in the middle of a writing session. I’ll write a few hundred words on one project and then find myself stuck because I need to research something, or I can’t think of the right word, or I’m just not sure what should happen next. When that happens, I can flip over to another writing project and usually blast out a few hundred words on that instead.

This approach can also be useful with editing, because I can finish the first draft of a story and then go and focus on my other projects for a bit, and when I come back to that first story I can look at it with fresh eyes and spot the problems that need to be fixed.

The disadvantage of this approach is that the part of me going, “I really should finish the second draft of the third Shadows of Tomorrow book,” gets drowned out by the other part of me that goes, “There’s a shiny new idea over there.”

I have some time booked off work soon that I’m using as writer’s retreat. I really, really should spend that time finishing the third Shadows of Tomorrow book. Anyone want to make bets about how quickly I get distracted by a new and shiny idea?

Recipe for a Story

My nephew has the most amazing book. It’s called Recipe for a Story and it’s all about creating a story, but told using the metaphor of baking a cake. The narrator mixes in ingredients like characters and words, good and bad. At one point, the narrator stirs it until the plot begins to thicken.

This is the sort of story that will appeal to writers because there are lines like “I’ll weigh out the words – just enough. Choosing the rights ones can be tough.” There’s another bit later about not knowing what the story’s about until you roll it out, and I’m reading this thing going, “Yep, sounds about right.”

There are some wonderful illustrations too, like a jar of “giggly words preserves” that’s full of smiley faces, and full stops are in a pepper shaker. On one page, there’s a pile of books with various word pun titles.

My nephew enjoys it but as a writer, I think it’s fantastic. It’s my new favourite book because it’s a beautiful way to talk about the writing process.

This isn’t exactly a formal book review, but if you have young children you want to read to, I highly recommend it.

Drip Feeding

Drip feeding is the concept of providing your readers with information on your story’s world or your character’s backstory a little bit at a time, with small pieces here and there that come together to form a bigger picture over time. This is in comparison to, for example, a prologue that explains the entire history of your sci-fi setting in one lump of exposition. This works because it allows the reader to get to know the characters before being dumped into a history lesson, it allows for hints at a bigger and more complex universe without you necessarily needing to explain every tiny detail, and it allows for reveals and plot twists through the story about that history.

I want to talk about a TV show that is a very good example of drip feeding done right. Steven Universe is a cartoon aimed at kids, but it has a complexity to it that has given it a large number of adult fans too. In the early episodes, we are introduced to the protagonist Steven, who is living with three gems – beings who each have a gemstone that is their core being but who can project a physical form that looks similar to a human (but often in a colour that matches their gem). We learn from the start that Steven is a hybrid between a human and a gem and he spends these early episodes trying to control his magic powers, going on adventures with the gems, and fighting monsters.

What we don’t know about right away is the thousands of years of history, rebellion, warfare, betrayal, and loss that led up to this. That comes later and no all at once. We are shown little hints that point to something bigger going on. In one episode, Steven is taken to a gem battlefield that is covered in fallen weapons. Looking at what’s left, all these years later, it’s clear that a battle on a massive scale took place here, but the details of exactly who was fighting whom is not revealed until later.

Similarly, there are hints about the gems being in hiding. The gems use warp pads to travel around Earth, and one episode shows us the galaxy warp – a pad that will do the same thing but allow gems to travel from planet to planet. This warp is broken and the gems are performing a regular check to make sure that it’s still broken. An episode has Pearl trying to build a spaceship and wanting to show Steven the galaxy. At one point, she mentions homeworld, but she doesn’t talk about taking him there, she talks about maybe seeing it from a distance. When something finally comes to Earth from another world and starts trying to repair the galaxy warp, the gems are scared and the reveal comes that they rebelled against their government and are in hiding. They don’t want anyone from their homeworld to know that they’re still alive.

This reveal fits with all the clues that have come before it. As the audience, we’ve seen all the hints leading up to this moment, so the information slots into place and completes the picture.

This is just one example of many. Over the course of the show’s run, information has been provided about where gems come from, how they’re grown, the structure of the society, the rulers, the powers that they have, the war to protect Earth thousands of years ago, the history of the main characters, and so on, building up a picture of a complex setting with a rich history.

This means that the plot twists aren’t necessarily a complete shock to the audience, especially in a case like this where a lot of the audience are adults watching a show that’s primarily aimed at a younger audience. The adult viewers pick up on clues that the younger viewers might miss, speculating about future reveals, but there is something very satisfying about being proved right when one of those twists comes. When the show makes a revelation, we can look back at the clues and think, “Yes, that makes sense.”

Often, drip feeding isn’t about shocking plot twists. Instead, it’s about having a box of jigsaw pieces and gradually putting them together to reveal more and more of the picture to your reader/audience.

Amazon Alternatives

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion around strike action against Amazon because of their horrific workplace practices and their treatment of employees. There are horror stories from warehouse workers and delivery drivers about low wages, unpaid hours which push the wages below the minimum, ridiculous productivity demands and penalties meaning that workers pee in bottles because they don’t have time for toilet breaks, and the fact that vast numbers of employees are living in abject poverty while the CEO is worth over a hundred billion dollars, which is more money than a person could ever hope to spend in their lifetime.

Amazon’s profit margins are so high that they could easily pay all their employees a living wage and still be making billions, so there is no excuse for this mistreatment of staff.

As such, there have been calls for strikes. There has been some confusion over dates, but the current information is that strikes will be taking place over Prime day, to hit a major promotional event, with the strike between the 15th and 17th of July. Customers are being discouraged from buying from Amazon during the strike (and boycotting longer if you can do, until the company makes some changes).

As an author, so much of what I do is based around trying to get people to sites like Amazon to buy my books, but I don’t want to support Amazon during this strike action, so here are some alternatives if you’re looking to buy my books.

Shadows of Tomorrow and its sequel Between Yesterdays are both available from Waterstones and other mainstream bookshops.

The Codename Omega series, Omega Rising, Traitor in the Tower, and Hidden in the Signal, can be bought directly from Lulu as both paperbacks and ebooks.

My latest novel, Wolf Unleashed, is available directly from the publisher, Guardbridge Books or through Waterstones and other major bookshops.

The ebook of Child of the Hive, my first novel, can be bought from Smashwords.

My superhero parody, The Adventures of Technicality Man, is only available for purchase from Amazon, so to support the strike, I’m giving this book away through Instafreebie. Through until the end of July you can get a copy of this ebook for free.

I hope that if you want to buy my books, you will consider buying them from somewhere other than Amazon until the demands for better treatment of workers are met.

What has a publisher ever done for us?

A short while ago, I got into an exchange online with someone about writing and the publishing process. We discussed a few different aspects on the subject, but I was surprised to find that they had a very strong feeling against using a traditional publisher. When I asked why, their answer was that it was because the author only gets about 20% of the income from a book, so it was like giving away 80% of your business earnings for all time, in exchange for a small start up loan (i.e. the cost of producing the book).

My response was that the “loan” can actually be pretty big, and that publishers do a lot more than just provide the costs at the start. This is a slightly expanded version of the answer I gave them.

The initial creation of a book is a long process and can be quite costly. If we assume we’re talking print books, then a traditional publisher is covering the cost of an initial high-level edit (going through and offering advice on how to improve the structure and pacing of the book, perhaps commenting on characterisation or areas that need improvement), as well as line editing, copy editing and proof-reading. A book can go past four or five pairs of eyes before it gets published (and still somehow typos slip through). On top of this, the publisher will be doing type-setting and laying the book out for printing.

How much all of this costs would vary based on the length of the book (most editors charge by the word count or page count, or by how many hours they spend going through the book), whether the publisher has those people as full time staff or if they contract the services out, how clean the manuscript is (a friend of mine who does line editing and proof reading work looks at a sample of the work first and charges based on how many problems it has, because a book with loads of typos, spelling mistakes, and grammatical errors will take more effort to edit than one with only a few), and the level of skill and experience of the people doing the work. It’s hard to put a number on the cost for all these rounds of editing because it varies so much from book to book, but you’re probably looking at a couple of thousand pounds at a minimum, and it could be substantially higher for longer books.

Then there are things like the cost of a cover designer. Again, the cost of this would vary depending on whether the artist is an employee or contractor, but you could expect another few hundred pounds to go on this.

Then there’s the cost of printing the book, not to mention storing the physical copies and handling the distribution.

So before your book has even hit the shelves, a traditional publisher has already made a substantial investment in a book.

Then comes the second half of the discussion, around how what the author gets stacks up against what the publisher gets when the book is sold. The normal rate of royalties for a printed book is between 10% and 20%, depending on the publisher. This is based on the sale price. So if a book sells for £10, you could expect to see £2 of that money. But does that mean the publisher gets the other £8 as profit? No. Some of that will go to the bookshop. Let’s assume the bookshop takes 15% for transacting the sale, that leaves the publisher with £6.50. But there’s also the physical cost of the book – the paper and the printing – so that’s not all profit. Going by the print costs of one of my books as a model, that could be another £3.50 (large print runs are cheaper per book, so if you’re selling thousands or millions of copies, this cost would drop) leaving the publisher with £3 per book.

Please remember that these numbers are all very rough.

Now, you might look at these estimates and wonder why, even after the other costs are taken into consideration, the publisher chunk is still larger than the author’s chunk. The person who I was discussing this with originally seemed to believe that once the book was produced, the publisher wasn’t doing much to earn their cut. So here is a short list of what my publisher has done/is doing for me with my most recent book, Wolf Unleashed.

  • They organised the launch event and paid for the wine and nibbles
  • They got the book reviewed on Readers’ Favorite (it was a five star review, but the publisher couldn’t control that)
  • They print the copies of the book
  • They store the printed copies of the book
  • They handle distribution out to retailers
  • They handle the registering of the book on the distribution/ordering services that are used by the major retailers
  • They promote the book on social media
  • They have dealers tables at science fiction conventions to sell copies of the books they’ve published, including mine
  • They sell the book through their website

And that’s just the most tangible things. There’s also a less tangible aura of legitimacy that surrounds a book that’s been traditionally published, no matter who that publisher might be and whatever else they’re doing. I recently went into a branch of Daunt Books and asked whether they would stock a copy of Wolf Unleashed. To start with, the guy I was talking to was very reluctant, talking about how the stock decisions were made in another branch, and how I’d probably have to take a copy of the book in to show them, but when I mentioned that the book had a traditional publisher, he looked it up on his system and said he could order a copy in.

Having a traditional publisher isn’t a guarantee of quality, but it does substantially reduce the risk for bookshops because they know that someone who isn’t the author thinks that it’s a good book, and that it will have gone through some editing and proofing. Bookshops are vastly more willing to take a chance on stocking a book they’ve never heard of if they know it came from a traditional publisher, even if that publisher is a small one.

So when it comes to getting a paper book published, I would definitely recommend looking for a traditional publisher. E-books are a little trickier, since it’s much easier to publish an e-book yourself and the initial costs are lower, and you lose some of the intangible benefits like being in bookshops. On the other hand though, a lot of publishers offer a more favourable royalty split on e-books and they still help with getting the book out to a wider audience, so you probably won’t have to do quite as much legwork yourself to reach the same number of readers.

There are advantages to going the self-publishing route (speed of publication, complete control, the ability to publish books that are too weird or different to fit into normal publishing categories, not having to deal with piles of rejection letters) but if you’re going to make such a big decision about your book, you should know what you’d be missing out on if you choose not to go with a traditional publisher.

Relevance

It takes a long time for a novel to go from initial idea through to finished book. It goes through initial draft, rewrites, finding a publisher, and then the publication process itself, which can sometimes take a year from when a publisher says yes to the book being released. I remember wondering, as I was writing Wolf Unleashed, whether the book would still feel relevant by the time it was officially published.

I wrote chunks of that book while protests were going on in America about unarmed black people being killed, while people were being locked up, beaten, tear-gassed, or otherwise hurt for simply calling out people who were doing wrong. I remember doing what little I could with petitions and donations and sharing stories, hoping that those protests would have an impact, that the authorities would step in to address some of the issues of institutional racism that were at the heart of so much of the suffering, but I also remember wondering what that might mean for my book. If progress was made, my book might feel old before it was even born. It might be launched into the world already feeling like it was focused on last year’s subject.

And then Trump was elected. He came into power and tried to have Muslims banned from the country, and I went back into a particular scene of the book, where the Muslim character Mehmood is talking about things he’s experienced, and rewrote some of the dialogue to draw a clearer parallel. Suddenly those moments with Mehmood started to feel more relevant again.

And now we have stories on the news about children being taken away from parents, children being rounded up, children being put in cages. And I’m left wishing that my story, with it’s scene in which children are taken from their mother and put in cages, didn’t feel so relevant. I wrote awful things into the book, where a group of people are being treated as less than human, their rights and wellbeing ignored. And now I’m watching it happen on the news, reading articles about the inhumanity with which groups of people are being treated.

I wanted my book to still feel relevant when it was published, but it’s like the old saying goes: be careful what you wish for.

My book’s message was “Werewolves are people too” but it’s painful to look at what’s happening in the world and know that the message “refugees are people too” is just as real and important a message as ever. This suffering and dehumanising behaviour isn’t just something that happens in books, but it’s something that’s happening right now in the real world, and it’s heartbreaking to see it going on.

There are organisations you can donate to if you want to help those suffering right now in the concentration camps Trump has set up. Act Blue has a fund called Support Kids at the Border that let’s you donate to several charities and groups all at once if you don’t know which group is the best one to give to. Let’s hope that the issues in my book start feeling less relevant sometime very soon.

Review: Just One Damned Thing After Another

Book cover Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi TaylorJust One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor (UK link, US link) is a fun book that walks the border between science fiction and fantasy. For the most part, it feels like science fiction, with futuristic technology driving the plot, but there are hints at elements from mythology towards the end that lend it a fantasy air. It tells the story of St Mary’s, a historical research organisation with a difference. These historians actually go back in time. Technological developments allow them to go back and see what actually happened at major historical events, answer key questions, and take recordings of what they see.

The main character is Max, a historian who signs on as a trainee at the start of the book. She is surrounded by a mixture of academics, engineers, security staff, and medics, who are all disaster magnets and generally obsessed with getting a good cup of tea. It’s a lively story, told with a lot of humour and most of this humour comes from the interactions between the various characters. I did struggle sometimes to keep some of the minor characters straight, especially since they might be referred to by first name, last name, or nickname. There was a list of characters at the start of the book which served as reference and I found a big help, but it didn’t stop me from getting muddled now and then.

There are some dark moments in the book. While the tone through most of it is light, there are some dramatic events that stand in stark contrast and the emotion of these sections really works, probably because of the contrast. It makes them feel more raw and real.

On the whole, I’d say that this book is good entertainment. It’s an enjoyable read and very easy to get through. It’s a perfect holiday read for when you just want to relax with something amusing and fun. Where I think it struggles is in terms of a coherent plot. There are some plot threads that flow through the book as a whole, but there are times when the book feels more like a series of events rather than forming a solid whole. As the title suggests – it’s one thing after another. There are separate chunks of the book with their own focus and activities and I almost think it would have worked between if the author had made more of these distinctions, breaking the book into separate parts and treating each as a separate episode within the larger narrative. It did pull the plot threads together a bit at the end though, so this criticism is a fairly minor one.

I think the author assumed considerably more historic knowledge of the reader than I had. There were references to historic events which were largely explained. Some of these references I got, but others just passed me by. Someone with more of a background in history than I have would probably have enjoyed this more, as it was I could have done with a little bit more information about the things being referred to. Thankfully those that were more critical to the plot were explained, so it was mostly the off-hand comments and throwaway lines that I ended up missing.

Overall, I’d give this book four stars out of five. It’s not going on my favourites list, but I did enjoy reading it and I will look out for other books by the same author in the future.

Reading non-fiction

There’s a lot of advice out there for writers but one thing that comes up time and again is the advice to read. I whole-heartedly agreed with this advice. Read writers you admire and try to figure out what it is that they do that makes you like their work so much. Read books you dislike to try and figure out what it is that puts you off about it and avoid it in your own work. Read widely in the genre you write so that you can pick up on the tropes and cliches. Read in other genres to see how stories are crafted differently for different audiences.

But I would also recommend reading non-fiction. There’s a lot that can be learned from books that can be useful in your writing, but I’m not talking about researching a specific subject with a book in mind. Reading more broadly can give you a foundation of knowledge to build on when creating your fiction. Personally, I read a lot of popular science simple because I find it interesting, I’m also very keen on psychology, which I think is a really useful area for writers to read up on. As we create our characters, we want to have them feel believable, like real, solid people with personalities that make sense and whose actions are plausible in their circumstances. Even for those of us working in science fiction and fantasy, we want the characters to feel like real people. Reading psychology books can give us insight into what makes people act in certain ways and that can help as build more nuanced characters.

If you’re writing stories of political intrigue or dealing with the rulers of a fantasy land, it could be useful to read about historical rulers, but I would also recommend The Dictator’s Handbook, which I’m currently reading, a book all about the ways people gain and keep power, and the rules by which they’re able to rule.

There’s an old adage “write what you know” which a lot of writing coaches shy away from these days, but there is an element of truth to it. If you know a subject, you’re more likely to be able to write about it in a way that people believe in. At the very least, you can avoid the more obvious mistakes that will make experts on the subject cringe. If you want to follow this piece of advice, then the next step is to try and know more about as wide a range of topics as you manage. In other words: read more non-fiction.

Sumup

If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you’ll probably know that I sometimes get a table at conventions or gift fairs to sell copies of my books (and some miscellaneous other items to help cover costs because dealers tables at conventions are expensive). My latest convention was Cardiff Film and Comic Con a few weeks ago, and Birmingham Collectormania this weekend.

Until now, I’ve only ever done cash payments but now more and more people are expecting to be able to pay with card wherever they are (and I can’t blame them, because I’m so used to the convenience of cards myself). I decided it was about time I got myself a card reader.

I talked to a few of the vendors at Eastercon about what they use and one that was recommended to me by a couple of different people was Sumup, which was the cheapest around according to one of the people I asked. From my own comparisons of reader costs and commission fees, I think she was right. When you sign up for Sumup, you buy a small card reader, which is nicely portable, and which connects via bluetooth to a phone app (you need to have Android or iPhone). The app itself is very simple and you can enter manual payments or create a catalogue of sales items so you can quickly tap on items to put a sale through. You can also group your items/prices, so I can have separate lists of stock for Christmas fairs and for science fiction conventions, making it easier to find the items on the list when you’re making a sale.

I did have a little bit of a teething problem on my first sale – the phone app sat on the “connecting” screen for ages and couldn’t find the reader – but I restarted the phone and card reader and after that it all went through seamlessly, letting me take chip and pin payments and contactless. I had fun today when it found a couple of other people’s Sumup devices before it identified mine (the challenge when three stallholders within a few metres of each other have chosen the same service) but it was easy enough to get it linking to the right one and processing the sale. After a sale, there’s also an option to send a receipt by text or email.

I have an online dashboard to see my payment history and track sales and income. Sumup send money directly to me bank account within a couple of days of the payment going through. They charge a 1.69% fee on each transaction, so if I sell a book for £10, I will pay about 17 pence to Sumup which is not bad at all and good compared to the other options on the market – iZettle is 1.75%, as is Square, WorldPay and Paypal can be up to 2.75%.

I would definitely recommend getting a card reader if, like me, you sell your books at face to face events. There were a few sales I made at the last convention that were only possible because I had a card reader, and one person who was going to buy one book but when he saw I had a card reader decided to get two. I would be happy to recommend Sumup based on my experiences last week, and if you do go for it, they have a “refer a friend” scheme. If you click on this link (http://fbuy.me/iRKnc) and sign up, you get a discount on the card reader (the website says a £44 discount, but I only paid £29 for my card reader, so I’m not sure how that works) and for the sake of honesty I should probably admin that I would get a £10 fee.

These days, if you’re selling your books face-to-face, you’re going to miss out on sales if you don’t have a card reader of some sort.