Call for Interviews

It’s been a while since I’ve done an interview on this blog. I do author interviews of writers who publish science fiction or fantasy books. I’m especially interested in authors who include LGBTQ+ representation or who otherwise showcase diversity in their writing.

If you are an author who wants to promote your books through one of these interviews, let me know. You can contact me by leaving a comment on this blog post, or by filling out this short form with your contact information and a bit of information about your books. I generally conduct interviews over email by sending a few questions at a time for you to fill out when you have an opportunity. Filling out the form doesn’t guarantee that I’ll do an interview with you if I feel that your books aren’t a suitable fit for my blog, but I do want to support other writers so get in touch if you think you might be a fit.

Check out some of the previous interviews if you want to get a feel for what to expect.

Antagonists and villains

In writing, the antagonist of a story is a person who is directly opposed to the desires, goals, or well-being of the protagonist. They are the person that the hero of the story is fighting against or trying to overcome, or an obstacle in the path to achieving their desired outcome. Very often, people conflate antagonist with villain and often, especially in sci-fi and fantasy, they clearly are. Sauron in Lord of the Rings is the main antagonist and he is definitely a villain – a force of evil trying to conquer the world. Voldemort is a fascist murderer. But someone can be an antagonist without being a villain – and this can sometimes lead to interesting conflict and more nuanced stories.

I’m going to give an example for a TV show recently aired on Netflix that had surprising nuance for the kids fantasy show that it is: The Dragon Prince. Only a handful of episodes have aired so far, so it’s not certain what direction the writers will take the story or how the conflicts between characters will play out, but it seems to have a lot of potential for interesting dynamics between the characters.

The heroes of the show, the protagonists, are clear. The story is about two human princes, Callum and Ezran, and the elf assassin Rayla trying to stop a war by returning a stolen dragon egg to its mother. The antagonist of the show are more complicated because there are a number of characters who directly oppose these characters without necessarily being villains. I am going to give some spoilers here, so if you’re interested in watching the show, be warned, but I’ll try to avoid spoiling anything major.

Runaan is the leader of the assassins who come to kill the human king and Prince Ezran. He wants Ezran dead along with their father/step-father. He won’t hesitate to kill humans he comes across. At first glance, his character seems like a clear villain, except his actions are also about protecting the lives of his team, and getting justice for a crime committed by humans. Within the narrative, he is quickly put in a position where we as the audience are meant to feel pity for him. While he is narratively opposed to the heroes, we can have sympathy for him as well.

Soren is even less like a villain. When he is introduced, he is training Callum in sword-fighting, doing so in a teasing and joking manner that shows affection between the characters. He is a friend to the princes, and is a generally likeable character, laughing and joking, messing with his sister. He has his flaws and shows occasional meanness in his jokes, but overall his character is firmly on the side of the good guys. Except he is given the instructions to kill the princes. This order is framed as being for the good of the kingdom, to ensure that someone with experience is on the throne when war comes. He is told that this is for the greater good, but the choice still clearly troubles him. This is a character who wants to do what is right being told to kill the heroes of the show but still not quite being a villain.

Claudia is in a similar position. She is given the task of hunting the princes down and in an early episode tries to kill Rayla, but she does so to protect Callum and Ezran. She uses magic and sometimes has the appearance that would more normally be associated with a dark magic doer in a fantasy show, but she uses her magic to defend the princes from a perceived threat. Seeing the scenes where she’s joking with her brother, it’s hard to picture her as a villain, but she’s clearly an antagonist.

General Amaya is even more clearly one of the good guys. She tries to kill Rayla but she does so because she thinks Rayla is a bloodthirsty elf who had kidnapped the princes. She wants to protect the princes and the kingdom. She wants to stop someone claiming the throne through treachery. She stands in the way of the heroes’ goals, but because she is trying to help them without having all the information.

It will be interesting to see where the show goes with all these different character dynamics, but I’m looking forward to seeing it. As writers we can look at an example like this and think about how to put more nuance into the relationships between the characters in our stories. Just because someone is an antagonist doesn’t mean that they have to be an evil villain. There’s a lot of potential for interesting drama when they’re far from it.

Acceptance

While I was on the writer’s retreat which I posted a review for last week, I finished off a novella. This was a gay, fantasy, romance about a man being sacrificed to a monster and finding that the monster showed him more kindness than his former neighbours. I submitted it to Less Than Three Press, a publishing house that specialises in LGBTQ+ romances (a number of their titles are on the queer reading list), and I received the automatic response saying that I would hear back from them in approximately six to eight weeks.

When I saw an email in my inbox less than a week later, my heart sank, because the response was so much quicker than I expected and, from experience, rejections are always significantly faster than acceptances. I saw that email and I knew that my story had been turned down.

Or not.

Apparently acceptances can be that fast because they had said yes. They sent me a contract to publish the novella as an e-book, which I have now signed. The book still has to go through the editing process, but watch this space for more news as it comes out.

This is the fastest I’ve ever had a story accepted and it’s made me more than a little excited. It’s always a thrill to have a story accepted, but to have it accepted in less than a week on its first submission is something different. I can only assume that it means they really liked it and I can’t wait to share it with the world.

Review: Retreats for You

I’ve spent the past week at a writer’s retreat in Devon called Retreats for You. I thought I’d post about my experiences.

The most important measure of success for the week is that I got a lot of writing done. I finished the final tweaks/cleaning of A Monster’s Kindness, wrote a synopsis, and submitted the manuscript to a publisher. I went through/edited/rewrote almost 28000 words of the second draft of the final book in the Shadows of Tomorrow trilogy. I wrote about 9400 words of the first draft of the next book in the Codename Omega series. All in all, I’m extremely pleased with how productive I was over the week.

The retreat is in an old house in a small village in Devon where you’re shut off from the distractions of the outside world. There’s not much there in the village – a pub, a village shop, a handful of houses. Apparently you can go for nice walks in the countryside if the weather’s good and there are some National Trust properties within reasonable driving distance, but I (and the other writers there) spent our time shut up in the house getting on with our writing projects. Each bedroom has a writing desk, so we generally spent a good chunk of the day shut in our rooms writing. There were other places we could have gone to write – the dining room, the garden, a summer house, a studio across the garden, etc. – but the weather wasn’t great and the bedrooms afforded quiet and privacy.

The rooms didn’t have ensuite, although the owner of the retreat has plans to fit this for some of the bedrooms before the end of the year. When I was there, there were a couple of shared bathrooms, one upstairs and one downstairs. This was fine, but the house was quite old and if I wanted to sneak to the loo in the middle of the night every floorboard in the place creaked like I was in a horror movie. I think the ensuites will be a big improvement, but everyone was reasonable about the shared bathroom so we didn’t have any issues with it and the owner made sure we had plenty of toiletries available if we wanted them.

Everyone was very friendly. The owner was a lovely lady who was nice and supportive and checked to make sure we were all happy. There were a couple of other staff who came to look after the place and cook meals who were also very nice. And the other writers were great too. There were four of us staying the week I was there – me, two other writers, and a non-writer who was there for the retreat part – but the place could hold up to six guests.

It felt very sociable as we would share evening meals together or could hang out in the living room and talk. Lunches and breakfasts were laid out buffet style, so we had the option of eating with everyone else at the table or taking the food up to our rooms and continuing to write. We spent the time talking about our projects and progress, sharing advice and tips, and have general discussions about writing and everything else. I think this was what really made the retreat. Yes, we got the quiet time to get lots of writing done, but it never felt isolated because of the shared meals.

The meals themselves were excellent. It was all home cooking with plenty of fresh vegetables, and the staff were happy to take into account allergies and preferences and other dietary requirements. I didn’t have a bad meal when I was there and there were flapjacks and cakes available. On Wednesday, the retreat opens the dining room as a tea room so we were able to get cream teas. I took mine up to my room and ate a lovely, homemade scone with jam and cream while working on my books. It was really nice.

While I’m talking about food, I need to make a special shout out to the butter. This was the greatest butter I have ever tasted in my life. It was made at a local farm and sold in the village shop, so I bought myself a roll of butter to bring home with me. The retreat deserves a full ten out of ten marks for the butter alone. I realise it may seem strange that I’m dedicating a whole paragraph of this review to butter, but I’m not kidding. This butter is amazing.

So on the whole, I had a great time at the retreat and got a load of work done. The biggest drawback of the place is the shared bathrooms, but as I said earlier, the owner has plans to put in some ensuites before the end of the year, so that issue should be resolved soon. It was a great retreat and I’m already planning on going back next year.

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.