How to find your way around

I’ve been blogging for a while now and the number of posts has grown. Time to pin a short post here to advise anyone unfamiliar with WordPress sites how to navigate around the blog. Let’s say you’re a writer interested in posts about marketing or grammar, you probably don’t want to be scrolling down oodles of posts you’re not interested in. There’s a search function and previous posts are archived according to month posted, but the simplest way is to use the Categories menu. It’s on the right—you might need to scroll down a little way to find it. Simply click on the category you’re interested in and you’ll be presented with the posts relevant to that subject-matter. The system’s not perfect—there are some posts that come under more than one category—but it’s the easiest method to find your way around.

Oh, and if you want to leave a comment or read existing comments, you have to be on the post’s page (by clicking its title), rather than on a page containing more than one post.

What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 7

To continue with my occasional look at interesting grammatical points or issues (yes, grammar can be interesting) I come across from time to time. It’s not intended to be deadly serious, but not too jokey, either, despite the title. Somewhere in the middle, then—grammar with a smile.

Onwards…

Passive voice

Discussions about active and passive voice come up from time to time in any group or forum where writers congregate. It seems to be one of those topics about which there is some confusion.

So what is the passive voice? Put simply, it’s where the subject noun of a sentence (usually the first, or only, noun in the sentence) is being acted upon. It’s not doing anything—it’s having something done to it, i.e. it’s being passive. For example:

The grass is being cut.

The subject (grass) is having something done to it (being cut). A passive construction may not even tell us who or what is performing the action, as here.

The active voice is where the subject noun of a sentence is performing an action upon an object. What would the example be if written in active voice? It would be helpful to know who’s doing the cutting—the passive voice example doesn’t tell us, though it could have been written: ‘The grass is being cut by Keith.’ The active version becomes:

Keith cuts the grass.

The subject noun is now Keith and he is performing an action (cutting) upon an object (grass).

I don’t like to go into too much detail when discussing these weighty grammatical matters—this is supposed, after all, to be not too serious—and prefer to provide a link to an authoritative voice where those interested can read further into the topic if that’s what floats their boat. Here’s what Merriam-Webster has to say about passive and active voice: active-vs-passive-voice-difference. Or google ‘passive voice v active’ or similar—there’s oodles of stuff out there about it.

I have seen some writers state that if a sentence contains ‘was’ or ‘is’, the sentence must be written in passive voice. (This is the source of confusion I mention above.) But it ain’t necessarily so. While some form of the verb ‘to be’ usually appears in the passive construction (e.g. ‘the earth was destroyed by a meteor’), its presence isn’t conclusive. For instance, ‘Keith is/was cutting the grass’ is in active voice. There is still a subject noun (Keith) performing an action (cutting) upon an object (grass).

What the inclusion of ‘is’ or ‘was’ can do is provide an indication of whether an action has concluded or is continuing. Take these examples:

It rained. Peter stepped outside.
It was raining. Peter stepped outside.

In which example does Peter get wet? Almost certainly the second one because ‘was raining’ suggests it carried on raining and was still doing so when Peter stepped outside. In the first example, however, it’s possible that it had stopped raining by the time he stepped out.

Either way, both examples are written in active voice.

Could/should/would have v could/should/would of

Ah, social media. We’ve all seen examples of this on Facebook and Twitter and elsewhere:

I could of eaten a horse
You should of kept it
She would of cried with shame

In each example, of course, the ‘of’ should be ‘have’. Yet many people (and not necessarily of lower intelligence or uneducated) use ‘of’ in this way in their everyday speech. Little surprise, perhaps, that they write it as they say it.

There is an argument that since English is a living language and that’s how people do talk and write, then it should become acceptable usage. Maybe, but we haven’t reached that point yet.

Final word on this to Merriam-Webster: whats-worse-than-coulda.

 

I’ll leave you with a thought: is ‘orange’ the most unimaginative name ever given to anything?* Till next time…

*It has been gently pointed out to me that the colour orange takes it name from the fruit, not the other way round as implied by my feeble attempt at humour. That’ll teach me to check things thoroughly beforehand.

 

On Being a Science Fiction Writer

This was part of a series of interviews a fellow writer was conducting with indie science fiction writers to feature on his blog. I completed the interview in January 2014 and it must have appeared on the blog a month or so later.

I’ve since read a lot of Ursula K. Le Guin—love everythng of hers I’ve read so far—but not yet anything by Harry Turtledove, though I have some of his works sitting on my Kindle. I haven’t yet read any longer works by Hugh Howey, but did have a story included alongside one of his in a flash fiction anthology: Stories On the Go

On with the interview…

What made you become a writer?*

First and foremost, a deep and abiding love of reading. Many of the stories I read as a child are still with me today, though I read them forty or more years ago. Books like Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Adventure series, and, of course, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles. In my teens I discovered Lord of the Rings and it has captivated me ever since. Then authors like James Herbert, Stephen King and Terry Pratchett came along, and I was hooked.

I started writing fiction in my early thirties for a number of reasons. Here’s a couple. At the time, I was doing a stressful job that I hated. Writing became a sort of pressure release valve, a refuge from dark introspection. It also represented a possible, if unlikely, escape route from a job I loathed to one I loved. At about the same time, I read a number of novels that left me feeling flat, wondering how they’d been published. I can’t now recall their titles (and wouldn’t name them if I could), but felt I could do better.

Why do you write science fiction?

Although I refer to mainly fantasy and horror books and authors above, I have also enjoyed reading science fiction over the years. Works by Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, to name but a few. Pratchett’s Discworld series is generally regarded as fantasy, but contains many elements of science fiction.

The title story of my short story collection, Pond Life, is probably the first science fiction story I wrote. It concerns a space ship crashing into a pond outside a sleepy Welsh village and sinking to the bottom. Though the occupants of the craft are slowly dying, they work certain changes in the village’s inhabitants.

I didn’t set out to be a science fiction writer, merely a writer, but it was inevitable that science fiction would form part of my writing output. Many writers, myself included, write the sort of books that they like to read. Since science fiction forms a large portion of my reading pleasure, I was bound to write it. Put another way, we write what we write because we read what we read.

Do your stories contain some hidden, deeper meaning?

My intention in writing a story is purely and simply to entertain. Let’s face it, for all its wonders life can be pretty shit at times. I have often found escape and solace in losing myself in other worlds found between the pages of a book and enriched by my imagination. If I can provide the means to do the same for others, I’ll be happy. If readers can find some message or deeper meaning in my work, then that’s a bonus, but wasn’t what I set out to do.

Talk about one of your published works.

My short story collection contains another science fiction story, an apocalyptic tale: The Third Coming. It was written more than ten years ago, probably closer to fifteen, but I remember thinking at the time that it touched on ideas that might reward further exploration at some later date. Ideas concerning the origins of humankind and a method of faster-than-light travel and the purpose of Stonehenge, amongst others.

I revisited those ideas last year and sat down to write a novel based on them. I do a regular job full time and have to fit writing into evenings and weekends, but I completed the first draft in just under nine weeks, a record time for me. The novel is called The Cleansing and was published in December.

Who are your favourite science fiction authors?

I’ve mentioned some already. I can add Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, Iain M. Banks. There are many authors whose works I haven’t yet read, but fully intend to, such as Ursula Le Guin, Harry Turtledove and, sacrilege I know, Hugh Howey. Too many books, not enough time…

As for why I like these authors? For the depth of their imaginations and their sheer story-telling abilities.

What reactions do you hope to provoke in your readers?

As I say above, I want to entertain and help provide an avenue to forget about the humdrum for a while. If readers take something more from my work, something that makes them think or view the world differently, then all to the good. But if I only manage to entertain them, that will do.

Tell us about your work-in-progress.

A week or two into writing The Cleansing, it became apparent that there was way too much story to fit into one reasonably-sized novel. As an unknown, I didn’t want to write a doorstop that nobody would take a chance on buying, so decided to write a trilogy. I ended The Cleansing at about 90,000 words at a point that I felt was a natural place to pause. Not every reviewer agrees and I completely see where they’re coming from, but I hope they understand that I had to end it somewhere (or write a doorstop).

Now I’m working on the sequel: The Beacon. It picks up almost immediately where The Cleansing left off. I’m enjoying meeting the characters again (I haven’t seen them since July) and introducing some new characters that I’m slowly getting to know. Although I shall do everything I can to end this one at another natural pausing point, it will still leave the main story arc unresolved. That will happen at the conclusion of the third novel. I have an ending in mind but have little idea how I’ll get there. I’m relishing the journey.

 

* A note on copyright. Although the answers to the questions in this interview (and others I’ll be reproducing here) are mine and I am the sole copyright holder, I did not write the questions and do not hold the copyright in them. While the questions are fairly generic—you will see them, or ones just like them, asked in hundreds of blogs and other media—I have reworded them (and will reword them in other interviews I post) to avoid any suggestion of copyright infringement.

Audiobooks – Part 6

In Part 5, I said I’d run through my audio-editing process. This is purely for the benefit of anyone who’s thinking of producing their own audiobooks, but who doesn’t have the first clue about editing.

I am not claiming this to be the only or best way to edit audio using Audacity. On the contrary, it is not even an advisable method because it is massively time-consuming. 

As I write this, I’m picturing experienced audiobook producers rolling their eyes. What a ludicrously time-intensive way of doing things, I imagine them thinking. I completely agree with them. There must be quicker, more efficient ways of achieving the same outcome.

What this method has going for it is that it works—i.e. it results in audiobooks that meet Audible’s production standards—and works for narrators, like me, who don’t have a professional recording space and who aren’t professional narrators. I was extremely doubtful that my efforts would pass Audible’s quality control checks—why would they with the limitations on my recording studio and narration capabilities (see Part 5)? To have had both short story collections accepted first time without the need to make any changes was a huge boost. It also makes me reluctant to depart from the method that I know works, no matter how painstaking it is.

Painstaking is right. I have speeded up a little, but my editing time probably exceeds half an hour per completed minute of recording time. When you consider that the novel I’m currently producing in audio—The Beacon —is coming in at over thirty minutes per chapter, and there are twenty-three chapters altogether, that’s a significant time commitment.

Seriously, I’m not recommending you use my editing process. If you look around, you should be able to find a far more efficient method—if you do, please let me know. I’m setting out what I do for those who can’t find another way of doing it to a standard that meets Audible’s requirements.

Editing – Part 2

Always back up first—you really don’t want to have to make a new recording if something goes wrong during editing and you lose the original. I usually export the raw clip from Audacity as a WAV file and then save that file to the cloud.

Step 1
Listen to the entire recording, deleting the mistakes. By ‘mistakes’ I mean the sections that I mucked up during recording or an external noise intruded or whatever and I noticed and so was able to re-record the mucked-up section immediately. There’s something quite satisfying about deleting the duff bit, leaving only a popping or clicking noise where that bit was. (That click will be eradicated later—don’t worry about it, or any other unwanted sounds, now.)

Raw recordings of each chapter of The Beacon might be as long as fifty minutes—I told you I make a lot of mistakes during narration. By the time I’ve completed Step 1, the recording will typically be reduced to around forty minutes.

Step 1 is easy since it is simply a case of deleting, without being concerned about removing clicks, etc. There’s no finesse required here and it might take me around an hour or two, depending on the length of the raw recording.

Step 2
I now need to create my ‘good silence’. I usually record around thirty seconds of silence after speaking the final word. This gives me plenty of ambient room noise to play with.

Although I’m only looking for around two seconds of good silence for the editing process, Audible requires around four seconds of room noise at the end of each chapter so I make sure I have at least four seconds at this stage.

What do I mean by ‘good’silence’? It’s ambient room sound (a distant background hum) without any external noises like traffic or breathing or rustling. It will show on Audacity as a flat line, unbroken by the spikes that represents sounds.

Although I sit as still as a statue to record the thirty seconds of silence, you can guarantee my stomach will rumble or a noisy vehicle will go past or the house will creak for no apparent reason. (You notice sounds like that when you’re trying to be especially quiet.) So I need to remove those extraneous noises, leaving only the ambient sound, using the effect ‘Crossfade Clips’ (see below).

Step 3
This is the time consumer. This is where the attention to detail comes in.

First things first—I add a second track (from the dropdown menu ‘Tracks’) and then copy around two seconds of the good silence I created in Step 2 to the clipboard*. You can paste that clip as many times as you want during each session, but it won’t remain in the clipboard after you close Audacity down. I therefore begin each editing session by going to the end and copying the two-second clip of good silence before resuming where I left off.

It’s then a case of working my way through every second of the recording to:
– shorten pauses between sentences and paragraphs to make them roughly the same length,
– insert a two-second pause between scenes, and
– remove unwanted noises: breathing, creaks, rustling, clicks, slappy mouth sounds (no matter how careful I am, I will inevitably make a few per recording that the microphone gleefully picks up), banging doors, passing vehicles, whatever.

There are two main methods I use—which one will depend on the type of change I’m trying to make. You can only work this out through trial and error initially, but it gets much easier the more accustomed to it you become. Don’t be afraid to experiment—one of the big pluses of Audacity is that it allows you to undo any number of steps (within that session), so if you make a mistake, simply undo it and try again.

Crossfade Clips:
I use this mainly to decrease spaces between sentences, to shorten mid-sentence pauses and to get rid of clicks left over from Step 1. It can also be used to eliminate clicking noises mid-word, though this can be tricky to achieve without losing part of the word and thus making it noticeable to a listener. You might need to use fade instead—you’ll have to experiment.

Here’s an example:

In A1, the space between two sentences, at over two seconds, is too long. I want to reduce it to about a second. Simply deleting a chunk of gap will introduce popping noises. To avoid this, use the Effect ‘Crossfade Clips’.

As shown in A2, highlight the area to reduce and apply ‘Crossfade Clips’ from the dropdown menu.

A3 shows the result. The gap has been reduced to just over a second. If I want to reduce it further, I can repeat the process, highlighting a smaller area if I only want to reduce the gap slightly. The larger the area highlighted, the greater the reduction. Only trial and error will give you a feel for it, but it will come with practice.

Fade Out/Fade In:
In the above example, I’ve reduced the gap between sentences, but I haven’t addressed the sounds (the clicks, pops, creaks and sighs) picked up by the microphone during recording and represented by the thicker dots and dashes. If I use Crossfade Clips again, the gap will become shorter, whch I may not want. Here’s how to eliminate unwanted sounds in the gaps between words and sentences without shortening the gap.

As shown in A4, apply Fade Out from roughly the end of the preceding sentence to around the midpoint of the gap. This will eliminate any unwanted noises, especially towards the end of the highlighted area. To get rid of noise from the start of the gap without shortening it, you can start/end a fade in a different place (but you’ll have to be careful not to introduce extra clicks or pops—generally speaking, so long as you perform a corresponding Fade In/Out that slightly overlaps the first one, you shouldn’t introduce any new clicks). Again, it’s a matter of trial and error—practice and you’ll become proficient.

As shown in A5, you then highlight from the centre of the gap to the first word of the next sentence and apply ‘Fade In’. You must ensure that the highlighted area begins just before the point where the previously highlighted area ended—the overlap I mention above—as otherwise you’ll create a new clicking/popping sound. Again, if this doesn’t eliminate sounds towards the end of the gap, you might need to do a Fade Out, but practice will make perfect.

The sounds you can see in the highlighted section in A3 have disappeared; the line in that section is now perfectly flat. However, if you do nothing further, you’ll be able to hear where the fades start or end, so you need to cover them up. This is where the clip of ‘good silence’ comes in. Simply paste it over the gap onto the second track, making sure the start and end of the clip corresponds with speaking on the main track (adjusting the length of the clip as necessary using ‘Delete’ from the ‘Edit’ dropdown menu) as otherwise the start/end of the clip will be heard as a clicking noise.

 

Okay, so that’s how I do it. If you’ve been struggling to find a way to edit that satisfies Audible’s requirements, feel free to copy what I do. It’s worth repeating the warning, though: it’s hugely time-consuming and there must be a better way to do it.

Next time, in a much briefer post, I’ll talk a little about mixing and mastering. (That makes it sound as though I know a lot about them—I don’t, I really don’t, but I know what to do to get it approved by Audible.) Till then…

 

* Since drafting this post, a way to reduce the editing time occurred to me. I recorded a lengthy section of ambient room noise. Then I used Crossfade Clips to remove any extraneous sounds, leaving only good silence. I spliced the clip together a few times (and used Crossfade Clips to conceal the joins) to leave me with a track of thirty-six minutes consisting entirely of good silence. It’s saved as a WAV file and labelled ‘Ambience’. When I embark on Step 3, the first thing I do is import ‘Ambience’ as the second track. This avoids having to paste a clip of silence over each edit and is saving me a fair amount of time overall. Wish I’d thought of it sooner. Here’s a screenshot of the current Beacon chapter I’m working on showing the Ambience track beneath the main track.

Guest Post – Claire Buss (Part 2)

A little later than planned due to internet problems (thankfully all now resolved), my blog is back. So, Happy New Year to you—let’s hope it’s an improvement on 2020, despite the initial signs not being good.

A slight departure today—I have a guest post (her second) from Claire Buss, who is soon releasing the second book in her humorous fantasy Roshaven series. Details of how to preorder, the cover and links to other works in the series follow, together with links to Claire’s social media.

I’ll be back a week Friday, the 22nd—see you then!

The Silk Thief (The Roshaven Series Book 2)

Releasing 4th June 2021

A Humorous Urban Fantasy Novel

The Blurb:

Fourteen, heir to the Empire of Roshaven, must find a new name before Theo, Lord of neighbouring Fidelia, brings his schemes to fruition.

Not only has he stolen Roshaven’s trade, but he plans to make Fourteen his own and take her empire in the bargain.

Her protector, Ned Spinks, is plagued with supernatural nightmares whilst his assistant, Jenni the sprite, has lost her magick.

Can they figure out how to thwart Theo’s dastardly plan before it’s too late for his city and her empire?

To preorder, click here

More about the Roshaven books.

The Rose Thief, The Roshaven Series book 1

Someone is stealing the Emperor’s roses and if they take the magical red rose then love will be lost, to everyone, forever.

It’s up to Ned Spinks, Chief Thief Catcher, and his band of motley catchers to apprehend the thief and save the day.

But the thief isn’t exactly who they seem to be. Neither is the Emperor.

Ned and his team will have to go on a quest, defeating vampire mermaids, illusionists, estranged family members and an evil sorcerer in order to win the day. What could possibly go wrong?

Available in paperback and ebook here

The Interspecies Poker Tournament, Prequel Novella to The Rose Thief

Ned Spinks, Chief Thief-Catcher, has a new case. A murderous moustache-wearing cult is killing off members of Roshaven’s fae community. At least that’s what he’s been led to believe by his not-so-trusty sidekick, Jenni the sprite. She has information she’s not sharing but plans to get her boss into the Interspecies Poker Tournament so he can catch the bad guy and save the day. If only Ned knew how to play!

Available in paperback and ebook here

Ye Olde Magick Shoppe, a Roshaven short story

Join Ned Spinks, Chief Thief-Catcher, and his sidekick Jenni the sprite in this short story about an unwanted magick shoppe.

This free short story is available in ebook here

Claire Buss is a multi-genre author and poet based in the UK. She wanted to be Lois Lane when she grew up but work experience at her local paper was eye-opening. Instead, Claire went on to work in a variety of admin roles for over a decade but never felt quite at home. An avid reader, baker and Pinterest addict, Claire won second place in the Barking and Dagenham Pen to Print writing competition in 2015 with her debut novel, The Gaia Effect, setting her writing career in motion. She continues to write passionately and is hopelessly addicted to cake.

To connect with Claire:

Facebook
Facebook group
Twitter
Instagram
Website

Merry Christmas!

 

Or happy-whatever-holiday-you-prefer. 2020 is drawing to a close. Do I hear you say ‘Hallelujah’?

The photo above is a few years old now. I really ought to update the image with the older, more crinkly version of me, but it doesn’t seem important enough to go to the effort. That’s the thing about this horrendous year – it has made us examine our priorities. Inevitably, I believe, there will be a reshuffling of those priorities, a reordering of the things we cherish most.

Don’t worry – I’m not going to go all philisophical on you. The purpose of this post is simply to raise a rhetorical glass of a favourite tipple to family and friends, and fellow writers and readers.

I wish you all the very best for a peaceful holiday and a better year ahead.

Iechyd da! Cheers!

Stay safe. I’ll be back on 8th January. Till then…

From Self-Published to Published

[This article appeared on a couple of blogs in April 2013, days after I had signed with a small press. I still clearly recall the sense of elation I felt when signing the contract. Pity things didn’t work out but, hey ho, such is life.

Besides, I came out of that contract determined to learn how to market, how to make my own covers, how to publish my own paperbacks and how to produce audiobooks. As a result, I have become completely self-sufficient and would now need to be persuaded that a publisher can do something I can’t do myself before I consider signing with another.

I could have added to the title, à la Bilbo Baggins, ‘… and Back Again.’ Funny how things come full circle: I was delighted to sign with the small press; overjoyed to be free of them.

On with the article…]

 

Thank you for kindly allowing me to hijack a space in your blog to share something with you.

My name is Sam Kates and I have been writing fiction for nigh on fifteen years. I had some short stories published in small press magazines and accumulated a pile of rejections for my novels from agents and publishers. There are probably many other writers who have trodden a similar path.

Then the e-publishing revolution came along. I didn’t even notice until I received a Kindle for Christmas in 2011. It still took me until August last year to appreciate the opportunities now open to writers with a bunch of scribblings accumulating cyberdust on their hard drive. So I bundled together ten short stories and published them on Amazon under the title Pond Life.

Going against accepted wisdom (‘Never publish the first novel you write’), I rewrote my first novel and published it in December as The Village of Lost Souls.

Life then took over (in particular, I faced the threat of losing my job, now thankfully averted) and I haven’t found time to rewrite my second novel and publish it. But in the meantime something remarkable has happened.

Around two weeks ago, completely out of the blue, I received a message from somebody representing an independent publisher, Smithcraft Press, saying that they felt my books should be selling more than they are and that they would be interested in publishing and marketing them.

My initial jaw-dropping astonishment was tempered by a certain wariness. We’ve all heard the horror stories: authors paying through the nose for marketing and editing services from their publisher, e-books being offered at ridiculously high prices so nobody buys them, authors being invited to buy-out their publishing contracts for more exorbitant fees. I waited to receive the contract with a knot in my stomach, dreading that it would contain all those things and that I’d be compelled to reject it.

Much to my relief, the contract did not contain any unconscionable terms. With one slight amendment that the publisher was happy to agree, I felt that the contract was fair for a complete unknown like me. So I signed.

I’m still coming to terms with being able to drop ‘self’ from self-published author. I had no idea that my work was even under consideration until the publisher contacted me. Of course, I hoped to one day attract the attentions of a publisher, but never dreamed it would happen so quickly.

So is there some sort of moral to this tale? I don’t know, except perhaps for this: if you too are a self-published author, hang in there; good fortune can strike when you least expect it. It may happen to you. Best of luck!

 

[When next my blog is due, it will be Christmas Day and so I’m taking a break. Apart from posting the obligatory Merry Christmas post, my blog will return on 8th January.]

 

 

Reviewing: An Unknown Writer’s Perspective

[Browsing through the murky depths of my hard drive the other day, I came across a handful of articles and interviews—some from quite a few years back—most of which were published on blogs or websites of fellow writers. So that I have everything I’ve had published collected in one place, I’ll reproduce them on my blog from time to time, with a brief note of when they were written and, where I can remember, why. There is often overlap between interviews and articles, and so inevitably the later pieces will repeat, sometimes verbatim, some of the earlier material.

Let’s kick off with this article, written in 2002 and first published in the long-defunct Cambrensis magazine*. To the fifty-six-year-old me, this piece displays a fairly high level of naivety on the part of thirty-eight-year-old me—it is evident that the possibility of a self-publishing revolution, which was around five years away when I wrote this, was not on my radar. Hardly surprising, given that I didn’t notice the revolution until around five years after it had started.

On with the article…]

 

How should an unknown writer approach the preparation of a review of another writer’s work? With extreme caution, I would suggest.

To state the obvious, though it’s surprising how often it seems to be overlooked, a review is a showcase of your own writing talent. Don’t make it dull and uninspiring, even if the book you’re reviewing is. Use it to demonstrate that you, too, are a writer, but without losing sight of the work under consideration. It’s a question of balance: providing a fair appraisal of the book, while revealing a glimpse of your own writing ability.

Books are like any other entertainment medium or artform – films, music, comics, photographs, paintings, theatre, etc. Beauty is very much in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. Take the film The Blair Witch Project, a perfect example. People who have seen it seem to fall within two distinct camps: those who love it and those who loathe it. I come within the former category. I thought the film was brilliantly conceived and executed, one of the scariest films made, yet without showing a single supernatural image or gory scene. That’s probably why many people felt it a waste of time.

The point, of course, is that art is completely subjective. This can best be expressed in relation to books by mutilating a well-known proverb: one man’s ripping yarn is another man’s sleep-inducer. And that’s a sentiment that we should always keep in mind when reviewing another’s work.

The best sort of reviewer is he (or she) who tells us enough about a book to give us a flavour – no more – of its plot and characters, tells us why he likes or dislikes it, then, regardless of personal taste, encourages us to go and read it. Such a reviewer appreciates that simply because he hated a book it doesn’t mean that we will, and recognises that his role is not to read a book in our place, but to draw our attention to it so that we may read it and judge for ourselves.

That, I believe, is the ideal we should all, as writers, particularly of the unknown variety, aim for when reviewing. The key word is objectivity. Let’s not dismiss other people’s work out of hand. We know, or can give a shrewd estimate of, the time and effort that goes into writing a book. Who are we to be contemptuous of the result of those labours? Moreover, do we want to run the risk of the first reviewer of our debut novel or collection being the same author whose work we so callously dismissed? Nor should we talk up good writing so much that it can never meet a reader’s inflated expectations. Remember: we have all had work that we feel is good summarily rejected, showing that we are not the best judges of our own work. Why should we be of others’?

And there’s a sound practical reason why a reviewer of, say, a novel, who is himself an aspiring novelist, should encourage people to read the book for themselves, even if he considers it the worst piece of writing he’s ever encountered. The more books people buy, the more money publishers make and the more should be available to filter downwards, making the publishers more willing to take risks on unknown writers. That’s you and me.

But wait, you’re saying. I have to review a novel that’s badly written, has a hackneyed plot, stereotypical characters and clichéd conflicts. It has no redeeming features and I can’t conceive of it being anyone’s ripping yarn. How can I encourage anybody to read such drivel without being completely dishonest?

Well, try to remember that somebody thought the book had something going for it – they’ve published it, haven’t they? Assuming the author isn’t the daughter of the publisher’s managing director, the book must have some good points. Take another look. Then another. If you still can’t find anything positive to say, then I suppose you’ll have to let rip.

Just don’t forget that in doing so you may be harming more than the reviewed author’s prospects.

 

*if you were a writer of short fiction or book reviews in South Wales at the turn of the Millennium, you will almost certainly have heard of Cambrensis

Returns

Although, on the whole, I think I’d rather be talking about film sequels, this isn’t a post about Return of the Jedi or Return of the King. It’s about audiobook listeners returning audiobooks. Yeah, I know. Big yawn, right?

Ordinarily, I’d agree with you. But something has recently come to light that affects many authors and narrators. Not in a good way. I’ll come onto it in a moment after I’ve laid out a little background.

Amazon has what I consider to be a reasonable policy for returns of its Kindle ebooks. A reader can return the ebook within 7 days* of purchase. Since it is possible to accidentally purchase an ebook you didn’t intend to with Amazon’s one-click function, it seems only fair that the reader who does this should be able to return the ebook without fuss. I also have no problem with a reader being able to return the ebook if they can’t get on with the writing style or subject matter and struggle to get past, say, the third chapter, or if the content is utter crap scraped from the internet and published as some sort of scam.

This policy can, of course, be abused. I have held conversations with people who have used Amazon as a lending library by reading and returning ebooks within the period allowed, but I believe Amazon has been clamping down on this practice. I usually get a smattering of ebook returns each month, but they seem to be far fewer now than they were two or three years back. Although the thought of someone buying one of my books, reading the entire thing and then returning it for a refund doesn’t exactly fill me with joy (since I don’t get paid for that ‘purchase’), it happens so infrequently that ebook returns aren’t really an issue for me.

How do I know that ebooks are returned infrequently? Amazon provides this information on my sales dashboard and in the monthly reports I download to compile sales figures. I also receive returns details from most other retailers through which I sell, such as Kobo or GooglePlay. Simple, transparent, as it should be.

So, what about audiobooks? More specifically, audiobooks sold through Audible (or Apple or Amazon via Audible’s distribution arm, ACX)? I’ll post some links shortly to more detailed explanations of the issue for anyone who’s interested; what follows is the potted version.

Audible members pay a monthly subscription, in return for which they have monthly credits (one per month with the basic subscription) they can use to ‘purchase’ an audiobook. Audible is owned by Amazon. It is alleged that both companies are encouraging members to exchange their used credit for a refund, i.e. to reuse the credit to ‘buy’ another audiobook with no questions asked. It doesn’t matter if the audiobook has been listened to and enjoyed in its entirety—the member can return the audiobook and reuse the credit for another book.

You might be thinking that sounds like a great deal for the Audible member, and I’d have to agree with you. But what about the author of the book in question and (if different and they are sharing royalties) the narrator? Ah, there’s the rub. You see, the cost of the refund isn’t borne by Audible or Amazon, but by the author and narrator. Some authors are claiming to be losing up to 50% of their audiobook income. For many of us, this income is part of our livelihoods.

To make things worse, unlike Amazon with ebook sales, Audible doesn’t provide authors with details of audiobooks returned. All we are given are the net sales figures. So, if I sold twelve audiobooks this month, but seven of them were returned by the listeners as allegedly encouraged to do by Audible, I would be paid for five audiobooks and wouldn’t know there were seven more copies sold but subsequently refunded.

To exacerbate matters even further, listeners aren’t limited to 7 or 14 days to return the audiobook for a refund. Fair enough, you might think—it takes longer to judge whether an audiobook is up to scratch than an ebook, so they probably get 21 or even 28 days. Nope, they get 365 days, Yes, you read that correctly. An Audible member could exchange their monthly credit for one of my books, listen to and enjoy the book, and return it up to a year later, whereupon Audible would recoup the refunded cost from me. If I had no sales during that particular month, I’d owe them money.

That’s not what I signed up for when I published my audiobooks on Audible. I was keen to enter the world of audiobooks as a means of getting my work to a wider audience and, naturally, boosting my writing income. I simply cannot afford to, in effect, give my audiobooks away for nothing.

I am deep into producing the second Earth Haven novel in audio. It is a massively time-consuming project that will have taken me the best part of a year by the time it is ready for publication. That’s at least as long as it took me to write, revise and edit the book in the first place. I’m wondering if it’s worth the effort. At the least, I’ll be looking to publish the completed audiobook in places other than Audible.

That’s the thing: unless Audible stops doing as alleged—encouraging returns and allowing them for up to a year without question—and unless it starts providing details of returns to authors and narrators, many content providers will be thinking twice about placing more content with them. What sounded such a good deal for Audible members will become increasingly less so as the flow of new content dries up.

A Facebook group has been set up to pool information and experiences, and to coordinate approaches to Audible. (I’ll link to it shortly in case you’re affected by this—I believe you’ll need to prove you’re an author or narrator before you’ll be allowed to join.) The initial response isn’t promising. While Audible has recently acknowledged there is an issue**, it appears thus far to be reluctant to provide details of returns to authors upon request.

I wondered whether I ought to talk about this. There could be audiobook listeners looking in who weren’t aware that it was possible to use Audible membership as, in effect, an unlimited lending library, and go trotting off to sign up. I am also aware there are people out there who believe that all digital content should be freely available to whoever wants it. Well, all I can say to them is that I, like many others, work my butt off to produce digital content and I simply cannot afford to provide it without any financial return. I hope that most audiobook consumers will agree that authors and narrators deserve to be paid for their work. If we’re not going to be, most of us will stop doing it.

* in the US; in the UK, for some reason, it seems to be 14 days

** from a ‘Letter to the ACX Community’ sent by email on 11th November:
“In addition, we’ve recently heard from members of the ACX community who are concerned about Audible’s overall return policy. While this customer benefit is for active members in good standing and suspicious activity is rare, we take your concerns very seriously and are actively reviewing the policy with this feedback under consideration.”

Links
Audiblegate! The incredible true story of missing sales
The Digital Reader
Facebook group

Weird Words 5

The fifth in a series of posts about words, taking a lighthearted look at some of the most troublesome, overused, misused, comical, or downright peculiar words in the English language.

All suggestions for words to include in future instalments are welcome—simply comment with your suggestion.

On with this week’s words…

Raccoon

Thanks to Vijaya for suggesting this word—it’s one of her favourites.

Raccoon… hmm, makes me think of Guardians of the Galaxy and, unlike Jar Jar Binks in the Star Wars prequels, a non-irritating CGI anthropormorphic animal named Rocket.

For anyone who doesn’t know, a raccoon is a small nocturnal carnivore native to North America. According to Merriam-Webster, the word derives from the native American language Virginia Algonquian, also known as Powhatan. According to Wikipedia, that language became extinct around the 1790s when its speakers were forced to switch to English.

That makes me feel sad.

Noisome

Meaning highly obnoxious or objectionable; often used to describe a disgusting smell.

It’s one of those words ripe for being misused by the careless writer who chucks it into a sentence without double-checking its meaning.

The noisome explosions surrounded me while I cowered in the foxhole.

Nope. Unless, perhaps, you’re describing the rapid expulsion of air from someone’s backside, or a hand grenade lobbed into a cesspit, explosions are rarely likely to be noisome.

Kerfuffle

Another of those words I love because they sound so much like their meaning. Does a disturbance or commotion sound like a kerfuffle to you? Of course it does.

It apparently comes from a combination of ancient Scots and Gaelic. Probably. It typically refers to a commotion caused by an argument, though can apply to most disturbances.

Since I’m claiming it to be one of my favourite words, I checked to see whether I’d used it in any of my published fiction. Lo and behold, it appears in my first novel, The Village of Lost Souls.

Although the rear wall blocked out the Dead Lights at ground level, they were bright enough to light up the garden like a flare and I was vaguely aware of a kerfuffle coming from the disturbed animals and poultry as I sprinted past them.

See—told you I loved it.

 

That’s all for Part 5. Don’t forget to suggest any words you find weird for inclusion in future instalments. I’ll credit anyone whose suggestion I use.

 

In Praise of Paper

A light-hearted post today—in these days of gloom and uncertainty, I’m increasingly drawn to writing blog posts tending towards frothiness. Cappuccino rather than espresso.

Let me begin by saying that this isn’t about bashing e-readers. Indeed, I have an e-reader. It’s a Kindle Paperwhite and I love it to bits. It holds umpteen books, it’s lightweight and easy to hold when I’m horizontal, and, best of all, it is backlit so I can read in the early hours without disturbing the other half.

So what is this post about? Well, a little while ago I was buying something on Amazon for £16. Postage and packing would cost £4-odd, but I could get free p & p if I bought something else to bring the total past £20. It was a bit of a no-brainer to look for something around the £4 mark and, in effect, get the second item free.

If you, too, are an avid reader, you’ll know to which department I headed in search of a £4 item. I found something straight away—a small Penguin paperback of essays by George Orwell.

Here’s a pic of the book next to my Kindle. And, yes, that’s one of my books on the e-reader screen. Why miss an opportunity for a little self-plugging, eh? Goodness knows, I’m rubbish at doing that most of the time.

The caption sums up my feelings towards e-books and their more traditional counterparts. Some people say they will never use an e-reader; others that they will only use an e-reader and never return to paper books. Me, I enjoy both. Much as I love my Kindle, it will never completely replace traditional books for me.

I tend to alternate between reading a book on my Kindle and reading a paperback, but of late I’ve been reading more of the former. No particular reason other than the books I’ve been wanting to read next happen to be on my Kindle.

So when the Orwell book arrived from Amazon, it had been a few weeks since I’d last handled a paperback. And a great deal longer since I’d held a brand new one.

I imagine most book lovers will recognise how I react to holding a new book for the first time:

– gaze at it for long moments, slowly absorbing the cover design

– run my fingers over the cover; if, as is the case with the Orwell book, the cover is embossed, my fingers will linger as I relish the ridges and furrows, silky to the touch

– turn the book over and absorb the back cover and description

– (this, and the next, are the ones that people who have little time for books don’t get) raise the book to my nose and inhale deeply

–  riffle the pages, stop at random and thrust my nose between the pages to inhale once more

There is nothing quite like the pleasure to be derived from holding a brand new book. (Indeed, from holding old, well-read books, too, though the sensations involved there are more to do with an appreciation of age and mustiness, and being in the presence of something much-treasured.)

While the aesthetic pleasure in e-books lies almost entirely in the reading device itself—which, of course, looks the same no matter what you’re reading on it—paper books differ in their dimensions, type and size of font, cover design, and more. An e-reader strips back a book to make it all about its contents; I’m unlikely to ever derive pleasure purely from the look of an e-book. By contrast, I can greatly enjoy simply looking at and holding a paper book, never mind reading its contents.

Take the Orwell book. It’s small in height and width and thickness, like a well-padded pamphlet, and weighs very little, a pleasant surprise when you’re accustomed to holding weightier tomes. I’ve already mentioned the silky feel of the embossed cover—it really is something I delight in touching. I love the classic Penguin design of the cover: simplistic and iconic. And it has that new-book scent that always reminds me of the smell given off by roads and pavements when it rains for the first time in a while. The smells aren’t the same, as such, but similar for their distinctiveness.

I’d like to say that the scent of a book is of crisp paper and ink, but they’re more likely to have been laser-printed these days. Still, there’s something special about thrusting your hooter between the pages of a new book and inhaling. I’m not going over the top and claiming this to be akin to a religious experience, but it nevertheless stirs something spiritual in me.

“Guru Sam, tell us the secret of life.”
“Certainly, my acolytes. Go forth and buy a new book. Open it and breathe in through your nose. Slowly. Deeply. Therein lies true enlightenment.”

Yeah, I agree; that’s enough wittering for one post. Whatever your preferred medium, happy smell— er, reading!