Guest Post – Maggie Plummer

Today I’m hosting another guest, the free-spirited Maggie Plummer. I’ve known Maggie (in an online sense) for a number of years and always found her bubbly and delightful. She’s going to talk about how writers can use their real-life experiences in their fiction. Over to Maggie.

Turning Life into Fiction

When You Can’t Trust Your Memory…

Authors hear this again and again: Write what you know.

For years I thought about that, wanting to write my travel stories from the 1970s. I imagined a collection of short stories that would be called Tales of a Volkswagen Gypsy or something similar. For some reason, I just couldn’t get going on the project. Then I considered writing a memoir about those years, but quickly realized that my memory is too befuddled to attempt a non-fiction book about my life.

Gradually I developed the idea of a novel loosely (and I mean LOOSELY!) based on my ‘70s wanderings. After working on it for several years, Bell-Bottom Gypsy: A Jessie Morgan Novel is finally published and available on Amazon.

The process of turning my stories into a novel has been a revelation. It’s true what they say: truth is stranger than fiction. The thing is, fiction has to be believable.

In other words, it’s not as easy as it sounds.

There are pitfalls to avoid when writing autobiographical fiction. I think the biggest problem is a tendency to be too attached to memories. A fiction writer has to let go of the reality, and let the drama fly. The needs of the fiction must come first, no matter how fond a writer is of his/her real stories. That means:

  • Bending and stretching real people into credible fictional characters. This is especially important when the writer is the main character. Don’t forget, the novel’s protagonist has to be believable.
  • Making events fit together in a way that’s satisfying for a reader. Things must happen for a reason in a novel, moving the story forward. Always look for the conflict. A string of cool but disconnected anecdotes does not a novel make. Plan fiction with the narrative structure in mind.

The process of writing my new novel has been strikingly different from that of my two previous novels, Spirited Away and Daring Passage—both of which are historical novels set in the 1650s. As I wrote the two earlier novels, historical research played a major role in developing the novels’ plots. Bell-Bottom Gypsy, however, required that I look deeper into my story to create a plot with tension and conflict.

I not only had to embellish, I had to lie.

When it comes to writing fiction, the more dramatic the lie, the better. The thing to do is deliberately change a major element in the story. Take Twisty, my “bad guy” in Bell-Bottom Gypsy. In real life, my boyfriend was nothing like crazy old Twisty. Some of the details were similar: like Twisty, my boyfriend played guitar, sang, loved black and white photography, and was tall and dark. But his core character was totally different. My boyfriend was gentle, quiet, and mellow (in fact, sometimes he was too mellow for me! But I digress…). In order to write a decent novel, I turned him into someone edgy and potentially dangerous. It made all the difference.

Here are more tips for turning life into fiction:

  • Describe everything in detail. Too much detail can be edited out later. When writing what you know, it’s easy to forget that the reader knows nothing about you or your story.
  • Point of view can be tricky. In Bell-Bottom Gypsy, I used third person point of view, because it flowed well and I wanted Jessie, the main character, to be included in the scenes. Some writers use first person point of view in their autobiographical fiction. It might be good to experiment with both.
  • Define an enduring theme. What is the central message you want to get across? Find the story within your stories, making sure the narrative has enough depth to keep readers going.
  • Create composites. Feel free to throw the best tidbits of real life into the novel’s scenes, regardless of when they really happened.
  • Try to create a sense of distance from your experiences. I had an advantage as I wrote my new novel: the distance of time. My travel stories are from the early 1970s – almost fifty years ago! (That’s hard to believe, isn’t it?)

The main thing is, don’t be afraid to use real life in your fiction. Mine it like gold, but craft it carefully.

Then sit back and enjoy. To those who are horrified by the things that happen in your autobiographical fiction (like some might be by scenes in Bell-Bottom Gypsy), repeat after me, loudly and proudly: “It’s fiction! It’s fiction!”

Maggie Plummer is a multi-genre author based in northwest Montana. Along the winding trail, she has worked as a journalist, school bus driver, Good Humor ice cream girl, fishing boat mate, and race horse hot walker, among other things. Bell-Bottom Gypsy is her third published novel.

Links:

Bell-Bottom Gypsy: A Jessie Morgan Novel (Kindle edition)

Bell-Bottom Gypsy: A Jessie Morgan Novel (paperback)

Spirited Away: A Novel of the Stolen Irish

Daring Passage: Book Two of the Spirited Away Saga

To connect with Maggie:

Website

Twitter

Facebook

Guest Post – Mike Van Horn

Today I’m hosting American writer Mike Van Horn, author of the science fiction trilogy Agate and Breadbox. Here he is hard at work in Hawaii—looks tough, but I guess someone has to do it.

Over to Mike, who’s going to talk about the importance of songs in his work and how one thing can quickly lead to another.

When Life Gives You Lyrics, Make Music

I can’t sing anything more demanding than Happy Birthday. So imagine my surprise when I became a lyricist.

In my just-published book Aliens Crashed in My Back Yard, my main character and narrator—Selena M—is a singer who nurses a surviving alien back to health so she can send it home. The alien is also a singer, and that’s how they learn to communicate. They help each other recapture the passion of their singing.

I had to write snippets of lyrics for the songs that Selena sings, and come up with song titles. I used these as epigraphs at the top of chapters. Like this:

I’ve been a sweet stuff singer

All my girlie years

Airy, frothy little ditties

Full of love and tears

That’s from Cotton Candy Lovin’. Here’s another:

I’m playing with you

the game of love

and I’m losing every match.

Some of these snippets grew into verses, and then entire song lyrics. The thought came to me: if I have lyrics, I need music. But this was way beyond my skills!

I found a guy who could compose music for my lyrics, and he found a local blues singer who became the vocalist and the voice of Selena. They produced my songs and I put them up on Soundcloud. Now I have ‘sci fi with a sound track!’ I’ve written about twenty lyrics so far.

How do these get written? Two ways. Sometimes lines or couplets pop into my head. I write them down, then look for ideas that can expand them. I spend a lot of time looking for rhymes.  For example:

We all want to fly to the stars

not just staying here sittin’ on our arse.

 

You serious scientists, let me lead you astray.

Get up! Get out there! Fly into the void.

Or should we just sit here whiling away

waiting to get whacked by some asteroid?

“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen stars rhymed with arse,” several have remarked.

Sometimes, after I’ve written a prose paragraph, I look at it and think, this could be turned into a song. For example, when Selena was by herself on the Moon, looking at the emptiness of space, she got the shivers:

I was beginning to feel unmoored. Not unmoored internally, exactly. Just feeling strange. More like a boat drifting out to sea. The farther it drifts, the harder it will be for it to find its way back. Perhaps it will discover new continents, but maybe it will just drift. A strange feeling came over me, and I found myself turning this chain of thought into a song.

Here’s what it turned into (first two verses):

I am unmoored.

I am adrift on the vastness of space.

Like a boat, lines cast free from the shore,

freed of land’s embrace.

Slowly drifting out to sea, 

no rudder, no compass, no map, no haste.

Across the vasty void.

Forever to infinity.

 

The farther I drift ‘cross the vasty void

the harder it will be for me

to find my way back from the endless sea

to safe harbor, to home, to thee.

I may discover new worlds out there.

Or I might just drift, ‘cross the vast nowhere.

Forever to infinity.

This is so much fun! I love creating songs like this.

I want to finish up with a story. I felt very tentative about this entire effort. Who was I to hire composers, producers, and professional singers? I sent them my lyrics and they produced music. But then they invited me to one of the recording sessions at the studio. I went as an observer.

When the vocalist was warming up in the soundproof room, she said, “Sorry guys, my voice isn’t right today. I’m a little nervous because the lyricist is here.”

The who? You mean the big lyricist smoking a cigar who arrived in a long limo? She was feeling nervous because of me, and I was suffering from imposter syndrome big-time.

Okay, so what’s the lesson here for you writers?

When creativity happens, go with it. Go with it! Go where it takes you. Don’t say, “I can’t do that.” That’s a killer. Maybe you can’t, but maybe you can.

What I found out was that I could not only spin a good tale, but I can write music.

I am a lyricist. And it’s a blast!

Let’s finish with two verses from the one that became my theme song, and the name of Book 2 of my trilogy:

My spaceship calls out to me

Come fly me home

I’m yours, you’re my skipper.

Just call and I’ll come.

Just call and I’ll come to you

The whole galaxy’s our home.

On any world anywhere

Just call and I’ll come.

This is what Selena’s spaceship says to her. Could you resist? That’s what Books 2 and 3 are about: My Spaceship Calls Out to Me and Space Girl Yearning.

 

To hear how Mike’s music came out, go to http://galaxytalltales.com and click on Sci Fi Music.

Book 1 available for Kindle on Amazon here. Paperback edition coming soon.

Book 2 due May

You can read excerpts from all three books on his site – link above

 

Marketing for Muppets – Part 6

In Part 5, I mentioned in a footnote (because it happened after I’d drafted that post) that one of my books reached the top 500 in the Amazon store (not in the US) and gained the No. 1 Bestseller tag in three countries in various sub-categories of science fiction. In this post, I’m going to talk about how that happened.

One thing: as with all these marketing posts, what works for me won’t necessarily work for you, and vice versa. For instance, I know of authors who swear by the power of Facebook ads, or being visible on social media, with neither of which have I found a great deal of success. On the other hand, I have heard some authors say how disappointed they are with Amazon ads (AMS), which have worked quite well for me. Each of us has to try different methods until we hit on the one that is effective for us.

The proposition in Part 1 bears repeating:

Proposition 1: What works well for one author, won’t necessarily work well for another.

As mentioned in Part 5, I was already seeing increased sales through AMS and the knock-on effects of greater visibility the ads brought me. As of 26th January 2019, I’d already had a good month. A couple of days later, my sales for January had more than doubled.

How? In a word: BookBub.

BookBub has long been held up by the indie-author community as the crème de la crème, the Holy Grail of book advertising. A few years ago, I’d applied—twice—and been turned down. If the relationship between me and my then-publisher hadn’t stalled, I’d have carried on applying. As it was, I grew unwilling to incur the high cost involved when I wouldn’t be the only person to benefit from any resulting success, so I stopped applying.

And, yes, it is pricey. The cost of a featured deal depends on what category (genre) your book fits into and the price to which you’re discounting the book. The highest cost (as at 12th February 2019) is for a book falling within the category of ‘crime fiction’—to advertise such a book at a price of $3 or more will cost the author $3,983. That falls to $783 if the author is running a free promotion. That’s almost $800 to give a book away.

With all rights in my books reverted back to me, I decided to apply again. Although my sales had been growing steadily, it was mainly in the UK, while sales in the US remained sporadic. The Earth Haven trilogy had been popular in the States a couple of years ago, but for reasons mentioned in previous posts I hadn’t been able to maintain interest across the Pond. Thus my primary aim in applying to BookBub was to raise sales and visibility in the US.

On 11th January, I submitted the first book in the trilogy, The Cleansing, to BookBub for a featured deal at the discounted price of $0.99. I heard back from BookBub that same day. To my excitement, they offered me a featured deal to run on 27th January. To my disappointment, it was what they call an ‘international’ deal, meaning it would only run in Australia, Canada, India and the UK, but not in the US.

There was a silver lining: had I been accepted for the full deal, the cost would have been a whopping $754. The international deal alone was a far more modest $160. Nevertheless, I almost turned it down. I had heard other authors say they’d lost money on international deals and the sell-through had been nothing to write home about. But, thankfully, I decided to go with it because, remembering Proposition 1, I needed to find out for myself how good or otherwise it actually is.  

27th January was a Sunday. I discounted the book’s price in Australia, Canada, the UK and India in plenty of time and waited impatiently for Sunday to arrive.

I reckoned on needing to sell a minimum of 400 books at the discounted price to come anywhere near recouping the cost of the promotion. I didn’t expect to achieve that, but hoped to boost visibility to improve sales in the weeks to follow. Long story short: the promotion comfortably exceeded my expectations—not only did I recoup the cost, but made a modest profit.

The book reached number one in the Amazon bestseller charts in most science fiction categories for which it was eligible in Australia, Canada and the UK, earning the orange No. 1 Bestseller tag (which disappears again as soon as the book drops from the top spot—thank goodness for screen shots). It reached number 300-odd in the entire UK Amazon store; number 50-something in the Canada and Australia stores.

My books are distributed wide through Draft2Digital and I also publish directly to GooglePlay. I’d never done any promotions specifically aimed at readers who shop at places like Kobo and iTunes and my sales in those wider channels had been pitiful. In fact, I don’t think I’d sold a single book through D2D or Google for the previous three months. Much to my surprise and delight, my sales increased massively in all wide channels that day.

What about sales since? That’s where the real value of the promotion has come into play. My sales on Amazon approximately doubled post-promotion from where they were before it. They have started to falter a little—not unexpected, though I thought the tailing away might happen sooner—but remain higher than they did pre-BookBub. In the wider channels sales, though low, have been steady. Considering I wasn’t selling anything at all wide, that’s an infinite improvement.

Time, then, for another proposition:

Proposition 6: BookBub is an effective promotional site, especially for authors with sequels or a substantial back catalogue available to take advantage of sell-through.

That, of course, remains subjective—while some authors have reported greater success with BookBub promos than I experienced, others have said they didn’t feel their promo was worthwhile. As always, remember Proposition 1.

Let’s remain realistic. The fleeting appearance of the No. 1 Bestseller tags was fun; to reach the top 100 overall in the Canadian and Australian Amazon stores was exciting; to see the balance in my business account go up instead of haemorrhaging makes a nice change. But I’m not getting carried away. There’s still a long way to go to achieve my dream of making a living at this game. At best, I’ve taken a stride closer.

And I think these marketing posts have run their course. It’s not that I no longer consider myself to be a muppet when it comes to marketing—far from it—but I’m less of one than I was a year ago. It has taken a lot of trial and error but at last I feel I’m on the right track to gain some visibility and achieve steady, if unspectacular, sales. I’m going to keep applying for a BookBub promotion in the States—if I secure one, I’ll probably report back in one more Marketing for Muppets post. Other than that, I want to blog about other stuff and host more guests.

As for ongoing marketing, I intend continuing with the AMS ads for as long as they remain productive and cost-effective. For now, at least, I’m not going to give away more books in return for joining my mailing list. I’m not going to join any author cross-promotions. US BookBub aside, I’m not going to apply for any more paid promotions.

More importantly, I need to publish new work. I am hoping that I can now concentrate on finishing my works in progress without being constantly distracted by trying to improve sales of my existing books.

Then there is the small proofreading/copyediting business I can afford to devote a little more time to. There are book covers to design and editing of my own work to do. And there are always more stories to tell. I can’t wait to write them. It’s time to roll up my sleeves and crack on.

Till next time…

Guest Post – Bill McCormick

Today I’m delighted to host the multi-talented Bill McCormick. Bill is a critically acclaimed author of several novels, graphic novels and comic book series, and has appeared in numerous anthologies. He began writing professionally in 1986 at Chicago Rocker Magazine in conjunction with his radio show on Z-95 (ABC-FM), and went on to write for several other magazines and blogs. He currently writes a twisted news blog at World News Center. The latter provides source material for his weekly radio show on WBIG 1280 AM, FOX! Sports. You can find out more about him at http://BillMcSciFi.com

He’s going to talk a little about the process involved in producing comics, something I know little about. Over to Bill.

Making My Comics – Bill McCormick

I have the pleasure of working with a variety of creators on a diverse array of projects. As such I get the exciting opportunity to work in different styles all the time. Horror, sci-fi, fantasy, kaiju, you name it, I’ve been honored to bang out scripts for each.

Styles aside, there are some similarities in how each is created. Excluding my upcoming series, BOB: SINS OF THE SON, all have been based on characters created by others. That means I have to make their universe make sense to them and their fans. Something that can become difficult if you don’t pay attention early on.

I ask a lot of questions, and save every message, before I begin. Then I craft an outline of the story I think needs to be told. Since it will be different than what the creator originally envisioned, often due to the fact the creator knows the whole story and forgets that readers need to be let in on it, I also justify my choices.  Once we agree on the basics, I script about ten pages to give them a feel for what I’ll be doing.

Assuming those are approved, I dive into the deep end and create a script for the complete first comic.

If you’re going to write for other creators, you have to make sure of a few things:

  1. Be very clear about their vision. If they want CAPTAIN SUPER SQUIRREL to be an overpowered rodent who only speaks in haikus, then you have to be comfortable writing that. If you’re not, do what I do and walk away before it begins. Trust me, it’ll save everyone aggravation.
  2. Once you’ve committed to a project, treat it with the same care and concern you would any of your own. That includes promoting it as best you can. If you can’t be proud to be associated with it, you shouldn’t be doing it.
  3. Lastly, make sure they’re funded. Above and beyond your writer’s pay, they need to have money for anything they can’t do themselves. I have two titles wherein the creators came up with a rough universe, and story arc, and needed to hire everyone else. That costs money.  In both cases this was clarified up front and the projects moved on. It’s no fun to get paid for a script and then see it languish because there’s no money for art or anything else. I have had that happen and it still bothers me.

One final bit of advice: no matter whether you’re writing for someone else’s project or your own, run your script past fresh eyes before submitting it. It’s better to catch anything wrong before it gets near an artist.  Or, simply put, it’s not the artist’s job to fix your mistakes.

After all that, just have fun.

Out now:

Legends Parallel: The Unravelling. For people who worry that quantum physics isn’t violent or sexy enough. This is the 3rd issue of the critically acclaimed story.
Svarozic (apologies – unable to include the accents above ‘z’ and ‘c’). The story of a woman trapped inside a man and a god trapped inside a human. Since they’re all one person, she has issues. Will also be included in the ICC Anthology coming later in 2019.
Hybrid Zero: Jungle Grrl. A long time from now Earth has been rebuilt and turned into a planetary amusement park which features sex parties and dino clones. Fun for the whole, future, family.
Hybrid Zero: Juggernaut. Set in the distant future, Hybrid Zero is the story of a human/alien fusion and her strange family. They live in an era where sexuality, in all its myriad forms, isn’t taboo but violence is. A self-contained web comic that’s currently being rewritten into a graphic novel.

Coming soon:

Bob: Sins of the Son. The son of Death wants to be a superhero in Chicago. His dad and sister aren’t thrilled.

Jarhead. His end is just his beginning. An ex-Marine living in Oakland is trying to bury his past in booze. But that past is coming back to haunt him in ways no one saw coming.

Alokia the Kaiju Hunter. This has everything you could possibly want in a Kaiju. A wonderful drunken gorilla king, the last of the Kaiju hunters who just happens to be a young girl, and a villain who’ll give your nightmares nightmares.

To find out more:

http://BillMcSciFi.com

http://www.LegendsParallel.com

http://www.HybridZero.com

To purchase comics, go to http://www.Nerdanatix.com

Marketing for Muppets – Part 5

In previous instalments, I’ve looked at types of marketing at which, to put it mildly, I don’t excel. I thought I’d now talk a little about a method that has worked for me to some extent. By ‘worked’ I mean it has led to sales, either directly or indirectly. Since my ultimate aim is to become a full-time writer, sales are usually how I measure the success or otherwise of my marketing efforts. You might use a different yardstick—number of mailing list subscribers, hits to your blog, followers on social media—whatever works for you.

I’ve tried various things over the past six years:

  • Making use of the five free days for books in Kindle Unlimited (and its predecessor)
  • Giving paperbacks away on Goodreads
  • Making the first in a trilogy permafree
  • Running temporary price reductions
  • Paying to advertise with one of the many online promoters
  • Running ads for new releases on Facebook
  • Placing fixed ads on websites
  • Joining cross-author promotions in conjunction with a price reduction
  • Joining cross-author promotions in conjunction with a giveaway with a view to increasing mailing list subscribers
  • Being active on social media to try to raise my profile
  • Posting guest blogs or interviews on other authors’ websites

There are probably other things I’ve forgotten, but the above covers most of the obvious marketing methods.

If you’ve read my previous Marketing for Muppets posts, you’ll know that most of these efforts have either been spectacularly unsuccessful, or I’m simply not very good at them. For instance, I find trying to be active on social media a time sump that I don’t particularly enjoy.

I said in an earlier post that I’d concentrate on blogging regularly as a form of marketing that I do find enjoyable. Mind, difficult to know how effective it is—not particularly, I suspect. But I’m not too bothered if I sell no or few books through these efforts. It’s fun and I feel that I may have something to offer novice writers looking for, say, ideas on self-editing—it’s worth it for that alone. I was once a novice writer and found a wealth of information freely given by more experienced writers—why not give something back?

I’m digressing. What form of advertising is working for me? The answer is AMS: Amazon Marketing Services. I know—as authors making their work available on Amazon, we already pay the Zon a proportion of every sale we make. It’s around 30% for higher-priced books on sales in most countries; it’s 65% in some countries and everywhere on lower-priced books. So why, I hear you ask, would you also pay Amazon to advertise your books?

That’s a fair question. It’s also a fairly easy one to answer and I’ll come to that shortly.

But, yes, it irks me to pay Amazon to enable readers to more easily find my books on its site. The profit margin on book sales for small independent publishers is slim enough already—why eat into them further by paying the Zon advertising fees?

The answer for me is simple: to gain visibility and stand any chance of achieving sales.

In line with its tendency to keep data to itself, Amazon has made it difficult to ascertain how many books it has available in its online stores. I’ve seen recent estimates for e-books ranging from a mind-boggling 4.5 million to 7 million. That’s a lot of books and thousands more are added each day.

If readers aren’t aware of their existence, books will sink into the murky depths of the Zon’s nether regions, never to be seen again. Most independent authors can rely on a few sales of a new release, even if only from a handful of family and friends. But after that initial flurry, what then? How does the author make the wider reading community aware that the book exists?

Of course, that’s when the mailing list and social media presence may bear fruit. To a point. After all that’s been exhausted and the book’s plummeting like a stone—what then?

That is when I have found that advertising on Amazon helps. I have been running ads in the US and UK on the first books of each of my completed trilogies: The Cleansing (Earth Haven: Book 1) and The Elevator (Book 1). Especially for The Cleansing, especially in the UK, the ads have undoubtedly helped to raise visibility so that sales over the past six or seven months have increased dramatically.

Let me put it into context. My book sales had dwindled from a respectable few hundred, on average, each month during 2015 and early 2016, to barely nothing by mid-2017. There were a few reasons. Firstly, an elderly relative died in June 2016, appointing me as the executor of his estate. For the next seven or eight months, I spent a lot of time that I would otherwise have devoted to writing and marketing dealing with the administration of the estate. (I’m not bemoaning being appointed executor—it’s what I used to do for a living and it saved the family thousands in legal fees.) Secondly, I had grown increasingly disaffected with being published by a small press and yearned to gain control of my books. I’m not being critical of the publisher—let’s just say that our relationship stalled to the point that I became unwilling to spend any money on advertising. Thirdly, as a consequence of the foregoing, my marketing activity, not prolific at the best of times, became virtually non-existent.

To illustrate the turnaround, I’ll have to reveal some sales figures, which I don’t usually share, but which I think I should in this instance so you can judge how effective, or not, you feel my efforts have been. Okay, then. In April 2018 my total e-book sales on Amazon were fewer than ten. Yep, that’s all books, across all Amazon stores, in all countries. I hear you ask, if after all that time in the game you can’t even sell in double figures in an entire month, why don’t you accept that you’re never going to make it as a professional author and give up? That’s another fair question. The answer’s not as simple as ‘I’m not a quitter’, though that’s part of it.

In fact, during that April of dire sales, I was more upbeat about the publishing business than I have been for years. At the end of March, I’d parted ways with the small press publisher, all rights in all my books reverting to me. I now had full control over my books, including, for the first time, my bestselling Earth Haven series (i.e. the books that have proved most popular, not that have topped any well-known bestseller charts).

After spending a couple of months republishing my own versions of the e-books, and learning how to produce paperback editions, I was ready to turn my attention to advertising; specifically, AMS. I had already dabbled in AMS ads for a collection of short stories—only small scale; merely to get a feel for it. Now I was able to go at it head-on. I began to run AMS ads for The Cleansing and The Elevator in June.

In July, my sales on Amazon ballooned to more than one hundred and have continued to climb slowly but steadily. Still small potatoes by some standards, but a vast improvement from where I was only a few months before.

It’s possible, I suppose, that repackaging the books played some part in the improved sales—freshening up an existing product can see an increase in sales—but I put most of the upswing down to the AMS ads.

Many authors talk about paid marketing in terms of ROI: return on investment. As far as sales of the two first-in-trilogies are concerned, the ads have—especially with The Elevator—barely paid for themselves. The direct ROI has been, at best, negligible. The real value, the indirect ROI, comes in follow-through sales of the other books in the trilogies.

I am lucky to have a reasonable sell-through rate of the Earth Haven books. At present, around half of everyone who buys The Cleansing goes on to buy The Beacon. Roughly two-thirds of those buy The Reckoning. Those additional sales are not costing me anything more in terms of advertising expenditure. 

This leads to a proposition, a rather obvious one, but nevertheless worth spelling out:

Proposition 5: It can pay dividends to regularly advertise the first book in a completed series so as to raise its visibility and lead to follow-through sales of its sequels.

Once you’ve been consistently selling via the ads, there are knock-on effects that help raise visibility further. Your book may start appearing on the also-bought lists of other popular books. Amazon might notice your book starting to gain some attention and take steps to promote it themselves. As I write this, The Cleansing has been regularly in the top 10,000* books on Amazon UK, and frequently in various Top 100s in science fiction sub-categories like Alien Invasion and Colonisation, increasing its visibility again. It is rubbing shoulders with books by authors who have won major science fiction prizes, had films made of their work and are household names (at least, in households interested in science fiction). Now and again, both sequels have joined it in those bestseller charts. It might only be fleeting, but I don’t half get a thrill from it.

I was going to end this post by talking a little about how AMS ads work, but they are tweaking them and I haven’t yet made time to look into how it will affect the ads I’m running. (Bloody typical—no sooner do I get the hang of a form of advertising and make it work for me, than the advertiser moves the goalposts.) I’ll have to suss out the new forms of ads that are replacing the ones I’ve been using. A subject for a future post, maybe. Fingers crossed it’s a positive post.

* Top 10,000 might sound a little sad—why celebrate such a ludicrously low ranking?—until you consider the sheer number of books clamouring for attention. I know, from experience, how difficult it is to break into that top echelon, let alone stay there for any length of time. Goodness knows what it takes to break into the top 5,000. If I ever manage it, I’ll let you know.**

** Okay, I did it. Not only the top 5,000, but the top 500. I even gained the orange rectangle No. 1 Bestseller tag in three countries in various sub-categories of science fiction. More on this in the next Marketing for Muppets instalment. Ooh—two positive marketing posts on the trot. What is the world coming to?

Stephen King Books

I’ve mentioned it before: I am one of Stephen King’s Constant Readers. Ever since discovering his books as a young teenager, I’ve devoured them. At least, his horror and science fiction and fantasy books—not so much the crime thrillers that he’s taken to writing of late.

Despite counting him amongst my favourite authors, I don’t love everything about his stories. For instance, the endings are sometimes a bit of a let-down. Yet this doesn’t detract much from my enjoyment. The pleasure with King is in going along for the ride—if the destination occasionally disappoints, the journey is nearly always a blast.

Here are some of my favourites among his books, along with a few not-so-favourites.

Let’s start with two novellas from the collection Different Seasons, published in 1982, the year I turned eighteen. Both are a little unusual in that they resulted in that rarest of things—a superb screen adaptation of a Stephen King story. The Body is a small-town tale (like so many of King’s) about a trio of friends who go off in search of a dead body they’ve heard is lying alongside a set of rail tracks. It’s a joy (as is the film version, called Stand By Me and starring the tragic River Phoenix), a perfect slice of childhood, something that King does so well. Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (the Rita Hayworth part of the title was dropped for the film version) is a tale set in a prison with an unforeseen and wholly satisfying ending.

Different Seasons

Next, Insomnia, which King describes as a ‘stiff, trying-too-hard’ novel. It’s where we first encounter The Crimson King, who would feature in other King works, most notably The Dark Tower series. More on that later. Also good reads are The Green Mile, the tale of death row inmate John Coffey (whose initials are probably not coincidental), and 11/22/63. I’ve long been fascinated with the Kennedy assassination and time travel—this was a great way to combine the two.

The Green Mile

Here’s a selection of what I call Meh books—they were okay, but lacked something that might have made them appeal more to my tastes. (As always, my tastes are likely to be different from yours so it’s perfectly fine to disagree with me.) Cujo, The Dead Zone, Dolores Claiborne, Christine, Needful Things and Sleeping Beauties all had something going for them that made them enjoyable to a point, but that ultimately left me feeling a little dissatisfied, a little meh. I was enjoying Revival, when the most interesting character in the story fades out of sight. When we encounter him again much later, he has changed in ways that feel unrealistic. And the ending—hugely disappointing and nowhere near as scary as I’d been hoping. Finally for the Meh books, Under the Dome. Loved the concept and the opening. No spoilers, but after such a promising start, it descends into a bit of a mess—it’s probably been eight or nine years since I read it and I couldn’t even tell you how it ends. If not for the concept and intriguing opening, this one is unlikely to have even made it onto my list of Meh books.

Some of his earliest books are amongst my favourites. The following three were published in the 1970s. Salem’s Lot is a tale of vampire infestation of a small town and presses all the right buttons. I’ve long been fascinated with the blood-sucking fiends since first reading Dracula as a young teenager—the recent trend for sparkly, prance-about-in-full-sunlight lotharios (my younger daughter made me watch a certain series of films with her; by the end of the first one, I was pleading, “Bite her, already.” It took another two or three angst-ridden films before he did) hasn’t put me off—and King’s tale resonated as strongly with me as its classic predecessor. The Stand is an apocalyptic tale that I’ve spoken about in other posts. Suffice to say here, it’s a ripping yarn about good versus evil in a world that’s gone to hell. The Long Walk was published (among others) under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. It’s a dystopian tale about an annual contest involving one hundred teenage boys. The contest is simple enough—they all set off together walking southwards from Maine and the winner will be the last boy standing. However, any boy whose walking pace drops below 4 mph receives a warning; three warnings and, well, let’s just say that nobody is allowed to retire alive from this contest.

Salem’s Lot

Another of the ‘Bachman books’ is The Running Man. (It was made into a film starring Arnie, which bears only a passing resemblance to the novel and is far inferior.) This is also set in a dystopian futuristic America and is a tale that doesn’t let up. King apparently wrote it in a week and I think it shows in that it doesn’t pause for breath. I doubt my next pick will make it onto everyone’s favourite list, but there’s something about The Tommyknockers that I love. Maybe it’s the concept of someone tripping over a tiny protruding piece of metal in the woods that turns out to be the tip of a spacecraft a mile wide, or the 50s B-movie feel of the second half of the book, but it’s a novel I’ve returned to more than once. The most recent book on my favourite list is Cell, published in 2006. It’s another tale carried by a great concept and a fun journey that makes up for a lukewarm ending.

The Tommyknockers

How about one or two that I positively disliked? The first is Gerald’s Game. I can say, without having to think about it much, that this is my least favourite of any King book I’ve read. There’s one genuinely creepy moment, but it couldn’t make up for the drudgery of trying to get through the rest of it—the only time I’ve been relieved to reach the end of one of his books, shove it back onto the shelf and forget about it. The other is the seventh novel in The Dark Tower series. I’d worked my way through the preceding six instalments with varying degrees of pleasure and I was keen to see how the series would play out—to find out, at last, after more than a million words, what Roland would discover at the end of his mission… quest… thing. (Sorry—can’t resist a LOTR reference when the opportunity arises.) Well, before reaching that point, Mr King engages in a moment of such self-indulgent author intrusion that it completely threw me out of the story and made me hesitate about continuing. I don’t want to be critical of someone whom I hold in such high regard, but I felt it was a mistake. I imagine he must have deliberated hard before deciding to do it, but I wonder whether he’s ever regretted it. Anyway, I pressed on and eventually Roland reaches the top of the Dark Tower where awaits a door with his name on it. I won’t say what happens next but it was enough to make me swear in disbelief and want to throw the book at the wall.

I’ll finish on a positive note with a mention of three more favourites. The Talisman, co-authored with another writer I admire, Peter Straub, is a fantasy tale about a boy’s search for a magical amulet that will save his dying mother. Flitting between this world and ‘the Territories’, it’s a fun-filled, dark ride. Pet Sematary contains a scene that scared me more than any other King book. It has made me go back and read it again more than once, and I don’t think I’ve finished with it yet. And, finally, the book if pressed I’d name as my favourite of all Stephen King books. IT takes place in two timelines—late-1950s and mid-1980s—because the eponymous monster feeds on a 27-year cycle. The 50s sequences, when the group of heroes and heroine are aged around eleven or twelve, once again display King’s talents at evoking childhood; downtrodden childhoods, at that, for each of our children is at some disadvantage, perhaps from an abusive parent or speech impediment or obesity. They call themselves the Losers. The 80s sequences take place when the Losers are all grown up, though not all have shaken the self-appointed loser tag. Despite a scene that many readers find, to put it mildly, disconcerting, and an ending that disappoints a little, IT is a nostalgic, horror-filled feast. There are nods to classic villains like Frankenstein’s monster and the werewolf, and it’s a book, despite its brick-like size, I’ve returned to again and again.

The Talisman

I recently did an interview (for another author’s blog) where I was asked to name one person, dead or alive, I’d like to meet. Almost impossible to pick only one from our entire history. In the end, I plumped for Stephen King. Well, I would love to sit and discuss books and writing and films with him over a beer or coffee. Since that’s never likely to happen, at least I still have his books.

Till next time… 

Editing – Part 2

If you’re a writer and anything like me, when you finish the first draft of your latest work you’ll type the words ‘THE END’ and feel a curious blend of euphoria and sadness. Although I know those two little words won’t make it into the published version, I type them every time; it’s a form of closure on my least favourite part of the writing process, producing that first draft.

But what then? Unless you’re unusually gifted, or have painstakingly edited as you’ve gone along, chances are that the manuscript will need some work—some spit and polish—before it’s in a fit state to be released into the world.

Whether you’re just starting out and haven’t the funds to spend on editing, or whether you intend sending the manuscript off to a professional editor, there are various steps you can take yourself to improve the work to make it more publishable or in a better state to present to an editor.

There are various methods of self-editing. I’m going to set out what I do for my longer works, which might be helpful to someone who doesn’t know where to begin. (For shorter works, especially short stories, some of the following steps might be truncated or missed out altogether.) Like writing itself, this is not the only way of doing it; it’s not the best or recommended way—it’s simply my way. Each writer must find what works best for him (or, as ever, her).

So, I’ve typed the two magic words ‘THE END’. What next?

Step 1: Let it Rest

After saving and backing up the Word document, I close it. Then I try to forget it about for a minimum of four weeks. Longer, where possible. Two months is better, three perfect, but I don’t have that much will power.

Step 2: The Bigger Picture

When I can’t stand ignoring the manuscript any longer, I’ll read it through from beginning to end. This is where the importance of Step 1 comes in—it’s as though I’m reading a novel someone else has written. Obviously, I know the story and recognise the style of writing, but I will come across entire passages I can’t recall drafting.

The main purpose of this step is to make sure the story works on the broadest level. It isn’t to make corrections, although I usually can’t stop myself changing any typing errors I come across. While I’m reading, I’ll keep at the back of my mind questions like:

  • is the opening interesting enough to draw the reader in?
  • does the plot flow?
  • do the characters act, um, in character?
  • are all sub-plots resolved?
  • does the story ever lag?
  • is the ending satisfying?
  • are there any themes that could be better developed or emphasised?

There are other questions, but that should give a flavour. Essentially, I’m looking at the bigger picture during this step.

Step 2A: Major Revisions

If I identified a need to rewrite part(s) of the work during Step 2, this is when I’ll do it. I’ve been lucky—only once have I needed to do a major rewrite after the first read-through. This was with the final instalment of the Earth Haven trilogy.

Even as I was writing the original ending, I knew it was too easy: the characters weren’t having to sacrifice much to achieve their ends and it lacked a final face-off between the two main groups of protagonists. In short, it was unsatisfying. Nevertheless, I let the manuscript sit for a few weeks before embarking on Step 2.

It confirmed what I already knew. I discarded the last few chapters and rewrote the ending, adding another chapter or two in the process. I knew immediately it was better, a much more satisfying end to a 300,000-word trilogy.

Then I returned to Step 1. After I’d let it rest for another four weeks or so, I embarked on Step 2 once more. This time, the bigger picture looked complete.

Step 3: Snagging

Now I’m happy with the overall structure, I’ll start the fine-tuning process. During this second read-through, I’m looking for passages of narrative or dialogue that don’t flow as well as they could, and correcting them as I go, or that don’t add value to the tale. This might involve rewording paragraphs or sentences to make the writing clearer, and deleting words, phrases, sentences or entire paragraphs that are superfluous.

Step 4: Eradicating Clunkiness and Repetition

During this third read-through, I’m looking at individual sentences and revising any that are awkward or contain unnecessary repetition. I find that when writing the first draft, I often use the same word repeatedly in places when there are perfectly good alternatives that freshen up the prose.

I will search for how many times words I tend to overuse appear, like ‘just’, ‘that’ and ‘the’, together with certain swear words, and either delete some instances or substitute alternatives. It’s about removing clunkiness and repetition to make the reading experience more pleasurable.

I’m looking, too, for inconsistencies such as referring to ‘Jenny’ as ‘Jill’, or (true example) saying a character comes from Hull when earlier in the novel he came from Grimsby.

Also, at this stage, I’ll check any facts or references are correct.

Step 4A: Rinse and Repeat

Whether I repeat Step 4 depends on how many alterations I made the first time around. If not many, I’ll move on to Step 5. If there were a lot of changes, I usually feel I have to repeat Step 4 in case the changes themselves have introduced more clunkiness or repetition. 

Step 5: The Nitty Gritty

The final read-through. The proofread. For this, I reformat the Word document into a mobi file and transfer it to my Kindle. It’s surprising how many simple errors I spot on the Kindle that I missed on the computer screen. Reading it in this different format seems to make typos jump out at me. I keep my laptop close at hand so I can change the master Word document as I find errors.

Step 6: Spellcheck

Having corrected all errors I noticed during the proofread, I’m almost ready to publish. Before I do, I run the manuscript through Word’s spell-checker. What I’m mainly looking for are any final spelling errors I missed during the proofread and things like double spaces, which sometimes go unnoticed, especially if they occur at the edge of the page.

These steps are broadly equivalent to the various types of editing mentioned in Part 1: Step 2 – developmental edit, Step 3 – line edit, Step 4 – copy edit, Step 5 – proofread. 

In theory, I should now be ready to publish a book filled with flowing narrative and sharp dialogue, free of spelling errors, grammatical mistakes and other blemishes, polished and shining like a new pin. In practice, of course, I’m unlikely to have caught every single tiny error in a ninety-thousand word novel. The aim is to achieve perfection, whilst recognising that I’m only human and am certain to have missed something.

It’s accepting that I’m not perfect which enables me to publish anything. Otherwise, I’d never get past Step 4. I could read through a draft novel a hundred times and find something to change on each occasion, though after a while it’s only because this time I prefer a particular sentence construction over another, or a particular word over the one I used, when either do the job perfectly well. We have to draw the line somewhere, say to ourselves, “Enough’s enough. Publish and be damned.”

Here are some other methods I’ve heard writers say they use. I’ve tried some of them and they’re not for me. But try them and find what works best for you.

– change the font size and/or type (this is of similar effect to what I do when transferring the book onto my Kindle, and should be useful for those who don’t own an e-reader)

– print the manuscript onto paper and edit/proofread the hard copy

– read the text, particularly the dialogue, aloud

– have someone (or the voice function, if present, on your word processing program) read it to you

– read sections of the work backwards (useful, I imagine, for proofreading rather than editing)

If there are any novice writers looking in who aren’t sure where to start when it comes to self-editing, I hope you’ve found this to be of some use. Don’t forget: this isn’t ‘one size fits all’. You’ll need to try various methods and combinations until you find what works best for you.

Good luck!

A Very Merry Christmas

It’s that time of year when we wish peace and goodwill to others. When our cups of joy overflow, often in direct proportion to the flow of alcohol. When we give each other presents and spend precious time with our loved ones. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we treated each other as well throughout the year as we do in late December?

Despite the rampant commercialism and the pressures of shopping (I’m a bloke; I hate shopping), it’s my favourite time of year. Imagine winter without Christmas. What a bleak few months they would be.

It’s dreary here in Wales as I write this. The sky has been grey and drizzly for days. The ground is permanently wet—whenever we step in from outside, we bring in mud. Yet we don’t allow it to dampen our festive spirits. My daughters—both now in their twenties—and my wife still grow excited as the big day draws near. So do I. In fact, I’m probably the biggest kid of us all.

Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, I wish you a peaceful and happy time. As we say in Wales, Iechyd da!—Good health!

The 4th Annual Sam Kates Office Party

St Mary Street decorations

Each December I take those of my nearest and dearest who have helped me throughout the year to Cardiff and treat them to a steak dinner, with perchance a bottle of wine and a cocktail or two. The day tends to involve a fair amount of beer and a visit to Winter Wonderland.

This year the guests were my brother (for the invaluable assistance he provides in IT-related matters), my elder daughter (for being my design consultant and managing my Instagram account), and my wife (for putting up with me). If I can get my younger daughter involved in some capacity or other, next year’s party might be a full family affair.

Yours truly and bruv.
In reverse order, Mrs Kates and Miss Kates the Elder.

My wife, daughter and I travelled up to Cardiff to meet my brother in Waterstones. A book shop makes a great place to meet up because, well, books. Then it was off to find a relatively quiet pub, not so easy in the centre of Cardiff on a Friday in December. We were lucky, after only a few false starts managing to find a pub with available seats, no queues at the bar and no loud music blasting. A few relaxed beers later and we made our way to this year’s venue, Steak of the Art. Suffice it to say, good steaks, wine and a few cocktails were dispatched with practised ease. Say what you like about my family, but we’re dab hands at packing away food and drink.

Steak of the Art.

My younger daughter and her boyfriend were in town Christmas shopping so we met up with them after we’d left the restaurant. Sadly, the gusting wind and frequent prolonged showers meant we had to skip Winter Wonderland this year. Never mind—there’s always beer.

Miss Kates the Younger and boyfriend join the gang. Soon there would be singing – well, six is plenty for a choir.

And so we indulged; perhaps it would be more accurate to say over-indulged, but fun was had by all and I felt I had gone a little way towards repaying the help they have given me throughout the year. Thanks, guys—luvs ya!

Yes, the beer is flowing…
St Mary Street again.
And again.

Here are some photos from previous year’s parties that were posted on my old site.

From 2017

Probably St Mary Street, yet again.
Winter Wonderland
It was a big wheel…
Miss Kates the Elder with the Millennium Stadium in background.
One of those blurs is yours truly and bruv.
The beer flowed last year, too.

From 2016

Cardiff Castle and the tree someone in the Council ordered in feet instead of metres – mustn’t snigger.
The deer that dwarfed the tree.
Winter Wonderland again.
As you can see, there was a fair amount of beer involved on this occasion, too.

From the inaugural office party in 2015

And, yep, you guessed it, bloody St Mary Street again.
Didn’t take many photos that first year, but I did snap these rather snazzy urinals.

Guest Post – Tom East

A departure from the norm this week as, for the first time, I host a guest. I’ve known Tom East—though we both use different names in our everyday lives—for around twenty years since we were members of the local writers’ circle. We hit it off immediately, sharing a fondness for good ale and rugby, and both viewing writing as more a compulsion than a hobby. But that’s enough from me. Over to Tom.

Why Write?

Leaving aside more mundane demands like shopping lists and business writing, plus shorter things like personal e-mails (not to say some of these shouldn’t be creative), it seemed to me there are three main reasons to write. In reverse order of importance, I have always considered these to be:

  1. To make money.
  2. To express your thoughts to others.
  3. Because that demon keeps jab-jab-jabbing away at us and making us write.

N years after I first wrote for publication, this is still the way I see things. I have, though, recently modified my view to an extent.

When I lived in London, back in the Dark Ages (well, it was a long time ago), I wrote a few things commercially or semi-commercially. This first period of literary activity lasted for not much more than two years before ‘life got in the way’ and my attention went in other directions. This period of comparative dormancy went on for a number of years. I did do some creative writing in this interval—I didn’t seem to have any choice in the matter—but didn’t try to get anything published.

Then, following a trip to Romania in 1988, at the time when Nicolae Ceauşescu was still dictator, I was bursting with ideas I had to express, in prose and poetry, in fiction and non-fiction. At that time the outlet most readily available was the small press, so this was where I initially concentrated my efforts. The first thing I wrote (an essay; nothing to do with Romania as it happens) appeared in Schools Poetry Review in 1989. Over the years, I have published around 200 poems, about 80 short stories and roughly the same number of commercial features. Added to this is a large number of works of reviews, essays and things I can best describe as ‘other prose’. My first book-length work appeared in 1993 and six more followed from medium-sized and small presses. You can see samples of all this activity on my website here.

Given what I said earlier about motives for writing, you’d think I should have been happy. If I hadn’t made enormous sums of money, I do know that a large number of people have read what I’ve had to say and at least I’ve managed to keep that demon and his pitchfork still. There were, though, two large flies in the ointment. Firstly, much of my writing had to be undertaken against the background of a busy and demanding job. Secondly, several years ago life got in the way again, more negatively this time, just when my literary life was showing signs of taking off.

This year, I’ve decided to bring more focus to my literary activity. Unless you’re an ‘all-purpose sleb’ or a leading footballer, the window into ‘mainstream publication’ is getting smaller. On the other hand, independent publishing is becoming a viable alternative. So this, armed with a new nom-de-plume, is the route I’ve decided to take. First will be The Eve of St Eligius with more to follow early next year.

Wish me luck! ‘Eligius’ will appear electronically on 30th November, 2018 (which happens to be the eve of the festival of St Eligius) and as a paperback in mid-December.

Tom East

Tom’s first foray into the world of independent publishing is available now in e-book on Amazon:
The Eve of St Eligius – Amazon UK
The Eve of St Eligius – Amazon US