What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 3

“The greater part of the world’s troubles are due to questions of grammar.”
― Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays

Another post about grammar? Yawn off, Sam.

There’s no need to be like that—I’m merely going to talk a little about some of the so-called rules that surround writing. If you frequent any forums inhabited by writers, you’ll see these ‘rules’ mentioned frequently. One or two may be more accurately described as ‘myths’, yet are held up as gospel by some. I’m going to keep this light-hearted—there are plenty of places where you can read serious discussions on these matters if you are so inclined. Let us begin…

To boldly split infinitives

We’ve all heard the rule: you should never split infinitives. Yeah, yeah, tell that to Gene Roddenberry, or whoever wrote the tagline for his most famous creation.

This edict arose from grammarians in times long gone objecting to separating the ‘to’ from the verb (to eat, to sleep, to read, etc) because the infinitive was never split in the Latin form of the verb. Well, it wouldn’t be, seeing as Latin verbs are usually only one word. A bit tricky to stick the Latin version of ‘boldly’ (audenter) into the middle of the Latin version of ‘to go’ (ire) and still have it make sense. And it wouldn’t be anywhere near as catchy.

If you want to split infinitives, go at it. There’s nothing wrong with writing, ‘I ran upstairs to quickly brush my teeth.’ But be cautious. Usually, we’re taking about separating the ‘to’ from the verb with an adverb and these ought to be used sparingly (see below). Take an example: ‘After a moment’s hesitation, I decided to briskly walk after him.’ For a start, that doesn’t sound natural to my ear—better if ‘briskly’ comes after ‘walk’. Better still, a new word could be substituted for ‘briskly walk’; there are plenty to choose from, such as stride, rush, hurry.

Liberally applying adverbs

Stephen King famously wrote: ‘I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs…’ [On Writing]. Some writers take this to mean that we should never use adverbs. Ever. Don’t believe me? Take a peek into any writers’ forum when this topic comes up and you won’t have to wait long before someone will come along and decry any use of the humble adverb, often trotting out this King quote in support of their position.

He is particularly scathing about adverbs used in dialogue tags, though he freely admits that he has been known to use them on occasion. I’ve just picked out one of his books at random from my bookshelves: Hearts of Atlantis. It took me under a minute to find an example: ‘“Go in your room, Bobby,” Ted said quietly.’

“No, no, no!” the naysayers will protest. “The phrase ‘said quietly’ should become ‘whispered’ or ‘breathed’ or ‘muttered’.” I heartily disagree. It’s about nuance: saying something quietly is not the same as whispering or breathing or muttering it.

To me, adverbs are another tool in the writer’s shed and to avoid them altogether is to unnecessarily limit our ability to paint the fullest picture with our words. Having said that, they should undoubtedly be used with care and often a better word will present itself. So slam the door rather than shut it firmly; shout rather than exclaim loudly; sprint rather than run quickly. But by all means sweat profusely if sweating alone doesn’t fully convey the image you want to portray.

He and she and they

Ah, gender-neutral pronouns. A tricky one this. Easy to use ‘they’ when referring to more than one gender-unspecified person; not so easy when referring to only one.

Historically, ‘he’ was understood to include ‘she’, but that is rightly no longer considered acceptable. Indeed, clumsy constructs like ‘he or she’ and ‘he/she’ are now regarded as non-inclusive since they exclude those who regard their gender as neither. (If you want to read more about this, there are many instructive articles out there, such as this one: how-to-use-gender-neutral-pronouns)

‘They’ seems to have become increasingly acceptable as a gender-neutral pronoun when referring to only one person, even though it is, technically, a plural pronoun, not singular. It doesn’t always work well, though. Take a simple, contrived example, where the writer doesn’t want to reveal the identity of either character and so conceals their gender:
‘The murderer picked up the knife; the victim cowered. They thrust it into their chest.’

I try to get around it in my blog by writing ‘he (or she, but let’s take that as read)’. That’s no less clumsy but I can get away with it somewhere informal like a blog. And I ought probably to write ‘he (or she or any pronoun of your choice, but let’s take that as read)’ so as to include those who don’t identify with either he or she.

As for fiction writing, the best advice to avoid clumsy structures like the example above is to rewrite it.

Redundancies

A mention of a couple of my pet hates, though they’re becoming so widely used that I suspect I’m railing against them in vain.

‘PIN number’ – PIN is an acronym for Personal Identification Number so we don’t need to say ‘number’. PIN alone will suffice.

‘for free’ – free means ‘for nothing’ so we don’t need to say ‘for’. ‘You can get it free’ suffices. With this one, in particular, I know I’m not so much peeing into the wind as into a force-ten gale. They even use the expression ‘for free’ on the BBC, for goodness’ sake.

That’ll do for now. If I think of any more pet hates, I’ll include them in the next grammar post. What, another one…?

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

 

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

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!

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

Audiobooks

A few years ago I was approached by the same company who produced the audiobook of The Martian. They expressed interest in producing an audio version of The Cleansing. Sadly, I could not take the matter any further because I was at the time contracted to a small press publisher. But I’ve remained curious as to whether there would be any interest in my work from audiobook listeners—there’s only one way to find out, right?

It wasn’t until this summer, after I’d parted company with the publisher and all rights to my works had reverted back to me, that I was able to turn my attention to audio.

There seems a bewildering number of audiobook producers out there. Long story short, after browsing various sites and discussion forums, I eventually decided to go through Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX). And there is quite a range of options within ACX. I toyed with the idea of narrating the book myself to limit cost, but discounted it almost immediately. I don’t have professional recording equipment and I’m hopeless at doing accents. No, it would sound like an amateur production and I wanted the opposite.

I decided to offer the book for audition on a royalty-share basis. This involves making available an extract of the book of 2 or 3 pages (around 5 minutes of recording time). The royalty share would mean I wouldn’t have to pay the narrator up front, but we would share equally a percentage of each sale. Again, my prime motivation was to cut down on up-front costs. What seemed a woefully pitiful percentage share of sales would be the trade-off.

I was aware that it was highly unlikely I would attract any experienced narrators—why would they risk their time and effort for no guaranteed return on a novel written by a virtual unknown? Not only did I not attract any experienced narrators, I didn’t attract any at all. The book extract remained available for audition for a 30-day period, but I didn’t receive a single audition.

Time for a little soul searching. It boiled down to how much did I want to have an audiobook version of The Cleansing. Turned out the answer was I wanted it a great deal. Enough to bite the bullet and offer the extract for audition in return for a fee. This way, the narrator wouldn’t have to bear any risk of the book not selling and I would benefit in the long run if the book continued to sell after I’d recouped my initial outlay. I opted for exclusivity, meaning the audiobook would only be made available in three outlets—Audible, Amazon and iTunes—but I would receive a higher percentage of each sale.

I mentioned ‘recouping my initial outlay’. Here’s the thing: I don’t know how many sales it will take to do that and start to make a profit.

Firstly, I have no say whatsoever in how much the three retailers charge for the audiobook. Being accustomed to the freedom independent publishing allows me over the prices of my books, to have no say in the price asked for the audio version is a little strange to say the least. (I suppose it has to do with protecting the market for audiobooks and ensuring the price doesn’t spiral downwards like it has with e-books.)

Secondly, I understand audiobooks may be purchased in one of three different ways: directly in the normal sense; directly by members of a subscription service at a discounted price; indirectly by members of the subscripton service by using one of their monthly credits. In each case, the amount the author receives will vary.

So, bizarrely, it’s impossible to say how many sales I need to break even. I’m guessing it’s going to take at least a few hundred, but I’m stumbling about in the dark. The Cleansing is the first in a trilogy and I’d like to have the sequels also produced as audiobooks. Before I can think of making The Beacon available for audition, I have to at least recoup my outlay on the first book. It’s mildly frustrating that I have no way of estimating how long that might take.

Anyway, I offered The Cleansing for audition on a pay-for-production basis. You can set the price range of what you’re prepared to pay and I opted for one of the lower ranges. Not the lowest, because I wanted to attract narrators with some experience, but not high enough that I would bankrupt myself in the process.

Within a few hours, I had received three auditions. Within a week, I had received eight. I had been concerned that I might have priced myself out of attracting any good narrators, but I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the auditions I received. I narrowed it down to three—two men, one woman—and from there picked my favourite. That wasn’t easy; all three were excellent.

Before I made the chosen narrator an offer, I checked him out online. Not to be nosy, but to make sure he was someone I was happy to do business with. Here’s one of life’s little coincidences. He is an actor and musician, and had appeared in a stage musical I had been to see in Cardiff for my birthday last year. I’m not normally one for musicals, but I love sixties music and had thoroughly enjoyed Cilla – The Musical.

I made him an offer, which he accepted. I could now finalise the audiobook cover by including his name and upload that to ACX. The narrator recorded the first 15-minute segment for my approval, which I didn’t hesitate to give. He then recorded the whole book. It was my job to listen to the completed recording and feedback any mistakes.

It felt weird and wonderful listening to one of my novels being narrated. It made it sound like it had been written by someone else and I found myself getting caught up in the tale. I made a note of the errors—there were remarkably few, perhaps a dozen out a 90,000-word novel—and sent them to the narrator. He fixed the errors promptly, I paid him and we were done. A relatively painless operation—the narrator was excellent, easy to work with and earned every penny of his fee.

It was then down to ACX to make the book available on the three retail channels. That happened this week. I received notification on Wednesday, 14th November that it had gone on sale on Audible and would be available on Amazon and iTunes within the next few days.

The whole process was much quicker than I’d anticipated. I made the book available for audition the second time (on the pay-up-front basis) on 2nd August. I had chosen my favourite narrator and entered into an agreement with him by 10th August. From there, it has taken marginally over three months to complete the recording and make the book available for sale.

Now all I need to do is learn how to market it. If you’ve read any of my posts on marketing, you’ll understand what a challenge that presents.

A word of warning for any writers reading this who are considering taking the plunge into audiobooks themselves. I read an online discussion in which authors who know more about the audiobook market than me (which isn’t difficult) stated that the wider audiobook market is set to explode with lots of potentially lucrative markets becoming available through various new players about to enter the audiobook game, and cautioned against entering into an exclusive deal with anyone.

I can’t recall details, but if you’re about to embark on a new audiobook project, read up on it. If you decide, like me, to go exclusive with someone like ACX, make sure it’s an informed decision that you won’t quickly come to regret.

To finish on a high note, I noticed yesterday that the audiobook was available on Amazon and that it already had a ranking in both the US and UK. That normally only happens when a book has achieved some sales, yet my ACX dashboard wasn’t showing any. Until I looked again, a little later, and discovered to my delight that the audio version of The Cleansing has already been purchased several times. I still get a buzz from the thought of a complete stranger reading, or in this case listening, to something I’ve written.

(For a peek at the book, and to listen to the opening scene, follow one of the links to the audiobook on the Earth Haven page from the ‘Books’ dropdown menu above.)

Editing – Part 1

Any aspiring author considering self-publishing their work who seeks guidance online is likely to be furnished with three stock pieces of advice:

1. Obtain a professional-looking, genre-specific cover;
2. Write an enticing blurb*;
3. Have the book professionally edited before publishing.

This won’t be the only advice offered, but is probably the most common. It’s also sound advice—not something that can be said about every pearl of wisdom bandied about on the net.

It’s that third item I want to talk a little about: the advice to have the work professionally edited before letting it loose on the reading public.

The word ‘editing’ is often thrown about with gay abandon as a catch-all term for polishing a raw manuscript until it shines, but there are various types of editing, requiring different degrees of skill and coming with varying price tags.

Generally speaking, editing can range from in-depth analysis of a novel’s structure (developmental editing), to a final proofread to eliminate any spelling mistakes or punctuation errors remaining from previous editing passes. The various intermediate stages may be called substantive editing, mechanical editing, line editing and copy editing—there is often overlap between these terms, or they are used interchangably, or given different meanings by different editors.

And cost will range widely, perhaps from a few thousand dollars or more for a developmental edit, to less than fifty dollars for a proofread from someone who will run it through a spellchecker and little else.

That’s the thing: anyone with a computer and internet connection can set themselves up online as an editor. While there are experienced and skilled editors and proofreaders out there who fully justify their fees, there are also people claiming to be editors who I wouldn’t trust to check my shopping list. Such is the internet.

There are two main issues I see facing the new author who wants to follow the advice and have their work professionally edited. The first is cost—not many new authors are likely to have a few thousand dollars to spend on an editor. The second is finding a knowledgable, reliable editor who’s a good fit—that’s when recommendations from other authors become important, but many newbies might not have the necessary contacts. They will need to poke about online until they find a forum or group that fits their genre and personality; they’ll need to join in, get to know people (in as much as that’s possible on social media) and learn whose recommendations they can trust.

What of the new author who genuinely can’t afford to hire an editor? I’ve seen authors advised to go without whatever it takes in order to save funds for an editor. The advice I’ve seen hasn’t gone as far as to recommend selling a kidney; at least, not yet.

No matter how sincerely the well-meaning advisor believes that the newbie can find a way to raise the funds, the fact remains that for some this will simply not be possible. For some, self-editing might be the only option.

I’ll talk a little more about self-editing methods in my next post on this topic—not, I hasten to add, that I’m an expert, but I can at least talk about what I do. To someone who doesn’t know where to start, it might be useful.

Before I end, there’s one important thing to add: even if self-editing, try to get at least one other pair of eyes on your work before you publish it. Look around on Facebook and other social media for critiquing groups you might be able to join, or suggest to other writers at a similar stage as you that you get together to set one up. If all else fails, it could be a friend or family member whose opinion you trust and who, preferably, has a reasonably high standard of written English. Ask them to read through your final manuscript and note any spelling errors or other mistakes. Though not everyone on the forums will agree with me, I appreciate that in some cases this might the best a novice writer can do.

* I know that historically the word ‘blurb’ referred to a catchy phrase about the book, often by a famous author, used to promote the work, but language evolves and the word is often used nowadays to refer to the book description, and that is the sense in which I’m using it. So there.

Shiny Object Syndrome

This piece is about writing, but I suppose could apply to most creative endeavours. It’s about that moment when you’re elbows-deep in your current work and are struck by an idea for a new project. The idea seems far more enticing than the work-in-progress (WIP). The idea offers endless possibilities for a breathless novel that will lead to a series and a movie deal, enable you to give up the day job and pursue your dream of becoming a full-time writer. In short, the idea is shiny.

What does the writer afflicted with Shiny Object Syndrome do upon being struck by the new idea? He (or, as always, she, but let’s take that as read) doesn’t make a note to return to it after completing the WIP. Nope, he abandons the WIP and embarks instead upon the project sparked by the shiny new idea.

Of course, what usually happens is that when the new idea has become the WIP, when the writer has dug beneath the shiny surface, exposing its guts, so to speak, he finds that the idea has lost its lustre. In fact, he realises that once he has started to work out how the nuts and bolts will fit together, the shiny new idea looks much like the abandoned WIP.

Not wanting to give up on the new idea so soon after embracing it, he ploughs on. Until the next new idea strikes. And, boy, is it shiny…

What he ends up with are a handful of novel openings, perhaps a few that have progressed beyond the first couple of chapters, but nothing complete. Nothing to edit and polish. Nothing to publish.

I have a few barely-started novels of my own hanging about my hard drive, dating back twenty or more years when I struggled to see a project through before beginning a new one. Yep, my name is Sam and I once suffered from Shiny Object Syndrome.

If you are a writer accumulating a bundle of unfinished works of your own and feel you might also be a sufferer, what can you do about it?

Well, I’m no expert so all I can do is tell you how I overcame the problem. I began by starting a notebook into which I jotted a note – maybe only a line or a two; no more than a paragraph – of any shiny idea that occurred while I was already engaged on another project. This doesn’t need to be a notebook; it can be a Word document, or equivalent; perhaps a diary or series of index cards or some sort of voice recording. Whatever works for you.

I find that the mere act of noting the idea down helps, as if translating it from a sparky bundle of electrical impulses to inked symbols on a page removes much of the shine. But not all of it.

Then comes sheer will power. I made it an unbreakable rule that I wouldn’t abandon any WIP in favour of a new idea, no matter how dazzling the shiny object appears. Unless you are a being forged of titanium self-discipline, it’s not that easy to stick to the rule. Shiny objects are still shiny.

The final piece of the cure for me was the feeling I derived from typing ‘The End’ on the first draft of my first novel. It’s a strange mix of loss and euphoria, but the dominant sensation is one of deep satisfaction. That’s not a feeling the writer who jumps from unfinished project to unfinished project will ever experience. That in itself is enough to keep me working on the WIP, no matter how shiny the new object looks.

Most of the time, anyway.

Plotting v Pantsing

In What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 1, I talked about arguably the most contentious issues amongst writers, the Oxford comma. This post is about another issue that, bizarrely, seems to cause friction between writers—not every writer, by any means, but enough that discussions on this topic often descend into conflict.

Since this piece is more likely to be of interest to writers, apologies to any readers looking in, but it may be worth you reading on to give you an idea of the sort of things writers argue about between themselves, things that seem inconsequential to non-writers (and, indeed, to many writers).

So what are we talking about? In general terms, a ‘plotter’ is a writer who, before he (or she, but we’ll take that as read) embarks on writing a novel, plans it in detail so that he knows every character and every turn and twist of the plot before writing one word of the novel itself. A ‘panster’, by contrast, sits down and starts writing the novel with no or little idea of who the characters are or how the story will pan out—flying by the seat of his pants.

Those are the extremes, but there’s a broad spectrum in between. Most writers are likely to fall somewhere along that spectrum, hybrids of panster and plotter who may have planned certain aspects of the novel, but perhaps not all.

I’m very much towards the panster end of the spectrum. I embarked on a 300,000-word trilogy (though, in true panster style, I didn’t know it would be a trilogy when I started out) without knowing anything other than it would be about an apocalypse caused by a virus manufactured and deliberately spread by beings who wanted this planet for themselves. I had no idea who the characters would be, what situations they would find themselves in (other than the broader scenario of facing the eradication of almost the entire human species) and how the story would pan out.

How does a writer even begin writing a novel with only the vaguest notion to go on? In my case, I began by describing the effects of the virus on the human body. That scene subsequently formed the opening of chapter 6 of The Cleansing. Having set pen to paper (rather, finger to keyboard), I was then able to begin writing the opening scene proper in which a woman sits gazing out over Central Park before setting in motion the chain of events that will lead to the destruction of humanity.

This is how I’ve always worked, literally making it up as I go along. On occasion I’ll have a final scene in mind, or perhaps one or two key scenes along the way. It then becomes a case of navigating the characters through the uncharted waters in between (provided they want to play ball—my work might begin as plot-driven, but the characters quickly take over). More often, I have nothing to go on except a vague scenario that usually begins, ‘What if…?’

When I first began self-publishing, having written two novels and umpteen short stories back in the days when the e-book didn’t exist, I joined various writing forums. These forums were full of advice as to the ‘best’ way to carry out the writing and publishing process. Most of it was opinion presented as fact. One ‘fact’ I saw often was that the best way to write a novel was to plan it out in detail before starting to write it. The implication was often only thinly veiled: real writers plotted; if you didn’t, you must belong to some sort of Mickey Mouse club of pretend writers.

I have tried plotting a story and found that I simply can’t do it, that my brain doesn’t work that way. I might be able to vaguely sketch out a couple of chapters, but for the life of me cannot go any further until I have written the opening chapters and have begun to get to know the characters—until then, I have no idea how they are going to react to the circumstances in which they find themselves. There have been times when I’ve had to abandon potential plot strands upon realising that the characters would not react in the way required to realise them.

But that’s just me. There are many writers who couldn’t write like that, who have to know the route a story is going to follow, the stops along the way and the destination, before writing one word of it. And that’s perfectly fine—that’s the way their brains work. We’re all different, right? (Altogether now: yes, we are all different—sorry, just having a Monty Python moment.)

The point is, and this needs to be emphasised:

There is no right or wrong way—there’s only what works best for the individual.

Seems pretty obvious, you’d think. Yet—and it’s no good asking me why because I haven’t the foggiest—some writers adopt a polarised stance. These are examples of some of the comments that appear with eye-rolling predictability whenever the topic is raised:

‘Plotting kills creativity’
‘Pantsing stifles creativity’
‘Every book being written must follow a plan’
‘Plotting makes writing the book boring’
‘Pantsing means that most of the story will have to be discarded or rewritten’
‘Plotting allows no scope for characters to develop naturally’
‘Pantsing results in incoherent, rambling storylines’

It’s the absolute nature of these opinions-masquerading-as-fact that bugs me. ‘Every book being written must follow a plan.’ Nope, they don’t. Maybe that’s how it works for you, mate, but you’re not me.

What each statement amounts to is, in effect, ‘I plot/pants, so plotting/pantsing must be the best way to write a book and I’m going to sneer at anyone who employs an alternative method’. Sigh.

Despite the title of this piece, writing fiction isn’t a contest between plotting and pantsing. There is plotting, there is pantsing, and there is a wide range of methods employing a mix of the two. Each writer needs to find what works best for them. No writer should hold out their method as being the only or right way. Seriously, there’s no such thing.