Monday, 5 December 2016

The endless decisions of paperback interior design

I’ve been working on the interior design for the paperback of Tracy Hayes, Apprentice PI the past week. It’s only the third time I’m doing a print version of my book, and the reason is obvious. It’s hard work. Well, not so much hard as it’s annoying. There are about a million decisions to make, and once I’ve committed to one, it’s almost impossible to go back on it without creating a ton of extra work.

To save you some of the trouble, here’s a list of decisions I’ve had to make for the paperback interior.

1. Where to publish?

I chose CreateSpace, because I’ve used it before. They have my tax information and other details so I don’t have to worry about those. I’ve been happy with the quality of their books too, so I have no need to change.

2. What trim size to use?

CreateSpace offers a wide selection of trim sizes for a book. Again, I made the decision easier by choosing the same size I’d used previously, 5.06x7.81 inches or 12.9x19.8 centimetres, which is about the same size most of the traditionally published paperbacks on my shelves, so they fit right in.

3. Interior margins

Margins are tricky, because the printing system might not accept all your choices. To make the matter simpler, I downloaded a template for the trim size I’d chosen from CreateSpace that has pre-set margins. It took me about an hour to find the link to it – and I have no idea how I finally stumbled on it – so I give it to you here to save your time.

4. Font(s)

There are many things to decide about fonts. What font face to use and what size? Should I use a free, commercially available font everyone else is using or buy a more exclusive font? Is clever more important than legible? (It isn’t.)

Some fonts are illegible in smaller sizes, so if you want to save space by using a smaller size, it’s even more important to choose a good font. Then there’s the matter of style. Different genres look better with certain fonts. My go to font is Garamond, which is free to use and very popular. However, it is a bit stuffy, more suitable for romance or a historical novel than a funny, modern PI story like mine. So I wanted something else.  I tested a number of fonts based on recommendations by experts. Most recommended serif fonts, like Garamond, and while they weren’t terribly expensive to purchase, I hesitated to select any of them.

As an aside, there are free versions available of most fonts, but they seldom work as well as the originals. I tried a couple of those and found that they only worked in certain sizes and wouldn’t scale at all. So be wary of copies.

In the end, my choice fell on Candara, Microsoft’s own font that was already on my Word. It’s a sans serif font that looks like a serif font, light and legible even in smaller sizes. I chose 11pts. The only gripe I have with it is that the true italic of the font isn’t very different from the regular, and that the numeral 1 is really small no matter the size of the font.

5. Line spacing

For the book interior, single space lining is often too small and 1.5pts is too wide. So I chose 1.1pts line spacing, mostly to save a few pages (paragraph --> line spacing --> multiple --> add the size you want). It looked fine with the font I’d selected; all fonts aren’t suitable for smaller spacing. But the next day, I realised it wasn’t very readable after all. So I changed the spacing to 1.2pts. Such a small change made the text more legible – and added twenty pages to my book, not to mention messed with the little details I’d already done with the layout. So I had to start anew. But it was worth it.

Line spacing together with the font size and face also affect the size of the first line indentation. A rule of a thumb is that the empty space should form roughly a square, so when you make changes to one or all of them, you have to change the indent too.

Candara with 1.1 pts line space
Candara with 1.2 pts line space

6. Chapter headings

There are endless options for chapter headings based on the genre of your book: what font to use, what size, where to place it and so on. I kept things simple and used the same font. I aligned it to the right, because I think it fits the genre of the book nicely. I also decided to spell out the numbers on it instead of using numerals; another style choice to make about the headings.

7. Drop caps

I wanted to use drop caps. It gives the opening page that little something extra. But then I had to decide how large it should be, two, three or four lines? I chose three. The font I’d selected automatically lowered the initial so it didn’t line with the text, so I had to manually change it (font --> advanced --> position --> normal/raised), because I thought it looked better. So I had to make three choices about drop caps alone.

8. Small caps

I decided to have the first five or so words in the opening line with small caps. A style choice that added quite a bit of tweaking to my layout. Paste the words you select and click the right button, select fonts and click small caps.

9. Odd and even pages

Most books have a layout where each new chapter starts on the odd page. Unless you really want to save space, that’s a good style choice to follow. I did too. But that occasionally left an empty page at the end of a chapter when it ended on an odd page. With a shorter book, like mine, they seemed annoying, so to get rid of them, I had to rearrange the chapter contents and sometimes even write new material.

10. Widow and orphan control

Most of my book has the widow and orphan control in place, i.e. paragraphs won’t break so that there’s only one line at the end or beginning of a page. However, in line with my decision to remove the empty pages, I occasionally had to allow the single lines. I tried to make sure the line had more than one word at least, but I didn’t always succeed.

11. Hyphenating

This is a tricky one. As books are justified – a decision I didn’t have to make – it occasionally creates lines where the spaces between the words are longer, which isn’t always aesthetically pleasing. To fix those lines some words need to be hyphenated. At first I hyphenated quite a lot of words, but in the end I removed most of them.

12. Page numbers

Where to put them? To the top of the page or the bottom? In the middle of the page or the outer corner? What font, what size, what distance to the body text? I chose the bottom outer corner for my page numbers, with the same font face and size. I also decided not to have page numbers on the first page of each chapter.

13. Header

Since the page numbers are in the footer, there was room in the header for the author’s and book’s names. Again, I had to choose the font face and size, and the distance to the body text. Again, I went with the same font.

14. Front matter

I actually started my formatting with this, so I should probably have listed it earlier. In print books, the front matter always has certain things, like the title page and the copyright page. But what else to include? I decided to add a page for my previous publications, but no dedication page or acknowledgements. And I don’t have a table of contents, because the chapters don’t have titles.

15. Back matter

I have the acknowledgement page at the end of the book. And I also decided to have a sample chapter of the next book in the series there. I considered putting a chapter of the first book in my Two-Natured London series there too, or a page with their covers in it, as an advertisement, but decided not to in the end.

Finished layout design. Word presents the odd page on the left.

So, here I am, days later with an almost ready interior for my paperback, after having made fifteen decisions for it alone. Each decision I made had to be manually implemented, and each change to them I made led to quite a bit of tweaking. And that on top of all the inexplicable things that just happened, like the horizontal line that appeared in both the header and the footer, which took me hours to get rid of. In the end, it was a simple right button click of styles --> clear formatting.

I’d like to think that the next book will be easier. At least I’ve committed to these decisions for the series. But each book has to be manually formatted, so each book will take almost as much time as the first. And that’s just the interior. Fun times ahead!

If you cant wait for the paperbackor e-bookto come out, you can read Tracy Hayes, Apprentice PI on Wattpad. Take a look, vote, and tell me what you think.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Four ways to revive your blog

I bet most bloggers are like me: we start our blogs with great enthusiasm, write posts regularly for a while, then less regularly as the time passes until the posts dwindle to none. I’ve had this happen with two blogs already, and this one hasn’t exactly been lively either. I do have explanations – or excuses – for my absence, but it mainly comes down to prioritising. I had more important writing projects and decided not to write blog posts.

If you’ve stopped blogging because it’s not your priority anymore, there’s no need to feel bad. Many choose that option. Although, I actually feel vaguely guilty about my two dead blogs, but not so much that I’d revive them. This blog, however, still has hope. So, it’s time to rethink my priorities and find time for blogging again. You can revive your blog too. Here are four options for doing that:

1 Pick up where you left

If your blog has a theme or a topic, continue writing posts about that. You once had a reason for wanting to write about that topic. Find the reason again, find your passion. Go through your old posts or similar blogs and see if you still have something to say. If you do, then great: just start writing like you never stopped.

My blog is about writing and publishing my own books. I’ve written about things I’ve learned in order to help other writers. While I still have much to learn, I haven’t come across such personal revelations lately that I would’ve wanted to write about them. They might still be ahead of me, however, so I won’t rule out the possibility of writing about writing.

2 Collaborate

Maybe – or most likely – there are other people writing blogs about the same topic as you. Seek them out and invite them to write on your blog. This has many advantages. You can keep a steady posting schedule without having to write so much yourself. You’ll have new insights into your topic and new openings to conversation. And you’ll likely get new readers too, when the guest blogger’s readers stop by your blog.

There are many bloggers writing about writing and successful collaborations among them too, so I know it works. I haven’t invited anyone to my blog yet, or visited someone else’s, but it’s a good option to keep an eye on for me as well.

3 Mix it up

Maybe you still have things to say about your old theme, but you have new interests too. Why not write about both? You may argue that your audience is there for your original topic only, but if you haven’t posted on your blog in ages, they’ve probably left you anyway. This is your chance to lure in new readers. Who knows, they might take interest in your original theme too. And your old readers might be equally interested in what new you have to say.

I’ve toyed with the idea of writing about reading as well. Book reviews and musings about the books I’ve read. I used to have a reading blog, though not with reviews. Maybe I could combine the two.

4 Make a fresh start

Maybe the reason you’ve stopped writing blog posts is that you’ve completely run out of things to say about your original topic. But you still have the need to write and want a forum for other topics in your mind. So why not change the theme of your blog? Make a fresh start with a new, fresh topic. Or multiple topics, if you so like. Make an event of it, make sure people know you’re back and that you have something new to say.

The third option is tempting, but I don’t have an entire new topic in my mind I would want to write about. So I think I’ll go with the third option. I’ll mix it up. And I’ll try not to stress about writing schedules. If I have something to write about, I will.

Alongside with reviving my blog, I’ve written a new series – partly the reason I stopped blogging. It’s in a new genre for me, a funny detective story, and I’m very excited about it. It’s about a Brooklyn waitress extraordinaire who becomes a private detective after losing her job. What could possibly go wrong? The first book is called Tracy Hayes, Apprentice PI and you can read the first chapters on Wattpad. Leave a comment too. I’d love to hear what you think about it.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Counterfactual histories and historical fantasies

I came across a long-read in New Statesman today about The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. I haven’t actually read the book – or watched the series based on it – but the article brought up an issue that interests me both as a writer and a reader: counterfactual histories, the genre of ’what ifs’. What if an event in the past had happened differently? It also reminded me that the past, real and imagined, lends itself well for all kinds of fiction.

I don’t read much historical fiction anymore – or watch historical movies, for that matter – even though I’m a historian by education. Even the best historical fiction tends to pale in comparison with the historical reality, and the incorrect historical facts and details tend to mar my enjoyment of a good story. The exception I make is for historical romances. I don’t care that most of them not only get the details wrong but the spirit of the era they portray too; I simply enjoy the romance.

And I know I shouldn’t be too judgemental. Truth, or learning from the past, isn’t the point of historical fiction. Historical fiction, even the kind that comes with the authority of academic learning and exhaustive research, isn’t there to educate people. It’s there to tell stories. The past is an inspiration for the author. However, even if readers assume that everything is invented, they can’t help but learn – occasionally incorrect things too. Georgette Heyer invented some of the things she wrote about, but her books are perfect as they are, and her idea of the life in Regency England is pretty much accepted as the truth.

That’s one of the reasons why I like counterfactual histories. They let the author to work with the richness of the past without the demand to have every single detail right. In The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick imagines a Nazi America: what would have happened if President Roosevelt had been assassinated in 1933 and the entire Second World War had run a different course. What if Germany had conquered Soviet Union and Japan had won in the Pacific? Dick imagines other scenarios too, ultimately making the book about alternative realities – counterfactual histories multiplied. They’re not about historical truth, but ask questions about our society instead.

Nazis winning the WW2 is a favourite scenario in many counterfactual histories – and not only in fiction – but my personal tastes run towards more fantastical. I especially like steam punk and its view on Victorian society with engines that run on steam and ether. It's not ’purely’ counterfactual in the sense that it would allow only a reality that is historically possible, but I love the innovativeness combined with the spirit of the era. It’s historical fantasy at its best.

Urban fantasy, though set in the modern world, is often counterfactual, too. It usually imagines an alternate reality with supernatural elements that aren’t, strictly speaking, possible. As a writer, that’s what interests me most. I like to imagine the subtle differences that would have occurred if our history had been shaped by magic or entities that aren’t purely human. In my Two-Natured London series, for example, the Inquisition is a consequence of the Church wanting to purge the world of supernatural entities. That, in turn, has led to a continuing strife between humans and the two-natured, which influences the present-day narrative.

Historical fiction with fantasy elements doesn’t have to be solely about differences. It can also be about the modern interacting with or influencing the past, as in time-travel novels. The best – or my favourite anyway – example is Diana Gabaldon’s massive Outlander series, where a woman from the relatively modern world of the 1940s England ends up in the 18th century Scotland. The historical accuracy is there, but it’s combined with the observations of differences between the past and the present, and with the subtle influence a modern person would have on the people around her. There are also her outright attempts to change the past. It asks the question all time-travel novels ask: is it possible to change the past and if it is, then what.

No matter the type of historical fiction you go for, the past is a rich source to explore and to exploit. If you don’t want to limit your story with pesky things like ’truth’ or ’accuracy’, try writing historical fantasy instead. Past is a different country. Anything is possible there.

Monday, 21 March 2016

6 writing lessons taken from the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series

I’ve been reading Dead Ice, the latest Anita Blake novel by Laurell K. Hamilton. And by reading I mean skimming the pages, hoping to land on some plot. Of over 560 pages and 65 chapters, the plot it’s supposed to be aboutillegal zombie pornhas so far taken approximately four chapters, and they are not very exciting chapters. Nothing about the book is very exciting – a far cry from what the series was originally about.

For those not familiar with the series, Anita Blake is a vampire hunter and animator, a raiser of zombies, in St. Louis, Missouri. She’s a tough as nails heroine with a supernatural ability of her own, which sets her apart from the society and has made her rather confrontational. The first book, Guilty Pleasures, was published in 1993 and Dead Ice, published in 2015, is the 24th book in the series. When the first book came out, there were no urban fantasy series like Anita Blake; it felt exciting and invigorating. The first twelve or so books were about solving preternatural crimes that took Anita to harrowing and near-fatal situations. Then something changed, and Anita’s personal life became the focus of the stories instead of the crimes.

I didn’t originally mind the change, although I rued the loss of the nail-biting suspense. I had my favourites among Anita’s many boyfriends and kept returning to the books just to learn what was going on in their lives. I didn’t mind the excess of sex either, even though the scenes are rather repetitive and contrast starkly with the first books where there is none. But after a couple of books in this new style, it became evident that something was lost for good.

Anita’s life never changes, it never evolves, and she never grows. Time passes between the books, and readers are given to understand that there’s a full spectrum of everyday life happening. But every time the reader is given a glimpse, everything is the same: Anita is at odds with a member(s) of a law enforcement agency of some kind for being a woman tougher than men and having a full love-life with non-humans; one or two of her boyfriends throw a fit for not being the number one boyfriend; Anita spends time wondering why she is loved by so many beautiful people when she’s so ugly and refusing to believe she’s not ugly; she adds a new member to her list of lovers by a sheer accident, thus alienating another old member; and a supposedly deadly preternatural incident is solved as an aside.

All this is delivered with a narrative that is rather near-sighted and very repetitive. Within one chapter, the same characters are described multiple times – often with the same words – with added ponderings about their meaning to Anita; the same goes with incidents relevant or irrelevant to the matter at hand; places are introduced afresh every time Anita goes there (in Dead Ice, the Circus of the Damned, for example, has been described at least three times). The dialogue is a series of questions and explanations that make at least one character appear extremely stupid (often Anita, as if she has no idea what her job or her loved ones are about) and/or confrontational; and chapters are a series of confrontations or accidental events that have no relevance to the plot. All this makes a very annoying read and forces to question the skills of the author and the professionalism of her editors and publishers. Doesn’t anyone care?

Long series that have a new story in every book, like crime series, with an underlying continuous plot, like many urban fantasy series, rely on readers who return book after book either for the stories, the characters or finding out what it really is all about. Good ones manage all three, like Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changling series (14 books) that balances between paranormal romance and urban fantasy genres. Decent ones manage at least one of these; I still read Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series (22+3 books), even though it doesn’t go anywhere, simply because I like the main character and occasionally something funny happens. But when all three fail, something needs to change.

Anita has never been a likeable character, nor does she aspire to be one. But even she should evolve and grow. She has acquired a bunch of supernatural traits that have made her near invincible (one of the reasons the series has lost its edge, as the reader can now be sure she won’t die) but she hasn’t grown as a person. She asks the same questions about herself book after book, and even if she finds an answer, she’s forgotten it by the next book. The stories aren’t exciting anymore; the last one with a half-interesting crime plot was book number twenty, Hit List, and even that one wasn’t terribly good. And with the death of the evil entity haunting Anita for many books, there isn’t even the question of what it’s all about to keep the readers coming back. All we’re left with is wondering how Anita can juggle her personal life with so many love interests with her professional one. And that was done to death a couple of books ago.

All in all, I’ve been disappointed with the series for a long time. A wise reader would have given up, and in a way I have too. I haven’t bought the latest books, but borrowed them from the library long after theyve been published. However, to keep this post from being just a rant about my disappointment with a once-favourite series, I have lessons for writers I’ve taken from it:

  1. Less is more when it comes to descriptions. If you have to copy-paste them, you’re definitely overdoing it.
  2. If the plot described in the back matter takes less than a fifth of your book, you should consider rewriting one or both of them. 
  3. If your book is nothing but a series of events that lead to nowhere, they’re just filling. Delete them.
  4. If your series repeat the same plot, incidents or events for more than two books in a row, either end the series or write something different.
  5. With a long series, characters should grow or evolve in order to keep the readers’ interest.
  6. Even a popular series can go awry if the author becomes complacent. Trust your editors, even if you’re not listening to your critics.

I leave you with a wonderful post by K. M. Wayland (all her posts about writing are wonderful) about how to cut unnecessary stuff from your book. More words don’t always equal with a better book. In the case of Anita Blake, they make an infinitely worse one.

Monday, 29 February 2016

Book review: The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

I like books with clever premises that actually deliver. The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness is one. It asks the question of what if you’re not the chosen one, but just a normal person living your ordinary life next to them. It has two stories in one: a Buffy-style high school urban fantasy of special people who battle vampires and gods trying to take over the world, and a coming of age story of a group of ordinary high school students who battle more personal problems that are every bit as devastating in their own way.

The first story is told in a summary at the beginning of every chapter and is referred to only fleetingly in the actual story. The main focus of the book is on Mike, the first person narrator, and his family and friends who are preparing for graduation – provided that the gods don’t blow up the school before that. They are aware of the odd things happening around them and can’t escape from getting involved in them too, but surviving an apocalypse isn’t quite as important to them as the finals, the prom and who is going with whom.

Each character has his or her own problems. Mike has OCD, his sister an eating disorder, her best friend is about to be dragged to a war-torn country to deliver the word of God, and his best friend is a god – or one third of a god anyway. Since the book is told by Mike from his point of view, his problems dominate and they get a little heavy at times. I would have wished that at least one character would be without personal demons to lighten up the mood. As is, the problems get a bit overwhelming at times, as they are all the narrative is about. But I liked Mike and his friends and wished for a happy end for all of them. And the ending is a happy one – and the apocalypse is defeated too. It’s just not as simple and rosy as in many young adult books.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here is the first book I’ve given five stars to this year. The stars are partly because of the dual narrative that pokes gentle fun at the chosen one trope, and partly for a cast of characters that is diverse and multi-dimensional. Mostly though, they’re because it’s a solid coming of age story with a hopeful ending that left me feeling good despite everything that happened in the book. If the ending is a bit easy, considering all the difficulties the characters faced leading to it, I don’t really care. The story is told so well that even an easy solution feels like a true victory for the characters.

This is a young adult book that has no graphic content, so it can be read by slightly younger readers too. But it has enough depth to interest readers that aren’t exactly high school students anymore. I warmly recommend it to everyone.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Who owns ideas anyway?

Earlier this week authors around the world where bemused for learning that Sherrilyn Kenyon, the author of Dark-Hunter series, has sued Cassandra Clare, of The Mortal Instruments fame, for copyright infringement, basically for using an idea she regards as uniquely her own. Their fans obviously took sides, but authors seemed to hold the opinion that she doesn’t have a case. No one owns ideas.

We’ve all been there. We’ve written a book, thinking we’ve created a unique piece of literature unparalleled to anything else, only to realise that someone has beaten us to it. And they’ve probably done it better too. We’re gobsmacked, unable to fathom how our brilliant idea could have occurred to another person and on another side of the world even.

The answer may be simple. There are only a limited number of stories that we’ve duplicated and varied over millennia. Maybe there are only four stories, like Paul Coelho maintains, or a couple of thousand, but “the same elements used in much the same ways seem to yield staggeringly different and original results in the hands of each artist who picks them up”, as Damien Walter notes on his blog. The details change, but the core remains. As Courtney Milan noted about the lawsuit, “Sherrilyn Kenyon didn’t invent the idea of a band of humans fighting the supernatural”, nor did she invent blond heroes or magical items. She simply utilised them in her own unique way – as did Cassandra Clare.

Both maintain that their creations are unique, and they’re both right. Authors are sponges who get their ideas anywhere and everywhere. Sometimes we know the moment the idea for a book struck, but most of the time they evolve slowly. And as authors are also readers, often the ideas are sparked by something we read in someone else’s book. Does that mean the idea isn’t ours? No, as long as we make it ours. But it also means that if someone else uses the idea we’re absolutely certain no one else has thought of before us, we have to let them.

More than once I’ve changed a story-line, character, or idea because I’ve realised I’m repeating what another author has already done. But as often, I’ve kept it. I’ve thought that I’ve created something unique and although the idea is the same, the outcome isn’t a copy of someone else’s work. And, to be clear, I’m not talking about the plagiarism of actual texts; that’s a whole different problem.

What would happen if Ms Kenyon won her case? We would be required to write completely unique books. There wouldn’t be a multitude of vampire books, or serial killer books; there would be only one romance with a billionaire, or a cowboy, and only one space opera with huge space ships, and so on.

It’s an exaggeration of course, and already impossible due to a sheer volume of similar books. Entire genres exist because they make use of the same core idea that no one can claim the authorship to. But it makes you realise just how much we rely on similar ideas. Take that away, and what do we have left? Not a whole lot.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Authors and social media

When new (or experienced) authors look for advice on how to make social media work for them, they find two conflicting opinions: You need to have a solid social media presence in order to sell books, but also that social media doesn’t sell books. Both are true. The gist of all the advice is this:
You need to be social on social media in order for it to work for you.
It’s not always easy to engage people on various platforms, but some are easier than others. People often comment on blog posts or posts on Facebook, but those seldom lead to conversations that build the kinds of social relationships that would advance the author’s sales. This is mainly because the person commenting is a ’visitor’ on the author’s space; they are not ’equal’ there. Also, people having the conversation are seldom present at the same time. Moreover, it’s difficult to engage more people in one conversation, so they die quickly.

So far, Twitter has been good at making social media social. The immediacy of Twitter, the feed that moves so fast it basically disappears as soon as you’ve seen it, has taught the users to seize the opportunity to answer or comment on tweets immediately. No one is a ’visitor’ on someone else’s space, people having the conversation are present at the same time, and more than one person can take part in it. It makes the conversations feel more genuine.

Once you’ve gone through the trouble of building a presence on one or more platforms, the platform may start working against you. The heavy users of Facebook are aware that not all posts are visible for all followers, or that they don’t see all the posts from the people they find interesting. You can pay for your posts to show up, but there’s no guarantee it’ll work. So far, that hasn’t been the case on Twitter. But it may be about to change.

Twitter has proposed to start offering the users a selection of tweets based on algorithms. We don’t know yet how Twitter will prioritise the tweets, but most likely it will be based on the users' own behaviour, or that of the more popular accounts. Therefore, the tweets you click on are those that you will see more of in the future. And vice versa. Your followers will only see tweets based on their behaviour. If they’ve never reacted to your tweets, nothing can guarantee that yours will be among the tweets they see in the future.

If your presence on Twitter has been an endless stream of links to your books no one has reacted to, it may be that in the future less and less people will see them. That makes it even more important to engage the social aspect of Twitter. If the algorithm prioritises tweets from accounts you engage with, you will have to start engaging more in order to be seen in the future.

Perversely, Twitter changed the conversation experience for the worse at the same time – at least for some users. On Tweetdeck everything still works the way it always has. Tweetdeck is perfect for engaging with people too, as you can see all your favourite accounts in columns. I’ve written about the usefulness of Tweetdeck here. And it could be that the algorithm, if it’s implemented, won’t affect the lists you’ve compiled, which makes Tweetdeck even more important.

Users are declaring the death of Twitter and offering alternatives. Facebook remains popular, and Google+ offers the same experience, even though many find it strange and difficult to use. But, as Anne R. Allen notes on her blog post about the importance of Google+ for authors, it’s “utterly useless for networking”. So far there isn’t an alternative for Twitter that offers the same immediacy and the sense of being in the same place at the same time. And if that disappears from Twitter too, it’ll be that much more difficult for authors to make social media work for them. So here’s hoping that won’t happen.

Until then, you can find me on Twitter as @crimsonhouseboo.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Age-inappropriate reading?

I had a good visit to the library today. I found three books that I actually want to read, not mere fillers I borrow because I don’t want to return home empty handed. They all come from the new arrivals’ shelf – always a delight when I can snatch something up first. My haul is The Rest of Just Live Here by Patrick Ness, Angel of Storms by Trudy Canavan, and Dream a Little Dream by Kerstin Gier. What they have in common is that they’re fantasy of one kind or another – and that they’re all meant for young or young adult readers.

Having chosen, once again, exclusively from the youth department, I was inspired to revisit an old post that I wrote as a reaction to an article that appeared in Slate in 2014. The writer, Ruth Graham, was of opinion (probably still is?) that adults “should feel embarrassed” when what they’re reading is written for children. Not because the books are bad – she discards the obviously bad books and concentrates on those with literary merit. She objects to them because their (adult) readers “are asked to abandon the mature insights … that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults.”

Graham rejects YA fiction because she sees it merely as “escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia”. Admittedly, it can be all that. Young adult fantasy is probably doubly escapist. But I don’t see that as a bad thing. Nostalgia is necessary for humans from time to time. It puts our present and future into perspective. Moreover, young adult fiction can be so much more too. Some of the most insightful, innovative and unprejudiced fiction is written for young people – Patrick Ness being one of the writers at the top of the list.

Another crime of the YA fiction is, in Graham’s opinion, that it lacks the “emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction – of the real world”. In a real world, and apparently in fiction based on it, there are no happy endings, and so “adult readers ought to reject [YA fiction] as far too simple”.  Anyone who has read John Green knows that’s simply not true (although, Graham’s article is actually written as a reaction to The Fault in Our Stars) and, while I admit that Kerstin Gier and Trudy Canavan tend to write books with satisfying endings, Patrick Ness doesn’t let his readers off easy either.

But the oddest notion of Graham’s is that adults who read YA fiction rob teenagers the chance of moving to the ‘grown-up’ fiction. I don’t even know how that could be possible. There is no natural path that guides readers from one type of books to another and from one age group to another. Books from different times, genres and literary ambitions coexist for anyone to find and read. Adults who read YA fiction do not make teenagers blind to other books. Moreover, just like adults want to return to their youth by reading YA fiction, teenagers have a need to experience the world of adults. They will discard YA books far faster than the adults who read them – perhaps to return to them later.

So I will continue to read anything I want and like. I won’t discard good books merely because of my physical age or my assumed stage of maturity. I won’t limit myself to books suitable for my age either. Young adult fiction has lessons to teach to me as well. And I won’t be ashamed of sometimes wanting to forget the reality, be it with the help of young adult or some other escapist fiction.

Friday, 29 January 2016

Pre-order: yea or nay?

For some time now, Amazon has offered self-publishing authors the possibility to have their books available for pre-ordering before publishing. The advantage is, for example, the potential higher ranking on the publishing day, as all the pre-sales are counted on that day. Smashwords offers the same option, too, for the books distributed through its channels. I have now tried the option twice, so it’s time to sum up my thoughts.

The first book I had available for pre-order was A Warrior for a Wolf that came out in November. It’s the fifth book in the Two-Natured London series, so I figured my readers might be interested in pre-ordering the book. Especially, since I had recently uploaded the series on Smashwords and other vendors, and the books were selling fairly well there.

You can set the publishing date as far as a year on Amazon, but as I had everything ready, the cover, and the edited and formatted manuscript, I was a tad impatient and set the date only a week from uploading. (If you upload the final file, you can skip the mandatory ten-day delay.) To make it more desirable to pre-order the book, I set the price for only $0.99.

I didn’t have any trouble with setting up the pre-order page; the system is exactly the same as regular publishing. However, I was surprised that the pre-order page doesn’t have the ability to read a sample of the book. Personally, I find it a crucial feature when I make my purchasing choices. I would like the pre-order to have that option too.

In seven days, the book was pre-ordered six times, five times on and once on amazon UK. It doesn’t sound like much, but that ensured that the book debuted within top five hundred in vampire books, and in a very high spot overall. It kept selling well for a few days too – at least until I changed the price to $2.99 to conform with the rest of the series. I’ve never been an amazon bestseller, so I was very happy with the result.

Debut rank for A Warrior for a Wolf

The second book I had available for pre-order was Magic under the Witching Moon this January, also part of the Two-Natured London series. I was a little wiser this time round and uploaded the book well in advance, almost a month prior to the publication day. The price was again $0.99, although, as it’s a shorter book, that is likely to remain its price. I had the final cover, but not the final manuscript, so I uploaded a draft version and delivered the final file ten days before the publishing day. On Smashwords, you don’t have to upload a draft file, but you have to deliver the final ten days before the publication too.

I made sure to inform people that the book was available for pre-order and it sold slightly better. Not, however, three times better. I sold nine copies over all, eight in and one in the UK. Since it sold almost twice as much on than the first book, I assumed the rank would be better on the publication day. Oddly, that wasn’t the case. The overall rank was just about on the better side of 100,000 and it didn’t get much higher from that by the next day. However, it has sold fairly nicely since – for my book – so people have probably found it by browsing the genre lists.

Debut rank for Magic under the Witching Moon

Both books were also available for pre-order through Smashwords, but the impact was minimal there. Both were purchased twice, but on different vendor sites, so it didn’t have any impact on their rank.

What have I learned from all this?

  1. It pays to have a low price as an incentive for people to pre-order your book, especially if you make it known that the price will go up later. However, don’t hike up the price too soon after the publication.
  2. Allow sufficient time for pre-ordering. Month may be too little, but a year would probably be too much.
  3. Advertise well that your book is available for pre-order.
  4. Pre-order is definitely a good way to boost ranking on the publication day, but the results aren’t consistent and the impact wears off soon.
  5. I will have all my future books available for pre-order too. A little boost is better than no boost at all.

Pre-order is a nice way to get visibility for your book and I recommend it. But unless you’re a bestseller, it probably won’t have an earth-shattering impact. Try it yourself and tell me how it goes.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Letting a lesser character take over

Everyone who has read or written – or both – a long series knows that alongside the main characters there are lesser characters that appear every now and then, but who don’t really push the story forward. They are necessary, but they don’t require or merit much attention. They appear often enough to have names and descriptions, but they get less page time than the trusted best friends who help the main characters achieve their goals.

But occasionally these lesser characters grow larger than their original role. Maybe something interesting happens to them in the side-lines, or they show up so often that they become proper side characters. And sometimes, they grow into main characters.

That happened with a character in my Two-Natured London series. DS Adrian Moore appeared in the second book, Warrior’s Heart, and has shown up in pretty much every book since. I intended him to remain in the background. He is human in the world of vampires and wolf-shifters and his role was to reflect the differences between the one- and two-natured. He wasn’t supposed to be anything more.

But I grew to like him. He was perfect romantic hero material, handsome, strong and protective. Was I about to let that go to waste simply because he’s human and so wasn’t a proper paranormal hero? Still, I hesitated. How to write his story without turning him into a vampire or a shifter? I had used that storyline twice already in the course of the series and I wanted another approach. He needed to remain human.

As a human, he needed a human love interest too. The two-natured are near eternal in my two-natured world, and the idea of him falling in love with a woman who would greatly outlive him didn’t sit well with me. But how to write the love story of two humans so that the story would fit the spirit of a paranormal romance series?

My solution was to make her a witch. White witches haven’t appeared in the series yet, but black witches play a vital role in Warrior’s Heart and the existence of white witches is hinted at. Raven Fontaine is a special kind of witch too: she can turn into a cat, which makes her fit in the world of shape shifters. And she is completely human, and so only has the lifespan of one.

The end result is a beautiful little romance. Magic under the Witching Moon is a little shorter than other Two-Natured London books, but no less intense for it. It’s exactly the perfect size for a lesser character taking over and becoming the hero. Here’s a little sample of the book. I hope you enjoy it. The book will come out in January 28th and you can pre-order it here.

Susanna Shore: Magic under the Witching Moon

Adrian Moore stared at the two large bags that contained most of what he owned. Who knew his life would fit in such a small space? On one hand, it made things easier when he broke up with his girlfriend of four years. On the other hand, he probably should have more to show for those four years than this.

Then again, he had brought only some photos and clothes with him when he followed Nora to England, and he hadn’t really settled into their life in London during the past seven months. The apartmentor flat as they called it here — was owned by Nora’s employer, and it had come fully furnished. He hadn’t needed to buy anything.

He was a cop. What did he understand of furniture and d├ęcor anyway?

Nora had always found his lack of sophistication a bit of an embarrassment, especially when they were with their
hercultured friends. But nobody really learned to talk about Shakespeare or whatever growing up in the rougher end of Queens. Or how to dress up properly. The one brown suit he wore to work was at least five years old but he liked it. The suit that Nora had made him buy — so that he would look more the thing among the bankers and lawyers of her firm — was fine and fit him well, but he couldn’t wear it to work; he would’ve got the living crap beaten out of him for showing off. So he never did.

Nora took that as a deliberate insult. It probably was — what did he know? Yet he hadn’t taken the suit with him when he left.

In hindsight, he should have called it quits when Nora told him she was transferred to London, should have stayed in New York. But his partner of two years in the NYPD had died in a drug raid and he had needed a change. Moving to England with her had seemed like an honourable choice. It wasn’t running away, it was relocating and getting to know the British way of policing.

And there was a lot to learn, from the basics up. Firearms were only carried by a special branch here, which had been a bit of a shock to him. But he had adjusted. As he had adjusted to cases that had supernatural elements in them, like domestic disturbances with tiger-shifters, or murders by black magic. Domestic cases weren’t usually handled by Major Investigation Teams
homicide in US parlancebut his partner was special, so they got their share of those too.

His decision to join the Metropolitan Police Service was, ironically, the main reason for their breakup. Nora was ashamed of having a DS as a partner when all her colleagues dated lawyers and bankers. She had hoped he would seek more respected employment when in England. “Couldn’t they at least have made you a DI? You were a lieutenant there,” was one of her favourite gripes.

Couldn’t they at least have given you a human partner? was another.

The past few months he had spent longer hours at the station than necessary, ‘polishing up his paperwork’, and ‘familiarising himself with British law and policing customs’. More often than not, Nora hadn’t been home when he finally came there, having gone out with her more ‘posh’ friends.

The breakup had been a long time coming. They had been drifting apart even before they moved to London. These last seven months had simply been the inevitable swansong. Though it still surprised him how little it troubled him. He felt light-hearted even. Content.

Hefting the not-so-heavy bags on his shoulder, he wondered where he should head next. Despite all the signs, the final decision to move out had been a spontaneous act after a stupid, pointless fight, and he didn’t have a place to stay. With no better plan, he headed to the closest subway
tubestation. He would go to work. There was an extra bed in the back room at the station. He could stay there for a couple of nights while he figured out what to do next.

“You’re looking rumpled.”

DI Philippa Audley was studying him with a critical eye. She was a tiny, attractive woman with blond pixie-cut hair and a no-nonsense attitude. Her tailor-made suit was always perfectly pressed, and her shirt clean.

When he was first assigned to work with her, he had been sure that a woman that young and small couldn’t possibly survive long in the Serious Crime Command. He had wanted to ask for another partner; he had lost the previous one to bullets and wasn’t looking forward to losing another.

He was glad he hadn’t spoken up. Turned out she was almost a two-hundred-year-old vampire and had survived as a cop for almost a century of that, and all that without firearms. She didn’t need any. She had magic. Literally.

Not that she needed to resort to that all that often either. She might be small, but she had more than her share of gravitas. People responded to her with respect.

Coming from the States, he’d had no experience with vampires
or shifters for that matter. Of the three two-natured species, they only had sentients over there, and they were almost ordinary humans. He’d had no idea what to expect, but the learning curve had been steep and fast. Their first night together had included enraged shifters, overbearing vampires, and a murder through black magic.

By the end of their first month together, she had survived the death of her previous partner and being used as a sacrifice in a black magic ritual. He couldn’t have done that. In short order he had learned to respect her, and he was happy to work with her.

Pippa was another issue that had come between him and Nora. Nora hated her and what she represented. “Vampires … they should all be killed,” had been her most PC-rated opinion. He had his own past as a bigot and a bully, but he had grown up and over such behaviour. He had little sympathy for her opinions.

Standing before his boss now, Adrian checked his clothes. The brown suit was clean enough, but perhaps he could have changed his shirt. He brushed his chin in a self-conscious gesture and felt the stubble there. Perhaps he should have shaved better too.

“Yeah, well…”

“What’s going on? You’re usually neat like a pin, the Navy shining off you.”

“Marines, actually. And nothing important.” But Pippa gave him her well-honed death-glare he was unable to withstand. He sighed. “Nora and I broke up. I don’t have a place to stay so I’ve been crashing in the backroom for a couple of … eight … days now.” Had it really been so long already? No wonder he looked rumpled.

Pippa’s glare softened to almost sympathetic. She wasn’t one for expressing finer emotions. “I’m sorry to hear that. Are you holding up?”

“Yeah. I’m not heartbroken or any such shit. I’m more inconvenienced. The apartment belongs to her employer, so naturally I was the one who moved out. But I’ve been too busy to look for a new place.” One that he could afford. He couldn’t exactly live in Chelsea anymore on a cop’s salary, but the rest of London wasn’t cheap either.

“I have a place you can stay.”

He felt uneasy. “I don’t want any charity.”

Mary Moore’s son stood on his own two feet. Or tried to anyway, but Pippa’s death-glare returned, nearly making him quake in his pants — trousers. You got funny looks from people if you called them pants here.

He had survived the Marines and a stint in Iraq with some really nasty commanding officers, but none of them had managed to draw quite the same reaction from him as Pippa when she glared.

“It’s not charity. It’s a practical solution for a genuine problem. You need a place and I have one.”

“As long as you let me pay the rent.”

She sneered. “Of course you’ll pay. Vampires haven’t become insanely wealthy by letting their chums live at their expense.”

He wasn’t entirely convinced she meant it, but that evening he followed her to the apartment she owned. “Bring your bags,” she ordered him when they were leaving. “One way or another, you won’t be sleeping here anymore.”

He grumbled but obeyed. It was difficult not to obey her, and she didn’t even need to use vampire charm that made humans do whatever vampires demanded of them. She had assured him she never would use it on him and he believed her.

Estelle Road was two miles to north from the Kentish Town police station where they worked, and not far from Hampstead Heath, a huge green area right at the edge of the city. It was an affluent-looking neighbourhood with three-storey brown-brick row-houses – terraces as they were called here – with bay windows and white trimmings, tiny front yards, and slightly larger backyards. He wasn’t familiar with the age-layers of London, but what he had learned was that most houses were old.

“Isn’t this a bit expensive for me?” he asked when Pippa led him into a foyer with just enough room for narrow stairs leading up. She opened the door to the ground floor apartment – flat. He should really adopt the lingo if he was going to stay.

He startled, a funny feeling in his stomach. He hadn’t realised he was thinking of staying in London. Of course he wouldn’t stay, now that he didn’t have Nora keeping him here. New York was home. His family was there, as were those friends who wouldn’t have forgotten him by the time his year-long contract here ended.

But until then he needed a place to live, and this was as good as any. It wasn’t a large flat, a front room towards the street and a kitchen and a bedroom at the back, with a narrow corridor connecting them, along which there was a bathroom and some closets. But everything was clean and looked fairly new – including the furniture. He wouldn’t have to get that.

“I got this place for myself back when I believed Mother would let me move on my own. I’ve occasionally come here just to get some peace and quiet.”

He winced in sympathy. Two hundred years was no picnic when one had to live with one’s mother. He loved his dearly, but if he hadn’t left to the Marines at the first chance he got, he would have lost his mind.

“Don’t you want it for you and Jas?”

She snorted, amused. “He wouldn’t fit in here.”

He acknowledged this with an understanding nod. Her spouse-to-be
mate, as she called him vampire-style — was a huge scary-looking SOB vampire warrior. He needed much more space.

But Adrian was finding the place just to his liking, if a bit too British
— and feminine — with flower-patterned upholstery, throw pillows, and rose-coloured wallpaper. Who knew his boss had that streak in her. He made a couple of token protests, but in the end he carried his bags in and settled down. Just like Pippa had said he would. She managed not to look smug about it — almost.

He didn’t waste time unpacking, and felt instantly more comfortable with his few possessions around. He had a TV, and a brief trip to the nearest grocery store on the street corner filled his fridge. Even the rain that had started while he was in the store didn’t mar his mood. He had a roof over his head where he could stay the rest of his time in London, and no one to nag about his selection of food.

His shopping unpacked, he was about to move to the living room to spend the evening in front of TV when he heard a noise from the backyard. He flipped on the lights, but the yard was empty. He made to leave, but a small sound of distress made him glance down. There, on the back steps, sat a cat, drenched and miserable, demanding to be let in. 

If you liked the first chapter, you can read the second chapter here. And you can pre-order the book here.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Another point of view

I’m partial to the subjective, ‘close’ third person point of view in my novels: the reader sees what the character sees and feels, and not much else. Since I write romances, I usually show the action through the eyes of two main characters – the star-crossed lovers – although the style would allow me to use a wider range of characters too. I especially like to show the action through the eyes of the antagonist, a device I’m yet to use in my Two-Natured London series where it would fit well.

As a reader, I’m not as particular. The third person objective point of view, the omniscient narrative where the narrator knows more than the characters, is interesting to read, even if it’s seldom used in modern literature anymore, though particularly well done in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel by Susanna Clarke. And first person narrative can be fun or intense, depending on the genre. There’s something very intimate about not knowing more than the character does, which is probably why it works so well in detective stories. But it can be very limiting too.

I find the first person narrative especially limiting in romances, which necessarily tells the story of two people. As a reader, I’m often dying to know what the other party thinks of the protagonist as the romance unfolds. It feels like I’m missing half of the story, if I’m only shown the romance from one point of view. I’m not alone in this, and sometimes the author feels it’s necessary to give us the other side of the story too.

One popular way is to write short stories from a point of view of a major or minor character, which are additions to the original. My favourites are the – free – short stories Karen Chance offers to her readers that range from the adventures of a minor character, like Kit Marlowe, to important events in the life of a major character, like the stories about Pritkin. They don’t all add to our understanding about the main character Cassie, but they contribute to the world as a whole.

Some authors take it farther. A couple of extremely popular books have recently been completely rewritten from the hero’s point of view – the exact same story told twice. I haven’t read those popular retellings – I haven’t read the originals even – but I doubt I’d enjoy them much. I wouldn’t be learning anything new even though the point of view is different.

The temptation to tell an important scene twice in the same book from different points of view is familiar to the writers of the close third too – I luckily mostly grew over it before I published my first book. It’s both redundant and annoying, and doesn’t, paradoxically, add anything to the story. There are better ways to add value to your series with the changing of the point of view.

I’ve recently read two books that are additions to popular series and told from a perspective of a major character in the originals. Four by Veronica Roth is an addition to her hugely popular Divergent series, and Brighter than the Sun by Darynda Jones is an addition to Charley Davidson series.  They are not retellings of the story we already know from a different point of view; they tell the story of a different character so that the original story gets a new meaning.

Brighter than the Sun tells the life-story of Reyes, the love of Charley’s life, from childhood on; a difficult story to read, as he had a difficult childhood. Compared with the main series, which is at times laugh-out-loud funny like the character telling it, the style is very different. But that’s the way it needs to be, when the narrator, the main character himself, is so different. It’s a short book and it ends rather abruptly just as he finally meets Charley for the first time, but it achieves its objective: deepening the readers’ understanding of a major character and thus adding value to the entire series.

Four, as its name reveals, is about the character Four, who along the narrator Tris is the main character in the Divergent series. The book contains four fairly long short stories and a couple of short scenes written from the Four’s first person point of view. The first three stories are set in the time before Tris, and even after Tris appears in the fourth, the emphasis is on other matters than Four’s relationship with her. He emerges as a fully formed, interesting character with a story of his own, his hopes, dreams and fears – all four of them. The end result is that I now very much want to read a whole new series with him as the protagonist.

If you have chosen a first person narrative for your book or series, and are now feeling its limitations, the way to change the point of view is by creating new instead of warming up the old. Pick a protagonist, be it the love interest or the villain, and write a story that belongs to that character. You will add much more value to the series that way. It doesn’t have to be a full length book. Your readers will love even a shorter story – as long as it’s original. Try it. Even if you don’t publish it, it will deepen your understanding of your characters, and improve your writing. And that can only be good.