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Three Years Later…

Firebird Front Cover (v5)And still learning.

When I published Firebird, in May 2011, I wasn’t sure what would happen. At the time I was simply bored of playing the traditional submissions-lottery with a book that was never intended to conform.

You see, there are no youthful wizards in Firebird.  Nor any tribal wars fought by teenagers.  There are no vampires, zombies or tortured Scandinavian policemen.  I deliberately set out to avoid convention and can imagine the reaction of the publishing houses when Firebird hit their desks: “Nope,” they would have been muttering, grimly shaking their heads, “this book’s not the same enough for us…”

Three amazing years later, I’m pleased I took the plunge.  I’m pleased that I released this tale of one extraordinary creature, and a handful of very ordinary humans, from its years of enforced incarceration on my hard disk drive.  Why?  Because there are clearly a great many readers who, like me, are on the lookout for something different.  Who enjoy change.  Who don’t mind if the next page is not as entirely predictable as the last.

So here I am: three years on, with two novels in circulation, both of which continue to be picked up by adventurous bookworms.  I always have and shall remain eternally grateful to everyone who dips into my writing.

Would Firebird look different if I wrote it again today?  The answer to that question is a resounding, yes.  There isn’t a single day that goes by when I don’t discover a new nuance of language, a new word, or a new technique I might be able to apply.  Would Firebird be any better if I rewrote it?  I doubt it.   There comes a time when too much tinkering destroys raw accessibility.  As far as I’m concerned, Firebird’s a done deal now.

Besides: I’ve got too many new stories to tell and, who knows, with the amount of spare time I have for writing, I might even finish one of them by the time Firebird is six…

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You Can Look, but…

… You can’t touch.

Over the last couple of years I think I’ve slowly started coming to terms with some of the unexpected side-effects which emerge when you put out a book.  I’ll be honest, it’s taken me a while and, lowly part-known that I am, I can understand why those who are more famous often have a love:hate relationship with the internet and social networking sites.

This blog is probably the only part of my on-line portfolio that I have any real control over.  By this I mean, in terms of content.  Everywhere else is subject to  random coincidence, semi-intelligent web-crawling programmes, industrial-scale marketing, the good side of humanity and sadly, on occasion, the worst side too.

This site is therefore the only place I feel confident enough to respond publicly to anything I see or read elsewhere.  Yes: I’ll reply to Twitter direct messages, or to emails, but these are by nature quite private exchanges. Most importantly though: I have a policy of absolutely not responding to any book reviews I receive for Firebird or Thunder.

As far as I can tell – at least so far – this is turning into a good strategy…

Recently I’ve been lucky enough to spend a little time talking with some communications professionals.  The context of these conversations was business-oriented but also interesting from a writer’s perspective.  You see, business – as much as anyone else on-line – suffers from Trolls and the professionals’ consensus for dealing with these sorry souls was simply: ignore them.

Of course, downright illegal, threatening or abusive messages can and should be acted on – usually by a request for deletion of the offensive matter to the relevant web-site service provider.  As for the rest of the sad-garbage, it’s most often an attempt to stimulate a reaction and, hence, gain a platform – i.e. to be noticed – and the recommended means to deal with this is to do nothing.  With no fuel, the experts advise that the fire-starter will head off and try to make misery elsewhere.

Of course, on the rare times when I need to do this, I come away with my sense of justice feeling bruised and I have to work hard not to react and try to fight my own corner.  This is tough but one thing helps me to get through it and stops me from posting something I know I’ll regret.  And it’s one thing not even the smartest troll can feed off, something no one single individual could ever trace backwards.  It’s one thing that adds value to me and yet vilifys the worst of them.

My one thing?  Simple: I take any form of inflammatory or abusive feedback as a free insight into areas of human-nature which would normally be alien to me.  A free insight which I can adapt, amplify and feed into my next bad-guy.

And anyone who’s read any of my work will know that the bad guys in my novels rarely enjoy much in the way of a happily-ever-after…!

[p.s. I’m off travelling for a while during March, so I apologise in advance if I seem slow in responding to comments or questions…!  Cheers, AB]

The Numbers Game…

I’m not sure why, but there’s a seemingly endless fascination with rankings and chart numbers.  In certain circumstances, sports for instance, this all makes sense: it’s about competition and determining victory and there are a whole host of governing bodies to ensure fair play.  Charts are also considered helpful to indicate relative popularity but this kind of benchmarking is much less reliable and is liable to manipulation or abuse.  Of course, you might have guessed that the charts that I seem to be most fixated with are Amazon Sales Rankings.  I confess: I try not to look at them  but for some reason I can’t help it!  Anyway, I thought I’d share a little of what I’ve experienced about them over the last few years.

When I first published Firebird, back in 2011, the concept of ebooks was still very new.  Back then, Firebird would oscillate between the top 10,000 and top 100,000 books in both the UK and US Amazon charts.  At that time, the general author consensus was that if you were in the top 10,000 then that was a very good sign.

Nowadays, however, things have changed.  All of the major publishing houses have, to some extent, conceded to the ebook format and published their back catalogues.  Indie writers, good and bad, are pouring their wares into the e-marketplace and the trend of publishing shorter stories as “novellas” is not doing anything to reduce this literal tsunami.

So, two years on, Firebird is selling more strongly than ever – albeit that this means approximately two copies per week – but is now generally ranked as being between 100,000th and 200,000th.  A good day might see it spring up to a circa 30,000th slot but, within a day, it’ll drift back into its more normal resting place.

Thunder, despite having a lower overall circulation, is not too dissimilar.  It ranges between 200,000 and 500,000th.

Initially I was concerned about this.  Now I’m not.

I celebrate days when either book breaks the top 100,000 as this tells me that someone new has been kind – or perhaps crazy – enough to try out my efforts and I have settled into being satisfied that if my books are anywhere in the top million then that’s still pretty impressive considering the wealth of global competition they’re up against.

And who knows?  I may have to add even more zero’s to my benchmark in another couple of years!

That’s it, I’ve started…

Well my trip to Finland was, once again, extremely restful.  Except for the journey home where, somehow, I managed to damage my lower back on the way to the airport.  Eight hours of transit and tight connections later; I couldn’t even stand upright unassisted!  Ouch …

My doctor says, “Things like this happen, as you get older…”

Thanks, Doc.  That makes me feel much better…

Anyway, I’m pleased to report that I’ve made a start on the new novel and the opening pages – assuming I don’t shuffle things as I go – have been drafted.  Openings are vital for any piece of writing, particularly novels.  They need to drag readers in by the eyeballs and may, in the end, determine the entire success or otherwise of a story.  As a result, I try not to be too precious about the opening pages.  If I get a better idea later, I’ll swap stuff out.  Looking back, Firebird hasn’t got a ‘bad’ start but I think Thunder’s is better.  For me, I’m looking to stir up shock, confusion and to create intrigue from the get-go – although I don’t deliberately sit down and try to force this to happen – and recently I’ve been to paying more attention to missing things out, rather than putting them in…  In other words, I’ve noticed that a little deft cutting sometimes adds more value than a hundred extra words…

On another subject entirely, I noticed yesterday that Amazon have adjusted their pricing regimes again.  As a result, I’ve been able to reset Thunder’s pricing so that it’s a little bit lower than it’s been since publication.  Other authors might also want to check out the pricing policies in detail.  Certain country price points are lower than the US which, thanks to Amazon’s global price-matching rules, means that there’s a little bit of headroom to offer better deals for your readers (and for us to still get a few cents to contribute toward our next computer upgrades!).

Right, it’s time for me to go and enjoy the, highly unusual and probably short-lived, British sunshine…!

Tomato Time…

Yes, it’s almost time for my annual pilgrimage to Finland and I’m looking forward to meeting up with friends and family over there.

This year’s visit is timed to coincide with the local town’s Tomato Carnival which celebrates the community’s agricultural cornerstone of… you guessed it… tomatoes.  Blog regulars will be familiar with this concept and there are even a couple of photos in here somewhere.

It’s always fascinating for me to have chance to visit, what is for me, a completely different lifestyle: almost a different world.  Where noise consists mainly of the sounds of wildlife, where affluence is having fresh food and a good fire, where happiness blossoms from simple social interaction and rich conversation.  The Finns do always make me feel so very welcome.

Work has been, what can only be described as, “mental” for these last few weeks and, whilst this has been going on, I’ve only been able to find enough moments to continue to develop the story-lines, content, and characters for the next novel.  As a result, I’m also looking forward to getting some solid writing time whilst I’m away.  I’m really itching to start drafting; whole passages are queuing up in my head and bursting to get out!  And I might even have finally settled on the book’s title, but I’m not quite ready to share that, yet…

Firebird and Thunder continue to tick over gently, which is a real delight, and I’ve even received some nice encouragement from readers recently.  So, wish me luck: it’s time to get Book Three started…!

What’s Up?

Apologies for a distinct lack of posts recently.  I’ve been kept rather busy by the boring and mundane necessities of living a normal life and only being a part-time writer!

Nonetheless, I am cracking on in the background on the storyboard, character biographies and research for my next novel.  Things are progressing nicely although, for the first time, I’ve realised that the scope of the tale is now definitely far beyond a single work.  This is kind of tricky, and new ground for me.  Whilst Firebird and Thunder are both written with open hooks for pre or sequels, the storyline I sat down with for each of them had a contained beginning, middle, and end.  It was clear how much ground they’d cover.  This is not the case with the new one. In fact, I’m scoping and storyboarding across what will likely be several manuscripts.

There is the option to write one, massive, blockbuster – but I’m not sure that the few fans I’ve got – or even I – have got enough patience to wait till I’ve finished it! So, as it is, I’m just marking up thoughts and ideas for later works and concentrating on honing the important components for at least a “Book One”.

It’ll be another sci-fi/fantasy/action and adventure mashup with possibly a tiny dash of UF just for the hell of it…  Crazy?  Maybe, but my objectives have and always will be to try to create stories that are a little bit off the beaten track!

Anyway, I also promised an update on how my pricing programme was progressing.  Well at the moment, my jury is still out.  Firebird does seem to be ticking over slightly more regularly at its price of 99c and Thunder is also selling the odd copy at my old base price.  Recent weeks have seen a very slight upturn, but that might just be a seasonal effect.  I’ll keep you posted as the months roll by.

To be honest, I’m way past thinking my books will ever earn me more than the odd pound or two and I’m genuinely excited and honoured whenever I see that someone has taken a punt to give one of them a go.  And at least with slow sales I’m not under any pressure to pump out the next one!

Theres A Typo In Here…

And anyone daft, or masochistic, enough to want to publish a novel will no doubt have spotted it.  However, just in case any budding book-reviewers are busy sharpening their critical pencils, the one in the title of this post is deliberate…

Anyway, what’s prompted this blog is a fascinating email I received about Firebird from Amazon last week which advised me, most helpfully:

There are typos in your book. You can see this error at the following Kindle location(s): 6548 … “An unusual number compared to the surrounding arid countryside.”

i.e. the sentence in quotations contains a typo…

Well, I looked and I looked…

And I looked some more…

‘This must be a real cracker of a typo,’ I thought to myself.  ‘Not like that blistering, bold typeface, spelling mistake I just saw in the middle of XYZ [yep: my self-preservation instincts force me to refrain from naming of oft-offending but otherwise entertaining novel, and its perhaps-responsible professional publishing house]…’

So I tried reading each word out loud.  First forwards, then backwards…

Nope.  Still nothing…

Then I noticed that Amazon had kindly offered their erudite wisdom to aid me: poor illiterate that I am.

Anyone want to hazard a guess as to what I’d apparently got wrong?

Well, according to Amazon, my sentence should read:

“An unusual number compared to the surrounding and countryside.”

You may need to look carefully…  I had to; before I laughed out loud…

I have, of course, not inserted the above, grammatically-incorrect and ill-advised text into my book…  The word arid is welcome in my vocabulary, and it can stay just exactly where I’d carefully placed it in Firebird.

So, has this experience diminished my paranoia of all things typographical?  Not a chance.  My passion to eradicate any real mistakes I might find lurking somewhere on my pages remains indefatigable…  Or as an Amazon proofreader would perhaps have it: in the fat gable…?

Typos, eh?  I think they’re just the fingers’ way of keeping authors’ minds humble…

The Eternal eBook Pricing Conundrum…

There’s not much writing going on at the moment: partly because the routine distractions of life are preventing me from having much mental bandwidth and partly because I’m simply not in the mood.  Given that my writing is a hobby, I’m not going to try to force myself…

Instead, I’m trying a bit of an experiment.  Having two books in circulation gives me the opportunity to try out different pricing regimes.

I’ve always kept my pricing as low as possible within the constraints of Amazon’s royalty-based rules.  I’ve also learned, from promotions, the risks of ascribing zero value to a book. One thing I’ve not done so far is try out the lowest royalty band and, as the levels of royalty I receive are pretty much nil, now seems a good time to play with a few changes!

Personally, I think Thunder is a big step forwards from Firebird; so I’ve been considering for a long time adjusting my pricing to reflect this.  Although, as an aside, the first US review for Thunder claims that Firebird is better… hey ho… each to their own…!

Anyway, for a few weeks I’m going to trial having Firebird at the lowest price point available to me: 0.99 cents.  Let’s see how it goes and I’ll let you know if I see any results…

Time to Get Cracking…

I’m pleased to report that I’ve had a very encouraging couple of weeks.  Out of the blue, several very nice people have sent me messages of support for my writing which, beyond the selfish pleasure I derive from playing with words on my own, makes it all feel worthwhile…

It’s therefore the ideal time to put some concerted effort into my next project…

For me, a story-idea begins as a base premise, usually comprising of one or possibly two central themes.  I churn these concepts in the back of my mind, usually over several years, until one or more of them take root and start to blossom into potential story-lines.  At this point, characters have usually started to appear though, in these early stages, they are mostly only vague wire-frames of what they might become.  As an aside, I’m currently juggling about half-a-dozen, variously well developed, concepts in the dark and dank corners of my mind.

What seems to happen next is that, toward the point when I’m finishing one manuscript, I start to down-select the next most personally interesting theme.  I discovered a while back that my levels of personal-motivation are critical to me actually finishing a novel-length story. In other words, I have to be excited by something for it to get done.  Let’s face it: there’re enough burdensome tasks in life so writing – at least for me – needs to be fun!

The new theme then becomes subject to more detailed scrutiny and testing; during which I’ll try to imagine important individual scenes in more detail, start to flesh-out the main characters and begin to define any supporting cast.  This then leads to two things, which I seem to do in parallel: character biographies and story-boarding.

Character Bio’s were an area of weakness when I wrote Firebird so, for Thunder, I developed a more extensive single-spreadsheet based system to capture and develop the key characteristics for each player.  Along the columns I list the characters, along the rows I list key attributes (eye colour, hair colour, physique, attitude, penchant for getting themselves killed, etcetera).  I found this tool provided two benefits: it showed up any key gaps where detail was missing and it also made for easy reference when writing and thereby helped to maintain consistency and avoid silly mistakes.  Unlike some writers, I don’t bind myself down, nor my characters, by trying to plan out every last nuance of personality for them straight away.  Rather, I let myself get to know the characters during the writing and am prepared – cautiously –  to fine-tune aspects of their behaviours, or sometimes even role, downstream.

For my storyboards, I use a couple of A1-sized flip-charts which are hanging on the wall of my workroom.  I write up ideas – scenes, characters, hook-lines, names, and anything else that pops up into my mind – on post-it notes and then stick them randomly on one of the charts. This is my “idea pool” for the novel and it usually gets added to right through to the end of drafting. Unused ideas are noted at the end of the process and saved for later projects.  On the second flip-chart, I use tiny post-its to build up swimming lanes – often by main character – of key scenes and staging points from front to back of the story.  Initially, these are usually very high level with only one or two signposts along the way then, as I start to draft, I fill in the gaps, cross-overs and interlinks.  The great thing about using post-its is that you can reshuffle as you go – useful if you need to make a change or if you come up with a new and interesting dynamic during the draft.  This kind of storyboarding helps me to avoid plot-holes and any huge leaps or disjoints between diverse – or even chronological – sections.  It also seems to help develop a more constant pacing and balance throughout a longer manuscript.

These two processes are what I’m in the middle of for my next book and, as per the title of this post, it’s time for me to get cracking with them!  But, having read my ramblings, what about you?  I’d love to hear if you’ve got any tricks or tips for Character Bio’s or Storyboarding that you would recommend?  Now is the perfect time for me to find out about them!

How Do You Judge Success…?

So you’ve toiled long and hard to pull together your first manuscript – or second – or whatever.  You’ve fought the good fight and, by some miracle, formatted it so it looks at least half-decent on an eReader.  You’ve swallowed back your fears, assembled your ego around you, grimaced, and pressed the publish button…

Then what?

How do you judge success?

It seems to me that this is just as variable a concept as the diverse subject matter of stories themselves…

For me, my views have varied over the last couple of years and I guess I’m now coming to terms with the following phrase: whatever defines success for one of my stories, it will likely take a long time to reveal itself.

I suppose a lucky – very lucky – few will see success immediately.  For some reason their books will spark a wildfire of enthusiasm amongst readers and their stories will fly off the shelves; personally I think this is an extremely remote possibility if you don’t have the weight and power of a publishing house’s promotional machinery behind you.

The rest of us will need to be much more patient.

I started writing with a simple ambition: to test myself at a personal level.  Pretty much just to see if I could do it…  It’s not an easy task, as I’m sure most of you will agree…  In the end, I produced a book and faced a new question: what next?  This was what led me to publish… no dreams of grandeur, or huge reward, or whatever…  Basically, if I’d done nothing, Firebird would have sat rotting on a disk-drive somewhere.  It would have had absolutely zero possibility of being enjoyed by anyone else.

Now Firebird has been out there for almost two years.  It has been downloaded several thousand times but, generally, I feel pleased if it moves even a tiny handful of copies in a month.  Is this the benchmark?  Well – given the amount of books on offer, the amount of books I personally get through in an average year and the very limited exposure my books get – maybe the answer is yes?  For sure, I feel very honoured and humbled that my story is still occasionally being picked up and read by people.

What publishing also did though, was give me new insights.  The simple, brutal, reality of having your writing in general circulation, the often critical nature of feedback, and the occasional positive encouragement have enabled me to step forwards and hone my writing skills.  I am, despite the occasional pains, eternally grateful for this.

It has also helped me to move on and produce a second book.

These things would have been denied me, if I’d not taken the plunge.

Like so much in life, the different facets of success are often hidden in the corners of the obvious, tucked away behind so-called measures of popularity, masked by charts, star-ratings, and sales figures…  In my opinion, being successful is not, on its own, a viable motivation for writing.  Better, surely, to write simply to find out if you can, to stretch your imagination, to see if you can find personal pleasure and enjoyment from the process and, in the end, to discover whether your tales can entertain others?

Perhaps the bottom line becomes:  does it matter; tell your stories anyway?

Because an untold story has no chance at all.

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