Tuesday, 17 November 2015

This Little World: stories from Dorset Writers

About a year ago I became involved with an exciting initiative from the Dorset Writers Network. The idea was to run a series of writing workshops across rural Dorset to encourage people to have a go at writing a short story set in the county. These stories could then be entered it into a competition being run by DWN for inclusion in an anthology.

I ran workshops in my local village hall and at a local secondary school as well as being involved in the judging and mentoring for the adult entries.

There have been many people involved throughout the process and on Saturday the project reached its culmination with the launch of the anthology This Little World: Stories from Dorset Writers.

The This Little World book launch and Writers Day took place at Dorchester Library. At the launch event the organisers talked about the project and some of the featured authors read out their stories. A couple were stories that I had picked out which is a lovely feeling, but I have to say I was particularly impressed with the children’s entries! What a wealth of young talent this county has!

As well as the launch itself there was a series of writing workshops covering all sorts of subjects from writing dialogue to poetry and screenplays and The Littoralis (me and fellow local authors Laura James and Kathy Sharp) hosted a panel event where we discussed our experiences with our publishers. Despite all of us being published by small mainstream publishers our routes to publication and our experiences of the process couldn’t have been more different!

The whole event was extremely well attended and the anthology sold out within minutes! But fear not. The paperback version is available on Amazon and an e-book edition will be following soon. It is packed with a wealth of wonderful Dorset set stories and would make a perfect Christmas present.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Twelve Tips for Book Promotion

Ah, book promotion – that ticklish subject – but something that every author has to think about at some point. Whether you are self-published, with a small press or published by one of the big trade publishers, you will find yourself doing book promotion in some form or other.

For my YA novel, Red Rock, my publisher had a dedicated marketing team and allocated a publicist for me to work with. Her help was invaluable. She arranged for me to write articles timed to appear around the time my book was launched. She pitched me to literary festivals and even managed to get me an appearance at the Edinburgh festival. She came up with ideas I would never have thought of on my own. Even so, it was still expected that I would do what I could to help promote the book. Not everything I tried worked, but I want to share with you the things that did.

With my short story collection about to hit the shelves I started looking around at blogs and articles on book promotion, looking for ideas that I could apply. I’ve come across lots of information on how NOT to promote your book, and I could make a whole blog post out of these – don’t spam people on twitter, don’t harass people for reviews or pay for fake ones… But I couldn’t find very much offering ideas on what you SHOULD do. So that is what I’m going to cover here.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that any of these will convert into sales, but you never know where they might lead. Nobody really knows why some books take off and others don’t. Very often it is by word of mouth, and that, I’m afraid is something we don’t have any control over.

So here are my top tips for book promotion:

1. Internet presence
At the very least make sure you have a website or a blog to showcase your books. Include a contact page – this is very important – I’ve had several opportunities arise through people contacting me via my blog. Keep it up to date and keep any blog posts interesting and relevant. Set up author pages on Amazon and goodreads. Twitter accounts and a facebook page can also be useful for some people. Plus any other social media platforms you may like to use. But don’t spam people about your book! If you seem like an interesting person then they may well check it out without any prompting.

2. Media
You or your publisher should put together a press release around the time of your book launch. Local newspapers are often looking for stories to fill their pages and like nothing better than a local author, especially if there is an interesting angle you can take, local history for example. Send them the press release and then follow up by e-mail. The same applies to local radio stations. Again they will be looking for an angle. Don’t forget to mention the title of your book at least once during the interview but don’t overdo it!

3. Launch Party/Book signings
Whether you hold a launch party or not is a personal thing. For Red Rock I hired out my local village hall and invited loads of people and sold a lot of books. Provide refreshments, do a reading, and make sure you have plenty of books to sell! (I ran out). If you are with a mainstream publisher your local bookstore will often sort out a stall for you. Otherwise get a friend or family member to do the selling so you have a chance to mix! Another option is to run an online launch party. I’ve seen quite a few of these on Facebook. It’s worth checking a few out and seeing how they work. It is also worth talking to your local bookshop to see if you can go in one Saturday morning and do a signing. You may not sell many books but the store will probably continue to stock a few.

4. Giveaways
There’s nothing nicer than a free book. I’ve had a few from giveaways and I love it when the package turns up! There are lots of ways to do this, one of the easiest being to run a Goodreads giveaway. Or you can run one from you own website or blog using a tool such as rafflecopter. Try to run it in such a way that encourages people to tweet and share it, or maybe tie it into a blog tour. One tip though – don’t do it in the run up to Christmas – there are loads of giveaways going on around that time and yours will get lost in the noise!

5. Networking
I’m not talking about social media here, I’m talking about the real world, networking with other authors, booksellers, local writing groups. Don’t go into this with the sole purpose of getting people to buy your books, but as they get to know you they probably will. Since getting published I got to know several other published writers in my local area. We’ve now teamed up to offer author events. We share opportunities and support each other when times are tough. I wouldn’t be without them.

6. Literary Festivals
These days it seems that every town is holding a literary festival. Why not check out what is happening in your local area. See what sorts of events these festivals have put on in the past. Then have a think about what you can offer them. It’s no good sending them an e-mail saying, “Hi, I’m an author and I’d like to appear at you festival.” You need to come up with something specific. Think of an event or a workshop you can offer. Then put together a professional looking pitch and send it out. It might be worth teaming up with other authors. My local author friends and I have called our little group The Littoralis and we have been offering a panel event to local festivals. One word of warning though – even a small literary festival gets its programme set up well in advance so you need to get in early. A year ahead is not too soon!

7. Writing Workshops
You’re a published author now, so don’t sell yourself short. Whether you’re self-published or trade published you have studied the craft of writing and have an insight into the world of publishing that other aspiring writers would love to hear about. If you write for children then your local schools will often be interested if you offer to run writing workshops for them. Or perhaps this is something you could offer to local literary festivals or colleges, or even run a course for adults off your own back. All you need is a venue and the will.

8. Writing Group and Book Group visits
I bet there are loads of local book groups or writers groups in your area who would love a visit from a published author! I’ve been to a few and always found them very welcoming. If your book is the type that might interest book groups then why not arrange a tour around the time your book comes out. They’ll probably want to read your book before they meet you to discuss it and they normally do this through the local library, so that will probably be a good way to contact them. Writers groups are a bit different. You could offer them a workshop. They should be happy for you to talk about your book and your experiences of publication and will probably want to buy some copies, so make sure you take some along.

9. Articles and blog tours
Magazine articles, guest blog posts and blog tours are all good ways to engage with potential readers. Most of these you will offer for free but you never know. An interesting article will make people want to know more about you so make sure that you include a link to an up to date website in your bio. Some publicists or publishers will arrange blog tours, but this will depend on the audience you are writing for.

10. The Old Boy network
Your old school will probably be interested in the former pupil, now a published author, so, unless you’re writing something rather too steamy, then get in touch with them and offer an author visit. The same goes for Universities. Many have an active alumni programme and would be happy to feature you in their alumni magazine.

11. Opportunities
Take advantage of any opportunities that may arise. For example, I spotted a tweet from a local tourist attraction asking for local authors to attend their opening. This led to a series of lovely author events at the venue concerned and a decent number of book sales.

12. Be a Professional!
Finally remember that this is a business and although you may do some events or write some articles for free, don’t be afraid to ask for a fee and expenses where appropriate. If you act like a professional you’ll be treated like one!

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

The Booker Prize 2015

Yesterday the winner of the Booker Prize was announced – and in case you don’t know it was Marlon James for A Brief History of Seven Killings.

Every year in the run up the award the YCAA runs a Booker Debate at the Octagon Theatre in Yeovil. A panel of six people read and review the shortlisted books, and for the past few years I have been honoured to take part. Some years none of us think we have the winner. This year three of us did, which I think reflects the interest and diversity of this year’s shortlist.

This year I was allocated Satin Island by Tom McCarthy to read.

Now if you look at the reviews for the shortlisted six you might notice that Satin Island comes off quite badly being slated for being boring and pretentious. But I think it is wrong to write it off so easily, because it is in fact a really interesting book.

Yes. It is quite pretentious. For example the name of the main character, U, I think is meant to draw analogy between U the character and You the reader.

The characters we meet are vague and thinly drawn. U has a friend called Petr and a woman he sleeps with called Maddison but none of these characters are given any great depth; their relationship with U superficial. It is almost as if U is swamped with so much else that the real world lacks definition.
U Works for The Company and is tasked with writing the Big Report, both of which are also frustratingly vague. In fact U spends most of his time at work in his basement office surfing the internet and navel gazing.

And yet there is so much more to this book. U is constantly bombarded by images, news reports, the internet. Too much information for any one individual to assimilate. In fact the whole novel feels like it’s buffering – that frustration you get when you try to watch something but it simply won’t get going.

And this is where, in my opinion, this book is extremely clever. We live in an age of information overload. In a way we are buffering as we try to take it all in, and I think this is the effect the author was trying to achieve. In which case it works. Satin Island is a true reflection on our times and the world we live in.

I also found it surprisingly readable – for a book that never actually goes anywhere and has no characterisation, no plot, and nothing actually happens.

This is a book that I suspect everyone will see slightly differently and we will all come away from it with a different perspective. And it is this multi-layering that I think is where the genius of Satin Island lies. Yes, it may be pretentious but I suspect it could also just be brilliant.

And I reckon that sometime in the future someone will be writing a PhD thesis about it and how it reflects this world of information overload we live in.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Getting Published: Ask the Right Questions

There was a time, before I was published, when I would have signed anything to see my book in print. But now I’m much more aware of the potential pitfalls.

I was lucky that my first book deal was handled by an agent. I gnawed my nails as the e-mails between agent and publisher winged their way back and forth across the ether but I ended up with an author friendly contract. Not all authors are in such a fortunate position. Many authors have to negotiate their own contracts.

So how do you work out if you should sign the contract on offer? The answer is to ask the right questions and here’s a check list for you.

Cover art: This is an easy one to check out. Look at the titles on their website. You’ll quickly be able to see whether they’ve put much effort into them or if they are using stock library images. A cover sells a book so this matters.

Editing: The look inside facility on Amazon is great for this. A well written, well edited book is obvious right from the start. But what do the authors themselves have to say? Contact them and ask them. If they tell you their book didn’t need any editing then that is a red flag. Everyone needs editing. They should have gone through several different rounds, structural edits, line edits, copy edits.

Sales: This is a telling one. Ask the authors how their books are selling. I dare say some people don’t care to divulge this information in which case you have to wonder why. It really matters. If you’re books are only likely to sell in double figures then that’s pitiful. Hundreds could suggest that the publisher is doing nothing to market the books themselves and it’s all down to the author. Low thousands are better. Ten thousand is doing really well.

Marketing: The publisher should be able to tell you what their marketing strategy for your book is going to be. How do they plan to promote you? Obviously you’ll be expected to do your bit, but you should not be expected to do it all. If they don’t have a strategy or any clear indication of markets. If they can’t tell you where they will be sending review copies or about any other promotional activities they will take the lead on then you’re unlikely to sell many books.

Royalties: Are these net or gross? Understand the difference. Many publishers these days offer net, so make sure you’re happy with what you’re actually going to get for each title because your percentage may only be on the profits the publisher makes on your title rather than on what your book actually sells for.

Rights: Watch out for rights grabs. Make sure you are happy with which rights the publisher wants and check the clause for rights reversion. Do they act on the rights they buy? For instance do they produce the audio books they bought the rights for and do they sell their titles in other territories?

Of course, this is only the start. If all these things are to your satisfaction then you’ll want to delve deeper into the contract. Fortunately the Society of Authors offers a free contract checking service to members, so, if you don’t have an agent to lead you through the minefield then SOA are well worth the membership fee.

At the end of the day you have to ask yourself if what you are getting from the publisher is for you. Some authors are happy simply to have a book available that they can sell a few copies of to family and friends without the hassle of paying for their own editing and cover art.

If not then don’t be afraid to walk away. There are plenty of other options.

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Red Rock Character Interviews

Good morning Danni, Gracie and Isaac. To start with please tell us about your home and family.

Danni: I live with my Uncle, Robert. He took me in when my parents died. He lives right out in the middle of nowhere. It’s really boring.
Gracie: My father is a businessman, in charge of a major global corporation. There’s only me and him. My mum left when I was small.
Isaac: I live in Italy with my parents and brother, and before you ask, yes I’m Italian.

Where do/did you go to school?

Danni: My parents were journalists and they travelled all over the world. So they packed me off back to England to this horrid boarding school. I hate it there. I’d much rather they had taken me with them!
Gracie: All over the place. Dad moves around a lot so I went to the nearest International School to wherever we happened to be.
Isaac: Yeah, weird that. I’m Italian and I go to school in England. It was my mum’s idea. She’s seriously into all things English. She thought an English education would be better for me so she sent me to this boarding school there. It’s not all bad though. I met Danni and she’s cool.

Who are your best friends?

Danni: My best friend is Isaac. I met him on my first day at that horrid school. He’s the only reason I can bear it there. He’s a real geek mind, but in a cool way.
Gracie: I don’t really have any. Not close ones at any rate. We moved too often so I got used to looking after myself. I make friends wherever I am but I don’t bother keeping in touch when we move away
Isaac: Danni, I just said. She’s at school with me.

What are your ambitions?

Danni: I want to go travelling. I know the world is a dangerous place and it’s not as easy as it used to be to take a gap year and go off backpacking, but I’m not one to let a bit of danger stop me doing anything. Bring it on!
Gracie: Crikey, that’s a tough one. I have absolutely no idea what I want to do, only that I don’t want to join my father’s business which is what he wants me to do.
Isaac: I’m going to write and develop computer games. I’ve already written a couple. Do you want me to show you? We can all play this one. (Fires up computer, gaming commences, rest of interview delayed by several hours.)

What is your favourite food?

Danni: Pasta – cooked by Isaac’s mum. She’s Italian you know.
Gracie: Chocolate. Yeah, I’m a bit of a chocoholic.
Isaac: Anything cooked by anyone other than my mum. Everyone else seems to think her food is great. Not me.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

Danni: Hang out with Isaac. Watch films. I love going to the cinema it’s kind of cool and retro. And I love buying hats!
Gracie: I actually like to draw, you know, comedy cartoony stuff. Caricatures of people I know – but I don’t dare let them see them – they’re far from flattering (giggles)
Isaac: Computer games, writing them, playing them. It’s important to play a lot so that I get to know the competition when I set up in business writing my own.

What is your biggest passion?

Danni: Hats. The madder the better. Hats are cool!
Gracie: Shopping. I love shopping for new clothes. And shoes. Man you should see all my shoes.
Isaac: Err, I think I just answered that – computer games.

What annoys you the most?

Danni: People who tell me not to do things. Like teachers.
Gracie: Boys who come on to me when I’m not interested
Isaac: When I can’t play my computer games! Want to see another one? (Gaming recommences)

Thursday, 10 September 2015

A Bit of Blog Housekeeping

Over the years I've posted a lot of writing advice on this blog and much of it is hidden in the archives. So I thought it was time I brought it all together in one place so that other writers who visit this blog can access it easily.

I've created a new page, Tips for Writers, which forms an index and contains links to all the useful writing and submission related posts I have made over the years. I plan to add more advice on here and so this page will be updated.

I have also hosted many wonderful guests, some at the starts of their careers and some who have gone on to be hugely successful. Another new page on the bar above called Guests provides an index linking to all their guest posts and interviews.

I think you might find some of them rather interesting - as well as recognising a few names!

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Victorian Gadgetry

During the summer break we took a trip north, and one of the places we visited was Cragside House near Rothbury, Northumberland – and what a fabulous feast of Victorian gadgetry and technology was waiting for us!

The house is stunning, surrounded by a truly amazing rock garden and extensive grounds. It was built by a very successful Victorian industrialist, engineer and inventor Lord Armstrong (inventor of the hydraulic crane) and his touch was all around, even though the astronomical observatory and laboratory were long gone.

Cragside was the first domestic house to be lit using hydroelectric power and to this day electricity is generated on the premises using an Archimedes screw. In the ancient world the Archimedes screw was used to move water uphill, but in this case the action is reversed, the flow of water from the burn being used to turn the screw which in turn runs the generator that provides electric power to the house.

The gadgets and devices inside the house were equally exciting. The house was fitted with a lift which which was controlled by a hydraulic pump and in one of the rooms I found this wonderful example of an early Victorian electric fire.

But my favourite was this – ever the practical man - the kitchen was fitted with a Victorian version of a dishwasher!

Cragside House is owned by the National Trust and well worth a visit if you are ever up that way.