Not so Singled Out after all: A lesson learned

How many books share the same title as mine? What, HOW many?

singledout_kindle_656x1000pxWay back, perhaps three years ago, when I began thinking about a title for Singled Out, I did a search on Amazon. At the time, Amazon determined there was just one other book with the same title. It was a non-fiction account of the two million single women left to fend for themselves after the First World War. I figured since this was so different from my own book, I could stand to share the name.

In retrospect (what a wonderful thing is hindsight), I should have checked once or twice more in the intervening months. If I had, I might have reconsidered.

I actually love my title and I believe it works for the book as it references the story in more than one way. I’ve been wedded to it since I first thought of it. Up until that point, Singled Out operated under the working title of SHN (that stood for Singles Holiday Novel – a does-what-it-says-on-the-tin private reference destined only for my MSWord folder and file structure).

But I wasn’t the only author to fall upon this simple, easily remembered moniker in the last three years. For now, as I look around Amazon and Goodreads, I find there are somewhere between six and twelve books in the English language under the same title (plus subtitle or part number in some cases). I haven’t been through them to see what they’re all about, but they seem to be a mix of fiction and non-fiction (mainly relationship and religious advice). Common sense tells me more will follow.

The self-publishing universe has exploded in the last three years – I’ve only fully acknowledged this in recent months myself. I confess, I have not once considered the possibility that my chosen title might have been quite so liberally deployed by other writers in the intervening months.

I’m not kicking myself for choosing this title, as I do feel it’s right for my story. I’m kicking myself for not appreciating in time, the pace at which the landscape has changed.

The fact is, short, snappy titles are unlikely to be original these days. Even the more creative and imaginative titles may eventually be taken up by others. So the challenge for the author – it’s one I’m happy to accept – is to distinguish themselves in other ways; through visual branding (a well-designed cover), their author profile, web site and blogging, wider social media presence and so on – so that no potential reader accidentally buys the ‘wrong’ book.

Seven Quick-Fire Ways to use Food to Enrich a Novel

Exc1A quickie post for today as I continue to count down towards my Big Day on 1st February (oh, you know what I mean by now, don’t you?).

I use food and mealtimes quite a bit in Singled Out. Here are just a few thoughts on what food related scenes can do for a story.

  1. A social/sociable meal involving two or more people: At home, in a hotel or restaurant, on a picnic, at a barbecue; useful in showing the nature of relationships and the dynamics between various characters. Caution though – this does need quite a bit of dialogue.
  2. Someone eating alone: Reveal character through how they prepare food, what they choose to eat, how they eat and what they do whilst they’re eating.
  3. During a sexual scene: Add a luscious dimension that takes your scene beyond the turgid ‘he touched this, she stroked that…’ zone. Adds sensuality, deploys all the senses without focusing on the obvious.
  4. How someone responds to food: Reveal character through how someone reacts to new or unusual food, or to eating with their fingers or unfamiliar implements. Are they adventurous or narrow-minded, sensual or constrained? Useful in demonstrating how someone’s attitude or demeanour changes over time too.
  5. For nostalgia: The flavours and and aromas of long-forgotten foods, sweets and treats from childhood, school dinners and nursery favourites are all wonderful tools to evoke a mood or nostalgia, or to segue to a flashback/past-times.
  6. In the kitchen: A great location to deploy all the senses – sights, sounds, smells, touches and taste; can be a place of danger (knives, open flames) or comfort (cosy family setting).
  7. A particular single item of food: There are so many different ways of eating, say, an ice-cream, a slice of cake, a plate of wings or ribs, spaghetti, or almost anything else you can think of; can highlight the differences between people, display greed, gluttony, shyness or sensuality.

If you have any favourites that aren’t on this off-the-top-of-my-head list, please do share them.

A light-bulb moment: I want to enjoy marketing Singled Out

So how relentless, determined, repetitive, insistent, drum-beating and dogged should I be?

2015-01-20 20.45.01I began writing fiction just over 4 years ago for pleasure. I’ve been writing for business for years, but I wanted to see if I had sufficient creative imagination and writing skills to craft a page-turning story, the length of a typical novel – somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 words. I knew I had a lot to learn, so I attended courses and read how-to books and blogs. Whenever I came upon a challenge – creating characters not stereotypes, avoiding cliché, show-not-tell, learning to write dialogue, precision in description, creating tension and so on – I drafted and re-drafted and studied my way through it, learning all the time.

It’s had its moments, but it’s been rewarding and really, really FUN.

Now Singled Out is ready to launch on 1st February – all the boring background admin is done and everything’s ready on Amazon. I’m looking forward to seeing whether Singled Out finds favour with readers. And… I’m looking forward to getting going on book number two (broad concept, bit of an outline so far, but I’ve learned so much from writing book number one, that I just have to carry on).

But what about the task of marketing Singled Out?

I’m a marketer by profession. I’ve marketed Business-to-Business for years. Marketing a book to consumers/readers is different, but the principles are the same.

My pitch to clients on my marketing website has always been this: Before they buy from you, customers need to know who you are, understand what problems you solve and believe you’re the supplier best able to help them.

In book/reader terms, this would be: Before they buy your book, readers need to know who you are, understand what type of book you’re selling and believe that it’s likely to entertain them.

A blog goes a long way towards these goals. As an author your personality, character, writing skills and ability to engage are on show. Readers have a chance to feel connected, decide if they like you and the way you write – and what you write about. You’ll tell them about your writing, maybe tease with a few samples. They’ll share your challenges, dilemmas and adventures. They’ll feel connected with you in a way that was almost impossible before social media was invented.

From an author’s point of view, blogging is FUN. It’s wonderful to engage, share experiences, get conversations going and find that – amazingly – people all over the world are reading and subscribing. For me, blogging is the easiest and easily the most enjoyable aspect of marketing my book – it’s not a burden, it’s a pleasure. It’s also the most low-key and least in-your-face channel, which is another reason I like it best of all. You’re not pushing anything at people – they choose to come and read.

However… the general view is that as an indie author, if you want to sell more than a couple of dozen books, you’re going to have to work a lot harder at marketing. And here’s where I stumble.

I should know what to do to market my book – and, broadly speaking, I do. But I don’t actually want to DO most of it. Marketing is my work; writing fiction is my pleasure – but when it comes to marketing my fiction, this starts to feel perilously like… work.

So to my light-bulb moment; maybe it had something to do with the fact that whilst in Florida, I visited the Edison Ford Winter Estates in Ft Myers and found out all about the inventor of… the lightbulb. I don’t know. I’ve been saying for years that I envy those fortunate people who are earning a living from something they really, truly love doing. You know those people, the ones who say things like, ‘I feel so lucky that people actually pay me for doing this!’ I want to be one of those people, but only if readers give me permission, by buying my books. And until and unless I get to that earning a living space (somewhere in the far distant future perhaps?) I don’t want to spoil the joy, by putting myself under pressure to market my book according to anyone else’s productivity plan, programme or structure, and by doing things that feel laboured or inauthentic to me.

I’ve decided I don’t want to work at marketing Singled Out. I don’t ever want to get up in the morning and think, ‘oh, no, I’ve got to do… today’, to publicise my novel. I don’t ever want to not enjoy marketing my book. I’ve decided that if this means I don’t sell very many copies, I will live with this. I just want to have FUN with every aspect of writing fiction. However many copies people buy, whatever nice things (I hope!) they say about my story – all these are wonderful bonuses, unexpected rewards for simply doing something I’ve realised I love doing.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure these programmes and their relentless approaches pay off. I just don’t think I would enjoy doing things that way.

So once Singled Out is launched, you won’t be seeing much of me on the book promo sites or Twitter feeds. I won’t be doing blog tours, or pressing people I don’t know for author interviews. That’s not to say I wouldn’t be delighted to do any author interviews – I would! I just don’t want to push for these things.

Nothing will make me happier than if people leave positive reviews on Amazon or Goodreads. I will be beyond delighted if they recommend my book to their friends and colleagues and my sales grow through word-of-mouth. I’d be thrilled to be asked to guest post on other people’s blogs. I’d love to do interviews or readings, panels at events and anything like that – weirdly I actually enjoy that kind of thing. If anybody wants to feature Singled Out anywhere, the answer will more than likely be a resounding yes! It’s not that I want to keep Singled Out a secret. I just want to get on with writing the next book and not let the joy of this first experience be diluted by a job-list of activities that I don’t really want to do.

In life, I’m a rules girl. I follow the rules. I drive as much as possible within the speed limit, I do what I’m told, I colour inside the lines. But perhaps, now I’m approaching the not-so-tender age of 55, I can afford to kick-back on my compulsion to do what other people say I should, and just plough my own furrow, for good or bad.

What do you think?

What’s the first sentence of your book?

An opportunity to engage readers with your first few words…

singledout_kindle_656x1000pxI’m preparing to publish Singled Out next weekend. It’s going to be available on Amazon (all regions) in Kindle and paperback formats from Sunday 1st February (in fact the e-book is already available on pre-order).

I confess I’m beyond excited and more than a little unsettled by the prospect of real people reading it. I wonder whether anyone beyond my circle of family, friends and writerly cohorts will get into it; further than the first line, the first paragraph, the first page… I wonder who will get right to the end, and more importantly whether they will enjoy it, find it a page-turning, satisfying read. I’m feeling a little turbulent in my gut just thinking about this now.

The first sentence they say, is critical. Mine has changed several times. Back in 2011 it was: The phone rang – an unfamiliar, old-fashioned ring-ring… ring-ring, in the darkness. It broke two sudden-death rules apparently, if you wanted to hook an agent as I did once (a glut of adjectives and a waking-up moment, in case you’re wondering), and the words rang and ring should never have been in the same line. So it had to go.

The one I settled on in the end, having decided to begin at a different point in the story, is:

He stands over her, fastening his jeans.

I don’t think my first sentence is quite up there with: It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. But I hope it gets a few readers going anyway.

If you’re a writer, and I know a few of my followers are writers, I thought you might like to share a first sentence (just the one) with readers of this blog. So I’m hosting a mini promotion, in celebration, let’s say, of my own upcoming book launch.

If you’d like to participate with a book of your own (already published, through any means), just post a comment below including the first sentence and a link if you wish, to wherever your book may be found or purchased (ie, your website, Amazon, Goodreads etc). Tell us the title and genre too. I will happily include all comments unless they break the obvious rules of good taste etc.

I don’t know who will venture to respond nor what style or genre of books might reveal themselves, but it will be interesting to see what pops up. And you never know, someone might like your first sentence enough to check out what follows.

Now it’s over to you.

Self-Publishing – it’s a Fiddly Business

I set myself the task of preparing my manuscript for publishing on Amazon, Kindle and  paperback, over the Christmas break. Frazzled as I was by a bout of festive flu, it was… a challenge.

monster-426993_1280I got a virus for Christmas – not a PC one, a proper lung, throat, nose, ears and head one. It laid me low for two solid weeks. I felt like I’d been mugged. I was drained, sulky, achy, and very fed up. I coughed so long and hard my whole body ached. I lay in bed drenched in sweat; I lay on my sofa wrapped in a blanket. I survived on Heinz Cream of Tomato Soup and chocolate (thank goodness for my festive choco-fast break) and I sipped on water. Oh, ok, and the odd tot of brandy too – purely medicinal, you understand. My eyes were sticky, my brain was mush and my limbs were leaden. Whilst nothing but my cough reflex functioned, I took to hour after hour of TV; costume drama repeats – Pride and Prejudice, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Treasure Island – and films I’d seen a dozen times before. When I could resist no longer, I went on to back-to-back episodes of Storage Hunters. Yes, friends, it was that bad.

When my brain began to solidify again and I could take a breath without coughing, I returned to my PC, to tackle the job I’d always intended to undertake over Christmas (ideally with an alert mind and an energetic sense of purpose) – that was, to get Singled Out ready for publication.

It’s great, really great, that indie authors can do this for themselves, but setting a book up for sale on Amazon is a convoluted process, make no mistake. It requires a clear head (clearer than the head I was given for Christmas, if I’m honest). There is a wealth of information to assist you, both from Amazon and external sources. But when push comes to shove, you have to stop reading and actually do it.

First thing was to get my MSWord manuscript into the correct format for CreateSpace. And that’s no picnic, because in publishing-land everything is arse-about-face and you have to get all twisty in your head to remember… the page you see on the left of your screen is actually the right-hand page, and the page you see on the right is, yes, actually on the left. Left/right, right/left – don’t you forget now.

I’d figured – and I think I was right – that it would be easier to create the Kindle version from the CreateSpace one, not vice-versa. CreateSpace offers a set of MSWord templates all correctly formatted (in terms of margins, headers and footers, at least) for the various book sizes they have available. I’d found the one I needed and made a first-pass at setup before Christmas. I received my first proof copies on 29th December. I was largely delighted. Some of the pages had printed, or been cut, a bit wonky. But CreateSpace have since assured me this was a production error and that their normal standards are higher than this, and if I had any similar complaints about final-print copies, I was to return them for a refund. I also realised I could correct a formatting error that I hadn’t at first seen a way around. This was: how to eliminate headers and footers from blank pages which may come at the end of a section. In the way these things sometimes work in my brain, I woke up at 4am one morning knowing exactly what I needed to do to fix it. I just wish my brain had delivered this particular gem before I ordered my first proof copies, not after. And preferably not at 4am either.

kindle-254339_1280So I made my corrections, submitted a revised pdf and ordered a second proof copy. Then I reformatted, minus headers and footers, for Kindle. Formatting for Kindle requires a totally contrary mindset from formatting for a pdf. Never mind the right-is-left, left-is-right issue, what you see is definitely not what you get. KDP helpfully provides a tool which enables you to see how your manuscript will appear on a range of devices, from which I realised that anomalies presented themselves everywhere. Headings don’t reproduce uniformly, some are larger, some are smaller, some centre, others don’t; some formats indent the first paragraph even if you haven’t; page endings have no relevance as different sized devices and the option to vary font size put paid to uniform layout. You just have to suck it up – which is tough, for a perfectionist with brain-fog.

The most frustrating thing I found was the way in which my manuscript appeared in iPad Kindle App format. Section and chapter headings showed up in standard type rather than heading format, but as I scrolled back and forth through the pages, the heading formats reappeared. I tried several different approaches to counteracting this problem before resorting to forum advice pages which told me I wasn’t the first to have this problem and that I shouldn’t worry because, no matter how it appeared on the manuscript tool, it would all be ok on the live version. Really? So why hasn’t anybody just fixed the manuscript tool – because it would have saved me three hours of fannying about.

So, I had my manuscripts. Thence to the rest of the process. The CreateSpace (paperback) and KDP (Kindle) versions require a virtually duplicate set of actions. There is some kind of form-filling for US tax purposes, even if you’re a UK taxpayer. Then the meta data and the blurb pages (two – one for Kindle, one for paperback, although apparently these somehow ‘find’ each other and unite at some point, so I’m advised). There are the Author Central pages (four – USA, UK, France, Germany – I did all of them) and multiple decisions on pricing (because VAT on e-books is, to say the least, a tricksy little issue since 1st January 2015, being different in every single country). With my flu-fogged brain, I’ve been back and forth, again and again, through these instructions – which are laid out differently for both CreateSpace and KDP (more helpfully for CreateSpace, I have to say). I accidentally put myself through an unintentional Kindle proof process, which cost me a day (annoying), but I think I’m there now.

Singled Out Proof Copies 29 Dec 14So as of today, I await my final final proof paperback, which I expect to be pleasingly immaculate. The Kindle version of Singled Out is uploaded and live on Amazon – for pre-order only at this stage, I’m afraid as I’m synchronising Kindle and paperback launches to 1st February.

Now all I need to do is set a bit of marketing in motion. Easy, right? For a marketer like me? Oh, but no, no. This is a whole different game to the business-to-business marketing I’ve been doing all my working life. As usual in this self-publishing game, there is myriad advice out there – dare I say too much advice? I’m wading through it, picking-and-mixing what I feel I can manage, for starters.

I’ve realised some author publishers are outputting at a seriously intensive level, marketing like crazy and selling tens or hundreds of thousands of books a year. Others are lucky to carve a niche amongst friends and family and shift a few dozen copies. Not surprisingly, I see myself as somewhere in between the two. I have just one book at the moment. There won’t be another one along for upwards of a year. I am just not the kind of writer who will ever turn out a torrid tome every few weeks, I know it.

I wonder if any of you already self-published authors out there could give me a feel for the sort of volumes I might anticipate? You know, a stake in the ground somewhere between a dozen and a hundred thousand… I’d like to know whether, for example, I should be delighted or dismayed by sales in the few dozens, hundreds or even… thousands. OK, I’m pretty sure I should be delighted by sales in the thousands. But should I have a target? A sales volume below which I regard myself as under-achieving, and above which I can allow myself to feel a little bit joyous? Does it make a difference that I’m a UK author, not an American? I honestly don’t know these things.

And one more thing, in the spirit of sharing the self-publishing love… if you, as a self-published author, could only do one thing to market your book, what would that be? What one marketing activity above all others have you found the most powerful and productive? Will you share it?

Here’s the Proof!

Singled Out Proof Copies 29 Dec 14You’re probably fed-up of sharing my writer’s journey by now. But in case you’re not – my proof copies of Singled Out arrived from CreateSpace in the USA today. The expedited delivery charges (I have no patience) cost more than the two copies I ordered.

Yes, my story, in a real book format. I’m quite absurdly excited!

All looks good so publication (paperback and Kindle e-book) is still happily on-target for early February and I’m going to try and set up the e-book for advance orders too.

Today’s job is to begin setting up my author website via WordPress. Hopefully, this blog will transfer neatly and seamlessly across in due course. But I’m not massively technical and things can and do go wrong for me when coding and the interweb is involved. So if you have any suggestions as to how to accomplish this without accidentally abandoning my 2,700 or so wonderful subscribers – I’d love to hear from you!

I’ve got it Covered

Over the last few weeks I’ve been working on the cover design for Singled Out. Not that I’ve been designing the cover myself… I placed a brief with crowdsourcing design site 99Designs. Here’s how I got on…

There are many ways you can get a cover for your self-published novel. You can design it yourself, although many are the respected sources which advise against this. You can use the template design capabilities available through Kindle and CreateSpace. If you’re lucky enough to find one which fits with your story, you can buy an off-the-shelf cover from several websites. Those with deeper pockets can work on a one-to-one basis with a freelance cover designer of their choice, many of whom have a great deal of experience with traditional publishers.

Or… you can do as I did and place your brief as a contest on 99Designs, and see what comes along.

99Designs works like this: Your brief constitutes a contest. The fee you choose to pay is the award which goes to the eventual winner of the contest. You can select to award at Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum levels and you deposit the requisite sum with 99Designs via Paypal. I chose the Bronze level, as I wasn’t sure how the process would work for me and I didn’t want to risk too much. The higher the award, so 99Designs advises, the higher the number of entries and the more experienced the designers. 99Designs also offered me some kind of an uplift package free-of-charge – I’m not sure if they do this for everyone, or if I had arrived on the site at some opportune moment. Each contest lasts one week at which point, unless there’s a good reason not to, you select your winner.

I looked through several recent contests and noted how people prepared their briefs. Then I created my own, outlining what sort of book I’d written, the setting, tone and other key elements. I gave a feel for the kind of a cover I thought I was looking for and a few pointers on what I might like or dislike. I also populated an  iStock lightbox with a few stock photos, so designers could see the sort of imagery I envisaged for my cover.   I uploaded my brief, and I waited…

I was overwhelmed – in a good way – by the response. I genuinely hadn’t expected to see so many concepts, from so many designers. Some were, let’s not beat-about-the-bush, truly awful. WordArt, ClipArt and Photoshop seemed to be the tools of choice for a small contingent of hopefuls. But many entries were thoughtfully put together and had interesting elements. And some were stand-out. Designers came from right across the globe – I didn’t check them all, but I noted Germany, Romania, Italy, Venezuela, USA, India and the Philippines amongst the locations of those who entered my contest.

The contest owner is supposed to rate each concept with 1-5 stars and eliminate those they don’t favour. I offered a positive or helpful response to as many as possible and after a day or so, the quality and focus of the designs improved correspondingly. By the end of the contest I had seen over 180 designs. That’s around 80-100 unique concepts, plus variants arising from my feedback.

I noticed certain things; one or two designers seemed particularly engaged with my contest, delivering several concepts, responding quickly to my comments and suggestions, refining their designs, developing variations on a theme. It helped me identify not only the good designs, but the good designers – the ones who felt an affinity with my project. I shortlisted three and from that, it was a small step to select my winner.

There’s plenty of opportunity to liaise with your designer(s) as the contest progresses and I imagine the more diligently you do this, the better the outcome. I made a proper nuisance of myself, but my winning designer was infinitely patient and helpful, and produced a cover design for Singled Out – in Kindle and paperback formats – that I’m totally delighted with.

A mock-up of the cover design for Singled Out

The winner of my contest was Alessio Varvarà, an art and design student from Palermo, Italy. His username on 99Designs is alsov . Not only did he create the winning design and a selection of six or seven alternatives which I had great difficulty choosing between (because they were all so right for my story), but he was endlessly patient in adapting his designs in accordance with my comments and observations. He did far more than I expected – and far more than was justified by the fee/award. As a result, I have a design which would hold its own in any bookshop, and which I’m immensely proud of.

Alessio has already completed a second small project for me – that’s the design of a set of pre- and post-release banners for my blog, Facebook and Twitter profiles. Once again, he exceeded my expectations. I’m actually sorry I don’t have another project for Alessio just yet; it has been a genuine pleasure to work with such a talented and enthusiastic young designer.

So, do you like my cover? I know these things are subjective, but for me, it encapsulates the themes and tone of my novel perfectly – the juxtaposition of dark goings-on in a blissful setting. When Singled Out is published in February 2015, you too might be the judge of this. Meantime, I simply offer my warmest endorsement of my designer Alessio/alsov and the 99Designs process, which worked brilliantly for me.

Happy Holidays?

american-flag-373361_1280Tap or faucet; pavement or sidewalk; mobile or cell; lift or elevator? All these and more are well known words which are different in British and American English. The one that’s troubling me at the moment is… holiday, or vacation.

I’m getting a cover designed for Singled Out, preparing to publish early next year. I’ve been using the services of crowdsourcing design site 99Designs. It’s been a fascinating experience so far (and I’ll write more about it once the ‘contest’ delivers my perfect design). The site gives access to designers from all over the world – as far as I can tell, entries to my contest came from as far afield as the UK, Venezuela, Italy, Spain, the Philippines, the USA, Germany, Romania and who knows where else.

I provided a brief, which included my strapline for the front cover: Everyone brings baggage on a singles holiday.

You see where I’m going with this?

Everyone duly included it in their designs, which was great; except one designer took it upon themselves to modify it to read: Everyone brings baggage on a singles vacation.

Cheeky so-and-so, I thought! But then I realised, the designer was making a very valid point – and in the process, doing me a favour.

It’s obviously preferable that my book is as attractive to the American market as it is to the UK market, or anywhere else. Ideally, I want to sell to any and every person who’s happy to read English language books, wherever they reside. So my question is this:

  • should I use the word holiday in my strapline, because I’m a Brit, or
  • should I use the word vacation in my strapline, because I want to appeal to American readers, or
  • should I invent another strapline that doesn’t involve use of either the word holiday or vacation?

It’s a dilemma, when your whole story is centred (or centered) around a… holiday/vacation.

Of course, the ideal solution would be to present a British English cover on Amazon.co.uk and an American English cover on Amazon.com (and whichever alternative is preferable in the various other Amazon domains) – but I haven’t yet explored whether this is even possible or practical. If it is, the problem goes away.

I’m still brainstorming alternative straplines anyway, as there’s always a better one hiding round the corner. But I’d love to hear your views, especially any Americans who might react either positively or negatively to a British English strapline. Or you could vote:

Oh, and since we’re talking about holidays – this seems like the perfect time to wish all my American readers/subscribers a Very Happy Thanksgiving!

That’s it. I’m finished. (Again…)

eggs-14177_640Some time ago I wrote about completing my edits and finally having Singled Out – the finished article – ready to submit to agents. Okay, so I was wrong. But I’m really, really finished now. Honest.

Last September 2013 – over a year ago – I fancied I’d finished my book. I was happy with it, as happy as one could be with a first attempt anyway. Several passes through the text had resulted in me reducing an unwieldy 107,000 word draft down to 97,000 words, more acceptable to agents and publishers – apparently. I’d sweated blood over a synopsis and cover letter and begun to fire my story off to a succession of agents. Over the ensuing weeks there were flickers of interest here and there but nine months later, nobody had bitten my arm off for the rights to market my book.

Cut to July 2014 – and several months since I’d read more than the odd paragraph of Singled Out. Having considered the full manuscript, a couple of agents had offered me a few lines of critique. Ignore these courtesies at your peril, I thought. So I decided to take another look at my story to see if I could address the issues raised in their feedback. I passed the not-so-finished novel to two or three more beta readers too and significantly, I read it again myself from beginning to end.

Have you ever put a piece of work down and come back to it after several months? Then you’ll know what I found, and you’ll understand my crisis of confidence. So, so many surplus words, lines and whole paragraphs; description overload, formulaic chapter openers; language I thought was gritty but now just made me blush; motivations that didn’t quite add up; character clichés; pitiful pacing… I could go on.

Okay, it wasn’t a total disaster but what with the agents’ feedback and my beta readers’ comments too, it was easy to see a thorough review was required. Fortunately, with the benefit of distance came the ability to detach, to disown aspects of my narrative that I’d been so precious about, to murder those darlings and get ruthless. So I made a start.

The last three months have been, as they say, emotional.

At the outset and for several weeks I hated Singled Out. I was one small step from shoving it in a drawer and forgetting all about it. I resented the fact that as I took account of both agents’ and beta readers’ critique and began making changes, it seemed no longer to be the book I’d set out to write; it was trying to be something different. In the meantime it was a bugger’s muddle, all bent out of shape. It felt as if I were shoehorning things into the text to turn it into something it wasn’t. It felt as if I’d lost my way with it. Teeth gritted, I plodded on, resenting my mashed-up, mangled manuscript.

I was in the throes of a proper writerly temper tantrum.

I don’t know quite when it was, but a couple of weeks ago, I started to get it. Perhaps things had to get worse before they got better (you know that cliché about breaking a few eggs to make an omelette). I can’t tell you exactly what I did, because I honestly don’t know. But I started to feel better about my book. It had gone through another two end-to-end edits; I’d added four or five scenes, moved a few things around, played with a couple of the characters, injected odd moments of uncertainty and dismissed another 7,000+ words. And you know what? I actually feel quite a lot happier with it now.

The best thing is, I’m excited by Singled Out again, and excited by the decision I’ve made to self-publish early in 2015. For a start, I can’t face touting it round again when I know the chances of it gaining traction with an agent – let alone a publisher – are meagre to non-existent. Secondly, I’ve come to see self-publishing in a  different light. I want to manage my own destiny, put my story out there and see what people think of it. And… I want to get on and write the next one.

So that’s the plan. I’m doing my homework on self-publishing and aim to get to grips with all the necessaries in the coming few weeks, then publish in the New Year.

Then… I’ll just hold my breath.

When will it ever end

Last September, I dotted the last ‘i’ and crossed the last ‘t’ on my final final final draft of SINGLED OUT. Or so I thought.

murder your darlingsLast September, I believed I’d taken My First Novel as far as I could in drafting and editing terms. I wrote my synopsis (a traumatic experience) and carved off a chunk of text into a sample document. I took a set of fluorescent markers to my copy of ‘Writers’ & Artists’ Year Book 2014′ and lined up a shortlist of lucky, lucky agents who were to be the priority recipients of my masterpiece.

Then I sat back and waited for the offers to flood in. I waited, I blogged about the wait, and I waited some more. Instead of a flood, there was a trickle, and what trickled in was not overawed, enthusiastic ‘oh my word, this is magnificent, send us your full manuscript and come in and see us at once, and by the way don’t talk to any other agents until we’ve explained what we can do for you’ emails. What trickled in was – yes, right first time – a smattering of polite and kindly worded ‘sorry, not for us’ rejection emails.

I kept going, still fairly selectively. But those rejections kept on coming. The current tally is 17 agent submissions and 13 rejection emails. Of the remaining four, three date back to February/March and can thus be regarded as time-expired, rejections by omission. (Happily, the majority of agents have proved to be more courteous than this.) To date one agent, in theory, still has my novel in review, but as this agent accepted it as a courtesy following a seminar, I’m not holding my breath.

There was the odd flicker of interest. Two agents requested the full manuscript on the back of my submission, prompting palpitations and a wave of misplaced optimism in yours truly. Their rejections followed in due course.

But here’s the thing. Pithy though their feedback was, those two agents made broadly similar observations in their rejection emails. Not only that, but a very welcome latecomer to the beta reader party (you know who you are…) and a much loved and valued writing buddy both offered more detailed critique which, blow me down, highlighted the exact same issues.

I went away for a few days last week with these critiques much on my mind. The original plan had been to spend a few days rereading my manuscript and sharpening up a few lines here and there. But I’d begun to realise the ‘problem’ with my story was more fundamental than scrapping yet more surplus adverbs (though the volume of those infectious little critters you have to steel yourself to eliminate across layers of editing is a revelation in itself).

As I grappled with my folder of curiously comparable critique, I confess I grew frustrated. Having been so close to my novel for four years, I just didn’t get it. Intellectually, I could grasp what they were saying were the shortcomings. But when it came to addressing them, I couldn’t see how without throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Worse still, I couldn’t see why my story seemed to need such fundamental changes. Cue a gnashing of teeth and much grizzling and pouting.

In the still of the night I lay awake, frustrated, fretful. True to form at around 4:00am, my brain at last began to shift into the right gear. I began to get my head around what they’d all been saying. I started to find my way from I can’t towards how can I?

In the morning I got to work, identifying sections which screamed out for more tension and scenes which demanded more mystery; I earmarked pages where the pace dipped, weighted by too much unnecessary detail; I hunted down paragraphs where the language had to be nipped-and-tucked to better fit the character.

I decided two of my main characters will undergo a name change; I’ve finally conceded they have too much of the stereotype about them, and it begins with their names. But that’s mind-bending for me, as I’ve lived with them for upwards of four years. Oh, and talking of characters, I’m introducing a new one.

If this all sounds like a major rewrite, I don’t want to mislead you. This is far more than the tweaking I’d originally planned, but it’s not a rewrite. The story is essentially all there and all the pieces matter. Everything fits together and the plot is – I still believe – strong. What I’m dealing with is tone and pace, adding suspense in places I hadn’t realised it was needed, keeping up the tension instead of allowing it to fade away, injecting moments of uncertainty, deleting yet more extraneous detail – that sort of thing. This means I’m back in murder your darlings territory – not just words and lines, but paragraphs, great chunking paragraphs, sometimes one after another – and it hurts. But I know what I’m doing and at last I can see why it’s needed.

So that’s my job for what remains of the summer – to carry on culling whilst I meld new and modified material seamlessly back into the story. Then the plan is to approach a few more agents in the autumn months. As to what happens after that… Well, without suggesting anything at all about my more grounded expectations for this part of the process, I’m booked into a ‘how to self-publish’ seminar towards the end of the year. So we’ll just have to see.