Fava Beans and a Nice Chianti

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Halloween is perhaps a fitting opportunity to take a look at a certain type of character who often finds a home within psychological suspense fiction; the sociopath…

* * * * *

When we hear the word psychopath we tend to think of infamous mass murderers, names like Ted Bundy, Dennis Nilsen and Fred West evoking memories of some of the most horrific crimes of the last few decades. Fiction has many compelling psychopaths – Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs of course, Misery’s Annie Wilkes and American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman; and there’s Max Cady, Robert De Niro’s terrifying vengeful psychopath in the film Cape Fear.

Yet most people who score solidly within the Hare Psychopathy Checklist aren’t killers, and the word we associate with the less murderous on this spectrum today is… sociopath.

You won’t find most sociopaths stashing bodies under the floorboards or consuming a victim’s liver with fava beans and a nice chianti.  They’re part of the community.  They are your boss or your next-door neighbour, or the guy who smiles at you at the bus stop. 

They’re sharp-witted and can be fiercely intelligent; they hold down jobs, often with considerable power and influence; they enter relationships, they marry and have children; at work, you might call them shrewd or ruthless, single-minded or controlling; in social situations they’re the life-and-soul.

For most people encountering such a person, the word sociopath doesn’t immediately spring to mind. If you label them at all, you might say they were a con-artist, cheat or bastard.

But words like this sell these destructive individuals short.

Motivated only by their own needs and drives and without conscience or empathy, sociopaths have the capacity to wreak havoc.  They are narcissistic, manipulative and deceitful, shallow and self-serving. They’ll tell you what you need to hear, to get what they want. And when they’re done, they’ll depart without a backward glance, leaving any amount of disruption in their wake.

Most people can’t understand the way a sociopath thinks. Most people are able to empathise with others, share their pain or distress and offer comfort because they care about how others feel. Most people will think through the possible outcomes of their actions and avoid doing things which cause harm to others. Most people have values, standards and morals, and appreciate how these underpin society.

Most people strive to be good, kind, understanding and loving; but not the sociopath.  To the sociopath, these traits are weaknesses to be exploited.

Speaking as a writer, I think sociopaths are fascinating. They’re terrific antagonists, shocking in their ability conceal their true nature, hiding in plain sight, and capable of the sort of behaviours that are beyond normal people. They give the writer so much that is unsettling and potentially catastrophic to play with.

I was in thrall to a sociopath for just a few months, very many years ago. Now it turns out there is much about the psychology of the sociopath which is finding its way into my writing; like character traits, and wiles and ways with which I became too intimately acquainted.

They say ‘write what you know’, don’t they? And that’s interesting, because I think what I went through way back then, might be helping me to write better bastards today.

And that’s an unexpected payback, for sure.

Birth of a Book: Week 2 #amwriting

acorns-57305_1280To plan, or not to plan, this is the question

I’m more of a planner, than a pantser, which means I can’t get very far into a new novel without putting a bit of flesh on the bones of my scraps of story outline.  Those three or four pages need to evolve into a chapter-by-chapter summary before I begin to feel even a little bit comfortable about where things are going.

I’m not obsessive about it. I won’t end up with 10,000 words, perhaps 3,000 all told, in table format, so I can juggle the chapters around. (And no… so far, for those who are interested in this kind of thing – no Scrivener, just MSWord.) I write a few lines about what happens in each chapter, plus – and this is very important – a note of qualification; an answer to the question… what is this chapter doing in the story? That means either (i) how is the chapter moving the story forward, or (ii) what is it telling the reader about a key character. If it doesn’t do one or the other, it has no business being in the story.

So planning has taken up what time I allocated this week, and I’m satisfied that things are taking shape. I’m about half way through, and I’m pretty sure i know where the rest is going – that’s for next week. When I’m done, I can pick my way forward through the chapters, knowing what I need to write.

Do things change as I go along? You bet they do. Things I think will work, don’t. Things I’ve forgotten, emerge. Characters evolve in ways I hadn’t anticipated. New ideas arrive. So I’m certain I’ll be re-engineering my chapter-by-chapter as I go along. That’s a given. But wherever it goes, I have to begin with a plan.

Planning aside, I’m determined to keep up with my minimum 500-word commitment (I can’t allow myself fail after just 2 weeks). So Saturday saw me out in the garden with my laptop, bashing my way to 800 words.  Hardly a stellar performance, but the plan came first this week; that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

Oh… and one other thing – a happy motivational moment. Singled Out hit that magic 100 sold copies milestone this week.  It got there with the aid of a promoted post on Facebook of which, more later, once the promo is over and I know whether or not I broke even or got ahead by a few quid. Still… One. Hundred. Sold. Copies. Break even or not, it was worth it.

I’m a minnow in an ocean of self-publishing fish, but I confess, I feel chuffed. It’s a start. Onward and upward.

Seven Top Tips for Promoting your Novel as Holiday Read

2015-06-07 15.04.54Would your novel make a great holiday read? If so, now might be the time for a promotion.

Waterstones’ Summer Holiday Book Club list will be out in the next week or two. They pick a bunch of recently published books and through emails and blog posts, market them as great novels to take on holiday. It’s a promotion, pure and simple, but as many, many people do most of their reading on their summer holidays, the holiday season is too good an opportunity to miss.

So here are a few tips and ideas for promoting your novel as a holiday read.

  1. Start now. I know the school holidays don’t begin until late July. But don’t leave it until then, because the cruise ship will have sailed. Apart from anything else, plenty of people who don’t have children take their holidays before the resorts are overwhelmed by families. You don’t want to miss those relaxed singles and couples lazing on beaches in June and July.
  2. Plan a campaign. Run it over a few weeks. Work around a trio of pieces – a combination of blog posts and emails perhaps. Don’t just say the same thing over and over; build your picture by taking a different aspect of your novel each time. Leave a few days up to a couple of weeks between communications, and don’t do more than three pieces – you don’t want to annoy your potential readers.
  3. Think ‘Holiday’. If there’s anything about your book that relates specifically to holidays, travel, foreign lands, journeys or adventures for example, make the most of it in your promotion. It’s an extra angle.
  4. Have a price promotion. Discounting by even a little for a specified and limited time can be effective in boosting interest for practically anything. Everyone loves a bargain.
  5. Think beyond the internet. I know social media gets you a worldwide audience. But you’re a drop in an ocean of authors trying to attract readers. Think about your personal contact list, friends and neighbours, colleagues and the school-gate, clubs and organisations. Everyone belongs to multiple formal and informal networks and knows lots of people. You probably promoted your novel to them all when it first came out, but beyond your most loyal supporters, friends and family, there is still a community of potential readers; people who, with a gentle nudge, will like the idea of a holiday read, written by someone they actually know.
  6. Create a physical promotional piece. Because Singled Out is set on a summer holiday, this was a no-brainer for me. I’ve created a postcard-sized promotion using the image from the book cover. Duh, but it’s meant to look like a holiday postcard sent from a friend. I’ll be spreading it around over the next few weeks. I’m hoping it might end up hanging about on the front of a few fridges over coming months too. I used my cover designer (Alessio Varvarà) and VistaPrint to create the card. Other options – bookmarks (of course!), and for those on a very tight budget, simple home-printed leaflets. If you take that route, all you need is some best-quality paper (high gsm, sheen/gloss perhaps). It doesn’t have to cost the earth.
  7. Compile your own Summer Holiday Book Club list. It’s great to collaborate with other authors and recommended reads attract, guess what, readers. I’ll be putting an indie and small-press Summer Holiday Book Club list together for this blog in the next week or two, so, as they say, ‘watch this space’ for a fresh list of recommended reads.

Incredible Edibles: 18 ways to use food to illustrate character

In the universe of Show Not Tell, food in all its guises is a magnificent ally.

Exc1In Singled Out my protagonist, Brenda, is a woman who loves her food. The way she indulges shows the reader what kind of a woman she is. To her, food is a sensual as well as a sensory experience. Another character is as dry and stale as the desiccated breakfast he chomps his way through, in the opening pages. Yet later in the story his own personal awakening is reflected in the way he begins to enjoy unfamiliar and exotic meals.

Food is a wonderful medium through which to illustrate aspects of a character’s personality. Food can reflect what kind of a person they are, what mood they’re in, what attitudes they hold, how self-disciplined or spontaneous they are and other facets of their temperament and lifestyle; it can also reveal the ways they change or develop as a story unfolds.

Here are a few ideas on the way food – the shopping for it, cooking of it, eating of it, and attitudes that surround it – can help flesh out your characters:

  1. Where do they shop – Are they upscale or down-market? Is it important to them that they buy from certain shops or outlets? Are they Waitrose or Lidl; down the market or Harrods Food Hall; superstore or independent; farm shop or gas station; deli chic or corner shop?
  2. What do they buy – Is quality important to them? Do they care what they put in their body? Is their body a temple, or a tavern? Do they choose ready meals or organic ingredients, value ranges, own-brand or premium; vegetables or cake, brown rice or oven chips?
  3. How do they buy – Do they buy in bulk and stuff the freezer or shop for fresh food every day? Do they dash a trolley round the supermarket, shop online for home delivery, order vegetable boxes and specialist products or raid the discount bins? Do they pick their own, or grow their own? Or do they neglect nutrition and grab what’s closest when hunger strikes?
  4. What do they drink – Is alcohol important to them? Are they light or heavy drinkers? Does every meeting or event have to have an alcoholic component? Is their style Armagnac or alcopop, cocktail or Cava, prestige or plonk, mass-market cider or micro-brewed beer, spirits or spritzers, juices, smoothies or squash, tap water or bottled, fizzy or flat? Do they have a favourite tipple (shaken, not stirred…)?
  5. Where do they eat out – Michelin starred or McDonald’s, identikit chain or quirky cafeteria? Pizzeria, curry house or Chinese? Gastropub or burger bar? Trendy street food or shrink-wrap sandwich?
  6. What food aromas excite them – beef dripping on barbecue coals, sizzling onions slathered on a burger, or juiced wheatgrass and freshly-peeled citrus fruit? Candyfloss (cotton-candy to my American friends) and toffee apples, or home-made apple pie?
  7. How do they eat at home – Are they sociable diners or secret eaters? Do they pick or binge? Would they be at ease or ashamed if other people knew what or how they ate? Do they prefer dinner parties and conversation or lap trays and the TV, formality or fridge pickings, bone china or bowl food? Does food feature in the bedroom? Do they wake in the night and need to eat?
  8. What do they cook – everything or nothing? Do they follow recipes to the letter or throw in a bit of this, a bit of that? Are they spontaneous when ingredients run out, experienced enough to knock up a meal in a few minutes? Or do they cringe at the thought of warming up a tin of soup? Do they bake? Are they a candidate for Masterchef or a poke-and-ping merchant? Does cooking energise or depress them?
  9. What food principles do they have – Are they fashionable or faddy? Do beliefs (religious or otherwise) define their diet? Are they raw, vegetarian, vegan, fruitarian, kosher, halal or organic? Do they avoid GM, minimise food-miles? Are they cutting out sugar, reducing salt, getting their five-a-day? Are they on a weight-loss diet? At all these things, are they succeeding, or failing? How does that make them feel?
  10. What’s their kitchen like – Is it immaculate and well-equipped, or sparse and chaotic? Are the cupboards crammed with ingredients and choice, or empty? Are things fresh, or past their sell-by dates? What stands out – shine or grime? What’s the most important implement – a food processor, a juicer, a pasta-maker, or a tin-opener?
  11. What food allergies/intolerances/dislikes do they have – Nuts, lactose, dairy, shellfish, wheat, gluten, alliums? Do they have genuine digestive problems or are they faddy or picky, or attention-seeking?
  12. How do they eat – Restrained or indulgent, gastronome or greedy, baby bites, prim and proper or chomps and gulps, knife and fork or finger-lickin’?   Do they have any distasteful food habits – talking with their mouth full, sawing at their food, slurping or guzzling? Are they indifferent to, or repelled by bad eating habits in others?
  13. How do they breakfast – Full English fry-up or Bran Flakes and skim milk, donuts and Danish pastries or a cereal bar and a piece of fruit? Sit-down, desk-bound, or on-the-run? Variety-is-the-spice, or same-old-same-old every day?
  14. How do they regard food – Is it their friend or foe, life-enhancing or destructive, necessary fuel or tantalising taste temptation? Does it make them strong, or weak? Are they excited by mealtimes or inconvenienced by the intrusion? Are they a picky person, a food fanatic or a comfort eater? Do they have to eat, or do they forget to eat?
  15. What tastes/textures do they favour – Sweet or savoury, soft or crunchy, lean or creamy, mild or spicy, healthy or hedonistic, hot or cold, slow-cooked or fast-food?
  16. What do they eat – Are they rare or well-done, low-fat or deep-fried, naked or drenched in sauce? Do they love food that others despise… snails or sweetbreads, blue steak or horsemeat? Do they try anything, or stick to what they know?
  17. What’s their beverage of choice – Tea or coffee, green, fruit infusion or builders, latte, cappuccino or espresso, full-fat or skinny, sweetened, or sweet enough? Is there a ritual or a habit?
  18. And lastly… What might they choose for their very last meal?…

20 things to do when you don’t have a clue what to write for your next blog post

Winter Pansies 2

  1. Make a cup of coffee
  2. Phone a friend
  3. Compile your To Do list for next week
  4. Check Facebook, even though you hate Facebook and you hate yourself for checking Facebook
  5. Update your current reads on Goodreads
  6. Phone another friend
  7. Pay your bills online
  8. Pull a few unwanted clothes from your wardrobe for the charity shop bag
  9. Make another cup of coffee
  10. Order a replacement carpet protector for under your desk, because you’ve had just about enough of catching your chair on the splintered shreds of the old one
  11. Rate all the products you’ve recently purchased on Amazon
  12. Review your KDP and CreateSpace stats
  13. Clear out an old work folder and retrieve any pages printed on one side only for re-use
  14. Look through all the old pieces of writing you’ve already rejected a dozen times for material, and reject it all again
  15. Wash out the filters on your Dyson vacuum cleaner
  16. Top up your cloakroom soap dispenser
  17. Clean out the squishy vegetables and other time-expired produce from your fridge
  18. Make another cup of coffee
  19. Take a photograph of the winter pansies outside your kitchen window, which have lately appeared, despite the combined onslaughts of urban foxes and neighbourhood felines
  20. Write a list post comprising all the things you’ve been doing for the last three hours because you couldn’t think what to write for your blog.

Ten Top Tips to Instantly Improve Your Writing

pencil-sharpener-390609_1280 - 2A ‘Happy Sunday’ quickie – and a chance to catch some old posts too. A few ideas on sharpening up your writing – great tips and snippets of advice I’ve received over the last four years.

  1. Learn how apostrophes work; and semi-colons.
  2. Well, it’s really rather important that you just do this. Run search and delete on every instance of the following words: really, just, quite, rather, very, oh, so, well and suddenly. Check out my post ‘One Word At A Time’ for this and other editing tips.
  3. Practise Show vs Tell the Anton Chekhov way: Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.
  4. Take a chunk of back-story or exposition and rewrite it into a dialogue. Then repeat. Then repeat again. Dialogue is much more engaging than flat-text exposition and a page of conversation is easier to read than a thumping boulder of a paragraph.
  5. Focus on sensory detail. Not just sight, but sound, taste, touch and smell. It will enrich your reader’s experience. I blogged here about using all the senses.
  6. Every time you see two clever, descriptive adjectives side-by-side, delete at least one of them. Yes, every time. Writers can publish with excess of adjectives, but only once they’ve sold a gazillion books and are unassailable. (If you doubt me, check out J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith – but then go and delete half your adjectives, because you won’t so easily get away with it.)
  7. Review your work for any not-so-perfect tenses (past perfect, past continuous and past perfect continuous) and opt for something more immediate. I blogged about how this works here.
  8. Delete the first paragraph of every chapter. There’s no need for foreplay, dive straight to the action. Hmmm, personally, I appreciate literary foreplay, so I’m not sold on this tip – but better writers than me will endorse it.
  9. Delete the last paragraph of every chapter. Don’t hang about after the action. Get out, fast. This, I can vouch for.
  10. Clichés – avoid them like the plague… Yes, you guessed it, I blogged! This one might actually hit the mark (doh!)

Are you trying to be a good writer?

… I mean, are you really… TRYING?…

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You know what it’s like when you’ve got an early start the next morning? Say, you’re going on holiday and need to be at the airport before dawn. You don’t want to be late and you need to be wide awake, so what do you do? You go to bed early. You squeeze your eyes tight shut even though it’s still light outside and you try to sleep. But every muscle in your body is rebelling against your attempts to relax. Your taut shoulders ache, your pulse races; you can’t get tomorrow’s to-do list out of your mind; you notice every little ring, ping and ding going on around you, the sounds of other people, engaged and connected – having fun whilst you try to sleep. The harder you try to sleep, the worse it gets.

If only you could get out of your own way.

It’s the same when you’re writing, as I learned – the hard way – when I began trying to write fiction. I’ve written business communications for my clients for decades. I know about syntax and language and I have a fair to middling mental thesaurus; so I knew I could throw sentences together. But writing fiction is a world apart from business communications. So I went on a few courses and I read books on how to write. Then I began to try to write fiction.

That’s when I learned that the harder you try, the more dreadful your writing gets.

To write, you need to stop trying and get out of your own way. Writing is communicating – and we’ve all done this since the moment we were born. We’ve learned how to use language to excite, to persuade, to apologise, to love… Stories too are nothing new to us. Stories have been the life-blood of societies and civilizations since time began.

We just need to relax and let them out.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for learning the techniques of story-arc, plotting, character development, pace and tension, show-not-tell and so-on. There’s plenty to learn and those who take the time to learn it will find their writing gets more compelling.

What I’m talking about is when you’re trying to put the very best words you can down on the paper; you’re looking up words you don’t know so you can include them; you’re taking a concise moment and working it to the point of exhaustion; you don’t appreciate the simple power of your own ideas, so you overdress them. In your efforts to show what a clever, intelligent writer you are, you embellish your sentences beyond the point of decency. It’s like dressing Amal Clooney using Dame Edna Everage’s wardrobe. Somewhere things have gone horribly wrong.

If you fear your writing may be in Dame Edna territory, here are three stylistic bloopers to look out for. If you spot these in your own writing, it probably means you’re trying too hard. I’m embarrassed to say, these examples are all my own, from early drafts of Singled Out:

Purple prose:

  • …In that moment she reached into his world-weary heart and lit a flame.
  • Her compliance, at once submissive and potent, raised his hopes and heightened his desires.

Ugh… just, ugh.

Overworked reflection:

  • Why had she brought this up? Why could she never resist prodding away at things? … It seemed distinctly possible that something untoward might have happened; but if it had… There was nothing to be gained from letting this idea gain traction; it would only frighten … blah blah…

And this is an edited version of the angsty original. I cringe… I cringe. In most instances, one or two notes of self-reflection are quite sufficient. Then, just get out of the way.

Overblown writing:

  • …She appreciated his overpowering physical form from a womanly perspective.
  • The more she struggled against the quicksand of niggling worries, the further it dragged her down.
  • The sun began its languid descent towards the gently undulating hills…

Classic ‘clever-arse writer’ syndrome. When I rediscovered these clunkers I nearly had to go find a sick-bag. Learn to recognise when you’re puffing up your sentences like this. If they make it into print, you may never forgive yourself.

I was fortunate to be mentored for a few months by the author of several respected novels. She worked over my early draft, ripping into the purple prose, angsty reflection and overblown turns of phrase – amongst many other things. I pared my writing down and down again and I learned to head these pompous clangers off at the pass.

Good writing comes from the heart. You don’t have to try and make it better. Invariably those purple moments detract from the power of your story. They ruffle the reader and interrupt the flow. Except for one or two notably pretentious literary writers, being a novelist isn’t about showing the world how clever you are.

You have to learn to let-go, relax and get out of your own way – and let your story do the hard work.

*** This post first appeared as a guest post on the Blondewritemore blog. ***

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?

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.