Sunday, 26 August 2012

Pinterest: A Powerful Tool For Authors?

Dazzling or distracting?

No one could ever accuse me of being an early adopter of social media. I'd heard of Pinterest but I didn't have much of an idea about it until I read a tweet today which made me take a closer look.

To cut a long story short, I had put aside this Sunday afternoon to do some writing, but after opening an account on Pinterest that did not happen. Instead I spent the whole afternoon creating boards for each of my books and also for my WIP. You can take a look at them here.

I love this site for so many reasons. As a visual person I get a lot of inspiration from images and this site is brimming with amazing pictures. Since I started writing I've always made Powerpoint presentations with photos of characters and settings, so this is really no different from what I've been doing anyway, but it's more exciting when you can share it.

I was surprised to discover that Pinterest is the fastest growing social media site ever.  I can understand the attraction, but part of me worries that I'll now spend hours trawling through images when I could be writing. I really don't need anymore distractions. I also read somewhere that it's a bad idea to put pictures of your characters on your book cover because it robs the reader of the chance to use their imagination. Are sites like Pinterest and also book trailers doing readers a disservice by providing the images of characters and settings for them? Is this site just another exampe of image and spectacle superseding content?

It's difficult to tell what social media trends are going to catch on and which ones will fizzle out and die. From the very brief research I've done on Pinterest so far it seems like it could become an excellent tool for communication and collaboration between readers and authors. This is the direction I see publishing heading in, and I believe online fanfiction communities are the precursors of this.

What do you think of Pinterest? Is it a powerful tool for authors and readers or just another distraction?

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Life Lessons From Writing

People often accuse writers of being dreamers who retreat into their own worlds to escape the harshness of reality. While there is definitely a grain of truth in this stereotype, I have to say, my own experiences as an author have taught me many valuable life lessons that it may have taken many years to learn otherwise.

Far from allowing you to escape from the real world, sending your writing out there to be judged will quickly dispel your illusions and give you a strong dose of reality. Authorship is not for the faint-hearted dreamer, I can assure you, but a guaranteed way to rip your head out of the clouds and plant your feet firmly on solid ground.

Here are the top 5 lessons I've learnt from writing, which have helped to make me a healthier (and humbler) person:

1. Getting published will not change your life: It seems that everyone on the planet has a desire to write a book. There's just something about being a writer that is so appealing to the majority of the population, but as many writer's manuals point out, only a tiny percentage of people ever manage to start, let alone finish a book. When they do actually manage to finish a novel, most author's see it as a life-changing event. When that novel gets picked up for publication (or you self-publish) it's like the heavens themselves have split open and choirs of angels have appeared to herald your success. You dream of the new-found respect and income that will surely soon be yours. Then the book comes out, and if you're lucky some people who don't know you and aren't related to you buy it and read it. Some love it, some hate it, some think it's okay.  And life goes on as usual.

Life lesson:  Your achievements don't really mean that much to anyone besides you. Even your own family and friends don't care that much and some won't find the time or energy to buy your 0.99 cent book on Amazon.

2. Some people just won't be that into your books: Even when you've poured your heart and soul into a book and are convinced that everyone who reads it will fall instantly in love with it, it is an absolute certainty there will be many people out there who simply don't like your writing, don't appreciate your message and don't think you should continue to kid yourself that you can actually write. Even if you manage to write the greatest novel the world has ever known, there will still be people who feel this way about your book. 

Life lesson: Many of the people you meet in life are not going to like you or understand you. Don't ever let this prevent you from living (and writing) your own truth.

3. Criticism can be good for you: The other day I made a comment in a writer's forum about how I won't review books that are below 3 stars in my opinion because it could make me vulnerable to pay-back reviews from disgruntled fellow-authors and their fans. Someone implied on the forum that even a 3-star review these days is considered insulting to some authors and could have the same result. Since when is a 3-star review considered a 'bad' review? There are so many 4 and 5 star reviews being thrown around for first-time authors that I believe it's making the whole review system irrelevant. I know that reviews are based on subjective opinion, but when the classics and Shakespeare are being ranked alongside a first-time indie book that is riddled with typos and grammatical errors, then something is truly rotten in the state of Denmark (yes, I include my own self-pubbed books in this assessment). There is such a thing as literary merit, and authors (especially newbies) need to toughen up and accept that their first books are not works of sheer genius deserving only of unqualified praise.

Life lesson:  Don't ever believe you are beyond criticism. Keep an open mind and don't let your ego get in the way of the truth, no matter how painful it might be. Develop the wisdom to know the difference between constructive advice and mean-spirited comments designed only to tear you down.

4. Sour grapes are a waste of energy: It can be very discouraging for authors to see books they consider undeserving rocket to the top of the bestsellers lists while their own books languish at the bottom with all the other undiscovered masterpieces.

Life Lesson: Newsflash: Life is unfair. Get used to it.

5. Don't believe the hype: Everyone knows that if you continue to try your hardest and keep believing in yourself, you will eventually get what you deserve. Wrong. How many authors toiled away in obscurity only to be discovered after they died? How many great works were rejected by short-sighted publishers and then thrown on the fire by despairing authors? How many ground-breaking books are mouldering in dusty attics even as I write this, and will never see the light of day?  How many brilliant books are there are on Amazon that have been drowned in the tsunami that is self-publishing and will never gain the readership they deserve? Sobering questions, but ones every author needs to ask themselves.

Life Lesson: If at first you don't succeed, try and try again....but don't be naive enough to think you'll actually make it big.

It's true that many authors enter the world of publishing with unrealistic ideas, but it doesn't take very long for reality to set in. If writing and publishing are fraught with disappointment and shattered dreams, why do so many people continue to write? I can only answer for myself when I say I do it because I couldn't live without it. Writing fulfils a need in me that nothing else can. If writing makes you happy and complete, then all of the other stuff doesn't matter. To find the courage and determination to follow your heart and do what you love, even if you never gain any recognition for it, is the most valuable life lesson of all.

This above all: To thine own self be true, And it must follow as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.
William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Monday, 13 August 2012

Buffy and the Heroine's Journey

***I received a copy of this book in exchange for a review
This book is a must-read for not only die-hard Buffy fans, but anyone who writes fantasy novels or is interested in symbolic meaning. I loved the focus on the heroine’s journey as opposed to the hero model popularised by Joseph Campbell, and I also learnt a great deal which I can apply in my own writing. I always felt that Buffy was a strong character for young girls to admire and after reading this I understand why. Sadly, in my opinion there is no other heroine of Buffy’s calibre in popular culture at the moment, but books like this might help to address this disturbing lack.

Frankel does a fantastic job of first outlining the heroine’s journey in comparison with the hero’s journey, and then exploring in great detail how it is developed in the Buffy series’.  I love to dig beneath the surface and find hidden meanings, and I just lapped this book up. The academic style of writing may not be to everyone’s taste, but concepts are explained clearly and there is no difficult jargon used. The meticulous research and knowledge of Buffy are very obvious.

After reading this I want to go back and watch Buffy again from the very first episode. I didn’t know that the series continued in comic form and it was very interesting to read about the new developments in Series 8. I take heart from Frankel’s conclusion that “Buffy, a modern classic like Harry Potter or Star Wars, will surely last. It will be repackaged, rereleased, and most of all rewatched by long-time and new fans the world over.”

When I was teaching English I often thought about developing a unit on the series, and this book would have been a great resource. Hopefully other teachers will discover it. I also hope the author writes more books on the fascinating subject of the heroine’s journey because it is at the heart of so many stories and myths throughout history. In her own words:

"The heroine’s journey, like the hero’s, is the quest for identity, to become the best “self” possible by exploring the dark side and learning to wield its awesome, impolite, rule-breaking strength. Only thus can the child grow to adulthood, becoming the awesome savior of herself and the world around her.”

For an exploration of the archetypal heroine’s journey through the lens of popular culture you won’t find any better than this.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Daybreakers: A Vampire Film With Bite

I just saw the 2009 film Daybreakers and I can't believe I'd heard so little about it! In a world of seemingly endless sparkly / erotic vampire tales here, finally, is a story with real bite. A while ago in this blog I raised the point that IMO vampires have become so prevalent in popular culture because they give expression, in a convoluted way, to some deep-seated fears and preoccupations in modern society.

This film actually makes this connection more directly than any other vampire tale I've come across. It delves into the same territory that I tried to cover in my Eternal Hunger series (no doubt much more successfully).

In the film most humans have willingly been turned into vampires, and those who refused to give up their humanity are now hunted down for food. Blood farming corporations have sprung up to make profit from this natural resource. Due to the intense demand, the supply of blood is dwindling rapidly, and the vampires are frantically trying to come up with a blood substitute. Edward (Ethan Hawke) is a scientist working on the substitue for a major corporation, and he is also a vampire with a conscience. He refuses to drink the blood of humans and is disgusted by the way they are treated. We later learn he was turned against his will by his own brother.

It's interesting to read about the different interpretations people have of the film. One reviewer saw the way the humans are treated as a comment on the brutality of the capitalist system of food production,while another on Amazon claimed that blood actually symbolises oil:  "Also, the political aspect is also a brilliant factor. Vampires being a metaphor for politics. Blood being a metaphor for OIL. This movie is very symbolic of how the government is greedy as hell when it comes to oil."

Both of these interpretations fit because I think it's a pretty all-encompassing critique of modern society and the greed that drives it.

The most powerful scenes in the movie for me are the one where the vampires turn on each other as the blood supply begins to run out. The poor are the first to suffer the effects of deprivation and they became public enemies to be rounded up by the state and killed. Those more fortunate have no sympathy for their fellow vamps and care only about protecting their own interests. They are completely oblivious to the fact that they will be next. The scenes with the military killing civilians and then turning on each other are spectacularly gruesome and effective.

Daybreakers takes the vampire metaphor and uses it to explore the true horrors lurking beneath the surface in modern society in a way that I think would make Bram Stoker proud. As the reviewer in the SMH said: "Daybreakers is a perfect panacea to audiences averse to the tweeny romanticisation of the undead by Twilight and its ilk."

Another blogger commented: "Someday Hollywood might make the vampire movie we really need, one in which the Dracula figure is a hedge fund manager or an oil company executive. This will be the fitting epigraph rolling across the screen in the opening credits:

Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.
–Karl Marx, Capital V. 1

I'll drink to that!

Thursday, 9 August 2012

Dennis and Dad (A Short Story)

The short story is an art form which I believe is about to undergo a renaissance due to changes in publishing. I personally prefer to read novellas and short stories on my Kindle rather than full length novels, but the problem is finding really good ones. I recently received a free copy of Dennis & Dad by Giselle Renarde through Goodreads and I'm pleased to say it's one of the best short stories I've read in a while.

This is a deceptively simple short story which actually has quite a few layers of meaning when you later think back on it. It is a snapshot of a moment in the main character Chris' life when he has to face up to the fact that his ageing father's mental health is deteriorating quite rapidly. The story is set on father's day, which also happens to be Chris' 38th birthday. This is very meaningful because the story is also a meditation on fatherhood and what it means to be a family. It also marks a significant moment in Chris' journey towards maturity when he must not only deal with his father's frailty, but also his own unconscious prejudices.

I found it interesting that Dennis seems like more of a parental figure to Chris than either of his biological parents. I also liked the way his father gave voice to Chris' deep-seated bigotry which he guessed at himself but couldn't openly acknowledge. The small gesture at the end is very meaningful and reminds me of all the reasons I love short stories because every single word counts. There is a lot of meaning packed into this story, showcasing the author's ability.

Reading intelligent stories like this makes my brain feel good!

5 stars from me.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Self-Publisher's Remorse

Self-publisher's remorse: That sinking feeling in an indie author's stomach after they have hit the publish button and then realized their manuscript is not fit for human consumption. For many the first symptoms of self-publisher's remorse do not appear until the book has been enrolled in the KDP Select program, committing the author to three months on Amazon.

My story: The first Kindle Select promotion for my Eternal Hunger series just finished, and there were a respectable number of downloads over the twenty-four hours it was free. I should be feeling happy about this, but instead I've been struck down with an acute case of self-publisher's remorse.

Why is it that you can never see all of the glaring mistakes in your manuscript until the free promotion is already well under way? Up to this point I'd only had a couple of sales so it didn't matter so much that only a few people would see the errors before they were fixed (although I do feel bad that they actually paid for it). Now my book is out there, typos and inconsistencies on show for hundreds to see. The worst part is I have no one to blame for this but myself. My husband has told me repeatedly that once I've finished a book I should sit on it for a least few weeks (figuratively speaking) before looking at it with fresh eyes. All the articles I've ever read about publishing give the same advice, but I'm one of those impatient people who get so excited about finishing a project I just want to see it out there....until self-publisher's remorse sets in.

All of the things that make Amazon such a great platform for self-publishers are the very same things that make it so dangerous. It's just too easy to upload a book without going through it with a fine-tooth comb to make sure it's perfect. In an ideal world we'd all be able to afford professional editors, but without them the best scenario for people like me who don't have anyone they want to burden with proof reading is to take ten steps back and just let it rest for a while. It's amazing just how much you miss when you read over the same pages continuously. You just become so accustomed to skimming that you don't even see the words on the page anymore. I found this out with Hunger of the Wolf because it was with a publisher for over three months and during this time I put it away for at least a month before re-reading and fixing errors I'd never noticed before. Unfortunately I didn't learn from this experience.

I also discovered how easy it is to overlook things with my first two trade published books Shadows of Yesterday and Pleasure Island. These books were professionally edited and I was stunned at some of the things the editor's picked up. For instance in once scene a character threw a gun across the floor and then in the next paragraph she was holding it again. How could I not have noticed that? Even professionals can miss things because in Pleasure Island, Jack, gets lost on the beach one night and is forced to call out to Allie to help him find his way back to the house. As he yells out her name he realizes it's the first time he's ever said it out loud.....except that three paragraphs earlier when he's talking out loud to himself he mentions her by name. D'oh!

This time around in Eternal Hunger Lucia is shocked at how much Drake L'amour has changed since her turned her into a vampire "against her will." The only problem is he didn't turn her against her will, he tricked her by failing to mention the downsides to being immortal (like the unquenchable thirst for blood), but she was the one who made the decision to be turned.  In another scene the characters are standing on the porch, but then they are described as walking back towards the house. Double d'oh! Then there were the usual problems with the wrong character's name being used and numerous typos that should have been picked up before I hit publish.

They might seem like minor errors but they take the shine off what should be a proud event, and they are the sort of mistakes that really stick in readers' craws. And so they should because they stick in my craw too when I come across them in other people's books. (I've never really been sure what a craw is, but it sounds quite painful to have something stuck in it).

I decided to blog about this because I know I'm not the only person guilty of the crime of premature self-publishing before a manuscript has been polished and buffed to its absolute best. My advice to myself and fellow authors is SLOW DOWN and don't be so eager to get your book out there because it is so much better to wait a few weeks or months and publish something you can truly be proud of. Otherwise you too will suffer the pain of self-publisher's remorse, and you may find it becomes wedged  in your craw permanently. Ouch!

Perhaps I should have bought a copy of this book before I began my self-publishing journey:

Friday, 3 August 2012

Totally Addicted to Book Covers

****Eternal Hunger (The Complete Series) is free on Saturday, 4th August****

We all know the old saying "you can't judge a book by its cover," but is this actually true? Personally I think you can tell a great deal about a book by the way the author or publisher have chosen to package it, and I think the cover plays a huge role in sales, at least initially. It's true there are some great books out there with terrible covers. When these books start to develop a reputation the cover is not as important anymore, but for new authors the cover is absolutely crucial. It can make or break your book.

Most readers would have had the experience of being attracted to a book because of its gorgeous cover only to be let down by the story. Perhaps the saying should be rephrased as "you can't judge a book entirely by its cover," because covers do count. It's the very first impression a reader has of your book and it will determine whether they decide to go further and read the description, hopefully leading to a sale. If the cover doesn't grab the reader's attention they will simply keep looking until they find one that does.

This is Marketing 101, but it's surprising how many dull and unspiring book covers are around, from both publishing houses and indie authors. I've also seen some beautiful self-designed covers from indie authors and I wish I had the skills to create my own, but sadly I'm a bit lacking in this area. That's why I was thrilled to discover premade covers which can be quite inexpensive and give your book the quality appearance that will attract readers. I absolutely love looking through the galleries of covers available because it's a geat source of inspiration. I usually start looking for my next cover before I've even finished the first draft of a book, but I don't allow myself to actually buy it until the final draft is almost completed. It's a reward to myself for my hard work, and monitoring the site to see if someone else buys it first adds a little excitement to my life. Maybe a sign that I need to get out more? hmmmm

Obviously people have very different tastes when it comes to books and covers, but what are the fundamentals of good cover design? While I don't actually design my own covers I've done a bit of research in the area and these are the three main points I've come up with:

1. A  clear image that gives the reader an immediate idea about what sort of book it is. This doesn't mean it has to be literal.  Cover art is symbolic and you should aim for an image which captures your overall themes. (I found out the hard way about this as, according to some people, the cover for my first book in the Eternal Hunger series, Desires of the Flesh creates the impression my vampire book is erotica! I guess the title doesn't help much either, but you live and learn). If your book is mysterious or abstract, use an image that will convey this and intrigue potential buyers. These are the covers that appeal to me the most because I like books which are challenging and interesting. Don't use composite images pasted together as they are very obvious and look tacky.

In order to choose the correct image you must have a very strong idea of who you are targeting. Closely related to this is an understanding of visual literacy. For instance if the person on your cover is looking directly at the viewer this creates an immediate connection with the reader. This is a good image to use when you want your reader to relate to the character. People who are looking away from the viewer come across as preoccupied or untrustworthy. It's very important that the image can be seen when it is reduced on Amazon and other book selling sites, and this is why simple images work best.

2. An eye-catching colour scheme that creates the right tone for your book.  Thrillers and horror novels often make use of dark colours, which work well if there is at least one bright colour to lift it. Many romances use pinks and pastels, which are effective in capturing the interest of the target reader. The advice from designers is never use more than three colours.

3. Balance: All the elements on the cover must balance so the cover has symmetry. This is a tricky one to master, as you can have different sizes and style of fonts on a cover, and yet still achieve balance. It's hard to define, but we know it when we see it. Don't feel you have to fill ever bit of space on the cover, as this comes across as too "busy," and doesn't look good in thumbnail. The human eye is attracted to symmetry and by ensuring you cover is harmonious, you will give your book a head start.

The KISS principle is very relevant when it comes to designing or finding the right cover for your book, and will help you to avoid the most common mistakes made by new authors.

My favourite of my own covers is Prude & Prejudice because I think it captures the tone of the book perfectly. The bright, happy colours create let the reader know it is a romantic comedy, while the butterfly symbolizes the journey my character is on. She also happens to run her own organic farm, and because the novella is based loosely on P&P I wanted to conjure up images of the English countryside. This cover was ideal for all these purposes.

Below is the cover for The Marriage Pact by MJ Pullen which demonstrates the KISS principle in action. From memory I think this book reached no. 1 on the free kindle list in romance, showing that it grabbed people's attention. The image is simple but the impact is powerful. The ring obviously symbolizes the union of marriage, which the main character is violating by having an affair with a married man. She also made a pact with her friend to get married to each other if neither had found someone by the time they turned 30. The use of pink writing against the dark background lets the reader know this is chick-lit, lightening the tone. The cover would be bleak without this splash of colour, creating the impression the book is more serious than it is.

Here's the cover for my current WIP, which actually breaks some of the rules I've just written about, including my own for not buying the cover till the book is nearly finished (oops!). The cover implies that this book is chick-lit, and although it's about a group of women, it falls into the genre of women's fiction rather than chick-lit (there are no men or romance in the book at all). The cover itself plays a part in the story, but you will have to wait till it comes out to discover how. I'll be very interested to see how the book is received because I think many people download books based on the cover alone and don't bother to read descriptions. I might have a few irate readers who are expecting something completely different!

Check out the 10 worst book covers in the history of literature here.