Getting serious about writing: It’s not all a solo performance (an accidental self-publishing step-by-step)

“Editing? I’ll just do my own”, “Cover Design? I can draw, or I could just use a photograph”, “Marketing/PR? I don’t need ads or the press, I’ll just tell people about it myself.”

Any of this sound familiar? If you’re new to self-publishing you may be making the same mistake I did; assuming that we’re supposed to take the ‘self’ part literally.

This week I have been contacting all of the extended members of the team that help get my books out into the world. With a launch date in November, I need to get my book looking right as soon as possible. The resources I can now draw from are a stark contrast from what I had during the launch of my first book and working on this week’s blog post has brought a lot of that first experience back into focus.

This post has accidentally become gargantuan and covers almost a step-by-step guide to self-publishing. If you would like to cover the bullet points simply read the bold text in each section to get the gist.

For that first year or so of writing/self-publishing I imagined that I could somehow be the Jack of all trades; carry an entire business on my shoulders. Depending on where you are in the publishing process you may have already experienced the same (or at least a similar) delusion.

‘Delusion’, really?

The term ‘Delusion’ might come across as harsh but it’s a tough mindset to escape and it can force a writer to take on so many roles that they barely get to be a ‘writer’ any more. I’ll explain where my delusion took root by describing where I was about six years ago.

Back then I looked at self-publishing as a collection of smaller jobs which interlaced to make up the job of ‘self-published writer’. It’s a fairly large list, and I know I’m leaving out a lot but the following snapshot should be sufficient.

I imagined that the following eight ‘jobs’ were the cornerstones of self-publishing. In this respect I probably wasn’t far off the mark but, for whatever reason, I (mistakenly) convinced myself that, somehow, I was uniquely qualified to perform each of these tasks myself.

If you’re new to self-publishing these are probably the main areas which could spread your energy too thin to get on with any of the actual writing parts of the job.

Editing

For many writers (myself included) editing can be one of the least enjoyable components of the writing process. Whether you’re self-publishing or have a book signed to a traditional publisher, you will have to polish it before it hits the shelves. However, there is editing and there is editing.

First read-through

In my first year, I reworked my text, I read through my first draft and cleaned up problems. I also tightened up sloppy sentences and cut paragraph lengths. I did what I thought was editing, then I got my text in order, formatted it for A5 and submitted it to a printer.

I also launched it as an e-book for Kindle (a process which took minimal work to learn and which I will definitely post about at a later point).

I was happy, I had a book out, people were buying it, reading it, and saying positive things about it. However, I forgot that when asking someone in person for an honest review it’s pretty unlikely that they’ll tell you the full truth of how they felt.

It was only when closer acquaintances started to point out issues that I realised the book wasn’t 100% there. It wasn’t even 50%. That’s when I moved on to add the next step in my editing process.

An objective pair of eyes

Find yourself someone close to you who isn’t afraid about hurting your feelings (you perhaps just had someone pop up in your mind, good, yes, that’s them). This person, if they are willing, could well be an indispensable part of your writing process.

Butter them up in whatever way you can think of, then ask them if they would mind looking at that manuscript which up till now you thought was perfect. You know, the one that you read through three times, fixing ‘every mistake’.

If they say yes, and if you get that frank feedback, then you’re in for a surprise. That ‘finished’ book is far from it. Every confusing plotline, every unlikeable character (whom you simply regard as ‘misunderstood’), every annoyingly repetitive technique you use without noticing; it will all be laid bare and handed to you in pages marked with notes.

This may sound like a nightmare scenario but I can assure you that without this angel with a red pen, your writing will never become what it could be. You can revise and revise a text up to the 10th iteration but without those objective eyes, you will never spot the real problems.

There is one caveat to add here. This individual may not be a ‘professional’. By this, I simply mean that they may not necessarily be accustomed to working with text and honing it into something better.

Your objective helper (what I call my ‘Beta-reader’) may only be able to help you with your more obvious problems, and if they’re helping for free then that’s as much as you can hope for. To really polish that story up into a truly finished piece you will need to get hold of someone with industry experience.

Calling in ‘The Professional’

This next step costs money. I took this step once I had already sold a number of books as it was the only way to justify the expense. However, it’s a cost that’s easy to justify and if you already have a kitty of cash set aside for your budding business then this is an area where you’ll need to dip into that.

The term ‘professional’ can mean a lot of different things. It is also potentially strongly linked to your chosen genre. E.g. if you write historical fiction, true crime, or any other genre which relies on truth in the world then I would suggest having someone with knowledge in that field look at your manuscript.

I primarily write fantasy fiction for children, so what I needed was someone accustomed to concise writing, which carries a lot of information in a short space of time. Thankfully, I managed to find a local journalist that fit the bill perfectly.

From my own experience, professional criticism can be less sweeping and more specific. Often my notes highlight places where meaning is blurred, where I need to be more concise, and where I need to disentangle complicated strands of plot.

There are two areas in the making of my books where I have spent what I would call ‘real money’ and both are truly vital. Professional editing sharpens everything up, it gets your writing into a much better place and it can also help you feel less of that ‘imposter syndrome’ that new writers often battle.

(I actually wrote a post a while back about imposter syndrome, it’s a tough situation and if you’d like to know how I’ve come to deal with it, pop over here for a look: “One simple tip for a first time writer (and three that may only work for me)“)

Book design (and Formatting)

Cover design

I say there are two areas where I spent ‘real’ money on my books and this is the second. Initially, I made my own cover for my first book. There are probably still something like sixty or so copies out there in the world. However, it was far from eye-catching and though it looked exactly like I expected it to, it didn’t really convey much about the story inside.

When it came time to release the second Jack Reusen book, ‘Jack Reusen and the Spark of Dreams‘ (the one with ‘zombies’ in it), I realised I needed help if I was going to get it to look the way I wanted.

Not only did my cover illustrator Karen MacAllister get exactly what I wanted, she also added a huge amount of energy and brightness to the design which worked in a way I hadn’t imagined. My second book looked brilliant, considerably better than the first. A good cover is basically an on-shelf advert for your book. Karen’s cover meant that my second book was almost outselling what was supposed to be the first book in the series.

From there I asked for Karen’s help again and I wasn’t disappointed. The new cover which Karen made for “Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame” (book 1) is probably my favourite so far.

This week I got in touch with Karen regarding the cover for book three, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that she can spare some time to make something equally amazing again.

Formatting

This is one area in which I did have experience. At the time of starting my first book, I had just finished a research masters degree (basically a lot of writing) and I had also been a Philosophy tutor (which meant a lot of essays to mark, and places to spot mistakes).

On top of this, my part-time job involved running web activity for a toy shop, which included blogging, product upload on web-stores, and some of it involved the formatting of text for print.

I have worked with a host of different editing software, back-end text editors on web sites, and a bunch of other things. This was one time-consuming area where I didn’t necessarily have to hire a professional.

Don’t get me wrong though, this is still something that takes a lot of time and it’s an area I would be all too happy to outsource once I can justify the cost. I currently format my books for both the print and digital editions (using free software by Calibre) but I wouldn’t mind handing that particular task over.

That said, formatting is a hard thing to get right; if you don’t have experience in this field I highly recommend that you get someone to sort this for you. Learning the necessary skills could set you back weeks, months, or even years, depending on your level of experience.

It’s a service often offered by printing companies so you won’t have to go far to find someone who can help. Which brings us to…

Printing

You may choose to skip this step if you intend to only offer digital copies of your book but even releasing digitally has its hurdles (see above).

The key thing with printing is to decide a few things before going into it: How much of the process you want them to handle? How many copies are you willing to store once they’re printed? Do you want the option to ‘drop-ship’ small batches of books to retail establishments/ schools?

The printer you use won’t be able to work miracles. You’ll need to know what you want from them (e.g. what you want your book to look like, how much you’re willing to pay) before you click ‘send’ on your book files.

How much involvement?

There is a difference between a simple print operation and what used to be called ‘vanity press’. Vanity press offers a host of services, these can be invaluable if you lack the skills/ contacts for things like formatting, editing, illustration, and even PR and advertising.

However, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE be careful, small scale publishers (/’vanity publishers’ like these cost a lot more and, because of this, there’s a lot of money to be made which can attract less principled imitators.

I know of at least one author who spent thousands with a ‘publisher’ only to be left with an attic brimming with books whilst questioning whether they even still owned the rights to their own book any more.

It’s easy to make a mistake when using a ‘vanity publisher’ and the only advice I can give is to talk to other authors (there are a lot of us over on Twitter who are more than happy to talk to new authors about our own experiences).

The simple life

I avoided small press/ ‘vanity publishing’ myself. I personally think it can be a phenomenally useful tool but I was happy to make the arrangements and work through the management of my book myself. For this reason, I went directly to a printer.

I currently use Book Printing UK and have absolutely no complaints. It took me a while to adjust to how long the process actually takes but that was my hurdle to get over (prepare for your first run to take as much as a month due to the proof approval process, but subsequent reprints can be as little as a week or two depending on volume).

If you decide to go this route you’ll need to keep the following things in mind.

The right price

A printer will take your finished files and print them into as many copies as you need. Your price per book should factor into your choice here. I’ll break my own process down (I was a book buyer for a shop for a little under 10 years so I’m coming at this from both angles).

First look at books in your genre. Look at the mass-market and premium prices and try to figure out where your book lies on that scale. Price as objectively as you can and don’t charge more than what you see on the shelf unless you have a clear reason to do so.

Typically a retailer will expect 30% of the cover price. Though the expectation can be a higher discount than this if they aren’t sure how it well will sell.

As I say, I used to be a book-buyer so I’ll vouch that I used to ask for as much discount from the supplier as we could get. Take your projected cover price and subtract 30% (at least).

Next, come any foreseeable overheads. Here’s one example; I agreed to give a percentage of the cover price to my illustrator, this means that I need to set this aside on every book I print. Subtract this value from what is left of your cover price and keep this figure in mind.

Now it’s time to look at printing costs. Get a few quotes (some printers offer an immediate quoted price, whilst others may take a day or so). Look at areas where you’re happy to make a sacrifice or two (e.g. would black and white internal images be sufficient/suitable for your book? They cost a lot less that colour pages after all.).

Take your quoted price, subtract it from the previous value and there’s your profit per book. If that looks good to you, if you think you can work with that, then you’re ready to self publish. If you don’t think you can make money at your cover price once you count in all the costs involved, then you may need to reassess your book and look at ways of shaving back your costs.

Page count can be the biggest factor in setting your print cost so it might be worth looking at a deeper edit as your first target. Stephen King in his book ‘On Writing’ suggests a 20% cut of word count for a decent edit. For some, this can be hard to picture but if cost and earnings are an issue it could be time to look at something like a 20% drop in pages (so long as the story stays safe).

Once you’re ready to print at a price that leaves you making a reasonable amount then it’s time to look at getting your book out there.

Press/ Media/ Advertising

This is an area which is growing more familiar to me but one which I’ll confess is probably the one that I find trickiest out of the bunch.

The world is a noisy place now when it comes to information about new creative media. There’s a new digital boxset to watch every week, Podcasts aplenty, more YouTube videos than you could watch in a lifetime, and that’s before you get to media in text form. There’s a lot of competition for the eyes and ears of consumers.

Then there’s the capacity for books to get in front of a user. Every book by traditional publishers seems to come with a fanfare which could bring a lowly self-published author to tears.

Your key here is not to let this get to you, to step to one side of this feeling of overwhelming competition and realise that there are people for you to engage with. I write for children and so, for the most part, I try to engage with my target readers.

I offer free school talks in schools and find it really rewarding to engage with current and potential readers of my books (it also helps me see what it is that they enjoy about my books too).

On top of this, I’ve recently set up a creative writing programme closely linked to the Scottish primary school curriculum.

The aim of this is to make life a little easier for the teachers who have been so supportive and helpful in letting me visit their classes. Each part of this programme will show teachers what has been covered that week and help them check off the curriculum targets which their pupils will have covered.

There’s a pretty solid chance that your target market also has a space where you can interact with them. Some of this interaction may take time to establish but it is worth it. The bonus of this extra time with your demographic is that you’ll learn more about them too, finding out what they like to read will help you consider good angles for your next project.

Once you find your niche you can make sure that time and money spent on advertising and the press is going to good use. You probably won’t be able to directly track your returns on this particular investment but I can assure you that without a niche those returns will be close to zero. The world is a noisy place now, the least you can do is make sure your message is getting to the right ears.

Author engagement (book talks/ signings etc.)

Author engagement is really a follow-on from what I described in the previous section. This is hard to balance, you want to promote your book but you also have to remember that your audience doesn’t want to hear book plugs all the time.

Try and find something that could help your target market in some way. I offer schools creative writing assistance for pupils. Other ways you could help potential readers is by suggesting books that you enjoy yourself. This could be in the form of a blog, a video blog, or even a reading group (if you have the time to pup into these).

Second to writing, author engagement is likely to be the biggest draw on your time. Be good to your target readers and they’ll be good to you.

Also, if you make a commitment with your target audience you’ll need to stick to it. You don’t want to be the writer who lets down their readers, so make sure you don’t bite off more than you can chew.

Distribution

Distribution often doesn’t factor in during the planning stages of your publishing process but it’s the true bread and butter of your self-publishing business. Some of the most important relationships you’ll develop on your self-publishing journey will be between yourself and the people who sell your books.

The first hurdle you will have to jump in this journey will be in the form of setting up these contacts. Before you even contact a potential stockist, there are some basics you should consider which will greatly increase your chance of being stocked by them.

The basics

What bookshops want

A book buyer needs to track a few things, make their job as easy as possible. First and foremost get a barcode. Your printer will likely be able to generate a barcode for you and set you an ISBN number too. This is a one-time expense (and well worth the money) but it can become a little expensive if you have more than a couple of books in your sights.

You can actually buy your own ISBN numbers in bulk (here in the UK you’ll get that from Neilsen), it greatly reduces the cost per book with the added advantage that your books will have codes sit close together. When distributors/retailers are cataloguing your book(s) this will mean that they are all visible in order.

This is the key thing about a functional barcode; most book retailers use ePOS systems (basically a stock-managed till system) so that they can keep track of stock in real-time.

When they scan your book at the till their database will update to show that the shop now has one less copy in stock. When this number hits one or zero their system may be set up to tell them it’s time to order more copies.

Without a barcode, your book could be forgotten and that reorder notice may never happen. They might sell five copies of your book in the first month but not realise that they need more for six months (if ever). This could have lost you thirty book sales (or more), so get a barcode!

Being present

You could double down on ensuring that your books are visible to readers with another simple, and important, step; regular communication.

Be as professional and as accomodating as you can be with bookshops or larger distributors and set up a regular check-in where appropriate. This could be as simple as an e-mail or phone call once a month. Don’t go straight to the point by asking if they need more books, instead ask how business is and get a feel of what’s been going on there. This helps you stay on their radar and it can give you opportunities to do more with your books.

During these conversations you might spot places where you could help their business in some way; you might offer to help promote your books with them (e.g. guest author signings), author events can be a great way for an independent book shop to look interesting and energised.

However, there are other ways in which you could help too, from social media support to guest blogs on their website. You could even help them manage a monthly reading group (virtual or in-person).

With the knowledge that you are there to support their business, you’ll become a fixture in the way they think about their books. Being at the forefront of someone’s thoughts can be a really good way of increasing in-store recommendations to readers. Once you look invested you’ll look less pitchy when you ask if they need a few more copies.

Calls like this (and the involvement that comes with it) can be time-consuming for both you and your retailer(s) so don’t do this every week. Once a month would be adequate but I’d suggest that the results would be much the same with a call every six weeks or even once every couple of months.

The simple message is to look after your retailers and they’ll look after you.

Sales

Sales are out of your control (mostly) but you can influence your numbers in direct relation to the energy you put in with your target readers and your retailers/ distributors. You’re likely to see a spike in sales in your first month or so after launch but with decent, regular engagement you may be lucky enough to keep those numbers high and maintain reasonable sales.

If you want regular sales you’ll need to set aside time for regular engagement. You can’t outsource this, there’s no authenticity to having a social media professional pose as you on twitter or write blogs for you. This is real, and your earnings will remain ongoing only so long as you maintain contact with your readers.

This is doubly true for digital sales. According to a post from Just Publishing Advice if you have a book available on Kindle then your book is one of a crowd of anywhere between six and possibly eight million ebooks.

All of these are lumped in by genre, there are no real ‘special mentions’ unless you count top sellers, free ebooks, or sponsored listings (and that’s whole other thing). Your listing on Amazon is unlikely to be seen unless you actively promote it. Again this leads to the need for you to engage with target readers in a regular and authentic way.

Don’t plug your book on Twitter every twenty minutes like clockwork and then wonder why you start losing followers. No-one wants to be pitched a book every time they log in.

Keep your plugs light (but make sure you do plug your book at least occasionally) and fill your feed with relevant, interesting content that your target readers might enjoy. If they feel engaged they’re much more likely to click that amazon listing link and see what your book is like.

Writing

This final job is really the main job in self-publishing a book. This is where you first put your energy and it’s likely the part of the process you enjoy the most (otherwise why decide to be a writer at all?).

With this in mind, it’s absolutely vital that you hold your writing time as precious. Wherever possible, try to limit the time you spend on the other parts of the job. You’re not a failure in self-publishing if you use professionals to help, just look out for potential con-men and fraudsters.

Some professional services might be unreasonably costly for you at present but keep them on the horizon, they will help your book be the best it can be.

Sorry for the gigantic post!

I had no idea how long this post would become when I set out to write it. Initially, it was just supposed to be a check-in on week two of the self-publishing journey for my new book. However, it grew arms and legs and most of my Sunday was spent reigning it in.

I’m pretty sure I just accidentally wrote a step-by-step guide to self-publishing so, that was nice. If you find it useful print it out and stick it on a wall, steal the headings and mark them as a checklist of things to do before getting your book out there.

Mostly please leave a comment if you have found this useful. I’ve never written a blog post this long and I’m hoping it was time well spent, it would be great if you let me know it helped.

Thanks for taking the time to read this far and if you would like a weekly update on the self-publishing journal please join my mailing list by clicking this link (no spam, just me),

All the best, John

 

Getting serious about writing: The long strange trip

Five years ago I was in full swing in my writing:

For starters, despite having only been a ‘proper writer’ for a couple of years at that point I had two books out on shelves and people were actually buying them too (and telling me they liked them, which was even better). I was even visiting schools to tell kids about my books and talk to them about writing.

On top of all this, I also had this website running with regular blog posts telling everyone about all of these new writer experiences. I had even managed to persuade myself to keep up a regular (guilt-free) batch of ‘writing time’ each week.

It was a good time.

So anyway, as I say apparently five years have passed (five very good years mind you) and I actually had no idea it was that long. That was until an old post popped up on my Facebook feed to remind me; a post from a time when I had entered a state of something like ‘writing bliss’. A time when I was announcing to readers that the newest Jack Reusen book was on its way. (I was also writing in a ‘gypsy caravan’; one of the most unique writing locations I’ve ever been in see the picture above too).

Two books were good but three made a trilogy, it started a series! I was on chapter 12 of the latest Jack Reusen book; ‘Jack Reusen and the Children of Fate’ and nothing seemed to be in my way. Unfortunately, I didn’t know it at the time but finishing ‘…the Children of Fate’ was to become one of the biggest challenges I was going to face as a writer.

Five years later, and that book still isn’t on shelves. The story was there, the characters reached a dramatic conclusion to their three-book arc, everything I needed was there. So what went wrong?…

Fixing my mistakes (Some notes for other writers)

This post is part of an ongoing series about self-publishing. Over the next few weeks, I aim to highlight some of the mistakes I’ve made as a writer and also explain some of the techniques I’ve discovered which help minimise the risk of mistakes like these happening again.

First off, I should say that I didn’t simply hit the ‘pause button’ on my writing five years ago. In the intervening years, I’ve released a new book (a standalone dark fantasy call ‘Marcus’), helped a classroom of kids write their own novel, and written three more books set in the Jack Reusen universe (all currently, unfortunately, still in draft form).

In fact, it was whilst writing these new stories; skipping ahead in time and seeing where my characters were going, that I came to see what wasn’t right about my original version of ‘Jack Reusen and the Children of Fate’.

Problem number one (Direction):

I didn’t see it at the time but I had lost all objectivity. The truth was that my story lacked direction. I ‘sort of’ knew where my main characters were going but my third book was the writing equivalent of standing in the doorway of a house, wanting to leave but stuck in a state indecision; ‘to the park, or hunt for Nessie, to the zoo, or rob a bank ?’. It was a stalemate of options, something that I can imagine is a fairly common problem in fiction writing.

To compound things I had gone into book three knowing that I had more books planned. Because of this I originally left everything in book three up in the air. I wanted to leave myself with lots of options for book four and beyond. The story was up in the air on purpose, I told myself that it was meant to be like that, but a single read was enough for my beta reader to bring the whole thing crashing to the ground. With slightly more objective eyes I looked again at my story and realised it simply wasn’t working.

I tried to fix it, with editing and writing, and more editing, and more writing. On my second draft I chopped out whole sections, then in my third I added whole new chapters. I wrote so much that the story grew arms and legs and became a monster.

Then, for a long time, I locked that monster in a desktop folder and pretended it wasn’t there.

Problem number two (Denial):

My second problem was one which I suspect many self-published authors suffer from. I didn’t want to accept that there was a problem. I told myself ‘It’s not that bad’. At one particularly unhinged point, I even considered simply launching book three as a ‘Beta version’ on Kindle.

I thought that I could release book three in a rough format and fix problems as people pointed them out. The biggest issue with this is that it just isn’t very nice to use your readership as your editors. If they enjoy your books they should get to see them at their best, not simply at a level you tentatively regard as ‘good enough’.

In the end, I realised that I simply needed to break away from the text and write some other things. Time and (narrative) distance came to show me that book three (as it stood) was far from ‘good enough’ but it also gave me more experience and offered new writing skills that would help me when I returned to the book.

Not only did I come to see that my book wasn’t right but I also came to recognise how important it was to get it right. However, as I developed my writing and worked on new projects, more time passed, so much that I now had three sequels written to a book that still wasn’t ready to go out. I had now invested years of writing in this project.

It was time to make that time mean something, I probably left book three for longer than I needed to, the dread of how difficult my job was to be looming over me.

That time had been essential in helping me become more objective, to step back, and to accept the fact that this book needed some significant work. However, if I wasn’t careful I could have left that little file waiting forever.

Problem number three (Time):

3am watch on stone floorI noticed these issues more than a year ago. Almost four years had passed since I had written the last sentence of that first draft and I knew that was far too long for a third book in what was now a five/six-book series.

At some point last year I tried to cask my anxiety aside and took a look at the dreaded manuscript.

I had learned more about writing by then, I was more relaxed about making big changes when the story called for it. In short, I was more able to deal with problems in my writing.

During that new look at book three, it was clear that I could do better (I already knew that), but for the first time in a long time, I realised that the book wasn’t unsalvagable. It could be fixed. It could become better than ‘good enough’ but getting it there would take work.

Unfortunately, that work was going to take time and with two kids, a part-time job, my own business, and marketing activities for my already published books, I didn’t exactly have an abundance of time.

My weekly routine marched on; work to do, meals to cook, clothes to wash, kids to drop off and pick up from school. Step by step ‘Jack Reusen and the Children of Fate’ dropped in priority. It bothered me on a number of levels but hardest of all was during book talks when I would talk about characters who were (at least in my own mind) already years past the stages they were in my first two books.

I wanted to tell readers what happened next to these characters but I couldn’t because book three wasn’t out. It wasn’t real yet.

Book three hovered in my periphery for a very long time. I wanted to tell the story but I never had the time to fix it and get it out.

Then came lockdown…and for better or worse, everything changed.

New Habits

I have time now. Even during the eased lockdown process here in Scotland, there are still a few extra hours each week for me to work on my books, and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing. I’ve been working for weeks on it.

At first, it was just a bit of polishing, then it was some textual decorating, then a big word clear-out. Then I tore a couple of chapters out to make room for the real story. The endless strands of what was a meandering story were either dropped or woven into the main tale. Characters went through arcs.

I started to understand what this book was really about all along; How it tied together with what came before and how it really could launch what I have set up for after. It’s been a long strange road from that gypsy caravan five years ago but tonight I am about to sit down and complete my edit of the last chapter of ‘Jack Reusen and the Children of Fate.’

‘Jack Reusen and the Children of Fate’ is ready (really ready). At last.

More steps before we reach the finish line

However, that’s not the end of the story when getting a book onto the shelves. There’s a long way to go.

I’m now on proofreader stage, next comes the editor, then a final tidy up for print formatting etc. and we’re off to the printer. (By the way, this sounds quick but it could still be November before all of these stages are complete).

Every week I will fill readers in on what a self-published author does in getting their book from this raw (sort of complete) stage to something real, well-formatted, looking good, and most importantly sitting on shop shelves.

I’ll have lots of tips to share as we go on but this first one should fill you in on how you can motivate yourself to get your project up and running.

All it took for this to happen after five years of indecision and denial was a tiny bit of extra time and a slightly better approach in how I use that time.

My new magic tool

One of the most useful things I’ve done during lockdown was to set myself a clear list of activities to work on in small increments. Key to this change has been a greater emphasis on time-management (so that I don’t let myself brush off necessary work again).

One of the most beneficial tools I found was a new time-management service. The service is called ‘ClickUp‘ (by the way this is an affiliate link so I do get ‘ClickUp credit’ if someone signs up for a free trial, I don’t want to seem disingenuous).

ClickUp is compatible with my PC and my phone so I can now easily track what I need to be doing on a day-to-day basis pretty easily. It comes in tiers so you can actually use a free account for life if you only want the basics.

However, you don’t have to use something like ClickUp; you could simply work on a spreadsheet, or even write it by hand on a bulletin board, whatever works for you. The key change is to look at what you want the end of your project to look like then frame your work in relation to that goal (working back).

In my case, I started with my end goal for this book (paperback copies out in time for Scottish Book Week in November) and worked my way backwards through the essential stages which get a book into print. I broke down each job and looked at when it would need to be complete for this to work. Then I broke down my own work into much more manageable sections, each coming up as small, specific, tasks with deadlines and reminders.

Book three is back on. It will finally be making its way to shelves, and it is a huge weight off my shoulders.

Follow the whole book publishing process!

I’m going to add an update on this site every Monday as I move towards publication. These posts will offer a detailed step-by-step guide which should show how a book moves through its various incarnations before it lands on shelves.

I’ll do what I can to help readers (and fellow writers) follow this book’s progress; from writer’s draft, through all the tidying work of proofreading and editing. We’ll look at the cover design process, marketing plans, and even the formatting that’s needed for the printers. I’m going to do what I can to make sure you can see exactly what’s involved in self-publishing.

If you’re interested in following this process please feel free to join my mailing list (you’ll only get emails from me, and you won’t get spammed with 100 emails in one day because I just can’t write that quickly). It’s easy to sign up, simply click this link and fill in your name and e-mail address.

Please feel free to ask any questions you like in the comments below and I’ll be back next Monday with more updates,

As always thanks for reading,

All the best, John

One simple tip for a first time writer (and three that may only work for me)

First off, I should point out that most ‘real’ first-time writers are around four to six years old. This fact is central to what we’ll be looking at in this post.

It may sound pedantic, but it’s true; pre/early school is typically the age at which we begin developing our writing habits, as we learn to get our point across using the written word.

If you are older than a preschooler, and I’ll assume you are, then you are probably not a ‘first time writer’.

This is obviously a bit trite but it does help to keep it in mind as you work: You have been writing for a long time, you’re not as new to this as it appears. I’m not sure how other writers will react to what I’m saying here but from my own experience, I know how important this idea can be. This particular reminder has already helped me countless times when my writing confidence has taken a nosedive.

So with this trite idea in hand let’s forge on. The first issue to tackle is experience. If you aren’t a ‘first-time writer’ then what are you?

Teenager?

If you are in your teens then you have about a decade of projects and creative writing exercises under your belt.

What’s more, you already have your own perspective on the world. In our teens, we experiment with our identities possibly more than at any other time in our lives. We start to step back from our beginnings and try as best we can to look at them objectively.

If you are a teenager then you are probably currently right in the midst of this existential crisis. Who are you? Is your family ‘normal’? Is your upbringing ‘typical’? Are you seeing cracks in your worldview from asking these questions?

We may call it ‘teenaged rebellion’ but really it’s the beginning of considering who we are and what we truly identify with. This gives you a unique voice that will only become more unique the more you use it. Your writing will be all the stronger if you embrace your individuality as it stands at this moment.

Twenty-Something

In your twenties, you may have gained experience from college/university-level assignments. Perhaps you’ve dabbled in fiction already and/or worked together a collection of short stories.

Alternatively, you may have written reports for work, or you may have provided social media support for an employer. (We all know what it’s like; ‘You’re young. You’ll know how this social media stuff works’.)

Whatever your work or education level, it’s likely you’ll have had to write a few words since leaving school.

This is also a time that most older adults remember fondly (and definitely explains why the TV show ‘Friends’ is still so popular). It’s a time when people form a more independent identity and potentially develop deeper relationships than they did in high school.

With this in mind, what you have to say should appeal to a fairly wide audience. Combine your individuality, a bit of youthful energy, and some more life experiences than you had as a teenager, and you have a backdrop from which to write something excellent.

Thirties

As above, but add ten years of changing jobs, more complex life circumstances, and/or varying responsibilities. By this stage, you’ll likely have written a good few more words.

Chances are you will have honed your ability to get your point across and you may even have found subtle ways to include your own slant in your writing.

Your life choices, experiences, disappointments and triumphs are there to draw from in your writing.

Onwards

You get the idea. Every extra year provides you with more life experience and a more complex skillset.

Whether you’re fifteen or fifty, keep in mind the fact that you will have something to say and there will be someone out there who wants to read it.

The Tip

So what’s the tip?

I’ll try and condense it. Stop thinking of yourself as a ‘first time writer’. Even as a teenager you have around a decade of writing experience. Whilst this might not make you a writing ‘expert’ it’s enough for you to forget the ‘first-time’ label. Throw it away, the term ‘first time writer’ is dead weight.

Remember this and allow yourself to relax. There’s enough work to be done in completing your first book and reworking it over and over into something you feel proud to call your own. Why add the extra work of belittling what you have achieved already?

I could come up with analogies like the relationship between running and completing a marathon, or baking and creating a wedding cake.

You have the basic skills to write your first draft and you can sort out your more obvious mistakes in your second draft.

You’ve got this.

Hold on to your ideas

You have the basic skills needed to write. You may even have more comprehensive capacities drawn from various jobs and other training. You’ll know yourself whether you feel confident in getting an idea across.

However, ‘getting an idea across’ implies that you have an idea and this may not always be the case when you sit down to write. Sometimes all those great ideas evaporate as soon as you switch on your computer. This is the guts of every writer’s primary villain; writers’ block.

There’s one way to minimise the risk of that blank screen; always trust that you can write (at least well enough for your first draft) but I would suggest that you never place too much trust in your memory. The truth is that most of the things we think of writing about are fairly ephemeral until we nail them down onto the page. These woolly ideas can be pretty hard to remember even a few minutes later.

Put simply, don’t trust your memory to hold on to those important plot points, character traits, scene-setting descriptions, and action-driving moments of conflict.

When you have ideas write them down. Send yourself ideas as private messages, carry a notebook with you, phone your house and leave a message on your answering machine, whatever it takes. Just don’t lose your ideas.

When you’re at your laptop/PC get those ideas organised and added to the main text. Get that first draft written. Add to it as often as you possibly can.

After the first draft?

From then on it could be down to asking a (good*) friend to read your work and give you the most detailed feedback they can manage. (*Giving truly objective and detailed feedback is not an easy task so be careful who you ask).

After this, a proofreader or editor is a must. Someone even more objective, and importantly someone with industry experience. You should expect to pay for this service but it really is worth it. This individual will help you make your work the best it can be.

Get that first draft written!

However, none of that is important right now. You only have to think about your first draft.

You are not a ‘first-time writer’, you know enough to get started already. Go write!

You said something about three other tips?

Yep, three more tips (that’s the way these posts work isn’t it?). I’ll keep this brief:

Drink tea

Maybe not tea, but pick a beverage which you will need to prepare somewhere away from your desk/workspace.

You’re likely to find your drink cold or at least feel thirsty within about a half-hour to an hour of taking your beverage to your desk and this gives you an excuse to step away from the screen.

If you’re feeling the dreaded ‘writers’ block’ kicking in, you’ve now got an excuse to leave the keyboard/notebook and clear your head for five minutes. (And stop staring at a blinking cursor.)

Alternatively, if you’re immersed in your writing, then you won’t notice you need another cup. Another cup of tea isn’t important enough or jarring enough to draw your attention away when things are going well. This means that you can happily write away until you reach a natural stopping point and the only price is a slightly dry throat.

It’s honestly the most useful writing habit I have formed.

Leave the house/ get exercise

Fresh air can’t be beaten to help you feel better. Add to that some green spaces and you have a recipe for a huge wellbeing increase. Even in the current lockdown, most places are still allowing individuals a bit of time outside for exercise. Go out and use it, go somewhere with life in it if you can, green spaces, in particular, can be great mood enhancers (this sounds like hippy-dippy stuff but there’s some real science behind it, the citations in this post on heart.org are pretty comprehensive)

Alternatively, take up some other activity which gets you moving. I used to go for a swim as a one-hour break before I had lunch. I would try and beat my previous speed/ number of lengths. Swimming isn’t an option for most of us now but some other activity which allows you to compete purely with your past self could be just as good.

The personal challenge and the change in focus got me ready for my afternoon writing session. What’s more, I can’t help but feel that the increase in oxygen in my blood helped sharpen my mind.

The afternoon soon became my most productive writing time.

Talk to other writers

It can be hard to meet other writers in person but I can heartily recommend using Twitter as a means of sharing the highs and lows of writing.

Great hashtags to follow are #amwriting #WritingCommunity and #writerslife.

If you feel like chatting about writing with me you’ll find me at @Johntoyshopguy.

If you aren’t a Twitter user then I can’t suggest any alternative I’m afraid. In terms of a free to use, easy to access, writing community resource, my own experience has led me to realise that there simply is nothing remotely comparable as a place to communicate with other writers.

It’s easy to join Twitter. It’s much less probing than Facebook, You can use a pseudonym, you don’t have to display any personal details, and all you need is an email address to join. Click this link to join now.

(Bonus tip) Reward yourself

Pick an achievable short to mid-term goal and choose a reward to give yourself when you reach it. Here are some I use.

  • A (small) favourite chocolate bar when you complete a chapter (mine is a Kinder Maxi bar, at 21g every few hours of writing, it’s not going to ruin my health).
  • Ten minutes of a favourite show/ podcast/ book when you’ve written a thousand words.
  • A very special treat (you pick) once you reach a special stopping point. E.g. half-way through your plan, once an important scene is complete, once you finish your first draft.
  • Etc. Etc. You get the idea. Basically, look after yourself. Writing a book is a large undertaking. It can be emotionally draining. Make sure you look after your own needs and find ways to congratulate yourself as you progress.

Be nice, leave a comment

I’d love to hear about your project or anything else you’d like to share about your experiences with your first book.

Please leave a comment below. I’m happy to respond to any comments/ questions.

As always thanks for reading, and all the best with your writing, cheers, John

Help young people find an outlet

This is a different sort of post today. I recently launched a new website for children and young adults called ‘Celebrating Stories‘.

The idea behind the site is fairly simple. I thought about the fact that a lot of us (adults) are using creative outlets to deal with the odd mix of alert, isolation, and simple stir-craziness that we’re all going through at the moment.

I thought it might be nice if children and young adults had access to a venue where they could share their own stories (fiction/ non-fiction/ jokes/ poetry/ any other forms of expression).

‘Celebrating Stories’ is a place for children and young adults to be creative and share their own take on the world with others. They’ll also be able to comment on each others’ stories, offer encouragement, chat about their stories, and tell them about their own.

How do kids get their story on ‘Celebrating Stories’?

Each writer will have to become a member of Celebrating Stories. This is a free process and doesn’t take a lot of time.

To join simply click this link and join the ‘Celebrating Stories’ mailing list (it’s totally free, there will never be a charge for membership). N.B. Make sure to use the email address of the person who will be using the ‘Celebrating Stories’ membership.

Login details will then be sent out and they’ll be writing stories in no time.

I hope this resource helps children to engage with each other and be creative. It can’t hurt for them to have an outlet during these strange times as well.

Thanks for reading,

All the best, John

Behind you!…

An eerie whistle sounds behind you.
There’s no one there.
He’s hiding now. Hiding in your phone, in your tablet, your Kindle Reader…
Yep, ‘Marcus’ (my dark fantasy/horror novel for readers aged ten and up) is now on Kindle reader and the Kindle app for Android and Apple. Pop over for a look now, click this link to find ‘Marcus’ on Amazon.co.uk.

Why did I wait so long to launch the Kindle edition?

Some readers may know (many may not) but ‘Marcus’ actually came out in paperback well over a year ago. I had a proper book launch and everything.

Prior to that, a less polished edition was made available here on my website on a chapter by chapter basis (you can still read the whole thing if you like, just follow this link to chapter one of ‘Marcus’). It was my attempt to replicate the old newspaper serials which worked so well for Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, H. G. Wells, and Arthur Conan Doyle.

All of my other books up till that point had been available in print and on Kindle but, on this occasion, I held off. I’m not sure why; possibly because I enjoy the face-to-face nature of paperback book sales. Either in communicating with a retailer or in signing a paperback copy, there seems to be something more ‘human’ to the whole business of paperback books.

However, this face-to-face contact isn’t a safe option in the current climate and I’ve come to realise that without a digital copy I won’t be able to engage with readers at all.

Please have a read and tell me what you think

Whether you read the serialised copy here or the Kindle edition of ‘Marcus’ I would really love to know what you think. Being cut off from your audience isn’t an easy thing and it would be great to hear from anyone who reads any of my books.

If a dark fantasy/horror doesn’t sound right for you, then feel free to have a browse of my Author page over on Amazon. It would be great to chat to any readers at the moment. You can find me on Facebook and over on Twitter.

Hope all is good with you,

As always, thanks for reading,

All the best, John

 

Bumface Poohands?!

Who is Bumface Poohands? Why does he exist? Is this really supposed to be for kids? Will someone be outraged? Read on for (my attempt at) some answers (N.B Do NOT read on if you are easily upset by poo jokes)…

Finding a Bumface

I recently launched the Kindle edition of one of my books and, as many authors probably do, I thought I’d have a browse around to see what new books I was up against. It was then that I spotted a children’s book unlike any other.

I mean this wholeheartedly, as a book buyer in a Toy and children’s book shop for around a decade, I thought I had seen everything. I was unbelievably wrong.

There, in with all the typical popular children’s books, was something truly unique. A book of such unrivalled uniqueness and scatological humour that, at first, I thought I had imagined it.

I went back and checked again. There was Bumface Poohands; his face a bum, his hands made of poo. Absolutely no doubt remained. This book existed. I had to read it.

And seeing his poo hands

I took a chance and read it for the first time with my kids. I’m glad I did. Bumface Poohands is having a Birthday party. All of his friends are coming and his mum lets him help prepare the food (one look at his hands and you’ll see why this is a bad idea).

As the party progresses he opens all manner of gifts and shows his appreciation. As his gifts mount up keep an eye out for his distinctive markings on them in the background illustrations.

The pièce de résistance, the crowning moment for the story-teller and the illustrator is when Bumface’s cake is brought out and it is time for him to blow out the candles!

This moment sent my children (two boys ages 9 and 11) into hysterics, I joined in too. I won’t spoil the end but it is so very very much worth the wait.

What did I just read?

I’m still not sure how I feel about little Bumface. I’m trying not to overanalyse the story. However, one thing that jumps out at me is that it is a story of positivity and about accepting who you are. Bumface can’t help the fact that his face is a bum, nor can he help his poo hands, and he still stays positive and has a group of friends who clearly also accept him for who he is.

There is currently a toilet roll shortage, we’re all panicking, but I know for sure that Bumface Poohands wouldn’t care at all. After all, it won’t make any difference to him…

Apologies

I should probably apologise here for what might have been an alarmingly gross post on an otherwise ordinary blog by an otherwise fairly ordinary children’s author. However, I also feel that true genius should be praised.

Authors (and possibly illustrators, it’s hard to tell) Mr. Jels and Kay Mann are geniuses. They have managed to surprise me in a way that a children’s book hasn’t for a long time.

If you would like to read Bumface Poohands too, simply click this link to see the Kindle edition (you can read Kindle books on almost any device, all you need is the free Kindle Reader app).

‘Bumface Poohands’ is available to read for free as part of a monthly subscription service called Kindle Unlimited (click here to find out more and sign up). My books are all on it too. You can follow this link to my author page if you would prefer a (much) less poo-centric fantasy story.

However, most of all, I recommend a nice out-loud reading of Bumface Poohands. A bit of humour can go a long way at the moment.

As always, thanks for reading,

All the best, John

 

Bedtime stories: How long till I’m ‘sacked’?

Some parents struggle with ‘story time’. It can be hard to fit it in with all the other demands modern parents have on their time.

All the same, my family and I have somehow managed to squeeze ‘story time’ into our routine from the very beginning.

I really mean the very beginning; on Logan’s first night home from the hospital I sat beside his cot and read The Lion the With and the Wardrobe. (And yes, I knew he didn’t understand. It was just nice to have an excuse to spend some time with the new little person in our house).

Why we continue night after night

Since then we’ve barely missed a night. Maybe the routine has been easier to maintain because we started so early (and I genuinely don’t know how we managed to fit it in alongside nappies, feeding times, and utter, bone-crumbling, exhaustion). Maybe we’ve just been lucky to have to free time in the evenings to read a story together.

Reading to my kids is one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve shared with them. We’ve gone on a lot of adventures together, each longer and more complex than the last.

However, there’s no escaping the fact that my kids are getting older. They’re both avid independent readers now and, to be honest, I’m not sure how much longer I’ve got till I’m ‘sacked’ as a Storyteller.

New adventures

We don’t really call it ‘story time’ any more but we still keep up the tradition. Our nights used to consist of a quick visit to the ‘deep dark wood’ with the Gruffalo, an adventure with the ‘Night Pirates’, or dropping in for some hunny with Winnie the Pooh.

Now, we’re adventuring with Harry Potter, ‘The Wee Free Men’, or more recently following high tech shenanigans with Artemis Fowl. We’ve enjoyed a seasonal adventure with the Christmasaurus and visited a very odd spaceship alongside ‘Cakes in Space’.

These stories are deeper than their old picture books (even the wacky ones). It has changed our evenings a bit. Now we might discuss tricky topics and my kids can ask about some pretty grown-up concepts but it’s easy(ish) as it all comes from the comfort of a fictional universe.

A parenting tool like no other

This is the tricky bit for me, if reading were simply an entertaining thing that myself and my kids enjoy together, then I could step back and let them enjoy it themselves. However, it has always had a discussion component too.

Years ago we would ask about whether Winnie the Pooh was being selfish by eating all of Rabbit’s honey, or we might talk about fear and what it means to be brave while reading the Gruffalo’s child. Because you’re reading, you can slow down, you can stop for a moment and go over story points. It’s not the same as watching TV or a movie.

The more nuanced books we read now let me check in with my children in a casual way. Topics in the book can be compared to their school or home life to see if there’s anything troubling them, or even simply something that they don’t understand.

Learning big life lessons in a fictional universe

This is what’s so hard about letting go of story-time now; at precisely the moment when discussions like these are of growing importance, my children are pulling back on family reading time in favour of reading by themselves.

There’s so much good for them to get from reading alone, I can’t deny them that, but I also feel the increased need for this distinctive form of family time.

I know the time will come (and soon) when I really will have to step back, but for now I’m going to try to hold on tight to what has been one of the most useful parenting tools I have ever had access to.

A tool to communicate? What do you use?

I can’t help but wonder how many other parents might be feeling this tug. Losing a tool for parenting that has few rivals.

To use a programming expression, I have always found fictional worlds to work as ‘sandbox’ worlds; places where you can experiment with ideas with no real-world risk. It’s imaginary so the (real-life) stakes are low, but you can still encounter complex social and moral problems.

Are any other parents missing the loss of their ‘sandbox’?

Do parents of older children have any insight on what can take the place of reading together?

Let me know in the comments below, and as always, thanks for reading,

All the best, John

Using screens to reduce screen use? (Can we fight fire with fire whilst helping our local libraries?)

Hi, how are you coping? Are you self-isolating? Sorry for referencing the current crisis again but the thing I’m talking about today is pretty close to my heart.

I’ve always had a soft spot for my local library, it’s where my love of reading was fed with endless piles of books from the age of nine/ten onwards. This post is about screen use but it’s also about libraries.

Losing access to a vital source of entertainment

Sadly, as has been the case for many such institutions, Culture Perth and Kinross (the organisation behind museums and libraries where I live) has temporarily closed all the libraries (even the mobile one) in our area. Given the number of vulnerable individuals who must use these facilities each day this isn’t a surprise. I get it, but it doesn’t make it easier.

You’re probably now looking at the title and wondering what this has to do with screen use. Bear with me, I do have a point.

All bored with nowhere to go?

Let’s now combine the loss of libraries with the fact that a lot of us are now spending a lot more time indoors than usual. We could (and probably will) spend a lot of that time on streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, or just watching the old trusty TV.

However, I’m starting to get a bit fed up of TV already (and I’m speaking as someone who has a solid thirty-odd year addiction to telly) and I imagine a few other folk are too. The big issue for me is the fact that I can’t really go above ‘PG’ in my viewing habits until the kids are in bed and by then (currently at least) I just want to go to bed too.

On top of this our kids are now there. All the time. If your kids are home from school like mine are, then you’re under surveillance all day. They see everything! We parents are under more scrutiny now than we ever were, and could easily be caught out in the hypocrisy of ‘no screens’ as fast as a kid can burst in on you sneaking a watch of a ‘This Morning’ clip or a quick catch up of ‘The Witcher’ while you’re ‘sweeping the stairs’.

So, is there a way to encourage your kids away from YouTube and Netflix and onto something more ‘educational’ without sounding like a hypocrite?

(Though I should plug my own Youtube videos here just to confuse things further).

Can you get access to some sort of non-hypocritical grown-up entertainment that might stop you climbing the walls to escape yet another episode of Scooby-Doo, Gumball, or whatever else Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, or Disney has to offer?

Is that even a thing?

Can you be entertained like a grown-up during the day without emotionally scarring your kids?

The answer is ‘YES!’ and it’s by accessing a technology that pre-dates TV and even radio by decades (though admittedly with a modern spin). Better still it’s FREE! Simply put, you can get a book (or audiobook) from the library!

But wait, didn’t I just say the library is closed?

Yep!

So how am I supposed to get a book out?

I’ll tell you!

(Sorry for the format here, the shops had run out of decaff and the caffeinated alternatives are proving a surprise. Feeling a bit ‘high energy’ at the moment 😉 Anyway, back to the post…)

Our library (and your library too, I expect) offer a digital catalogue of ebooks and audiobooks which will work on almost any device (Android, Apple, though NOT Kindle). You maybe knew this already, maybe you even use it. If this is true you’re probably already tuning out from this post.

(If this is you then thanks for reading this far and if you’re interested in some new ebook titles to read then check out my last post for a selection of books by nice people who also happen to be great writers, and me. Just scroll to the bottom of that post for the list. Here’s the link.)

If you haven’t used this facility before, I’ll talk you through the process to set it up on your device.

Free entertainment!? Educational? Stuff for grown-ups? Stuff for kids? How do I get it?

The following information assumes that, like me, you live in the Perth and Kinross area but it should apply for your own library service too (though the links won’t be relevant in your case (you’ll have to rely on Google):

1) First off, make sure that you are a member of your local library. If you’re not currently a member of your library, then you’ll need to follow this link to join as a library member of the CPK library service. (Please do this if you aren’t a member. It can’t hurt our now closed libraries to have a growing list of members during this time. It’s always good to support your local library and adding to their member numbers is an easy way to do this)

2) Next, you’ll need to join the RB Digital service using your library member information (you’ll need a library card number for this bit so make sure you have it on hand). Follow this link to join RB Digital.

3) Then, download the RB Digital app on the device you want to use (you can put this on more than one device and let your kids read ebooks and audiobooks too).

4) Sign in to the RB digital app using your new RB Digital account. You can select up to eight titles to have loaded on your phone/other devices at once.

5) That’s you, select titles and read/listen to the books of your choice. Enjoy your free (and low bandwidth) entertainment and feel good about the fact that using library services shows how much you value them.

Show Digital support for a cultural institution

We can’t support our libraries with footfall while they’re closed but by using services like this we can show that we still see them as vital resources for the community. (Hopefully, this will help the ‘powers that be’ to see how important our libraries are too)

Do yourself (and your library) a favour. Join online and access a few digital titles today. You’ll always have a book to enjoy just tucked up in your pocket and it gives you a grown-up break from youtube videos, cartoons, and your own back catalogue of Disney DVDs.

All that and you can also get your kids doing something educational while fiddling on their phones. Total win-win.

Let us know your favourite books to pass the time during house arrest (…I mean self-isolation)

Please feel free to share your secret escape titles in the comments below (you know, those books that help you tune out for a few minutes and disappear into another world).

I’m currently reading ‘Ways of the Doomed’ by Moira McPartlin (mine is an old-fashioned paperback though). It’s a gritty, dystopian sci-fi, set in the near future in Scotland (and a far cry from an animation by Disney 😉 ). What are you reading/ will you be reading?

As always thanks for reading (and hope you’re doing OK),

All the best, John

 

Can authors help you homeschool your child?

schools cancelled scotland perthshire how can authors helpSo life seems to be a bit different now. Increasing school closures due to coronavirus mean that kids up and down the country are going to be home from school for an unknown amount of time. While there are perks to being out of the day-to-day grind of the school run, the clear difficulties jump out from day one.

One of the obvious things is work. Parents are struggling to find ways to give our kids the education they receive at school whilst also desperately doing what little we can to work from home or get out to work at ever more problematic jobs. It can be a challenge to find educational activities that will allow your kids to be absorbed for any period of time.

I’m hoping that this is only for a few weeks but the realist in me says it’ll probably be longer. In many ways, this is probably going to become the ‘new normal’ for us parents (at least for the foreseeable future).

Losing some important parts of childhood education

stay interested in school workTeachers do a phenomenal job in retaining and growing energy in their pupils. Should we call it adding a spark? Sounds a bit new age, but I think it fits.

Anyway, we might have access to some amazing resources at home (like the free printable sheets provided by Twinkl) but adding that much-needed spark of energy to your child’s activities (normally provided by teachers) now falls squarely on our shoulders. As we’ll all be finding in the coming weeks, this isn’t easy. Kids naturally find enjoyment in what they are good at; what immediately interests them.

For some kids their favourite subjects may be literacy and reading, for others, it might be science and maths, for others, it might be sports and projects. Every child is different and their energy will be focussed towards what best suits their tastes and abilities.

However, all children should get a chance at a comprehensive education. After all, children won’t know how good certain subjects can be if they don’t at least try them.

This means that for some subjects children will need considerably more encouragement and energy. Teachers are incredible at this, I’m always amazed at the level of organisation and energy I’ve seen from teachers when I visit schools. To be honest, I’m not sure how we’ll all go about replicating this in a home environment.

As the weeks go by we’ll come to see that educating children is like juggling cats during a house fire and it will become patently obvious that teachers do not get paid nearly enough for what they do.

The extracurricular element

Occasionally schools find that an outside resource can add a quick boost in pupils’ interest in a particular subject (being one of these ‘visitors’, I like to hope we help the teachers at least a little).

In the case of literacy, this is where author visits can help. Authors (children’s authors at least) do a lot of their real ‘work’ with schools; either in the form of school talks or more prolonged workshops. We interact with pupils and do what we can to help bolster their knowledge and encourage participation in literacy.

In my own experience, most of my talks have resulted in pupils showing a lot more interest in writing activities. This boost in interest can sometimes be pretty amazing (and a bit humbling).

At a recent talk, one teacher even amassed a stack of short stories (one from each pupil) in a little under two hours after a talk. We read through stories during lunch and announced a couple of ‘winners’ in an on-the-spot writing contest after lunch. I’m always happy to work alongside teachers in helping develop an interest in literacy, so this was a fun surprise add on.

I know that this isn’t something unique to me (my ego can probably take that). To be honest, the vast majority of visits from authors have this effect on pupils. We’re a launching point for teachers, we give them an excuse to talk about literacy more and hopefully engage children who may not be the biggest fans of reading and writing.

What happens to the stories?

A science and engineering event can prompt renewed interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths). A visit from a professional coach can open pupils’ eyes to new sports and forms of movement. So what does an author event do?

In short, an author visit can help children see that their own stories are important and that their own experiences are interesting to others. They may be young but there’s no time like the present for them to start writing their own thoughts down.

Writing can be a great way to deal with difficult emotions or situations. In many ways, it’s a form of personal therapy, and it’s one that I think all children should have access to.

From now until some unknown time in the future these school-level resources won’t be available. Home-schooled children will find it harder to encounter a new coach, or a wild science event (though the Glasgow Science Centre has a brilliant live science demonstration broadcast every morning at 10am on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter).

Children also won’t get to meet a ‘real live author’ (as we’re often described in class). This can be tricky to replicate on a smaller scale but it’s not impossible. In fact, it’s the whole point of this post.

Introduce your kids to some authors!

We live in a very interconnected age and, as a result, children can reach out to the people who write the things they enjoy. Authors like myself may not be able to visit every home and talk about writing (probably not advisable at the moment anyway) but we’re still on hand. Children can still reach us.

There are a number of authors I know who have active social media accounts and who, I’m sure, wouldn’t mind answering the odd question about their books, or about writing, from their readers:

John Bray (Monsters, magic, ghosts, and macaroni cheese)

I’ll start the list with myself (since I’m volunteering everyone, it’s only fair that I offer to participate too). I primarily write fantasy stories (think magic, bizarre creatures, adventure, and macaroni cheese) for children aged seven and up. (Though I’ve also written a dark fantasy/horror/ghost story for kids aged ten and up called ‘Marcus‘. This one is set in a Victorian school in my home town of Crieff)

You can find my books in Fun Junction shops (who can post them out if you prefer) and they’re also available on Kindle (here’s a link to the John Bray author page on Amazon). You don’t need a Kindle e-reader to read kindle books, a free reader app is available for Apple and Android devices, and for PCs. This means that you can read my books on pretty much any device.

If readers would like to talk to me you can find my author page on Facebook and you’ll also find me over on Twitter, either on the Jack Reusen account or on my own Twitter account (still pretty family-friendly). I’m happy to talk about anything to do with my books or writing in general, at any time. If your child would like to talk to an author about their own writing I’m happy to do that too.

David MacPhail (Nice Vikings and crime-solving Ghost-Grandads)

David was supposed to have an author event at Fun Junction in Perth this week but they’ve had to cancel it. David writes books about a nice, kind Viking (a type of Viking that isn’t normally in stories) called Thorfinn.

These books are for younger kids but older kids will enjoy them too as they follow the adventures of Thorfinn who doesn’t like being nasty and is often trying to get the other Vikings to just be a little nicer. They’re hilarious books and I’ve enjoyed them with my own kids. Get hold of them in paperback from various places (Fun Junction included), or you can get these on Kindle as well.

David also has a new series of books out called ‘Top-Secret Grandad and me’ about a boy who solves crimes with his Grandad (who happens to be a ghost). For slightly older readers who enjoy a mystery with a twist, this is a great way to go.

You can find David MacPhail on Twitter by clicking this link.

Danny Scott (Football mad)

Danny is a HUGE football fan. My kids and my wife have met him at football events in Crieff a few times and he sounds like a lovely guy. His books revolve around a boy called Calum and his triumphs and tribulations on the football pitch.

These are a great series of books for football fans and are available in paperback (also at Fun Junction) and on Kindle as well.

You can find Danny Scott over on Twitter by clicking this link.

Alex McCall (Giant Robot Chickens causing terror)

Alex is the award-winning author of ‘Attack of the Giant Robot Chickens’ and ‘Revenge of the Giant Robot Chickens’. Both books take you on a wild ride as the people of Aberdeen try to figure out how to defeat some giant robot chickens who have arrived in their city and are causing mayhem.

They’re a fun couple of books and well worth a read. You can get them in paperback (also at Fun Junction) and they are also available on Kindle (click this link).

You can find Alex over on Twitter by clicking this link. He’s apparently currently writing a novel about a clockwork city which could be interesting for kids to ask about.

Lari Don (Mystical mysteries and more set in Scotland)

Lari is a prolific author. She has so many books to her name that it puts most of the rest of us to shame. The books I have the most experience with are books from her ‘Fabled Beasts’ series and her picture storybooks of traditional Scottish tales, but she’s written a lot more than that.

You’re in for an adventure with Lari Don’s books, she sets a rich atmosphere even in the picture books and has a great sense of pace (exactly right for a story filled with adventure).

Her books are available in paperback (also at Fun Junction) and on Kindle.

You can chat to Lari Don over on Twitter by clicking this link.

*OLDER (TEEN) READERS* Helen Grant (Thrillers and gothic romance set in Germany and Scotland)

Helen is a bit of an urban explorer, as you’ll discover if you follow her on Twitter. The landscape of abandoned buildings and strange, disused spaces has influenced her writing in some really striking ways.

Helen mainly writes thrillers and a lot of her earlier books are set in Germany (don’t worry they’re available in English). Up until a few years ago, Helen lived in Germany so this isn’t a big surprise.

However, with her move to Scotland, she took her urban exploration in a Caledonian direction. One of her more recent books ‘Ghost’ is clearly inspired by the slightly uncared-for stately buildings and castles which you can find throughout Scotland.

Ghost‘ is a gothic romance (of sorts) and is probably my favourite of Helen’s books. It doesn’t hurt that it’s set in Crieff (Perthshire) where both myself and Helen live. A lot of the landmarks that turn up are very familiar and it’s really interesting to see such familiar places used in different ways.

Her books are available in paperback and on Kindle. You can find Helen Grant on Twitter by clicking this link.

*OLDER (TEEN) READERS* Moira McPartlin (Dystopian Sci-Fi set in Scotland)

I met Moira at an author event in Fife last year and grabbed a copy of her book ‘Ways of the Doomed’ (I did buy it, I realise ‘grabbed’ sounds a bit ‘light-fingered’).

This is the first in her ‘Sun Song’ trilogy which is set in Scotland in a dystopian future where ‘Natives’ (Celtic people) are treated as lower-class citizens. We follow a young man called Sorlie and find out (as he does) just exactly how this state of affairs managed to come about and how things might be changed.

As a sci-fi fan myself I found Moira’s world to be a really interesting departure from what you typically expect to find in sci-fi/ future stories. I thoroughly recommend them.

Her books are available in paperback and on Kindle.

You’ll find Moira over on Twitter by following this link.

Stay in touch

As I say, I love to talk about books and about writing with children and with adults. If you’ve had a read of my books and would like to ask any questions, please feel free to contact me either here, on my Twitter account (or the Jack Reusen one), or on the Jack Reusen Facebook page.

Apologies for the long post this time, I hope you find it useful, and as always thanks for reading,

All the best, John

 

 

 

 

Writers, don’t get too big for your boots!

Are you ‘serious’ about your writing? I’ve taken my writing ‘seriously’ for about twenty years but what that means has changed a lot in that time.

At first, being a writer was a very teenaged whim; I wanted to be the artsy, brooding intellectual, the ‘thinker of deep thoughts’.

Since then I (thankfully) came to realise how important it was to keep my feet on solid ground. (I’m really stretching the ‘boots’ analogy here aren’t I? To be honest I also needed an excuse to share this picture of my youngest from a few years ago.)

Anyway, back to my teens. I took Sixth Year Studies English, chose English Litt and Philosophy at University, and immersed myself in the work of ‘serious’ writers. (I’m ashamed to admit that back then I even refused to read Harry Potter because it was ‘too popular’ and ‘just for kids’.)

Nothing wrong with being bit ‘serious’

Some of the work of these ‘serious writers’ was incredible; it touched a nerve, struck a chord, all the things you would expect of great works of literature. Only when I stepped back and spoke to other students did the inherent problem with studying literature become apparent.

We didn’t all like the same books. Even worse, when we did, it often wasn’t for the same reasons. What’s more, I came to realise that we sometimes couldn’t even agree on what some of the books were about.

It became clear to me that the hunt for any strict rules on how to write a ‘great book’ was likely to be fruitless. Despite our seemingly ‘objective’ study and analysis, we were still coming from a subjective place, so I wasn’t going to get any ‘rules for writing’ there.

The books themselves were pivotal in helping me see what I enjoyed most in what I read. I wouldn’t take back reading a single one of them. OK, maybe I wouldn’t read ‘Catcher in the Rye’ again if given the chance, but the rest were really informative and (generally) enjoyable reads.

Isn’t reading supposed to be enjoyable?

That’s the crux of it, something that took me too long to realise; I have always read fiction for enjoyment. For big thoughts, I go directly to Philosophy (I studied it/researched in it for ten years after all) but fiction always needs to give me some form of interest and escape.

When you consider the fact that most reading will take place outside of an academic environment, the issue of how we make good literature becomes even more compounded.

My own perspective on it is that, as writers, the most we can really hope for is to offer our reader an experience for a day/ a few days/ a week (maybe two).

The lucky few of us who leave a lasting effect often won’t even know they’ve done so.

But people don’t always read because it makes them ‘happy’

We might not always bring our readers happiness, but that’s not really what a book is for either. Happy endings are great but sometimes a happy ending isn’t what’s needed. Sometimes we need catharsis. Enjoyment isn’t always about happiness.

In some moments a flaming ball of nihilistic rage might be the order of the day (may I recommend Fight Club). Alternatively, someone may be in need of some cathartic release due to some personal struggle or tragedy (I’d recommend ‘The Girl of Ink and Stars’ by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, or ‘Nation’ by Terry Pratchett).

As authors, we can’t second-guess our readers. They’ll read our work and they’ll either love it or hate it, or more likely (if we’re being honest) their response will fall somewhere in between.

We make something special, we give people a taste of what it’s like to be in someone else’s mind (our own). We spend a year/ two years/ even more sometimes, on a project that will give someone that sensation for a matter of days or weeks.

Is it worth it?

For me it is, every word quietly typed at 2am, every sentence scrawled down on the bus ride home, every story idea jotted into digital notes while waiting at the school gates for my kids.

I gave up my old ideas about writing ‘great literature’ years ago. I’m happy to share my writing with those who want to read it.

I have to hope that what I write is enjoyable for someone and if I’m lucky perhaps it could prove to be special as well. Whether any of it is seen as ‘profound’ really isn’t up to me, I’ll just have to leave that to the readers.

Yes…but look after yourself

Having ambitions beyond this is potentially self-destructive and, at it’s worst, it could lead to leaving your work in an endless loop of perfectionism.

After all, it can hardly become a ‘great work’ if no one else ever gets to read it.

So, as I say, we should try not to get too big for our boots. Or more accurately don’t get too big for our books. I’ve got my (now) nine-year-old son to thank for that wee play on words. He popped in and wondered why I was adding an old picture of him to this post, then promptly showed me that his copy will surpass mine pretty quickly.

If you’re a writer and you feel I’m off base, or if you agree and would like to add something to the discussion, please feel free to click the ‘comment’ button below and let me know what you think.

As always, thanks for reading,

All the best, John