Tag Archives: amediting

Getting Serious about Writing (wk5): Tools For Writing…

How much do you write outside of your work in progress? Do you make the most of digital opportunities to improve your writing?

The past four weeks of this series have been something of a deep dive into particular aspects of writing so I thought I’d step back and do a light skim over some important tools which I use regularly in my writing.

This post will look at a writing improvement tool, a tool to turn your book into an e-book, a facility for sharing snippets of your writing/day-to-day thoughts, and a facility to help increase your social media engagement.

However, the key takeaway is that the more we concentrate on all of our writing (even instant messages), the better our writing will become. (Key points in each section are in bold)

NB: All tools described are free to use (though some offer more advanced features at a cost) and I am not affiliated with any of the services described.

A Robot to help you write better?

Photo by Alex Knight on Pexels.com

The first tool I’d recommend is Grammarly. On the face of it, you might assume that Grammarly is little more than a spell-check tool. Lots of word-processing programmes and even web browsers have these built-in, what makes Grammarly different?

When you install Grammarly on your browser you’ll see a small set of symbols on the bottom of any writing input window you use on the internet (it even shows up in chat windows). One of the symbols will be an emoji, this is Grammarly’s take on the tone of what you’re writing.

For example, this post is currently registering as 4/5 joyful and 2/5 informative. It’s a nice feature and one I’ve come to use regularly in my copywriting work (the less discussed bread-and-butter end of a writer’s life). I’ve never seen another spelling/grammar check that does this and it can really make a difference in your writing.

Grammarly also looks at ways of improving your writing in general. You can insert text into their web-based checker or you can even download their own version of a word processor. Not only will Grammarly tell you when something isn’t right, but it will also explain why it isn’t right.

You’ll find your knowledge of grammar, in particular, will improve dramatically once you use Grammarly regularly. What’s more, Grammarly will make you more aware of your own writing style on a day-to-day basis. I have a bad habit of becoming formal in my writing (probably from writing so many essays etc. in the past). Literally, at this moment, Grammarly has told me that this post has become ‘formal’, which was not my plan, so I now know it’s time to rein it back in.

The quick simple take-away on Grammarly is that you should use it regularly. The level of awareness that Grammarly offers you will allow you to produce step-by-step improvements in your writing. However, this will only work if you apply it in all walks of life (it’s not simply for use when you sit down to work on your WIP).

Here’s a link to Grammarly’s website.

Get your book out in the world in moments

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This next tool was an absolute life-changer. There’s no doubt that self-publishing can leave you in some very muddy waters at times. Your inexperience in a particular area can occasionally make that into a bigger stumbling block than it needs to be.

That’s where I was about five/six years ago. I had a book, I wanted to put it on Kindle, but I had no idea how to do that. Then I found Calibre.

Calibre is a free piece of software which takes your text file (no matter which word-processing programme you use) and converts it in moments into an e-book. It creates the type of files used by most major e-book stockists and allows you to get a look at how that book will look in its e-book form.

I’ll do a more in-depth post about the process of publishing an e-book when I’m closer to that point with my newest book. However, for the time being, I would thoroughly recommend downloading Calibre and playing around with it (here’s the link).

You’ll learn a lot about formatting and visuals in e-books as you do. Images may not display the way you expect in an e-book. Certain fonts may not work as planned. It’s good to see these problems long before you launch your e-book.

The last thing you want is for reviews of your book to talk about the formatting mistakes more than they talk about your actual story. Playing around with Calibre now could prevent headaches later on.

Get weekly experience with a solid bit of writing (and meet new people)

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

This next tool/resource is a little different. You may already use it yourself but even if you do I’d suggest you might want to make it into something like a habit.

I started using WordPress in June 2012. WordPress is a website builder, but I have always leaned on it’s blogging capabilities. Back in 2012, I was a store manager in a toy shop and I used my experiences from the shop (and as a parent) to blog about toys.

I blogged every week (or at least tried to) and the blog got so much interest that within a year a local newspaper had me write a regular feature on toys. During the course of that blog I also wrote an article for a well-known toy industry publication, my viewership went up massively (five years after writing my last post I still get around thirty views a day on it), and a couple of my posts actually went mildly viral.

Overall it was a great introduction to the nature of blogging, but it also forced me to improve my writing on a regular basis. To be honest this was probably the most important personal takeaway from that experience.

I don’t think that it’s a huge coincidence that I started taking writing seriously again during the heyday of my toy blog. After years of dabbling and procrastinating in my fiction writing, I started to feel more confident in myself and within a couple of years I had completed my first book.

Blogging isn’t just a way to journal your life. If you listen to your audience and try to see what works for them you’ll begin to develop a feel for which aspects of your writing are going to sit well. Blog about whatever you like but do it passionately, do it regularly, and do what you can to make each post your best. The more you do it, the better your writing will get. Here’s the link to get started (if you don’t have an account already).

Let the robots share your thoughts

Photo by Lenin Estrada on Pexels.com

This last tool might be a little controversial but it harkens back to what I was saying about building a community of readers/potential readers last week.

If you are busy, if you have a day job, family, various other commitments, you might find it hard to engage with your audience on social media regularly. It can be difficult to keep yourself visible and relevant on social media if you only post every other day. However, with the help of robots, you can get your ideas out there much more regularly and spend your own time responding to the responses those ideas get.

I use a facility called Hootsuite to schedule regular posts on Twitter (though it can schedule to Facebook, Instagram, and lots of others too). Here’s a link to their site.

I make sure that I still respond to comments etc. myself but the scheduled posts force me to think about new topics that I can use to start a discussion.

I schedule a post once every few hours (not wanting to bombard people with posts). Normally these take the form of talking points linked to blog posts from my site. I’ve been a little lax in this in previous months but over the past few weeks I’ve made sure that I have a bunch of posts set up for the week by Tuesday.

You can write up a week’s worth of posts in a few hours then sit back and let Hootsuite share them on Twitter at your appointed times. This way you know that you are participating in your community regularly. Your posts will go live and you’ll be plunged into the discussion as they do.

There may be a slight sense of artificiality to scheduling posts but I find that it simply helps to remind me to stay engaged. If you choose to do the same thing just be sure not to step back and forget about it. Please remember that social media is about engagement so be sure to keep it that way or your account will quickly start to look like a robot.

Weekly advice for self-published/ soon-to-be self-published authors

Every Monday you’ll be able to pop over here for another post about the self-publishing process and/ or the day-to-day life of a self-published author.

Each post I publish uses my activity from that week to take an in-depth look at a topic that’s important to the self-publishing process. (You can find all of my ‘Getting Serious About Writing’ posts by clicking this link)

As the weeks go on, and as we approach the launch of my newest book, you’ll follow me through final edits, formatting, printing, and digital publishing, along with the other essential aspects of self-publishing.

If you want to make sure you don’t miss a post you can subscribe to receive each post on Monday by e-mail, simply click this link to subscribe to my mailing list via Mailchimp (it’s just me so don’t worry, you won’t be getting a dozen e-mails a day).

As always, thanks so much for reading, please feel free to add a comment/ question here or over on Twitter (you can find me at @Johntoyshopguy).

All the best, John

Getting serious about writing (wk3): Don’t scald yourself (plus book update)

We use a stovetop kettle. This is pretty rare here in the UK where most people use an electric one, but we have our reasons. Our kettle is the first stovetop kettle we’ve had and it took some getting used to.

(Kettles? What does this have to do with self-publishing/ my new book? Trust me I am going somewhere with this… However, if you just want an update on the new book, scroll down to ‘Book Update?’)

Back to kettles.

The main difference is that electric kettles rarely hold much heat once you empty them. Stove-top kettles don’t cool anywhere near as quickly. I didn’t realise this at first.

The thick cast-iron body of our kettle really holds heat. This is tricky for someone who drinks as much tea and coffee as I do. You see, I often finish a cup so quickly that I don’t make it back to my desk. When this happens I march back to the stove and refill that kettle for the next cup.

That’s where my problem started.

In my ignorance I was not aware that a hot stove-top kettle can turn tap water into instant steam; steam that rises up to meet the soft fleshy hand holding the handle directly above the opening. This isn’t enjoyable for said soft fleshy hand (or its owner). For weeks my kettle punished me for my quick return, for my overindulgence in hot beverages.

Then I found the knack; when you trickle the water in it hits the hot iron and evaporates quickly but if you blast that cold water onto the hot iron in a torrent the level rises too quickly to get heated through and magically not a plume of steam comes to eat at your fingers.

Yes John, your kettle (and you) sound pretty daft. What does this have to do with writing?

Why am I talking about steam and kettles in a post about writing and self-publishing? Well, it’s all to do with how you handle critical responses.

Prior to writing books my experience of critique primarily lay in school and higher academic settings. My work was the plastic kettle; simple, light, with no significant emotional weight. Even though my essays/ dissertations etc. were the result of hard work, in the grand scheme of things the work was only mildly important to me. You might say that it that cooled in my esteem quickly.

Criticism of an essay or a dissertation needs to be taken seriously, advice followed methodically with mental notes on how to avoid such mistakes next time. My approach to such criticism had always been to look through notes slowly, fixing mistakes with careful attention.

When I first received criticism about my books it offered an alarming contrast; not only was I still invested in what I had written, but it also had the emotional weight of being a part of me. It held its heat.

So, when I took that criticism and poured it gently over my work it burned unimaginably deeply. It stung and it made it hard to get down to the job of fixing mistakes. There were times during this ‘scalding’ process when I wasn’t sure if I was cut out for writing. Every red mark, every queried plot point, it scalded me. I wanted it to stop.

It didn’t take long for me to change my approach, to avoid being burned. However, that didn’t mean hiding from criticism. Instead, I came to realise that when it comes to more personal work, taking criticism has to be done in a big fast blast. Get in and get the job done. Puzzling over every comment will just hurt.

If you trust your beta-reader or your editor then look at their comment, fix the problem, and move on to the next point. Don’t linger long enough for it to even sting, just keep going, and eventually, you’ll find that the job is done; your book is better. What’s possibly more important is that you’re out the other end in a good state of mind. Unscalded, unscathed.

As I said in my HUGE how-to post on self-publishing last week, editing is vital. Those people involved in the improvement of your manuscript are indispensable. If you find someone who can make you a better writer hold on to them and most importantly take what they say seriously.

However, what I also should have talked about was the emotional toll that criticism can take. It can’t be denied, it can’t be avoided, but as I noted above it can be reduced. You can get used to constructive criticism and not let it drain you. It is possible to improve your book and still hold on to that desire to be a writer right up to the last page. Just do it quick, taking it slow on your manuscript will hurt.

Book update?

 

Last week’s step-by-step guide to self-publishing didn’t exactly leave me with much room to talk about the new book. I think I left a passing mention about reaching out to make contact with the people who make a project like this happen. However, that was pretty much all the progress update I had.

This week lets try and go into the reality of where I’m at. My beta reader is working through my draft chapter by chapter. This is great because I can launch into improvements in steps. Last night I started work on chapter 4 and I can already see the effect of an objective pair of eyes.

This book is the third in a trilogy arc but it’s also the launching point for a continuing series. This brings odd challenges with it, things I didn’t have to worry about it books one and two.

Completing the tale

Every book I write has to have an ending, a moment of emotional catharsis. To be honest, as a reader I have been known to drop a book series on book one if there isn’t something conclusive in that story. Book one doesn’t mean you can leave all the conclusions till book two or even three, the reader needs to feel as though they’ve read some form of ending.

That said, a series is made with the idea that some parts of the story will continue. You expect loose ends. I left loose ends in the first two books of my own series. Now I have to tie (some of) them up. This was not as easy as I had expected it to be. However, I think I got it. Time will tell if I’m actually right about this, as more chapters come back to me from my beta reader.

Setting a foundation

If I had just written a trilogy this would have been the end of my problems. However, ‘Jack Reusen and the Children of Fate’ is more than this; it’s also the launching site of three other books (books that I’ve already written). This gives me the odd task of creating a sense of finality and conclusion whilst leaving that all-important dot…dot…dot… at the end.

One of the key things I had to look at in order for this to work is character development. For the most part, we as readers will get the bulk of our sense of catharsis from the characters emotional/personal arc.

The main characters have to be different, affected. After all the events of the book, I need to show that they’ve changed. Where possible I’ve tried to make this a good change, but where this hasn’t been possible I’ve at least tried to show that the differences in their personalities will have positive results.

However, to lead into the next books I also have to show that my characters aren’t quite the best versions of themselves just yet. To be honest, things got a lot easier when I realised how subtle this hint could be; a passive character might become more headstrong but that doesn’t mean they’re taking a completely active role (as opposed to a reactive role) in how they deal with the world.

Just like normal people in the real world, book characters can develop and change for the better or the worse, in big or small ways. I’ve had to embrace this sense of constant change in order to be able to finish book three comfortably, while still leaving room for the next instalments.

A Change of Plans

Another important update from this week is that I’m going to have to push back my publication date a little. I’m sorry to have to do this but I want the book to be its best. I’ve been talking to various people involved in the book. Their schedules in this slightly-locked-down, slightly-not-locked-down limbo we’re in are slowly filling back up (so is mine if I’m honest) so I’m having to work with what we can all manage.

As a result, my release date is still November but now it’ll be later on (possibly the last week or so). On a positive note, this might let me combine the release of ‘Jack Reusen and the Children of Fate’ with the release of another wee side project.

It’s early days on whether this will work but if it does there might be a bonus release of something in early December (just in time for Christmas). I’ll keep the updates coming.

Get these posts right in your inbox

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As always, thanks for reading,

Hope writers and readers found something useful in this week’s post, please add any questions or comments in the comments section below,

All the best, John

 

Getting serious about writing (wk2): 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 (wk1): 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

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

Marcus: Chapter 25: Crieff’s defender

To go to chapter 1 and follow the story through from the very beginning, simply click on this link

(‘Marcus’ is now available in paperback, you can pick up a copy from Fun Junction in either Crieff or Perth)

Nicky tapped on the wall and called for the Sheriff. She didn’t have long to wait. Rotting hands as big as shovels heaved their way way from the earth. A pit of stinking sulphurous fire feet below. The Sheriff demanded to know who had summoned him and for what purpose. Nicky pointed up the hill.

The Sheriff didn’t back down, though his sense of self-importance did seem to dwindle a little:

“A LAW BREAKER? WHAT CRIME DID HE COMMIT?”

Nicky thought for a moment:

“He’s a bad man who should have been dead twenty centuries ago. I imagine he found the time to break all the laws.”

The flames in the Sheriff’s eyes burned so fiercely Nicky had to turn away. He grinned and walked to the exit then fell back on the frosty grass. His rage rattled the walls (and Nicky’s teeth). Nicky searched for a solution:

“What is it that keeps you here? Is it the wall? Could you leave if it were broken?”

The Sheriff shrugged:

“I HAVE NO IDEA.”

Nicky lead him to a goalpost. The Sheriff could understand the standard use of it but he could easily figure out what Nicky expected him to do with it.

*

Marcus’ newly functioning heard jumped a mile when the boom of the falling building reached their ears. His first reaction was to make his way to the noise. He could sense that Mr Thomas was still going strong. Possibly more strong than any of them would have liked.

Marcus pushed for his smoke form but nothing was there. He stood in front of his friends, arms outstretched. He had no time to worry about that:

“I need to go there. Now.”

Taz groaned, holding his mangled knee with both hands. James was by his side, his expression almost as bad as Taz’.

James barely lifted his eyes from his damaged friend. Taz grimaced, pulling himself up to look at Marcus:

“I hope you realise we’re coming with you.”

Marcus protested but no one would listen. They loaded themselves into Gordon’s police car. Taz stashed in the boot with his mangled leg perched on some police waterproofs. Everyone else squeezed in together.

The car skidded as they pulled out onto the main road. The night was colder than they realised (hours of digging will warm a person up). Taz grunted, announcing his dislike of the slippery roads.

Tash slowed down on the bends but let the speed creep up in straight areas. Taz didn’t seem to object too strongly. They passed the petrol station on the edge of town and soon after they got a growing view of the problem.

The town centre was spewing chunks of rock in all directions. Small fires had broken out in places where electric cables had been mangled. Boulders peppered the shop fronts, shards of glass littering the pavement. Roofs lay torn open clothing and other personal effects caught on the cold November wind. They had get to Mr Thomas. They had to stop all of this.

Then everything stopped as a huge body thudded into the tarmac in front of the car.

*

Nicky had been extremely busy. She rustled up a batch of volunteers. Most of the older children gathered in the car park put their hands up and were handed a single brick each. A tiny portion of the wall that held back the Sheriff.

The children dispersed in all directions. The idea was to increase the Sheriff’s range by forming a large stone ring to surround the town.

Children scattered in all directions, bricks in hand; up the hill towards the Knock (the zenith of the hill the whole town was built on), to ‘Bridge End’, (the bridge that led visitors into Crieff from it’s southern edge). West towards Lady Mary’s walk and MacRosty Park and westwards towards Calum’s Hill and the golf course.

From the moment the children left the Sheriff agreed that something felt different. At first he couldn’t make it through the gateway in the wall but the sound of parts of the old hotel raining down on the town centre fired something up inside.

His eyes grew wild with flames and the huge, tree-trunk muscles strained against the forcefield that would previously have thrown him back. He managed one step, then another, his old boots scraping on the flagstone entranceway. Then something ripped. Nicky feared something in the Sheriff’s rotten body had torn, but it was simple the sound of the barrier finally giving up.

The Sheriff was free and he had a truly villainous fiend to haul back to the pit tonight.

He twisted his head to one side and clicked the bones in his neck. The effect was truly ghastly; Nicky held back vomit after watching those bones click into place through the putrid holes in the Sheriff’s sallow flesh.

“HIS NIGHT OF MENACE IS AT AN END.”

Nicky crouched over, hands on knees after a considerable amount of running around:

“Well that’s a relief!”

She did her best to follow but the rotting man took the steep hill in well-practised strides. He knew this town well, it’s hills gave him no need to slow. He yelled to the centre of town:

“YOU HAVE HAD YOUR FUN LITTLE MAN, BUT NOW I HAVE COME TO TAKE YOU AWAY.”

All Nicky could hear was laughter and then the sound of a car thumping and skidding against shops and other cars as it bounced down the hill towards them. She ducked into a nearby doorway for what little shelter it offered. The Sheriff shook his head, speaking under his breath:

“DAMAGE OF PRIVATE PROPERTY, ENDANGERMENT OF AN OFFICER OF THE LAW. YOU ARE IN MORE TROUBLE THAN YOU REALISE.”

Nicky was forced to duck between shop doorways as she followed him further up the hill. The police car was not the last projectile to come their way, it wasn’t even the last police car.

They passed the crossroads which would have led to the old primary school building. By that point the Sheriff had been hit by at least three large chunks of building. The flames in his eyes streamed out over the top of his head, so intense was his rage. With each step he now repeated:

“ROMAN!”

“ROMAN!”

“ROMAN!!!”

His pace increased. His rotten muscles twanging and squelching like wet rope.

Nicky ran but couldn’t get close. Up ahead she heard the Sheriff make contact with Mr Thomas. It was a sound with a wave of force behind it.

In James Square Mr Thomas had been faced with his first surprise since his transformation. The charging zombie of justice took him off guard as boulder sized fists with knuckles of exposed bone slammed into his guts and threw him into the rubble behind.

The Sheriff didn’t wait to see his advantage lost and raced to stomp on the face of the fallen man. Mr Thomas’s head disappeared into the rubble as a rotten foot in an impossibly large boot stomped, and stomped, and stomped.

The Sheriff kept stomping until all movement stopped, then turned in a fluid motion grasping the man’s ankle, dragging him from the hole his head had made. At the bottom of the hill the pit’s flames erupted from the grass of the Market Park, curling into the sky, licking the clouds in anticipation of its meal.

Mr Thomas groaned and shook his wits back into his head. He looked at the huge rotten hand encircling his ankle and sighed:

“You had your chance. But it will take a lot more than that.”

His other foot found purchase on the ground and stopped the Sheriff’s pace instantly. The dead man turned and glared at him then his burning eyes grew wider.

In one motion Mr Thomas was on his feet and had a hand embedded in the Sheriff’s ribcage, the other was forced through dry muscle in the Sheriff’s thigh until it found purchase on bone.

The Sheriff had enough time to ask “WHA…?” before Mr Thomas drew his arms in opposite directions. A sound like straining leather and cracking branches met the ears of everyone present and the Sheriff tore in two.

Both parts still moving, and the top half very much enraged, Mr Thomas could only bear so much of the Sheriff’s shouting. He lifted the torso and head portion and hauled it off to the east.

The Sheriff landed directly in front of Gordon’s police car. Tash slammed the breaks as the passengers watched the squirming torso on the road ahead, there was nothing they could say.

Keep up with the story

Click here to go to the final chapter ‘Marcus: Chapter 26: In the ruins of the High Street

Social media feeds are an oddity. What you say can be seen by millions but it can also slip away and be missed with ease. I always post new chapters on social media (Facebook and Twitter) but there’s no guarantee that we’ll both be on at the same time.

With this in mind, if you’re enjoying ‘Marcus’ and you want to be sure you get a link to the newest chapter as soon as it’s out, you can also get an e-mail reminder by clicking this link. Mailing list members also get access to printable files so you’re not forced to read it all from a screen.

What’s more, ‘Marcus’ will soon be available in print. Mailing list members will receive early notice on publication date, details on where to get your copy, and information about offers and events relating to the book. Register to keep in the know.

Thanks for reading, all the best, John

Marcus: Chapter 22: The Gauntlet to the Golf Course

To go to chapter 1 and follow the story through from the very beginning, simply click on this link

(‘Marcus’ is now available in paperback, you can pick up a copy from Fun Junction in either Crieff or Perth)

Marcus’ plan had worked but they had no time to celebrate. James and Taz had the bag. Taz had had enough of bones for a lifetime. James did the honours (he needed the distraction after leaving Theo behind with Nicky).

They had the tiniest of head starts. They had seen what Marcus’ ‘family’ could do and they had a good idea about what to expect from Mr Thomas. In fact everything they knew told them this was pointless. They ran all the same.

In fact they paid so much attention to who might be following that they didn’t think of who they might run into. Taz was a few feet in the lead but he still didn’t slow down enough to avoid running into the side of the flashing police car.

A man in expensive shoes and a tweed jacket stepped out to catch him. This man exuded authority, even without a uniform he embodied ‘official’:

No need to rush sir. What appears to be the emergency?”

Taz just had enough time to realise how bad things had gone before James ran into the two of them.

The cloth bag landed on the pavement beside the police officer’s feet. A grin sneaked on from the corner of his mouth:

And what might this be? You gents been taking something that doesn’t belong to you?”

His face drained when he saw inside the bag. He just had time to yell for another officer before throwing up on the boot of the police car.

James and Taz were read their rights, cuffed, and thrown into the back of the car before they could even say ‘but…’

The sack was placed with care into the boot. The man in the tweed jacket wouldn’t even look at them. He locked the police car and went round the corner, mobile phone in hand talking to himself:

I am not equipped for this. Only made detective two months ago. They warn you in training but…”

The other officer accompanied him, a comforting hand on his shoulder. James and Taz looked at one another then glared at the floor.

Idiots! What sort of fool runs towards a police car with a sack of human bones?

Taz broke the silence:

So what do we do now?”

James shook his head:

I have literally no idea. You didn’t swipe his keys by any chance did you?”

Taz gave a dry laugh:

No, I wish. Only one slight of hand in me tonight and I used it already.”

James smiled at his old friend:

I suppose you did.”

The officers clearly had no intention of coming back soon. Taz adjusted himself to feel more comfortable (it wasn’t easy with his hands handcuffed behind his back).

The car pinged and clicked. The metal contracting in the growing cold.

The road sounded odd too. Like a ‘crunch’ surrounded by a bubble of silence. James looked out the window:

What do you think that is?”

Taz shook his head:

Shhh.”

Footprints from nowhere appeared in the frost, growing closer to them with each step. Stopping outside Taz’s door.

The locking mechanism in the door clinked, grinded, then ‘pinged’. The door handle lifted by itself and the wind howled in from outside:

…out…

James stared but Taz knew better, with a simple ‘come on’ to his friend, Taz shuffled his way out of the door.

Meanwhile the car boot was grinding and crunching too. Another ‘ping’ and it released itself springing open to reveal the cloth bag.

James looked round for a clue about what was happening only to feel thick, rough, hands of ice grab at the handcuffs behind his back and tear the chain apart.

A loud ‘clink’ from behind Taz’s back told him his friend was free as well.

James grabbed the bag and looked to his friend. Taz shrugged:

I’ll explain later. For now we run. This time we look where we’re going.”

James nodded:

Agreed.”

Two men ran like they did when they were kids. Like an escaped tiger was on their heels. It wasn’t far from the truth.

A cloud of green smoke trailed up the hill towards them. Unnoticed, it weaved through bush). Through front gardens and back gardens, weaving towards the men.

It drifted into a back garden then flooded into the road catching in their mouths as they ran through it. Taz broke out of his run and grabbed James for support:

Is that?”

James nodded:

The cloud materialised into the form of a boy. Tall for his age and bearing a close resemblance to Marcus. He grinned, his expression had nothing in common with his uncle. It oozed malice as though he held his hate as a ball of spit waiting behind his lips:

…leave the bones and I’ll see your children are spared…

James declined. There was nothing to hint that this creature wanted anything but harm to come to others.

The boy laughed:

…just as well. You invaders don’t deserve this place. It was so wild before you all came. So free…

He slipped past them faster than they could imagine. Grabbing hold of the bag as he did:

…once we gain the power we will wreck this place. It will return to what it was…

James hung onto the bag, heaving against the strength of the ghoul-child. Taz joined in the tug of war and all three fell to the ground wrestling for possession.

James yelled to the boy:

You’re delusional. The only change you’ll bring about is the deaths of dozens of children. There’s nothing good in that.”

The boy’s eyes clouded over, he threw himself at James, screaming in rage. James wrestled, managing to fire off a single word in Taz’s direction:

Go!”

The boy had both hands on James’ throat and none on the bag. Taz grabbed it, scraping and skidding on the road as he threw himself into great leaps of speed. Only his toes touched the road surface.

He steadied his pace once he felt he had a clear run towards the golf course. Light, steady, brushing sounds told him the boy was on his feet and catching up.

There was a second sound, steady, hard, laboured, then a loud crunch as James tackled the ghoul-boy into a wall. Taz did his best to stay focussed, to keep his eyes on the gates up ahead.

He forced himself to ignore the crunch of bone on the stone wall. Taz suspected the ghoul-boy was pretty much boneless. He wouldn’t make that sound, but James would. Taz couldn’t bank on his friend’s assistance again.

He raced past the gates and made straight for the stone circle. There in the centre were the diggers, still hard at work but with no more bones to feed to the stones.

The sound of the ghoul-boy stopped. That wasn’t a good thing. Taz’s eyes jumped in every direction waiting for the cloud. He caught a glimpse, it could have been nothing but if it were the boy Taz would never get the bag there in time.

He swung the bundle with all his might towards the circle. The green cloud poured towards it. It was too slow. The bag landed a few feet shy of the others. Louise reacted without thinking, before her mum could do anything.

She stepped out of the circle, grabbed the bag, and threw it to her mum. The green cloud descended and the ghoul-boy stood over her, grasping her hair in one hand and her throat with the other:

…you do anything with those bones and I squeeze. The girl will never breathe again…

A boulder came down on the boy’s head. Louise had the tiniest moment of release and took it. Her mum hauled her over the stones to safety. Her eyes whirled back at the sound of a crunch. The boy now had the boulder and Taz had a very broken leg.

Andrew flung bones under the stones in great handfuls. Surely that was a full skeleton?

The ghoul-boy raised the boulder and Taz rolled away in time to receive little more than a glancing blow to the shoulder.

Tash, Louise, Ross, and Willow all grabbed handfuls of putrid bones, sliding them into place under the stones. The bag grew lighter, but still no sign they had completed a skeleton.

*

Marcus knew he could do nothing if the ghoul-child at the door found him. It would take him back to Mr Thomas. Marcus wasn’t sure what to expect after that but nothing about it felt good.

A hand reached through the door, scrambling up the wall for a light switch. It found it but with no electricity it offered only a simple, empty ‘click’. The school had been without electricity for a few years now.

The ghoul was out of touch. She slid the door open and moonlight slipped in. Drifting along the floor from the open doorway. Pale blue light snaked over Marcus’ hand but he held still. Perhaps she hadn’t seen.

The ghoul-girl leaned out the door and called with a small snigger:

…he’s in here. Not moving. Poor ‘uncle Marcus’ must be worn out.

The mock sympathy hurt Marcus more than he expected. He strained to get up, preparing for a fight. Another set of footsteps swished along the corridor outside, growing closer by the second. And then they stopped.

His nephew was gone. The girl at the door dropped to her knees. She turned on her struggling uncle:

…what did you do to him? Where did you send him?…

It was then that Marcus’ gut filled with power. A rich blue glow shone from his skin. He no longer struggled. No longer felt glued to the floor. Every movement was effortless. Marcus stood up.

Marcus stood up.

Keep up with the story

Click here to go to ‘Marcus: Chapter 23: A monster in the Drummond‘.

Social media feeds are an oddity. What you say can be seen by millions but it can also slip away and be missed with ease. I always post new chapters on social media (Facebook and Twitter) but there’s no guarantee that we’ll both be on at the same time.

With this in mind, if you’re enjoying ‘Marcus’ and you want to be sure you get a link to the newest chapter as soon as it’s out, you can also get an e-mail reminder by clicking this link. Mailing list members also get access to printable files so you’re not forced to read it all from a screen.

Thanks for reading, all the best, John

Marcus: Chapter 21: The forgotten boy

Copyright Humphrey Bolton

To go to chapter 1 and follow the story through from the very beginning, simply click on this link

(‘Marcus’ is now available in paperback, you can pick up a copy from Fun Junction in either Crieff or Perth)

Willow arrived at the stone circle at a sprint. There was barely a breath left in her but she recounted the message in minute detail to Tash:

“Tash! Marcus says ‘Get in the car. Everyone will be safe once you’re in the driving seat.’ He made it sound really important. I didn’t know what else to do.”

Tash looked at Willow, red-faced, exhausted, terrified:

“Willow get inside the stone circle. They can’t get to you here. We can talk about the message after.”

“Tash you need to go to the car. He was insistent. Please go to the car.”

Tash glanced round. Waiting, watching for the trap to reveal itself. Marcus had done this sort of thing before. She shook her head as she looked into Willow’s tear blotched eyes:

“Please Tash. It’s the only reason he let me go. He’s still got James. He has Theo as well. He has my son.”

Tash looked at her own kids, safe behind the barrier. Then to Willow’s little boy Harry sitting beside them, now stock-still with worry over his dad and big brother.

Tash grabbed Gordon’s car keys from her pocket and stepped over the boundary. For a single breath she hung at the edge one foot inside the circle. Then her feet were pounding on wet grass launching her forward. 

Only when she was in sight of the car did her mind wander to visions of ghoul-children waiting to grab her ankles. She focussed on the keys. On the lock. Trying to slide the metal into place. Her muddy, freezing hands. The keys slipping onto the ground. She allowed herself a quick glimpse around before trying again with the keys.

Sounds rippled around her, rustles in the trees and the bushes. Just the wind. Just the wind.

The key slid into place and the central locking gave a satisfying ‘thunk’ noise as all the doors opened in unison. Tash leapt inside and adjusted herself into the driving seat. She had no intention of going anywhere but she knew Marcus. There was something she had to do.

Her foot rustled against something on the floor. A plastic groceries bag. She lifted it onto her lap.

If the smell of sweet, peaty earth didn’t convince her the note sitting on top of the bones was more than enough.

It’s time. The first will wait to last. Always your friend, goodbye, Marcus

Tash remembered the odd way Marcus had turned up to gloat after each abduction. Preceding every visit the bags of bones had rattled. Tash had assumed it was some kind of magic equivalent of magnetism. But now she understood.

Marcus had topped up the bone stash bit by bit. All this time he had been on their side. But how would they know when it was time for his bones to meet the circle? Would there be some signal?

*

42AD ‘Victoria’ (Roman Name, original name lost to time) Damnonii stronghold (what is now Dalginross, 7 miles West of Crieff)

The Romans were winning. Their general, a legionary by the name of Magnus Gallum (the great Gaul) was unstoppable in battle. It was said that spears shattered on contact with his skin. That he could fight for days without rest. He was also said to be the oldest legionary warrior for hundreds of miles.

The Damnonii tribe had a theory about his power. Stories were told about a boy,  who, twenty-five years earlier had been taken to the healing stones to the east. It was said that the healing was broken, corrupted, by the arrival of a group of Romans.

The boy’s energy tangled with that of a Legionary warrior and he grew strong as the boy grew weak. The boy died in front of his parents. Wrapped in what he was wearing, he was buried near the stones.

The healers claimed that they could not undo this abomination. Could not break the boy’s energy away from the soldier’s. Though there would be a small chance perhaps once in each generation when the power of the stones grew to its strongest.

The time had come to test the healers’ theory. If children of his blood could take his bones it was thought that the spell might be broken and the great Roman ‘hero’ destroyed at last.

Four cousins put their names forward. They were young but quick and brave beyond measure. Full of the sureness of youth they set out for the healing circle.

It was a short trip, they were accompanied only by a small group of protectors. Their trip brought little to impede their way.

On their first night it is said that the spirit of their Uncle came to them. Still in the form of a boy. Confused about his fate but glad of their company he asked to stay with them. They explained everything to the spirit and he approved.

On the second night, with their Uncle’s help, they found his grave. His body was removed and preparations were made for the required ritual. The boy thanked them for his impending release.

That night their camp was raided by Roman soldiers. They killed the Damnonii watchman but the children, their other protectors, and their Uncle got away. The bones were left forgotten as they escaped. It is thought the soldiers took them for their own dark ends.

On the third night one of the children vanished. Their defenders doubled the guard and watched intently for Romans throughout the night.

Despite their efforts they could do nothing to prevent the loss of the second of the cousins. On the fifth day the group gave up their mission, choosing instead to protect the last two and to make their way home. Their route was interrupted by Roman barricades.

Hiding from view, they made a fireless camp. The dark drew in and with it went what little heat the day had brought. It was then that the ghost-child returned. He offered comfort to his remaining nephew and niece. He persuaded their protectors to leave the children in his care. It was the last they ever saw of them.

From that day forth the Damnonii in the area saw their number shrink by four children every twenty-five years. The Damnonii tribe were absorbed into the population of newcomers, and as the centuries passed their stronghold fell into ruin, eaten up by the surrounding countryside. Their descendants were left with nothing to inherit. Nothing that is but the ghost-child and the Roman.

*

30th November 2017, Crieff, Scotland (swirling around somewhere above the town)

Marcus had long forgotten his family. Two millennia could wipe clean even the most vivid of memories. However, when he looked into the faces of the ghoul-children chasing him, something clicked.

A sister’s nose, a brother’s brow, his mother’s cheek. Mr Thomas wasn’t lying, these were all that remained of Marcus’ family. In fact they were all that remained of Marcus’ life as a living, breathing, child.

For a moment he glimpsed bracken flying below his feet as he ran from his siblings. Laughter flew from his burning lungs, he was always too fast for them. For the briefest moment he could pretend it hadn’t gone wrong. The healing had worked. The Roman never came. He was home.

His nephew’s hand grasped his shoulder with crushing strength and Marcus was torn from his memories. He turned, hoping for some recognition, some kinship in the eyes of the boy who had his shoulder. There was recognition but those black eyes showed nothing but pure, over-brimming hatred.

“…you ruined us. Our people gone. Our home gone. Our language. You replace it with this Latin garbage that he forces us to speak. You make me sick…

Marcus twisted against the boy’s grip but he held fast. The others came alongside, grabbing at their Uncle. Marcus lost his footing and came down hard. There was no pain when they struck. Then the green smoke came. It flew up his nose, filled his throat and scratched at him from the inside.

From burning itch to cold ache, Marcus strained to escape. He let himself disperse. The black cloud always felt uncomfortable but that form offered a break from the pain. He swirled with the winds, all he wanted was to get away. To go home.

He had the smallest glimpse of a stone cottage, a peat fire leaving thick, sweet, smoke to wallow out. The smell was real, the cottage, real. Then it wasn’t.

He knew it was long gone. The best he had was a memory of a memory. A ghost-image of something pure and good he had once called ‘home’.

He had a different home now. One filled with sadness and regret but with triumph too. And there was joy. Moments with friends throughout generations. Good friends, good times. For better or worse, he knew where he belonged.

There was no real reason to suppose the old school could provide him with anything special. Any secret weapon. Marcus knew that these four children couldn’t kill him (after all, he was dead already). That didn’t mean he had any plans to let them catch him again.

A huge green cloud, putrid and rotten descended on the surface of the back playground. Marcus stood his ground and looked into their lifeless eyes:

“My favourite game was always ‘tig’, though I do like a game of hide and seek if given a chance.”

The others barely had time to respond before Marcus had flipped around and disappeared into the building behind him.

They took chase but even a two second head start can make a difference if you’re a ghost.

Marcus phased through walls and floors. It was a skill he had never seen the ghoul-children perform. It took some effort on his part to do it. He wondered if the others would tire themselves out trying.

Marcus got carried away. He went through one too many walls, too quickly, and collapsed on the floor of one of the classrooms. His head swam as he pulled himself up and looked for a ‘real’ hiding place.

There was no furniture left here. The place had been stripped as they moved the school into the new building. There were one or two build-in cupboards with sliding doors left. There just weren’t any in this classroom.

Marcus dragged himself along the floor and drew himself up to stand at the door out to the hall. He moved his head slowly, letting just one eye peek out into the corridor beyond.

Barely a speck of light made it into the corridor but it was enough to see that, for now at least, Marcus was alone.

He limped alongside the wall, leaning on it for support. None of the classrooms he looked in had what he needed. In the end he had to settle for a small room beside the gym hall. It had been a host of things but the last thing Marcus remembered it being was a ‘TV room’.

Not a single window looked in on this room, with the door closed Marcus could only count on his own blue glow too see by. He couldn’t risk it giving him away though. He forced the light away. Leaving his skin a dull green-brown in the shadows of the room.

The footsteps came quicker than expected. Marcus searched his memory. Was there another way out in this room. There was a door at the back but was that a cupboard or an exit?

He tested the door. Locked. He barely had the energy to stand. There was no way he could phase through before the steps reached the door to the hallway.

The soft, brushing sound of ancient leather footwear grew closer. Marcus slid to the floor, keeping his profile flat, and waited.

If Marcus still had a heart it would be in his mouth. If he still had a pulse it would have thrummed in his ears. Instead Marcus had to endure the icy silence, with no heart or pulse to keep him company. Nothing but the ‘brush brush brush’ of the footsteps outside.

Then they stopped. Nothing but the creaks of the old building cooling in the night were left. Though the footsteps had stopped Marcus knew that the feet that made them were still very much there.

He was a ghost too. He didn’t have to move. Marcus could lie on this floor all night. That idea grew more and more appealing. So much so that Marcus was caught off guard when the door handle squeaked.

Keep up with the story

Click here to read on to ‘Marcus: Chapter 22: The Gauntlet to the Golf Course’.

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Thanks for reading, all the best, John