Tag Archives: amwriting

Getting Serious about Writing (wk11&12): There is no ‘normal’ any more

Our world has changed. If we’re honest with ourselves it will probably never return to normal. Even if this virus disappeared tomorrow we’ve all had a rare chance to take stock and rethink the way we live. That sort of objective look at our lives can’t be unseen.

Businesses and other organisations are considering closing offices and allowing staff to work from home in the long term. Schools, colleges, and universities are implementing strategies for distance learning. The nature of how we do business, how we learn, how we communicate, how we socialise, it’s all different.

For some, these changes will be costly and difficult, for others their lives will improve. For most of us, we’ll have experienced a mixed bag so far.

What is different for a Self-Published Author?

Over the past few months, my experiences have been mixed. Financial issues which are probably pretty common have risen and fallen back. The work I do when I’m not being a ‘proper writer’ has changed a lot too. Behaviours are different. The rhythm of the year is different. I’m different.

For a long time, I’ve been aware of just how much my life outside of writing has changed but I kept thinking that my writing itself hadn’t really been affected.

Being stuck inside in front of the computer is hardly a change from the ‘normal’ day of a writer. However, my motivations for writing have been changing in subtle ways and a bit of self-reflection has led me to understand that I really am the sort of writer who writes for an audience.

I used to look down on this approach a little. After all, your ‘authentic’ story can’t be pulled every-which-way by your concerns about how someone ‘might’ react. However, while I still see the importance of story integrity I have to confess that it can be hard to motivate writing when you can’t at least imagine some reader at the end of all of it.

I write most of my books for kids and I know that school author visits and workshops (the way I normally connect with my audience) are going to be deeply affected by what’s going on. In short, I’m currently working on a book with the niggling worry that the only person who will ever read it will be me. This is a big step backwards from the ‘proper writer’ I have come to see myself as.

What do you do when you can’t see your audience?

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So what do I do? My first effort to reconnect with my audience was a website where children can share their stories with the world. A place to vent and communicate with one another. They can write what they like (though any content for older readers should be tagged as such).

I launched this initiative after about two or three weeks of solid work back in March. The site isn’t perfect but I can make more improvements once I see it in use and understand what needs to be fixed. It’s free to use and all it takes is joining as a contributor (I made it sign-in only in an effort to increase security and safety).

I publicised it on my social media platforms. I told teachers about it, in the hopes that they might share it with their classes during virtual lessons. I messaged parents I know to see if their kids might be interested. I did a lot to tell the world it was there. Other than my kids, one person signed up.

The tougher side of Self-Publishing

free creative writing course for kids celebrating stories literacy scottish curriculum for excellenceI’m going to stop here and point out that this isn’t a ‘poor me’ post. This is an effort to highlight the reality of life as a self-published author. All you can do is play to your own strengths but sometimes you have to realise when something isn’t working.

Take two: I went back to a writing course for children which I had put together back at the start of the year. It’s the product of a month of work and is linked in as many ways as I can to the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence (the curriculum utilised in Scottish state schools).

This course was originally designed for use in classrooms but I took another pass at it and tried to change it to cater to virtual learning environments too.

Another fortnight went into these updates, and finally, it was ready to launch as a weekly series of e-mails. E-mails would appear in a teacher’s inbox and contain both the teacher’s guide (highlighting outcomes and other curriculum features covered) and class printouts for the kids (for use in class or at home).

I launched this back in August. Sharing it on social media and directly with teachers. To date, no one has signed up.

Keeping track of the things you have control over

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Again this is not a ‘poor me’ moment, this is the raw edge of self-publishing. If no one is enjoying what you are doing you don’t have the buffer of an agent, or a publicist, or even a PA between you and this fact. You instantly know that it didn’t work. You need to be able to rally when this happens.

This week I will be contacting teachers and schools to offer free (virtual) book talks with their classrooms. Scottish book week is coming up in November and I normally book in at least a couple of in-person talks in the week.

Will the virtual alternative be well received? Will I be able to book virtual events like this (having never really done anything like it before)? I have no idea. It might fail. I might get no response to this as well. Or it might all go brilliantly. The reception is not in my hands.

What do I do if this effort too goes pear-shaped? For starters, I don’t blame the teachers/schools. Their world is in considerably more of a mess than mine is at present so it would be churlish for me to get annoyed at them for the failure.

Instead, I have to step back and look at each initiative as a product. This is where I fall back on my retail background:

  • Does this product (school talks/ 10-week free writing course/ story-sharing website) satisfy a need?
  • Is it a good in itself or does it bring about a good in a way which can’t otherwise be achieved? (e.g. food may be a good in itself, exercise is only good in that is leads to improved health)
  • Is the timing of the release of this product offering someone a way of making life easier for themselves or a significant other?

The checklist could go on for miles but the point is that each free initiative I have offered so far can’t win purely on the fact that it’s free. It needs to serve a purpose or bring about some good that my target audience needs/wants.

If no one goes for it then something about it didn’t catch. I have to drop it or rework it until it better serves its purpose. The problem could be as simple as the fact that our teachers are currently wildly overworked.

Perhaps nothing I’m offering helps with that. Instead, a 10-week writing course might be perceived by teachers as more work, rather than as fulfilling it’s intended purpose (an effort to lighten the load for teachers planning a week’s lessons).

Find the solutions within

Being self-published (sometimes) is a million miles away from sitting at the desk and writing. This can be disheartening at times but my personality type deals with this sort of thing analytically. I find my way forward by analysing factors, amending variables, and trying again.

Your own strengths may be very different. If you are more expressive perhaps a more active social media/YouTube presence might benefit the sales of your books. If you have a more PR/advertising mind you may have the fortitude to fire through several dozen calls in a day, drumming up interest in what you do (I personally find phone calls to be one of the most daunting of all the PR type jobs).

There might be no such thing as ‘normal’ life anymore but none of us is ‘normal’ anyway. Play to your strengths and push on. It’s a strange new world and the next big idea you have might well be the thing that gets your book(s) noticed.

I hope this week’s post hasn’t been too much of a downer. On a more positive note, my newest book is now back on. I had a blip for a few weeks there but the sleeves are rolled up again and I’m getting back into it. I had a deadline in mind for this book but missing a deadline shouldn’t be a reason not to finish what I started. This book will get out into the world.

In the meantime please feel free to visit my author page on amazon to see the books which already made it out into the world (it never hurts to throw in a quick wee plug).

Hope you’re all doing great and, as always, thanks for reading (those reader stats make it all the easier for me to sit back down and get back into it. I really do appreciate you stopping by).

Comments below are more than welcome,

All the best, John

Getting serious about writing (wk 10): Stop thinking like a reader if you want to finish that book

When I turned thirty I made a promise to myself that before I reached forty I would have written ten books. I have to admit that even then it seemed a little ridiculous and within a few weeks, I had to admit to myself that I might have bitten off more than I could chew. Inevitably, as the months went by, the promise looked less and less likely to bear fruit.

I did try. I wrote as much and as often as I could, but by the time I reached thirty-two I had lost count of the number of non-starters and unintentional short stories that I had written. I just couldn’t leave a story alone for more than a few days without writing an ending and rushing to fil in the blanks. It was an odd state of affairs: like a war between my inner novelist and my inner reader.

Completing any large project is tough. However, writing a full book seems to come with its own complications.

What writing isn’t…

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Writing a novel is not the same thing as reading one. This may seem obvious but there are some important truths behind this.

After all, before we write our first book we will have spent our lives reading books. On top of this, we will also consume a host of other media (be that TV shows/ movies/ plays/ or any other story format). I can’t help but wonder whether consuming stories in this manner inclines us to grow too accustomed to the catharsis of endings and the drive to know ‘what happens next’.

Our minds often scream out for a sense of completion in the stories we read and I think this was the root of my problem; I thought the ending was the important bit.

It took me a while to notice this inclination in myself. Often when writing I yearned for the ‘ending’, and when I wasn’t rushing for the ending I was desperate to reveal the twist, or I wanted to play out the life-changing revelation for the main character. Nothing else mattered; I needed to reach that goal. In short, I was looking at my stories as a reader, not as a writer.

It’s an easy, possibly inevitable, position to fall into when you start writing. After all, we may have been writing stories for years (starting as young children), but our experience of ‘the novel’ comes first and foremost from our experiences as readers. We don’t notice (at least on our first reading) the small hints, the foreshadowing, the scene-deepening detail, which a well-sculpted book unpacks before us.

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With a very select group of exceptions, my experiences as a reader followed the path of opening that next chapter to ‘see what happens next’. Writing isn’t like this, it would be utterly bizarre if I sat down to write and was steadily surprised at the story as it unfolded. Looking back, I think that this really was at the heart of what held me up for those first two years.

I’d like to say that there’s a simple solution to changing your perspective but there isn’t a quick fix (not that I’ve found anyway). However, there are a couple of things that hindsight tells me may have contributed to my own changed perspective and both of them happened in November 2014.

Perspective shift 1: I know what’s going to happen

In November 2014 I joined an online writing community who offered support to each other as we tried to get fifty-thousand words written in one month. They call themselves NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and they have a host of phenomenal resources to help you reach that goal. If I succeeded I would break my streak of unfinished work. I would get that book written.

I signed up five days late. The daily word count targets they set left me with thousands of words to write and I had no idea what to do to meet my target. However, having this much to catch up on forced me to get out of my own head and just write the first thing that came to mind.

A scene unfolded. I met my protagonist. I worked my mind around to see what I could do to add conflict in that first scene (conflict drives our writing, and usefully also drives readers to read on, win-win).

‘Pantsing’ with purpose

I was about to discover that the type of writing I was doing was what is known as ‘pantsing’; viz. writing ‘by the seat of your pants’, meaning that I was writing with no formal plan or structure in mind.

As I took a break and read tweets from others on as they discussed catching up on their own word counts, I came to find out more about ‘pantsing’ and how to make it work for you.

Writing with pen on paperMore experienced ‘pantsers’ explained that they keep a separate notebook and write notes as they write. These notes will contain plot ideas, possible endings, conflict-building scenarios, all that good stuff. In short, they do have a plan, they just unpack that plan in a different order than I expected.

So I started writing notes. I unpacked supporting characters pages before they appeared in the actual text. I had conflicts generate from small mistakes that we wouldn’t see until a chapter or two before the ending. In short, I got all that yearning for endings out in a separate document.

I got to have my cake and eat it too. I knew what was going to happen next but I also gave myself time to let those occurrences happen organically by keeping those ideas as separate notes.

In the years since I have moved away from the separate set of notes and made my manuscript into a working document. The notes go at the bottom. I set them in an end page, visually distinct from my main text.

As an added benefit this also gives me a ‘writing’ activity on hand for those days when inspiration is sluggish or absent. In my designated ‘writing time’, I can then sit down and organise my notes in order.

This is a very loose process but it helps set up an itinerary of sorts and as the book progresses it often morphs into a fairly coherent chapter plan. Pantsers might not plan in advance but they do plan and the book takes shape as a result.

Perspective shift 2: I don’t always know what’s going to happen (but someone does)

My second change in perspective happened at the end of my first week of writing, I was about five or six chapters in and something slowed. Despite having a plan (of sorts) in front of me I couldn’t get the next scene to play out properly.

I’ve since read about this phenomenon, and spoken to other authors about it but at the time I found it truly bizarre. I’ll backtrack for some context.

Prior to writing my NaNoWriMo project in 2014, I had never been able to finish a book. However, I had managed to reach chapter four, five, or six many times. I’ve now self-ascribed my problem as a mid-point obsession with backtracking; I know where I want to go but something drags me back and I start re-reading my first few chapters in search of what I can do to move forward.

My ‘pantsing’ notes told me otherwise; my answers were not in stuff I had already written, I was wasting time, instead, I leaned in a strange direction. By this point, I had a number of secondary characters with more notes about them than appearances in the text. One, in particular, jumped out at me and basically ‘told’ me what we were going to do next.

Obviously, this character is still part of my own mind but as I said earlier, I’ve spoken to other writers and this doesn’t seem to be a unique experience. Basically, your characters are a subconscious means of propping up and filling in the story. With years of reading experience we know what we like in a book, we know what we want to see. If we write a note about a character then it’s for a reason.

Somewhere deep inside we can feel something unbalanced in the story, or we may simply recognise a missed opportunity. When we write a secondary character (or even when we include secondary locations, objects, or other features) we give ourselves an additional tool which can be used in building the story and moving it forward.

These secondary characters are not just objects we use to fill a scene, they’re pockets of personality that we can use to move a story forward in ways in which our protagonist, antagonist, or any other primary character can’t. Derek Landy (who writes the fantastic Skulduggery Pleasant series of books*) is an absolute master of secondary character use.

I realised that, even with a plan in front of me, I sometimes didn’t know exactly how we were going to get from A to B. However, with well-rounded secondary characters in my notes, I had a new resource to draw from.

I never re-read during a first draft now. Those first-draft chapters will do nothing but slow you down. Instead, I always lean on my characters. When I don’t know how to move forward I look through my notes and ninety-nine percent of the time my characters have the answer.

Unpack and relax

Every year I enter another NaNoWriMo event and with each new one, it gets easier. I know what I need my book to do, my notes fill in the gaps and then I simply unpack what I need to move the story along at a reasonable pace.

You might not be a fan of note writing but if you take that inclination to find out ‘what happens next’ and put it into note form, you tend to create a nice set of instructions which can be unpacked and fleshed out at your leisure.

I had to stop thinking like a reader before I could think like a writer. I’m still not a hundred percent there but my writing gives me considerably fewer headaches with each new book.

Don’t stop reading

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I feel like I should add a small disclaimer at the end here. I say that reading books puts us in a bad position when it comes to our perspective as writers. However, this doesn’t mean I quit being a reader, instead, I had to give up the notion that I could look at my own book in the same way in which I look at the books that I read myself.

In my own writing, I know what’s going to happen, and even when I don’t it isn’t to be found in the book itself. The story lies in my mind, but, where that fails it also resides in the notes I write for myself.

Write good notes, don’t look back during your first draft, and you’ll have a book under your belt in no time. None of this stops you from being able to enjoy reading (after all it’s probably what made you want to write to begin with).

Follow a new self-published book all the way from working document, to printing press, to bookshelves

Thanks to the changed perspectives I highlight above (and a lot of support from a lot of different people) I reached my goal early. I have 10/11 books written, three in full self-published editions, others in various stages of drafting, and one in its final stage of being turned into another self-published book.

I write about the journey of self-publishing this new book every week in this blog. You can keep up to date with this process by following the blog, joining my mailing list, or simply by following me on Twitter.

If you are in the early stages of self-publishing, or even if you’re about to sit down and write your first book there should be plenty of help to be found in my posts.

What’s more, I’m always happy to discuss (in as frank a manner as I can) exactly what’s involved in self-publishing and what to expect from it. You can leave questions in the comments below or message me over on Twitter. I’m always happy to talk to other writers.

Thanks for reading,

All the best, John

 

 

*Please note that some links on this site are affiliate links and I may receive a commission on purchases from Amazon.co.uk as a result

Getting Serious about Writing (Wk 6…&7, &8, &9!…): Turning a roadblock into your own personal fortress

Sorry for the VERY overdue post. Don’t worry, there’s a story behind the whole thing.

The whole family were isolated again a few weeks back. My youngest son developed a cough. Even in normal circumstances, this isn’t exactly a great thing but in our current situation, this was even more unwelcome than usual. We all got tested, mostly fine but something in his test wasn’t right. We got a home test. It was sod’s law but as we waited for the second set of results to come in his cough cleared up.

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However, despite a seemingly healthy family we were now locked down and had to await the go-ahead to resume ‘normal’ life. Finally, after more than a week stuck in the house, we got the result which confirmed that it had been, as we thought, just a cold. It was obviously better to be safe than sorry but it was still frustrating to lose a week. However, as you’ll see, and entirely due to my own actions, we lost a lot more time than that.

It was a great big upside-down experience. Among other things, I took the week off blogging. That week turned into two, then three, and now here we are.

I say I ‘took the week off’ but what I really mean is that I am now the proud owner of what I call a ‘deconstructed office’. This consists of a pile of boxes, disconnected computer equipment, and a very dusty desk.

My deconstructed office came about under the misplaced hope that reorganising my working space would be a two or three-day thing. In my mind this was worth the lost time; I would become more organised, get more room, and set myself up in a better working space, but…well here’s the story.

Locked in…

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For me and my wife, one of the more obvious side effects of being ‘locked in’ was that our home environment started to grate on us. After three or four days stuck inside, it was inevitable that some changes would have to be made. Our project of choice drifted around until finally settling on getting a ‘proper’ office space divided off in our room.

My office has always occupied a small corner of our bedroom and the plan was to shuffle things around and make the divide in room-use more pronounced. It was a simple plan, it was achievable, and most importantly it helped us both at once.

This ‘simple’ idea spiralled a little. It all started with one exploratory hole drilled in an oddly hollow patch of wall.

Taking a chance on writing

Before I go any further I should check in on what is so ‘writerly’ about this post. The short answer is that life happens (even to writers).

The longer answer is that sometimes we take a chance on things that will improve our ability to write, and sometimes that chance doesn’t play out exactly the way we thought it would.

For a long time, I’ve been contemplating the ‘long game’ in my writing career. Two big goals that are part of this are a podcast and a vlog. However, for both of these, I’ll need a more controlled environment and a more organised office space.

These seemed like distant ideas, something to do ‘when there was time’. That was until we got locked down and all of a sudden there was ‘plenty of time’.  No excuses.

“Just drill a hole…”

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Initially, I planned to reorganise the room. That was it. The desk would move to the window (nicer view than facing a wall), a new bookcase would be put up as a room divider, and a new delineated ‘office space’ would materialise where once there was none.

We set about moving things; packing possessions into boxes and doing a clear out of things that had lived at the bottom of a cupboard, serving no purpose, since the day we moved in.

At the time our shelves and cupboards spanned the entire length of our bedroom but about half of that was about to go. I had just finished clearing a built-in cupboard when I noticed how hollow its back wall sounded.

This cupboard had been built into the layout of the room years before we moved in. In fact, my parents used to live here, and it had been here before they owned it too. We thought we knew everything there was to know about the house, so hollow wall wasn’t to be ignored.

Desperate for any extra space we could get I wondered if it might be worth ripping back the plasterboard (‘drywall’ to American readers) for what looked to be an extra few inches of hollow space.

However, as I imagined the work that would take (and the fact that I couldn’t remove any mess/rubble while locked down) I almost gave up on the idea.

Then my wife suggested that I should drill a couple of holes to see what was in there. Maybe seeing the extra few inches would help us decide. I drilled the hole and here’s what I found:

So the wall came down.

A few inches could be debated, a few extra square feet of space was a whole other matter. As with most semi-structural work in an older building (our house is two-hundred/ two-hundred and fifty years old), there’s always a ripple effect.

We pulled down another wall. Then our planned room layout changed. This new layout necessitated moving the electrical sockets so that I could get my desk set up. I rewired that end of the room and installed new sockets. We noticed some areas where this new layout might lead to potential dampness/ poor air circulation so I added floor vents.

Then came the more recent discoveries like the fact that the old plaster on the brickwork needs to be repaired and, since we’re doing that we decided that we might as well decorate (I mean why wouldn’t you). That suggestion of ‘just drill a hole’ sort of got away from me…

I don’t have an office anymore. I barely have a bedroom. We basically live in a building site. Funny how a furniture move turned into a full room remodel (not ‘funny haha’ but you know…). We’ll get there eventually.

Plans change

I normally have my writing etc. scheduled out. All my weekly activities are laid out in a planner and I typically know what’s coming next. However, when you’re not allowed to leave the house you can get a lot of commitments cleared in surprisingly quick time.

Back in that lockdown week I dutifully got all of my most immediate commitments covered as I jumped into this surprise opportunity to improve my lot.

However, it has taken a lot longer than I anticipated so now I feel wildly behind on my writing. Sadly there’s no doubt that this will lead to a negative ripple effect in getting my next book ready in time and I can’t pretend that all of this delay isn’t affecting me. My anxiety levels are definitely high and I haven’t felt like a ‘proper writer’ for weeks.

However, I can’t miss the opportunity to jump ahead a couple of steps in my other writing plans.

I may sound a little negative at the moment but it will be amazing if this new situation works out. I can’t wait to start vlogging and getting my podcast up and running. Even a more dedicated writing space will be a solid payoff. Here’s hoping it doesn’t end up taking me till Christmas to do it.

It’s a gamble, I know it is. I’m going to have to double down on the ‘real’ writing work once I get my office back in order (I’m writing this blog post on my phone as I’m currently without a computer). However, I don’t mind that if it means an overall improvement in what I can do as a writer.

What changes have you made for your writing?

Still not done… ;P

This experience got me thinking about other writers and the sacrifices/ changes many of us have probably made in order to take our writing more seriously.

A few years back I made a commitment to put my writing first. This meant a drop in earnings, a move to being more of a ‘house husband’, and a host of other small but noticeable changes in my day-to-day life.

It’s not easy becoming a ‘professional writer’ and the ‘professional’ part is a much greyer area than it originally looked from the outside.

Since committing to writing I’ve helped run people’s social media accounts, written copy for a local distillery, I’ve set up full websites for people, all alongside the more ‘obvious’ writer jobs like school author visits and other author events. (I’ve written about how writers earn money in more detail here.)

As a writer, you become a Jack of all trades and somehow you tell yourself that it all falls under the banner of ‘writer’. However, I wouldn’t change it. My changes so far were all worth it in the grand scheme of things, and I’m sure that being without an office for almost a month will prove to have been worth it in the end as well.

I know I’m not the only writer to have flipped their life a little upside down to make their dream happen. I also know that this isn’t the only way that this story goes, so I’d love to hear about your own experiences.

What changes have you made in your life in order to take your own writing more seriously? In hindsight would you regard any of these choices as mistakes? What were some of the more advantageous changes you made?

I’d love to hear from you, please feel free to leave responses in the comments below or catch up with me over on Twitter.

As always, thanks for reading. Hopefully, there won’t be such a gap between this and the next time I get to post.

All the best, John

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?

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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)

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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

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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 (wk4): Why should someone care about your book? (Building trust and community)

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This week I have been looking ahead at book visibility. This particular aspect of self-publishing is pretty wide-ranging; it can be complex, it can be hard work, but it can also be fun.

Obvious parts of the process (at least in modern terms) are things like social media strategy, a blog timetable, and traditional PR (newspapers etc.).

However, looking at it from this angle first is pretty much cart-before-the-horse stuff. There’s an objective (and sadly a little pessimistic) position you need to consider first:

Why should anyone care about your book?

At least in the first instance, your book is likely to gain local/ niche attention, and that’s when things are going well. However, even that attention will only come if the press can make a story out of what you’re doing.

The headline ‘Local Author Self-Publishes Book’ isn’t exactly going to turn heads. However, ‘Local Author Uncovers Town’s Secret Past’ is much more likely to catch the eye of a local newspaper’s readership.

(Image: StrathearnSnapshots) from Strathearn Herald 30th Aug 2018

I’m on my third draft at the moment, following Beta-reader comments and fixing and amending as I go. It’s safe to say that if I don’t know what my book is about by now then I never will. With this in mind, now is a pretty good time to start working on the elevator pitch for the book. I’ll have to figure out how I’ll summarise this book to potential readers but I should also be ready to explain it to people with influence, like reporters, head-teachers, and class teachers.

Your own book may not be for kids so where you see ‘teacher’ insert someone else who might be in a position to tell someone about your book.

The content of your book may not be enough by itself to turn the heads of these influencers so be prepared to do some extra work at this stage. Is there something you could do to make a story out of the publication of your book? Is there a real-world story about what you’ve gone through to get it out there, or even a story about how this particular book might be relevant to a contemporary news topic?

It has taken me years to realise that neglecting this step is truly foolish; the real issue is that there are a lot of new books coming out this year, there will be even more by this time next year and as a writer, you need to have some means of highlighting what makes your book different. In a traditional publishing situation, a lot of this work would be done for you, you could even be lucky enough to have a real-world and blogosphere book tour set up and coordinated for you.

Laying the Groundwork

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In self-publishing, you are responsible for your own PR and the seeds you sow in the minds of potential readers (and in those of influencers) will decide whether your book sells. To navigate the next year or so you’ll need answers to a few key questions:

  • Who is this book for?
  • Why should they care about it?
  • Can you help your target market in some way (not specifically tied to your book)?

Also:

  • Who are the main people that your target market will listen to?
  • Why should they care about your book?
  • Can you help these influencers in some way (not specifically tied to your book)?

Putting a plan together

With answers to the above questions in hand, you should hopefully be in a position to create a genuine and authentic connection with them without sounding like your going on a hard sell for your book. I can certainly confirm the fact that you will receive considerable benefits over and above book sales if you develop a true connection with your audience.

This component of the book strategy can make some authors feel a little uncomfortable. Can we feel an honest connection if that connection comes as part of an ‘organised strategy’?

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It can help to think of this element of your book release as being less like a business plan and more like planning a social event like a party.

Where the focus of a party might be a person’s birthday, your strategy here is to highlight and celebrate a book. You don’t bring business into it at a birthday party and you don’t (have to) bring business into it when organising a book launch.

Instead focus on building a community, a list of ‘guests’ who you would like to celebrate with. One difference between a book launch and a birthday party is that you may not have met some of these people prior to the organising of the launch. The chronology of this doesn’t have to detract from the real connections you form though.

A beautifully organised book launch shouldn’t leave you with that sense of unease over whether you’re on a hard sell. If you are careful about the process then you, your readers, and your influencers will be connected in ways that go far beyond your book by the time it lands on shelves.

What does that look like?

I can’t speak to how every developed network will look once it’s established but I can give you a little insight into my own.

I write for children, in many ways children aren’t the ones who actually purchase the books. They may choose it but typically there are parents/ guardians who approve of a choice and either buy the book or give them the money to make their purchase.

It’s also typically the case that children will often hear about new books through their school. As a result of all of this, it’s a long-established part of writing children’s literature that school visits and workshops are part of your job.

With this in mind, you have to remember how subtle your connection with your audience will be. Most of the time you will meet your readers through their teachers or at some other event organised by parents and other responsible adults. Personally, I feel this is as it should be. I have two children myself and I find it reassuring to know that my kids encounter books that have been vetted a little by a responsible adult.

Things change in your teens and you may choose to read books in a way that breaks away from this format, this is also something I approve of. My own experiences in reading were enriched by the safety net in place in my early education and the releasing of that network in my teens.

Introducing yourself

This ‘network’ of people who supervise what children read are understandably wary of new books, and this goes doubly for self-published authors. Let’s face it, the fact that you have printed your book yourself means that it hasn’t been vetted in the same way that it would through a traditional publisher. There’s a slight hint of added risk involved in considering a book like that for children.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

A self-published children’s author has to take extra steps to ensure that they are accessible, accountable, and easy to understand. Just as you needed an elevator pitch for your book, you will also need to get one ready for yourself. Who are you? What are your views on things? Are your books likely to come with an agenda? What subject matter is dealt with in your books?

An additional element that I’ve come to notice is that teachers, in particular, tend to also look at the educational nature of your interactions with their pupils. Does your talk cover any topics/ outcomes that they need to cover in that term? Can they use your visit to add extra energy into their segway into a core topic within the curriculum? Will your visit offer an aspirational benefit?

Whether you’re witing for children, teens, or adults the question of who you are will jump right to the forefront when you choose to take the self-published route. You’re a little riskier, a publisher isn’t standing behind you with their hard-won credibility so you’ll need to win that credibility yourself. Keep this in mind.

Serve your Community

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The questions above will be present in your potential readers’ minds whether they ask you explicitly or not. Try and be as upfront and honest as you can be in how you deal with them. Your niche is there waiting for you, be as true to yourself and your book as you can be, that way your community can grow from a place of trust and authenticity.

When you’re self-published it’s not so much a sales pitch as it is a case of developing the trust that you (and your book) may lack by not having that publisher’s logo behind you. There are some brilliant things about being self-published but this part may feel like one of the negatives. However, it can be one of the most positive things if you do it right.

Be helpful to your community not because you want them to buy your book but because you identify with them and enjoy hearing what they have to say. If your book really is good enough they’ll let each other know and your sales will go up.

If your book isn’t as good as it can be you can at least hope that some members of that community will let you know what went wrong. They may even offer to be Beta readers for your next project. Be as open to them as you can be and your writing career will benefit in its own time.

A Weekly Dose of Self-Publishing Advice?

I’m publishing a new post about the self-publishing process every Monday. Each post is different and focusses on what I’ve been up to that week. Each post uses that week’s activity to look in-depth at a topic that’s important to the overall self-publishing process. (You can find all of my ‘Getting Serious About Writing’ posts by clicking this link)

Eventually, you’ll follow me through final edits, formatting, printing, and digital publishing, along with the other essential aspects of self-publishing (like this week’s topic of community growth and reaching your audience).

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.

I’m the only person using that account so you’ll only receive what I can type (so don’t worry, you won’t be getting ten 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

free creative writing course for kids celebrating stories literacy scottish curriculum for excellence

FREE Curriculum for Excellence literacy classroom resources

Very soon I’ll be launching a new ten-week series of classroom resources for teachers called ‘Celebrating Stories’. It’s based around the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence but many of the learning opportunities and outcomes will be relevant within other curricula as well.

Our focus?

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The primary focus will be on literacy (as you would imagine, coming from an author). However, over the course of the ten weeks, pupils will also encounter challenges and opportunities to learn within other spheres as well; including maths, community engagement, art, and some components of design and technology. (You can find a full list of curriculum areas covered by downloading this document: Celebrating Stories Curriculum for Excellence Experiences and Outcomes for planning learning, teaching and assessment)

Your class will be taken through something like a miniature course in creative writing/ self-publishing. The class will choose the nature of the end result but the aim is that it will take the form of a class-published set of work which can be utilised to raise funds for the school.

Given the duration and level of work involved each week, this is an ambitious project for a class. Completing the set activities could take 2-3 hours of class work per week (or more) depending on your pupils’ level of interest.

I don’t want to be too specific about weekly time at this point as the programme is still untested. However, your class’ participation will decide how much things progress on their chosen project.

What do teachers get?

I will contribute both a teacher’s guide and relevant pupil printouts each week via email but the work will primarily be in the hands of pupils (with support and guidance from their teacher).

The course offers pupils the chance to develop teamwork and leadership skills, along with encouraging creative output, critical analysis, and developing their young enterprise capacities.

PLEASE NOTE: I can offer virtual and/or in-person support for schools (e.g. help with editing or formatting) but this isn’t a standard part of the ‘Celebrating Stories’ programme. I’m more than happy to help where I can but additional arrangments will need to be made if more involvement is needed (please contact me for details).

Will this work alongside normal classroom activities?

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All activities are checked against concrete outcomes within the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence so that the project doesn’t detract from their ongoing educational goals. (A list of key areas covered will be included in your welcome e-mail.)

Core activities are all aimed at level two outcomes, primarily within the Literacy component of the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence. Additional components, drawing on other skills, have also been checked against the relevant level two outcomes in the curriculum.

I should note that Celebrating Stories has no affiliation with Education Scotland, However, measures have been taken to ensure that this course will fit within normal classroom activities for pupils working in level two (p6/7).

What does ‘level two’ mean, who is this for?

This programme will primarily be of interest to teachers of p6 and p7 pupils in Scotland. (That’s around 10-12 years old, for those who are unfamiliar with the Scottish system for year-groups).

It has been designed for a single class (of around 30) but could also be used as a year-group project with minimal changes.

COST DISCLAIMER:

I should note here that there is no cost for joining the programme. No funds will be requested  (nor expected) on the part of Green Flame Books in relation to the e-mail based version of ‘Celebrating Stories’.

However, you may choose to pursue certain formats of media that (outside of the programme) will cost money (e.g. printing costs if you choose to hire a local printing company to print a booklet for you).

Though this may initially cost the school funds, the young enterprise component of ‘Celebrating Stories’ is aimed at helping pupils consider ways in which they might recoup any costs which arise from their activities. A whole section of the course looks at how pupils can use this as an opertunity to raise money for their school.

Any and all funds you raise are purely for your school.

Want to get in early?

If you would like to be one of the first to use this resource (or if you would just like to keep up with what I’m working on for/ with educators) you can subscribe to my teachers’ mailing list by following this link.

If you have any questions please post them in the comments below or as a reply to the welcome e-mail you receive from me.

Hope to hear from you soon,

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

If you would prefer to get my posts directly to your e-mail inbox please feel free to follow this link to join the mailing list (you’ll only get e-mails from me, and trust me they won’t exactly be pinging into your inbox multiple times a day).

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