Tag Archives: independent author

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.

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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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teenager?

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

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

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

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

Twenty-Something

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

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

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

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

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

Thirties

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

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

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

Onwards

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

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

The Tip

So what’s the tip?

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

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

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

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

You’ve got this.

Hold on to your ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

After the first draft?

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

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

Get that first draft written!

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

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

You said something about three other tips?

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

Drink tea

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

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

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

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

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

Leave the house/ get exercise

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

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

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

The afternoon soon became my most productive writing time.

Talk to other writers

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

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

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

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

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

(Bonus tip) Reward yourself

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

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

Be nice, leave a comment

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

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

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

Help young people find an outlet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading,

All the best, John

Behind you!…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please have a read and tell me what you think

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

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

Hope all is good with you,

As always, thanks for reading,

All the best, John

 

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing wrong with being bit ‘serious’

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

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

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

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

Isn’t reading supposed to be enjoyable?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it worth it?

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

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

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

Yes…but look after yourself

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

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

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

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

As always, thanks for reading,

All the best, John

Horror at Ruthvenfield Primary School!

ruthvenfield primary school book writing workshop ruthvenfield's portal to the nineteenth 19th century author john bray perthshire scotland

Over the past few months, I’ve been working on an exciting new project with pupils from Ruthvenfield Primary School. Pupils from their p6/7 class have worked long and hard to create their very own book titled ‘Ruthvenfield’s Portal to the 19th century’.

I didn’t want to post about it until it was all ready. There can be a lot of changes to a book even after a first draft is completed so I felt that it was best to wait until they were ready to share their creation.

I just got back from a wee event they put on today in the forest that features in chapters three and four of their book. (I even got a wee thankyou from the kids written in sticks in some eco-art they worked on this afternoon).

Now that the book is here I’m so glad to finally get the chance to share what we’ve been up to.

More than a one-off workshop

One of Ruthvenfield’s pupils read one of my books (‘Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame‘) and his mum suggested to the headteacher (Sarah Burke) that she get in touch. Initially, I was happy to put on an ordinary book talk for World Book Day but Mrs Burke asked me if I would like to do a workshop as well.

I’ve always wanted to try something a bit different when it comes to workshops. I thought that it would be good to have the pupils themselves put in all of the work; creating their own book from start to finish, illustrating, editing, and marketing it. As far as I could see this was the best way to let them feel invested in their work.

This sharing of the workload also helped them demonstrate excellent teamwork. The project was a little ambitious, as it tied in a creative writing project, with young enterprise components, as well as a degree of community engagement/PR/marketing elements. I knew from the start that we were asking a lot of the pupils but they seemed up for it.

Exceeds Expectations

The pupils put together something fantastic. They’ve surprised me often, not that I had low expectations, it’s more that I knew this would be a challenge and they’ve met that challenge and gone above and beyond.

I left as many decisions as I could in the hands of the pupils. During our initial workshop, we listed genres and subjects on the board (nominated by the pupils) and they voted for their favourite; a horror story, focussing on relationships (both enemies and friends), set in their own school.

From this moment on they seemed extremely connected to their book (once the writing itself began one pupil, off ill, even logged in to the shared editing system and worked on his chapter). Miss MacKenzie (the p6/7 teacher) noted that they were all highly motivated to make their book as good as it could be.

About the book

I had the enjoyable task of looking over their work and offering editorial comments. It is a genuinely fun (and scary) read. It follows a group of classmates as they are flung into another time with a set of tasks to complete. If they fail they will never be allowed to return to their own time.

It’s a unique story with a perspective on primary-school-aged children that is both enlightening and very honest (because it’s written by primary school children). The book was divvied up with chapters written by small groups of pupils.

Despite the shared workload, they had a structured book plan and character maps for their main characters so the overall tone of the book is coherent and makes for an accessible read. I’m probably biased but I strongly suggest you get hold of a copy.

Copies are available from the school at the end of the day tomorrow (27th June), or from Fun Junction in Perth and Crieff. Priced at £4, it’s a great summer read for anyone aged eight and up.

For Teachers/Group Leaders/Educators (Obligatory Self-promotion)

This was a new take on my usual school visits but one that I feel went very well. If you would like to run something with your own class/group please get in touch.

The full writing task from the first workshop to a finished, printed, book is a complex and multi-faceted project.

In theory, a class could have a finished book in as little as two to three months (depending on the level of time that pupils have available for it each week).

It’s definitely possible to start in September and have a finished book completed in time for a school’s Christmas fair. However, I would personally recommend spreading the workload out a little further (especially for a larger school).

A more realistic timeframe would be to run from September until the following spring. This would allow pupils more time to work on their book. What’s more, this timeframe offers the added benefit of additional time to organise a ‘book launch’ event where the authors can sell (and autograph) their books.

I still have dates available for initial workshops in September (2020) and I’m happy to discuss additional details and requirements. You can reach me by e-mailing: greenflamecreative@hotmail.com

All the best, John

It’s Here!!!!

Marcus is now available as a printed book, you can pick up a copy from Fun Junction or order one to be delivered to your home by clicking this link (the price is £6.99, which includes UK postage).

If you would like to go back and read a draft version of the full book you can follow this link to chapter one of ‘Marcus’.

An eerie delivery?

On 31st October I received a delivery, one that I’ve been anticipating for a while. I have to admit it’s a little eerie that a dark fantasy/ horror story would be delayed so that it arrived exactly on Halloween but that’s how it went.

So… ladies and gentlemen boys and girls…may I introduce to you the print version of ‘Marcus’.

Set in Crieff, Perthshire, over varying time periods, this story follows the disappearance of numerous children, leading the reader to the slow realisation that something really isn’t right about Marcus.

From frenzied beginnings

I started writing ‘Marcus’ exactly a year ago to the day. This book was a departure from my usual. My other books are fantasy stories but they’re all part of the same series centred around a boy called Jack Reusen.

These books are aimed at children from primary 3 (around 7 years old) and upwards. Aside from the fantasy and (some) locations, there’s only one real thing that ‘Marcus’ has in common with these books.

Every book I’ve written has been the result of a writers community called NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Every November I disappear into my computer and craft a new story. NaNoWriMo pushes writers to complete 50,000 words in one month. So far I’ve never failed (which still surprises me) but I can’t pretend it’s easy keeping the pace to write that much in just thirty days.

In 2017 I decided to try my hand at something new. Not only was I going to write a darker, older, book. On top of that, I was going to use short punchy chapters to allow me to publish it as a serialised novel.

Tuning in each week

I can’t thank those who read my serialised version of Marcus enough. Knowing I had people ‘tuning in’ to catch the next instalment each week kept me on my toes and forced me through the editing process (editing is something I’ve never enjoyed very much).

I felt supported in a way I haven’t before during the run-up to a book release. That’s why I felt so guilty when an oversight on my part led to a month delay on the publication of this book. To everyone who has asked about when the books would be here, I am so happy to finally be able to say ‘now’.

A wee party

I’ve sold my other books at Fun Junction in Crieff and Perth for years. They have given me a ridiculous amount of support and now to top it all they’ve volunteered both shops for book-launch events for ‘Marcus’.

I’m planning on hosting the first one in Crieff (it is the setting of the book after all). More than that; the bulk of my support has come from readers around Crieff so I want to make it easy for people to come along.

I’ll get some food and drinks on and we’ll make a night of it. If you would like to come along please let me know (Facebook message, Twitter, leave a comment below, or simply send up smoke signals, whatever works). I’ll do everything I can to keep you up to date on the details of the book launch.

Fun Junction Perth will be running a late-night opening on Thursdays so I’ll also run a slightly different event through there as well.

It’s such a relief to finally have the books in my hands and I really hope you like the print edition (it has some changes from the web version). Please leave any comments or questions you like. I always like hearing from readers.

Once again, sorry for the delay, and thank you for bearing with me for so long,

All the best, John

P.S. Now I’m off to start another NaNoWriMo. I’m returning to familiar ground. Looking forward to getting back up to speed with a certain wee boy, a shape-shifting polar-bear girl, and an ‘owl man’ who always knows what to do. Wish me luck! 😉