Tag Archives: jack reusen and the spark of dreams

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

 

Reminding an Author about writing: Visiting Braco Primary School

This post is long overdue. I normally like to post about a school visit within a few days but I’ve been swamped with writing/book related work over the past couple of months.

Finally, I have a little breathing space so I thought I’d pop on and talk about my visit to Braco Primary School.

I was lucky enough to get to talk to the whole school. The children were brilliant, welcoming, and they asked some really interesting, and surprising, questions (like ‘Do you talk about ethics in your books?’ and ‘How does an author make money?”).

Everyone likes a story

multi colour rainbow shoes john bray author crieff perthshireI don’t always talk to younger year groups, as the Jack Reusen books are aimed at children aged 7 years and up. However, I came prepared with a wee story I wrote a while ago called ‘Drip the Bogey Ogre’ (you can read the whole thing by clicking this link). The primary ones and twos were lovely and we had a fun five minutes or so talking about my shoes as well (I wore my multi-coloured shoes).

From there I went on to talk to the older school. There seems to be a collection of would-be authors in the older school and they all had questions about improving their writing and about aspects of the writing process like motivation and inspiration.

I hope I didn’t sound too repetitive but one thing I kept going back to was the fact that writing is like exercise; you need to do it regularly to be in good shape, and you have to have good quality ingredients to put into it.

With writing, you get out what you put in

Just as a healthy body comes from regular exercise and good nutrition, so too does a healthy capacity for writing come from writing regularly and consuming only good quality books.

These sorts of things always have more impact when you use an example. I shared an experience from when I was writing ‘Marcus‘ last year. At the time I hadn’t written a horror story for young adults (12 and up) before so I started reading around to get a feel for the topics and limits associated with that age group.

Some books I read were fantastic but there was one (it will remain nameless) that was less so. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the story but I didn’t see what it was doing to my writing until editing time came along. It turns out that the chapters I wrote whilst reading this particular book were some of my worst, characters grew flat and I found it hard to get my bearings. Much editing was needed before they went public.

This was my takeaway advice for Braco Primary’s writers; do everything you can to make sure that what you are reading is good. Combine this with paying attention to the world around you in your own way. Understanding what your own point of view is will enable you to find your own voice. However, you’ll find that, only by reading work by experienced and talented authors, will you be able to make that voice as articulate and coherent as it can be.

Thank you for the enthusiasm boost!

Not only was my visit to Braco Primary an enjoyable one but their questions and enthusiasm for writing gave me a much-needed boost in the midst of this year’s NaNoWriMo (something that’s always welcome).

Thanks again for having me Braco Primary. I hope you enjoy the first two Jack Reusen books and I hope to have book three ready in the near future.

Falling for the Villain

438px-Villainc.svgNot long ago I had a twitter conversation with ‘Amber Medley‘ (a fellow NaNoWriMo writer). The basic idea was how to move forward in writing (tackling the dreaded writer’s block). I suggested a technique I use where I take a character out of the book and look at what they do in different settings.

Eventually the conversation moved on to how we draw believable characters, especially villains; viz. not writing a bad guy who just goes ‘Mwahahahah!’.

The interesting point that came up was the fact that the more human your bad guy gets, the easier it is to like him/her and, as a writer, you typically don’t feel you should like your villain.

I have a confession to make. Originally the primary villain of ‘Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame‘ (the ‘Wishmaster’) was going to be the overarching bad guy for the series. The ‘Wishmaster’ was to follow Jack throughout the book series, building in malice and in his capacity for harm in natural stages until Jack would have no choice but to face up to him in a huge final showdown.

This sounds dangerously close to the story of another non-magical boy who discovers he can do magic and faces off against a deadly foe. You can imagine my relief then when, at some point in November 2014, I sat down with a cup of tea, started my writing for the night and, for the first time, was properly introduced to my ‘Wishmaster’. I had gotten him all wrong.

He was still just as dangerous, still as malicious, and cruel, but then I started to realise what had brought him there; a need to share his gifts with others and his discomfort at finding that others actually got by fine without his gifts. He had grown resentful of these people’s lack of gratitude and I suddenly understood who he was and the story he needed to need to tell me.

I still couldn’t let him take over my first book, and I still needed him to take a back seat for ‘Jack Reusen and the Spark of Dreams‘ but I made him bide his time. I knew his story now and I knew where he was going to have to go. He would remain a frightful memory for Jack and his friends for a while. After all, their story was just beginning. However, I was sure to set aside space in ‘Jack Reusen and the Children of Fate’ and, to an extent, in ‘Thea’s Quest’ (Book 4).

I grew to care for my villain and in doing so I grew to enjoy what I was writing a lot more. It gained more depth and I found it easier to connect with all of the characters (even bit players).

During my twitter conversation the other day ‘Amber Medley‘ pointed out the fact that she was worried about growing to like her villain but if I hadn’t grown to like mine I don’t know if the books would have moved forward at the pace they did. Perhaps sometimes it pays to like the villain.

Write all day and you will realize 5 things about yourself that you never knew

Rock_balancing_(Counter_Balance)NaNoWriMo is here again and some of you are probably tired of hearing about it. Trust me it’s tiring on the inside as well. This is my third National Novel Writing event and it marks the writing of my fifth book set in a world that started to take shape only a year ago.

In my last post I talked a about the new book and explained a little about the support that’s helped push me on to write so much in such a short space of time. To absolutely anyone who has bought Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame you have no idea how much it means to me, and for those of you who have picked up a copy of the sequel, consider yourselves responsible for the barrage of books that are about to erupt out into the world.

When you sell copies of your first book there’s always a little voice in the back of your mind that wonders if people are just being nice. When you start selling copies of the sequel it makes you wonder if maybe they really do like to read what you’ve written. Thank you for that.

Anyway, on with the five things I’ve learned through plunging myself into this surprisingly demanding eventy. Here are some things that my last two NaNoWriMos have taught me:

Resilience: When you skip a day of writing it’s easy to beat yourself up over it but this just wastes time and energy that you could use to make up for lost time the next day. The first NoNoWriMo opened up my eyes to the fact that blaming yourself for a slip is utterly pointless, it’s happened. You just need to get back at it.

Time management: This is essential for the completion of a task like NaNoWriMo. After a few slips you start to discover what caused the problem and the vast majority of the time it has a lot more to do with expecting too much of yourself in too small a time-frame. Just because you wrote 1000 words in an hour a few times don’t use that as your gauge for how long it will take you to write 1000 words. Some passages need careful thought, some need extensive research just to get a place or character name just the way you want it. This will take time, don’t short-change yourself on time. Set aside an hour and a half a day to begin with, if you struggle to meet your target word-count add more time, if you speed through with keys blazing you could save some time on editing by going back over it then and there. Be fluid in time allocation but be persistent in working.

Commitment: In the middle of November last year I started calling myself a writer and actually meaning it but I knew that I’d be talking nonsense if I couldn’t even finish my first book. It was like a promise I made every time I said ‘I’m a writer’. Builders build, bakers bake and writers write. It was suddenly that simple. If you’re writing now and want to finish what you started a good first step is to commit to the moniker, call yourself a writer and mean it.

Confidence: You start off cautious, then you get a few thousand words in and suddenly it’s time to tell the world. You write blog posts. You post updates on social media. You tell friends and family. Then you sit down and freak out because you feel like they’re all expecting more of you. To be honest they probably aren’t (this tallies up with the final thing on this list) but this doesn’t stop the fact that you’re writing, you’re really doing it. All of a sudden there’s a new part to your personality, and it feels pretty awesome.

Being humble: This one is hard, for all the celebration of being a ‘writer’ you still need to remember that despite all the hours of work you put in there’s a good chance that the passage that you wrote at 3am after a marathon 5000 word day probably isn’t your best work. When the month is over you’re going to have a lot of work to do, admit that, drop the ego, develop some humility, and make something that you can actually be proud of. At the end of the day, if you can’t admit the faults that you can see in your own work then deep down you’ll never be able to tell yourself that you’ve done your best.

I’ve mainly written this post with fellow NaNoWriMo participants in mind and I hope it helps a bit. As you go through this month you’ll need to dig deep and what you find there will surprise you, but trust me it is utterly, unequivocally worth it.

As always thanks for reading, please feel free to ask questions or pop down a comment in the comments section below. All the best, John

And the winner is….

2015-08-21 15.39.35Last weekend, in conjunction with Fun Junction (and to tie in with the Crieff Arts Festival and the mini book festival that ran within it titled ‘Writers Live‘), I ran a ‘Design a Jack Reusen Character’ competition. All the entries had to be in by the end of the weekend and I’ve had a tricky job on my hands ever since.

Basically I liked so many of the entries I received that I decided to have three winners. The fourth book will be out in November, it’s a condensed chapter story set at Christmas time, and I’ve left space for a short story to fit in along side it. I’ll be starting work on the short story tonight but in the meantime I thought I’d share the winners’ artwork.

20150827135455058_0001Congratulations to Jenny, who’s already had a wee mention in the Acknowledgements in ‘Spark of Dreams’. Jenny even submitted a character description along with her picture so here it is:

“Name: Stormfly
What is it: Dragon
Qualities: Friendly, cold dragon. She breathes ice straight up into the sky to make snow storm clouds and tail whacks the ground and is as strong as an earthquake.”

I’m looking forward to seeing what ‘Stormfly’ gets up to in the story (though I may have to ask Jenny if I can give her a different name as she shares her name with Astrid’s dragon in ‘How to train Your Dragon’). I have to confess that I’ve been hunting for an excuse to put a dragon into Fey to see what happens, so thank you Jenny, I’m really excited about this one.

wpid-wp-1440709009452.gifNext, congratulations to Summer. Summer’s character didn’t have a name but I absolutely loved the atmosphere of the picture. I’m not sure how well this will come across in the image here but basically almost every part of this picture sparkles. The twinkling black sky and the girl in the shimmering party dress already have me setting out a wee starting scene on a frosty night in Fey. Thank you Summer.

20150827135514242_0001Finally congratulations to Grace for her ’10 eyed monster’. I’ve a feeling that this guy is going to have an interesting role to play in the story. My first thoughts picture him living deep in a cave. He comes across as scary and I don’t want to lose that so I’ll need to think hard about what he’ll be up to, in what will basically be a Christmas story. Every good story needs some conflict and I think the ten eyed monster will be just the ticket. Thank you Grace.

It’s going to take me a wee while to get this story drafted up but I’ll be sure to post it on here when it’s ready and it will also be available in print in November. Of course it wouldn’t be fair to ask the contributors to buy a copy so I’ll be sure to set aside a free copy for each of them that they can get hold of before they appear on the shelves.

I’ll contact the winners shortly and will hopefully have their story ready for them in the next few weeks but in the meantime I’d like to ask people to give them a big social media round of applause with likes or favourites on their pictures (you can find them by clicking this link for facebook and this, this, and this link for twitter). As always thanks for reading, all the best, John

Playing to an empty room? (and some info about competitions)

theater-105573_1280Just a short one tonight as I’m getting my ideas together for my book talk at ‘Writers Live!’ on Saturday. Basically that’s the main thing on my mind at the moment; will people come to my book talk? The idea of talking to an empty room is far more daunting than the thought of talking in front of a big crowd.

So far responses on the events page seem promising so I’ll try and hold back on the anxiety, also I’m really looking forward to seeing some of the entries for the competition I’m running in conjunction with Fun Junction.

I’ve actually got two different competitions running in conjunction with my book talk for Crieff Arts Festival but only one of them ends this weekend: The ‘Design a Jack Reusen Character’ competition is being run in conjunction with Fun Junction (where entries can be handed in). Simply design a character to feature in a Jack Reusen book. I’ll write the character into a short story which will appear on this site soon after the arts festival, but it will also be appearing in print and released inside a book that’s due to come out just before Christmas (I’ll post the title of the new book tomorrow night 😉 ).

You can submit a picture, a character description, or both. Just in case you don’t get a chance before the talk, I’ll also be bringing a big pile of paper and pencils along to the Strathearn Artspace on Saturday so that children (and adults if they want) can draw up their characters and hand them in either to me on the day. You can also drop off entries at Fun Junction up until 5:15pm on Saturday (if you want to take your time drawing/writing). Judging will take place this weekend and entries should either be dropped in to Fun Junction, or scanned and sent digitally to either the Jack Reusen facebook account, twitter account, or to jackreusen@hotmail.co.uk.

The second competition will now be running until the end of August: Simply explain what you liked most about ‘Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame‘ on the facebook page to be in with a chance of winning a signed copy of either ‘Jack Reusen and the Spark of Dreams‘, ‘Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame‘ or (if you don’t mind the wait), you can get an early release, signed edition of ‘Jack Reusen and the Children of Fate’ when it comes out in the Autumn.

If you haven’t already, please pop along to the events page on facebook and say whether you’ll be able to make it along to the book talk (if I know that people are coming I might be able to relax enough for that ‘humming’ noise in my ears to go away 😉 ). As always thanks for reading, all the best, John

The Illustrator: Karen MacAllister

karen macallister 1Back in April of this year I wrote a post asking for an artist or illustrator to help me by putting together a more striking cover for ‘Jack Reusen and the Spark of Dreams’. I even titled the post ‘Artist/Illustrator wanted’ but I was surprised at how few people got in touch with me but suddenly out of the blue Karen sent me a message on facebook. She asked me about my plans for the cover and we messaged back and forth about themes, colour palettes, and what kind of images I specifically wanted to see on the cover.

karen macallister 4She sent me some sketches within 24 hours and it instantly felt like the right fit and once she sent me colour samples I was definitely looking forward to seeing the finished product. Karen used her experience to simplify some of my design ideas and pulled the cover together into something intriguing, bold, and exciting.

To be honest we didn’t even meet in person until she was dropping off the original cover sheets for me to get scanned (well that’s not completely true, we actually had met before, as I found out that Karen had actually helped out in my first year German class at High School, small world).

karen macallister 2Despite the fact that we only communicated via facebook messages Karen nonetheless seemed to know exactly what was needed to get the cover exactly right and I couldn’t be happier, she’s even agreed to create a new cover for ‘…Fey Flame’ (which is actually already finished and I honestly can’t wait to show you, it’s amazing) and she’s also agreed to creating a cover for ‘Children of Fate’ once it’s ready. If you’re looking for some amazing colour work and a bold yet intriguing style then I can wholeheartedly recommend that you get in touch with Karen.

karen macallister 3For more of Karen’s work just click on any of the images featured here to visit her blog (and I hope that she doesn’t mind me borrowing them to add to this post) and if you would like to commission her to create something amazing for you then follow this link to her professional site. As always thanks for reading, all the best, John

Losing the plot

1470243032_a61e5f9309_oI don’t often put together a post on the way I write but every now and then I get asked by people about certain issues that all writers have to deal with. 

Plot and storyline are two key issues for writers of all types; often it’s hard to distinguish between a plot and a storyline as both are ‘stories’, and each can span the course of a book. 

Difficulties in distinguishing the difference can be at the heart of most of the problems that writers hit when they reach the half-way point in their work (often it’s what’s behind run-away characters and characters who don’t behave themselves).

We sometimes don’t notice that it’s happening until we’ve painted ourselves into a corner, but it is remarkably easy to end up treating a storyline like a plot and vice versa.

target-459833_1280A good rule of thumb is to generally understand storylines as contributors to the plot; think of the plot as whatever you could add after the words ‘we are gathered here today to hear the tale of…’. You need your work to have a point; only some very exceptional exceptions can draw a reader in with no hint of a plot, and often these authors can be recognised by a prose style that waxes lyrical and has you lost in description (think Virginia Woolf). 

In short, theirs is a style of writing that doesn’t always lend itself well to storytelling, if you intend to be a storyteller then, as obvious as it sounds, your first job is to tell a story.

The only times that exceptions can be made to allow non-plot-related storylines to take up space on your pages are either in cases where a small scene works as a precursor to a further book in a larger series or, very occasionally, a short storyline can be used to ease tension, teasing the way through the plot and allowing emotion to build and release naturally (it can’t all be build-up).

However, even in these exceptional cases readers can get lost and wonder why they’re suddenly being pulled away from the main story and here is where we lose the plot. Even these kinds of storylines can still be tied to the main plot, even if it’s done rather loosely. In short, if you’re going to lose the plot expect to have to do a lot of work to keep the reader on board.

Sometimes a storyline starts to take over, running in circles and dragging you kicking and screaming away from your main plot. The obvious answer to this is to backtrack and turn yourself back on course. 

In the vast majority of instances this is exactly what you should do (like me, you may even find that a chapter or so may have to be completely re-written or even deleted). However, very occasionally you might find that your new storyline has become more interesting than your original plot, and here you have a dilemma.

Dalian_zoo_bear_cages,_1997The reader will never know what you’ve done. Thanks to the drafting/editing process, you can easily go back and make it look like that this storyline was the real plot all along (warning: this approach can take even more time in editing than would have been spent if you simply remove the diversion, so use this approach carefully). 

Early on in writing ‘Jack Reusen and the Fey Flame‘ I ended up with two plots; basically I was worried that I didn’t have enough to do fill the book so I over-planned with a huge plot (too much to fit into a 35,000 word book) and a storyline that grew so large that it became big enough to function as a plot in its own right. A book never benefits from two true plots, it ends up with two masters who often want entirely different things.

I had made my life much harder than it needed to be; in the end I settled on the idea that the larger plot could be left in the background, setting the scene for the books to follow, whilst the exciting one (the Wishmaster) could be brought out to the front and take centre stage. 

I don’t regret that decision for a second as the Wishmaster has had a great reception from readers, what’s more he provided a host of opportunities for me to show off my characters in exciting and interesting ways that just weren’t going to happen otherwise.

You’ll be able to tell for yourself whether you’re looking at a storyline, a plot, or an overarching series theme/plot. It’s not hard, storylines contribute to character development but plots really change people (and sometimes the world in which they live), and an overarching plot is like a quiet pull drawing your story to a penultimate conclusion over the course of many books (in itself it may be less exciting, but will typically be more interesting, than the plots of individual books).

The Wishmaster returns in book three and he definitely tried to steal the show again as I was writing him. He’s a big character who’s not made many friends so the ripples of his arrival were difficult to smooth over. All the same the main plot is bigger than him and will likely be the launching platform for many more of the books set in Jack’s universe, so I had to reign him in tightly.

I’ll also need to have a serious think about whether to let him show up very much in Thea’s books for that exact reason, but at the same time I like him, I enjoy writing him, and when book three comes out I hope you get some enjoyment out of what I’ve done with him.

jack reusen cover front2I am by no means an expert but I hope that what I’ve shared here helps others to avoid some of the headaches I’ve experienced while writing.  

Believe it or not I don’t have a huge step-by-step plan when writing but I have learned that there is literally no point in writing something that’s all storyline; a book needs a point, it makes your job as a writer simpler, but vitally it also makes it easier for readers to engage with your work. 

It is so simple but also so important that you learn not to lose the plot, or at the very least that when you do lose the plot you do so on purpose and are prepared for the consequences.

If you have anything to ask, or any hints of your own to add, please feel free to do so in the comments section below.

As always thanks for reading, all the best, John

Neil Gaiman

stardustDuring my wade through a world of words I somehow managed to finish Neil Gaiman’s book ‘Stardust’. To be honest I’m surprised that it took me this long to pick it up, it’s a fantasy book about a town that lies right beside an opening into the land of the fairies. Familiar as this sounds it’s miles away from my own books in plot, themes, characters, and most of all tone.

It’s a book that’s definitely not for kids and as fun as it was for me to read, at times it could be quite jarring to go from reading Gaiman’s work and then delving into writing the wold of Jack and Thea. Sure there’s magic, other worlds, odd creatures, etc. but ‘Stardust’ was so much more adult that I had to be careful to remember to tone down the themes in ‘Jack Reusen and the Children of Fate’.

I normally make a rule of not reading while I’m writing so that I don’t get caught up writing in somebody else’s style but I was half way through ‘Stardust’ when NaNoWriMo started and I found that I needed some type of diversion whilst writing this time. I think I managed to keep the books separate in my mind probably first and foremost because of the main theme of each. Where ‘Stardust’ is a stand-alone adventure into a slightly Victorian take on the fantasy genre, ‘Jack Reusen and the Children of Fate’ is a modern disaster novel set in a fantasy setting.

I feel like I’ve had a chance to play with some of my favorite movie genres whilst writing the Jack Reusen books. ‘The Fey Flame‘ is a world building book with a big villain but beyond that I’ve had a chance to play around with some other ideas. ‘Spark of Dreams‘ was my take on the zombie genre (but toned down a lot to cater for children of seven or eight years old and up). Next, in ‘Children of Fate’ we get an ‘end of the world’ themed story (don’t worry, everything is kind of alright in the end), after that we have what I’m thinking of as book three and a half, it’s a Christmas/Yule story and for now that’s all I’ll say about it.

Book four is all Thea’s, in many ways (and yes I know this sounds totally nuts) she seems to be helping me write it but overall it will be a quest, one that takes her through many of the other nations to be found in Fey, it’s a strange place and it’s becoming a huge pile of fun to research.

Anyway back to Stardust, if you’re a fantasy reader like myself I imagine you’ll get a kick out of Stardust. The one unusual aspect I noticed about it was just how rigidly Gaiman sticks to the ‘show don’t tell’ rule for writers. Basically we’re supposed to explain the worlds we create using the characters reactions and by highlighting that world using carefully described action sequences.

Ordinarily writers do a good job of this but in fantasy the rules are often relaxed. It’s not easy to build a world in the first chapter or two of a book without having to occasionally allow the narrator to explain what’s going on. J. R. R. Tolkien basically writes a history of Middle Earth in the first few chapters of ‘The Fellowship of The Ring’. It helps you get to know where you are but it’s not the easiest thing to get through.

To be fair to Tolkien he was writing his books at a time when the modern fantasy genre was in its infancy (Tolkien being it’s godfather after all). A lot of modern fantasy harkens back to Tolkien so in a way he was doing a lot of world building for all of us. That said we don’t all deal in elves, orks, dwarves etc. and even if they did there’s still a sizable chunk of the population who still wouldn’t know what these races are. As a result many modern fantasy writers still have to explain the people of their worlds and describe what they can do.

Gaiman doesn’t really do that, you simply see the characters do what they do and it’s up to you to gauge what they are capable of and to establish what power level they have. Sometimes when two characters meet for the first time it can be surprising to realise that you may have misjudged just what that character is. ‘Stardust’ is a fantasy book but if you’re expecting a big expository element in the first chapter or two you’ll be waiting a while, the story just starts and it’s up to you to keep up. It’s an unusual yet refreshing experience for a fantasy reader and I definitely recommend it (I should also point out again one more time: ‘STARDUST’ IS NOT FOR KIDS).

a-burden_cover_smlAnyway, thanks for reading, and feel free to add suggested reads in the comments below (I’m editing now so the ‘no reading’ rule has been officially dropped). Next up for me is Hiraeth: a Burden (the second book in the Hiraeth trilogy), again not for kids but definitely worth a read, it ‘s a modern-day fantasy set in Wales, Ireland, England, (and a wee bit of Scotland too), and focuses on an underground (not literally) group of Druids who hide their true nature by means of working for the lifeboats service.

Let us know if you’ve come across any particularly good reads, after all the nights are fair drawing in (I don’t really remember having a summer) and nothing completes a chilly night-in better than a good book. All the best, John

The cocoon of Writing

2015-07-13 23.20.47So I’m a few weeks into another NaNoWriMo and as I knew would be the case I’ve barely been on here to blog. Part of this is due to my using all my free time to write ‘Jack Reusen and the Children of Fate’, however I’ve also just returned from a road-trip through the highlands.

The Highlands of Scotland are not well known for their connectivity and a part of me really liked that. I actually enjoyed a proper break from all the day to day facebook checking, watching blog stats, tweeting, etc. etc. that make up so much of my normal day-to-day life. We camped. Some sites were full of the bustle of people talking as they cooking meals on little camping stoves and played board games. Other sites were tranquil, and still, and so remote that I saw the stars more clearly than I have in years (and it’s hardly like I live with the light pollution of a city).

11217992_511936725623013_2636396095545308916_oHowever, I have to admit that my writing progress slowed a lot in the absence of prompting from my fellow NaNoWriMo participants over on twitter. That said I did get a bit of writing done on my first night in what is probably the coolest place I’ve written so far; a small gypsy caravan in Invernahavon. The kids bunked in a cubby-hole bed under ours, my wife fell asleep reading, and I popped the kettle on the little camping stove.

I took my cup of tea and my laptop out onto the wee outdoor seating area and braved the midges (they weren’t all that bad actually) as I wrote my way through to the end of chapter eight, marking the half way point in the book. The sky was deep and foreboding, I was barely aware of another human nearby. It was just what I always want writing to feel like. I even added a gypsy caravan to the book in tribute to a lovely night’s writing.

2015-07-14 11.15.34-2After that we moved around a lot and it became harder to find somewhere to charge the laptop. All in all I fell 10,000 words behind my target in just a few days, but I’m back home now and pushing on as fast as I can. As of last night the gap is just over 5,000 words and closing. More importantly I’m on the home stretch, I used to find it horribly difficult to write endings but it just doesn’t feel like that with Jack; I love writing endings. The pace, the emotion, tying up loose threads, intentionally leaving others open; it’s all such a rush, and I can’t believe I’m there already.

I’ve got a lot of other things to work on and plan for over the next few weeks so I’m afraid that I may still be a little silent on the blogging front. I am back in the land of wifi though so if you fancy a blether on facebook or twitter I’ll likely be able to respond in minutes. A lot of people now have copies of ‘Spark of Dreams‘ and I’m starting to get feedback. Touch wood, so far I’ve only heard good things.

11143402_513173932165959_305962227106098436_oThank you all so much for the support the books are getting, every new reader makes it all the easier to motivate myself to write down more Fey stories. I’ve heard authors gush about their readers before but I’m starting to get what they mean, without you these books would never have progressed as far as they have. As always (and I really mean this) thank you for reading, all the best, John