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Meet the Independents: Steven McKinnon

Meet the Independents: Steven McKinnon

Research suggests self-published authors represented up to 34% of eBook sales in 2020. The number of independently-minded authors who choose to do-it-themselves is increasing. This is despite the limited financial revenue. According to ALCs, seasoned self-published authors, (those who have been writing for at least 20 years), typically earn less than £10,500 annually. Notably, the top 10% of these authors account for 70% of the total revenue in the industry. So, if we’re not going to be the next Neil Gaiman or Stephen King, why do we do it? As a writer, we are bound to ask ourselves the same question at some point: should I aim for the traditional publishing route of submissions and agents and publishing contracts - or should I self-publish? To inform that decision, I asked some well-established #indieauthors to tell me about their journey. Introductions My second guest is a SPFBO (Self Publishing Fantasy Blog Off) finalist, Steven McKinnon. His Raincatcher's Ballad trilogy is a favourite of mine. Its characters are flawed and human, plunged into dangers which force them to confront those flaws in order to survive. His fight scenes are visceral and dark. Mental health is an issue which remains ever-present in Steven's stories and, through his characters, we explore so many aspects of it. It's the understanding and the arising manifestations which hook me, it makes his characters not only intensely real but also utterly engaging. In 2015 Steven published his first story, Boldly Going Nowhere. It's a biography of his struggles with mental health. It is inspirational tale of one man discovering the problem, coming to terms with it and finding the answers he needed. It is sensitively handled, deeply personal and, very funny. That's what makes it so engaging. It is a story I strongly recommend for anyone (men especially) who are struggling in this way. But let's get going with the interview of our next #indieauthor. 1. Tell us who you are and how we might have read something by you. My name is Steven McKinnon, I’m the author of The Raincatcher’s Ballad epic fantasy series and Boldly Going Nowhere, a creative non-fiction work detailing my struggles with confidence and mental illness, told through a humorous lens. 2. Tell us about your journey as a self-published author. Where did you start? What lessons did you learn along the way? Have you reached your destination yet? Are you motoring along quite happily, trundling down a country lane or stuck in a lay-by? I started with Boldly, mainly to jot down my experiences and externalise some of the internal turmoil I’ve been through. I wasn’t diagnosed at the time the events were chronicled, but there are definitely periods of depression. I often wonder how different certain things would have turned out if I’d recognised that at the time. Writing BGN was very cathartic, however. I figured I wasn’t the only man facing these issues, so maybe if I wrote them down, they’d help someone out. As men, we tend to bottle things up - I wanted to show that there was another way. As for the destination, I’m not sure I have one – perhaps I should! I’m between projects right now – so the car is currently parked, to stretch your motoring analogy, but the engine is revving … 3. Have you experienced any part of the traditional route? Have you submitted to agents and publishers much? Emotionally, how have you reacted to these experiences? No. I decided early on that I wanted to be in control of my work. No agent or publisher is going to care about your book as much as you. That said, it’s all relative and can depend on a number of factors. There’s no right or wrong answer, just what works for you. 4. What was the defining moment when you said to yourself, “I’m going to self-publish!” What prompted it? I guess the reason was a practical one – I knew there wouldn’t be a big enough market for Boldly Going Nowhere to be considered for a trad release. 5. Writing is a lonely business. Self-publishing even more so. Does this isolation affect you? How about things like ‘Imposter Syndrome’? What gets you out of these bleaker moments? How do you cope with it? (Do you cope?) Do you have a support network that helps you? Good question. Isolation and imposter syndrome are definite issues. In a rare instance of my writing career crossing over with my full-time job at the University of Glasgow, I recently undertook a Confidence and Assertiveness course, as I often deal with a lot of sensitive issues and encounter students in distress. A great deal of that session was geared towards imposter syndrome, and it’s certainly not a malady exclusive to creatives! When it crops up, I recognise it and acknowledge it – this removes some of the power behind it and helps me to overcome it. This YouTube video tackles imposter syndrome in depth, and this Ted Talk has some good points, too. I also recommend checking out this article by the American Psychological Association. As for Isolation, I chat all things writerly with a few friends when the need to arises, or when I want to show off cover art before unleashing it upon the world. (I’m gonna give a shout out to Travis Riddle here), but I’m quite happy to get up at 5am and crank the words out in peace and quiet. 6. A self-published author has to be a jack-of-all-trades, don’t they? They likely employ an editor and cover designer but the other jobs are down to you. I’m talking stuff like marketing or IT. What lessons have been learned here? Which jobs do you hate? Enjoy? Yep, it all falls to us! That’s why I prefer the term ‘indie’ over ‘self-published’, because – for me, anyway – there are so many other people with their fingers in the pudding. I outsource editing, utilise beta readers, an ARC team, cover designer, blurb writer… It’s very collaborative. For anyone considering the indie route, my biggest piece of advice is to write to market. People who begin The Raincatcher’s Ballad tend to enjoy it, but I throw a lot of stuff into those books that don’t always jive with the tropes of the Epic Fantasy genre. It’s a tough series to market for that reason. I should have taken those risks after establishing my brand. But hey, you live and learn. My favourite part of the non-writing process is giving a brief to a cover designer and receiving the finished product. It’s collaborative, so a cover feels at once like something which belongs to me, but also something I can rave about without feeling like I’m arrogant because I didn’t create it. 7. Time, effort and commitment. Following on from that last question, you don’t have anyone to do the work for you. (Or do you??) How do you find time when Life isn’t getting in the way? How much time per week is involved, on average? How does it fit in with the day job? What level of commitment does it take – and how do you sustain it? You must strike a balance, for sure. For me, getting up at 5am and putting words down before work is the best way to go. At lunch, I can edit what I did that morning and move on to the next part the following day. I don’t have anyone working for me, so I only have myself to blame if the work doesn’t get done! For some authors, writing at night might work better, or doing micro-sprints during the day. If the desire is there, you’ll find time to make it work. 8. A self-published author has to be enterprising, an entrepreneur. Does the commercial side of the role come naturally or are you rubbish at the business side of things? What are the struggles here? Heavy emphasis on rubbish, haha. Like I mentioned above, that’s on me for writing books that are tough to serve an existing market. I find readers are genre-loyal, then series-loyal, then lastly, author-loyal. There’s so much choice now that your cover, blurb and Look Inside (or other preview) all have to sell the genre (and sub-genre) and not leave any room for confusion. I’ve taken courses on how to use Facebook Ads, Amazon Ads and BookBub Ads. There’s a learning curve for sure, but there’s plenty of resources out there to get any writer up to speed. 9. Self-published authors are independents. They retain control of their work. Tell us about one specific part of what you’ve created that reflects this independence. I’m talking about things a traditional route might not have allowed or advised against. It might be a book itself, its cover, a character, a setting etc. Final say on title, word count and cover… For better or worse! 10. How important is your IP? Your intellectual property. You retain it, as an indie author. Is that important? If so why? Can you tell us about any plans you have to develop it? Yes, very important – if anyone wants to licence it, then I’m not beholden to anyone but me. In terms of future plans, my next project takes place in the same world as The Raincatcher’s Ballad, exploring places we’ve never seen before. I’m excited to see where it goes. 11. What is your greatest success? (In whatever context you choose to define). Symphony of the Wind (Book 1 of The Raincatcher’s Ballad) reaching the finals of SPFBO ’18 was a MAJOR success – and an even bigger surprise! It was nominated in Booknest.eu’s Fantasy Book Awards for Best Self Self-Published Fantasy that year, too. 12. Tell us about what you’re working on at the moment. My upcoming project (it does have a title, I’m just not revealing it yet) takes place in the same world as The Raincatcher’s Ballad but we’ll be heading to Phadros this time around, and following a whole host of new characters. It’ll explore themes such as friendship, loyalty and how hating is easy but compassion takes strength. 13. Will you always self-publish? If an agent or trad publisher came along and offered you a contract, would you take it? What goals do you have in mind for your future? Or do you take it a day at a time? It would take a lot to get me to sign with an agent. Both trad and indie routes are valid, so I’d never say I’m exclusive to one over the other, but at the very least, I wouldn’t sign a contract with a non-compete stipulation – not unless there was some serious monetary benefits to balance that out. I do have longer-term goals, primarily surrounding the new series I’m working on. We’ll see what the future holds… My takeaway: I had two reasons for wanting to interview Steven. Firstly, I rate him highly as an author. His books left a lasting impression with me. Many writers may try to create flawed, broken people as their protagonists but few get quite so deeply into their minds. This requires a depth of understanding of such people. In my blog post, Speaking Through Your Characters, I write about the challenge actors face in playing such people. The same is true for writers, you need to inhabit the role and Steven McKinnon does this expertly. My second reason is linked to this. It is his willingness to talk honestly and openly about mental health issues. If you didn't click on the links he provided about Imposter Syndrome, I urge you to go back to them. They offer easy-to-understand explanations to feelings the vast majority of us writers experience. The worst thing to do is to dismiss this concept as insignificant. Talking about such things, especially with other writers, who will have similar experiences, is essential. All that said, I hope you have also picked up on Steven's point about collaboration, as an #indieauthor. As John Donne said, no man is an island. No woman either. Independence brings freedom and creativity but it can bring loneliness with it, if you're not careful. Make sure you are part of a community, where people will support and cheer you on. #Indieauthor communities are full of great people, it is one more benefit to this approach to publishing! To find out more about Steven McKinnon: Go to his website: https://www.stevenmckinnon.net/ Follow him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/SHRMcKinnon Join him on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/shrmckinnon His books on Amazon found here

Meet the Independents: Travis M Riddle

Meet the Independents: Travis M Riddle

Research suggests self-published authors represented up to 34% of eBook sales in 2020. The number of independently-minded authors who choose to do-it-themselves is increasing. This is despite the limited financial revenue. According to ALCs, seasoned self-published authors, (those who have been writing for at least 20 years), typically earn less than £10,500 annually. Notably, the top 10% of these authors account for 70% of the total revenue in the industry. So, if we’re not going to be the next Neil Gaiman or Stephen King, why do we do it? As a writer, we are bound to ask ourselves the same question at some point: should I aim for the traditional publishing route of submissions and agents and publishing contracts - or should I self-publish? To inform that decision, I asked some well-established #indieauthors to tell me about their journey. Introductions My first guest is a writer who typifies the label of Independent Writer. In my reviews of his books I have consistently called him one of the most innovative fantasy authors in the genre. Somehow, Travis M Riddle avoids fantasy tropes to tell stories that are unique in terms of their narrative, character and setting. You can find out more about his innovative style in my earlier interview here. Travis will make this point in his interview but I think it is worth emphasizing: it is doubtful his stories would be published via traditional routes because they are so inventive. Let's focus on that point for a moment - traditional routes like conformity because it is easier to promote. Publishers prefer novels that fit into their genre-defined boxes. Thereby limiting the development of the genre in my opinion. The consequence here is that this forces authors to write for the market - rather than tell the stories they want to tell. There is a real commerce versus art clash in this context. Travis illustrates how, as an #indieauthor, he avoids that dilemma. Without any further comment from me, let me introduce you to Travis so he can tell you about his journey as an #indieauthor. 1. Tell us who you are and how we might have read something by you. My name is Travis M. Riddle. I’ve written a fair amount of stuff by this point, but the ones you might’ve heard about are Flesh Eater which was an SPFBO 7 semi-finalist, and On Lavender Tides, which is my latest book and is a Pokemon-inspired adventure. 2. Tell us about your journey as a self-published author. Where did you start? What lessons did you learn along the way? Have you reached your destination yet? Are you motoring along quite happily, trundling down a country lane or stuck in a lay-by? I’ve learned to limit my spending! Putting money into your project to make sure it’s of the highest quality possible is obviously extremely important, but I’m now able to recognize when something is a higher cost than what I’m comfortable possibly never making back, haha. I don’t think I’ve reached my metaphorical destination yet, but each book launch has been more successful than the last, so maybe I’m slowly but surely getting there. 3. Have you experienced any part of the traditional route? Have you submitted to agents and publishers much? Emotionally, how have you reacted to these experiences? I sent queries out with my first book but never heard back from anyone. It was disheartening, but not entirely surprising, given how much the sentiment of “You’ll get 100 rejections before you’re accepted!” or whatever proliferates online, whether it’s in regards to manuscripts or literary magazine submissions or whatever else. 4. What was the defining moment when you said to yourself, “I’m going to self-publish!” What prompted it? I think it was seeing the popularity of SPFBO, and seeing what great books were flourishing in that community and the people propping them up. I hadn’t really dabbled in much of the self-pub world at that point, but that contest really opened my eyes to what it was like and what quality of product was possible to put out there. 5. Writing is a lonely business. Self-publishing even more so. Does this isolation affect you? How about things like ‘Imposter Syndrome’? What gets you out of these bleaker moments? How do you cope with it? (Do you cope?) Do you have a support network that helps you? The isolation doesn’t really affect me, that’s never bothered me much. Imposter syndrome is definitely heavy though; it’s easy to see the same authors promoted by blogs or fellow authors and then think to yourself “Why is no one talking about my book?” I don’t really know if I cope with it, to be honest. It’s discouraging seeing a bunch of the same books/authors recommended by everyone all the time, whether it’s on Twitter or r/Fantasy or wherever else; it feels very insular. All you can do really is just keep writing and hope that eventually someone takes a chance on what you wrote and shouts about it. 6. A self-published author has to be a jack-of-all-trades, don’t they? They likely employ an editor and cover designer but the other jobs are down to you. I’m talking stuff like marketing or IT. What lessons have been learned here? Which jobs do you hate? Enjoy? I hate marketing, and to be honest I don’t do a ton of it. I try to get the book in as front of as many people as possible when it launches, by contacting bloggers, getting ARCs out to other authors, posting on social media/Reddit, but after that I have never had much luck with ads on Amazon or Facebook. Plus they’re awful companies that actively suppress creators so that we are forced to pay them to show our work, so I don’t really want to play into their hand. I just rely on word of mouth. What I really enjoy is the cover art creation process, being able to find an illustrator who I think really captures the vibe that I’m going for and working in collaboration with them. 7. Time, effort and commitment. Following on from that last question, you don’t have anyone to do the work for you. (Or do you??) How do you find time when Life isn’t getting in the way? How much time per week is involved, on average? How does it fit in with the day job? What level of commitment does it take – and how do you sustain it? It takes a ton of commitment, and sometimes I truly do not feel like writing, but I try to get it done anyway. When I’m in Book Writing Mode, my goal is to write one chapter every weekday, squeezing it in around my day job. I usually get it done in the morning before lunch, but sometimes I have to wrap up in the afternoon. I don’t really do anything after quitting time; the evening is my time to relax. I sustain it by focusing heavily on those weeks/months when I have to write, then taking several weeks off while beta readers check it out or just letting myself take a mini vacation before I start up on the next part of the process. That time off where I spend my free time playing video games or watching movies instead of writing are vital to keep my sanity. 8. Self-published authors are independents. They retain control of their work. Tell us about one specific part of what you’ve created that reflects this independence. I’m talking about things a traditional route might not have allowed or advised against. It might be a book itself, its cover, a character, a setting etc. I’m wondering if any publisher would have let me actually title a book “Mother Pig.” Chalk that up to a self-publishing victory. 9. How important is your IP? Your intellectual property. You retain it, as an indie author. Is that important? If so why? Can you tell us about any plans you have to develop it? I think there are tons of interesting things to do with an IP, but many of them are not financially feasible for a self-published author, haha. I think a game (board, card, or video) based on the Jekua world would be super cool but that is outside my expertise. A graphic novel adaptation of The Narrows or Houndstooth would also be amazing. I have commissioned some artwork for my older books and made some merch out of that, which you can find on my website, but aside from that there are no current plans. 10. What is your greatest success? (In whatever context you choose to define). I think just the fact that I keep pumping out weird books that are very distinctly “me” and anyone at all connects with them on any level, haha. 11. Tell us about what you’re working on at the moment. I’m still working on the Jekua series that started with On Lavender Tides. Book 2 should be coming out in the fall; my plan is to release another volume (there’ll be 6 total) roughly every six months. Book 3 is already with beta readers, and I’m in the process of outlining book 4. 12. Will you always self-publish? If an agent or trad publisher came along and offered you a contract, would you take it? What goals do you have in mind for your future? Or do you take it a day at a time? It depends on the contract, I suppose, and also what project they’re interested in. It’s definitely not a flat no! I’d love for my work to get a wider reach, get it into more readers’ hands. A publisher has way bigger marketing resources than what I can accomplish on my own. If any agents are out there, hit me up, haha! I mainly take it a day at a time and try not to get my hopes up about anything in particular; when launching my Jekua series, I was hopeful that Podium would pick up the audiobook rights and they did, so that was something I got to cross off the list! Aside from that, we’ll see how the next SPFBO shakes out… My takeaway: Independence brings freedom. Both creative and commercial. I think Travis represents both of these elements. Commercially, he is developing a reputation for his innovative reworking of the fantasy genre, one that defies categorisation. (You'll find this will become a common feature in these interviews). I believe his commerial future is bright for this reason. Read the reviews of his books and you'll find so many readers praising his departure from the usual tropes. Independence also requires courage. It is a brave author who will depart the well-trodden path established by those writers who have gone before. Yet Travis continues to explore new worlds, new ways of telling stories. It takes time for trail-blazers to be recognised. I have so much admiration for such writers who step away from that path and head off into uncharted areas. The thing that makes him one of my #Independents is his creativity. The famous psychologist and management consultant, inventor of the Six Hats theory, Edward de Bono, defines creativity this way: "Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way." This perfectly defines Travis' approach to writing. It takes time for others to appreciate this level of disruption to the genre's continuum. As an #indieauthor, Travis is on a journey which will bring about that disruption in a way no traditional route would ever allow. Traditionalists don't like rebels. And Travis Riddle is a rebel of the highest magnitude. To find out more about Travis M Riddle Go to his website: https://www.travismriddle.com/ Follow him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/traviswanteat and on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/travismriddle His books are available from Amazon

Low-cost tips to promote your book for self-published authors

Low-cost tips to promote your book for self-published authors

Self-published authors do everything for themselves. They write the book then employ an editor and designer for the book's cover. Once its published, income from the book obviously depends on how well it's promoted. And there's the crunch! The success of promotion comes down to two things - money and effort. This post is aimed at self-published authors who, like me, have very little money to spend but are willing to make the effort! The tips I've offered are based on a limited budget. That means I won't be including anything about using Facebook ads (shudder) or promotion sites like Bookbub and Book Gorilla. I'm sceptical about such methods, they can promise much and deliver little, you decide for yourself. My tips are more fundamental and focus on working with a community of authors. In other words, rather than throwing money at promoting your work, by being part of a writer's network, there are ways you can help one another. Tip 1: Get the branding right. After my teaching career I spent a couple of years as a marketing manager. Being new to me, it led to a steep learning curve but it helped me enormously as a self-published author. The most important part of promotion/marketing, is having a brand people (customers) recognise. As an author, this means letting people know what kind of books you write so they know whether you offer anything of interest to them. You are the product. Not the books! You! Your profile needs to be recognisable. The author that writes that type of book that is like so-and-so. Some authors I know don't like this idea and oppose it. Fine. But listen to conversations in bookshops, it's the author who gets talked about as the creator of the book. For some of the tips included in this post, brand recognition will include images of you, the author. Choose one and stick with it, use it everywhere, so people will remember it. Branding also involves defining who and what you are. For instance, I adopted the role of book reviewer. It is part of my brand. You might want to extend your brand to be a vlogger or podcaster. Any role which involves collaboration with others in your writing community. Conclusion: Clarity is essential here. Everyone needs to know, immediately, who you are and what you do. Not just what you've written but what you bring to the community. Tip 2: Get a website and use it creatively I've read comments from a number of indie authors lately who've asked for help about the site, indeed whether they should have one. The answer to that last bit is YES! You need somewhere for customers to go so they can find out more about you and your books. The challenge is - how do you get them there? These points identify how to do that: Which site provider do you use? WordPress is a favourite of numerous indie authors I know. I've tried it and disliked its reliance on coding to enhance a sophisticated look. That's why I chose Wix. There is also SquareSpace. For an objective opinion, this site compares sites that are relevant to authors! Display your book(s) in a professional, attractive and exciting way. Provide links to sites where the book(s) can be purchased. (Some sites include e-commerce if you're really ambitious). Provide sample material - the opening chapter. Plus, "freebies", such as short stories or a novella that can be downloaded for free. If you do this, think about whether you want the customer's email in return. (see Email List). Enhance your SEO. This is a nightmare for some folk! Check your platform, how well does it help you do this? (Wix is brilliant here!). We're talking Search Engine Optimization here. You need to write material that helps Google (et al) find your site and what's on it. Every page! You need to images to accompany this content. This article offers help. Using the best "keywords". Once you have linked your site to Google you can access its analytics. It takes a while to get your head around the tech-speak but make the effort, there is a pay-off. It's this one mainly - you find out which pages are proving popular with your audience. That way you provide more customer-attracting links which bring people to your site. Build your blog. Going back to the branding issue - what is your role? Write your blogs around it. You might want to provide posts like this one, aimed at helping other writers. Or write personal journey posts about your experiences as a writer. They don't all have to be on the same theme. They just need to be attractive and popular. You also need to be disciplined at writing them! (Not easy, inspiration can desert you. Time gets in the way! My record isn't good here!). It's worth buying a site with a white labelled URL because it increases brand recognition and makes it easier for people to find you. Email lists. There are different opinions on this one. Some authors like to acquire an extensive list of 'subscribers' to their site who provide their email. It means you can send out newsletters (occasionally!!) which promote your work and announce the arrival of new books. There are GDPR issues to follow here so be aware of the legal obligations. Some authors will tell you we are averse to email sales these days. You decide. Conclusion: Your site needs to be easy for you to maintain. It needs to look professional, sophisticated and exciting. Your need to make it SEO effective. And maintaining your site will take time and effort. Like any advert you see regularly, it stays in the mind and that's what you want. Inconsistency = get's forgotten. Tip 3: The value of social media I'm surprised by the number of authors I meet who don't like to use social media. It can be a toxic place at times, it's true. However, selecting the right people to follow (and being strict about it) avoids much of this. When choosing who I follow, I always check out their feed to see what they're talking about. If they go off topic a lot to say things that don't interest me, if they use it to sell their stuff or share other people's material, then I ignore them. I select people with whom I want a professional, writer-y online relationship. The question is - how does social media help promote your work in this context? Choose your platforms. I suggest two. You need to spend time on them each day to maintain that all-important presence. Select the right profile (branding!) of user. (TikTok = younger, Twitter & Facebook - older audiences). Form mutually supportive relationships with others. Begin by replying to their comment or adding an extra bit of information etc. Start a conversation. See who else they follow. What groups are they in and might they suit you? Facebooks groups are useful places to make friends and free/open groups offer ways to promote your work from time to time. (You can post stuff from your blog here). Hashtags (such as on Twitter) offer ways to increase visibility of your tweets and introduce you to topics that benefit you. Scheduling and analytic platforms such as Hootstuite allows you to schedule messages on all the main social media platforms, a huige time-saver. While Tweetsmap is brilliant for providing you with the analytics of your interactions on Twitter (which messages increase traffic/visibility? etc) Finally, Booklinker is vital at giving you a common, global online link to your bookstore. No more different links depending on whether it's .com or .co.uk - one URL. That's it! Conclusion: social media is essential for the self-published author. You don't sell on it directly ( that way you lose followers!), you build your network and forge a community. Branding means others will form an opinion of you, what you "bring to the party" so stick to your brand profile, don't wander off. Be careful not to get drawn in to conflict that might generate negativity for you. Tip 4: Tune in to YouTube This is an area I've just started to develop myself. With 1.7 billion visitors per month, YouTube is second only to Google. What better place to promote your work - and it's free! Begin by creating your channel. The location for all your videos. It's brandable so there are places for links to your bookstore as well as ways for people to discover you. Create a "trailer" for your work. Here's mine. It's a way to explain what you write, the kind of books people can expect and information about what's in them. Read from your books in front of a camera. Read your opening chapter! If you're shy about showing your face, create a sequence of visual images or video clips and dub your audio input onto it. Use Canva. It's free (you can buy into it for some things). It has templates for different purposes - not just video but social media too. It's dead easy - literally drag and drop! You can upload your own branding too. I created my video on it. Likewise, I use Pixabay for royalty free photos, videos and audio clips. Create videos about your writing experiences. Or tutorials on things you know something about. Or share book reviews on it. Encourage people to subscribe. This gives you better brand recognition, wider audiences and makes you easier to discover via its search engine. (It's the second most popular search engine!) With enough subscribers, you can white label your channel so it is easy to remember/get found. Conclusion: The ease of creating video material via Canva astonished me and has inspired me to create more. (I'm considering turning this post into a video!) Honestly, you do not need to be techno-geek to do this!! But it is a vast market place and one we self-published authors cannot ignore. Tip 5: Forge alliances within your writing community After self-publishing your first novel in 2018, I discovered lots of wonderful people who soon became online buddies and provided a supportive network as a newbie to the business. I enjoy writing BUT I enjoy the contact I have with other writers from all over the world just as much! How do you forge those alliances? Encourage writer friends to contribute posts for your blog. It's good publicity for both of you (especially if, via your SEO analytics you can show the benefits). See if you can write on other people's blogs - on a topic you understand and fits with your brand profile. In the same way, invite people to do interviews with you. Send them questions to answer and then post them on your site. They may want to reciprocate. Helpful if they have a new book just out! Get into podcasts. Lots of writers and book bloggers do them. They're great fun and will introduce you to other folk as well. Talk about your writing, books you enjoy, writing challenges etc. Connect with Book Bloggers to get your work reviewed. Forge the relationship first. These people are busy and have long lists of requests. Check out the extent of their readership and the conditions for book reviews. Join Book Tours. Some bloggers will offer a service for a minimal cost, where they'll share your book with others bloggers who will then post reviews of it over a given period of time (eg a week). They might do interviews with you, cover reveals as well. Get involved with online cons. Virtual writers' conferences are common now, a result of the pandemic when we couldn't attend them in reality. They are useful places to promote you as an author, along with your work - you can do readings of your work. They're excellent vehicles to connect you with other writers too. They are also great fun! The range of topics offers free-ranging discussion. Usually they are recorded and placed on YouTube as well so you are searchable. A few weeks back I took part in QuaranCon - an annual event inspired by lockdown. All the videos are available to view here. GIve aways and competitions. Social media (Twitter especially) has lots of writers who offers their books as prizes to simple competitions - or even to a randomly-selected person who has retweeted a message or provided a relevant reply. They increase your visibility, the only cost is the postage. If you have any additional merchandise or 'Book Swag' (bookmarks, mugs etc) (which can be produced very cheaply) then they become prizes too. VistaPrint is cheap and helpful. And finally I hope I've been able to show how you don't need to spend lots of money to get people aware of your work. I think there is a danger in appearing to be too commercialised, as a self-published author. I think there is a balance to be had here. It is just as important to be an active participant in the writing community. We are a wonderful bunch of people. We are friendly, we are supportive. It's all about getting the balance of the relationship right, so that it's collaborative. Social media is full of writers who push their own work and do nothing else. I wonder how successful that is, as a promotional strategy! If you are looking to become a full-time writer who relies on the income from your books, this post will not have been much use I suppose. But in my experience, a lot of us have day jobs and don't expect to make a fortune. We just want other people to find our books and enjoy them, without it costing us more than we can afford. In this instance, I hope you have found it helpful. Please share on social media if you have!

Straddling Genres

Straddling Genres

I'm a panellist on this topic for QuaranCon'22 on Friday April 8th. (You can catch it afterwards on YouTube). Given the diversity of experiences from the panelists, it promises to be a wide-ranging and fascinating discussion. I can't wait! In preparation, I decided to find out more about the concept of straddling (or blending) genres. It's opened up some interesting lines of enquiry which I've included in this post. Interesting because it seems clear the world of writing has become more complex in recent years. The advent of self-publishing appears to be the cause. Authors are not constrained to identify their work in neat boxes as publishers and agents would like them to do. I'm going to start with that point. Purely anecdotal but this is a discussion I've had with two brilliant indie author friends of mine, Phil Williams and Bjorn Larssen The three of us write stories which don't fit into the traditional sub-categories of the fantasy genre. We're straddlers. It's something of an issue when it comes to promoting our stories we've found. Broadly, Phil's books are urban fantasy, except their events and settings go beyond the traditional borders of that genre. Bjorn's are mythological. And historical. There's satirical humour too? How do you define yourself as an author to your readers we've asked ourselves. By including inter-dimensional portals into my stories, they blurred the lines between urban fantasy and even science fiction to some extent. The question is - does all this matter? Do genres matter? 'Authors need to have a firm grasp on all the different genres of books in order to find the perfect home for their own. The tropes and expectations of a book’s genre will inform its content and style during the writing process, as well as fundamentals such as word count. But it’s also central to the marketing of a book, determining its target audience, and those all-important Amazon categories. Get your genre wrong, and you could be waving goodbye to book sales and hello to unsatisfied reader reviews!' Source: ReedsyBlog. That answers that question then, doesn't it? It's quite a terrifying statement. And yet, according to award-winning YA author, Andrew Smith (author of Winger and The Marbury Lens) the opposite is true. 'I honestly do not think of “genres” at all when I write. I also don’t envision a targeted audience. I know that this goes against the philosophy of the majority, but it’s how I write. I write the story that pleases me, and I write it entirely for myself.' The same is true for the highly successful Australian author of speculative fiction, Marianne de Pierres. She says, 'Blending genres has always appealed to me, and I think, comes quite naturally when I write. I see mixing genres as a stand against literary hegemony. It adds uncertainty and a shake of allspice to stories. The writer is charged with making decisions about what aspects of each genre to adopt, and what to ignore. It’s like cooking without a recipe. When it works, the end result is delicious! And when it doesn’t, it can still be …. interesting.' Meanwhile speculative fiction author, Michael Marshall references the real world as a factor which impacts on an author's choice of genre: 'There can be interesting conflict between expectation and subversion, between the genre you appear to be in, and what you introduce into the story from the outside. Not only can this be fruitful in keeping the author’s and readers’ imaginations engaged, but it seems to me that it more faithfully evokes real life.' What are we to make of these contradictions then? The Establishment (by which I mean publishers and agents) will confirm the Reedsy view. You need to be able to define your product if you want to achieve good sales figures and brand recognition. It makes sense, doesn't it? When people buy a book they want to know what to expect. The alternative is chaos, surely. A product which can't be defined? It would be like shopping in a supermarket and buying a packet or a box of something without any labelling! In which case, if you followed that logic, a number of classics wouldn't have seen the light of day and their authors wouldn't share the status of Celebrity. I'm talking Jasper Fforde, Douglas Adams, China Mieville and Michael Chabon. I'd challenge anyone to provide an accurate label to these literary classics! Mind you, if you read this article its author contends the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction is simple: anything that isn't literary fiction is simply there to entertain. I'll leave you to react to that one! Which brings us back to the authors I quoted earlier. They talked about writing for themselves rather than a target audience. The idea of writing without attention to a recipe. That experiences in the real world aren't defined by genre so why should books? It suggests this argument takes us to the ultimate destination - as writers we are artists. We write what our creative urges dictate. Can you imagine someone telling Picasso or Van Gogh not to paint in their distinctive style? Mind you, not all the Great Masters made a living from their art during their lifetime, so that might shoot down that argument! Genres and Commerce Reedsy reckons there are 107 genres and claim Amazon have 16,000! If we stay with Amazon for a moment, if you self-publish you will know you need to select a couple of categories in which to define your book. The list of categories for Fantasy is mind-blowing! It makes me wonder how Tolkein would have reacted! This graphic gives you a good idea of the complexity of the genre market. This graphic comes from an article which says this: 'Genres reflect trends in society and they evolve when writers push the boundaries. Readers ultimately decide if the experiment has worked by buying these books. The most important part of genre fiction, though, is that it fulfils our human need for good, old-fashioned storytelling. We sometimes need stories we can rely on to blunt the harsh realities of life.' This idea brings us back to the authors mentioned earlier, doesn't it. It's all about the storytelling - and the purpose behind it. The same article references the impact of self-publishing in changing attitattitudes and breaking conventions. Indie authors often publish for the reasons outlined here - they have a story to tell that may reflect Life. They do not want to be limited (censored?) by publishers and agents. They are the writers who push the boundaries and redefine the genres. I think this philosophy is particularly true for the speculative fiction genre. Authors are writing stories which directly reflect today's issues. They explore those issues withinin contexts which amplify the issue in ways contemporary fiction cannot. They speculate how the issues might exist in other forms, worlds, societies. Always to make a point about the world as it is now. According to Forbes, sales of books and ebooks in the SFF genre have doubled since 2010. Partly due to the rise of digital and audio publication, it's generated a 48% increase in sales to indie authors. Further research tells stories of how Millennial indie authors are challenging traditional paradigms and tropes of SFF stories that appear to them as outdated and prejudiced. (With good cause!). Their agendas celebrate a changing world, reflecting my earlier point about Life reflecting Genre Selection. Conclusion My investigations appear to lead to a significant shift in the world of writing and publishing. It comes from the erosion of the traditional publishing model with its costly overheads, glacially-slow publication processes and aversion to risk taking (i.e. relying on celebrity names for sales). It is also true the twenty-first century reader is more open-minded and selective in what they like to read. Just because they're usually read one genre doesn't preclude them from others. It has led to the generation of new sub-genres - Grimdark is such an example. I think the impact of fantasy on TV has played a part here - Game of Thrones introduced new readers to fantasy and media moguls jumped on the bandwagon as a result. The Twilight series did similar things and brought vampires out of the shadows and into the sublight (where they could sparkle like Robert Pattinson!). Vampires no longer belonged only to the Horror genre! Vampires could be romantic too! I have several writing buddies in my authors' network who are doing that at the moment. It suggests they are willing to ignore the commercial constraints of moving genre and focus on the storytelling instead. I've stated elsewhere in my blog how much I enjoyed writing in the Contemporary Fiction genre when I created Write Off. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. (I have another story in development at the moment.) I enjoyed writing to a different set of rules especially. It challenged my creativity and that is a major factor when it comes to writing, in my opinion. Perhaps that's another reason for straddling genres! All these points lead to the conclusion that our discussion on April 8th should prove to be a fascinating insight into this topic. If you're a writer, I'd strongly recommend joining us. I think there will be much to debate about the traditional versus self-publishing processes, the roles of agents and the freedom of a writer to choose their own narrative. I hope to see you there!

Does your creativity hibernate in the winter?

Does your creativity hibernate in the winter?

Spring has sprung and sunshine has beckoned me outside again. I've indulged in some serious pottering in the garden lately. As a result, ideas have started to coalesce in my head, enabling me to get some serious work done on the WIP. In previous years it's felt like, in winter, ideas needed to be levered out of my head as if they were tightly packaged in a wooden crate. By the spring they started to cooperate so I could enjoy the writing process again. A problem I needed to overcome. I discovered I might be someone who suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder - SAD. Symptoms range from long periods of depression, lethargy, and a lack of motivation, to sleeping issues, feelings of hopelessness, agitation, and difficulty concentrating. This article explains how it affect artists and creative types. The wide range of symptoms people feel make it difficult to research and provide definitive conclusions but medical experts seem to agree that a big factor lies in your levels of serotonin and melatonin. Serotonin is the brain’s chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood. When it drops, you can experience anxiety or depression, and reduced sunlight is known to cause drops in serotonin. Melatonin plays a role in the body’s sleep pattern. Changing seasons and their effects on the circadian rhythm can cause a disruption in the body’s level of melatonin. This article from the mental health charity, MIND, provides explanations and strategies to cope with SAD. It's well worth reading. The bottom line is that creativity goes into hibernation, like your average hedgehog or dormouse. Writers and artists describe it as a sluggish time when the brain can't be arsed to come up with ideas and would sooner curl up under its duvet than try to develop them into your story. For the last three winters I had convinced myself the cause was a simple one: I was a worthless writer. I'd exhausted my supply of ideas because everything I did was rubbish. This year, via social media, I discovered others felt the same way. What a relief! Hence why I decided to find out the cause. How can I stop being SAD? There is no one size fits all answer here. You need to find what works best for you. I''ve researched answers various artists and writers have said worked for them. Hopefully something in here will work for you too. Supplements may be helpful. If SAD comes from a chemical imbalance then supplements might correct it. Vitamin D (the sunshine vitamin) helps compensate for the lack of sunlight. In some countries it's possible to buy melatonin (not UK) which helps regulate the chemical. 5-Hydroxytryptophan, also known as oxitriptan or 5HTP, also works to harmonise your serotonin and melatonin levels. St. John's Wort is a natural remedy. A light therapy lamp might be another way of compensating for those darker days. This article tells you more. They can be used for certain skin conditions too. However, it's worth looking at your workplace. Is your computer near to a window to give you natural light? Eat the right kinds of food. I'm terrible for reaching for chocolate at such times, which is not a good idea. Foods with folic acid is a good start (leafy greens, oatmeal, oranges, fortified cereals, lentils, black-eyed peas, and soybeans). Cut down on the alcohol (agh!!) and stay hydrated. Reduce your sugar intake, to avoid the highs and lows it generates. To improve creativity nutritionists recommend: fish, avocado, eggs, berries, bananas, mixed nuts, broccoli and oats. The alternative is to eat the wrong things, the sugary sweets that make you put on weight and therefore add to your disquiet. It's a temptation to resist and I will confess that it's one in which I fail quite regularly. No one's perfect! Redecorate your workspace. Make it an exciting place to work. Plants help to capture a touch of nature and generate some calm. I repainted the walls of my study and had my book covers enlarged onto canvas frames along one wall. The impact was enormous. It feels more like a place where a writer lives now. With lighter walls, a change of curtains, bookshelves and light fittings, I love being in the room. It has an ambience I find comforting. I think this change, above all, has been the one that's made the biggest difference. Get outside and exercise. It took me a while to realise the significance of that 3 year period of winter blues. It took the form of a black Labrador. Until 3 years ago, at 11 o'clock each morning, regular as clockwork, she would come into the study and nudge me until I agreed to go for our daily walk. Even at the end, when arthritis meant she couldn't walk far, she still got me outside. The thing was, during those hours of exercise, I'd get so many great ideas. There were even occasions when I'd tell her about a particular problem! Yes, I talked to a dog! Just talking it out loud, offering up options to myself, enabled me to find answers to fix a plot point. I still miss her terribly. But my point for you, dear writer, is to get out there and enjoy Nature. It's healing. It fosters creativity. It just requires effort! I'll add one other benefit to having a pet, in this context. They provide comfort and love. When you're feeling down, they recognise the symptoms and will snuggle up to you and you feel better. Redirect your creativity. Find other ways to be creative beyond your usual writing. Thanks to a tip from my daughter, this winter I got into painting. I started by doing it online. I found it really satisfying to colour these mandalas. It needs a certain degree of mindfulness, shutting out other thoughts to focus attention on developing patterns and colouring in small and awkward spaces. The sense of satisfaction is its own reward. I've recently moved on to trying my hand at watercolour too. I'm no good at it but I am having fun teaching myself with YouTube tutorials. I think a benefit to these activities is that I'm enjoying the creative process but it's less demanding than writing. I don't need to be an expert and each task is complete in itself. Bit size creativity! I recommend it. Avoid social media (or, at best, reduce your engagement). I've done this for the last two years and it works. In January I check to see if anyone has got in touch then leave. I do not engage otherwise. Social media can be toxic - and is especially so in the winter when others are struggling with their mental health. By engaging, you flounder in their insecurities and neuroses. Why do that?? I have a great network of writer friends on social media and I tend to email them to find out how they are. It's a good way to protect yourself but still stay in touch. Switch genres. I'm going to be on a QuaranCon'22 panel on April 8th talking about this subject. I'm looking forward to it, especially to find out what my fellow panelists have to say about it. I've posted elsewhere on my blog about my experiences of writing in a different genre. I started doing it in the winter of 20/21 during lockdown, after my wife challenged me to write something she could enjoy. Thus, Write Off was born. Writing a story in the contemporary fiction genre meant changing some of the speculative fiction rules which proved an interesting diversion. It was such a different experience! I really enjoyed it. That's why, this winter, I have done the same thing. That WIP is not finished. I'm writing my latest fantasy WIP alongside it. But here's the thing - when I get stuck on one book, I just shift across to the other! It means changing my thinking, adapting to the different rules. It also ensures I approach the 'new' book with a fresh and objective perspective. I'm not saying to write a novel here! Write short stories! Enter competitions! Write for friends! But this process keeps that creative writing spark alive during the fallow winter period. Conclusion As with any problem, identifying it is the first step to solving it. The thing to keep in mind in this instance is this: the hormonal imbalance of a Seasonal Affective Disorder is so subtle we don't know it's happening! Creativity can go into hibernation but we don't know why. The reasons are not obvious - and can be clouded by our dark moods and lethargy. I hope I've alerted you to why this might be and offered some ways to compensate. They've worked for me and this year, though I still had my lazy and dark times. I went for a month or so without reading a single book! But that was down to me working on my own needs, my own methods of keeping my mind creative. Like I've said earlier, you find the methods that work best for you. Good luck. Let me know how you cope with winter too!

Communicating characterisation to your readers

Communicating characterisation to your readers

In this, my third and final post on the topic, I'm looking at how acting has helped me to develop distinctive characterisation in my novels. That's not my verdict but a common one in reviews. My favourite is this one from ace book reviewer, Nick Borrelli at Out of This World blog: "The first thing you notice about a Phil Parker story, and this one is no different, is that there's a tremendous amount of emphasis placed on the characters and their own individual journeys, both physical and emotional. Rarely will you find such quality characterization and dialogue making you feel as if you are intimately connected to each person." You can read the previous two posts by clicking here and here. I spent thirty years teaching young people how to act, a role I enjoyed more than any other. I'm incredibly proud of those people who "made it" by forging their own careers in TV and theatre too. Before that I'd acted in several capacities (amateur, semi-professional & professional) myself. I've also written non-fiction for Drama teachers which develop the methods I've built up over that time. I suppose it's not surprising that this methodology permeated into my own writing. It certainly wasn't a conscious choice. In fact, until Nick and others commented on this quality, I hadn't noticed it! In this post I've outlined that methodology in the hope you find it helpful. Perhaps it might spark some ideas or give you a route into exploring the characters you create. Body Language Most of our communication arises out of body language, we just don't realise it. We read the signals other people transmit, who often don't realising they're doing that either. This is important. Misunderstandings often arise out of mis-reading these signals. We think we know how someone feels, we believe we've read their mood. We respond accordingly and it turns out to be the wrong response. Conflict, an essential part of all storytelling, is found in such places. It's why I've started this post with body language - it is easy to overlook it. Plus, as all writing tutors will tell you, the key to good writing is to "Show, Don't Tell." You show by using the character's body language, not just with their dialogue or actions. Body language requires subtlety. Stance: the way someone holds their body is a big part of body language. We can determine a lot about their general status as a person. For instance, how intro or extrovert they are. The level of their self-confidence. Rounded shoulders can suggest a lack of confidence, a readiness to hide themselves. Sticking your chest out is the opposite. The way someone stands, how far apart their feet are, tells you more about confidence or readiness to flee. I often use simile or metaphors to convey these ideas. A stance which looked like a bird about to take flight captures their nervousness, the tension in their body. Whereas someone with feline grace looks relaxed and at ease. Aggressive body language, in a position which suggests a readiness to throw a punch, might be like any carnivorous animal confronting its prey. Personal Space: this works in two ways. A character can invade another person's personal space and that tells you something about both of them. However, consider the space around your character. Do they use it to 'project' themselves? We often refer to people as being "bigger than life" and that's down to how they use their personal space. It's their gestures (see later) quite often, but also the expansion of their body. Tip: Watch people. Ignore the obvious details (face, clothes, voice etc) and focus on what they do with their bodies. Game shows are good sources; they contain anxiety and tension and people react differently to this phenomenon. When you're out and about, watch how body language changes when a person meets others - friends or a stranger in the street. What do they do with their shoulders? With their hands? Their head? The way they stand? How upright are they? Movement Not to be confused with body language, this is all about the way someone moves. I'm not just talking about the way they walk either - though that is a big part of this section. As this gif shows, our bodies dictate a wealth of opportunity to individualise a person. Injuries, age, infirmities are all factors to use here - they need a backstory too! The Walk: The length of the stride, the speed, the gait, the purpose - these factors tell us a lot about the person and what they're doing at that moment. Walking is an action, it must have purpose. What is that purpose and how best to show it? Uncertainty requires hesitant, slower steps. Dynamism quickens the pace, extends the stride, strengthens the gait. Don't forget to look at what the rest of the body is doing - walking doesn't just affect the legs. It's the shoulders, arms, waist and head too. It's worth thinking about how to define a walk: does the character stroll, promenade, mince, march, totter, toddle? Mannerisms: This is where you can include a limp, a walking stick as support or a stoicism which displays a tolerance to the pain incurred. It's the affectations displayed with other body parts - what the hands do while walking. 'Props' can enhance a mannerism; a hat, an umbrella, a bag, a sword on the hip etc. To return to the synonyms mentioned earlier - how are they affected by the mannerisms? If someone is tottering it may be down to age but also infirmity. Do they need a walking stick or an empty bottle of whiskey in one hand? Tip: Remember walking is a dynamic activity so characterisation is seen best through actions. Watch how people walk but look at what their entire body is doing too. Identify the speed, mobility and grace of the actions. Notice also any 'props' are used. And don't overlook mannerisms, they are always highly personal and offer the means to establish accentricities. Gesture A gesture is movement of part of the body, especially a hand or the head, to express an idea or meaning. We often rely on certain gestures quite regularly to communicate, they help define a character in this way. People who gesture frequently are those who understand their bodies are a communication device. It is a sign of overt confidence quite often too. Shy people will gesture less. It comes back to my point in Body Language about personal space. Gestures use that space. The temptation is to use lots of gestures but avoid doing this. Pick on one or two gestures that define your character and use them occasionally, at key moments. They should be short-hand methods of communication your readers will recognise. They can lead to humour and help readers engage with the character. Look at the woman in the gif - imagine her reacting this way each time she says something offensive. Would you be quite so angry with her then? What about an eye roll? It shows impatience and irritation, it can define a relationship without ever saying anymore. Tip: Don't assume gestures are limited to hands. In fact, these can be cliched. I prefer to think of gestures that use the body and the space around it. Again, observation will provide you with examples to record for later use. Watch those people who gesture a lot. Notice how their gestures will vary according to who they're with. Gesture tells you a lot about a relationship and the status within it. Gestures are often sub-conscious forms of communication! The gesturer may not realise how much they are giving way! Facial Expression There are 42 individial muscles in the face. We use them to communicate in obvious and subtle ways. You can glower, scowl, grimace and glare to convey unhappiness or resentment. You can beam, smirk, glow and simper to show happiness or satisfaction. You can leer, sneer and ogle too. The thing is, all of these need the face to do different things. Actors need to select the expressions used so they fit the moment, accurately. Again, as characters, we tend to use a repertoire of the same expressions. Decide which ones your character uses (and why?). There is a danger otherwise. It comes in the form of 'gurning'. ('Pulling a grotesque or bizarre facial expression.') It happens when an actor doesn't control their face, they react without enough thought to pull a face with too many things happening all at once. The Eyes: The most expressive part of the face because so many muscles are centred around them. Eyelids and eyebrows do a lot of the work. But it's also about the intensity of 'the look' too. The saying that 'eyes are the window to the soul' is true in this context. They tell us a lot about what someone is feeling AND thinking (they are not the same!) By this I mean, the rest of the face may transmit one message, the eyes something else. I use the eyes a lot in my writing for this reason. They can show (not tell!) a truth which may otherwise be hidden. They can also provide a succinct means to convey an emotion or reaction without going into lengthy detail. (Editors will love you for this!) The Mouth: The next location for individual muscles to create shapes that convey character. It's not just the shape of the mouth, its what lips are doing too. Don't overlook the jaw. When the jaw is set in certain ways it forces the lower half of the face to behave in certain ways, useful when showing anger, determination. Biting a lip, a trembling lip shows anxiety. Don't forget what the tongue might do. Such as how it sticks out between the lips when someone is concentrating hard. I'd remind you of the back of the mouth and how it reacts as well. Tension can make a throat dry. This leads to efforts to swallow, to run the tongue along the front teeth. All these things are signs we understand as readers. Rather than tell us someone is nervous, let their mouth show us instead. The Head: We position our head in different places, depending on what we're doing. When people are listening to another person and concentrating, they might tilt their head to one side. They might frown too. Scepticism might take the form of tilting the head forward so the eyes are lowered to scan the other person's face, it's not an act of disagreement but a suggestion of it. The head is mobile, don't forget this. And remember how it sits on the shoulders, that connection has options too. Tip: I'm sure you read your work through aloud. I do that so I can hear my characters speak. It's worth doing this in front of a mirror. What are you doing when you deliver certain lines of dialogue? Or when you describe a person's emotional reaction to an event? Can you use those expressions in your story? Voice "The sound produced in a person's larynx and uttered through the mouth." Such a simple description for the most complex form of characterisation! Voices do so much work to define a character. I used to use a montage of performances of actors delivering Hamlet's To Be or Not To Be soliloquy to get across this idea. Let's look at the things the voice can do. Pitch: "the quality of a sound governed by the rate of vibrations producing it; the degree of highness or lowness of a tone." Pitch can be altered consciously - lowering to a growl when making a threat. Or unconsciously, raising pitch as a result of nervous tension. It can be a shout and whisper and all points in between. Pitch is a direct indicator of emotional states of mind as well as relationship indicators. Tone or Timbre: "the force of the sound as it's delivered". The force of air through the larynix can make the voice do different things. Another sign of emotion. But this quality can often define a character, if their voice has a deep, resonant tone, or its like 'melted chocolate' or a brittle quality. Accent: "a distinct emphasis given to a syllable or word in speech by stress or pitch" - can define a character by their background, education, culture and social class. Some writers like to capture this delivery in the way they write dialogue (DH Lawrence wanted his Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire voice to be heard). Alternatively, you can capture an accent with the use of key words or phraseology. For world building in fantasy, it can be subtle means to define social class or other forms of distinction. Delivery: "how dialogue is spoken to others" - the way we speak to others will vary. It's a good way to define relationships. Delivery is affected by the same things as 'accent'. High status roles may speak in clipped tones, short sentences or instructions, in a firm pitch. Nervous delivery may involve hesitancy, even stammering in extreme cases, a higher pitch that normal. The syntax of the sentence structure can vary, placing emphasis on a particular word. This can be achieve by using the ellipse before the word is ... spoken. This is a subtle methodology, again it shows more than it tells. Individualise your deliveries. Tip: Listen to people speak but don't look at them. Or record an extract of TV then watch it with the sound turned off. Watch what the actors do. Then turn the sound on but turn away so you can't see the screen an listen only to their voice. How do they marry together? Finally, read your material aloud. Listen carefully to your rhythms, tones and delivery. Conclusions I hope I've shown how characterisations can vary and provide the writer with a wealth of choices. However, that diversity of choice presents a danger. If an actor isn't careful and they don't analyse their characterisation properly, they lose consistency. This confuses the audience. They may use one set of gestures, walk a particular way then, at another point, do something very different. Consistency is key. Readers will picture the character in their head, they will see them walking into the room, registering the facial expression and how they react when encountering others. The greater this definition, the more likely they will engage. But these pictures are only formed with consistent messages that are shown (not told) in their characterisation. It means: Julie sighs and rolls her eyes every time David apologies to her. She'll flex her shoulders, smile and tell him not worry in a tone that suggests extreme weariness. Roger's arrogance appears in his swagger, his wide stance with hips thrust forward. His grin exudes charm, his eyes twinkle with the promise of excitement. I'm not suggesting this is how you write about these characters. Instead, I'd record something like this in my notes so I can keep checking back to guarantee I'm presenting a consistent portrayal. I'd probably go on to note how Julie and Roger behave with different people in the story too - giving them more depth but still checking for that all-important consistency. I hope this acting approach to characterisation helps. As always, I'd love to hear your reactions, either in the comments or on social media.

How to make your characters believable

How to make your characters believable

One of the challenges of writing is to make characters credible, people we can believe in. Sure, they may do incredible things, behave in unusual ways or perform in fantastic ways, but the reader needs to see them as believable first. This post explores how that credibility can be achieved by deconstructing the way we create characters. In the same way an actor will approach a role. I've spent my career teaching people how to act. I think of acting as the physical representation of what happens on the page in a book. Acting and writing are inseparable in this respect. In my first post on this topic, Speaking Through Your Character, I outlined some of my approach. I included a little about my own acting background to illustrate how I arrived at these conclusions too. This post builds on that theory. The Character Trilogy Think of Character as a story. It has a beginning and an end. We may not see all of the person's life in this story but that doesn't mean those unseen influences aren't there. That's why I'm calling this section a 'trilogy'. I'm asking you to think of any character as three separate stories: their motivation, background and relationships. These elements will vary in importance in a character's life. But they influence each other in the same way chemicals interact and create reactions. Think about your own story. Who are the influencers in your life? Which life experiences colour who you are? What motivates you to do the things you do? Put them together - that is you. Together they combine to tell a character's story. I hope my Venn diagram illustrates this idea for you. My first post defined these categories. Now I'm going to focus on how they overlap. DRIVING EXPERIENCES These are events which have happened in the character's past and are so significant, they affect their decision-making and motivation. Motivation is a driving force. In some people it can be casual, low-key and unimportant. For others it can lead to obsession. A significant factor in a person's motivation is the impact of their background. For instance, let's say your character comes from a highly competitive family. They are ambitious. As such, the character grows up within a charged atmosphere of success, competition, high expectations. As they grow older they may copy this behaviour, become eager to achieve the best. Ruthlessly so possibly. OR - they rebel against their competitive upbringing. They "drop out". They hate the pressure it brings, the unhappiness. Motivation is abandoned. I can illustrate this idea by using some classic characters from speculative fiction. In The Once and Future King, we witness the young Arthur (or Wort) undertake challenges that shape him into the king he will become. His motivation is clear, he must prepare for his role as ruler of a kingdom. All his background experiences are geared to that end. In The Wizard of Earthsea, Ged spends his early years in education, learning to manage his magical powers. His rural background affect his outlook, directly affecting his motivation. Ged is driven by his journey out of ignorance, like Arthur/Wort in this respect. Lyra, in the Golden Compass, is motivated by the past. The need to discover the secrets that surround her are what drive her onward. I've chosen three children to illustrate my theory. Imagine Wort, Ged and Lyra as adults. Their background experiences in these stories not only motivate them at the time but will likely do so in the future too. Questions to help develop 'driving experiences': What is the character's main goal and which events from their past shape and influence their drive? How do they respond, emotionally, to that event? Does it upset them? Trigger anger? Happiness? What secondary motives does the character have? What events provoked them? Why are they not as important as the main goal? Childhood is a time for values and beliefs to be established. Attitudes developed are often difficult to shift. Which beliefs and values shape your character's motivation that are derived from their childhood? What lessons has your character learned that did NOT arise out of any formal education? What is your character's worst fault? One that might sabotage them from achieving their goal? Where, in their past, does it come from? When did they first notice it? DRIVING INFLUENCERS These are the people whose impact on the character is the most visible and dynamic. Who, in your life, has had the greatest impact on you? Parents? Teachers? Friends? Partners? Now consider the form that impact has taken. It's likely that impact will vary greatly. Your partner will influence you in different ways to your parents. A particular teacher will have had a different impact. As I said in my earlier post, where other people are concerned, we tend to wear masks. You may speak/behave differently to your parents than you do to your best friend. These 'masks' need to be visible. The critical thing is to decide: a. which people are the driving influences on a character? b. what impact is displayed, how do the influences manifest? We may not always meet these people! Their influence may be so pervasive they don't need to be there. Here are some examples: The entire Harry Potter series is influenced by the evil Voldemort. We don't see him in person until The Goblet of Fire but the impact he has motivates Harry all the way through the series (and other characters don't forget). The same is true for the Game of Thrones series. Tywin Lannister has to qualify as one of the worst father's in literature! His influence on his children is huge and drives much of what they do throughout the series. He dies early on but this doesn't diminish the power he continues to wield. In The Night Circus, the two children, Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair are influenced by their respective mentors - Prospero the Enchanter and Mr. A.H-. They are forced into a deadly competition together and fall in love eventually but the impact of their mentors leads to the ghastly and sad ending. The driving influencers, as illustrated here, prove to be formidable in the power they exert. Plus, that influence will vary. To return to Game of Thrones, think about the different motivations shown by Cersei, Jaimie and Tyrion. They are good examples to show how influences shape motivations differently. Questions to help develop 'driving influencers': Describe one person who is never seen in the story but whose impact on the character is significant in some way. It doesn't have to be a major impact. Who is a mentor for your character? Why are they? What lessons or experiences have arisen out of this relationship? Best friends offer loyalty and support. Who is your character's "bestie"? Why? What kind of support (if any!) does this person offer? Is the relationship always harmonious? Who brings out the worst in your character? How can this sabotage their motivation? To what extent does this happen? What factors can prevent this sabotage? (Intended or otherwise). What is the character's family situation? If there is more than one person involved, rate the level of influence on their motivation for each person. Explain the reasons. Describe the relationships within the family. PERSONAL EXPERIENCES Experiences, shaped by people in the character's past, have a profound impact on their life and the story. You could use any of the examples in the previous section here. While they influence motivation, this section is more about the way relationships DEVELOP WITHIN THE STORY. I'm talking here about journeys - where a relationship might begin and where it ends. Earlier I referred to the idea of characters wearing masks, depending on who they were with. This element explores the factors which forge those masks. The challenges here are: a. Which characters have the greatest influence? b. What have they done in the past to trigger that influence? c. How is the influence sustained - even if the influencer is no longer present? Here are three more books to illustrate the idea: Frodo in The Lord of the Rings is influenced by many characters, we could debate who they are for hours here. But let me use one: Sam Gangee. The life-threatening challenges Frodo faces requires a loyal and stoic companion to see him reach his goal. Loyalty takes different forms as the journey (and their relationship) progress. It evolves as events shape them. Each personal experience, for both characters, will trigger a deepening of the characters. Sam's loyalty wavers at times but, as he changes to become more assertive, so does their relationship and Frodo's personal experiences. In American Gods, Shadow's relationship with Mr Wednesday is a fascinating one. Again, Shadow's personal experiences, courtesy of Mr Wednesday, change him as a person. I think of it as rather like a puppet master pulling Shadow's strings at the start. Gradually that manipulation lessens as Shadow's distrust and suspicion grows. It is a relationship formed out of conflict and suspicion. I've included The Lies of Locke Lamora because of the relationship between Locke and his best mate, Jean Tannen. This is another tale of loyalty, tempered by friendship which is tested in several ways. It is also sustained after his friend's death. You can say something similar about the role of Father Chains. This enigmatic character reshapes Locke over time, again, after the character's death. That's why I've chosen this book, because death doesn't hinder the influence. Personal experiences triggered by these characters turn Locke into the man he becomes, without them, he would be a different person. Another way to think of this element is to picture your character in a hall of mirrors. Each reflection is influenced by different people in the story. Influences will rise and fall in their significance. But the reader needs to see who those influencers are. Questions to help develop 'personal experiences': At some point in the past, how has the character been bullied? Or intimidated in some way. How does the character feel about that person now? How has the experience shaped their behaviour? Dreams can conjure memories from the past. Events which may not have been resolved to the satisfaction of the character. Describe such a dream. Some experiences we wish we could go back in a time machine and change for the better. Describe such an experience for your character. Who has inspired the character in the past? What form did it take? How does this inspiration affect what they do now? (If it does.) How do you rate the character's self esteem? (Confident? Neurotic? etc) Who do they hold responsible for this situation? Describe an event from the past that helped define it. That lyric from My Way is relevant here; "Regrets, I've had a few..." - what regrets does the character have and who are the people linked to them? How great an impact have these regrets had on the character? Finally Here's some advice on this subject from other writers: "In displaying the psychology of your characters, minute particulars are essential. God save us from vague generalisations!" (Letter to Alexander Chekhov, May 10, 1886) - Anton Chekhov "The character that lasts is an ordinary guy with some extraordinary qualities." - Ramond Chandler "For Gone Girl, I knew Nick and Amy had to be very believable, so I made iPod playlists for them, and knew their Netflix queues. I wrote scenes of them in childhood from other people’s points of view: A scene of Amy in high school, written from her friend’s POV, or Nick’s kindergarten teacher writing about parent-teacher conference night. Stuff I knew I’d never use, but would help me flesh them out. I do that a lot when I’ve hit a writer’s block — it keeps me writing and sometimes helps solve a problem. Amy’s Cool Girl speech started as a writing exercise, but that one I liked so much I kept it for the book. " - Gillian Flynn "I identify with the characters very closely. At the same time that I`m outside, writing, I`m also inside, experiencing, and it can be very unsettling." - Stephen King In my next post on this topic, 'How to Communicate Characterisation', I'll show you ways your readers can pick up on these ideas. Just like an actor, all of these thoughts are currently internalised. The next task is to externalise them - to find ways to let your readers know all this information without actually telling them! Once again, I hope you find these ideas helpful to your writing. I'd love to know what you think. Please leave a comment here or on soial media. Thanks!

Speaking through your characters

Speaking through your characters

The review of The Valkyrie of Vanaheim, by ace book reviewer, Nick Borrelli at Out of This World blog, provoked some discussion with my family. It was this comment specifically which triggered it: "The first thing you notice about a Phil Parker story, and this one is no different, is that there's a tremendous amount of emphasis placed on the characters and their own individual journeys, both physical and emotional. Rarely will you find such quality characterization and dialogue making you feel as if you are intimately connected to each person." It's a lovely comment. My wife then told me how the same thing was true in my contemporary fiction novel, published last year, WRITE OFF. She had challenged me to write a book she could enjoy during lockdown. (She's read it twice now). We went on to talk about why this emphasis on character was so prominent. As a writer you do your best to put the story, that buzzes around your head, onto the page. Somehow the characters evolve. It's that 'somehow' that snagged my curiosity. Why do my stories possess this 'quality characterisation and dialogue' that appears to be my trademark, according to Nick (and others). Here are my conclusions. The benefit of an acting background I studied Drama at university and loved every moment of it. In my three years I was in over 30 productions. One of our very first sessions, led by our head of department who was also a writer, I remember vividly. He sent us out onto the local High Street to 'observe and hypothesize'. We watched people and, using this evidence, returned to the studio to develop a charactersisation which we turned into a polished improvisation. It turned us into people watchers, something I do to this day (when out shopping with my wife especially!). It also turned many of us into writers. Assessment took the form of projects we could selected as students. For some of us, that meant turning in scripts we'd written. It sharpened my writing no end (student audiences are brutal!). It began my love of exploring a character and deciding how they might be developed into a story. Learning to act, to portray a character, was another side of this same experience. I was in 30 productions in 3 years! However, my first production turned out to be significant. I was cast as Benvolio in Romeo and Juliet. The director, our head of department, chose to interpret the theme of conflict with a highly topical setting. It was 1972 and violence in Northern Ireland was at its height. In two years time Birmingham (where I studied) would be torn apart by the pub bombings that killed 21 people and injured 182. A terrorist attack by the IRA. Our production defined the Montagues and Capulets as catholics and protestants. The production included us singing a number of unionist and republican songs. I had to sing an IRA song. I still remember the words even now. The power of its message disturbed my greatly. It challenged everything I thought I knew. I use this story to illustrate this point. As an actor you must inhabit the role, make its yours. Frequently this means confronting a character for whom you have no sympathy. You may hold very different values and beliefs. Playing Benvolio gave me an insight into the mind of someone who chooses to go to extreme ends to achieve a goal, regardless of the costs and repurcussions. It's a dark place to inhabit. I vividly remember my lengthy speech in Act III where Benvolio explains to the Prince, the reasons for the dead bodies lying around him. People he loved. Amidst them are people he'd called enemies. It's a heart-wrenching speech. (Shakespeare is kind of good at that!). The critical thing I learned as an actor, and as a scriptwriter, was the importance of inhabiting every character you create. I emphasize that word, inhabit. You need to engage with them on every level. As a Drama teacher, my greatest satisfaction came from supporting young people as they explored the characters they created. OK, so if this is happening, how does your character react to those words? To that person? How else might they react? Why do they react that way?" My teaching, as with my writing, has always centred on three factors for any character. Motivation - what drives the character forward? The mistake is to focus on only one element here, motivation should be complex in its make-up but simple in its communication. In The Valkyrie of Vanaheim, Frida begins her journey to honour her mentor, Elsa. Later, as questions pile up about her background, her motivation changes - she needs to find answers, to discover her true identity. After an explosive moment two thirds into the plot, her motivation changes again as her increased isolation increases her paranoia. This internal conflict, a crucial part of motivation as an actor, brings depth to the role. Furthermore, her motives appear to change depending on who she's with! We're not simple creatures, we humans. Our actions vary, even though our goal may be clear, we approach it from different directions. Relationships - how does the character relate to everyone else? A central part of any story is the element of conflict. In dramatic tales, conflict is vital, on-going, explicit. It will exist in every relationship in some form, even solid friendships. Motivations often provide the cause and the effect. Frida's distrust of men is a generic source of conflict but her attraction for Lorcan allows her to subvert this distrust for a time, though internally it never goes away. She grows closer to Agnes as they're almost the same age, but Agnes' sexual relationship with Billy makes Frida increasingly insecure, she can't relate to her on that level so she retreats. We present different faces, like masks, to other people. We are never the same. That fact is easy to overlook. Background - what has happened to the character in the past? Life experiences colour who we are. I like that metaphor - the idea that events turn us into different colours. If Yellow is for fear/cowardice, what experience has triggered this behaviour? What sustains it? I've had students colour in their characters using this simple concept, always identifying a significant triggering event that remains in the character's psyche. As an actor you use the events which shaped you and rework them to suit the character you're playing - or writing. Inhabiting the characters I create in my stories is one of the best parts of writing. I use these three factors to tease out the character until it feels real and grounded. That famous line from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is relevant here, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it." Until you do that, you can't get to grips with who they really are. Giving the character a psychological perspective This involves tying up the 3 factors I've just mentioned into a psychological profile. They are rarely equal in contributing to the characterisation. Their influences will vary. Let me illustrate with an example. In my Knights' Protocol trilogy, I wanted my protagonist, Robin Goodfellow (Puck) to be an outsider, looking at the events happening to human and fae alike, unable to be loyal to either side. That was my starting point. As a fae character, he was long-lived. He'd known Shakespeare (a critical plot point). That meant his background had to be the most significant part of my 3 factors. So I set about creating his life history. I wrote short stories of his long life, referencing elements of them throughout the 3 novels. But crucially, I had to decide, the impact on a character who has lived for centuries. They've seen and experienced everything. There must be a huge number of triggering behaviours. What does that look like? Plus, why was he unable to forge any loyalty with either race? Why was he so lonely? (He was an outside observer remember). I also wanted him to be unconventional, as Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, he is a fun-loving trickster. Why had that all changed? By focusing on his sexual orientation I could achieve these things. Historically, in the human world, he would have been persecuted for being gay. I tweaked this in the fae world and made his suffering even worse by forcing him into exile, tearing him away from the man he loved. In human society, he wouldn't have anyone to share this loss. Therefore, of secondary importance, his relationships. They would all be heavily influenced by his background. His isolation arose out of bitterness and repressed anger, built up over centuries. His motivation would arise out of these two factors. To explain this idea simply, I allocated Robin's character roughly 50%to his background, 35% to relationships and 15% to motivation. Can you see how the mixture of these three factors can be varied to form a character? A Common Theme As I worked on Valkyrie and Write Off at the same time, I realised the main protagonist in all of my stories are outsiders. In my Knights' Protocol trilogy it's down to Robin's sexuality, Keir's skin colour, Filidea's gender. Put like that it makes them sound terribly stereotypic doesn't it? In fact my choice came out of my world building, once I'd nailed Robin's character. I'd created a close-minded society and I needed to challenge those perceptions in ways which provoked conflict. Anyway, my next character, Alec in Write Off, was another outsider. Despised by everyone, he'd also retreated into maintaining a profile that drove people away. In The Valkyrie of Vanaheim, Frida's physical appearance and her family secret isolated her and left her feeling like a freak. In each book, their journey has been about how they might be reintegrated. I find that to be an interesting process for people - there is plenty of examples of it to draw on these days. I've reached the conclusion that, as a teacher of English and Drama, I spent my career helping students understand the deeper elements of a story. Those things they might not see straight away, such as a theme that gave the story added importance and depth. It is why my stories try to do the same thing. I believe, as a writer, we have opportunities to make statements about crucial values and beliefs. English and Drama helped me develop the emotional intelligence of my students. Teachers don't just teach their subject (at least, they shouldn't!). They encourage young people to be better citizens, better versions of themselves. I suppose I'm trying to do the same thing with my stories. Actor and Writer I hope this post highlights one crucial point. Actors and writers possess emotional intelligence, it helps them perceive the lives of other people. That emotional 'sixth sense' helps us inhabit characters we invent in ways that make them real and credible. It is a demanding process. It means exploring the psyche of people who live in darkness sometimes. It requires an understanding of the journey they take, how they begin and how they've changed by the time they've reached their destination. Central to this process is the balancing of influences derived from a person's background, relationships and motivation. I think it also about being brave. By that I mean creating characters that challenge us as writers and our readers too. That's a lesson I learned from my writing tutor, it has inspired me to write all my stories. I'm going to end this post with a quote from Leonard Tillerman, a brilliant blogger and champion of self-published writers. In his review of The Bastard from Fairyland, he wrote: "While the plot will keep the reader entirely immersed in the story... so will the characters. What struck me the most about this book is the fact that each character has a carefully designed role which lends credibility to the theme. Even though we are in a deep, dark fantasy world, the characters come across as authentic and memorable. Such character believability is a key ingredient to the success of any fantasy novel." It means a lot when someone you respect says such lovely things about your work. Even better when they recognise what you were trying to achieve as a writer. That makes all the effort worth while! I hope my approach to acting and writing helps you. I'd love to know what you think. Please leave a message or reference the post on social media. My novels are available here.

The Book of Boba Fett: Reflections

The Book of Boba Fett: Reflections

This series, along with The Mandolorian, has redefined the Star Wars universe in my opinion. And it's improved it enormously. I'm talking from a writer's perspective mainly, this post highlights some of the ways the improvements have been made. Let me declare, at the outset, I've never been a massive fan of the Star Wars franchise. Its science fiction so of course I'll watch it, enjoy it even. But I haven't immersed myself in it. Why? My reasons are found in this post. I'd like to celebrate those factors here. Please be aware, this post contains spoilers. The Art of World Building The Book of Boba Fett received considerable criticism for its slow burn. The scenes with the Tusken Raiders drew a lot of that fire. Yet the title of episode 2 is where I'll start with my celebration of the two series. 'The Tribes of Tatooine' expands details of the politics, cultural and societal elements of the planet. But it goes much further. We see these tribes from very different perspectives than before. Where Tusken Raiders were perceived as "baddies" in the films, now we get to explore who they really are. Their culture is tough, ruthless, perhaps even cruel. But, as Boba Fett explains, they have to be tough to survive the landscape. They are warriors too. What Fett learns in this episode stands him in good stead for later (especially in *that* final fight sequence!). For this to happen we need objectivity. A very brave and innovative way to achieve this is Jon Favreau's choice of using limited dialogue. I read somewhere there are nine minutes of no dialogue at all. It requires actors to apply a physicality to the way they communicate. Instantly, the audience has to abandon their traditional methods to find understanding. We watch. We interpret. We are given subtle instructions from the writer to open our minds, not to judge. In the same way Fett is forced to do as he struggles to stay alive. We are plunged into the same experience. It begins our journey into re-evaluating the world we thought we knew. Good Point No.1: World building requires attention to detail. It takes time. Rather than easy-to-achieve but boring-for-the-audience exposition, good writing finds a way to deliver this detail. One of the best ways is for the exposition to appear through the journey of a character. In this instance, Boba Fett's efforts to survive at the hands of the Tusken Raiders. As he learns, as his eyes are opened, so are ours. We see the world through the eyes and experiences of those who live there. Engaging Characters A reason for my lack of enthusiasm in Star Wars has always been the lack of depth to its characters. (With the exception of Rogue One, and to some extent, Solo.) I'm sure this will upset many, so let me emphasize this is my opinion. I've perceived them as rather two-dimensional, necessary to the plot but lacking in background, motivation and relationships. That is not the case in the TV series. I accept a series, which is 4-6 hours in length, allows for greater character development. However, in both instances, Fett and Mando experience a huge turn-around. As a bounty hunter and a man who's tried to kill Han Solo, we cheer when he appears to die by falling into a sarlacc in Return of the Jedi. But his reppearance poses a problem. How can the audience engage with a bad guy? Answer? You make him a good guy. But how? What could ever transform someone so significantly - and in a way the audience will accept? To sound slightly religious - he needs to be resurrected. This is another reason for his encounter with the Tusken Raiders. When you want to transform a character they need to be desconstructed in front of the audience. They must be broken. Driven to the edge of survival. Where, as life slips away, it forces them to confront their experiences and question them. Even then, how do you make the audience cheer them on? In this respect, the role of Fennec Shand is pivotal. She is also broken, close to death, rescued by Fett. But her transformation is incomplete. She hasn't revoked her bounty hunter life. It's all she knows so what else is there? It is Fett's determination to be a better person, to protect others, that leads her to become his ally. He goes further. He points out how their clients are invariably stupid and their commissions will, eventually, lead to their deaths. Isn't it better to die for something where you have greater control? This "double act" over the episodes illustrates not just how a character develops but becomes someone we want to win. There are more of these "double acts" to help identify the transformation of a 'broken' character. In some respects, they are broken too. At least, looking for a purpose. What I liked about both series, is the way minor characters are used as a mirror to the main protagonists. They reflect different aspects of their personalities. For instance, Skad actually challenges Fett in episode 7 as they discuss where to fight the battle and Fett is the one to give way. This shows how far the character has travelled on his transformational journey. You can imagine him shooting the guy in his original profile! Good Point No.2: Characters need depth, derived from their motivation, background and relationships. That's a given (and I would contend frequently lacking in the films). However, in the series we see real transformation. The breaking down and reconstruction of the protagonists. This means, for the audience, we never know what that end product will look like. Will they become good? Can it be sustained? And even then, will we even care? Sustaining our engagement means giving us regular insights into this transformation. That was the purpose of all those flashbacks. They didn't slow the story down, they gave it meaning. Give the protagonists a clearly defined goal Sounds obvious doesn't it? In the first film,the goal centred around the destruction of the Death Star. Simple. We get it. Big, bad space weapon needs to be blown up and only Luke can do it. In the first series of The Mandolorian, the goal is to rescue Grogu and find him a home. Notice how the emphasis is less about objects and structures - now it is about people. The same turns out to be true for The Book of Boba Fett. His goal is to protect the people of Tatooine from the spice-dealing Pykes. Our protagonists are protectors, defenders. Who doesn't love such folk? The emotional heart strings are yanked even harder when the character in peril is so cute! In this respect, the Mandolorian has it easy. Back to the issue of pace for the Boba Fett series. If the goal is to protect a race of people - remembering they are not a homogenous lot - you need to be clever in your world building. Stories are all about thwarting the protagonists from their goal. In this series, there are numerous tribes. They don't get on well together. It's why Tatooine is a terrible place in which to live. It is corrupt and dysfunctional because there is no one to unify it. Cobb Vanth tries with Freetown and suffers for his efforts. His fate foreshadows what is likely to happen to Fett and his allies. Therefore, as the seven episodes develop, we need to see if this broken society can rally behind its saviour. That's why, I think, episode seven is called In the Name of Honour. Mando and Fett are ready to give up their lives to protect others. We return to the possibility of our protagonists being deconstructed and destroyed. The story comes full circle. Except this time, the circle is broken by the action of those people we've met as the story developed. They appreciate the sacrifices being made for them and are willing to fight alongside our heroes. That is what they have become. Heroes are the ones willing to make that ultimate sacrifice. The script needs time to identify the obstacles to the protagonists' goal and show us how each one is removed and momentum is achieved to bring success. Good Point No.3 - the idea of people coming together to assist the completion of the protagonist's goal is not new. What is different in this series, is the emphasis on the goal focusing on people - rather than structures and objects. It scales down the goal and makes it personal. Star Wars is epic space opera. That scale of storytelling can easily lead to the loss of people-led goals. To illustrate my point I'm reminded of Peter Hamilton's classic space opera, his Night's Dawn trilogy. It is a truly epic saga, spanning dozens of planets and with hundreds of characters. Yet, at its centre, are people. They suffer terribly and the story is all about them finding a solution to the horrific wrongs committed. For me, stories that centre on the trials faced by people, they are the ones that hook me. Genre and Style Science fiction is such a broad genre you can do anything with it. There are lots of TV series and stories where the world building has a distinct 'wild west' style - I'm looking at you Firefly! The films missed this chance. They relied so heavily on CGI we (unconsciously?) they left the audience ogling the pretty pictures at the expense of any style. Acknowledging the ground breaking technology used in the TV series, the style has redefined much of the world building. Not only that, it has a consistency which gives it a strong, dynamic identity. It stands out from so many other SF series for this reason. The Book of Boba Fett has a Magnificent Seven vibe to it - the assemby of ethically-challenged individuals to protect a town. In episodes 6 and 7 we're treated to traditional gunfights, in the middle of deserted streets with cameras focused on hands and guns on the hip. There is little sword or light sabre wielding, the battles here are old school. Again, it comes down to detailed world building. Detail consistently displayed achieves this effect. It comes from the context shots where extras run and hide behind their doors, peek out of windows. High angles give us views from rooftops gives us a sniper's perspective and add to the tension. The style offers unification. It's there in the costume, the props. It's in the language of the dialogue - such as in the tone and syntax between Cad Bane and Cobb Vanth and Fett. It's straight out of every western from the 1940s and 50s. Good Point No.4: Adopting the right style in any story is vital. But whatever style it is, it must be consistent. It needs to be seen, heard and felt everywhere. The audience must be immersed in it. For me, this is another failure of the films, they lacked this cohesion. The TV series has it in abundence. Finally I like to define storytelling by using the analogy of weaving. The warp and weft of threads combine to form a pattern we see, without being aware of how it's constructed. But if the warp and weft are not accurate and consistent, the pattern fails. We see the mistakes, the pattern is flawed. To continue with my analogy, the warp is the story's characters, the weft is its world building. Together they create a narrative which engages us, keeps us entertained and offers the occasional surprise. The Mandolorian and The Book of Boba Fett achieve this weaving exercise in style. It disappoints me when people judge a story before it is complete. Complaints about the opening two or three episodes were ill-judged because no one could know how they would come together at the end. The picture was far from complete. Simple moments in episodes 7 filled me with wonder. Such as the way Fett kills Cad Bane - using what he learned in episode 2. The reappearance of the rancor in the final battle is another moment of the story coming full circle. There are many more. I contend that Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni have redefined the Star Wars universe in ways which have improved it enormously. I am now a fan! I can't wait to see what happens next.

A fantasy writer's guide to dragons

A fantasy writer's guide to dragons

What is it about dragons that make them so popular? In fantasy realms they must be the most common form of fauna you can encounter. It's a serious question. One I'm going to try to answer in this post. They are a fascinating species and I think part of that fascination comes down to their diversity. I have to confess, dragons appear in each of my stories. In The Knights' Protocol trilogy, Cochrann is a red wyvern and she's one of my favourite characters. Yes, she has a character. She is intensely loyal, highly intelligent (compared to the lumbering conventional dragons I include) and impetuous, performing rescues and putting people at risk in equal measure. In The Valkyrie of Vanaheim, I introduce lyndworms, a flying, fire-breathing dragon with a snake-like body. The lyndworms were part of the world's vicious fauna and nothing more. Cochrann was different. From the start I wanted her presence to be not only unusual but unpredictable, she would mix things up in ways people couldn't. Animals are good for that, we can't always control them, we can't predict them either. The Wyvern Having introduced this sub-species, I'll start this guide with the wyvern. It is bipedal and usually depicted with a tail ending in a diamond or arrow-shaped tip. The Oxford English dictionary provides 14th century references to a mixture of Middle English and Latin to define a snake-like beast. Later uses compare it to a javelin. In 1682 it appears in heraldry documents where it has two legs. Their use in heraldry made them a common feature in coats of arms (they're used now to represent Wales and Somerset) as well as kingdoms in Portugal and France. The Welsh wyvern, called Ddraig goch, fought the white Anglo-Saxon dragon which, according to Merlin, meant the English would one day be subdued by the Welsh. The monstrous dragon featured in Beowulf was also a wyvern. Traditionally, wyverns are not firebreathers. Within fiction this fact gets overlooked. Smaug is a wyvern but strafes his world with fire! In my trilogy, my Cochrann had acid saliva. Why use a wyvern in a story? If you dispense with the generic idea of 'dragon', most dragons in films/TV are wyverns because they are intelligent and so can be trained. That leads to the possibility of them being ridden. Look at dinosaurs, the cleverest were the velociraptors, they had to be to survive because they were smaller. In the animal world, isn't it usual for the large, cumbersome creatures to be less intelligent? With intelligence comes character. You can give a wyvern a personality. Not to be overlooked, they can walk. So, like a pet they can follow someone, go on a journey with them. That gives the animal far greater versatility as a character in the story. Now for the fire-breathing bit! Isn't that rather cliched these days? It might have looked good but having dragons destroy Kings Landing in Game of Thrones was such a cliche. It provides the writer with ways to destroy things but fire-breathing dragons leads the reader to expect that kind of weaponisation. Wyverns offer an alternative, they bring you unpredictability. And personality. Chinese Dragons Traditionally, there are nine Chinese dragons. Nine is a magical number in Chinese culture. Throughout China's long history, dragons have represented power - in many forms - a useful point of reference for any writer. My good friend, author of the Gensoki series, Virginia McClain uses them to good effect. Each one has a connection to the elements but also display different characters too. This coin, from the Australian mint, shows all nine. 1: Qiu Niu - With a head resembling a yellow dragon, Qiu Niu is often depicted on the head or bridge of traditional Chinese instruments. The eldest of the nine dragon sons, the Qiu Niu, is generally considered the patron of musicians and a protector of homes. 2. Ya Zi - is highly aggressive and loves to fight. His bad temper and powerful nature sees him frequenting battlefields, and his appearance signifies victory in battle while enhancing the morale and strength of soldiers. His image is often carved on edged weapons to make them more powerful and accurate. 3. Suan Ni - Suan Ni resembles a lion, loves fire and smoke, and can be found on incense burners and as a guardian in front of doorways. Associated with Chinese Buddhism, his profile can also be seen on the seats of the Buddha statues. 4. Bi Xi - The Bi Xi dragon has the body and shell of a tortoise with the head of a dragon. Capable of carrying very heavy objects, his image is usually carved at the base of heavy stone steles, pillars and gravestones. 5. Bi An - known for his fairness and impartiality. Resembling a tiger, he is wise and can differentiate between good and evil, and honesty and lies. He is usually featured as part of the decoration of courts and prisons in ancient China. His images are ferocious and he has the appearance of a tiger with very large fangs. 6. Chi Wen - lives in the sea and is said to control rainfall. He resembles a fish. The Chi Wen dragon image is often placed on the ridges of palaces and buildings to protect the building from fire. 7. Chao Feng - The fearless risk taker, Chao Feng has the head of a phoenix with the body of a dragon. His image is often used as embellishments on roof corners, particularly in ancient palace architecture. 8. Pu Lao - Known for his loud crying, Pu Lao lives by the sea and is often cast as the handles on the top of a bell. He was afraid of cetaceous creatures such as dolphins and whales, and upon seeing a cetacean he would shout loudly in fear. It became a tradition for people to put his likeness on clocks with a carved wooden cetacean as the bell-striker in order to increase the vibration of the toll. 9. Fu Xi- has the head of a lion with a dragon’s body. Known for his love of literature, his image is often found in libraries and on book bindings, and depicted on graves and monuments. 10. Dragon Father - The legendary Dragon is said to be the most potent symbol of good fortune in the pantheon of Chinese symbols. A benevolent creature with power over water, rainfall, hurricanes and floods, it also signifies power and strength. Since nine is noble number in Chinese culture he also symbolizes harmony. Why use Chinese dragons? The eastern culture features in a number of fantasy stories recently, its mythology has remained untapped for a long time. As is the case with Virginia McClain's dragons, they bring a connection to the environment and the elements, linking them to forms of magical realism. Their diversity of appearance also offers a welcome break from our traditional perception of dragons. This means that, rather than using the dragon as a threat, it can be a magical ally, or won over in some way. For example, imagine how you could use Bi An, the tiger-like dragon with its ability to discern truth from lies, how might that idea be used in a story? What does th creature do to anyone who lies? Chinese dragons offer originality, diversity and connections to the environment as well as magic! Wyrms Sinuous, the most snake-like of all the dragons, the wyrm has a distinctly British identity. Perhaps the most famous is the Lambton Wyrm from Northumbria. The tale tells of a huge snake-like creature that kills anything it encounters until it is despatched by John Lambton, son of the local aristocrat, back from the Crusades. The creature is supposed to be long enough to wind around a hill seven times and uproot trees when thrashing its enemies. The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh is another legend from Northumbria (obviously Snake Paradise) where a princess turns into a dragon - the Laidly Worm. It's a fairy tale saga of evil queen, jealous of her beautiful step-daughter, Margaret, casting a spell on her. Her step-son, Childe Wynd returns from his journeys to discover the crime. He kisses the dragon, rather than fight it (hmm??) and it turns back into his sister (hmmm???). He then uses his own magic to turn the evil queen into a toad. There's another wyrm found in Knotlow, Derbyshire (its lair was an ancient volcanic vent in a hill) and another in Knuckerholes in Sussex. There are also Norse wyrms to think about too. Fafnir turned into a wyrm after suffering a curse. Jörmungandr was Loki's middle child and became the Midgard wyrm after Odin threw him into Earth's oceans (not what a grandfather should do, surely?). Lagarfljótsormur is the Icelandic version of the Loch Ness monster, it lives in a lake first witnessed in 1345, there is even a video of the creature from 2012. Finally we mustn't forget the Nidhogg which gnaws at the roots of the World Tree, Yggdrasil. It was a major villain, guilty of murder, rape and oath-breaking - the 3 greatest crimes in the Viking world! Why use Wyrms? Wyrms appear to be a sub-species of dragon which offers the writer an animal intent on bringing violence and great harm. Hunger appears to be a common factor, they kill to eat. Their sinuous bodies, like boa constrictors, enable victims to be crushed in the coils. Little to redeem them then! Dragons from Greek Mythology Quite a few of our pre-conceived ideas of dragons comes from Greek mythology, they feature in lots of films and stories - think about all those wonderful monsters created by Ray Harryhausen for films like Jason and the Argonauts. Perhaps most famous is the Lernaean Hydra - a dragon-like water serpent with fatally venomous breath, blood and fangs. The creature was said to have anywhere between five and 100 heads, although most sources put the number somewhere between seven and nine. For each head cut off, one or two more grew back in its place. It had an immortal head which would remain alive after it was cut off. It was eventually killed by Heracles during his twelve labours. There is also the earth dragon, Python. It lived in caves in Delphi, a name you might recognise. Apollo killed the beast in its home which belonged to the oracle. The location became known as Pythia because of the rotting corpse of the dragon that remained in the cave. (Pythia, Greek for stinky cave!) The Colchian dragon lived on Colchis, it was enormous and said to never sleep, rest, or lower its vigilance. According to Ovid's Metamorphoses, the monster had a crest and three tongues. Jason fought and killed it on his way to find the golden fleece. Why use Greek dragons? The Hydra is a particularly useful dragon to use because of all those heads and its ability grow new ones. Having blood that could kill you (in the films the Hydra's blood was like acid), it posed an even greater threat. In this mythology, dragons presented threats that needed to be defeated in battle. Doing so offered the hero a means to demonstrate their heroism, almost as a rite of passage. The Sea Serpent Dragons don't only live on land. Interestingly, we tend to refer to them as serpents in oceans, perhaps it's because of the alliteration! For many tales set on ships, the dangers posed by such things are enormous and varied. A quick search for images on Google showed some amazing real life images of skeletons and bodies of creatures which offer explanations for the creation of such beasts. Anyway, here are a three classics. The Leviathan is a dragon from the Old Testament, a beast created by a vengeful Yahweh that could boil the sea so sailors' skin melted - that's the kind of god you want to worship! The beast was never defeated and it has passed into popular culture as any enormous beast in the oceans. I've already mentioned Jormumdandr in the Viking dragons section - it lived in the sea, it was enormous and destroyed shipping. So big it could wrap itself around the globe and swallow its own tail. Beliefs maintain that when it stops doing this, the earth will self-destruct. Cheerful eh? Cetus is a generic Greek sea serpent, the most famous version is when one is used by Poseidon who sends one to devour Andromeda. This was done to punish Andromeda’s mother for making a boast that her daughter was more beautiful than all of the nereids (other creatures of the sea – one of which was Poseidon’s wife). Andromeda was saved at the last minute by Perseus, but it is noted that he was only able to overcome Cetus by using Medusa’s head. Why use sea serpents? I'm reminded of RJ Barker's brilliant Tide Child trilogy where the vessels are formed from the skeletons of giant sea creatures. If you haven't read these stories, you should! Pirates and monsters galore told in RJ's epic style, full of adventure and excitement. The three examples I've used rely on one thing - size. Human beings might like to think we are masters of the planet but we're shown otherwise when we travel across large areas of ocean. Their depth, their expanse, offers places for monsters to live undisturbed. It's from such places Godzilla appears, isn't it! Like the Japanese dragon, it can be amphibian, making it a threat on land as well. They provide the writer with truly epic opportunities to bring mayhem to communities. Miscellaneous There are other forms of dragon, hybrids and chimeras which need to be included. The Cockatrice is Wyvern-like in appearance except for its head - which looks like a cockerel. This image is from a transome window in Belvedere Castle in New York's Central Park, 1869. It still has the wings, tail and legs. They were occasionally used in British heraldry too. In The Worm Ouroboros by ER Eddison, published in 1922, we get a good description: 'Therewith came forth that offspring of perdition from its hole, strutting erect on its two legs that were the legs of a cock; and a cock's head it had, with rosy comb and wattles, but the face of it like no fowl's face of middle-earth but rather a gorgon's out of Hell. Black shining feathers grew on its neck, but the body of it was the body of a dragon with scales that glittered in the rays of the candles, and a scaly crest stood on its back; and its wings were like bats' wings, and its tail the tail of an aspick with a sting in the end thereof, and from its beak its forked tongue flickered venomously.' The Basilisk is another strange creature that might have a dragon role to play in a story. According to the Naturalis Historia of Pliny the Elder, the basilisk of Cyrene is a small snake, "being not more than twelve fingers in length", that is so venomous, it leaves a wide trail of deadly venom in its wake, and its gaze is likewise lethal. Apparently, our Roman expert maintained it could be killed by the smell of a weasel. Pliny didn't mention how the weasels felt about this use of their species but it might go some way to explain why they became villains in Toad of Toad Hall. It was known as the King of the Serpents, which may be down to the crest on its head which looks like a crown. In mythological sources they were supposed to be able to breathe fire - I bet the weasels wouldn't have been happy with that news. Why use a Cockatrice or Basilisk? I think there is something exotic about these beasts. I can imagine encountering a basilisk in an underground tunnel where it could prove dangerous. Admittedly, in daylight it doesn't look quite as fearsome as you might want. But with all those legs, I bet it's fast! The cockatrice is something else though. Like a wyvern, it could pose a real threat with those claws, swishing tail and a vicious beak. Being able to fly offers aerial combat too! Can you imagine a squadron of these things? Conclusion If you're looking for novels where dragons play a significant role, here are a few suggestions: Eragon is the first book in The Inheritance Cycle by American YA fantasy writer Christopher Paolini Temeraire by Naomi Novik is about Captain William Laurence and his fighting dragon Temeraire as they are thrown together to fight for Britain during the turbulent time of the Napoleonic Wars Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey, the classic Dragonriders of Pern series. A must! Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb - part of her Rain Wild Chronicles, another classic! A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan - Victorian biography in style, this is a different take on the usual kind of dragon story. Dragons of Autumn Twilight (Dragonlance Chronicles Book 1) by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman introduces a world where dragons arrives and the old gods depart The Fire Within by Chris d'Lacey is the first in a series of low fantasy stories for children Dragon Champion by EE Knight is the first in the Age of Fire series about a grey dragon who searches for others of his kind amidst of world ready to kill him and every other dragon The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde is aimed at kids but the usual Forde brand of anarchic humour remains. Even when magic release form B1-7g hasn't been filled in correctly! There are lots more (of course!) but I've tried to provide a mixture of genres and audiences, some classics and some that are less well known. Add your own recommendations in the Comments section. It's obvious we love dragons in our fantasy stories, just as we do in our different cultures. Isn't it incredible that, lost in the depths of history, stories were told about dragons across the world and they appear in they now appear in the mythology of those cultures. Dragons can do a lot more than breathe fire and fly. The diversity of the species offers more opportunities for writers, I hope I've proved that in this post and provided the inspiration needed to write new stories.

ALWAYS judge a book by its cover

ALWAYS judge a book by its cover

When I self-published my first novel I made mistakes. The first and biggest was creating my own cover. I did it for the best of reasons - I couldn't afford to pay anyone to design it for me. A few months later, with sales flat-lining and advice from other writers, I learned a vital lesson. Money may be in short supply but employing a cover artist is an investment. The old adage about never judging a book by its cover is true in its metaphorical sense but it's not when it comes to selling your book. According to Bookbub, the book sales site, a good cover increases click rate by 30%. The cover tells us a lot: the genre the tone of the book, we can sense what to expect it's a hook. It encourages the reader to look inside, even read the first page at least your brand, a way for readers to recognise you as an author The book cover is your shop window and you don't want it to look like its a charity shop! (I'm sure lots of charity shops have lovely window displays but I'm talking about how merchandise is presented.) The Book Cover and the Genre To return to my shop window concept, the cover needs to identify the genre quickly and explicitly. You have three seconds to grab your potential buyer's attention, just as you do as you wander past a shop window. The genre must scream its identity. BUT, it must do more. It needs to communicate the basic trope of your story. The main theme or concept of your story needs to be visible. I can illustrate this best by using the fantasy genre. It's full of tropes which dictate distinctive cover designs. In such a wide-ranging genre, readers have preferences and they need identifying quickly. The sub-genres often use similar tropes so you can work out what the story from the cover. Here are 4 examples: The Chosen One is a common trope. The focus is on the protagonist and their journey (physical or metaphorical) so that's why the cover will focus on that person primarily. I've used this Harry Potter design because of the heroic posture, almost Henry V in its call to battle! Grimdark stories use a trope with is more about the setting of the story. As with the cover for Mark Lawrence's story, the cover tells us much about the focus on death and battle. Look at the colour palette compared to Harry Potter! The main character's cloak and cowl also depict someone who is far from a traditional hero. Urban fantasy includes a number of tropes but crucial to the design of the cover is the need for the right setting. It needs to depict a place we will recognise: a cityscape perhaps? Something which shows a modern world but which contains supernatural elements too. Steampunk as a sub-genre uses the trope of alternative technology so it's all about the setting again. China Mielville's stories are good examples, none better than the world of Perdido Street Station. Its quasi-Victorian setting is captured beautifully in its cover, letting you know what to expect. Being clear about the genre is easy. It's what the story delivers within that genre where you need to focus your efforts. Your designer will want to know this right from the start, it will help them get a sense of what you want. Think about the primary trope of your story. Approaching 50% of all covers focus on a person (or two if their relationship is the focus) because the story is about the development of their character. So begin by distilling the essence of your story into a basic image. Typography An element I discovered after my mistake of creating my own cover was the importance of the typography on the cover. I'm not just talking about the font you choose. It's what you do with the words. For some stories, often those without a character focus, the formatting of the title itself communicates a message. Here are some examples. Do your research though. Look at what others have done within your chosen genre. The examples I've just shown are unlikely to appear in a fantasy story for instance, world building and character matter more. But in thrillers and crime novels, this format is quite common. But it's important to know what message the font sends to your reader. Serif fonts represent eternity and formality. Modern serifs are associated with gloss and haute couture. Slab serifs are used to grab attention and highlight the content’s importance. Sans serif fonts are neutral and simple. The concise font is more authoritative and intense. Bold fonts relate to importance and strong key messages. Handwritten fonts are mostly elegant and distinctive. Geometric fonts go well with kids’ topics and have a retro vibe to them. Mono-spaced fonts send a clear and sharp message. Rounded fonts are friendly and lively. Vintage typography is trendy and cool. Grunge font refers to something mystical and magical. Notice the importance of being clear about your book's themes and basic concept. Everything must point to it. Mixing up the message risks losing your audience because they will be confused. Look at the covers above and the font choices made there - such as the slab serif font for The Fall and how it grabs attention. Research the kind of fonts used within your genre. I like to go to Amazon and type in a genre and pay attention to the books I know nothing about and try to guess what the story is about before reading the story's premise. It's a great way to see if the author's messaging has worked. If you're looking for a site to download fonts that extend beyond what you have now, here are a handful to get you started: 1001 Free Fonts - a great site which organises fonts both alphabetically but also by category/genre FontSpace - has 37,000 free fonts, organised into categories (pictorial, foreign, old style etc) but you can also copy/paste your title into the site to see what it looks like in different fonts DaFont - lots of free fonts, organised via alphabet & category, lots of fun fonts to see here. One final point about your font and format. Know your target audience. Be clear how the message + font + format speaks to them. Don't alienate them by giving wrong impressions - eg. fonts that look childish and suggest a young audience, or font/format suggesting quirky for a serious story. The Layout The best tip to offer here is to keep it simple! Minmalism is your friend. It's tempting to want to put lots of information in the cover. Not just the title and author but the targline, the series in which the story appears, promotional quotes. The point to remember takes us back to my opening - readers will look at your cover for THREE SECONDS. If there is too much to look at, they are more likely to move on. Simplicity is everything here. Decide what is essential. Remember that quotes and taglines can appear on the first inside page - or the back cover in paperback. Likewise, consider the colour palette of the cover. (Mentioned earlier). Colour conveys meaning, often subconsciously, bear this in mind. Serious = darker hues, light-hearted = bright, light, garish primaries. For further hints - and examples of fonts suitable for specific genres, go here. Dave Chesson at Kindlepreneur has some helpful tips too. He uses this example to prove the point I've been making so far. As you can see, they are covers for the same book but developed with these tips in mind. Look how the font tells us more, establishing the historical elements of the story. The photo is the same but the colour palette and mistiness of the photo captures the tone. The tagline remains but it doesn't dominate now - if interest has been piqued in those first three seconds, the reader will want to read it. By reducing its size, the cover is simpler, more minimal, more effective. The Cover Designer Finding the right designer is important. No surprise there. Keep in mind that the two of you are entering into a creative relationship. Like with any relationship, communication is key. You need to be crystal clear what you want. Vague descriptions lead to frustration on both sides. Look for someone willing to discuss ideas with you, who really want to understand your vision. Here are a few basic tips: Find out what they've done before (ideally from your research, not only what they show you). Find out if they are familiar with your genre and have experience of working in it Send them a "mood board" which displays details of the story, its protagonist, the setting, its themes. If you can, provide images which illustrate these things. (You can do simple copy/paste from Google as its only between the two of you.) Decide what kind of designer you want. Are you looking for an illustrator who will create a bespoke cover? If so, this will be more expensive but your cover will be unique. Or your designer may buy a stock image and manipulate it so it meets your brief. It's worth checking out stock image libraries to find the kind of picture you want on your mood board. I use Deposit Photos because their prices are reasonable. Free images (and therefore more frequently used) can be found on Pixabay. Or you can try other libraries; such as Shutterstock and iStock. Talk to your potential designer about their understanding of the market in which you're planning to work in. What are the current trends? What style choices are there within that genre? What are the best selling authors /publishers doing that you might copy/avoid? (Do they know??) Where can I find my designer? Let's start with the larger organisations. If you want more advice and links, try Reedsy. You can find designers who operate from platforms such as Fiverr, they outlines their services, contact details and typical prices - which can start at a fiver! It's a cheap means of getting a decent cover but remember, the cheaper the price, the less likely the artist may want to engage in lengthy discussion. Over at Creative Penn, they have a lengthy list of folk along with a short profile so you can select the right ones to approach. There is also 99 Designs which gives you access to a community of designers. There is also Deviant Art with their designer community. If you're active on social media, you can find people there too. Some personal recommendations from me, based on their reputations from my fellow authors as great designers and nice people: Phil Williams - he has to go first, Phil designed my covers! He's also a highly successful author so he understands both sides of the business. On Twitter @fantasticphil Luke Tarzian - on Twitter @luke_tarzian - another designer and author, based in California Felix Ortiz - highly successful and with stunning designs, he designs for famour fantasy authors like Rob J Hayes and Michael R Fletcher. Deranged Doctor Design - used by the amazing Travis Riddle Cherie Chapman CK Book Cover Design Conclusion It's a complex business, creating a cover for your book, isn't it? And, keep in mind I haven't mentioned anything about how the cover of your book needs to be visual in a way that will translate into social media and personal branding. Something which only occurred to me as I published my fourth book - the need for all your books to have a recogniseable brand. See what I mean with mine? The font is identical, as is a vibrant colour palette and character-led central image. As I mentioned earlier, you need covers to convey an impression in 3 seconds and that should include a reaction which goes something like "Oh yeah, I recognise that!" The use of the font allows me to use it in other contexts where the books are promoted, again providing that mental connection. But it also captures the things I've listed in this post - at least, I think they do. And a few quotes from people who know a thing or two: “Good cover design is not only about beauty... it’s a visual sales pitch. It’s your first contact with a potential reader. Your cover only has around 3 seconds to catch a browsing reader’s attention. You want to stand out and make them pause and consider, and read the synopsis.” Eeva Lancaster Being Indie: A No Holds Barred, Self Publishing Guide for Indie Authors "Readers are naturally drawn to books that have a familiar appearance and brand to those that they have previously enjoyed." Aimee Coveney "A unique book cover design is a way to attract potential readers and buyers of a book. An independent author should pay heed to the concept of the cover, colors, typefaces, and simplicity of the design. But it should be a scalable design that appears excellent in smaller sizes for online selling of the book." Designhill "In my opinion, the most common mistake people make when designing book covers is definitely using poor, inappropriate and outdated fonts. Add an obvious drop shadow to it and you’ll get a “DIY – looking” cover. Also, using non-complementary colors pretty much destroys the cover too, as well as using too many colors. Undoubtedly, the artwork you create is very important too and it has to be well done and eye-catching, but the crucial mistake are the fonts, because no matter if the artwork is good, if you go wrong with fonts, you’ll ruin the whole cover, which will result in your cover looking unprofessional, which then will lead to you losing sales." Mila Book Covers Finally, for some light-hearted messaging, watch this 17 minute TED talk by Chip Kidd, an expert on book cover design. There's great advice and laughs along the way. I hope you find this post helpful, the links have helped you find what you need. Good luck with your cover design - may it increase your sales big time!

Saving the world - again!

Saving the world - again!

I'm tired of the 'the end of civilisation as we know it' scenarios. In so many speculative fictional worlds, in films and TV, there's an increasing emphasis on world (or universe) ending climaxes. When you look at Phase 4 of what Marvel is doing, there have been so many threats, they've had to introduce a multiverse. There have been threats to Earth first of all, when that wasn't enough, the dangers engulfed the universe as half the population vanished. Now that's not enough either. If you watched the animated What If? series, its climax envisioned the premise of all the universes being threatened! How much longer until it appears in live action stories? It creates a problem. When stories employ threats that grow in this way, they reach a point where that threat loses its edge. It's the problem of formulaeic storytelling, a pit Marvel have fallen into, where every story has an end-of-the-world feature at its core. It doesn't need to be that way. Shang-chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a break from that formula that I enjoyed a lot. Sure, the world and its inhabitants, face a terrible threat. Will they save the world? Of course they will. But that's not what the story is about. The threat isn't disclosed until the start of the third act! Even then, the battle only lasts a few minutes. No, the story is about the resolution of the conflict between father and son. What I loved in this film was its focus on character arcs, the special effects, the monsters and the like were all secondary factors. It was the story of a family torn apart by grief and loneliness. Surely, characterisation should be the focus of every epic story, shouldn't it? When you look at Russian literature, for example, the same is true. Events may happen over long periods of time, over sprawling landscapes and amidst catastrophic wars - but the story is about people. A family, a love triangle, a community. For me, a victim of this permanent world-ending storytelling is Dr Who. I speak as a one-time fan, someone who watched the first episode in 1963 astonished at the originality of theconcept. But, over time, (pun intended!) what kept me engaged wasn't the Daleks or Cybermen and the like, it was the character of the doctor. Hartnell created a grumpy, deceitful and impatient doctor, Troughton tweaked him with greater eccentricities, Pertwee I'll miss out, Tom Baker turned him into a wild, unpredictable and loveable rogue. Yes they all faced threats, often to the world as we knew it. BUT, the story was about how the Doctor reacted to it, how his unconventional approach offered solutions. The Doctor was the focus of the story, not the threat created by the baddies. Now the role is cute, mildly amusing, vanilla. And like every other SF programme! That's my opinion! These days commercial factors rule the storytelling. Daleks return again and again because they are popular. In one series they try to take over the world/universe/time - they're defeated. But guess what, they come back again to do the same thing a series or two later. For a story based on time travel, this is taking deja vu too far! Back to Marvel for another example. I listened to the film critic, Mark Kermode, review The Eternals and he began by making a point which is relevant here. This is what he said - the Eternals are a bunch of god-like beings who have vowed not to interfere in human affairs. Yet the story has them getting involved because they love us so much! With that in mind, why didn't they get involved when Thanos wiped out half the population? The answer is a contrived one. Just like Captain Marvel couldn't intervene initially - because she was too busy saving other civilisations on the other side of the universe. Really? Storytelling falls apart when it becomes so contrived we need to escalate the threat to keep our audiences engaged and coming back for more. Surely, there are only so many times we can believe in these end-of-the-world scenarios before we tire of them? Good storytelling doesn't work when it becomes formulaeic. Here's another example. As a teenager in the 60s, I loved Spiderman as a character because I could relate to him. He was nerdy and nervous, just like me. I bought the comics because I could imagine myself in those situations. Yeah, Green Goblin, Venom, Mysterio and the others put him in danger all the time and that kept me hooked. But I bought the comics because the character was flawed, a teenager given superpowers who makes mistakes - because teenagers don't possess the reasoning skills to deal with them like an adult. In the Tom Holland iteration of the franchise, much of that is ignored for the epic battles, the humanity-saving bit. Worse still, far worse, Spiderman is now powered by Stark technology, a Spiderman for the twenty-first century perhaps? But it only means his character gets lost, diluted at best and the story becomes about the battle. Will he win? Will he survive? Answer? Of course he'll win, of course he'll survive. What do we learn about his character? How does it feature in the story? In my opinion, it rarely does and I've lost interest in that franchise for this reason. For those of you who grew up watching British TV in the 70s, you're bound to remember Blake's Seven. A story of the crew of a stolen spaceship, trying to survive against a cruel and ruthless dictatorship intent on destroy them. A space age Robin Hood against the Sheriff of Nottingham. It was done by the BBC, following on from the success of Dr Who. The series had the same low budget but great scriptwriters (created by Dalek maker, Terry Nation). The sets were truly awful, the special effects even more so. Like Dr Who, much of the filming took place in quarries! But, the series worked because of its characters. The crew fought endlessly, they didn't trust each other but they had a common enemy so they had to collaborate in order to survive. It's become a common feature in lots of stories. I use Blake's Seven to illustrate my point - the success of this series, despite its truly awful production values, lay in its characters. It didn't need the world to end. We wanted to know how the characters would continue to survive. Before anyone points out that my latest book, The Valkyrie of Vanaheim, has a world-endangered threat running through its plot, let me defend the reasoning. The focus, as this review points out, is about how its main character, Frida, deals with this crisis. She is flawed, bitter and isolated so she has no loyalty to other people. Yet she has to make a decision whether to save them or not. The focus isn't about if she stops the baddie - it's about the choice and the factors that complicate this choice. What's my point? I suppose it's this: there is a danger in the climax dominating the story to such an extent it wipes out the details that matter. The characters are overwhelmed by the story. I see this happening in so many of the superhero films and TV series especially. Yet, go back to the source materials, the comics, the emphasis there was always on the characters. Films and TV now offer budget-busting SFX that audiences seem to expect - more than the story, it seems. Or, producers think they do! I worry this trend is reflected in so much speculative fiction. The end of the world as we know it, features as the climax to so many stories. I find myself avoiding them more and more for stories where the threat is less epic, where character interaction dominates, where relationships are explored, where meaningful and intelligent themes are discussed. There are only so many times when a hero is beset with saving the world before it prompts a yawn and a feeling of 'here we go again'. So let's dial back the dangers and allow characters to shine shall we?