Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Write What You Know

"Write what you know" is a piece of advice to new writers that can be very inhibiting. What do we know? If writers restrict themselves to writing about their experience, we would have a lot of boring books about humdrum lives. Whole genres would not exist: fantasy, science fiction, paranormal. But there is a grain of truth in the saying. We should write what is real, even if what we write is fantasy. So how do writers do that? This is a question that fascinates me.

In some cases the answer is obvious: Tolkien may have been living the quiet life of an academic in Oxford, but he was a world expert on Anglo Saxon and Norse mythology. However the Lord of the Rings is more than a rehash of old stories. The book is seen through the eyes of the hobbits. Their tale is profoundly influenced by Tolkien’s experience as a young officer in the trenches of World War I. The hobbits are the British regular soldiers, whose stoicism and good humour Tolkien so admired. As an officer Tolkien had led them over the top into the Mordor-like landscape of no-man’s land. They bring a sense of reality to the book.

Most writers do not have such rich personal sources on which to draw. But we do have the reality of our fantasies. We can take that reality and spin it into something much larger. The Bronte sisters’ novels are a good example of this.

I have three main sources of inspiration for my novels. Mother of Wolves was a historical fantasy novel, so clearly history is a massive source of material for me. History gives an almost unlimited range of themes, settings and storylines. For Mother of Wolves I drew on the history of the persecution of the romanies (gypsies) in Europe. I discovered that in the 18th century they were hunted by men with dogs and guns as if gyspies were simply vermin. Such a hunt features in my book. The central character is a woman who rises to be a gypsy queen, so I used the examples of great women leaders, such as Boudicca and Elizabeth I, to help me understand what it takes to be such a woman. As these women are extraordinary, I could never hope to meet one in person.

The second source is the landscapes, towns and peoples of the world. Travel can be a great aid to the writer, but it is also possible to use the landscapes of one’s homeland and elaborate them. In my magic-realism book Girl in the Glass I created a fictional city. The city is a large port set on several hills and on one hill stands a university which lives in an uneasy relationship with the rest of the city. I have been asked which city it is based on, as it seemed so real to the reader. The answer is that it is several cities combined: Istanbul, Oxford, Victorian London to name three. In Mother of Wolves I came closer to home and set the story along a fictional river, which was based on an enlarged River Severn and the history of the people along its banks.

The third source is my personal experience and those of people I have met. I have been blessed with a loving family and a life untroubled by war, disease or other misfortune, but for about twenty years I worked with people on the margins of society. I am able to draw from their stories of fleeing their homes and countries, of persecution, of homelessness. I’d like to think that I don’t just use them, but I am a writer and writers will find inspiration everywhere.

So should a writer follow the advice "Write what you know"? If we read, study, travel and listen, what we "know" is only limited by our capacity to understand.

Monday, 17 February 2014

hearth/myth: Guest Post - Zoe Brooks

I have written a post for Lynne Cantwell's Hearth/Myth blog which went live today. Lynne is fellow fan of magic realism and a member of the Magic Realism Books Facebook site. But my post is about how I came to have a writing retreat here in the Czech Republic. Click the link below to go to the site and read the whole post

hearth/myth: Guest Post - Zoe Brooks: Alert readers of hearth/myth know that I don't turn this space over to just anybody, and today is no exception. I'm very pleased to ...

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Free Days - the results

The Kindle Select promo is now over and I can begin to consider the results. 

Girl in the Glass, the first book in The Healer's Shadow Trilogy, was free for three days Monday 3rd - Wednesday 5th February. My main paid publicity was on Freebooksy, a site which in the past has been good for me.

Contrary to what other authors have found, the figures for the giveaway compare well with ones I did last year. I had over 6000 downloads on amazon.com and 242 on other amazon sites.  This tells me that I need to look at ways of marketing in the other markets, especially in the UK where previously I have done nearly as well as in the US. But it mostly tells me that Kindle free is still shifting copies.  The book got to 53 in top free kindle books. It was just outside 100 on day 1, in the 80s on day 2 and 53 on day 3. Maybe it would have gone higher if the book had been free for two more days, but I will never know. Listing in the top 100 always results in extra momentum in downloads because your book appears on Amazon's top sales page.

Now for the important consideration: did it result in extra sales?  Yes, there has been a bump: over 100 extra sales in the week since the promotion, so the cost of advertising has been more than covered and I am now into profit. Most of the sales have been of the other two books in the trilogy

The downside is that I got one snarky review albeit a 3 star one. This review referred to the book as "faux memoir", which I presume means that it is written in the first person. It also suggests that there are words missed out and strange punctuation. The book was edited by a professional editor with many years' experience, who suggests that what the reviewer is objecting to is the way the voice of the narrator is portrayed on the page. Oh well, what can I do about it? Not a lot. It's a shame if the review makes potential buyers think that the book has not been edited. But hey ho.

So will I be abandoning kindle select, as I suggested in my last post? I'm not sure. I suppose the best thing to do is to wait a while and then run a 99p promotion as a comparison.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Free or reduced Girl in the Glass


Girl in the Glass is currently free on Amazon until Wednesday as a KDP Select promotion, but this may be the last time I use the KDP free option. Now that all three books in The Healer's Shadow are out as kindle books, I am revisiting my promotional strategy. 

Previously I gave up on distributing Girl in the Glass through Smashwords for the simple reason it wasn't working for me. My sales were so low through Kobo, Nook and Smashwords that they barely registered, so Amazon's offer of free days via KDP Select in return for exclusivity looked worth considering. For a while all five of my books were listed with KDP Select. Certainly for a time the sales boost that took place after the free promos, especially those for the books in the trilogy, made it worthwhile sticking with Amazon. 

But is that still the case? My observation has been that the sales boost is not so great and probably not worth the few inevitable reviews one gets from people who download every free book going and then complain about yours not being in a genre they like! There are several issues here: 
  1. people don't necessarily value anything that is free, 
  2. people (myself included) tend to read books they paid for first
  3. Amazon has changed the metrics so free books doesn't feature so highly in their charts.
  4. people are suspicious of free books, as sadly some badly written indie freebies have queered the pitch for the rest of us. 
So what am I to do instead? 

I follow several blogs for indie writers and am a member of several writers groups on Facebook. On these I have increasingly seen a debate as to whether 99 cents is the "new free".  

Last year Amazon changed how it paid associate sites (sites which advertise Amazon books), as a result it became less viable for sites to earn money from books going free on Amazon. The change meant that sites which writers used to promote free books had to charge for advertising freebies. Those sites which resulted in a sufficient boost in downloads and an equivalent post-free boost in sales are now either over-subscribed or charging a lot more money. Many of the others have simply closed down. Plus of course the change to Amazon's metrics makes actually getting a return on your advertising costs even harder.

The other consequence of the change in both Amazon's metrics and payment of associates is that suddenly reduced-price sales make a lot more sense. More associate sites are offering reduced-price listings (especially 99 cents lists) alongside or instead of freebie ones. And you do at least get 35% of 99 cents rather than 35% of nothing. I'm not sure that psychologically purchasers will value a 99 cent book much higher than a free one, but there might be a slight difference.

So I am reconsidering my position. One advantage with coming off free and KDP Select is that I will be able to publish the books on other platforms and through other vendors. I don't like having all my literary eggs in one basket, but up to now KDP Select promos were pretty much the only show in town that worked for me. I am particularly keen to publish on Kobo as that is the e-reader sold by WH Smith, and so is the main rival in my native UK to Kindle and I want all my friends with e-readers to be able to read my books. Neverthless Kindle massively exceeds Kobo sales here, but then I understand that this is not the case all over the world. And then there are the developments at Scribd around ebook lending, which are really interesting, but they will have to wait for another post.

In the meantime Girl in the Glass is free on http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007IROBEE and on http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B007IROBEE. 

Get it while you can, this may be the last time it goes free. 

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Self doubt

I am currently working on the first draft of my next novel. I say "working" because that is very much how it feels: the words just aren't flowing. Nor are the ideas. Nor is my confidence.

The new book is very different to my previous ones. My first four novels were all set in the same world, and three were narrated by the same character - someone I knew so intimately that I could just slip into her mind and voice without thinking about it. This book is set in the real world - in Prague in 2010 - 2013 in fact. There are two very different POVs in it - one a male detective, the other a young British woman - and both are totally unlike yours sincerely.

 In November I took part in NaNoWriMo and hit the 50,000 word target for this book, but then I lost momentum. One reason was that I needed to do some research. This was achieved with a stay in Prague and questioning various Czech friends. But still the log jam did not shift. I came back to the UK to Christmas, an elderly father in hospital with a broken pelvis and the rest of the family collapsing with various bugs, so no work was done for several weeks.

Now I no longer have any excuse, apart from the usual ones of work and family pressures. But still I can't settle down and start writing again. This is more than the usual problem of starting the engine post-Christmas. I just can't work out what is stopping me. I have at least booked my flights for four weeks in my Czech writing refuge. But my plan was to spend the month rewriting, not writing from scratch. 

I have a number of methods of overcoming writer's block:
  •  going for a walk often works, but with floods and torrential rain that isn't really an option,
  • boarding myself up in my Czech cottage (see above),
  • writing first thing in the morning, indeed working on the story even before I get up (a friend of mine swears by it),
  • forcing myself to sit down and write, which so far has been unproductive,
  • writing something else (such as this!).
I fear it all comes down to self-doubt. I am worried I have not the skill to finish what I have started. There is always in my experience a point in writing my books (usually at 30,000 words) where I have a dark night of the soul, where I doubt my ability to finish. I wonder whether this 50,000 crisis is worse, because the NaNoWriMo target made me press on through the 30,000 word barrier, when I should perhaps have taken a break to reflect on where I was going. I don't know. 

Will I come through this? Watch this space

Thursday, 21 November 2013

The Black Dog - Magic and the Real World

English: A ghostly Black Dog.
English: A ghostly Black Dog. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As you know I am active on the Magic Realism Facebook Group as well as on the Magic Realism group on Goodreads. It is the fate of all people interested in magic realism to be endlessly discussing the definition of magic realism. One of the recurring debates is whether we "white westeners" can really write magic realism. We are so out of touch with our magical roots, that we are playing at magic realism, whereas other cultures still have magic at their centre. There is a lot to say for that point of view. And sometimes I do indeed feel a fraud.

But then I think about my childhood and I realise that in some ways I too grew up in a world infused with magic. I went to a small Church of England school, where I learned the bible stories, which were then reinforced by what I learned at Sunday School. My childhood faith was profound and I believed in a world in which angels and devils existed in equal quantities.

But there was also another magical world that was part of my childhood, one which had its roots in pre-Christian tradition. There was for example the story of the Black Dog. The dog was said to have eyes of fire and be huge in size. It was a supernatural beast, the sight of which foretold death. A hound of hell. Those of you familiar with British folktale will know that the black dog appears all over the British Isles and probably dates back to the days of Herne and the Wild Hunt. Alan Garner features the Hunt in his Brisingamen books. Our town had its own black dog, which sometimes could be seen on Sudeley Hill. Perhaps it is not by accident that hill is also the location of a prehistoric trackway. As children my sister and I believed in the black dog, so much so that on one occasion my sister became hysterical when she thought she saw it at the window. That was about fifty years ago now.

I haven't heard talk of the black dog for many years. But that doesn't mean that the myth has died, merely that it has morphed. What you get now in Gloucestershire and indeed in other areas where the black dog once roamed are sighting of big cats - usually described as black, presumably pumas. Take this account on the BBC - http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-gloucestershire-16760599. 38 sightings of big cats were reported to the Gloucestershire police in four years, and no doubt many more went unreported. I even know someone who claims to have seen the beast. What is going on here? Is it that we are trying to apply a modern realist interpretation (escaped captive animal) to ancient magic?  Maybe you only have to scratch the surface of modern realism to find the magical hiding underneath.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Launch of Girl in the Glass in Paperback

I am pleased to say I have just published the first book of my Healer's Shadow Trilogy as a paperback. It has been out as an ebook for over a year and people have been asking me to produce it as "proper" book all that time. 

It's normally available on Amazon.com for $13.99, but there is a special offer on at the moment, so it is actually $13.29 if you move fast. On Amazon.co.uk it's £8.65. Don't ask me why there's no reduction on the uk book, it's up to Amazon, I had no say in the matter!

Over the next month I will be running more posts about the book and also holding a giveaway of copies of the book and other goodies, as a Happy Christmas to ten of my readers.