Tuesday, January 31, 2012

In Praise of Dragons

This is the Year of the Dragon. While my Chinese astrology sign is the sheep/goat, I have an affinity for dragons, so I'm excited about what 2012 has to bring (besides Mayan doom prophecies and a Venus Transit).

I love dragons. To me, they're powerful creatures who are guardians and protectors. Seven dragons share my office in various guises from a small glass statue to a wall-mounted dragon holding a dagger. I even have books on drawing dragons and dragon mythology. But I've yet to write a dragon-centric story. No doubt there's one lurking somewhere in my subconscious. When I do write that work-in-progress, I'll let you know. :-)  

To celebrate the Year of the Dragon (and my love of animation), I found this PiLi puppet video via a fellow author. The stop motion animation is extraordinary and I love the puppet designs. (Note: To me, animation is an art form and I have a high degree of respect for it.) For those who don't know, PiLi is a puppet show from Taiwan made by Pili International Multimedia.

Please enjoy!


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Writing Lesson #16: How To Be a Publicity Tart

Listening to old-school writers - those whose first book was published forty years ago - I get the impression that the publishing industry is very different these days to what it was. In the old days, once you sold your book, all you had to do was write the next one. The publishing company took care of all the marketing, all the promotion, all the sales. The book jackets didn't always have author pics, there was no Internet, and you could live a lifetime never knowing what your favourite author looked like.

Nowadays, things are different. Writers are expected to play a much more proactive part in promotion. A lot of the small independent publishers don't have PR departments. Even if your publisher does have marketing people in-house, they are going to expect you to put yourself about. Signing sessions, panel appearances, public interviews. Whatever it takes.

I often think that this state of affairs is pretty ironic, given that the act of writing means shutting yourself away, alone, for months at a time, and subsequently writers are, by nature, generally introverts. But the world has changed. At the very least, a writer is expected to have a web presence. I have met one or two that don't, but they tend to be the veteran brand of writer I mentioned earlier - those that had already established a name and and a readership well before the Internet revolution took hold.

For the rest of us, we need a website. And a blog. And a Twitter account. And a Facebook page. Whatever it takes to get our name Out There.

After all, the book being published is only the beginning. It has to sell. And how is it going to sell, unless people know about it? if the e-book revolution is making it easier to get your book published, it's also contributing to a very crowded market place. There are literally millions of books out there. How can you make the casual Amazon browser land on yours and want to buy it?

And this is where it's necessary to become a publicity tart. The Internet makes it easy to reach out to the world, and the more hits you have on the web, the more people will hear about your book.

So where should the aspiring publicity tart start? Get a website, if you haven't got one already. If you're completely ignorant of HTML code, like me, go with something like Weebly, which offers a user-friendly template with drag and drop features. Sign up, choose your template, decide which elements you want on your site, and off you go.

Start a blog. "But why would anyone want to read about my boring life?" I hear you say. It's human nature to be interested in other people's lives. That's why reality shows do so well. Just because something is boring and mundane to you, doesn't mean it's boring to everyone. I find my daily commute into London crashingly dull. But those who don't live in London are often interested in the little glimpses of London life that I experience on the train every day, and sometimes blog about.

Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads and Librarything are all sites that offer you a way of reaching out to lots of people, all of whom could be potential readers, if they like the sound of your book. If you haven't got an Amazon author profile, set one of those up too. It costs nothing, and you can link all of your books to your account. So if your intrepid reader reads your latest book and enjoys it, she can visit your Amazon page to see what else you've written. And that gives her easy access to buying the rest.

Guest blogging is a very good way of promoting your own work whilst supporting other writers, too. If someone does a guest post on your blog, their fans will follow them to your blog. If you guest on someone else's blog, their existing followers will read your post, and they might decide to check our your blog, too. Everyone wins.

I would recommend getting some decent photos done. Remember what I was saying earlier about going years without ever knowing what your favourite author looks like? Those days are over. You could spend a fortune going to a professional studio, and in some ways this could be money well spent, as these studios include hair and make up artists in the price and you know you're going to look great in your pictures. But you don't have to spend loads of money. I went to a friend who's a semi-pro photographer. He charged me a reasonable fee, I did my own hair and make-up and went to his house with a couple of changes of clothing, and I came away with a good set of usable portrait shots. In fact, all of the images that I use online came from the same photo shoot. Once you have them done, you can use them over again, so every time you do an online interview and the interviewer asks for an author picture, you don't have to fret about not having a decent pic to use.

All of this might sound very exhausting. It's worth remembering that most social networking sites allow you to link to other social networking sites. So your post on Twitter will appear on Facebook, and on Amazon too. Your new blog post will appear on your Goodreads page and on your Facebook profile, and anywhere else you care to link it, too, so it reaches everyone at once without having to multiple post.

Does all this work actually make a difference? It's hard to say. Getting yourself 'Out There' is a very long, very slow process. It's now coming up to two years since the first novel was published, and I'm not exactly hitting the best-seller lists. Sales are decidedly modest, to say the least. But the average monthly sales for SUFFER THE CHILDREN in 2011 were roughly double what they were in 2010, so I think the hard work has made just a little bit of difference.

To check on my 'publicity tart' status, I periodically Google my name, just to see what comes up. There's quite a lot out there, actually. Not just the blog and the website, but every guest post and online interview I've ever done is still out there in Cyberspace, and comes back as a hit whenever someone does a search on my name.

Like it or not, publicity is part of the game for authors these days. Don't be afraid of it. Embrace your inner tart and put her to work. If only one reader decided to buy your book because she happened upon whilst surfing the internet, all the effort is worth it.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

What's In A Name?

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet", Juliet says to Romeo, arguing against the notion that he has the name of a rival family.

I have to disagree with her on this point. Names are important. It's why I still insist on being Ms Townsend, even after getting married, and why I don't write under a pseudonym. I've been Sara Jayne Townsend for 42 years, and I'm not about to change now. I've played about with hyphenating the two names, and had a very brief spell, aged about 13, when I decided I preferred 'Sarah' to 'Sara'. But ultimately this is my name, and it might not be very special or significant, at least to anyone else, but it's mine, and it's part of what makes me who I am. With a different name, I'd feel like a different person.

The same can be said for character names. They must be chosen very carefully. I'm writing in the 'real' world, on the whole, so perhaps have an easier job than SF and fantasy writers, who have to make up names. But even so, much thought goes into character names. It's why a book of baby names lives on my shelf of writing reference books, in spite of the fact I am well known as a person with no interest whatsoever in having children.

Sometimes characters seem to name themselves, but the names that attach themselves to the characters conjure up connotations and aspects of how that character is developing in my mind. The young protagonist of SUFFER THE CHILDREN, Leanne, seemed to name herself without a great deal of thought from me. It's a name that to me conjures up connotations of a tough but vulnerable person. It's a fairly modern name, so it suited a young person. The character Carrie, on the ther hand, I purposefully named after a Stephen King novel, because I wanted to pay homage to a writer who has provided a great deal of inspiration to me for most of my writing life.

As for naming the boys, I have to say that when I write men - and I am of the opinion I'm not terribly good at writing men - I do tend to write about my ideal men, as I'm sure a lot of writers do. However, my concept of the ideal man is sensitive, intelligent, introverted and geeky, which pretty much describes Simon in SUFFER THE CHILDREN. The aggressive Alpha male is not a turn on for me. Give me a geek any day.

My first two serious adolescent crushes - the kind when you start writing their names in hearts all over the cover of your school exercise books - were, firstly Mark Hamill (I first saw Star Wars a month before my 13th birthday, and it was a revelation - up until then boys had largely been an alien species for me), and shortly afterwards, Simon Le Bon, when I first got into Duran Duran. So the names Simon and Mark have, to me, always suggested desirable men. No real surprise, then, that the hero of my first published novel is called Simon, and the hero of my current WIP horror novel is called Mark.

It's difficult, though, with names, especially when you're going with real-life ones, because sometimes people you know make the assumption that if you use their name in a book, you are basing the character on them. The horror WIP has characters called Helen, Mark and David. There are people with these names in the writing group, but I can say, in all honesty, that none of my characters are based on anyone in the writing group. If I do base characters on people in real life, I don't give them the same name as the real life person. For instance, the character of Jonathan in DEATH SCENE is based on a real person. But that person's name isn't Jonathan. And that's all I'm prepared to say on that subject.

Where do you get inspiration from for your character names?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Musing About Mysteries

About a week ago, I came across some old radio episodes of Philip Marlowe. Why yes, another distraction, along with Facebook, Twitter... Kidding!

I'm totally into mysteries lately. But I'd never read the masters of the genre so I decided to remedy that. Went to the library and checked out Dashiell Hammett (Maltese Falcon), a Raymond Chandler omnibus, a Ross MacDonald omnibus, Agatha Christie (Murder on the Orient Express), and Ngaio Marsh (Light Thickens). Although it wasn't part of my library list, I happened across Sheridan Le Fanu's Carmilla and 12 Other Classic Tales.

I see Bouchercon will be in Cleveland this year. Now if I could just sell enough books to be able to go. :-) Killer Nashville is another con I'd like to go to this year (re: mystery cons).

Would be even better if The Ripper's Daughter had a publishing contract, too. Maybe it's not so much a paranormal mystery as paranormal suspense. But so far I haven't wanted to run over my characters with a tank carrier. And believe me, after rewrites, retooling characters' motivations & goals, and generally upending a story, I'm ready to kill off all my characters. LOL

Still writing the urban fantasies. Horror, fantasy, and mystery/suspense have always been my favorite genres. I know some people think you should only focus on one genre. I say write the stories you want to write.

Will I succeed at writing mysteries? Hell if I know. But when has that ever stopped me before?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Prep work

I've been in a kind of "project limbo" for a while, with most of my writing being on my serial. I had a few ideas kicking around in my head and it looks like I've finally settled on a story. Or perhaps I should say, a story has settled on me. Of course, the one I’m going with is the one I thought I would put off until I felt more ready to handle it.

The working title is FreakTown and it's very different from anything else I've written, except for having magic as the paranormal element. It's futuristic, dystopian, romance, and has a plot straight out of noir. (Somewhere in the story someone is going to say to the main male character, "Forget it, Nate, it's FreakTown." Just because.) I've already done a lot of world-building and written just shy of ten thousand words, and the need for an actual outline has presented itself. Normally I'm a pantser but with the kind of twists and turns I want for this story, an outline is going to be necessary. Right now I'm momentarily paused on the writing so I can work out more plot details. I'm also thinking of doing some characterization exercises so I can have a better handle on my characters, especially the two main ones. By this I mean, opening up a doc and rambling about their background, what they want, what they're afraid of, strengths, weaknesses, and since I relate to music so well figuring out a playlist for each one.

This is going to be the most challenging thing I've ever written. The world-building, the complexity of the plot, the emotional depth - in just about every way, it's going to be harder. At some point, I think you have to do that. You can stay at a level that's comfortable, or you can decide it's time to level up. I can't say if every writer recognizes when it's time to challenge themselves. It wasn't some cosmic signal that told me, you're ready to take your writing to another level. Because I don't know if I am ready. But the desire is certainly there. The desire is very much there. I figure this will either result in a really good book that might actually have some success, or it will blow up in my face and I'll trunk it. Hopefully the former.

Back to the practical. I think that when you're starting a story that you know is going to be really challenging it's a good idea to give yourself a solid base to jump from. All the world-building I've done helps with that and so should the character exercises. It may not sound as romantic as the idea of a writer pouring a story out with no planning, but the truth is I'm tired of not knowing what a book is about until I've written two-thirds of it.

So I'm off to outline my twisty plot and ramble about my characters.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

IT Fail

My little NetBook has died. I mourn its passing. I have to come to rely on it completely in the last couple of years. Not only is it my lifeline during my early-morning Starbucks writing sessions, but I also take it on holiday with me. This year it's been to Egypt, where it witnessed the birth of my new horror WIP. It's also been to New York.

I used to do all my writing on my Dell laptop, which sits docked in my Writing Corner. When I decided to be more disciplined in my writing, my husband suggested we get a NetBook, which was much more portable than the laptop. It's fair to say it revolutionised my writing habits.

The Dell laptop is seven years old, and has been getting decidedly slower and clunkier of late. In fact, when I turn it on I have to go away and do something else for twenty minutes, because it takes that long to think about things. So my main gift this past Christmas was a shiny new laptop running Windows 7. It's lightning fast in comparison to the old one.

But, on New Years' Day, the NetBook died. Literally. In the morning it was working fine; I went back to it a few hours later and tried to wake it from its sleep mode, and couldn't. Continuous restarts failed to get me past a black screen with the words 'failed to find operating system' on it. Apparently this means the hard drive has failed. Getting it fixed is going to cost almost as much as a new machine, and even then there's no guarantee we can retrieve any of the files.

I am, on the whole, pretty good at backing up. I transfer all my writing files between the laptop and the NetBook regularly, and every so often back them up onto the desktop PC as well. However, I'm not so diligent about doing this every day. I'd made a start on editing my short stories for the collection, and hadn't copied them over anywhere. This wasn't the end of the world, as I was able to retrive my Stumar Press editor's copies from his email to me, and it just meant having to do them again. However, when I had my novel critique session for the second Shara book, I made notes as we went along on the NetBook. That I hadn't copied anywhere, and so it's lost forever. I do have the hard copies from my critiquers, but the idea of making a document with my own notes was so I would have an easy-to-access precis of what I need to fix in the next draft. Bummer.

What's most inconvenient, however, is not having the NetBook to carry to my writing sessions. That I really miss. Not wanting to expose my shiny new laptop to the hazards of Central London, I have had to resort to hauling out the old Dell again and taking that into London with me for my writing mornings. It's very heavy. And as I said before, it takes a long time to warm up.

However, I have learned my lesson with regard to backing up. This little guy in the picture was one of my stocking stuffers. I call him Robbie. He's a USB flash stick with 8GB of memory. I have copied over all my WIPs onto him, and I carry him around everywhere. Every time I write more words, I copy them over straight away.

Having just forked out quite a lot of money on a new laptop, replacing the NetBook has to wait a while. In the meantime, I have to either get used to lugging the ancient laptop around, or I need to rearrange my writing schedule to give myself more time to write at home. Because I really don't want to use the IT fail as an excuse to not write. Much as it's made me realise how much I rely on technology, that would be a poor excuse indeed.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A Perspective on Reviews

Signed up for Goodreads 2012 writing challenge. 52 books. Of course, I'm sure I'll receive those constant annoying "reminders" of how far behind I am and Oh-My-God-If-I-Don't-Do-Anything-About-It-At-This-Exact-Second I'll cause the freaking Apocalypse.

Tough. I enjoy reading. Honest. But writing, revising, and promoting my book plus taking care of my family also have priority.

One goal, though, is to do more reviews, not only of books but also some movies and anime and manga. (I say "some" movies because I really don't watch a lot of them but if one inspires a review, why not?)

Speaking of reviews... OMG, what is it with the brouhaha lately over authors behaving badly and critical reviews? Geez. Look, folks, I got a "negative" review. Yeah, it stung. But I deleted the email and moved on. Right now my biggest worry is how to start the rewrite of this vampire detective paranormal mystery. The reviewer had his/her say and I'm cool with that.

Here's the thing. I got a bad review (with some positive comments). Did the world end? Nope. Did I contract a fatal disease from the review? No again. Did Congress call and tell me I can never write another book? The jury's out on that one... :-) J/K. Anyway, get my point? Life goes on as normal. I'm still going to write my angel UF, my vampire mysteries, my shifter erotica romance, my whatever-the-hell-I-choose-to-write-about. Like my writing or hate it, the worse response would be complete apathy.

This is not false bravado on my part. You see, I've been conditioned early on to deal with rejection. I mean having orange peels thrown at you and your eye nearly put out by someone snapping a rubber band in your face during the middle school years is far more stressful than having someone say, "I don't like your book." At least with the latter, there's little chance of bodily injury. Eating lunch alone, being unable to find a seat on the bus because other students wouldn't move over until the bus driver yelled at them, those are the obstacles, along with physical and psychological abuse, that shaped my past.

It's all about keeping things in perspective. Remember, as always, your mileage may vary.  

Monday, January 9, 2012

Reading goals

I love having a lot of books, but there are just too many dead-tree books in this house. Last year I did a major culling of the herd but I think I'll have to do it again. We've got books that were read once, placed on a shelf, and never read again. Those are the ones that need to go. I don't mind keeping keeps that are loved, that are likely to be read again.

In fact this year I'd like to re-read some of my favorites. Several times I've thought I need to re-read the Dresden Files series but I never get around to it. I've also got a lot of books in the To Be Read pile that I need to get to finally. Some of those have been sitting around for a shamefully long time.

I have a ridiculous number of books on my Kindle that were offered as freebies that I still haven't read. Some of those I might not finish. That happens with the freebies sometimes. But sometimes you discover an author and/or a series you really like, well enough to spend money on. I've had that happen, too.

Every year Goodreads has a reading challenge where you can set a goal for how many books you want to read. I did that last year but I'm not going to do it this year. This year, my reading goals are not about numbers but about putting a dent in that TBR pile and enjoying some good stories.

Do you have any reading goals for the new year?

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Best Books of 2011

I have talked before about how much I like Goodreads. Not only is it a good platform for writers to promote their books, it's also a good way of keeping track of all the books you read. This time last year, I set myself a challenge to read 50 books in 2011. The challenge only works, of course, if you are diligent about logging every book you read on Goodreads. This is not something I have a problem with - I am quite shameless about broadcasting my reading tastes to the world. Some folks, I suspect, will only log on Goodreads the books they want the world to know they're reading, but that's an entirely different story.

In any case, I have no shame and I am somewhat anally retentive about keeping track of my reading habits, so I find Goodreads rather handy. I read 55 books in 2011, so I exceeded my reading goal.

Because you can also rate books on Goodreads, it's fairly easy to pick out which ones you thought were the best. So I am presenting, in this post, my Top 5 Books of 2011. I will add a qualifier here, and say that these are from the perspective of books I read, not books that were published, in 2011. Some of them I have reviewed on Goodreads. Rather than repeat myself here, if this applies I have included the link in the title.

SISTER - Rosamund Lupton. A beautifully-written book about the grief of an older sister, trying to find the killer of her younger sister. Not exactly a cheerful read, but well worth a look if you're interested in the dynamics of family relationships.

NOW YOU SEE ME - SJ Bolton. This is a book I had to review for SHOTS, and it had me hooked. A gripping and genuinely spooky crime thriller that offers an interesting slant on the Jack the Ripper legend.

HEARTSTONE - C J Sansom. The quality of the writing in this series of historical crime novels blows everyone else out the water. Sansom's protagonist, hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake, investigates murders against the backdrop of Henry VIII's court. In this book Henry's wife is Catherine Parr, which possibly means, sadly, there won't be too many more in the series, unless Sansom plans to carry Shardlake through the aftermath of Henry's reign.

CHANGES - Jim Butcher. Harry Dresden, the only wizard in Chicago, inhabits a contemporary alternative world in which magic, vampires and faeries exist, with most humans being oblivious to this fact. Harry, a chivalrous and flawed character, can never resist coming to the rescue of a damsel in distress, and it is the voice of his character - brave; wise-cracking; resourceful - that make this such a fabulous series. Poor Harry has a hard time in this novel, and this is only one to read when you've already got the sequel in your TBR pile, because it ends on a cliff hanger.

THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE - Shirley Jackson. I've wanted to read this since I saw the film adaptation (the original 1963 version - not the 1990s remake). It's classic gothic horror at its finest. Four people gather in a haunted house, as part of an experiment to study psychic phenonema. They all bring their own psychological baggage with them, and the way they interact with each other is as much part of the atmosphere as the ghostly goings on.

So there we have my Top 5 reads of 2011, and happily it represents a cross-section of the genres I read in.

With a degree of overconfidence, I have set myself a new target for 2012 - to read 60 books. It remains to be seen if I will succeed, but my TBR pile is big enough to give me plenty to be getting on with in the foreseeable future.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Happy Anniversary

Today is the first year anniversary of Death Sword's publication. The journey began in November 2008 when I wrote the first draft for National Novel Writing Month.

Death Sword is the first in a planned four-book series focusing on the angels of death. Altogether I have eight or nine angel urban fantasy/paranormal stories planned, some partially written, some finished and ready for revision, and the rest mere ideas. Many of the ideas are developed from information I come across in my research.

If you ask me where I even got the idea to write about angels and demons, I would probably shrug and admit I've no idea. Perhaps it was independent filmmaker Kenneth Anger who piqued my interest with Lucifer Rising. Or a question that seems to be a recurring theme through my stories. What I do know is I enjoy upending notions of good and evil. Maybe not necessarily in Death Sword, but the ride's not over.  

You can buy Death Sword at the following:

Lyrical Press
Barnes & Noble

Monday, January 2, 2012

My Bradbury experiment

Self-publishing is something I've had mixed feelings about so I decided to try it and see what my opinion was after the fact. Basically, I still have mixed feelings about it, ha.

I think that self-publishing is something a writer can do in addition to the various types of more traditional publishing, like the Big Six large houses and small press houses, many of which are now digital. Maybe you've got the rights back on backlist titles and want to get them out there, or maybe you decided to experiment with something that might not be a good fit with a publishing house. Or maybe, like me, you just want to try it and see what it's like.

My main interest was in actually putting the book together so when I finished the first volume of my serial The Bradbury Institute I decided to put it up on Smashwords and Kindle. It's becoming increasingly popular for free serialized works to be self-published at low prices and I think it's a great way for a fan of the serial to have a copy on their ereader. I used the Smashwords style guide and had no problems with formatting. The most important thing I did, other than following the directions carefully, was to start out with a clean document. To do that you have to nuke your Word doc, meaning you use Select All to copy it, paste that into Notepad or something similar what will strip the formatting, then paste than clean version into a brand new document. Next you go back through it and add all your formatting - font, tabs, italics, the works. It's a bit tedious but not hard. Thanks to starting with a clean doc and following the directions, The Key of Darkness qualified for Smashword's premium catalog, which means it was distributed to Barnes and Noble and other outlets. To upload it to the Kindle store I followed their directions, which mostly meant using Mobipocket Creator, which was easy. The main thing with this is attention to detail - you can't skip steps and you don't want to do them out of order. If you can handle that, you can format your ebook.

Of course I did have another writer help me with editing. The only thing I would do differently is the cover, but I can't afford to hire a cover artist so that's not something I can do differently. I'm not expecting to make any money from this and I'm not sure how long I'll leave it up for sale, or if I'll offer the second volume for sale. I can't offer any thoughts on promotion because I haven't done any - between the holidays and some things going on in my personal life, I haven't had the time or the inclination. Promotion hasn't much worked for my books anyway, to be honest.

So all in all, I did enjoy the process of putting the file together but this is not something I would want to do for every book I write. I like having a publishing house behind me. There is no way I could afford to hire an editor or a cover artist and promotion and marketing is surely one of Dante's levels of Hell. But for making the volumes of my serial into ebooks, it's fun. Which is what I was going for, and that's really the first thing you want to ask yourself before you do something like this: why am I doing it and what do I hope to get out of it? I wanted to do this so that if any Bradbury readers wanted the stories on their ereaders they could get them, and I wanted to learn how to create an ebook. Mission accomplished!

If you'd like a free copy of The Key of Darkness, email me at sonya @ sonyaclark.net with "Free Bradbury" in the subject line, and let me know what format you'd like - epub, pdf, or kindle/mobi.