BURN, BABY, BURN Capable of creation and destruction, fire burns within us. Behind the thick, black smoke of our lives, we blaze with our own unique flame. While love compels some, others feed greed and lust into their hearths. A tool for the deft hand, used with magic or as a weapon, but irresponsibility leaves […]
I had a tilt at the Bartleby Snopes dialogue only writing contest this year, an entirely new format for me. The rules are simple – only dialogue, no “he said”, no directions, just conversation. They keep the top five entries on the boil and reject everything else. I clung on for a few days, but inevitably got tinned.
That said I had a bit of fun with this and I hope you do to:
The Footsteps of the Valiant
“Archon? Archon, is that you?”
“It is. Child, you don’t sound like one of my regular guards.”
“No, your holiness. Far from it. I have come to save you.”
“Bless you daughter, but you are taking a terrible risk. Flee, before they find you.”
“Don’t worry; no one will be coming for a while. Your long captivity is almost over.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“The guards on this watch have been bribed. They’re all looking away.”
“‘By their own greed shall they be undone’ as it says in Acolytes Three.”
“Yes, your Holiness.”
“What is it that you are doing? All I can hear is a scratching at the door.”
“Trying to pick the lock. This one looks like a regular forbidding dungeon door with a big unsophisticated lock that a halfwit gaoler can manage, but it turns out to be surprisingly complex.”
“Well, they have had me locked up in here for a long time, I’m sad to say you are not the first devout soul with fire in your belly and righteousness in your heart to try and save me.”
“I know, there are memorial cobbles hidden throughout the city with the names of the holy martyrs.”
“They prise one up, engrave it and replace it overnight. There’s also a threnody that is sung by everyone in attendance: “The Footsteps of the Valiant”, it’s quite a moving tune.”
“Cobbles are not lacking in humility I suppose.”
“You are a prisoner of the state Holiness. They could hardly erect statues.”
“No indeed. How are you getting along with that lock?”
“It won’t be long; the Duke had a similar one on his strong room. There’s a trick to it.”
“I see. I take it the path of righteousness has not always been the one you have chosen?”
“No your holiness I’m a thief. I don’t actually have any of that belly or heart stuff. Your followers got tired of sending each other to certain death trying to save you. They hired me. I’m a professional.”
“So what about that business with the holy martyrs and the cobbles?”
“It never hurts to empathise with the client. Especially when the client thinks they have a cause. It can get you ten, maybe fifteen basis points on the price. Bitter, hard bitten pros with no emotional intelligence have to sell their services at a discount.”
“My goodness, I had no idea it could be so complicated. I must admit I’m not sure how I feel about being rescued by someone who has not been saved.”
“Oh it’s your flock that are saving you. The money was raised by subscription. As best I can make out, you’ve had everyone from widows and orphans contributing pennies, to businessmen putting an entire year’s profits into the fund. It was very touching, but of course it doesn’t pay to get sentimental.”
“But you are the one who is doing the saving.”
“‘Judge not the sword, but the hand that wields it.’ That’s from Ruminations Six.”
“You know your scripture!”
“Good research on the client, adds another ten points to the price every time. Those surly hero guys hanging around in taverns half drunk and unshaven really don’t know what they’re doing. I have an office, and a secretary. Prospective clients get cinnamon tea and a brochure.”
“I suppose that makes me feel better about it. How is that lock coming?”
“Nearly there. Just one turn…got it. Stand back your Holiness. There’s a torch out here, and the sudden light may be painful.”
“That won’t be a problem.”
“To be fair, no one else has ever got this far. We’ll have to review security arrangements.”
“Gosh. It’s rather nice in here isn’t it?”
“Well, there had to be some trade-off for being locked up all these years.”
“Your carpets are as good as the Duke’s and I happen to know that’s a third century jade vase.”
“You’re an educated woman.”
“Well, yes. But that one I stole to order for…”
“That was you? God bless you. It was originally stolen from the Church by the second Hieromancy. ‘It will profit them not the things they take unto themselves. For all shall be returned to its rightful place in time for judgement.’ Divination Twelve, in case you were wondering.”
“It seems I’ve been an agent for the Church before then. It’s good to know we’re on the same side.”
“Indeed. If you like what you see here, you should come out onto the balcony.”
“How do you have a balcony in a dungeon?”
“Come and see.”
“Oh. Oh my word.”
“It’s quite something, isn’t it?”
“I never imagined there would be a cavern inside the mountain. Where does the light come from?”
“As I understand it there are crystals in the rock that run right the way up to the surface. Or they redirect light to each other or some such. It does give the whole thing a lovely glow. And the rainbow over the waterfall is almost permanent.”
“I did wonder why you stayed here.”
“I am a prisoner, child.”
“Yes, but there are stories about how you gave sermons in two villages at the same time. I always wondered why someone who could do that would allow themselves to be locked up.”
“You believe the stories? I’m surprised.”
“I stole some records from before the dissolution of the Church. The parishes kept records of who came and went.”
“You really do your research very thoroughly.”
“Thanks, I had an intern do the actual data work.”
“And these records showed me in two parishes at the same time?”
“Yes, and it happened more than once.”
“Unfortunately it’s not a miracle or some God given power. The truth is a little more prosaic. I served four parishes as a young priest, and I had to walk from one to another. I wasn’t actually that devout, and they were all about fifteen miles apart around the Sky Lake.”
“I know, I have the records, remember?”
“Yes, but what you have to factor in is that two of the parishes were in a different diocese.”
“I got paid by the sermon. I knew no one would cross check the records from one diocese to the other. They used to hate each other.”
“You were fiddling your attendance to get paid more.”
“I’m a thief, not a fraudster.”
“I always thought putting around the story that I was able to perform miracles by being in more than one place at a time was quite inspired.”
“I wouldn’t go that far.”
“I take it you aren’t coming with me then?”
“Not as such, no.”
“You can let go of my arm.”
“You see, the Duke and I have an arrangement. He needs the people to believe in something to stop them falling for heathen influences. And the firebrands have a predictable cause to rally around. It makes them easier to track.”
“You’re quite strong for an old man.”
“You see those spars and blocks in the corner?”
“That’s actually exercise equipment. I also do yoga. I’m in pretty good shape for someone who hasn’t been outside in a decade.”
“Do you have to grip so tight?”
“The arrangement serves the church as well. Nothing keeps the people as devout as a live case of someone suffering for their souls. Donations have never been so high, even though the services are held in secret.”
“I imagine that saves a lot in overheads.”
“You’re very astute. Church buildings are in need of constant repair. This way the worthy lend us their houses, and I’ve cut an entire layer of management out of the structure. It’s very efficient.”
“My arm is hurting pretty badly, do you think you could let go?”
“I’m afraid not. There are very few people who know what is happening. Even the guards just pass what they think they’re feeding me through a hole in the door. My meals actually come on a dumb waiter from the palace kitchens.”
“I’m really pleased for you, but I really think I ought to get going. I only bribed one shift of guards and they’ll change soon.”
“And there’s the rub. The arrangement works because it is secret. And a secret is only a secret if no one knows it.”
“Good guess. Penitents is a go to book if you’re in doubt because no one ever reads that one, but actually that is all my own.”
“It’s an awfully long way down.”
“‘He who dies to serve the faith shall live for ever.'”
“Does it matter that I’m a she?”
“Not to God. On the plus side, maybe you’ll get your own cobblestone.”
If you are interested in my writing take a look here
“You may be Shakespeare, but get yourself a job first.”
My mother’s advice has guided and bounded my life since I first told her I wanted to write for a living at the age of twelve. The advice was born out of her own experience, the curious mix of aristocratic and working class sensibility with which she was imbued.
During my childhood we were proudly, honourably working class folk. My mother had a clerical job in a bank, and before that had worked in a factory, a green grocer’s stall and a dry cleaner’s shop. In contrast my mother was born in a palace in India, which at the time still retained some vestiges of the wealth and influence of her family’s glory days.
She watched as the diversion of wealth: the fascination with language and poetry and lifetimes spent indulging it, was retained long after the wealth had gone. She saw indolence and inaction fritter away the estates and her uncle fighting a desperate, lone rearguard action to slow the inevitable decline, while the rest of the family looked on unwilling to believe that what had taken centuries to build could be so rapidly lost.
More of decline and fall, and indeed that ancient heyday in other posts. Suffice it to say that my mother’s sentiment was borne out of watching orchards being sold off while her elders discussed Persian poetry, and her own experience of knowing what it took to secure financial stability.
I started full time employment at the age of 21, and worked until I was 40. In between my brother and I managed to convince our mother that she should retire, despite her protestations. Marriage, house, children followed in that order, and then I hit the age milestone and my elder daughter said “We only see you when you are tired.”
I’m not sure I can explain how strongly that statement affected me. As a child I would wait by the window of our terraced house and watch out for my mother coming home from work. We forced her to retire so she could enjoy the livelihood she had worked so hard to secure. Yet here, with the benefit of that security all my daughter would take away about me from her formative years was seeing a tired man at the end of the working day.
It made me realise I wanted to be more than the breadwinner, I wanted to spend time being a father, I still wanted to be a writer, I wanted to build a treehouse for my kids to play in.
I stopped work in June of that year with modest savings and no plan for how the world would work in the time to follow, other than trusting in my experience.
I took over the school run in the mornings to give my wife a break from the routine, and spend those precious chatty morning minutes with the kids. I’d frequently do the pick up as well, walking home with each daughter holding a hand and listening to the stories of their days.
I built a treehouse. It’s actually a platform on stilts because the pear tree in the garden might not be strong enough. It took weeks, I had no plans, no tutorials other than the DIYing and carpentry I had picked up over the years, and a whole load of ambition.
I wrote two books. I have given away more copies than I have sold, but I wrote them, they exist. My name is on more than just a few emails on an office server somewhere.
And things worked out, I’m back in a job, and if money is a little tighter than it was before, at least there is something to show for the time I took off.
If that is a little smug, a little not about the regret of not doing, but the pleasure of finally doing it, well I’ll say I earned it. And as the royalty cheques haven’t been rolling in, I’m glad I did it Mum’s way.
What’s in a Name?
Choosing the title for a book is an increasingly difficult task. In a world of marketing and focus groups and branding there is more to think about than just picking something that represents the content. However innovative and “out there” marketing and promotion folks like to think they are, the fact is, apart from a rare outlier, they tend to drag things towards a lowest common denominator. There is a narrow range of things that will have a universal appeal, that will call out to everyman, and bid them to buy.
Of course there is some segmentation, Sci Fi has a different lexicon of potential titles to Historical Fiction. But within the genres you see that lowest common denominator emerging (how many sci fi books have Stars in their title was a recent discussion with a book reviewer friend). Reach back in time and the titles of classic sci fi books were just woeful. Today I don’t think “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” would pass the publishing companies’ doors. The money men would barricade it in. If only they spent as much effort on editing, rather than relying on spellcheckers, but that is a separate rant.
And yet in those halcyon days with names like a mouthful of rocks, the galaxies like grains of sand, sold. In numbers. Big numbers.
So what has changed, what has made us conservative, safe, following the herd on book titles?
It is in parts due to affluence, falling print costs, improved technology and self publishing which have all lead to an explosion in the amount of content. And it is no longer sufficient to aim for a sold out print run, with a few boxes of remainders in the attic. In fact in the age of digital printing the concept of print run is becoming obsolete. Today every writer has half a sleepy eye on the dream of film rights, or a tv mini series. We can’t trust the movie execs to see through DADoES to see Blade Runner.
But there is also the dreaded Return on Investment. The money men are all about de-risking, payback periods and net present values. Making something safe to get a small return is better for them than something bold that may fail. So titles are researched and winners are “proven” chosen based on “evidence”.
Ask what people will buy and they will tell you what they know, it is the trap of the focus group.
If you stick to what people know you narrow your range into the domain of cliches and tropes.
And here’s the rub, fans of a genre know the tropes. They can spot them in a title, and it will be a warning sign of “nothing new here” for the contents.
As a proof by counter example some of the best recent fantasy written has been by Joe Abercrombie, whose book titles are seeming non sequiturs pulled from the middle of famous quotes. And the content was fresh, challenging and hugely engaging.
Lynch’s “Lies of Locke Lamora” – tricky title, was better than his follow up “Red Seas Under Red Skies” which started to become a little predictable.
It’s the internet, two examples are incontrovertible proof. But the paradox is real enough, for the experienced reader, bold content is unlikely to hide behind a bland name (note unlikely, not impossible), and yet for the general reader, a bold title is a challenge they may shy away from. The real question is does the money win, or the art? More thoughts on art and money here.
There is a well established precedent that the title of a book of short stories should be taken from one of the stories, or, if they are all based on a theme, setting, or character, they reference that common element. It is not a law, but it is a precedent, which post Magna Carta has the strength of law.
That narrowed my choices to seven, as the stories cross genres, plot lines and no character is reprised.
The objective was to find something representative, memorable, and to which I could associate an image to make an attractive cover.
I discarded “Ali Baba and the Little Thief” straightaway. It was too long, and with the addition of “and Other Stories” the whole thing would become too unwieldy with too many ands. It was a shame because I’m quite proud of the story.
I won’t take you through them all, but I narrowed down to the following, which I put to my own focus group.
Broadly the guys liked The Lethe Cluster, the girls liked Image. The clincher was that only two of the stories are Sci Fi, but Lethe would only invite a sci fi readership.
Even without a marketing team or sales experts I fell into the same trap as above. Lethe is the centrepiece, but it would be a challenge for a broad readership to pick the book, so I went with the title that has more general appeal, but is bland.
Mistake? You decide.
Current writing projects; of which two in a similar vein although aimed at different audiences. It may be a reaction to being father to two girls, but the focus seems to be on strong female leads.
The Streetsweeper of Between – A Faerie story. Changelings, a deposed King, a mourning Queen, and a girl searching for her identity. [3.5k words out of an expected 25k-ish]
The Story of Pippin Apple – a Fairy story for younger readers. Possibly first in a series. A fairy comes into her powers only to find she is pawn in a power struggle between order and chaos. If you know me you’ll know that order is not “good”, but everything is more complicated than it at first seems. [5k words out of an expected 35k-ish]
The supporting novels to The Lethe Cluster – working title is The Cluster Wars. Space Opera with added amnesia. [head processing]
Healing – follow up novel to The Alchemy of Life. A woman tracks down the legend of the Healer, and confronts her own demons. [1k words out of who knows]; possible double header with The Streetsweeper of Between.
Let’s assume you have already decided to go it alone. Maybe you have a pile of rejections threatening to teeter over and bury you, or maybe you are simply unwilling to invest the stamps and months required to contact agents and publishers. Or perhaps like me you just have a problem with authority figures.
I’ve had some good experiences with my publishing experiments with Amazon, so I stuck with them for my first “serious” effort. I was particularly intrigued by CreateSpace which is an Amazon drone that offers a print on demand service. Previously if you wanted to see yourself in actual print you’d be in the seedy realms of vanity publishing, drowning the world in words no one else would put any money into. This is different, you can waft through the whole process without spending a penny, and your mum can still order an actual print copy of your book.
Second assumption, you have a document and you have gathered at least four well-wishers together to proof read it. Twice each preferably, which may cost you goodwill, but trust me and invest it now. I said you would not have to spend money, but that is not the only thing of worth. I was lucky because a mixture of family, and friends who are writers and reviewers themselves helped me out. That gave a blend of unfettered plot advice, as well and invaluable grammar tweaks.
By now you have noticed I like long sentences, this is an instinct which needs reigning in.
Make sure you proof read yourself again before you hit the go button. I’ve read books with big publishing houses behind them that are riddled with errors and that winds me up no end.
Set up your project in CreateSpace first, before you dive into Amazon, they’ll Kindlise the whole thing for you (which you will then have to dump, but bear with me). Go for all the free stuff, and avoid the paid stuff, it all looks hideously expensive anyway.
You’ll get an email from them offering their extensive services, and as soon as you tell them you are going solo they will leave you alone.
I took all the shortcuts on offer at this stage, so I picked up their 6×9 Word template and pasted all my text into it. It is a limited template, and it went horribly wrong on the table of contents, which I had to do over myself, but as long as you set your headings up as a style you’re OK using Word for this bit. The print version won’t hyperlink anyway.
Check it again. Many years in business have taught me that people make mistakes. That is not a good thing or a bad thing, it is just a thing that is true.
To be honest for the text part that is about it, you load it all up, CS check it, but if you used their template it should all work swimmingly. The tricky part is designing your cover.
The CS cover creator is limited and clunky, but it will do an acceptable job, and it is free. There may be other tools on the web, but I stuck with CS because they work out spine widths for you. I photoshopped ten different cover designs and tested them on my friends before settling on one. The images were ones I had photographed myself so there were no copyright issues. If you pluck something from the ether then be sure to check you have permission to use it.
If you’re interested the album of covers I played with are on fbook: http://www.facebook.com/aliabbasbooks
The picture went into their cover creator and then I had to dick around with the title and cover text to get something half decent. I’m not terribly happy with it, but it looks OK. My real problem was with the back cover. The creator tries to be helpful and resizes text to fit pre-positioned boxes for the blurb and about the author section. You can delete these if you want, but I found it maddening that I didn’t have font size options. It also slightly indents the first lines which is a really antiquated way of presenting text. I think it is possible to use some html gubbins to make this more flexible, but I last touched that in the days of Netscape.
Once you’re happy with everything, it gets picked up in the process flow, and you’re on your way. One tip: if you make changes you have to go through every step of the cover creator before it will let you save it . Don’t forget to save your changes. Surprisingly easy to do [whistles nonchalantly].
CS will review it for printability, which takes a few hours and then you get your first money spending choice. Do you order physical proofs, or make do with the pdf version? If you are outside the US the postage is extortionate, unless you are willing to wait two months for them to arrive. I wasn’t, and I needed to see and feel the book, so I opened my wallet here. The point is you don’t have to. If you are convinced by the quality of your proofing the pdf may be OK. I got lucky, when I put the picture of the proof copies on fbook one of my friends found a typo on the back cover, which was the only part of the text that was not proofed by anyone but me.
Be particularly careful to look for odd line spacing and lines with just a space and then carriage return on them, instead of just the return. Sometimes these print as a little box. You will have to go through your text and clear all of them out (I did a find and replace on <space>^p with just ^p).
I was publishing a set of short stories, and to be fair the first version was a bit thin at 18k words, but fortunately I had been working on another and so after the proofs arrived I could boost the whole thing by another 8k words. 26k words take up 82 pages. It is still a pretty slim volume but a little more substantial in the hand.
CS will run their checks again after you have made your edits. You can then go through and get the volume passed through to your Amazon account to be loaded as a Kindle volume. Don’t use the version CS make for you as the contents page on mine was nasty, and it didn’t hyperlink.
I use Sigil for ebooks, but there are plenty of free ebook tools around. I like Sigil because it checks the coding for you as it goes along, and fills in all the html gumph that you need for you. You can basically use it as a limited word processor and let it do the rest for you.
Amazon also provide a free Kindle previewer, so once you have converted your book into an epub document you can fire it into their previewer and see how it will look on a Kindle. Epub also works if you are going via Lulu to get a listing on the iBookstore and B&N.
Sigil is pretty intuitive, you just need to set up a new html file inside your project for every section, and then assign a meta tag to it (basically a label, is it the copyright page, or the cover, or the acknowledgements page). It uses the same heading styles approach as word processors, and you can use this to produce your table of contents (which you need to tag as the contents).
Load the epub into the Kindle management pages, and then give it 12 hours to be checked and passed.
That’s it, you’re live, your customers can order a print copy or an electronic copy, so go ahead and start marketing.
Hardcopy from the createspace estore:https://www.createspace.com/4463941
Kindle US: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00G11C1V8
Kindle UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00G11C1V8
Kindle Canada: https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B00G11C1V8
Kindle India: https://www.amazon.in/dp/B00G11C1V8
I used CreateSpace again for my second book. I did research Smashwords, but their process seemed to lack the simplicity of CS. A word of warning – this time I went for the expert set up and a 5×8 book size. In the expert mode of CS you have to upload a print ready pdf file, not just the formatted word file. My rather clunky pdf editor couldn’t handle the conversion of a 5×8 format book, so I had to scratch the project in CS and start over, this time choosing the guided option. Not a major issue, but a bit annoying.
The cover sizing guide is good, and I used it to make my own cover entirely in photoshop this time round. It looks quite smart if I do say so myself!