Saturday, 16 September 2017

Watch out: Serial Killer at Large!

Yesterday (Friday ~ adjust to whenever you are reading this), the other Grumpy Old Sod and I had our letters from Cambridge University confirming that they will take our bodies (post mortem) for students to cut up, thus saving You Must Be Mad around £16k jointly in funeral expenses, and helping youthful medics to appreciate that age is no barrier to being useful. Plus it's the nearest to Cambridge Uni that we'll ever get. All of which has no connection whatsoever with what follows.

As you probably all know, Diamonds & Dust, which was rejected out of hand by my former agent as ''not remotely publishable'' and subsequently went on not only to be published, but to be up for the CWA Historical Dagger, the Walter Scott Prize, the Folio Society Prize, and score 90+ reviews on Amazon, has now developed offspring.

It wasn't meant to. Seriously. I didn't envisage trotting out the two Victorian Detectives Stride and Cully again. But like lily pond paintings by Monet, and Haydn String Quartets, once started, it seemed logical to keep going.

Thus the sequel, Honour & Obey, which was published November 2014, and Death & Dominion,, which came out in October 2015. Rack & Ruin, the fourth outing for Stride & Cully, was published in Oct 2016. The latest book, Wonders & Wickedness came out a few weeks ago.

There are those writers who regard a series as a bit of a 'cop-out'; after all, you've got your characters already written for you. To them I would say: writing a series is MUCH harder than producing a one-off text. And I know what I'm talking about: this is my second series of books. (The Spy Girl teenage series for Usborne was the first)

The main problem is that unless you started with the idea of writing a series, and few authors do, they just tend to evolve, you are stuck with whatever you wrote in the first one. You cannot radically alter the appearance nor personality of the main character/s without readers going ''What the ...?'' After all, it was how they were in book one that will keep them reading books 2, 3, 4, 5 etc. You can and must develop the main characters, but in essence, they have to bear some resemblance to how they were in the beginning.

Then there is the problem of keeping the plot momentum going. I find book 2 is usually the easiest, as it seems to evolve naturally out of the first one. Book 3, however, is far more problematic. New areas have to be introduced to keep the reader interested. Some fundamental shifting of perspective must take place, or else book 3 becomes merely a watered down version of the previous two. Actually, book 3 is usually the pivotal one upon which the rest of the series rests. If you cannot pull it off successfully, it is best to admit defeat and pretend you only meant to write two in the first place.

By book 4, the pitfall is over-confidence. You have run the gauntlet of three books. You feel the surge of expertise as fingers hit keyboard. This, after the previous three, will be a doddle to write. You have your characters, you know how the story arc works. Sometimes this attitude pays off: I still think Dead Man Talking, the fourth Spy Girl book, is the best plotted. However, beware: book 4 can so easily wander off into alien territory, or become a repetition of book 3 with added lacklustre.

Having now reached the dizzy heights of book 5, I am not sure whether I shall carry on or not, because in my opinion, based on avidly reading crime series, some writers manage to sustain plot, characters and reader interest beyond book 5, but many more don't and the result is a series of  flat readalike stories with little variety at best, or downright daftness at worst. (Lee Child manages it brilliantly, according to GOS; Janet Evanovitch does not ~ bounty hunter Stephanie Plum's hamster has survived longer than any hamster should or ought)

The trouble with series is that publishers LOVE them. They are easy to market, and each book sells on the back of the previous ones. Thus the temptation to go on churning them out year after year, when by rights the whole thing should have been allowed to quietly slink off and hide in a dark corner after the fifth one.

I have been told though, that the 'real money' comes from a 5 book series, so I am now sitting back and waiting for it to arrive. Mind, I never thought I'd get as far as a third or fourth book. My former agent didn't see any mileage in the first ...

So what's your experience: Do you prefer reading a series? Or a one off novel? If you are a writer, have you ever tackled a series, or does the prospect fill you with horror? Do share your thoughts....

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Ready, Steady, Review!

If you  follow me on Twitter, you will be familiar with tweets like this:

Read it?
Loved it?

#Writers make the world go round

I tweet it quite regularly to encourage readers to think about putting their thoughts, (hopefully positive) onto a review site after finishing a book.

So what are reviews for? I think they fulfill various functions. Firstly, they help other readers decide whether a book is for them. A slew of interesting and varied reviews (by this I mean at least 2 cogent paragraphs of analysis, not just: 'Ooh, I sooo love this book'/'I didn't get further than page 5' help one to decide whether to download/buy. Or conversely, whether not to waste your time. We are all time-poor. Reviews are therefore an aid to connecting the reader to the right book.

As a writer, I find reviews of my own books useful as a gauge to measure whether or not I am hitting the reader satisfaction button. Are they enjoying the story? Do they get it? Can they follow the plot? If not, how can I improve the reading experience for them in the next book. Reviews are also a personal encouragement - the writer's lot is an isolated lot most of the time. It is good to receive a little praise for one's efforts, especially when the serendipitous happens: a reader finds a whole new layer of meaning that had never occurred to me. Reviews can be a writer's best learning tool, if you let them.

Reviews are also very important in boosting sales. That is why I welcome the way sites like Amazon and Goodreads allow ''ordinary'' people to post reviews, and I get annoyed when some writers are sniffy about ''non-professional'' people expressing their thoughts and ideas, because believe me, the chances of most of us small/self published authors getting our work reviewed in mainstream papers or magazines, which is what we'd all like, is about as likely as Christmas in July.

For me, a special and unexpected reviewing source has come from all those followers on Twitter who tweet a few lines saying how much they have enjoyed one of my books. Or, as someone did recently, treat me (and all my and their followers), to an excellently succinct chunk by chunk commentary on Diamonds & Dust as they read it on a long train journey. Interactive reviewing 2017 style. I never experienced this when I wrote teenage fiction and it has been a revelation.

So in the run-up to Christmas ... and beyond, may I encourage you to read widely and review  ~  it need only be a short paragraph or two. Long essays are not required. But it will make a HUGE difference to us writers.

Thank you.

Friday, 1 September 2017

The PINK SOFA meets #scifi writer Jonathon Fletcher

The Pink Sofa has been on Twitter since July 2012 and one of the first friends it made was writer, gardener, and all-round talented bloke Jonathon Fletcher. Jonathon has advised the sofa on many issues, from planting potatoes in the Hedges Towers allotment, to acquiring dodgy illegal space weaponry that enhances its status with lady sofas. The SOFA welcomes him back, minus armour and arms, to chat about his Space Navy Series, now appearing in print form for the first time. Getting into print hasn't been easy ... as he now reveals.

'It’s more than wonderful to be back on the pink sofa again. I see the cakes have improved somewhat since my last visit. Must be going to Waitrose now, Carol?

I write a military science-fiction / space-opera book series, called the “Space Navy Series”. It’s set in the near future. Humans have colonised other planets and there is a war going on. Typical military sci-fi stuff.

What I think sets my series apart, is that I spend a great deal of time developing the characters and I cross genres. There’s a great deal of horror in my work and a conspiracy plotline that would usually be seen in a thriller. Things are never what they seem. One reviewer described my books as “Star Trek meets Full Metal Jacket”. Think “Game of Thrones” mixed with a little “X-Files” and “Starship Troopers” and you’re getting there.

Carol has asked me to talk about publishing my books in print for the first time. I initially published everything on Kindle through KDP. It was a (relatively) easy way to self-publish and get my stories out there. For anyone who’s interested, I did a blog on formatting for Kindle on my Goodreads author page.

I started with four, novella-length books and then the fifth book became full-length. I started with shorter books to ease myself into self-publishing. I was originally going to publish the paperbacks through Createspace, but then KDP started doing print books through the same platform as Kindle, which made life even easier.

It took me a long time to pluck up the courage to go to print. For one thing, learning the formatting is harder than Kindle. In a Kindle book, there’s no such thing as pages. You delineate chapters, but each page of text simply runs into the next. The reader chooses the font size on their Kindle and that makes the pages longer or shorter. For print, each page is definite, set in stone, and you must make sure they all face the right way.

However, the main reason I took so long is that I’m a stickler for editing. My first book was good, but needed polishing. As I’ve developed as a writer, I’ve got better at it. I waited to commit to print until I was confident that I could present a professional looking book. So, the first thing I did before going to print was to go back and re-edit my books. I addressed some formatting issues, some feedback from reviewers, tightened up the dialogue and added a few extra scenes which I thought were necessary.

My first print book is a compilation of the first two Kindle novellas, “The Might of Fortitude” and “Morgenstern”. Because of that, I decided to have a brand-new cover, rather than a re-hash of the first two. By this time, I had built the trooper costume for promoting my books at ComicCon (I’m also a professional prop/model maker) and so I used the trooper on the cover.

To begin with, I was more worried about getting the format of the cover artwork correct than the inside material. For instance, the number of pages changes the spine width. But in the end, the cover was quite easy. I downloaded a blank, formatted Word document from KDP for an 8x5 inch book. So, I made the front cover 8x5 in photoshop and used Cover Creator to do the spine and back for me. Simples.

Getting the inside formatting right was much, much harder. I couldn’t figure out the headers and footers. I couldn’t get the page numbers to flow consecutively. Every time I cut and pasted chapters in, fonts and line spacing would change. My first attempt had all the pages facing the wrong way so the chapter headings were on the left-hand side.

With time and a great deal of patience, I learned some new things about Word and ironed out all the problems. I now have a formatted Word document that I can simply drop chapters into, for when I get around to publishing my second paperback. I did the same for my Kindle books. I recommend it as a method of working; rather than creating a new document each time you write a book and having to re-do all the formatting, save a pre-formatted document that you can use as a template.

There’s nothing more satisfying for an author than seeing your work as a physical, print book. I will never forget the first person to buy my book at Newcastle ComicCon. He is a wonderful guy named Martin and is ex-Royal Navy. As I’ve based my future military on the British Royal Navy, rather than the more common American Marines model, Martin was a perfect customer for me. My books are full of “Jackspeak”, the slang of British sailors. Martin, a “skimmer” rather than a “sun dodger”, loved the book and gave it a very good review. I’m very grateful for that, as most people don’t bother to post reviews and they are SO important for us self-published authors. There is a book called “Jackspeak” by Rick Jolly, for anyone who’s interested in naval slang. It’s available from Amazon and a percentage goes to a military charity.

The first Space Navy paperback is available from Amazon. I’m planning to release parts three and four (“Berserkergang” and “Onamuji”) as a paperback next year. Then each book from “Belatu-Cadros” onwards will be a paperback in its own right. I’m doing re-edits of them all now.

I’m up to book nine in the Kindle series and I’m hoping to publish “Josiah Trenchard - Prototype” by Christmas. The latest book sees my main protagonist facing one of his deadliest missions yet. Here’s the blurb…

“Josiah Trenchard is a no-nonsense, foul mouthed, alcohol fuelled action hero.
The clandestine “Society” have caused wars, killing thousands and placing Captain Trenchard in mortal jeopardy more times than he’s had shots of “Black Void” rum. Aska Saito, the Society’s prime agent, has divulged their darkest secrets to him, enabling Trenchard to warn the Society off. Trenchard thinks he’s got the Society off his back. He thinks that he can settle down to a quiet life of hunting down pirates in the asteroid belt. He’s never been so wrong…

When several prototype specimens escape inside an underwater Papaver Corporation storage facility, Trenchard and his crew are the obvious candidates to be sent on a daring rescue mission. The only clue as to what happened in the deepest, darkest ocean, is a distress message from a lone survivor; an old comrade from Trenchard’s days on Mars.
Meanwhile, Aska Saito is searching for clues to her past. With a bounty placed on her head she is forced to run, plagued by an enigmatic message and horrific dreams. To discover the truth, she will turn to an unlikely source for help.
Prototype; some things are best left buried.”

Captain Trenchard has developed over the years. He’s a simple man who just wants to do his job, but his life is constantly made more difficult by other people. The Society have manipulated events in the United Worlds because they think they’re in the right. Initially, they’re portrayed as the bad guys, but as the series develops, the lines of morality become blurred. No one is whom they first appear to be.

I love to tear down stereotypes. Readers might expect my books to be a “sausage fest”. This book has a dwarf trooper in power armour and my first openly gay character, both women. I think it’s important to write as many and diverse characters as possible. It’s a big universe out there. Not everyone is a white, male with a jutting chin and rippling muscles. Heroes come in all shapes and sizes, creeds and colours. My strongest female protagonist is a Japanese woman called Aska Saito. She’s running for her life in the new book. Her story is becoming darker and more confusing as the books develop. She starts as a typical stereotype – a Japanese assassin, a cold killer who is adept with swords. By book nine, you realise that there is far more to her than meets the eye. Her story is as important as Trenchard’s. She’s vitally important to the plot and when her big reveal happens, I’m hoping the readers will be gob-smacked.

If you’re interested in reading the story of my no-nonsense, foul mouthed, alcohol fuelled action hero, then you can find my books here…''

@JonGardener #SpaceNavy

Honour, strength and unity!