Friday 30 May 2014

The PINK SOFA meets Nat Russo

Nat Russo is one of the many American writers/bloggers I've met via Twitter. Nat blogs about the ''How To's '' in a very succinct and practical way, which is why he is followed by so many people. What I like about him, apart from the free useful advice, is his willingness to help new writers to master the intricacies of the internet. He is very generous with his support and encouragement. And amazingly, if I ever send him a tweet, busy as he is, he always picks up and responds. OK, Nat the floor is yours... ooh and there are donuts and Americanos on the coffee table for later.

Self-Publishing vs. Traditional Publishing

Those of you who have followed me for some time on my various media outlets will recall how adamant I've been about traditional publishing. Until the end of 2013 I was absolutely convinced I would be querying agents and publishers for an indefinite period of time, collecting rejection slips like they were going out of style.

Not anymore. My thoughts on the subject have completely changed, and I'd like to tell you why.

Defining Success
I've long held that you should never allow another person to define success for you. What it means to be a successful writer, to me, has changed dramatically over the last two years. I've been writing for decades, but I didn't "come out" with my writing until 2012, and I did so with a lot of fear and trembling.

Fear I wouldn't be good enough.
Fear I wouldn't be accepted because I had no publications under my belt.
Fear my stories would never be read.

But at the core of all of this was acceptance. All my life, for one reason or another, I sought activities that placed me in the spotlight (community theater, singing in a barbershop quartet, high school choir, playing guitar in a country band). Many thought this was because I was a showoff or an attention seeker. But they didn't see what was going on inside. 

I was trying to feel accepted, even if only for the moment in time when the music would stop and the applause would reverberate.

I won't bore you with all of the details, but I wasn't the most popular kid growing up. Queue the violins, I know. But it wasn't the "fade into the background" kind of unpopular. It was the "school is a combat zone" kind of unpopular. Until I was thirteen I was terrified of going to school in the morning. That all changed when I got involved in the martial arts, but the damage had been done. My self-image had already been determined. My worth . . . my success . . . was now based on how other people perceived me, and would remain so for quite some time.

Flash forward twenty years.

As I put myself "out there" with my writing, an amazing thing happened: people accepted me with open arms. Not only did an entire community of writers accept me without hesitation, but they openly encouraged me. I could feel them cheering for my success!

Then I realized something: My need for industry approval (i.e. a publishing deal with a major publisher) was no different than the need for peer acceptance that had defined most of my life. So I tried a thought experiment. I asked myself "how would you define success if industry acceptance was taken out of the equation?" This was my answer:

I would gauge success by the degree to which I failed or succeeded on my own terms.

That, in and of itself, was enough to sway me toward self-publishing. But I didn't stop there. I started researching more quantifiable reasons.

Book Stores Have Clocks . . . And They Tick.
The large brick and mortar book sellers can't afford to keep your book on the shelves forever (and that's if they buy it from the publisher at all, which isn't guaranteed just because you have a publishing contract). It takes up space that could be reserved for a best seller.

You have, in most cases, 30 days to prove your book will sell well. At the end of that first month, the book seller packages up all of the books he/she can't sell and sends them back to the publisher for a full refund. That's it. You're done.

The problem is that no one knows how to sell books. You heard me right. The only thing we know for certain is that word-of-mouth sells books far better than a display at a book store. But world-of-mouth takes time. And time is something a major book chain can't afford to give you.

Self-publishing removes the clock from the equation. It costs you nothing to leave your book on the virtual book shelf. Over time people will read and review your book. They'll mention it to friends, who will in turn buy it and recommend it to their friends. You are now in control of your own destiny, because writing a good story . . . a story that will generate word-of-mouth . . . is under your control.

Traditional Publishing ≠ Money
We're artists. We shouldn't be doing this for the money. I've heard the arguments, and I get it. While I place my art and creativity above any price, I'm not allergic to money either. After all, enough of the green stuff would mean I could potentially support myself off my writing. That's a dream of most writers, isn't it? Who among us wouldn't want to spend the lion's share of their time writing?

So let's talk money for a moment. [Note: I'll be taking numbers from David Gaughran's wonderful book on publishing, titled Let's Get Digital: How to Self-Publish And Why You Should. If you're struggling with this decision, I strongly recommend you read this.]

If you do manage to land a publishing contract, and your book is printed in hardback (the highest price of the lot), you're going to see about 12.5% royalties from each sale. Now, take into consideration that your agent is going to get 15% of that and you're now looking at slightly less than 11%. Don't get me wrong, the numbers are justified. I'm not suggesting anyone is being over or under paid here. Publishing is a business, and business has costs and overhead that can't be avoided.

You'll see a little more from a trade published e-book (approximately 17.5% royalties).

But here's the thing many writers don't consider when they're looking at these numbers: Only 20% of all books published ever earn out their advance. 

Let that sink in for a moment.

As a new writer your advance will hover somewhere around $5k, and definitely under $10k. (Sure, there's a chance your manuscript will be SO amazing that it will spark a bidding war. There's also a chance my next lottery ticket will allow me to call in "rich" the next day.) You only have a 1 in 5 chance of publishing a book that earns enough in sales to justify paying you royalties. That means the most you'll ever see off your work is probably going to be whatever advance you got. And don't forget to give your agent his/her 15% of that advance, by the way.

And before I forget, whatever the amount of your advance, you're not going to see all of it at once. That $5k advance may come to you in three payments spread out over 18 months.

Let's contrast this with self-publishing. A $2.99 sale on Amazon will pay you a 70% royalty amounting to $2.09. That $25 hard cover from a traditional publisher, on the other hand, will pay you a net $2.66 royalty (after agent's cut), and that's if you're lucky enough to have had your book earn out its advance.

The numbers for mass market paperback and other editions are even more dismal. Check out David Gaughran's book (linked above) for the details. There's far more covered in his book than I could ever hope to tackle here.

Will you make more from a traditional publisher? The hard cover number seems to indicate that. The answer is "it depends". If you're sitting on an absolute block buster, then chances are, right now, you'll make more from traditional publishing. If, on the other hand, you think your book is more likely destined for mid-list, I believe self-publishing may be more lucrative.

What Will the Publisher Bring to the Table?
If you're a "no name" writer who hasn't sold a bunch of books, the answer to that question is "very little".

Get visions of book signing tours in exotic locations out of your head right now. That doesn't happen unless you're willing to take off work and pay for it yourself. (And don't forget you'll have to do all of the event organizing yourself).

Get visions of dozens of copies of your book sitting in a large display in the center aisle at Barnes & Noble out of your head. Those spots are reserved for names people recognize, and names the book seller can usually guarantee will sell very well.

So, if you have to do all the work anyway, and you have to pay for your own events (including travel and lodging) are you still ok with taking a fraction of the royalty you'd see from self-publishing? Only you can answer that, because as I said above, money is not the only consideration.

Don't Hold Your Breath
As always, there are exceptions, but as a general rule, if you're going down the traditional publishing road, you'd better settle in for the long haul. When you begin the query process, it may take you upwards of a year or more to find an agent that's a good fit. When you find that agent, it could take him/her upwards of a year or more to find a buyer for your manuscript.

At that point, one of two things will happen:
1. Your agent may decide he/she can't sell your book due to "market conditions" or some other business reason. Maybe your manuscript doesn't quite fit into the acceptable pigeon holes and no one knows how to market it. Maybe the print market is saturated with your kind of story. Who knows? The end result is the same. You'll get a phone call saying "thanks for the memories", and you will have wasted 2-3 years where your story could have been finding its audience.

2. You sell your manuscript. Yay! At this point it gets slated for publication, which could be as much as 18 months or more from the date of sale. You'll get a third, or so, of whatever advance was agreed upon. Maybe half. Then, eventually, the book finds its way to book stores (if book shop owners agree to purchase it from the publisher's catalog). From here, in 80% of cases, that's it. You're done. Write something else and start submitting again. If you're in the uncommon 20% that earn out their advance, you'll start seeing some royalties.

Coming Full Circle
No matter what the dollars and cents say, don't let the dollars and cents dictate your course unless that is how you define success. Start asking yourself some difficult questions. Get to the bottom of why you're even doing this.

When I think about being in control of the process, from the writing, to the cover design, to the publication and marketing process, I'm filled with excitement! Not only excitement that comes from the adventure of starting a new business, but excitement for writing even more!

On the other hand, when I think about getting a publishing deal, it doesn't light me on fire like the other idea does. It falls flat. If I was approached by a traditional publisher, they'd have a lot of convincing to do. Could they succeed in swaying me? Of course. But they know what they're up against, and they have their work cut out for them.

Above all other considerations, I implore you to weigh the pros and cons and follow your heart. You already know what you want to do, deep inside. You just need to convince yourself.

Twitter: @NatRusso

If you would like to read an except from Nat's latest book, Necromancer Awakening, you can do so HERE . US readers can do so HERE

Saturday 24 May 2014

Piecing Together The Jigsaw: Creating Strong Characters

"I like the idea of being strong. I've grown up with the concept. It's in my bones and my blood. Strong people survive. They don't go under."

 So speaks 18 year old Annie, the heroine of my ebook Jigsaw Pieces. The book has just been nominated for the eFestival of Words in the YA Category My genre is Historical Crime Fiction both adult and YA, and for me, there are two ingredients that go to make up a successful book in this genre. The first, clearly, is a crime of some sort. In Jigsaw Pieces, set in 1998, it is the mysterious death of one of Annie's fellow students. The suicide of Grant Penney is based on a real event: I was training to be a teacher at a secondary school when one of the pupils unexpectedly committed suicide over the weekend. The beginning of the book mirrors exactly the events and emotions of that time.
The second ingredient is a strong female protagonist. So what makes a strong character? Well, it's not enough just to tell readers they are strong. Strong characters have to demonstrate their strength in various ways, generally by being pitted against challenging events, or other characters. They have to stand out, or stand back from the rest of the crowd. Annie is taken from her birthplace, Norway, and dumped in an English school. This immediately makes her ''different' from her contemporaries, and she has to develop a carapace to survive the daily bullying. Through her determination we learn how strong characters function and survive in difficult situations.
But strength can be shown in softness: Annie 's compassionate side is made clear when she bonds with the mute World War 1 veteran Billy Donne, whom she meets in a nursing home (another character based on real life). Strong characters must also have faults: Annie is far too quick to rush to judgement and jump to conclusions. The reader warms to characters with an inner fault line. Maybe because they are a little like us?
At the end of Jigsaw Pieces, Annie discovers that there remains a vital piece of the Jigsaw missing from her life - she needs to explore her relationship with her missing father and resolve the unanswered questions his departure has caused. And here we see the final ingredient of a strong character - there must always be a sense that there is more to be grasped, new and different conflicts to be overcome.
 For a strong character, the journey is never complete; there is always another story waiting to be told. I love writing strong female characters like Annie because they are so multifaceted and complex. They challenge me and push me to my limits. I hope they do the same for my readers as well.

If you would like to read a sample of Jigsaw Pieces, you can do so HERE

Saturday 17 May 2014

Hard Joyce or: Why I have Never Read Ulysses

Last Wednesday was Dylan Thomas Day on BBC Radio 3, which reminded me of the time, not so long ago, when the same BBC in its infinite wisdom, renamed a specific Saturday 'Bloomsday', and we were treated to a whole day of Ulysses readings/performances/commentaries. James Joyce's Ulysses belongs to the: 'books I have never read, never intend to read, but pretend I have' list. Also on the list with Joyce are Proust, Dostoevsky (can't even spell him), Trollope, and A.S.Byatt.

As far as the two former writers are concerned, I think my appreciation was soured at secondary school by having to translate Joyce into French, and Proust into English (why,why?). No doubt if the current Secretary of State for Education gets their way, students will be reading and translating them at primary level. Then sales will really drop off.

The ability to talk fluently about something of which one knows nothing is an integral part of being a writer. Actually, it is what sets writers apart from the rest of humanity (pace politicians). Joyce got it down to a fine art by scribing pages and pages of stream of consciousness stuff that actually nobody understands, but hey, Ulysses is a great big long book so it must be a classic, therefore let's all nod wisely and say how wonderful it is. Emperor's New Clothes comes to mind.

If you disagree, feel free to take me on. I'd love to know why James Joyce is considered such a great author and why the BBC spent the whole of Saturday inflicting this book upon us. Where's the plot, where are the twists and turns? Where's the mystery, the pace and the suspense. Okay, there's an awful lot of language, but even so ... given the exacting requirements of today's publishers, it would never get past a first reading today. Hell, it hasn't even got a vampire! Clearly, it's one rule for dead people, another for the rest of us.

 As none of my books are as long as Ulysses and I am not dead (yet), I doubt there will ever be a Hedges Day on BBC. You are probably relieved to hear it.

A final gripe, not entirely unconnected to Bloomsday: why is there also so much sport on TV? I don't understand football or cricket, or racing around in a dusty track in a car, nor do I understand why everything interesting has to be bumped off the various channels to make way for it. Is there an equivalence between watching sport and reading Ulysses? Discuss. Not too heatedly.

Thursday 15 May 2014

Fan-tastic: the Victorian art of flirting

Are you a bit of a flirt? Do you sometimes catch an attractive man’s eye, then deliberately look away. Give him a little knowing smile. It’s all innocent fun and part of the games we play with each other. The Victorians were no different. While researching my novel Diamonds & Dust, A Victorian Murder Mystery (publ. Crooked Cat Books) I delved into the world of nineteenth century courtship. It was a fascinating journey.

Of course there were certain restrictions that do not apply today. Young ladies were not allowed to be alone with a gentleman unless they were properly engaged. You couldn’t even say ‘hello’ to the prospective love of your life until he had been formally introduced by a mutual friend. There were no mobile phones to send flirty messages, or indicate your availability. And most of your obvious charms were covered up in a crinoline, bonnet and button boots, or hidden under layers of corsets and uncomfortable underwear (the average weight of a Victorian lady’s underwear mid-century was 14 lbs).

But if you were a canny lass, you had one infallible way of indicating to that handsome beau that you fancied him rotten: you could use your fan.

Fans were an extension of the Victorian lady’s body and the language of the fan was an important part of the dating ritual. Once you had mastered its subtle messages, you could go an awful long way down the matrimonial path solo and unchaperoned. So here are some of the top flirty ‘’moves’’:

Fast fan movement - I am independent
Slow fan movement - I am engaged
Fan resting on right cheek - Yes
Fan resting on left cheek - No
Drawing fan across forehead - We are being watched
Fanning face with fan held in right hand - Leave me alone
Swinging the fan - Will you see me home?

What I love about this is that it shows how women, in an age of male dominance, and rigid social formality, still found a way to subvert the rules. Of course, the effectiveness of the fan relied upon one very big unknown: that the gentleman in question also knew the language!  If he did not, the ensuing results could be pretty disastrous....

Find Carol on Twitter: @carolJhedges
Read her blog:
Visit her Amazon author page: Amazon UK

Saturday 10 May 2014

Caveat Invigilator

A busy time at Hedges Towers. Exam season is upon us once more, which means I'm currently doing my third part-time job as an invigilator. For those who don't live in the UK - invigilators are people who supervise public exams in secondary schools. In the past, it was a job done internally by teachers, but now it is done externally by us. Unsurprisingly, many invigilators are retired teachers -  after all we know the system and are used to working with groups of teenagers. It is a pleasant way to supplement our meagre pensions which doesn't involve zero hour contracts and stacking shelves in a supermarket.

The essence of invigilating lies in the ability to sit reasonably still for a couple of hours with one's eyes open. It is a lot harder than it seems. To distinguish us from the teachers and students, invigilators wear green lanyards with an ID badge. I'd really like something a little more distinctive - maybe a nice black leather jacket with INVIGILATOR on the back in big brass studs, so that I could also supplement said meagre income by doing door work at the weekends. I have floated the idea past the Exams Officer, but he is thinking Exams Office budget, so as yet there is no interface.

The thing people always say when they discover I work as an invigilator is:  'Oh, exams were much harder in my day.' Not sure about that. Certainly not in the subject I tutor, English Literature. I have exam questions going back to the 1970's, courtesy of my old English teacher, and I often set them for students. The texts haven't changed much either. This year I have been teaching Paradise Lost Book 9, King Lear, Othello, Dr Faustus, and Animal Farm, among other texts. The first two were books I studied for A level back in the 1960's.

What has changed is that back then if you were dyslexic, dyspraxic or, as in my case, just plain disruptic, no allowance was made. Now, students can get extra time. Some have readers or scribes. Or both. And the rise of the internet has brought a whole new rise in opportunities to cheat, so students can only use clear pencil cases and bring unlabelled bottles of water into the exam room, as it is possible to download 'fake' labels with formulae on the back. Seriously.

We are all extremely vigilant, but even so, we had an incidence of cheating a couple of years ago. It is still referred to in hushed tones. It was during an A-level resit. The senior invigilator noticed a student's ruler was sitting proud from the desk. She picked it up, and several strips of paper with notes cascaded down. The student, who had joined the Sixth Form in Year 12 from a posh private girls' school was escorted to the Exams Office, where the 'evidence' was photocopied. Her father was then phoned. His only response: 'Oh, you caught her, then?' Unbelievable.  Ultimate irony: she was resitting a Philosophy and Ethics paper.

Now I would never condone cheating in any form whatsoever, but the pressure students are under today is immense. We have had students NOT turning up to exams because, according to their parents, they are too stressed. In my day, I managed to score two unconditional offers to read English and Archaeology from London and York universities (two E grades). Wouldn't happen today. In fact some of the 'top' universities are now asking for A* grades. In certain subjects, namely Art, Design, and Creative Writing, they also expect students to have a blog up and running too.

Back then we left with a degree, the expectation of a reasonably paid job, and if you managed it correctly, no debt. I ran a baby-sitting business, and worked for John Lewis at the weekend and in the holidays, so I came out with money in my pocket. In many ways, I'd hate to be eighteen today. Which is just as well, because even with the huge advances in medical science and plastic surgery, it is extremely unlikely to happen.

If you would like to sample my latest novel Diamonds&Dust, A Victorian Murder Mystery, you can do so HERE. US readers can do so HERE

Friday 2 May 2014

Re cycling

Greetings from the Independent Democracy of Coldharbour Lane. The Two Grumpy Old Sods are so fed up with the general stupidity of life here that we have decided unilaterally to secede from the autocratic dictatorship of Harpenden Town Council (mission statement: Closer to the community - but not yours) and form our own free and totally democratic small state.

We have a badge, we have a motto: Floreat Helix Pomatia and our flag will be striped green and white with a snail rampant. We're working on our national anthem, finding rhymes with snail that do not involve silliness - though on that score, have you actually studied the words of some national anthems? We are also taking it in turns to be in control. Currently it is my turn, and my fellow citizen is making the coffee.

The decision, not taken lightly, to secede has been forced on us by the latest piece of folly. In the header pic to this post you can see it for yourself: a large chunk of our main and very busy road has been carved out to create a cycle waiting zone. No consultation, except with local Sustrans people. From the moment of its inception, there have been minor crashes, lucky misses and confrontations between drivers who are baffled by the new priority system. Oh, and some cyclists have nearly been knocked off their bikes as they assume they now have precedence over traffic. At night it is badly lit, adding to the confusion.

The whole thing got worse last week when one of the roads running parallel was closed so that the friendly local developer could finish off its latest piece of Tesco School of Architecture overpriced housing, meaning all traffic was diverted down my narrow un-pavemented lane and straight into the curtailed road area.

A brief highlight moment happened when the 366 bus was challenged at the cycle extension by a Harpy (portmanteau word coined by me to describe Harpenden Mummies: the ones that drive big black 4x4s and think they own the road). Harpy refused to back up. Bus refused to back down. Passengers cheered the driver on, (we know which side our free passes are buttered). Eventually the Harpy had to back, a manoeuvre she singularly wasn't happy to perform and performed badly, and we sailed through the gap, waving cheerfully. Nothing so sarky as a bus full of pensioners.

I have suggested to the local council in the past that they need to revisit their mission statement as I do not think it is fit for purpose any more. I suggest it again. Something like: May contain nuts would fit the bill nicely.

If you like, you can read a FREE excerpt from my latest book  Diamonds&Dust A Victorian Murder Mystery by clicking HERE. US readers can do so HERE