Authors answer #20: What element of writing (setting, characterization, plot development, etc.) do you find most challenging?

February 12, 2017 AuthorsAnswer, Writing musings 0

For me, it’s definitely the plot. I’m a pantser, which means I just start writing without much thought in my head of where the story might take me. I usually start with a character, or a group of characters, in a particular situation, and I just turn them loose, so to speak, and they make their own decisions and steer the story. The setting grows around them.

But, while this kind of ‘discovery’ writing, where the author discovers the story at the time without any forethought or planning, can lead to problems. You can find your characters have got themselves into a deep hole and really can’t get out again without miraculous help, and that’s a big no-no. There’s even an expression for it: deus ex machina, (the god from the machine). This doesn’t happen to me very often, since my characters tend to be sensible chaps and chapesses, who foresee the upcoming deep hole and take avoiding action.

Or the story can ramble interminably without ever getting anywhere, and this one I’m definitely guilty of. In epic fantasy, a certain amount of rambling is tolerated, because readers love an expansive sort of world that feels b-i-g, so I think I’ve mostly got away with it. But still, it can make the story feel slow.

What I find really difficult is structuring the story so that it has a properly dramatic arc, with tension building and building to a crescendo at just the right moment. This sort of thing is much easier for those who sit down and plan out the whole outline before writing a word. Sometimes the crescendo happens anyway at just the right time, and that’s awesome. And sometimes it gets missed out altogether (in one of my books, the main character is unconscious for a crucial battle), which is less awesome. And sometimes the ending just fizzles out. I hope I’m more aware of the problems now, but it’s still an issue that trips me up occasionally.

So why don’t I outline? I find it too restrictive. I’ve never got the hang of beat sheets and hitting pinch points and all that good stuff that, if you use them properly, builds the structure effortlessly. It just feels like a straight-jacket. Once or twice I’ve used Libby Hawkes’ method in Take Off Your Pants! to get me started and after the first few chapters everything begins to flow, and sometimes I have waypoints I know I want to hit, but I’ve never plotted an entire book from start to finish. For that reason alone, I will never, ever tackle a time travel story. Just too many complexities to keep in my head! I enjoy reading them, when I can follow what’s going on, but writing one would be my worst nightmare.

Footnote: Authors Answer is the brainchild of blogger Jay Dee Archer, of I Read Encyclopedias For Fun. You can read the answers to this question by his eclectic bunch of authors here. More recently, Erica Dakin, of the Theft And Sorcery blog, has been answering the questions independently. You can read her answer to this question here.

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2016 review: Part 3: Writing

January 29, 2017 Current writings, Ramblings, Writing musings 0

I got a lot of writing done in 2016. A lot. I finally found my stride, and increased my speed, as well as making daily writing a more consistent habit, and the result was (tada! roll of drums!):

548,000 words written

Which is a lot! Of that, 167,000 words, or 30%, was fantasy and the rest Regency romance. For the fantasy, I wrote the whole of The Second God and began Findo Gask’s Apprentice. For the Regencies, I finished Amy, and wrote Belle, Connie, Dulcie, Grace and Hope, plus a novella, Mary.

I discovered along the way that I can’t write two books at the same time. I can, however, write one and edit another, so that’s how I work it. At any one time, I’ll have one book being written, another ‘brewing’, or resting before editing, and another being edited or otherwise prepared for publication. At this precise moment, I have Findo Gask’s Apprentice half written, Hope awaiting initial editing and beta reading, and Grace newly released. If it sounds like a production line, sometimes that’s what it feels like! But I love the writing, and don’t mind the editing, so it doesn’t feel like work.

So how did I write so many words?

1) I wrote faster. I followed some of the precepts in Chris Fox’s book 5000 words an hour, like: write in short sprints; know what you’re going to write before you start; ‘eat the frog’, which means do the important stuff (the writing) first. Chris rolls straight out of bed and starts writing. He’ll stop between sprints for coffee or a shower, but essentially he gets the writing done before anything else in his day, and he’s often finished by 9:30 or 10 o’clock.

2) I wrote most days. I’m not fanatical about it, and in 2016 I took a whole month off writing (we went to Australia), but I try to write every day.

3) I bought a small laptop to carry round the house. It’s a dedicated writing computer, with nothing on it apart from Scrivener and the absolute essentials (browser and email), and I only use it for writing the current work in progress. It means I don’t have to go upstairs to the study to write, I don’t have to make the decision that ‘now I’m going to write’, and I don’t get distracted by the overflowing intray and whatnot; when I have a few minutes between chores, I sit down and write.

4) I developed writing habits. Every day after breakfast I sit down for half an hour to write. After lunch I sit down for another half hour. Late afternoon, another half hour. After tea, another half hour. Plus all those snatched moments between chores – ten minutes here, fifteen there. It adds up to 2-3K words in a day.

5) Brain.fm. This is a recent discovery. It’s music that’s specifically designed to enhance your focus while working (or to help you relax or sleep, if you choose those options). I don’t know how it does it, but it really does work, and I definitely write faster when I listen to it.

Plans for 2017? Write! I hope, without a month off to gawp at the amazing sights of Australia, I can write 600K words this year, producing 2 1/2 fantasies and 3 1/2 Regency romances. But honestly, the actual amount of words doesn’t matter, so long as I’m still enjoying it.

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Mystery review: ‘A Case of Murder in Mayfair’ by Clara Benson

January 23, 2017 Review 0

This is the second in the spin-off series from the author’s Angela Marchmont series or murder mysteries set in the twenties. This time, Freddy Pilkington-Soames, insouciant man-about-town, finds himself in the middle of a drugs-and-murder case amongst a set of film people. A famous Hollywood actress somehow falls from a high balcony during a party announcing her landing a plum part. She wasn’t the nicest person in the world, so no shortage of suspects with a grudge against her, including another actress, a cameraman, a producer, the actress’s sister and so on. Freddy joins forces with another journalist, the less than scrupulous Corky Beckwith, to investigate.

This series has one advantage over its predecessor – Freddy is able to take a far more active part in events than the ladylike Angela. So there’s a great deal of creeping about at night, sneaking into suspects’ houses and getting into fights. Freddy’s also rather resourceful, although there’s sometimes an element of luck involved in placing him at just the right spot for things to happen.

This one wasn’t quite as light-footed as the first in the series, and I’m hoping that Freddy gets out of town occasionally in future books. Angela got about quite a bit – Cornwall, Scotland, Italy spring to mind – and several of her books had a country-house feel to them redolent of Agatha Christie, which I marginally prefer to the seedy side of London. But a good entertaining romp, nevertheless. Four stars.

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2016 review: Part 2: Reading

January 16, 2017 General, Ramblings 0

There was a time when I read 100+ books a year. In 2012, it was 108, and I also had time to review them all, write series reviews and compose long, detailed essays about my reading-related thoughts. In 2013, I read 91 books. In 2014, the year I published the first of my own books, it was 61, then 57 in 2015. In 2016 it was just 46, and that included a month in Australia with my Kindle, and a whole shedload of long-haul flights. This is the trouble with writing — it eats away at my reading time. And that also means that I have to be more selective with what I read, and I tend to be less experimental. Out come the tried-and-trusted authors, whose work I know I’ll enjoy. And the effect of that is that my average rating on Goodreads has risen from 3.3 stars to 3.8 stars.

So there will be no best-of list, and no self-published gems this year because they would look remarkably like last year’s. Instead a few statistics.

1) Genres:

  • Fantasy: 16 (35%)
  • Regency: 16 (35%)
  • Other: 14 (30%)

The ‘Other’ category includes murder mystery, literary and the stuff my book group makes me read. The Regency is a consequence of writing my own Regency romances. I’ve started a full reread of all Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, and I’ve also started a list of more modern ‘best-of’ Regencies, compiled by Googling. Lots of the recommended ones were only available in paperback, which sounds as if the publishers are missing a trick, so I was restricted to those available for Kindle. And I picked up the three bestsellers on the day of my list-making, just for comparison.

2) Publishing type:

  • Self-published: 27 (58%)
  • Trade published: 19 (42%)

This is something that shifts a little more towards the self-pubbing end of the spectrum every year. I used to read solely trade pubbed, but now I find them either too expensive or too long or too flashy (by which I mean that they have a stunning one-line hook, but the actual story falls well short of being stunning). Sometimes they’re just unreadably ambitious. A self-pubbed book is more likely, in my experience, to be a good, old-fashioned well-told story.

3) Review rating:

  • 5*: 18 (39%)
  • 4*: 19 (41%)
  • 3*: 7 (15%)
  • 2*: 0
  • 1*: 2 (5%)

The result of my comfort-reading binge is that my average rating for the year is 4.1.

4) Gender balance:

  • Male author: 6 (13%)
  • Female author: 40 (87%)

Yikes! This is what happens when I start rereading Regency romances – all those female authors! I read 16 Regencies in 2016, 7 by Georgette Heyer and 9 others. Even excluding those, male authors were only 25% of the total. Which isn’t intentional by any means, but just part of the switch from longer, trade-pubbed (dominated by male authors) to shorter, self-pubbed.

I’ve never chosen my reading material by the gender of the author, so I don’t suppose this will change much until I move away from romances and back to more varied books. More fantasy! But the real issue is how to find more time to read in the first place. If anyone has an answer to that, please let me know.

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Review: ‘The Warden’ by Anthony Trollope

January 16, 2017 Review 0

I’ve never read any Trollope before, but my book group likes to mix things up, so here we are. This was a real surprise to me. It was published in 1855 and my previous dabblings in that era have left me less than enthusiastic. Overly wordy, sentimental, turgid and a real slog to get through – that was what I expected. What I got was funny, sharply observed, sympathetic and surprising easy to read.

I have to say, though, that I’ve never read a book with so many words where so little actually happens. Much of the body of the text is made up of lovely commentary on the characters, their histories, quirks and motivations, together with the author’s opinions on the church, the newspaper industry and the legal profession. Some of that is interesting, but some is also very repetitive and long-winded, and could have been scrapped without any loss at all.

The plot revolves around doing the right thing. Is it acceptable to follow a course that is morally correct but might harm people one is fond of? What happens if one person’s view of moral correctness differs from that of other respected people? But mostly, it’s about the characters being driven to do what feels right to them even though the consequences may be disadvantageous to those around them or even to themselves. Everyone who plays a part sincerely believes that their actions are the only proper course, from the reformer who triggers the story to the bedesmen, the warden himself, the archdeacon, the daughter, the newspaperman and the barrister.

The ending is fairly predictable, with almost everyone worse off than they were before, but the author’s lightness of touch makes it more of a comedy than a tragedy. The characters make the book, and I enjoyed the read, but there’s enough Victorian caricature combined with wordiness to keep it to three stars.

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Authors Answer 19: How did you get into writing and what made you select your genre of choice?

January 14, 2017 AuthorsAnswer, Writing musings 0

I didn’t exactly ‘get into’ writing. For me it was never something I just took up, in the way one might decide to take up golf or macrame or yoga. I’ve always been ‘in’ writing. At school, I loved those free-for-all creative writing exercises. Not the ‘what I did on my holidays’ dullathons, but the ‘imagine you’re a fairy’ stuff. Not that there was much of that after primary school. Secondary school was far too serious for such frivolities. So I turned to writing my own comic strips, and (later) extremely bad fan fiction, although I didn’t know then what it was.

A few years later, when I lived abroad and couldn’t work, I bought a manual typewriter and bashed out most of a Regency romance. Why Regency? Because that’s what I was reading at the time, trawling methodically through the entire Georgette Heyer catalogue.

For a few years, the stories stayed in my head, but then I had a dream. I mean that literally, an actual being-asleep dream, with grim-faced men in black with swords. There were several dreams of that type, and gradually waking-me began to mull over the stories being tossed out by sleeping-me and make some sense of them. And eventually the characters came alive and tapped the inside of my skull. “Look,” they said, “this stuff’s getting complicated and you’re going to forget things and then what will happen to us? You need to write it down.”

“I’m not a writer,” I protested.

But they insisted, and I started writing and I just never stopped. I didn’t have a name for the sort of stuff I was writing, but I discovered later that it was fantasy. So really, you could say that fantasy selected me, not the other way round. Or rather, my characters selected me. More recently, I came full circle and returned to my original genre, Regency romance.

Footnote: Authors Answer is the brainchild of blogger Jay Dee Archer, of I Read Encyclopedias For Fun. You can read the answers to this question by his eclectic bunch of authors here. More recently, Erica Dakin, of the Theft And Sorcery blog, has been answering the questions independently. You can read her answer to this question here.

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Brightmoon end of year quiz – answers!

January 8, 2017 Brightmoon world 0

I hope you had fun with the quiz. Here are all the answers. Any comments, objections, mistakes, etc – please feel free to post a comment or to email me.

1) The Plains of Kallanash

Question 1: What was Dethin’s job when Mia first met him?

  1. A) Blacksmith
  2. B) Commander of First Section
  3. C) Eastern Warlord
  4. D) Skirmisher

Answer: C) Dethin was the Eastern Warlord, with power of command over several individual sections. Bulraney was the deeply unpleasant character who was Commander of First Section when Mia first arrived there. Hurst and his companions were Skirmishers.

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2016 review: Part 1: Publishing

January 4, 2017 Publishing/marketing 0

Inspired by Chris Fox’s discussion of his 2016 self-publishing financials {link below}, I thought it would be interesting to have a look at mine, which are on a much smaller scale but perhaps more typical of small-time self-pubbers. I’ve never had a wildly successful book, but they chug along bringing in income every day.

To start with, let me recap my self-pubbing career to date. I published my first epic fantasy book in September 2014, and by the end of that year, I’d made royalties of $263. Sadly, my accumulated expenses at that point were $4,000. It can be expensive self-publishing; I spent money on top quality covers, professional proofreading and paperback copies, as well as a number of books and software to help improve my writing, but virtually no promotion at that point.

In 2015 I did rather better. I published three more epic fantasies, and made $12,800 royalties from sales and borrows/pages read under the Kindle Unlimited subscription scheme. That looks good, but expenses that year were $6,800 (which included a new writing computer), so, combined with the $4,000 debt carried forward, I made virtually no profit.

And so on to 2016. This year was a bit different. I released another three epic fantasies, making seven in all, although the release program is going to be slower in future. I also had a new project – Regency romance, in the style of Georgette Heyer. Short, light, fluffy and quick to write, I published four and a companion novella from June to November, and the last two in the series are ready to go next year. So seven books published this year, which finally put me into decent profit. Hooray!

Let’s look at income first:

 

FANTASIES: ROYALTIES:
F #1 3600
F #2 5200
F #3 2800
F #4 2800
F #5 (Jan) 5000
F #6 (May) 5800
F #7 (Sep) 1200
TOTAL: $26,400
REGENCIES:
R #1 (Jun) 2600
R #2 (Jul) 2200
R #3 (Sep) 1800
R #4 (Nov) 750
TOTAL: $7,300
TOTAL ALL BOOKS: $33,700

 

Which sounds good, doesn’t it? Until you take off expenses:

 

EXPENSE: COST:
Covers, betareading, proofreading 2900
Print books, formatting 1900
Amazon ads 1800
Other promo 2700
Hardware (new desktop computer!) 1600
Software, subscriptions, books 640
Website 132
Tax (estimated) 4400
TOTAL EXPENSES: $16,000

 

So (tada!):

NET PROFIT: $17,700

This is quite a comfortable profit for me. I’m not a full-time author, nor aiming to be, so I don’t need to stretch for every last cent or try to minimise my expenses. In 2015, my royalties bought my new writing-only computer, and in 2016 they paid for an upgrade to my desktop system, which is where I do all my editing, website maintenance, planning and admin. I don’t charge anything for a home office, since I can write pretty much anywhere, and I don’t claim general computer software (like Word or my finances program or my broadband connection, because I use them for mostly non-writing things). I do claim for anything that’s purely book-related, like BookReport (which analyses my Amazon sales numbers), the awesome brain.fm (music designed to help with focus while writing) and the costs of the two websites I have (one for each pen name).

For 2017, I’m hoping to publish a couple more epic fantasies, plus perhaps four Regency romances, which (if it comes off) would give me 17 books. I expect the royalties to increase, but there’s no knowing how changes within Amazon might affect that. There have been changes these past few months that have seen some authors lose huge swathes of revenue from books within the KU borrows system. I haven’t been affected by that, as far as I can tell, but some little tweak deep in the Amazon basement could knock my royalties for six at any moment. So, fingers crossed for a good year and nothing untoward happening.

For comparison, you can read Chris’s (somewhat bigger) numbers here. For anyone who can’t watch the video, the basic numbers are: gross earnings $170,000; expenses plus tax set-aside $100,000; net take-home $70,000.

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End of year Brightmoon quiz

December 31, 2016 Brightmoon world 0

It’s that time of year again, when the newspapers are full of quizzes and best-of articles and giant crosswords to while away the empty hours until we can all go back to work again. Or something. Anyway, here’s my contribution to the mountain of such trivia – a quiz set in the Brightmoon world. How much do you remember of the books? Three questions for each book, plus a bonus question. Answers in the New Year.

kallanash1001) The Plains of Kallanash
Question 1: What was Dethin’s job when Mia first met him?
A) Blacksmith
B) Commander of First Section
C) Eastern Warlord
D) Skirmisher
Question 2: When Mia and Hurst climbed to the top of the tower in the lake at the Ring, what did they find there? (Bonus points if you can name everything they found along the way)
A) The Silent Guards
B) The Nine Gods
C) Mages
D) All of the above
Question 3: When Mia met the morodaim in the tunnel, they bowed very respectfully to her. Why?
A) She was the only female.
B) They’d met her before.
C) They recognised her mental ability to read emotions.
D) They are magical creatures; who knows why they do anything?

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Fantasy review: ‘The Ruling Mask’ by Neil McGarry and Daniel Ravipinto

December 27, 2016 Review 0

One of the best aspects of epic fantasy, for me, is the way each book in a series opens out the scope of the story a little more, allowing glimpses of previously unseen locations. This book does that, too, and even though almost all the action takes place within the confines of the city of Rodaas, there is much to discover about the place. But what this series does so gloriously well is to draw back the veil concealing the mysteries of the people of Rodaas – its odd history, its religions, its swirling rivalries on the streets and the background of Duchess herself. And in this book, for the first time, we begin to get a good close-up look at the rulers of the city.

This is a plot-heavy book, with multiple threads weaving back and forth, involving the many different political and economic factions of the city. Many fantasy cities feel like those fake wild west towns, where the saloon is nothing but a sheet of plywood propped up as a backdrop to the pretend shootout. Rodaas, by contrast, feels entirely functional and real. The different quarters, the tradespeople going about their business, the beggars and priestesses, the Red and the Greys, the lightboys and ganymedes, and all the multitude of administrators high and low, and every last one of them is operating according to his or her own agenda. To be honest, I found it hard to keep up with, but that’s not a criticism, it’s high praise. There are vanishingly few books that have so much depth.

But it’s the characters that shine, for me. Not just Duchess herself, but Lysander and Castor, Jana and her brother, the oddball scholar Cecilia, and a whole range of minor characters. Castor became a more significant player in this book. In the previous book, he seemed to be something of a plot device at times, disappearing when convenient, then reappearing just when Duchess needed him. I never minded (I’m a sucker for a warrior-type), but in this book a lot of the odd aspects to him finally start to come into focus, and that gave me goosebumps. Hearing snippets about Duchess’s brother, Justin, also gave me goosebumps. We’ve already seen what happened to her sister, so I hope we eventually catch up with the brother again.

Once again the climax of the story is a seemingly impossible task for Duchess to accomplish, but this is becoming a little predictable now, especially since Duchess’s specialness is ever more apparent, and the likelihood of failure is small. There were one or two elements in the book that seemed unnecessary (the Coast Road, and Aaron’s actions), put in just to wring out some extra emotion, but I’ve thought that before in this series and found there was a deeper significance, so I’m trusting the authors on this.

Overall, this is a deeply thoughtful and well-written series, up there with the best of them, which rewards careful reading. So why only four stars? It’s a personal issue – when a series is as multi-stranded and deep as this one, yet there long gaps between books, I find it impossible to remember all the details of what happened previously. Without either a summary of the story so far or a list of characters, even with careful exposition (which is the case here) I miss a great deal of the more subtle nuances. The failure is mine, not the book’s, but it still diminishes my enjoyment somewhat. For anyone whose memory or ability to pick up subtle clues is better than mine, I commend this book to you. It’s also the sort of series that would reward multiple readings. Four stars.

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