August 24, 2015

Write What You Know, But What If You Don’t Know Enough?

It was the 145th anniversary of the death of Charles Dickens this year, and while much has been written about his life and work, we can still learn a lot from his methods. His depiction of a supposedly-fictional London was so realistic – he clearly drew a lot from how people lived in worked in Victorian society. Some of this he would have just known, but he would have learned a lot from going out to observe the world around him.

Last week we discussed how to write what you know, but sometimes we need to know more. So…

Write what you can find out!

Walk The Streets

Explore places you might not have had occasion to visit before – this even goes for your hometown, or a city you know well. I managed to come across a whole part of my hometown that I’d never visited before, purely because I’d never had reason to be there.

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If you find a building that catches your interest, find out about it. Who lived there? What was it used for? Has it always stood on that site, or was it once relocated from elsewhere? The streets are probably no safer than they were in Dickens’ day, so either take a friend, or let someone know where you’re going. Try to have a paper map of the area on hand in case Google Maps sends you down a blind alley, or your phone runs out of battery.

People-Watch

Even if you write horror or sci-fi, you can find the seeds of interesting characters in the people you see going about their daily lives. Why is the man on the Underground looking so furtive? What could that woman have in the oversized handbag? What if that scarf was actually a pet dragon draped around its owner’s neck?

It’s not eavesdropping – you’re not actually interested in the content of the conversation, just those little offhand phrases that might be just what you needed to ’round out’ a character, or spark an idea.

Consume Local News

I heard an anecdote that Dickens once heard a story about a man who lived by a river, who would pay for the burials of the unfortunate people fished out of the water. Dickens was so impressed by the story that he wrote the man into his own work as a character. The phrase ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ clearly meant a lot to Dickens, and it can mean a lot to you too – if a real person has actually done something, then it will hold more water to your readers than a complete fabrication.

Discover The Stories

Different parts of London were specific to different trades – for example, Spitalfields was once a centre for silk weaving, while mudlarks operated along the banks of the Thames. Your own city is probably no different – in my hometown of Newcastle, the Castle Garth area boasted a doll-making workshop, while the dockyards were a thriving industrial area for shipbuilding. Find an area of your town or city and investigate its history – you might find colourful local characters, infamous scandals or touching tales that could provide inspiration for your own stories.

Never Underestimate Your Local Library

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They may hold archives of information, either as old maps, newspaper clippings, or photographs. Any, or all, of these could prove to be useful no matter what genre you write. You can easily get melodrama or ‘human interest’ stories out of photographs of bygone times, while newspaper clippings will provide you with story ideas whether you write steampunk or crime thrillers. Old city maps can be invaluable if you write fantasy and you’re in the ‘world building’ stage. Libraries are a fantastic resource beyond lending books – so use them!

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What about you? How have you ‘written where you are’ in the past?

Images courtesy of Andrew Warran and Swamibu.

August 21, 2015

#FridayFlash – I Am

alone-764926_640I am the voice in the dead of night that whispers of the things you might yet achieve, if you could only relax your grip on fear and doubt.

I am the voice that soothes and offers placation when the world turns away its cold face.

I am the voice that calms and cajoles, that brings peace to your inner turmoil and spurs you to greatness.

I walk with you in the eye of your own storm, and offer you shelter when the fury grows too much.

I keep you warm in the shadows, and hold loneliness at bay.

I offer you love when those around you banish you to a silent place of ice and solitude. I alone see your value, and remain by your side as you make your ascent above all others, inspired by my loyalty.

And I demand a sacrifice.

August 17, 2015

“Write What You Know” Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Does

Write what you knowIf you’ve ever read anything about writing, chances are that at some stage you’ll have encountered the maxim that you should ‘write what you know’. It’s at this point that some writers will throw up their hands and declare that nothing interesting ever happens to them, so what can they possibly write about? It can also lead you into dangerous territory if you decide to turn real events into fiction – if you don’t disguise your characters well enough, it can land you in hot water with the real life protagonists if they don’t come out of the fiction in a positive light. So how on earth can you navigate this treacherous terrain and write about what you know without upsetting, or boring, anyone?

I’ll let you into a secret.

Writing what you know is not as black-and-white as it first appears. If you’re a receptionist in a busy office, you don’t have to write about the drudgery of admin. If you’re a mechanic, you don’t need to set all of your stories in a garage. What you can do is transpose situations in which you find yourself into fictional settings, regardless of genre!

Take those characters and situations and put them in a different context. Use events from your life as the basis of events for your characters. We’ve all been to weddings and office functions, and we’ve all had a first day at school or in a new job – those are experiences you know but, more importantly, they’re experiences a reader can relate to.

Deeper Implications of ‘Write What You Know’

Don’t take it so literally – I’m pretty sure Tolkien didn’t have to go to Middle Earth, and JK Rowling never went to Hogwarts! The fundamental fact is that what you know is humanity, and how the world works, and human nature is fundamentally the same. While we all have different drives, desire, fears and goals, we have the same basic needs. The setting is just window dressing – as in the first two points, the characters need to be believable, even if they aren’t based in our reality.

Put Everyday People into Unusual Situations

Maybe you see the same people on your daily commute, and you’ve invented back stories for them. You could write a story about bored commuters, with the themes of apathy and ennui in the modern city, but that’s too obvious. Think sideways – those characters could be downtrodden victims of an oppressive state in a post-apocalyptic dystopian tale, or maybe they’re robotic workers in a science fiction adventure.

Maybe you went to a wedding recently, but you don’t want to write about an average twenty-first century wedding. That wedding might have taken place in the sixteenth century, or perhaps it took place in a fantasy setting, attended by warriors and elven priests.

Use Yourself as Your Protagonist

One of the stumbling blocks a lot of new writers face is that of characterisation. Lead characters can appear as composites of well-known characters, or they appear as ‘Mary Sue’ characters, those figures that are too good to be true. A good example of a Mary Sue character would be Twilight’s Bella – instantly popular at a new school, inexplicably attractive to all males and possessed of a special ability that grants her immunity from vampire powers. That makes for a dull character.

However, if you use yourself as a basis, you can include character flaws you might not admit to in real life, and you can base your character’s reactions to an event on how you would react in the same position. The character will be more believable because it’s based on a real person – you.

Use a Hobby to Inform Your Writing

If you’re an amateur artist, or you have a passion for 1940s social history, then use them to inform your writing. Lawyers tend to write legal thrillers and medical professionals are more likely to write scientific dramas than chick lit but it doesn’t have to stop at your profession. Interesting or unusual hobbies can be a goldmine of ideas, and if it’s something you know well, then yes, you are writing what you know. If you give your character the same unusual hobby, they’re more likely to stick in a reader’s mind than a character who likes watching TV or chatting over dinner.

Location. Location. Location.

It’s true that a lot of fiction is set in major or famous locations – consider the number of books set in LA, New York, London or even Paris. Even if you’ve never been, you probably know enough from movies to be able to write something set in a generic New York neighbourhood, or involving London’s West End.

How boring.

Why not use an area you know well instead? Perhaps you were raised in a small village, or you currently live in a quirky, bohemian neighbourhood. You can change the names if you want and turn the location into something more inventive, or maybe you want to make the place famous. Other people who live in or know the area will read your story due to the local interest, and those unfamiliar with the place will get a good feel for it – and may even want to visit. Even if you hate the place and expose it warts and all, you’re still writing what you know – which means writing with conviction.

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What about you? What do you understand by the phrase ‘write what you know’, and do you do so yourself? Please share your thoughts!

Images courtesy of Matthias Rhomberg and WriteByNight.net.

August 10, 2015

An App Guide to Editing Photos

Images have become one of the most common currencies of the internet, and with smartphone cameras able to at least match most point-and-shoot cameras, there’s really no excuse for having poor photos online! While you can find good quality free stock imagery on sites like Wikimedia Commons and Free Images, at least you can guarantee you haven’t accidentally infringed any copyright if you take the photos yourself.

But taking the photos is half the battle (and taking decent photos will be the subject of another post). How do you edit them so they don’t look so flat and lifeless? I’d always use Photoshop, and have done since around 2003, but it’s extremely pricey (unless you get the less powerful Photoshop Elements), and there is a learning curve. A good free alternative for a desktop PC is Serif PhotoPlus Starter Edition, and I hear good things about GIMP, but what if you just want to edit and upload a photo direct from your phone?

There’s always Instagram, with its inbuilt editor and filters, but how about dedicated photo editing apps? I gave a few a go, and I’ve decided that these four offer the best experience – and they’re all free!

Pixlr

Made by Autodesk, this app is available for both iPhone and Android, and is probably my favourite because I’ve been using it the longest. You can retouch photos (the Heal function works like the Spot Healing Brush in Photoshop), alter brightness and contrast, adjust the hue and saturation, and so on, and it also comes with a host of built-in filters and effects, such as light leaks, textures, and vignettes. You can also add text to images, and though you can choose the font, you can’t alter the text size. Some of the filters or textures are a bit naff, and you soon find yourself using favourites, but it’s a pretty solid app.

Here are a couple of examples using what’s on offer.

The Hundertwasser Haus in Vienna

Vienna

Leadenhall Market, London

VSCO Cam

This app is available for both iPhone and Android, and it’s a relatively recent addition to my arsenal. Again you can apply filters, and apply image adjustments, but as the name implies, it also acts as a camera. You can upload photos to your library and share them, and you can even create journal posts that let you essentially create a blog post including your images, which is great for travel photography. It’s also a community as well as an app so you can search for individual photos or people, and do a spot of visual networking. It’s a lot more powerful than Instagram and at the moment the photos are a lot more artistic than the cat pictures and food photos on the ‘Gram. If you’re looking for visual inspiration or you want to share your pictures with more serious photographers, then give this one a go.

Waterstones in Newcastle

Lemon and poppy seed muffin

Oily puddle

If you want to follow me on VSCO Cam, then go here.

Snapseed

This app is available for both iPhone and Android. As with the others, there are the usual image editing options like Brightness/Contrast or Temperature, as well as a series of filters with names like Lens Blur, Glamour, or HDR. It’s a solid app but it lacks the ‘network’ functionality of VSCO Cam. There are a series of tutorials here for helping you to get the most out of the app! The one advantage of Snapseed over the other apps is the fact you can also use it to correct vertical and horizontal perspective problems. It also allows you to target specific parts of the image for adjustments, meaning you can just fix problem areas.

Here are examples using what’s on offer.

Mozart in the Burggarten, Vienna

Prater Park, Vienna

Inevitable selfie

Photoshop Express

This app is available for both iPhone and Android. I had this app a while ago and ditched it because it wasn’t brilliant, but I decided to give it another go. Now you can sign into it using your Adobe ID (if you have one) and as with the other apps, you can edit your images, apply filters, crop and so on. It’s a powerful app and offers way more filters than the others, but then you do risk your photos look TOO edited if you only ever throw filters at them.

Here are examples using what’s on offer.

Imperial War Museum, using the Summer filter

Imperial War Museum, using the Sepia III filter

Which app you use will pretty much depend on what you want to use it for, but as these are all free you can download them all, try them out and see which ones suit your requirements the best. Just remember – no amount of filters will disguise a bad photo, so make sure you take the best photos you can in the first place!

Good luck!

August 3, 2015

7 Gothic Characters Penny Dreadful Could Consider

I finally managed to watch the finale of Penny Dreadful season two last night, and my, Rory Kinnear certainly knows how to wring every last drop of nuance out of Frankenstein’s Creature, doesn’t he? I’ve certainly enjoyed the second season more than the first, and according to Den of Geek, writer John Logan has hinted that he’ll be adding another ‘classic’ character in season three. Most people assume it’ll be Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, although DoG have also pointed at Dr Moreau and The Invisible Man as being interesting alternatives.

Horace Walpole’s house at Strawberry Hill

Really, this is where my one problem with Penny Dreadful actually lies – the supposed belief that Gothic literature begins with Frankenstein in 1818, and then does nothing as a genre for a few years until The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and Dracula (1897). The genre actually dates back to the publication of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto in 1764, and had become so popular that it was ripe for parody when Jane Austen published Northanger Abbey in 1817.

Name checks have been given to infamous characters, both real and fictional, such as Burke and Hare, so which other characters could make an interesting addition to future episodes of Penny Dreadful?

Sweeney Todd

It’s amazing how many people think the Demon Barber of Fleet Street was a real person but he was in fact a product of the original Victorian penny dreadfuls. Odd that he’s so far been neglected by the series. I’m not sure how he’d fit within a story arc but he would make an interesting background character – and these people clearly need haircuts from time to time.

Spring-Heeled Jack

Spring-Heeled Jack wasn’t a character so much as an urban legend that sprang out of the popular tradition for ghost stories, such as the Hammersmith Ghost of 1803/04. The first alleged sighting of Jack was in 1837, after a serving girl claimed to have been accosted on Clapham Common by a strange figure with claws and cold flesh. He gained his nickname from his ability to leap over 9ft high walls with apparent ease, and he did make his way into the penny dreadfuls of the era. Opinion is still divided as to who, and what, he actually was.

Lord Ruthven

The famous night at the Villa Diodati that birthed Frankenstein also led to the publication of The Vampyre by John Polidori, although Lord Ruthven has been hugely overshadowed by another more famous vampire from Transylvania. With his aristocratic air, this distinctly Byron-esque bloodsucker would be a welcome alternative to the rather tedious Dracula. Besides, Vanessa needs a distraction now Ethan has left for America, and Sir Malcolm has gone to Africa again.

Ambrosio the Monk

Possibly one of the reasons the writers have stuck to later characters is the fact that pre-Frankenstein, Gothic novels are often unwieldy and ponderous, and they’re largely unfilmable. The later, so-called Decadent Gothic is more reader friendly, and so we’re more familiar with the characters. That said, Ambrosio from The Monk (1796) is the prototype of Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know. When The Monk was first published, it was considered so horrific that it caused a family scandal for author MG Lewis, which is hardly surprising since Ambrosio commits murder, rape and incest in the same book. No reason why he couldn’t be updated to a London priest, eager to reaffirm Vanessa’s faith for his own devious ends.

Roderick Usher

Vincent Price as Roderick Usher

So far the writers have only plundered English Gothic tales, which ignores the Gothic literature written elsewhere in the world. Two of the genres most famous names were American, and if they’re going to include the Wolf Man, who was only really invented for the cinema, then I see no reason not to include the work of other Americans. While I think the show is weird enough without a detour into Lovecraftian shenanigans, it’s surprising that Edgar Allan Poe has so far been ignored. I’d love to see Roderick come to England seeking a cure for his sister’s condition, and premature burial hasn’t really been featured yet, despite being a major fear of the time.

The Phantom of the Opera

Given series one quietly relocated the Grand Guignol Theatre from Paris to London, there’s little reason why the masked impresario couldn’t do likewise, though I suspect he’d be more of a cameo than a recurring character due to his nature. With Erik’s flair for the dramatic and ingenious inventions, he could certainly be an interesting figure – and he’d be bound to appeal to Vanessa’s better side, given the way she showed such humanity to the Creature.

Queen Tera

So far the only Egyptian references have been regarding Dracula’s nature, or the prophecy which foretells Vanessa becoming the Mother of Evil, but a possible use for Ferdinand Lyle’s character could be as the discoverer of Queen Tera, the Egyptian mummy from Bram Stoker’s largely forgettable The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903). The novel itself concerned fears around powerful women, which would tie in nicely with Lily’s newfound quest for dominion over man.

These are just the ones I could mention, and they don’t even take into account the other Gothic staples that could appear in passing. Someone could buy a house named Udolpho, and I’d love for someone to discover a mysterious whistle on the beach that calls up a mighty wind – and something else besides.

Who would you like to see in the next series?

July 31, 2015

#FridayFlash – The City’s True Face

Murky dayI walk up the street and the darkness of the early hours surrounds me. Flickering street lights hum among bare tree branches. Silhouettes dance across shuttered shop fronts. A fox lurks behind a phone box and noses through discarded food wrappers.

The low drone of occasional traffic ceases. For a few moments, no cars pass. Only the steady rhythm of my footsteps breaks the silence. Darkened windows gaze down upon me. Could I be the only living person left?

London briefly raises her veil and I see her true face. Centuries of history dance in her eyes, a knowing smile playing about her lips. The blood, sweat and tears of millions roll down her pock-marked face. She is mine.

A motorbike roars past and tears open the night as it scatters fallen leaves in its noisy wake. Their dry whispering tries to tell me something, but the illusion is broken.

I am just another citizen walking home at 4am.

July 27, 2015

What to See and Do in Florence

Italy has become something of a favoured destination of mine after two trips to Venice, so when the opportunity presented itself to also visit Florence, I naturally jumped at it! I went on Wednesday afternoon and came back on Saturday night, and I thought I’d share my findings for anyone else who might fancy a trip there.

Where We Stayed

We stayed at the Hotel Villa Gabriele D’Annunzio, on Via Gabriele D’Annunzio 141A-B. It’s about 20 minutes from the centre of Florence but the area is quiet and less ‘cramped’ than the city centre. It’s served by two bus routes but a third isn’t that much further away. The hotel’s only real downside is the fact it doesn’t have its own restaurant, and there aren’t really any in the area. Just use it as a base and do everything in the city centre.

The hotel does offer breakfast, and its wi-fi is spotty (but at least it’s free). There’s also an outdoor pool, if you fancy a swim! There are plenty of angel statues around the garden but don’t worry, they don’t move.

Getting Around

As we flew with Jet2, we actually flew to Pisa, not Florence, but there’s a regular coach service, run by Terravision, that travels between Pisa Airport and Florence’s Santa Maria Novella train station. It’s only €6 (£4.25/$6.58) for just over an hour’s trip.

In Florence, we really made the most of the bus service – the 10 and 17 routes served our hotel, with the 10 going to the Piazza San Marco, and the 17 going that bit further to the Santa Maria Novella train station. A single trip is just €1.20, and you buy your tickets before you board. You validate them when you get on, and the ticket is valid for 90 minutes. We also bought a four use ticket, for €4.70. As of today’s exchange rate, that’s 85p/$1.32 for a single ticket, or £3.33/$5.16 for a four use ticket. Absolute bargain.

What to See

The sightseeing bus

We bought a 24 hour pass for €20 (£14.15/$22) to use the city sightseeing bus. It has three lines, and we used lines A and C. C is a two hour trip that goes up to the nearby town of Fiesole, an Etruscan settlement, and also takes in the Fiorentina stadium. A is more ‘local’ around the city centre. As with any of the sightseeing buses, you can hop on and off to see the attractions, and the commentary provides a good insight into the city you’ve chosen to visit.

Galleria dell’Accademia

No trip to Florence would be complete without a visit to see Michelangelo’s David. There are other artworks on show but David is very much the star here – with good reason! We pre-booked tickets before we left the UK, which cost €23, but you can buy tickets when you get there. Even with timed tickets we still had to queue but it was only a 20 minute wait.

Previously you couldn’t take photos inside the Accademia Gallery but now their only stipulation is ‘no flash’. It’s not difficult to achieve and it’s well worth learning how to turn off your flash so you don’t get a telling off!

Entry also includes entry to the Musical Instruments Museum, which is an interesting set of rooms including violas, hurdy gurdies and different types of piano.

Duomo – Cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiore

The Duomo is the massive cathedral that dominates the Florence skyline, as well as the Piazza del Duomo in the historic city centre. It’s free to visit, but beware of the queues! We didn’t make it inside since the lines were too long. If you fancy trekking up 400+ steps, you can get breathtaking views from the dome.

Museo Zoologico La Specola

Situated on the Via Romana in the Oltrarno area south of the Arno river, the museum is off the beaten track, so to speak, so it has the definite advantage of not being full of tourists. It’s quiet and quirky, and well worth a visit. “La Specola” dates back to 1775, and until the early nineteenth century it was the only scientific museum specifically created for the public. 24 of its rooms are dedicated to zoology, included taxidermied animals, while 10 rooms are given over to the anatomical waxes, some of which date back to the seventeenth century. They were originally created in order to teach anatomy without students having to directly dissect corpses. Entry to these rooms costs €6 (£4.25/$6.58).

In addition, the museum also has the Tribune of Galileo, a nineteenth century secular temple dedicated to Galileo. The museum was hosting a special exhibition on crystals while we were there, so for an extra €4, we paid for the combined ticket to see that as well as the main museum. (€4 is £2.83 or $4.39). The crystals on display were gorgeous, though I didn’t see any Kryptonite.

Palazzo Pitti

Near La Specola is the imposing Palazzo Pitti. The palace building was begun in the fifteenth century but was only truly completed in the seventeenth century, and now it actually houses a whopping eight museums. There’s the Gallery of Modern Art, the Royal Apartments, the Boboli Garden, the Carriage Museum, the Silver Museum, the Palatina Gallery, the Porcelain Museum and the Costume Gallery. We bought Ticket No. 2, which granted us entry to the Garden, the Silver and Porcelain Museums, and the Costume Gallery. It cost €10. (£7.08/$10.97).

The Silver Museum is, as you might imagine, a collection of jewellery, although they also had a Lapis Lazuli exhibition on at the time we were there. The rooms in which this exhibition was held were worth the entry price alone, with generally astonishing frescoes on the ceilings. The Costume Gallery usually displays fashion through the ages but a special ‘Women in Fashion’ exhibition was on, and I fell in love with a lot of the clothes, particularly this dress!

The gardens are HUGE and we didn’t even see all of them. Entry is incredibly good value for money and you could easily spend an entire day exploring all of the galleries, as well as the gardens. Like La Specola, it benefits from being in the Oltrarno district, which is a bit more bohemian than the districts north of the river, and it boasts plenty of artisan craft shops if you fancy a spot of expensive window shopping.

Ponte Vecchio

The Ponte Vecchio is one of THE things to see in Florence. Like the Rialto Bridge in Venice, it’s a good example of the bygone days when people thought nothing of erecting houses and shops on bridges. Originally the bridge housed butchers, but these were cleared away to house jewellers since the bridge was a main route to the Palazzo Vecchio. It now hosts jewellery shops, art dealers and your typical souvenir tat. We walked across to reach the city centre from the southern district and it’s very, very busy. The Vasari Corridor also runs along it, connecting the Palazzo Vecchio with the Palazzo Pitti via the Uffizi Gallery. Most of it is closed to visitors but it hosts a large art collection that you can apply to see.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

If, like us, you travel via Pisa and you have the time, then it’s well worth getting the bus to the tower. It only takes around twenty minutes by bus, and the bus is every fifteen minutes, and the stop is right outside – like Florence, each ticket only costs €1.20. There is a charge if you want to go up the tower, or you can pose like a loon beside it for free.

Finding dinner options is a lot easier than finding places for lunch, and there are an array of restaurants around the city centre. Many of them offer typically Florentine cuisine, which is what you’d expect from an Italian restaurant outside of Italy. There are bars where you can buy sandwiches, and some smaller shops offer single slices of pizza to take away, but we found our favourite two restaurants were Giglio Rosso, at Via dei Panzani 35, near the Santa Maria Novella station, and I Matti, at Via Borgo San Lorenzo 31, just off the Piazza del Duomo.

Prices vary, but you’ll find restaurants get cheaper as you move away from the Piazza del Duomo. I noticed most pizzas were between €7 and €10, which is $4.95 to £7.08. Compare that to Pizza Express, where the cheapest pizza is £11.60! Pasta dishes are around the same price, but the main course options can be between €11 and €16 each. I don’t drink so I can’t speak about the prices for alcohol but a litre of still mineral water was just €3!

Also, a lot of restaurants simply add a €2 cover charge to the bill – some add it to the whole bill, others add it per person. Either way, it’s easier than working out how much you have to leave as a tip.

My thoughts

I was only in Florence for two full days (the remaining half day was spent souvenir hunting and seeing the Leaning Tower of Pisa) and I didn’t get to see half of what is available, but I was pleased with what I did manage to see – although I’m glad we focused on the slightly more offbeat attractions. I’m not sure that tourists get a particularly warm welcome in the city, having had fairly surly service in a couple of cafes, and in July it’s incredibly busy, so be prepared for the city centre to be packed. Head down to Oltrarno and enjoy a more laidback side of Florence, and see some of the more unusual museums on offer!

July 20, 2015

Put the ‘social’ back into social media

We hear daily news stories about the ‘evils’ of using the internet, whether it’s sick adults grooming children, trolls jumping on anything they can to provoke a reaction, or those being recruited to fundamentalist causes.

That said, social media can also be a brilliant place, connecting like-minded individuals, raising awareness about issues, spreading news stories that are ignored by major outlets, and even reuniting lost teddy bears with their erstwhile owners. It’s SOCIAL media, people.

So why on earth do people insist on using it in the same way as traditional marketing methods?

You know what I’m talking about – those people that follow you on Twitter, and spam you with an auto-DM the second you follow them back. It was one such message, from someone claiming to be a marketing guru no less, that prompted me to write this post.

Here are three things guaranteed to make me walk away from you on social media.

1) The Auto-DM

SPAM BOT WANTS TO SELL SPAAAAM!

This has to be my biggest pet hate. If I’ve connected with you on Twitter, then why on earth would you send me a message directing me to also follow you elsewhere as well? OK cool, so you have a Facebook page, a website, a million books on Amazon – so what? I don’t know who you are. You’re better off sending me an @ reply to thank me for the follow, and then start a conversation about something relevant. I’m more likely to check out your page/website/shop etc. if I see you as a real person and not just a Twitter spambot.

I don’t even know why people persist on doing this. None of the marketing blogs I read recommend it as good practice, and I once told someone who sent me a “BUY MY BOOK” auto DM that I unfollowed people who sent me such DMs, and got called antisocial. No, what’s antisocial is you directing an unsolicited advert to my personal inbox, or flat out telling me to connect with you on a completely different social media platform, where you’ll probably just direct me to your presence on another one. Stop it.

2) The ‘I’ll like your page if you like mine’ message

This doesn’t happen so much now that Facebook has changed the way that users see Pages, but nothing is guaranteed to make me NOT ‘like’ your Page more than you asking me to like it just so you’ll like mine. ‘Likes’ are not Pokemon – you do not have to catch ’em all. Besides, the more Pages you like, the less you’ll see, so it’s all rather counterproductive. Provide stuff I’m interested in and then I’ll ‘like’ you – but not a moment before.

3) The ‘I don’t actually interact with people’ people

“Leave me alone!”

Why on earth are you using social media if your entire Twitter feed is either links to your books, retweets of tweets mentioning your books, or links to other books your publisher puts out? I could find all that stuff using Google if I wanted to.

But, and this goes back to point #1, if I don’t know you, then I’m probably not going to go looking for it. If, on the other hand, I see you talking to people, tweeting links to cool websites, sharing photos, or just generally being human then I’m way more likely to follow you AND interact with you…which massively increases your chances of me checking out your book without you even needing to mention it.

So there we have it. I know marketing is hard, and you sometimes don’t want to do it, but bombarding users of a social network with adverts doesn’t work. It just pushes them away. Treat social media like a conversation – which means listening as well as talking – and you’ll have a lot more fun.

What social media pet hates do you have?

Teddy bear image by Dan O\’Connell
Robot image by Sachie Yamazaki
Man on a pier image by Adriana Herbut

July 18, 2015

The Best of Luna Station Quarterly is here!

I’m pleased to announce I have a story in a new anthology! The Best of Luna Station Quarterly: The First Five Years  features FIFTY stories by women writers who have all appeared in Luna Station Quarterly, and it has an absolutely stunning cover by Hugo Award-winning artist Julie Dillon.

My story is The Sought After Smile, a fantasy tale about a court jester who is not what he appears. There are some truly fabulous authors in this collection and I’m really pleased to be included among them.

The Best of Luna Station Quarterly is only available in print at the moment due to the fact it’s a behemoth of a book, but you can order your copy from Amazon US, and Amazon UK. It is indeed a thing of beauty. Just look at that cover!

Or, if you don’t like Amazon’s business models, you can buy direct from the press! Use the code B52GP555 to get 10% off and support an indie publisher in the process.

July 16, 2015

Should authors be paid per page?

Do you love books? Do you think that it’s fair that when you buy a book, you only pay for the pages that you actually read?

Well there was uproar recently when Amazon announced that it would be paying authors not according to the sales of each title, but rather the percentage of that title that gets read. On the one hand, it’s a move allegedly designed to encourage authors to write better books, to make each page count, but on the other hand, it doesn’t take into account how cultural products actually work.

After all, I can’t watch an hour of a two hour movie at the cinema and then demand half of my ticket price back. I can’t take a DVD back because I gave up on the film after twenty minutes. We enter into a sort of contract when we purchase a cultural product that we’re buying the finished article, but we’re also buying all of the time and talent it took to create it in the first place. So if you buy (*shameless plug*) The Necromancer’s Apprentice, you’re not just buying a horror/fantasy novella, you’re also buying the part of me that wrote it. Even if I pay for a pay-per-view sporting event I don’t get money back if I don’t watch all of it.

Imagine asking for your money back halfway through a film! Image by Michal Wojciechowski.

I was going to blog about it when it first cropped up but I thought I’d wait to see how it develops. At first it looked like it would apply to all authors, but now it turns out that as of the 1st of this month, the ‘experiment’ to pay per page actually only applies to authors who self-publish through KDP Select on Amazon. Those are the authors whose books are ‘borrowed’ through Kindle Unlimited, which is the monthly subscription service, and the Kindle Lending Library, which you get with an Amazon Prime membership. According to Gizmodo, “[i]n the new scheme, authors will be paid for each page that remains on the screen long enough to be parsed, the first time a customer reads the book”. [1]

I’m not about to start running around crying that the sky is falling in because as it stands, none of my three self-published titles (The First Tale, Checkmate & Other Stories and Dead Man’s Hand) are available through KDP Select. BUT. It’s only a matter of time before Amazon tries to force the same rulebook onto all submissions.

The Benefit

The only advantage that I can foresee is that it’s going to force writers to write better books – which will hopefully circumvent the problems that are still inherent with self-publishing, such as bad formatting, typos, and generally horrific writing. Still, that’s what the sample option is for. In most cases, if a book is going to be badly written then it will be bad from page one, and if that’s the case, you just don’t buy the whole book. If you get 75% of the way through and disagree with the turn of events? Well the writer isn’t writing a book by committee. It’s not a choose your own adventure novel.

That said, there’s always been a way to make your feelings known about that. You can return Kindle books. I’ve only done it once, because the sample was incredibly misleading as to the later content of the book, and judging by the reviews it got, I wasn’t the only one to think so. But I digress.

The Downsides

I’ve bought books by authors I know to support them, and sometimes I just don’t have time to read them because I have so many other things to read. In the current climate that’s fine – they still profit from the sale. If the pay per page idea takes hold? They don’t get paid until I read it. That’s no good for writers whose books are bought by serial downloaders who rarely read most of what they download. It’s also going to be problematic for people who want to offer free e-books – in the early days, readers downloaded them in copious amounts because there was less to choose from, but now there are so many titles to read, free e-books have lost their value. A reader is more likely to buy a book they’ve paid for, and thus invested in, than one they haven’t.

In my head, my Kindle looks like this. Image by Carlos Sillero.

How is the system even going to work? In the current KDP Select program, where your ‘profits’ are divided up according to lending patterns, you don’t get paid until after its been borrowed in the first place. But are Amazon going to then charge a reader for a book, and hold the funds in escrow until the book is finished, only paying out when the reader reaches 100%? What if they don’t? Will Amazon refund the difference, or keep it themselves? The reader certainly doesn’t benefit from that, and nor does the writer.

I’m assuming the model is going to be based on a percentage system – after all, if you’re literally being paid by the page, then surely those who write the equivalent of 100,000 word behemoths are going to benefit more than the 40,000 word novella folks.

Image by Jean Scheijen.

Quite simply, I think as a system is a dangerous idea, and it also adds fuel to the fire that an electronic book is somehow not a “real” book. If I want to buy a real book then I have to walk into Waterstones and pick one up – I can’t go back a week later and ask for money back because I lost interest after page ten. So if I can’t do it with a real book, why should I be able to do it with an electronic book? Besides, I buy beautiful books of art or photography but because the pages are images and not text, then I’m technically not ‘reading’ them. What about that?

If Amazon REALLY want to promote better fiction then Kristen Lamb has a good proposal for them. “If I were Amazon, I would start promoting works based of rates of completion. Could we be witnessing the birth of an entirely new form of ranking? … Sure Big Shot Mega Author with a gajillion-dollar marketing budget sold X books, but the book only had a 34% rate of completion. But Jane Newbie who has thus far only sold Y amount of books and has only her social media for marketing has a 97% rate of completion. Hmmm, this might impact my decision.” [2]

So it’s really quite a shame that Amazon are in a position where there’s no real viable alternative. I’ve started buying more paperbacks from other retailers such as Waterstones, The Book Warehouse or even Tesco, but I still read an awful lot on my Kindle. Sure you can download books for your Kindle from Smashwords, but how many ‘general’ readers are going to do that? Falling sales for the Nook by Barnes & Noble have removed another competitor [3], and how many people actually bought a Kobo?

I’ll be keeping an eye on how this develops because quite honestly, I like my Kindle, and I don’t want Amazon to screw it up.

[1] Gizmodo – Amazon Will Soon Start Paying Authors Based on e-Book Pages Read.

[2] Kristen Lamb – Brave New Publishing—Amazon Testing Paying Authors by the Page.

[3] Good E Reader – Barnes and Noble Nook Sales Decrease by 40%