Plotting A Trilogy

When I set out to write the Embers of War and Ack-Ack Macaque trilogies, I had to decide how to structure the plot across three books. So, I took a lesson from Star Wars.

Book One establishes our heroes and sets up their world and the background to the coming conflicts, but it’s also an adventure in its own right, with our heroes triumphing at the end.

But then along comes Book Two, and everything gets turned upside down. Gains made in the first book are lost; the characters find the rug pulled out from under them; Luke finds out who his real father is…

So, the start of Book Three finds our characters at their lowest ebb. Their plans are wrecked and they’ve seemingly lost everything. And that’s right when the forces opposing them seem to be ascendant. A new Death Star is built. Han is delivered to Jabba. Leia becomes a slave. They have reached rock bottom and the only thing to do now is fight back. Their trials in Book Two have changed them, and they have new strengths and new goals. They understand themselves better.

The end of Book Three pulls together all the threads from One and Two, and resolves all the character arcs to create a satisfying conclusion.

To reduce it to a simple diagram:

Top Ten Tips for Selling Books on Social Media

As an author, you want to get the word out about your latest book. After all, people can’t buy it if they don’t know it exists. But how do you make your work stand out from all the online clamour?

You can’t throw a metaphorical rock on Twitter without hitting half a dozen authors. There are a lot of us there, both traditionally published and self published, and we all want to attract readers. But simply posting endless entreaties to buy your book doesn’t work. Nobody wants to follow an account that constantly harangues them.

So, what can you do?

Speaking from my own experience, it seems the best way to interest people in your writing is to first interest them in yourself. Put the ‘social’ back into social media.

I never set out with a marketing plan. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve always been myself on Twitter and Instagram. And that authenticity is important, I think. Over the past decade on Twitter, I’ve built up an engaged following, and that has had a definite impact on my visibility as an author, and consequently on the sales of my books.

But the social part came first. I made friends with other writers and people in the bookselling, publishing, and reading communities. I engaged in conversations that weren’t about me or my work. I tried to help people by sharing what I’d learned as a fledgeling writer.

And the most important thing I learned was that people don’t buy books on Twitter; they buy authors.

I hate the term ‘brand,’ but in this context YOU are your brand as much (and perhaps even more so) than your books. If you’re likeable and add value, people will trust you and want to check out your work.

I didn’t plan my strategy or anything. I was just being me. But for those of you just starting out, perhaps you might find it helpful if I present the benefits of my experience in bullet form. And so, here are my top 10 tips for book marketing on social media:

  1. Find your audience
  2. Be interested in other people
  3. Build relationships
  4. Treat authors as colleagues rather than competition
  5. Post interesting and useful content
  6. Try to be helpful
  7. Don’t be a jerk
  8. Act professionally and respectfully
  9. Be the kind of person people want to follow
  10. Share some of the lows as well as the highs – be human!

Finding an audience wasn’t hard for me, because I was already a SF fan and reader, and knew several others, so I had a place from which to build. Being a huge fan of the genre in which you write makes it easier to relate to the audience – because you’re already one of them – and you can celebrate your shared enthusiasms together.

Don’t try to copy my online voice (or anyone else’s) but find your own. Be the best version of yourself. Radiate positivity and helpfulness, and you will find most people will respond positively in return.

Do you have any tips of your own? Something that’s worked for you? Drop a comment below and share it with us.

You can also subscribe to my blog to make sure you don’t miss future posts.

Good luck!

Don’t Wait For Inspiration

Sitting around waiting to be inspired is like sitting around waiting for a train that won’t come. Instead, you need to be using your notebooks or Word documents or whatever you use. Write down every idea you have, and then start bashing those ideas together. That’s how John Wyndham came up with DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS: carnivorous plants + a cosmic event that blinds the world. On their own, each is only half a story, but smash them together and you really have something.

So, ask yourself ‘What if such-and-such happened?’ And then ask, ‘And what if this other thing happened too?’ 

Never stop asking crazy questions. You never know which ones will be the missing pieces of your story.

How I Became A Hybrid Author

Although I already have ten traditionally published books out there, I recently decided to take the plunge and self publish three books myself.

THE LAST REEF and SILVERSANDS were originally published by small presses in 2008 and 2010 respectively, but had sadly fallen out of print when those presses ceased trading. Publishing them myself was a way to keep them available to new readers.

DOWNDRAUGHT was a novella I had previously serialised on my Patreon page, and thus wouldn’t have been of interest to a publisher, having already been effectively ‘published’ online. But, as it had received a good reception from my patrons, I decided to go ahead and bring it out myself, as I thought it deserved a wider audience.

But if I was going to do this, I wanted to be sure I put out a professional-looking product. So, I engaged the services of my friend, Emma Kalson at Creative Cat Apps.

Emma was a huge help. She proofed and formatted the manuscripts, designed the covers, and walked me through the process of uploading everything to Amazon. I couldn’t have done it without her help, and I have no hesitation in recommending her services to any budding self-publishers.

I’m extremely pleased with the finished products. They look and feel good, and hold their own when sitting on the shelf next to my traditionally published works.

Being an author these days means taking every opportunity to get your work out there, and get paid for it. Therefore, I don’t see self-publishing as being in conflict with traditional publishing. They are simply different routes to market, and as far as I’m concerned, they can happily coexist and complement each other.

Buy Now:

Finding Your Carnegie Hall

You’ve heard the old joke in which a tourist asks a musician how to get to the Carnegie Hall and is met with the response, “Practice, kid, practice!” The reason I mention it is that it contains a hefty dose of truth. Whatever your Carnegie Hall might be (a book contract, a starring role, a concert, a promotion…) the only way you’re going to get there is by keeping your skills honed and your ambition sharp.

If you’re a writer, some people say you should write everyday. I don’t think that’s necessary or feasible. Real life and the need to earn a living often intrude. But I think you should try to read everyday, if you can, as it keeps your brain in fiction mode.

And I guess the same would apply to artists or composers. You might not be able to paint or write music every day, but maybe take a couple of minutes to appreciate someone else’s work, just to keep the spark burning.

Art is a two-way process. In order to produce, we need to consume. 

So, choose your Carnegie Hall and keep it in mind, whatever you’re doing. Every time you have to make a decision, ask yourself whether or not your choice will bring you closer to your destination.

And practice, kid. Practice.

Ten Lockdown Self-Care Tips for Writers

Writing has always been a solitary profession fraught with disappointment, poverty and self-doubt. Even during the best of times, it can play havoc with your emotions and sense of self-worth. Rejections, bad reviews, writer’s block . . . add these to financial insecurity, lack of exercise and long hours spent alone at a keyboard, and it’s not hard to see why some authors become depressed or disillusioned.

But now, in these times of pandemic, those worries are amplified, and joined by a whole new set of stresses. Some of us are finding our creativity frozen because we’re overwhelmed by the situation. Some are lonely and find the lack of human contact dulls our desire to work, while others are suddenly stuck in a house filled with people who never leave, and never give us enough peace to be creative.

Faced with all this, it’s vital we learn to look after ourselves – for the sake of our mental and physical health as much as for the sake of our work. And the first step in looking after ourselves is to learn to put ourselves first.

Putting myself first doesn’t come naturally to me. I seem to be one of those people who looks after everybody else but can’t ask for help when he needs it. Not that this is a bad thing. I have people in my life who need a lot of looking after. But I also need to get better at learning to relax.

One of the things about being a writer under deadline is that I feel guilty for every minute in which I’m not writing. My inner voice tells me I should be working every spare moment to earn money and keep us afloat. And if I’m not writing, I should be cleaning the house or doing the laundry . . . It’s easy to get sucked into a constant whirl of competing tasks, to the point where you feel you aren’t succeeding at any of them because you’re too busy worrying about the others.

Sound familiar?

Recently, all this got on top of me and I lost the ability to write. So, I started taking time to do small things to help take care of my mental and physical health. Here are Ten Self-Care Tips you might like to try:

1. Schedule in an hour a day for recuperation and relaxation

Read a book, play a game, grab forty winks. It’s on the schedule, so you don’t need to feel guilty. You’re not slacking off; you’re investing in your ability to keep functioning.

2. Meet friends online.

I’ve been using Zoom and Skype to have face-to-face conversations and online parties with friends, where we dress up and drink wine together, and it has helped me feel like a participant in life again, rather than a bystander. Plus, as a writer, it’s good to talk more. Talking to people provides raw material when creating characters. It’s also good to step outside your own head sometimes.

3. Exercise

Go for a walk, if you can do it safely. Steer clear of shops and busy areas and enjoy the way the air smells fresher. It will stop you feeling imprisoned in your home and boost your mood and your immune system.

4. Brighten up the place

I have a vase of fake roses on my kitchen table. They look real but they don’t trigger my allergies. I’ve also put some fan art I’ve received up on my wall to remind me that people enjoy my books.

5. Feed your body as well as your brain.

Try to be imaginative with what food you have and vary your diet as much as possible. Keep it interesting. Cooking can be as much of a creative outlet as writing.

6. Try to worry only about the things you can control

Easier said than done, but it helps if you avoid the constant barrage of news and maybe only tune in once a day for the headlines, rather than exposing yourself to the firehose of anxiety and drama.

7. Make playlists to help you write and keep you cheerful

Make one filled with songs that make you want to dance around the room, and another to screen out background noise and help you concentrate. Personally, I find café noise helps me focus on my writing, and there are many two- or three-hour long videos of ambient coffee shop noise on YouTube.

8. Expose yourself to different media

You can’t spend all day and all night cooped up with your novel. You need to give your brain time to absorb other ideas and make new connections. So, read as much as you can. Binge watch your favourite shows. View some art on the Internet. Everything is fuel to your writing fire!

9. Make a housework rota to stop it feeling like it’s all getting on top of you

That way, you’ll have a specific and achievable task for each day, rather than a huge avalanche of outstanding jobs.

10. Embrace family life

Rather than seek solitude, I recently moved my work desk into the living room, so the kids can keep me company while I work, and because it’s brighter and less like a cave. This puts me at the heart of family life, even when working, so keeps those feelings of being a hermit at bay.

I still have a long way to go. I need to lose a bunch of weight and my diet still has room for improvement. But even making small positive steps has brightened my general mood considerably and helped me get my writing mojo back. A bright, tidy house provides a more relaxed environment, which in turn leads to a calmer, more creative mood.

But whatever you do, stay safe, stay well, and don’t put yourself under too much pressure. This will pass. All we have to do is look after ourselves until it does.

This post originally appeared on the Curtis Brown Creative blog.

How To Write An Elevator Pitch

One of the hardest things about writing a novel or screenplay is succinctly summing up the plot–but that’s exactly what you need to do if you’re going to pitch it to an agent, editor or studio.

To help you out, here’s the formula I use. I find it incredibly useful to fill it out at the start of the process, before I start writing, in order to make certain I’ve got all the essential ingredients of the story in place.

Here it is:

In order to [avoid problem] a [flawed character] must [try to achieve goal] but when [complication] they realise they must overcome [antagonist] and [personal flaw] by [action] before [deadline].

Wherever you see brackets, insert the relevant parts of your plot.

Want an example? See if you recognise this:

In order to ensure others haven’t fallen victim to the monster that killed her crew, a trauatised spacer must return to the planet where the killings started, but when she and her marine escorts are trapped on the surface, she realises she must defeat the aliens and her own feelings of loss for her daughter by facing the queen alien and escaping before the nuclear power plant explodes.

Yes, it’s ALIENS. How about this one:

In order to respond to a distress call from a princess, a naive farm boy must travel to the stars in order to return the plans she hid in his newly acquired R2 droid. But when his hired ship is captured by the Empire, he realises he must deliver those plans to the rebellion and exchange the cynicism of his uncle for a belief in the Force before the rebellion is forever destroyed.

Still not convinced? Here it is applied to my novel, EMBERS OF WAR:

In order to redeem herself a disgraced warship who accidentally developed a conscience must rescue the passengers of a crashed star liner. But when she comes into conflict with former comrades, she realises she must learn how to outhink rather than outfight her opponents, and solve the mystery of the alien objects in the star system known as the Gallery, before their skirmish sparks another devastating war.

Try it with your work-in-progress. It might point out gaps in your plot, and it will certainly make your pitching easier!

Any input? Comment below!

How To Get A Literary Agent

If you want to be traditionally published, you’re likely to need a literary agent to look after your contracts, translation and TV rights, etc. But how do you go about getting one?

1. TARGET. Make a list of agents who represent work similar to yours. Maybe find out who represents your favourite authors by checking their social media and websites. 

2. FOLLOW GUIDELINES. Do your reseach. Most agents list their submission guidelines on their website. Ignore them at your peril.

3. ONLY SEND YOUR BEST WORK. This shouldn’t need saying, but don’t bother submitting anything that isn’t already as good as you can possibly make it.

4. KEEP IT SHORT. An introductory letter needs to introduce you and your work. That’s it. This isn’t the place for a full autobiography. Stick to relevant details. Why are YOU the best person to have written this story?

5. INCLUDE A HOOK. The hook is the central question/concept of your book. What would you do if…? What happens when…? It is a simple human dillemma that sums up the struggle facing your protagonist and draws in the reader. 

6. BE PATIENT. Agents get tons of submissions each month and response times of up to three months aren’t uncommon.

7. BE PROFESSIONAL. You wouldn’t want to work with an asshole, and neither will your agent. So, don’t act like one. Be professional and friendly at all times. Even if they eventually pass on your submission, simply thank them for their time and move on. Publishing is a small world and word gets around, and you don’t want to gain a reputation for being difficult.

8. PERSIST. It is highly likely you will get some rejections. If that happens, simply move to the next agent on your list, and keep going. If your book is truly outstanding, someone will express an interest sooner or later.

GOOD LUCK!

(Incidentally, if you’re enjoying these posts, why not return to the main blog page and subscribe, so you don’t miss out on useful content like this?)

Exercising the storytelling muscles

I kept always two books in my pocket, one to read, one to write in.

Robert Louis Stevenson

I can’t stress how important it is to read and to take notes. These are probably two of the most important things a writer can do. Regular reading exercises the storytelling muscles of your imagination. It keeps your head in fiction mode and consciously or not, you will learn from what you read. You will see how to affect the reader, build suspense and craft a clean and effective sentence; you will also be able to identify those parts of the text that don’t work for you, and interrogate why that is. 

Note-taking is just as essential. As you go about your day, jot down interesting turns of phrase that you hear, plot ideas, character or place descriptions. Whether you use a paper notebook or a phone app, get it all down somewhere and you will find this serves a duel purpose. Firstly, you will be able to mine these notes for inspiration and detail; secondly, the act of translating what you see and hear into words will keep the writing part of your brain active and engaged, like an engine constantly ticking over, so that when you sit at your desk to write, you won’t be starting cold.

Fishing for Inspiration

Stop overthinking everything. Sometimes, you just have to stop trying to second guess yourself and just start typing (or painting, or playing music, etc.) You can plan and plan, but a lot of creative inspiration comes in the moment. Ideas are forged in the flow of the work, and improvisation is the mother of creativity. So, lay the groundwork and then just get out there and do it.

Inspiration can strike in the most unexpected ways but in my experience, it strikes hardest while I’m actually wrestling with the story in my net, and its important to capture its bounty before it slips back beneath the waves.

Our imaginations are like the sea. So much lurks beneath the surface, seemingly lost to us; but occasionally, a tempestuous thought or sudden fortunate confluence of tides will throw up a gem of an idea.

So, don’t wait for inspiration to strike. Start typing and see what happens.