Tag Archives: writing a book

How To Write A Zombie Apocalypse Novel

6 May

It’s surprising how often people arrive at this blog having typed the title of this article (or something similar) into Google. Obviously there are a lot of would-be zombie writers out there looking for help so I thought I’d put together a brief guide based on my own experiences. This is quite a long article and if you’d prefer to read it offline, you can download a PDF from here.

1. Come Up With A Good Idea: Sorry to have to say this, but if you don’t have a good idea, then there’s really not much point in writing a book about zombies, or indeed anything else. Yet, coming up with an idea that’s good is probably the most difficult thing you will have to do; that’s right, coming up with a good idea for a book is more difficult than actually writing it! So what do I mean by good? I’m mean something that’s new and original, and adds to the genre rather than just mimicking the work of others. The trouble is that with the wealth of zombie books and films out there, it can be extremely difficult to come up with an idea that hasn’t already been done to death (if you’ll pardon the pun!). If your idea can be described with phrases along the lines of ‘It’s like … but set … instead’ or ‘It’s like … but with more/less/a female/male …’ or ‘It’s a cross between … and …’ then your idea probably isn’t original enough to be distinctive.

If your idea passes this first hurdle in your own mind, the next thing to do is to run it past other people to see what they think. If their responses are along the lines of ‘Oh that sounds just like …’ then again it’s probably not a very original idea and it won’t stand out from all the other zombie books that are already out there. However, there’s a caveat here, just because an idea is original it doesn’t mean it’s automatically literary gold-dust. There could be very good reasons why there isn’t an existing book or film with your particular premise and that’s because it just won’t work. Again, talking to other people about your idea will help you determine if your idea is actually any good (even if it is original).

If you don’t have anyone who you can run your idea past, you can try one of the zombie forums such as Home Page Of The Dead, Zombie Squad or the Permuted Press one. Most of these have sections on writing zombie fiction and allow you to run ideas past other forum members to see what they think. If you get enough people responding positively to your idea, then you’re probably onto a good thing; if not then you need to put some more work in. This doesn’t necessarily mean you should throw it away; you may just need to tinker with it a bit here and there until you have something that’s worth taking further.

2. Decide On The Rules For Your Own Personal Apocalypse: While everyone is familiar with the concept of a zombie apocalypse, each one is unique. Think about it for moment: the zombie apocalypse in The Walking Dead is different from that in Dawn Of The Dead, which in turn is different from 28 Days Later, I am Legend and The Day Of The Triffids (okay those last two aren’t technically ‘zombie’ apocalypses but you get the idea). If you don’t have a clear framework for your particular zombie apocalypse before you start writing, the chances are you’ll end up with glaring inconsistencies which will confuse and annoy your readers. After all, there’s nothing worse than reading a zombie book where the rules seem to change from scene to scene.

These rules for how your zombie-filled world works need to cover things like how it started (a virus? Radiation? Chemical contamination?), how fast it spreads (is it a slow build drawn out over weeks or does it happen over-night?), what type of zombies will roam your apocalyptic landscape (will they be the dead risen to walk again or zombie-like infected living humans?), how your characters end up where the readers join them at the start of the story (were they locked in a military bunker, or holed up in a school or maybe they were in space and returned to Earth only to find it infested with the undead!), how do people become zombies (is it an infection passed on through a bite or does everyone become a zombie when they die?) and, most importantly, whether your zombies be Romero-esque and slow or the more modern fast-moving type or some sort of mix between the two. Added 25/07/2013: You can find a copy of the rules for the post-apocalyptic, zombie-filled world of my book For Those In Peril On The Sea here.

3. Build Your Characters: A good zombie story isn’t just about blood and gore as people get ripped to shreds by hordes of flesh-munchers (I admit it’s an important part but there has to be more to it than that if your book is going to be any good). You also have to have compelling characters so your readers care about what happens to them. After all, it’s all the more gut-wrenching when a well-liked character falls victim to the undead. Similarly, there’s nothing better than seeing a hated character finally get their just desserts. What you don’t want to do is leave your readers not caring whether your characters live or die or, worse, cheering for the zombies (unless that’s your particular twist – but that might be a prime example of an idea that’s original but not good!).

This means you need to think about exactly what each character looks like, where they came from, how they speak, what their strengths and weaknesses are, whether they’re the reluctant hero or just a trigger-happy gun nut, whether the reader is meant to like them, admire them, hate them and so on. The best way to do this is to write a character sketch for each of the main characters before you start writing. This way you can get to know them and also make sure they behave consistently throughout your story. These characteristics aren’t set in stone and you can come back and change things later if you need to, but it’s useful to have this written down somewhere so that you don’t find your characters acting inconsistently as your story develops. And of course, you’ll also need to work out how exactly you’re going to reveal this information about your characters to both the readers and to the other characters.

4. Practice Your Writing Skills: If you haven’t written before, don’t expect to be able to sit down and pen the next World War Z straight off. Even if you have written before, you probably haven’t worked in the zombie genre (otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this article). This means you will need some practice before you can find your voice and your writing style. One of the best ways to do this is to write short stories. These don’t necessarily take a huge amount of time and they are a great way to develop your skills and explore ideas that you might have either for your book as a whole or for individual scenes and characters.

Once you have written each short story, I’d suggest posting them somewhere for others to read so you can get some feedback. You can do this on your own blog, but it’s probably better to do this on one or more of the zombie forums. You can usually find plenty of people there who are more than willing to express an opinion on your work. However, be warned, not all of it will be positive but hopefully most of it will be constructive.

5. Get To Know Your Competition: If you’re thinking about writing your first zombie novel, the chances are you’re already a fan of the genre and will probably have read loads of different novels and watched lots of films. However, that was in your pre-author phase. You need to go back and watch/read them again (always fun!), but not simply as a passive onlooker. Instead, you need to study them with a more critical eye. Think about which bits are effective and which bits aren’t. Then try to work out why this is the case. This will give you insights which you can then take into your own writing. This is not to say that you should be ripping off the work of others, so don’t steal whole scenes or characters, rather you’re looking at the ways they made a scene gripping or memorable, or what they did that meant it just didn’t work for you. Once you have accumulated this knowledge, you are ready to apply it to your own work.

6. Get To Know Your Intended Audience: There’s not much point in writing a book if no one’s going to want to read it. This means you need to get to know your intended audience before you even start writing. One of the best ways to do this is by reading online reviews of as many other zombie books as you can (and don’t just read the reviews of books which got five stars, read the ones for books that have one star ratings too). Look at what people say they liked, and also what they said they hated about each one. If you find that there are certain things your intended audiences repeatedly complains about (such as too much gratuitous violence and not enough character development – a common issue with zombie books) then make sure you avoid making the same mistakes.

7. Avoid Clichés: In zombie fiction, there are many potential pitfalls but one of the most difficult to avoid is using the many clichés which abound in this genre: The little girl zombie that surprises someone at the beginning, the fact that almost anyone can pick up a gun and start popping off perfect headshots instantly even if they’ve never held one before, the baseball bat, the lone zombie lurking amongst the shelves of a supermarket which a character needs to go into against their better judgement because they really need something they can only find inside and so on. Avoid these like the proverbial plague as they’re one of the quickest way to alienate your would-be readers (well that and poor editing but more on that later).

8. Do Your Research: Writing a good story, even a zombie one, means you have to get your facts right, and in order to do that you need to do research. You may need to find out things like how many bullets a particular make of gun holds, what happens when you blow someone’s head off with a shotgun, and how far you can drive in a specific model of car on a certain amount of fuel. Depending on your story, you may also need to know how to reset a broken bone, what sort of antibiotics you need to treat an infection or how to amputate a limb that’s been bitten by a zombie. You also need to research the locations where your story is set to make sure that the events you are describing are feasible. Yes, you can take some artistic licence, but your story should at least be geographically possible.

The internet can be a great resource for finding out such things, as can be forums where you can ask experts questions. Google Earth is also exceedingly useful and you can use it to check out the layout of towns, measure distances to see how long it would take your characters to get from one place to another and map out how your zombie swarm will sweep through the city where your story is set. While you can write a story without researching such things, it will come across as being much more authentic if you do, and a good zombie story needs to feel real if it’s going to have any bite.

9. Write A First Draft: No book is perfect in the first draft. In fact, most are a mess of inconsistencies, poorly written characters and plot flaws, but the point of a first draft isn’t to be a perfect finished product. Instead, the first draft is about getting the basic framework of your ideas down on paper in some sort of narrative form. This initial draft is the first time you will be able to stand back and see your whole story. It’s not for public consumption; instead its purpose is to let you see whether or not your idea really works, whether it’s distinctive, and what you need to tweak and change to make it work. This means that you shouldn’t spend weeks or months editing and polishing the first chapter before moving onto the next. Instead, just get it all down on paper, you’ll do all that polishing in the next step.

10. Editing: Based on my own experience, only about 20% of the process of writing a book involves working on the first draft. To paraphrase Churchill, the first draft isn’t the end, it’s not even the beginning of the end, it’s only the end of the beginning. Once you’ve finished your first draft, you need to start the editing process. This is where you go back and clean up all the typos, the plot holes, the character flaws, the inconsistencies and weed out all the clichés that, despite your best efforts, have none-the-less worked their way into your story. You will probably spend three times as long editing your book as you did on writing the first draft but it’s the only way you will get it into a readable form. I would suggest a minimum of 10 complete drafts before you move onto the next stage (this means you’ll have read it through and made changes 10 times by which time you’ll know it inside out) but that’s just me.

11. Find Some Guinea-pigs: I’m not talking about the furry little things currently lurking in the corner of the room where I’m writing, rather I’m talking about finding yourself some readers. These are people who you can trust to give you an honest, warts and all opinion of your work. This means you probably shouldn’t use your relatives (who’ll tell you it’s perfect no matter how bad it is) or your partner (who won’t want to belittle your efforts); instead go for trusted friends who are zombie fans or try recruiting people from one of the zombie forums. Be clear that you want them to be honest and that you won’t hold anything they say against them (and make sure you don’t – after all, they’re doing you a favour!). Once they’ve read it, get them to tell you what they liked and what they didn’t, and make sure you listen to what they have to say. If you give a draft of your book to three people and they all tell you a specific scene doesn’t work it’s more likely that they are right and you are wrong rather than the other way round.

12. Repeat Steps 10 And 11: This is done until everyone is more or less happy with what you’ve written (I’d usually do this three times). However, you may find that you need to get at least some new readers for each draft just to get a fresh perspective on it.

13. Find Yourself A Professional Editor: It might be expensive, but a professional editor will help finish your novel off. Their input will be invaluable at catching any remaining holes in your plot, picking up spelling mistakes, cleaning up your grammar, sorting out pesky things like how to use a semi-colon correctly and so on. Just remember, they know what they’re talking about so listen to them, otherwise you’re splashing out good money for nothing. There are plenty of free-lance editors out there and a quick search of the internet will turn up a long list of names. Don’t just go for the first one you find though. Instead, look for one that’s a member of a professional organisation for editors or ask other writers for recommendations. You could also consider asking any potential editor to edit a sample of your work to see if you like their style and whether it’s compatible with your writing voice.

If you get through these steps, you should end up with a completed post-apocalyptic zombie novel sitting in front of you but your work isn’t done, not by a long way. You next need to decide what you’re going to do with it: are you going to submit it to an agent to see if they will represent you to a publisher or are you going to try submitting it directly to a publisher (although few accept unsolicited manuscripts these days)? Or you could go the self-published route and put it out through something like Kindle Direct Publishing. Whichever route you take, just remember that getting your book on sale still isn’t the end of it (although you’ll have finally reached the beginning of the end!). Once it’s out there, if you’re going to make any sales, you’ll need to publicise the hell out of it; and that’s a whole different ball game.

From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in print and as a Kindle ebook. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more. To download a preview of the first three chapters, click here.

For Those In Peril On The Sea is one of only five finalists in the ForeWord Firsts Winter 2013 competition for debut novels. For more information, click here.

To read the Foreword Clarion Review of For Those In Peril On The Sea (where it scored five stars out of five) click here.

The Difficult Second Book

14 Nov

In music, people often refer to the difficult second album.  The issue here is that a band or an artist may have slaved away for years before they get any recognition, and when they finally get signed they put all their best material developed across this time onto their first album.  If that happens to be a success, you can bet that their record label will be after them to put a second album out pretty soon after.  This is where the trouble begins because they’ve used all their best stuff and they have to scramble around to find songs that are good enough to fill the next one.

In writing, I suspect there is a related issue with your second book. You’ve probably already used all your best situations, your well-honed plot devices and killer dialogue, basically all the stuff you’ve been storing away in the back of your mind for years.  This means you’re left staring at a blank slate (or more likely a blank screen) with much less in your ideas bank to work with while your publisher is pushing you to get the next one finished ASAP. If you’re second book is a sequel or part of a continuing series, you also need to make sure that it is different enough from the first so that is doesn’t just seem like a carbon copy with some of the names changed, but similar enough that it has the same basic feel to it, and this can be a difficult balancing act.

This is the situation I now find myself in.  My first book is being finalised for publication as I write (it will be out in the UK at the start of January), and I’m meant to be getting my teeth into the second in what may eventually grow be a four book series. It will be set in the same world as the first (a post-apocalyptic alternate reality) but will involve a new cast of characters. The problem I’m facing is that for the first book I’d been mentally building up ideas for events that could take place in this world for about four years, so I had a lot to draw on.  Now, as I work on the second book, I have much less in there and I find I’ve already taken all the best bits out. This means I’m having to work harder and faster than I did with my first book just to generate the new ideas and scenarios I need to refill my ideas bank and it’s a pace I’m not as used to working at.

Add to this the fact that I’ve gone from working on a pretty much finished piece, which has been polished and honed over many months, to a very raw first draft, and I find I’ve forgotten just how raw this can be. I need to constantly remind myself that the first book was once in this state too and that the important thing is to get a completed draft written.  Once there, I can go back and start the editing process once more and gradually whip it into an acceptable shape.

Writing the first book was undoubtedly hard, but I’d mistakenly thought the second one would be easier.  It turns out it’s also hard, but in different ways and for different reasons. This is something no one ever warned me about but I presume I can’t be the only one who has found themselves facing these same struggles with what could rightly be described as the difficult second book.

From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

Tips For Writing A First Person Narrative

12 Nov

Most books and stories are written in the third person. In other words, they are written as if the characters are being observed by an all-knowing being. This perspective allows the author to look inside the characters and describe what they’re thinking, how they’re feeling, what they’re motivation is for the way they act and so on. The writer can know when one character is being deceived by another, or when something happens beyond their sphere of knowledge that has ramifications for a certain individual.  This is a powerful position and it allows many separate elements within a story to be woven together in a seamless manner that allows the reader to know more than any individual character about what is happening.

However, there is another perspective a story can be written from, that of the first person.  In these stories, the author, and indeed the reader, can only see the world through the eyes of the individual who is narrating the book. This can make for a compelling tale, since the reader discovers things at the same time as the main character, and can feel as if they are going through the same events. While first person narratives are rare in some genres, they are very common in others.  In particular, many of the best post-apocalyptic stories are written from a first person point of view.  This is because it’s narrative format is well-suited for telling stories of survival and turmoil.

Yet, writing a first person narrative can be very different from writing from a third person perspective, and if you’re familiar in writing from the third person point of view, it can be difficult to shift into writing from the first. In particular, while the reader is all-knowing in terms of the narrator, they can only find out about what others are thinking or feeling by their actions or if they talk about it.  This means that you have to be very careful about how information is revealed, and the whole story must be played out by the actions and interactions of that one key person. So how do you go about writing a first person narrative? Here’s my top six tips:

1. First person narratives are best kept relatively simple and linear.  This means you need to avoid many of the multi-faceted elements than make stories told from a third person perspective so compelling. Remember any explaining of complicated back stories or personal histories has to be done through speech, and if you make them too complicated, it will interrupt the flow of your main story.

2. It is usually best if you keep the cast of characters small.  Every time you introduce a new character, they will have to explain where they came from and who they are. This can get tedious for the reader if it happens too frequently, particularly if the character is not pivotal to the main story arc. I remember in one story I was working on, I ended up cutting the number of named characters in half after the first draft because introducing new people kept slowing the action down.  Instead, I just used existing characters in the same situations. This kept the story moving along, as well as allowing me to develop these characters in more depth.

3. The narrator is not a mind-reader. The only way he or she can know what someone is thinking is if they tell them. The same goes for events that happen out of sight of the narrator.  They cannot know what has happened unless someone tells them. This means the narrator must be in ever scene, although you can have scenes within scenes where another character describes to the narrator what happened elsewhere.

4. While writing first person narratives, it’s very easy to get suckered into using very passive language. For example, if the story arc calls for two people to move, it’s easy to write something like this: ‘We decided we should head north and we set off in that direction.’ This might be how you’d describe what happened if you were telling someone about it, but it’s hardly the most gripping writing style.  Instead, you need to work hard to keep your story in an active voice.  One of the best ways to do this is to use speech. In the above example, you could have a section of dialogue that tells the reader how the decision to head in a specific direction came about. Something like this:

I looked around desperately, trying to work out where we should go next, then I saw it, a small break in the trees up on the ridge to our north. ‘Up there, do you see it? It’s a way out.’

Bob lifted his binoculars and scanned the path that lead up to it ‘I don’t know, it looks too dangerous to me.’

‘You got a better idea?’

‘No,’ Bob scratched his beard and thought for a moment before carrying on, ‘But I still don’t like the look of it.’

‘We’ve got no choice. If we stay here, they’re going to find us, and then they’re going to kill us.’

Bob stared silently at the ridge as if waiting for something to happen.

‘Well, I’m going for it.’ I walked a few paces forward before turning back, ‘You coming?’

Bob said nothing, he just picked up his pack and followed as I led the way up the hill.

5. When you’re describing how the narrator is feeling, you need to vary the way in which you reveal this information. If you always use the same method, your story will soon get very boring. For example, if you continually use ‘I felt…’ phrases (as in ‘I felt sad’, ‘I felt run down’, ‘I felt frustrated’ etc) your story will quickly become monotonous.  Instead, you can use a variety of different ways to reveal the narrator’s inner emotions, such as, ‘I kicked the door in frustration’, ‘John’s assessment of the situation, while accurate, left me feeling thoroughly depressed’ or ‘As I walked through the ruins, a sense of desolation settled over me’.

6. When writing from the first person perspective, don’t imagine you’re writing a diary that describes what the narrator did. That style of writing it too passive and, as you’ll know if you’ve ever read someone’s diary, rather boring (they’re never the thrilling read you think they’ll be!).  Instead, imagine you’re trying to entertain someone with your story over a couple of beers. You’d use very different, and much more active, language than if you were writing a diary, and this is closer to the style you should be aiming for in a first person narrative.

So, those are my tips for writing a story from the first person perspective. I hope you find them useful. If you’d like to read a couple of short stories I have written from a first person perspective, you can find one here and another here.

From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

Location, Location, Location: Is the Setting For A Story As Important As the Characterisation?

11 Nov

When learning to write, a lot of emphasis is placed on learning how to create believable and likeable characters (or indeed dislikeable ones if that’s what you’re aiming for). While I agree that this is, indeed, extremely important, I feel that it is also important that authors work hard to ensure that the reader gets a sense of place for the location where their stories take place.  If a story comes across as if it could be set almost anywhere, I find I’m often left feeling something missing.  I might not always be able to put my finger on it, but this is usually because the author hasn’t spent enough time making the locations as believable as the character.

Maybe I’m odd, but I feel that if a story is set in a specific location, this should come out in its telling. By this, I mean it shouldn’t feel that it could have taken place in almost any other city in the world. The author presumably chose London for a reason, and I want to at least get a hint as to what this might be.  Ian Rankin is great example of this. It would be impossible to imagine Inspector Rebus skulking around the streets of any other city but Edinburgh. This comes across in the descriptions of the weather, the pubs, the streets and the people.  The same goes for the writing of Iain Banks, and is especially clear in The Crow Road where the landscape of the west of Scotland is as integral to the story telling as the characters themselves.

And it’s not just contemporary fiction where this is important, the same is true in science fiction and fantasy.  In fact, you could almost argue that it’s more important there.  In these genres, you can’t rely on the familiar short-hands to help them identify with a location as you can in the contemporary genre. For a story set in New York, you can mention the skyline of Manhattan and be fairly confident of the picture that will appear in a reader’s mind without having to describe it.  Compare that to a space colony on Alpha Centauri, or a hobbit hole in the Shire where your reader has no existing images to draw on. For these stories, you will need to make sure your words paint the right picture for them. I guess the same is also true for stories set in parts of the world people are less familiar with. You may be able to get away with less descriptions of the locations for a story set in London than one set in Glasgow, and when you get to somewhere like Inverness or Lerwick you are likely to have even less existing images in people’s minds to work with.

There’s a flip side to this though. If you want to break with the usual stereotypic views people hold for certain places, the better known a location is the harder you’ll have to work to change peoples’ preconceived ideas about it. Mention Glasgow and people will automatically think sandstone tenements or deprived and decrepit nineteen sixties housing schemes. Yet, not all of Glasgow is like this. You could choose to set a story in the leafy suburbs, but you’ll have your work cut out for you if that’s what you want your readers to imagine when they think of life in this city.

All this having been said, it can be a thin line between providing enough description to get a sense of the location and providing so much that it gets in the way of your story. You want your readers to get a feel for your chosen location without ever really noticing that this is what you’re doing. It’s hard to do, but if you can get it right, your writing will come to life in a way that it simply won’t without it.

From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

There’s More To Modern Publishing Than The Mainstream Vs Self-Publication Debate

9 Nov

With the advent of publishing programmes such as Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and Create Space, there has been a great deal of debate about the relative merits of mainstream publishing and self-publication. Yet, this debate has primarily focused on what could be considered two extremes of modern publishing frequently brushes over other publishing options that fall between them. In this posting, I’ll take a very quick tour through the full range of alternatives and put them in the context of the more familiar mainstream/self-publication extremes.

Firstly, it’s important to realise there’s more to mainstream publishing than the ‘big six’ (Simon and Schuster, HarperCollins, Random House, Macmillan, The Penguin Group and Hachette). There are also many mid-sized, and well-respected, publishers out there. Some of these are widely recognised publishing brands in their own right (such as Bloomsbury, the publisher of the Harry Potter books), while others will be less familiar. If they become successful, mid-sized publishers may get bought up by one of the big six, but a good number remain publishers in their own rights for many years. The important thing to remember here is that just because your book is published by one of these companies, doesn’t mean it can’t be successful (just ask J.K. Rowling!).

Next on the list are the independent publishers.  These are ones that are not associated in any way with the big six and are unlikely to ever be targeted for takeover by them.  Independent publishers come in a variety of guises. First, there are the small presses, some of which may specialise in quite specific areas. Small presses usually publish a more limited number of titles than mainstream publishers, and may lack many of the publicity resources available to larger companies, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they should be considered second-rate. This having been said, many can be precariously perched on thin divide between financial success and failure, meaning there is the possibility they could disappear suddenly and without trace.

After this, comes niche publishers. Niche publishers can be thought of as small presses which specialise in a very specific subject matter or market.  An example of this is Permuted Press which almost exclusively publishes books with an apocalyptic (and often zombie-fuelled) theme.

From niche publishing, we move onto micro-publishers. These are usually one or two person operations, and are often run by authors who use them to publish their own work and those of a small number of other authors who are already known to them. Some micro-publishers may, indeed solely publishers their own work.  They differ from self-publishing in that they are set up and run as small publishing operations (including having their own ISBN numbers for the imprints). This means they make use of free-lance editors, cover designers, proof-readers and copy editors to help maintain high standards for their work. To confuse things further, not all independent publishers fall neatly into one of these classifications, and some may straddle two or even three. For example, while Permuted Press started out as a micro-publisher, it was (and indeed remains) a niche publisher. However, it now has a sufficiently large catalogue of titles that it is probably best classified as a small, rather than a micro, press.

Self-publication can also come in a variety of guises.  This can include those who produce their own books and publish them through outlets such as Kindle Direct Publishing, Amazon’s CreateSpace and Lulu.  Self-publishers differ from micro-publishers in that the authors are generally solely responsible for all aspects of their books ranging from editing to proof-reading, cover design and copy editing, rather than using external free-lance specialists for these specialist jobs.

At this point it is also worth mentioning vanity publishers, just to complete the picture. Vanity publishers as ones that, unlike all other types of publishers considered here, require payment upfront from an author to publisher their work.  As such, their business model is to make money from authors rather than from books sales.

While we might all aim to be signed up by one of the big six, with the associated possibility of large advances, this is extremely difficult to achieve, especially for an author seeking to get their first book published. This means you might wish to consider some of the other options mentioned above. If you do, you will quickly find yourself asking, ‘Which is best for me?’  Unfortunately, there is no right answer to this question and it will vary from author to author (and indeed from book to book).

If you just want to see your book in print and are not particularly interested in making a reputation for yourself as a writer, or indeed selling any books, then vanity publishing might be the one for you.  If, however, you are even remotely interested in becoming a recognised writer, you’d be better to stay clear of such publishers. Instead, you could consider one of the independent publishing options. If you are confident you can cover all the skills required to successfully bring a book to market on your own (such as editing, typesetting, cover design and so on), then self-publishing might be a good way for you to go. This is usually the cheapest option, as there may be little or no layout in advance (especially with ebook publishing).  If you do decide to go down this route, you have to be brutally honest with yourself about your abilities otherwise you risk getting a reputation for publishing sub-standard work (and this is something that has tainted the self-publication market as a whole).  If your editing skills aren’t up to scratch, or your design skills are not quite as good as they could be you need to admit this to yourself.  If you find yourself lacking certain essential skills, consider whether you should, instead, go down the micro-publishing route and make use of free-lancers to cover the gaps in your abilities. Yes, this will cost you money, but if it improves the quality of your published work, it should mean it’s more likely achieve sales, get good reviews and/or get a reputation for producing good work. Either way, if you decide to self-publish or micro-publish you will almost certainly be wholly responsible for publicising and marketing, and, assuming you have written a good story, its success or failure will very much depend on how well you handle this aspect of the publishing game. Since you can’t really on the skills and resources of a large publicity machine, you’ll have to box clever on this front, but you’ll also need to be careful not to over-do it.

If you’d rather steer clear of everything associated with getting your book from a manuscript to something that’s actually on sale, you might want to consider submitting it to a niche or small press. These presses are more likely to accept unsolicited manuscripts direct from writers, however, there are also some nightmare stories out there from authors. This means you need to do your research before you consider submitting a manuscript to one of these publishers. There is also the issue that, by their very nature, these publishers are more likely to fail, potentially trapping your book in the limbo of liquidation. This having been said, if you can find the right niche or small press for you, then it’s likely that you’ll be able to have a greater input into things like the cover design and the internal layout.

If none of these options seem like your cup of tea, then you will probably need to find yourself an agent who can submit your manuscript to a medium-sized publisher, or maybe even one of the big six. However, be warned, getting an agent can be a struggle in its own right. If you succeed in going down this route, you will benefit from all the expertise that these bigger companies can throw at your book. This won’t guarentee its success, but it is potentially more likely, and while you will still need to do some of the publicity and marketing, these companies will have many additional resources you can draw on.

So, this ends my whirlwind tour through the full gamut of options available in the modern publishing industry. For the new author, it can all seem very confusing, but hopefully this has provided a few hints that might help push you in the direction of the solution which is right for you.

If you have any thoughts or experiences with any of these different publishing options, please share them by commenting on this article, especially if you think you can help other decide what publishing approach might be right for them.

From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

Why Deadlines Are Important (Even If You Miss Them)

5 Nov

‘I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.’ This was the thoughts of Douglas Adams, best known as the author of The Hitch-hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy on this. He was apparently notorious for missing them but always seemed to get there in the end.  This brings me to the topic of this posting, the rather thorny subject of deadlines. Most authors have a love-hate relationships with deadlines, but it is extremely important to have one, even if you miss it. And then the next one. And the next after that. The reason deadlines are so important is that they provide you with a marker, something against which you can measure where you are against where you should be. If you don’t have deadlines, you have no yardstick for comparison and you will find your project drifting off into the ‘Never to be completed’ pile.

When working on a writing project (and this equally applies to my academic writing as my fiction writing), I feel that setting deadlines is an essential part of my work plan.  The deadlines I set are not just for me, but for everyone else I involve in my writing projects. This includes co-authors (the academic stuff) and people I ask to read my work over (my fiction writing). I found over the years that if I don’t give myself and others a deadline, things will quickly wander off track.  As they say, the squeaky wheel gets the oil, and it is the same with writing projects.  If you have a deadline, it will stay close to the top of your ‘to do’ pile. If you don’t, it will gradually creep lower and lower until it’s forgotten.  The issue here isn’t necessarily hitting your deadline, just that having one provides a way for you to know if everything is on course or whether you need to put in a bit more effort to keep it on track.

From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

Why No Book I Write Will Ever Be Perfect To Me (And Why This Is The Most Important Lesson I’ve Learned As A Writer)

1 Nov

When I read books written by other people, I’m able to tacitly accept that they won’t be perfect, or at least that they won’t be written exactly the way I myself would have written them. In fact, when it comes to other peoples’ work, I’m able to brush over things that I would consider pretty big flaws in my own. If I couldn’t, it would make reading other peoples’ work almost impossible as I’d be continually picking away at it (thinking things like ‘I’d have put a semi-colon there not a full stop’ or ‘I’d have used “vivacious” rather than “bubbly” to describe her’), and this would ruin my enjoyment of the story.

Yet, when it comes to my own writing, I will agonize over ever phrase, every word and every punctuation mark. I’ll find myself going back and forth, replacing commas with full stops and visa versa until I forget which one I started off with. I’ll change a characters hair colour from blonde to black to red and back again, hoping to create something that exactly matches the ideal of the story I have locked inside my head. Know I could spend the rest of my life trying to get each book perfect, but I’ve realised it’s unlikely that I’ll ever succeed because I’m often my own worst critic. What’s more, when I thought about it, I came to realise the reader is unlikely to ever notice any of these supposed imperfections that I sweat blood and tears over as I try to get them just right. Nor will they make much difference in terms of whether they enjoy it or not.

The reason for this is straight-forward. When the reader first meets a character, if it say a woman has long, brown hair, that’s just the way she will appear in the their mind.  They don’t know that she’s gone through more hair colours and styles than can be found in your average salon as I tried to get the description exactly right.  The same goes for minor variations in punctuation, choice of words and phrasing.  To some extent, it can even apply to who said what when, as long as someone says it to move the story along and it’s not too out of character for them. After all, while I may fret over it for days, in a post-apocalyptic world, does it really matter who, in a group of survivors, is the first to cry, ‘Zombies, run!’? What’s more important to the reader is what happens next, such as who gets eaten, who gets infected and who escapes to be attacked another day.

This isn’t to say that I don’t think editing is important. Editing is critical if you’re going to be able to write something that doesn’t have people throwing it across the room in frustration by the end of the first page (click here for a posting on this). However, at some stage, you have to accept that you’ve done all you can do and that the book is as good as you’re going to be able to get it. Yes, it won’t be perfect to you, but that’s because it doesn’t fit with exactly the ideal of the book you hold in my mind’s eye. The critical question here is, will the reader really notice the difference?

It’s a difficult step in the development of a writer to accept that the book they’ve been dreaming of writing for years will probably never be perfect in their eyes, but if they don’t accept this, harsh though it seems, it is unlikely they’ll ever get beyond the stage of repeatedly re-drafting their first novel. Some might not even get past trying to write that perfect first chapter, or that intensely gripping first paragraph or even that killer opening sentence. The flip side of this, though, is that we also need to learn when we’ve finally reached the point where further editing will make no real difference to the way the book is perceived by a reader who is coming to it for the very first time, so we don’t end the editing process too soon. Each writer will eventually develop their own rule of thumb, but one way of determining this can be found in this quote from a famous author: ‘I know I’m finished with a story when I find myself going through it and taking out commas, then going through the story again and putting them back in the same places.’ That certainly sounds familiar to me.

If you’re in any doubt as to whether you have reached that point or not (and I have to admit I’m pretty bad at recognising whether I’ve got there myself), ask some one who you can trust to give you critical feedback, but crucially who hasn’t read the piece you’re working on before, to take a look at it. Their minds won’t be tainted with previous drafts or pre-conceived ideas of what any of the characters should look like (or indeed used to look like before you changed their hair from auburn to mousey brown, or you changed one of them from a man to a woman or the other way round – this happens more often than you’d think in the editing process!). This means they’re better placed than those who have read it previously to tell you whether it still needs some tweaking or if it is ready to be sent off to an agent, your editor, or to be released out into the world (if you’re going down the self-published route).  For this reason, I don’t send early drafts to every potential reader I can think of.  Instead, I’ll keep a few in reserve so that I have a fresh pair of eyes to read it over in the latter stages to help me recognise when I’ve reached this point.

From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

The Things You Do When You Know You Really Should Be Writing

30 Oct

I’ve been meaning to write a post about procrastination for some time, but I keep putting it off. Obviously that’s just a bad joke, but there is a serious point behind it. Procrastination has been the death of many a writing project.  You know you really should be doing your five thousand words for the day, or five hundred, or five, but you suddenly find you have a burning desire to do something more important instead.  Something like checking your emails for the third time in ten minutes, or looking to see whether any of your friends have changed their status on Facebook since this morning, or reading that new blog article that’s just been posted, anything other than actually sitting down and writing.

Unfortunately, modern technology means there’s a plethora of temptations just a click away, and it can take all your will power to keep your hands on the keyboard and off the nearest mouse button. But you can’t blame it all on the internet. One of my friends told me her house has never since been as clean and tidy as when she was meant to be writing her Ph.D. thesis. She even found washing the dishes started having a certain fascination she’d never noticed before. In a similar vein, at one point while working in the middle of nowhere with no TV, phone, internet or any of the usual distractions of modern life, I managed to waste a week when I should have been writing, messing around on a beach stacking stones on top of each other into towers that were about eight foot tall, something inspired by the work of the artist Andrew Goldsworthy. I know what you’re thinking, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it – it’s amazingly addictive as you try to make each one taller than the last (you can find some pictures of what the beach looked like at the end of the week here).

So is procrastination your enemy?  Surprisingly, the answer is no, not necessarily. The key here is to accept that procrastination is a normal part of the writing process for almost everyone. Once you have accepted this, you will stop feeling quite so guilty about it, and there is nothing that breeds more procrastination than the guilt you feel about procrastinating. Next, you need to find a way to make your procrastination work for you and not against you. This usually involves having little side projects that you can do when, for whatever reason, you don’t feel up to working on your main piece. Basically, these side projects can be anything that will leave you feeling that you have accomplished something with your day. This is so that you will feel positive, rather than negative, about having done things other than the writing you were meant to be doing.

I tend to keep a range of possible procrastination projects close at hand that I can dip into when I feel the need to avoid working on a specific piece for a few hours (or days, or even weeks in a few extreme cases). By having them in place and ready to go in advance, I can make the most of it when the urge to procrastinate that strikes. When working on academic projects, this usually means having at least two on the go at once so that I can switch back and forth whenever working on one of them gets too much. For fiction writing, this might be having a list of non-urgent things I need to research (a nice way of being able to pass surfing the web off as an achievement for the day), writing background notes on a character, or sketching out a set piece that will be used later in a book. It can even be making some initial notes for the next piece or the next book. This means that even when I spend a day avoiding writing, I still feel I’ve done something constructive with my time. If not, the weight of negative procrastination (you know that feeling when you’re lying awake at two in the morning thinking, ‘Oh God, I just spent the whole day playing Angry Birds. Again!’) will lead to a nasty cycle of ever-increasing pressure to get something done followed by ever-more inventive and pointless procrastination that I know can lead to me abandoning a project because I feel I’ve got too far behind with it. I don’t know if this would work for everyone, but it certainly works for me.

Now I’ve got this off my chest, it’s time to go back to the book I’m meant to be working on. Oh, hang on, I’ve just noticed the dog isn’t wearing any nail polish and I’m sure her nails would look so nice if they were painted with that new stuff my girlfriend just paid a fortune for…*


*Please note, this was added for comic effect, no dogs were made to wear make-up in the course of writing (or rather not writing) this post. The guinea-pigs on the other hand…

From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

The Trials And Tribulations Of Selecting Readers For Your Writing (And How You Can Use This To Help Identify Those Who Can Help You Survive The Zombie Apocalypse!)

28 Oct

The role of the reader is extremely important to any author. Readers provide feedback at the early stages of a novel’s development on things like whether the characters are believable, if the plot lines connect properly and whether the overall story arc works. Yet finding good readers can be very difficult. The most important thing an author needs from their readers is honesty. There is nothing worse than getting a response from a reader who clearly doesn’t want to hurt your feelings by telling you something isn’t working. It’s a waste of their time, and yours. So how do you go about getting readers that will give you good feedback? Well, here’s some advice from my own experience.

Firstly, finding good readers often involve a bit of trial and error. All writers know that some bits of their early drafts are a bit dodgy. If you want to find out if someone is a good potential reader, get them to check out a bit of your writing that you know isn’t working. If they come back with a gushingly positive review, you know they are just trying to spare your blushes and there is no point in using them any further. If they tell you it’s crap, hold onto them for all you’re worth. You know they will provide you with honest feedback.

Secondly, if a reader passes this first test, be very specific about what aspects you would like you them to comment on. Too often, you will find that if you aren’t you won’t get the response you want. This is particularly important if you are you are wanting feedback from experts about a specific aspect of your story. For example, if you want an opinion on a specific medical procedure from a doctor, you need to tell them specifically that this is what you want. Otherwise you will find that your medical expert will give you comments on your grammar, or typos, which is not what you want (and may indeed not be their strong point!).

Thirdly, give readers a specific date to get feedback back to you. If you don’t you will find that reading and commenting on your writing will slip down their list of priorities. If they don’t get back to you on time, you need to find someone else. After all, they are mostly doing this for free so you can’t demand that they do it by a specific time that works for you.

Fourthly, select twice as many possible readers as you actually want feedback from. As a general rule, fifty percent of your readers will not get back to you in time, or indeed ever. In my own experience, I’ve found that family members are probably the worst possible readers, closely followed by friends and partners, unless you are secure enough in your relationships with them that they will be truly honest with you. For the first draft of my first book, I showed it to my girlfriend and she avoided me for several days. It turned out that she hated it and didn’t want to tell me. However, the feedback I eventually got out of her was brilliant and helped to improve it beyond all expectations. Our relationship survived this and she is now always my first port of call for running things passed, but this is only because I know she will give me honest feedback and she knows I won’t take it personally (I can separate off criticism of my writing from criticism of me as a person – this is a lesson many writers can benefit from).

Interestingly, I come from an academic background where peer-review is the norm. This means I am used to getting honest, blunt and indeed, sometimes deeply biased and insulting feedback on my writing (I have effectively been told to burn in hell for even conceiving of a paper let alone daring to write it on several occasions). But this also means that I know my academic colleagues will not pull any punches when I give them some of my fiction writing to read. They, in turn, know I will not take it personally because they have made much worse criticism to my face of my academic work (some justified, some not – but I’d just failed to provide all the supporting information).

My academic background provides me with not only access to people I know will be bluntly honest, but also with experts in a variety of fields that make them useful readers. These are the types of people who can provide valuable feedback on subject areas such as how diseases spread, the latest information on molecular biological research, or what governments are likely to do when faced with an outbreak of an unbeatable virus (I write in the post-apocalyptic genre after all).

A lot of them also work in the field, meaning that they have odd, but useful, skill sets like how to fix engines, how to sail boats, or indeed (in one case) what to do in the event of a polar bear attack. As I only realised when I started running my book passed them and they started giving me very good feedback (and indeed picking holes in my proposed survival strategies), this means these people not only make good readers who can give you honest and relevant feedback, but they would be pretty handy people to know if and when the zombie apocalypse ever happens. I’d certainly try to ensure they were part of my post-apocalyptic survival group.

From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.

Odd Things I’ve Learned While Researching My Books

26 Oct

1. Rabies travels along nerves to the brain at a very specific and standardised speed. This means that the time it takes to affect people is dependent on where on the body they’re bitten. It takes longer to affect people if their bitten on the hand or the toe than if they’re bitten on the face.

2. Large fires can create their own weather in terms of wind, rain, and lightening. Together these are known as a fire storm. There’s even a type of cloud called a Pyrocumulonimbus that only occurs over such fires.

3. If someone has a tension pneumothorax, in an emergency you can save their life using a bottle, a tube and the outside of a biro. A Doctor once did this to someone on a flight from Asia to the UK using stuff he borrowed from the other passengers.  I hope these were washed before he returned them!

4. A tension pneumothorax is when some one has a burst lung and air becomes trapped between the lung and the body cavity. It can kill you if not sorted out soon enough (such as by doing number 3!)

5. In the official King James version of the bible, unicorns are mentioned nine times (don’t ask what I was looking for when I came across this one, sometimes you just get side-tracked!).  This has been edited out of the more recent interpretations, but you will find it in the older ones.  If you have a copy to hand, try looking at Isaiah 34:7.  If it mentions Unicorns you have an older copy.  If it doesn’t, it’s one of the newer versions where the reference to unicorns has been removed – presumably because, unlike in the 17th century when the King James edition first came out, we now know that unicorns don’t exist and it made a mockery of anyone claiming that the bible was the absolute word of God.  Yet, if it has been revised and edited to remove any awkward references….

From the author of For Those In Peril On The Sea, a tale of post-apocalyptic survival in a world where zombie-like infected rule the land and all the last few human survivors can do is stay on their boats and try to survive. Now available in the UK. Click here or visit www.forthoseinperil.net to find out more.