Tag Archives: Writing Advice

How To Write The First Draft Of A Zombie Apocalypse Novel

28 Jul

So, you’ve come up with a killer idea for a zombie apocalypse novel, you’ve got great characters in mind that you know people will love, and you even the ideal anti-hero to come good in the end and save the day. Then you sit down at your computer and all that happens is you end up staring at the cursor blinking away on the blank screen for several hours wondering where on earth you should start.

As any would-be writer quickly finds out, there’s a big difference between having the idea for a book and actually writing one. Often the biggest stumbling block isn’t getting it finished, but rather it’s getting it started in the first place. Why is this? I think it has a lot to do with the fact that you’ve got what you think is this perfect idea in your head and the moment you start writing it down, it soon becomes apparent that it’s not so perfect after all. The characters as a bit flat, the story arc doesn’t quite work and that amazing opening scene you envisioned in your head turns out to be a dismal failure.

At this stage, it’s easy to become disenchanted with the whole writing process and simply give up after drafting out the few chapters, but you shouldn’t. Not all writers like to admit it, but that everyone’s first drafts are like this. Sure, the first draft of your very first book’s probably going to be a lot worse than the one for your tenth, but there will still be plenty of room for improvement.

So how do you go about writing the first draft of your zombie novel without falling out of love with it, and indeed falling out of love with writing in general?

Firstly, you have to accept that your first draft is always going to be a bit crap, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It would be much weirder if you got your novel spot on in the first draft.

Secondly, you have to understand the purpose of your first draft. It’s not to have a finished novel by the time you’ve completed it, but rather it’s to erect the scaffolding around which your finished novel will be built during the editing stages.

Finally, you have to remember that editing is for afterwards and it’s not something you should be doing while writing your first draft. There’s always the temptation to go back and try to polish what you’ve just written, but if you go down that route, there’s a good chance you’ll never get beyond the end of the first chapter because there will always be something you can improve in it. Instead, what you need to be concentrating on is getting the broad-brush strokes of the whole story in place, all of it and not just opening scenes. Then you can come back and polish it until it sparkles and glistens.

While editing can be done in little blocks here and there, writing a first draft generally requires solid blocks of time which you can set aside just to write. You might think that you can just do half an hour every night, but for the first draft this is unlikely to work because you’ll have to get yourself back into the post-apocalyptic world you’re creating at the start of each session and then work your way back into your story. By the time you’ve done this, the chances are much of your precious half hour will have gone leaving little time left for the actual writing. Instead, I’d recommend setting aside blocks of at least a couple of hours at a time for writing your first draft, and ideally a day, a weekend, or even a whole week or month so you can do nothing but immerse yourself in your world and get the basic structure down on paper. Of course, few writers can actually afford to do this, because most have other jobs to support themselves, but putting aside a whole day once a week to write will almost certainly be more productive than spending the same amount of time on it spread across each evening of the week.

This leads onto the next issue. How do you actually write it? With zombie apocalypse novels, the main aspect of it is the apocalyptic events and the set pieces with the zombies. As a result, I’d always recommend using the first draft to sketch out the basics of the world which you’re creating, how the zombies will act and feel, where the different set pieces will fit in and how they’ll be linked together to create the overall story arc. This means leaving much of the character development and social interactions until later drafts. This is because you need to know that the world you’re creating will work before you start populating it with people. This means that often by the end of the first draft, you might find that you don’t particularly connect with your characters, and that you don’t really care if they live or die. This is okay at this stage, and indeed, it’s only to be expected for a zombie novel. There will be plenty of time to come back and add all the little conversations and back stories which make both you, and your readers, fall in love with the characters, later drafts.

I also tend to avoid working too much on the dialogue during the first draft and sometimes these sections will be little more than rough directions covering what will be discussed. Again, once you have the basic structure of your novel down on paper, you can go back and work out who says what to whom and when.

In general, I also try to avoid being too self-critical when I’m writing a first draft. The aim is just to get it finished, ideally as quickly as possible. There will always be bits which you don’t like when you come back to it, and again, that’s okay at this stage. Once the first draft is completed, you can set about changing what doesn’t work, and improving what does.

There is also the issue of whether you should show your first draft to someone else to get their input. I probably wouldn’t recommend this. Yes, tell people what you’re writing, discuss your ideas with them, even run individual scenes by them, but keep your actual first draft to yourself. After all, showing someone a first draft would be like showing someone a roughly hewn block of marble that’s only a fraction of the way towards becoming a finished statue. You, as the artist, might be able to see, using your mind’s eye, what it will look like in the end, but it’s likely they won’t. Instead, wait until you’ve completed a second or third draft before you start sharing it round. This way, you’re likely to get a much better response because you’ll have had the opportunity to clean up the messier bits and it’s more likely the reader will to be able to catch a glimpse of the finished work that lies beneath the rough and ready exterior of an early draft, and so give you some proper, and useful, feedback

Most of these points can be summarised as follows: The secret to writing the first draft of a zombie apocalypse novel isn’t to write well. Rather, it is to write anything so that you have something which you can later edit. It’s much easier to polish words once they’ve been written, and much harder to create something out of nothing in the first place (especially something good). This means that the sooner you get the first draft finished and out of the way, the sooner you can move on to the much more enjoyable task of turning your book into something that’s good.

You might think that having written a first book, that writing the first draft of the next one would be much easier. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Instead, you find you have to go from a well-polished piece back to the mess of poorly written dialogue and rough outlines of scenes, and start the whole process all over again. At that stage, it can often be difficult to see that one day, it too will become a final version which you can be proud of, and it takes a certain amount of will power to keep plugging away at it regardless until it’s finished and the polishing can begin again.

As an illustration of how rough and ready a first draft can be, below is the first draft (or to be honest, the earliest draft I could find and this means it might not be the very first version, but it’ll be close) of one of the scenes close to the start of my book For Those In Peril On The Sea, followed by the final version. As a spoiler alert, in this scene, the main group of characters encounter the zombie-like infected for the very first time, so if you haven’t read the book and are planning on doing so, you might want to stop here.

If you compare these, you’ll see the first draft version is really just a skeleton on which the final version was built. The dialogue is limited and generally unattributed. There’s little description of what the characters are doing as they are speaking, and there’s very little tension in what should be full of it. In the final version, these elements have all been fleshed out considerably to create a much more tense atmosphere. You might also notice that what was originally one scene has now been broken down into three linked scenes, each concentrating on a different individual element (the attack/escape, moving on and discussing what to do next). Finally, two of the characters have also undergone a name change (John to Jon and Jane to CJ) because the original names didn’t really work.

So here’s the original version of the scene from the first draft, spelling mistakes, poor grammar, wrongly used words and all (word count: 804 words):

We reached about three- quarters of the way back down the narrow concrete path, when a figure appeared at the end of the path high up on the hill. We could only make out the sillohette, but we could see that a large machette dangled from one hand. As one, we turned and ran for the boat, the figure running after us, screaming undecipherably at the top of its voice. By the time we lept into the dingy and cast off, the figure had reached where we had been standing when we’d first seen it. And still it ran towards us. John pulled on the engine cord, but the engine refused to start. We were only a few feet from the rock and well within range of anyone with a machette on the shore. As John pulled frantically at the cord, I grabbed the oars and started rowing as though my life depended on it. By the time the figure reach the shore, we were twenty yards from shore and well beyond its reach.

John finally got the engine started and we looked back as we motored back to the waiting boat. We could see it was a tall, black man, his white t-shirt was soaked in blood and he waved the machette at us and screamed. We couldn’t make out what he was screaming. Eventually, he stopped screaming and waving the machette, and sank to his knees. Despite the distance between us, we could now here him sobbing, and shouting at us to come back, and not leave him to die. John put the engine into neutral and we looked at each other. The man no longer looked insane and dangerous but broken and desperate for our help.

“Should we go back?”

“I don’t know. There’s still something very wrong back there. I don’t think we should risk it. What if its a trap? I mean, where did all that blood come from?”

We turned and looked back at the figure. He was just staring at us, pleading with eyes for us to come back. Suddenly, he lept to his feet and turned to stare back up the path. We followed his gaze to where a shape was sillohetted on the crest of the hill, or was it two. We couldn’t see whether it was human because almost as soon as we had seen the shape, it was gone. The next thing we saw was the man on the shore raise the machette and scream, while the bushes nearest to him started to shake violently. In a flash, two shapes flew out of the bushes and were on top of him. Despite his desperate flailing with the machette, his attackers kept up their onslaught and soon the man when down. We could hear the creatures tearing at him, we could hear his screams of pain and their guttoral growls and moans as they tore him limb from limb.

“Shit. What the fuck are those things?”

“I don’t know, let’s just get the hell out of here. NOW!”

We slammed the engine into gear and headed for the boat at full speed without looking back. We tied off the dingy and climbed onto the boat. Bill was standing there with the binoculars looking back towards the shore.

“I thought you were going to go back there for a minute. Just as well you didn’t.”

“Could you see what those animals were that attacked that man?”

Bill looked at me and said nothing, but handed me the binoculars. I swung them up and looked towards the shores. I could see two huddled masses crouched over what was left of the man. Suddenly, one stood up and I could see what it was. It was a young boy, no more than about thirteen years old. I could see the blood dripping down his face as his eyes stared straight down the binoculars at me. But his eyes did not see me, he just stared off into the distance with eyes so wild, so animalistic, and yet so human. He knelt back down and started tearing at the carcass in front of him again. I set the binoculars down and looked at Bill, while the others looked at me.

“What are they?” Jane asked.

I looked at Bill and he shook his head every so slightly.

“I think they were wild dogs. Just as well we got back to the boat when we did. A pack of them must have attacked the lighthouse keepers. We’d best report it when we get to Freeport.”

“No,” said Bill slowly, “I think we should head straight for Miami, get this trip over as soon as possible.” I didn’t disagree. We pulled the dingy onto the boat, lashed it down and headed out of the bay and up northwest Providence Channel.

And here’s the final version from the finished book (word count: 1,928 words):

We were about three-quarters of the way down the narrow path when a silhouette appeared on the skyline behind the lighthouse, a large machete clutched in its right hand. Instantly, we were both running, moving as fast as we could over the cracked and uneven surface. Glancing back, I saw the figure pursuing us, screaming indecipherably at the top of its voice.

We reached the stone steps and scrambled down to the dinghy. I fumbled with the rope that held it to the rock, trying desperately to undo it.

‘Come on, Rob.’ There was a sense of urgency in Jon’s voice I’d never heard before, not even at the height of the storm.

‘I can’t. The knot’s pulled too tight.’

‘Here, try this,’ Jon held out his Leatherman, the small knife already open. I grabbed it and started sawing frantically at the rope.

‘Come on! Whoever that is will be here any second.’ Jon’s eyes were darting nervously between where I was struggling with the rope and the top of the steps.

‘I’m going as fast as I can. Just get the engine started so we’re ready to go as soon as I’m done.’ I was about half-way through the rope already and I redoubled my efforts. I heard Jon yank on the starter chord. The engine shuddered, but that was all. He adjusted the throttle and tried again. Again it turned over, but it still didn’t catch.

‘Careful, you’ll flood it.’

‘I know what I’m doing, Rob.’ Jon never liked it when I gave him advice, but there was a hint of panic in his voice.

I felt the rope separate and I pushed us away from the rocks. Jon was pulling repeatedly on the chord but the engine still refused to start. My eyes flicked upwards. While I couldn’t see the path, I knew the figure could appear at any moment and we were still within range of a machete. As Jon continued to fiddle with the engine, I grabbed an oar and started paddling, making short, sharp strokes on alternating sides of the bow.

We were twenty yards out when the engine finally spluttered into life and a look of relief spread across Jon’s face. Back on the shore, I could see the figure standing on the rocks just above the steps. He was a tall, black man, his white t-shirt soaked in blood. As we motored towards to the waiting boat, he waved the machete and screamed something I couldn’t quite make out. Without warning, he stopped and sank to his knees, his shoulders heaving as he sobbed. Jon shifted the engine into neutral; the man no longer seemed insane and dangerous, just broken and desperate.

‘Should we go back?’ Jon asked hesitantly.

‘I don’t know. I don’t think we should risk it. What if it’s a trap? I mean, he’s covered in blood.’ While he no longer looked threatening, the man still frightened me.

All of a sudden, with a speed that was unsettling, the man leapt to his feet and sprang round to face the path. A new shape was outlined on the crest of the hill. I couldn’t tell if it was human or animal, or even if there was more than one, and almost as soon as I’d seen it, it was gone. The man looked desperately left and right, as if trying to decide which way he should run but, before he made his choice, two shapes shot out of the bushes. He flailed the machete wildly as they flew towards him but it made little difference. When they reached him, they attacked and, within seconds, the man was on the ground. Even from that distance, we could hear his screams of pain and the guttural growls of the creatures. He struggled frantically, trying to throw them off, but despite his size they were too much for him. His movements slowed and eventually ceased as the life drained out of him, but the creatures kept up their assault, tearing at his body, ripping him limb from limb.

‘What the fuck are those things?’ There was a look of abject horror on Jon’s face.

‘I don’t know. Let’s just get the hell out of here. Now!’

Jon slammed the engine into gear and we skimmed over the water at full speed, trying to resist the urge to look back. We tied off the dinghy and scrambled onto the catamaran. Bill was standing in the cockpit staring towards the shore with the binoculars,

‘For a minute there I thought you were going to go back. Just as well you didn’t.’

‘Could you see what those animals were; the ones that attacked him?’ I wanted to know. I wanted to understand how close we’d come to being attacked ourselves.

Bill looked at me and said nothing as he handed me the binoculars. I aimed them towards the shore and could see two huddled shapes crouching over what was left of the man. As I watched, one of them stood up and I could see what it was. It was a young boy, no more than thirteen. Blood dripped from his face as he stared straight at me. His eyes bored into mine, unblinking, so wild, so animalistic, and yet so human. He knelt back down and started tearing at the carcass again. I watched as he clawed at the man’s stomach, opening up his abdomen and pulling out his intestines. He plunged his head into the man’s body, reappearing a second later with a large piece of liver in his mouth. I lowered the binoculars and stared at Bill, not believing what I’d just seen. As I did so, CJ came out onto the deck.

‘What’s going on?’

‘Don’t know,’ Jon shot back at her as his eyes shifted from Bill to me and back again. ‘Can I get the binoculars?’

I passed them to him and watched as he raised them to his eyes.

‘They’re eating him.’ Jon was appalled.

‘What d’you mean they’re eating him? Who’s eating who? Give me the binoculars,’ CJ held out her hand but Jon didn’t give them to her.

‘Trust me. You don’t want to see.’

CJ scowled at him but there was something in Jon’s voice that suggested he was right and she didn’t push it.

As we pulled the dinghy out of the water and hauled up the anchor, Jon told Bill and CJ what we’d found up at the lighthouse. He sounded almost excited but it was probably just the after-effects of the adrenaline from his body’s fight or flight reaction. I was certainly feeling a little shaky for the same reason.
Jon was just finishing. ‘Jesus, there was blood everywhere … I mean, a lot of it.’

I felt the need to say something. CJ had a terrified look on her face and Jon needed calming down.

‘There wasn’t that much really. I mean maybe it was all from one person …’ Even as I said it, I knew in my heart it wasn’t true.

Once we were underway and had put some distance between ourselves and the lighthouse, we gathered in the cockpit. We were all badly shaken by what we’d witnessed and for a while none of us spoke, each lost in our own thoughts. It was CJ who eventually broke the silence.

‘What now?’

‘Very good question.’ Bill sat there thinking for a few seconds before continuing. ‘No matter what happened back there, there’s nothing we can do about it. In fact, I think you guys were very lucky to get back to the dinghy when you did, otherwise … ’ I didn’t want to think what the otherwise might have been.

After a moment Bill carried on. ‘We’ll need to report it, the only question is where. As far as I can see, we’ve got four choices.’ He counted each of them off on his fingers as he spoke, ‘There’s a small village marked on the chart just up the coast, but there’s no guarantee it’ll have a police station. Even if it does, it’s going to be a small one and I’m not too sure they’d be able to deal with this sort of thing on their own.’

Given what we’d just seen, I was amazed at how calm Bill was, at how clearly he was thinking. My own mind had frozen, able to do little more than replay the same shocking sights over and over again, yet Bill was able to think logically about what we needed to do next, just as he’d done in the storm. These were the times I was so glad it was Bill who was in charge and not me.

‘Two, we can sail south and report it in Nassau. Or three, we can continue west and report it in Freeport on Grand Bahama. They’re both pretty big cities, at least as far as the Bahamas are concerned, and both will have sizeable police forces. But it’ll take time for them to get themselves together and get over to Hole-in-the-Wall.

‘Four, we can carry on to Miami, and report it from there. The important thing to remember is that, no matter where we report it, it’s going to raise a lot of questions.’

Bill was silent for a second or two. ’Frankly, I’m not too sure people will believe us. We could get tied up in the investigation for days, even weeks. There’s nothing we can do for that poor sod back there, so if the rest of you agree, I’d rather report it in Miami than in the Bahamas. That way we won’t be stuck in a foreign country while this thing is looked into.’

‘It mightn’t be a foreign country to you …’ I was concerned Bill had forgotten we weren’t all Americans.

‘Good point. But I think you and CJ would still be better off in the US than in the Bahamas. Whatever went on back there, it’s going to cause a big stir when it comes out. At least in the US you’ll have less of a chance of getting dragged into it. We all will. What do you think?’

Bill looked around at the rest of us.

Jon nodded his agreement, as did I, but with more hesitation. My mind was finally starting to work again and while I could see Bill’s point, I still didn’t like the fact I might get stuck in an unfamiliar country, far from my boat, while any investigation took place.


‘Erm …’

‘Oh come on, Cammy, make a decision for once; not that it really matters what you think.’ Jon sounded irritated.

‘Shut up, Jon, that’s not helpful.’ I couldn’t stop myself snapping at him. It annoyed me that, despite what we’d just witnessed, Jon still couldn’t resist needling CJ. It incensed me just as much that CJ made it so easy for him. Glancing over at her, I saw the resentment and anger that had been building up within her towards Jon throughout the voyage start to bubble to the surface.

Bill must have seen this too because he sat down and put a reassuring arm around her.

‘CJ, it’s important that we all agree on what we’re going to do.’ Bill’s voice was calm and comforting, ‘What do you think? Are you happy with us carrying on to Miami?’

‘I guess Miami would be okay.’

Jon opened his mouth to speak, but Bill held up his hand and Jon thought better of it.

Bill looked round at each of us again, ‘Right, Miami it is then.’

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.

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

How To Tell Your Grammar From Your Gramma

19 Jun

The title of this article comes from an old joke which probably only works in certain British accents, but there’s a serious point behind it. We all know that spelling mistakes can put readers off, but poor grammar grates even more, and if you repeatedly make the same or similar errors, you’ll find your work is quickly projected, with some force, across the room, never to be opened again. Well, in the days of digital publication, this might not literally happen, but it certainly will figuratively (especially if you repeatedly get those two words the wrong way round!).

Now, I’m no grammar expert (as the error or two which I’m sure will have crept through my attempts at editing this article will attest to), and indeed I have very little memory of ever really being taught anything grammatical in school. Certainly, I was never taught the difference between a colon and a semi-colon, or how to use the more obscure punctuation marks, such as ellipses or em dashes, which, if used correctly, can really make your writing pop and fizzle with excitement. However, as I started out on my writing career (many years after having left school), I quickly realised that the most important thing for an author is to be able to tell a compelling story and to be able to create interesting, realistic characters. If you can’t do this, then no matter how perfect the grammar, no one is going to be interested in reading a word you’ve written.

Does this mean grammar isn’t important? Of course not. What it means is that when you’re working on early drafts of a project, you need to concentrate on getting the story and the characters right. Only once you’ve got those sorted out, do you need to start thinking about the grammar and whether you’ve got all your apostrophes in the right places, used the three ‘theres’ (their, there and they’re) correctly and worked out when you should be using ‘onto’ rather than ‘on to’. But how do you do this?

Unless you’re a bit of a natural at such things, the chances are you’ll need to resort to some sort of external advice. One option is to employ an editor, and this is certainly a great way to make sure you get everything spot on (although even editors are not perfect!). In particular, an editor can really help with the proper usage of those lesser-used punctuation marks which can really make a piece of writing stand out from the crowd. For example, many people will use commas to break up sentences into different sections. However, you can add much more variety to your writing by replacing some of these with semi-colons (;), colons (:), em dashes (double-length dashes) or even ellipses (…), and an editor can really help point you in the right direction.

However, you should never rely on an editor entirely, and if you take your writing seriously, you should do your best to both learn how to use these punctuation marks, and also how to sort out all those other grammar issues, like when to use passed rather than past, for yourself.

There’s three ways to do this. The first is that if you work with an editor, get them to use ‘tracked changes’ rather than simply providing you with cleaned up copy of your manuscript. This way, you can look through the changes they’ve made and learn from their experience. In the long-term, this will also reduce your need to hire an editor again in the future – but don’t tell them that! I’m only joking on this last point, but this is a great way to brush up on or extend your grammar skills (it’s certainly done a lot for mine).

The second is to get yourself a good reference book which you can keep by your side while you’re editing your work. Of the many which are available, the one I use is called Grammar For Grownups: Everything You Need to Know But Never Learnt In School by Craig Shrives. I happen to like this one, but it won’t be everyone’s piece of cake so the key here is find one that you like and then make sure you use it to double-check everything.

Finally, there’s the web. There are many good grammar sites out there, and these can often be found simply by typing something relevant into a search engine (such as ‘Passed vs Past’). In fact, I’ll frequently turn to the web when I want to check specific examples, rather than general rules, instead of opening my reference book. One of my favourite sources of grammatical advice is Grammar Girl, and she can usually be counted on to have an answer if I’m wanting some quick advice on a specific topic.

Of course, it’s not always easy to find out exactly the right answer for a specific problem, and you have to do a lot of digging to get there. One of the biggest problems I had with this was ‘onboard’ vs ‘on board’. As much of my writing is set on or around boats, I use these two options quite a lot, yet this was something which somewhat flummoxed the editor I work with, at least at first, as she didn’t necessarily get the subtle difference in meaning between the two and wanted to replace them all with ‘on-board’. It took me a while to rummage through the internet to find just the right explanation of which one I should use when so that I could ensure I got it just right (‘onboard’ is an adjective which precedes a noun, ‘on board’ is used in every other context: e.g. ‘We brought a radio on board so we could have an onboard radio’)

Similarly, there may be times when you choose to break the rules. This is particularly true with dialogue, where you might want to use colloquialisms, but you need to take a lot of care when you do this so that people understand this is intentional and not a mistake. For example, when speaking, many people will say ‘there’s three motorbikes coming over the hill’, but grammatically this should be ‘there are …’ or ‘there’re …’, and on the page most people will assume that using ‘there’s …’ in this context means that the person has a poor knowledge of grammar and poor editing skills rather than that they’re using a colloquialism.

I recently ran into this problem when creating a character in The Outbreak who speaks in my native Glaswegian dialect, which butchers English quite dramatically in places (to quote Billy Connelly on this, ‘being greeted by a Glaswegian is like being savaged by a rottweiler’). In Glasgow, the word definitely is widely pronounces ‘definately’ with the emphasis on the ‘ately’ at the end or ‘defenetely’ with the emphasis on the central ‘enet’). Yet, anyone unfamiliar with this local peculiarity would assume that either of these were spelling mistake and would quickly get annoyed by what, to them, is clearly bad editing and an inability to use a spell-checker. This meant I had to tone down the accent a little, and out went either possible spelling of definitely along with other local variants on the official English words, such as ‘oot’, ‘dae’, ‘gonnae’, ‘dinnae’ and ‘wean’. Yet, I chose to leave some others in, such as the use of the word ‘How?’ where almost every other English speaker would use ‘Why?’ (as far as I can work out it’s a shortening of ‘How come?’) and ‘Pure’ to mean very or extremely (as in ‘That’s pure mental!’, usually said with a slight shake of the head, for ‘That’s extremely weird!’). I figure I can get away with these because they can’t easily be mistaken for a typo and can probably be figured out from the context.

However, if you do choose to break the rules, you need to be aware that the results are likely to grate with some people. For example, while they are generally brilliantly written, throughout the Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling consistently uses the phrase ‘to try and …’. I’ll admit this is acceptable in informal English, but for some reason it leaps out at me and each time I read it, I feel myself wanting to take a red pen change it to the more widely accepted ‘to try to …’.

So that’s my quick run through the subject of grammar and how to make sure you get it right. If you do, hopefully you’ll end up with something your readers will like, and, indeed, that your gramma can be proud of.

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.

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

Guns, Razors, MacGuffins And Other Useful Rules For Writing Zombie Apocalypse Novels

3 Jun

I’m not big on rules, especially when it comes to writing, and I think that sometimes would-be writers spend too much time trying to learn about the rules of writing rather than just sitting down and getting on with it. After all, the best way to learn to write is by doing it and then seeing if you, or indeed anyone else, likes what you’ve created. However, when it comes to zombie apocalypse novels, there are a few rules which, if remembered, can greatly improve your writing. They’re not hard and fast rules, but they’re always useful to have in the back of your mind. So what are these rules?

The first is known as Chekhov’s Gun Theory, after the Russian writer Anton Chekhov who is credited with creating it. To quote Chekhov himself:

‘Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.’

This is a very useful rule when writing zombie apocalypse stories, and can be rephrased as follows: If you mention that someone has a weapon of some kind, then you are creating an expectation in the reader’s mind that it will be used. If it’s not, it will leave the reader wondering why. The same goes for other elements within the story, such as vehicles, scavenged objects and even characters. If they’re not essential to the story, you need to get rid of them, no matter how interesting or cool they are, or how much it shows how intelligent or well-read you are.

The second rule is related to the first and is based on Occam’s Razor. Occam’s Razor states that the simplest explanation which is consistent with available evidence is the most likely explanation. In terms of writing zombie novels, this means that your characters’ actions need to be as simple as the circumstances you have created allow. As a result, if you are going to have characters acting in complex or unexpected ways, this can’t just happen out of the blue as this will leave your reader wondering why they did it rather than something more simple or obvious. Instead, you need to change the circumstances to justify what the characters do and effectively paint them into a corner so their actions are the only logical ones available to them, even if they seem overly complicated. For example, if someone has to fight their way through a horde of zombies, you need to justify why they didn’t just turn and run away (which, let’s face it, is what most of us would do in the same circumstances!). The same goes for getting out of cars or other vehicles, going into buildings which may contain zombies and so on. This isn’t to say that you can’t have characters doing these types of thing, just that you need to tweak the circumstances to justify why they do them. For example, you can have a car run out of fuel so that people have to get out and walk, or someone develop an illness which means that a supermarket has to be raided to get some medicine or else they’ll die. After all, we all know never to enter a darkened building if there might be zombies inside – unless you have no other choice.

The third rule is to avoid MacGuffins at all cost. A MacGuffin is a plot device with little or no narrative explanation. In zombie stories, this can be things like introducing a character just to provide some background information, or so that they can get killed in a spectacular or gruesome way. Oddly, MacGuffins can work quite well in films (think of Twinkies in Zombieland or the briefcase in Pulp Fiction), but in prose, they tend to just annoy the reader. This is because MacGuffins violate Chekhov’s Gun Theory and Occam’s Razor as they are generally irrelevant to the main story or plot. This doesn’t mean you can’t have little throwaway lines, asides, or even the occasional ‘Easter Egg‘ (I’ll say more that particular subject in another post), just that they need to be worked carefully into the story so that they don’t stand out as something which needs to be explained. After all, there’s nothing worse than leaving the reader scratching their head and wondering ‘why on Earth did he mention that?’ or ‘what was the point of that character?’

The final rule I want to talk about here is foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is the introduction of elements into the story which prepare the reader for what will happen later on. In zombie apocalypse stories, foreshadowing can be really important and can cover things like how a character knows how to handle a gun or a specific weapon, where a weapon which will be used at a crucial moment comes from, how characters will respond to specific events and so on. They’re also really useful for setting the rules for your world and specifically how your zombies will act and how they are created. I’ve written about these before (where I called them plotlings) and they are the really important seeds that you need to plant in your reader’s mind before something becomes critical to how your story unfolds. If you don’t get the foreshadowing right, you’ll find the readers are left wondering how or why something happened, and the story will seem much less believable. It is particularly important to foreshadow major plot twists in some way, but you need to get just the right balance between providing hints as to what might happen and having your words jump out at the reader screaming ‘I’m a plot device: remember me, I’m important later!’.

As I’m sure you’ve realised by now, these four rules are all related and, indeed, can be viewed as variations on the same basic theme. This is that you shouldn’t mention things in a story if they don’t turn out to be critical, and you can’t use characters or other things, such as weapons, at crucial moments without introducing them earlier in the story.

Of course, it’s not only useful to know these rules, but also when to start applying them. I’d argue that it’s not when you’re writing the first draft, but rather when you’re editing it after you’ve got the basic plot and structure of your story down on paper. This is because you’re likely to change things quite substantially as you edit your story down, and if you start seeding your story with foreshadowing and Chekhov’s ‘guns’ too early on, you may find that they might turn into MacGuffins as you change exactly what happens within your basic framework. Indeed, in my own writing, the way I end up with MacGuffins in my early drafts is precisely because I’ve changed something as I’ve re-worked the story and I’ve failed to go back and remove related elements that were previously important for foreshadowing what was going to happen. This means that when you’re starting to bash your first draft into shape you need to make sure you’re thinking whether every character, every weapon or object mentioned, every line of dialogue and every scene really is needed or whether the story would work just as well without it. If it will – not matter how attached you are to a specific element you’ve created – leave it out. Similarly, you need to be thinking whether anything comes suddenly out of the blue and whether you need to go back and add a bit of foreshadowing to prepare the reader for it ahead of time. The time you spend doing this will be more than repaid by the improvements it makes to your manuscript and how well your story is received by your readers.

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.

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 Law Of Inverse Familiarity – A Rule Of Thumb All Writers Should Remember

10 Mar

I’ve been working on the second draft of the novel I’m currently writing (The Outbreak), and as part of this, I’ve been sorting out one of the issues my girlfriend (in her role as unofficial editor) pointed out when she read over the first draft. This is my habit, when writing initial drafts, of over-using certain words and phrases. This is particularly true of the action sequences where all the infected roar, all the main characters scream and all the weapons blows land with a thud. I know when I’m writing the first draft that I’ll need to go back and change all these things, but it helps me get down the general framework for the story if I ignore them at the time.

Now I’ve been going back over it again, I’ve been working on varying the language so that no words or phrases leap out at the reader as being over-used, and this is where the law of inverse familiarity comes in. So what is this law? Well, it’s a nice little rule of thumb which is well worth remembering when you’re writing and it states that the less familiar a word is to a reader, the less often you can use it without the repetition leaping out at them.

For example, a reader will barely notice if you used the word ‘and’ or ‘the’ several times in the same paragraph, but if you used the word ‘defenestration’ or ‘exsanguination’ to describe how a character dies more than once in the same book, it will stand out as being odd (unless, of course, this is a specific characteristic you have for how someone kills others). This is because they’re unfamiliar words to most people and so stick in the reader’s mind. Between these two extremes, you might have words like ‘decapitation’, which is more familiar, but which you’d still need to used sparingly, or ‘glanced’, which you would probably get away with using once every page or two without it standing out too much, but not every second sentence (as I have a tendency to do in early drafts).

Identifying when words are being used too frequently can be difficult, especially if you are fully-immersed within your writing. This is because the words will become more familiar to you each time you read them, and so they’ll stand out less and less as being over-used. This is why it’s always useful to have someone else read over your work as they will come to the work with fresh eyes, and so they will be able to spot such issues much more easily than you can. However, if you are doing this yourself, one of the best approaches is to print out your work, then pick a word which you think you might have used to often, and using a highlighter pen, carefully mark each and every instance of its use. Suddenly, the frequency of usage will leap off the page at you as it you’d never read the piece before, and in almost all cases, you’ll find you used it much more often than you thought it would have been.

Once you’re aware of when you’ve over-used a word, it is quick and easy to sort it out. This is simply a matter of going carefully through your text and changing the word, either to another with a similar meaning, or by restructuring the sentence to avoid having to use it in the first place. Of course, you don’t have to replace every usage of a particular word, just enough to ensure that its usage fits more closely with the law of inverse familiarity.

So this is what I’ve spent the last week doing, re-reading my latest draft, wondering whether I can use the word bravado on three different occasions, realising that the characters are running their fingers through their hair way too often when they speak, and that I’ve been starting too many sentences with the word ‘While’. It takes time and careful reading, but the result is a much better end product so it’s well worth putting in the effort.

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.

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 Importance Of Backing Up Your Writing: Options And Considerations

2 Sep

A few weeks ago, I had the mis-fortune to have both my laptop and a portable flash drive which I used to store much of my word die on me in quick succession. While I managed to recover all the files I needed from the laptop, those in the flash drive have proved unrecoverable. This has raised in my mind, once again, the importance of backing up my writing in a secure and sensible manner. I have to say, this is something which I am terrible at remembering to do and I don’t do it nearly as often as I should. However, it’s also something I realise is exceedingly important to do and it’s something every writer should give some though to. This is because there’s a plethora of options, some of which are better than others (and the best option might not be the one you’d think!). So here’s a quick run through a few of the currently-available back up options with some thoughts on the pros and cons for writers of each one.

Firstly, there’s those little flash drives which you plug into the USB port of your computer which are almost everywhere these days. They are cheap and easy to use, and it’s tempting to use one of these as your back up. However, any possible benefits are out-weighed by the fact that they are remarkably unstable, prone to failing suddenly and without warning, and very easy to mis-place. This makes them a very poor option for storing you back up files and it’s not an option you should rely on as your sole approach for backing up your writing.

Secondly, while external hard drives also plug into a USB port and may seem like larger versions of a flash drive, they save information in a very different way and provide a much better option for longer term and reliable storage. They are also quick and easy to use, making creating a back up of your work at the end of the day very fast and simple. The main issue with using an external hard drive to back up your files is not the device itself but where you keep it. A friend of mine recently had someone break into her house and steal her laptop. They also nicked the external hard drive she was using to back up her files because she kept it sitting next to her computer so it was always close at hand. The lesson here is that if you’re going go down this route for backing up your work, you can’t simply leave the external hard drive sitting on your desk beside your computer.

Thirdly, there’s the good old-fashioned CD-ROM, or the newer DVD-ROMs. It’s quick and easy to burn your files onto a disk, but they can be difficult to update. This means they are better suited for creating archived versions of finished pieces than backing up things you’re actively working on. In addition, while they are pretty stable in the short-term, they can degrade over a number of years, meaning they are not great long-term storage devices. There is also the issue of where you keep them. It’s simple enough to slip them into a bottom drawer and forget about them, but what would happen if there was a fire? Your back up files would simply go up in flames with your computer and all your work would be lost.

This brings us to the next option: backing up your data on a remote server. This is known as ‘cloud computing’. The idea here is that some company, either for free or for a small fee, allows you to store a copy of your files on one of their servers. This is often quick and easy to do through custom-designed apps, and for many it seems like a perfect option for storing copies of your work. Certainly this avoids all the potential pit falls associated with keeping a back up in your own home, but it does come with others which are often not very obvious. The first of these is that the company running the serve you use could, out of the blue, decide you are violating their terms and conditions and close your account. They have every right to do this (it’s right there in the user agreement that you ticked, without reading, when you signed up) and you’ll have little chance of getting your files back if the do so. Similar things can happen if the company suddenly decides to stop offering the service or goes bust.

Cloud computing accounts are also subject the same risks as any other computing system and this means they can get hacked, become infected with viruses and so on. This means you have to be careful with passwords and other information you need to access them. The problem with this is that you also need to remember all this information and there is nothing more frustrating that needing to access the files in an account only to not be able to remember the log on details you need to do so. There’s also the question of what the service providers can do with files you store in the cloud. If you read through the terms and conditions in full you’ll often find some pretty scary rules about what they can do with your files and their contents without asking. Finally, in order to access your files, you need internet access and you may find the one day you really need to get a hold of your files is the one day that the net is, for some inexplicable reason, down and you are stuck with no way of accessing them. These options make the cloud a rather poor option for creating useful and secure back ups of your work.

The last option I’m going to consider probably the oldest: printing your work out in black and white and stuffing it into a filing cabinet. It’s old school and you can’t easily update it, but you can access it any time, even when the power’s down, and it does provide a permanent record of your writing. This means you’ll never find you can’t access your work just because the software package has been updated and the file format you used is no longer available or the type of disk you used is no longer read by any available disk drive (I still have old 3.5 inch diskettes floating around in the backs of various cupboards and no floppy disk drive to access the files they contain!).

So these are a few of the options available to writers for backing up their work, but which is best? Well, personally, while I might use cloud computing and flash drives because they are convenient, I recognise their limitations and do not rely on them a my sole back up option. Instead, they are only one of several I use. This means I also back everything up onto an external hard drive (not kept next to my computer) and when I finish pieces, I’ll burn a copy onto a couple of CD-ROMs, one of which will be kept in my house, while the other goes to a friend’s house for safe keeping. I also like to keep a paper copy of any final works tucked away somewhere as last resort. This means that while I might not back things up as often as I should, when do, I do it in away that hopefully minimises the possibility that I’ll lose the work I’ve back up, and this is something I’d recommend to ever writer.

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.

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

‘With One Leap Jack Was Free’ And Other Solutions To Impossible Situations

19 Aug

The title of this article refers to what’s generally considered sloppy story telling. Your characters end up in some seemingly impossible situation and then with no explanation beyond saying something like ‘and suddenly they were free’ they manage to get away unscathed. This is a really good way to annoy your readers as they’re left wondering what actually happened, but it’s an easy trap to slip into if you’re not careful. A similar situation arises when a character picks up an essential tool or weapon which has never been mentioned before, or suddenly reveals a key skill the reader never knew they had until the very moment they need to use it to escape.

So how do you avoid this in your writing? One obvious solution is not to let your characters get into impossible situations in the first place, but then you lose the tension such situations create and your story becomes dull and uninteresting. A better solution is to plant the seeds for everything needed for their miraculous escape earlier in your story, often as casual comments or passing references. This way, the reader is left thinking, ‘Oh, of course!’ rather than ‘Where did that come from?’. However, you need to be careful exactly how you insert these little ‘plotlings’ (the seedlings from which your plot will grow). If you’re not, you’ll find they end up jumping up and down in the reader’s mind waving their arms and screaming ‘PLOT DEVICE!!!’ at the top of their lungs and that just makes them seem clunky.

To illustrate this point, we’ll take a scene where two characters, John and Max, are being chased by a group of zombies. They see a cottage in the distance and decide to take shelter in it. They reach the front door, managing to get inside and get the door shut before the first zombie arrives. While catching their breath they look around and realise to their dismay that there’s no other way out, meaning they’re well and truly trapped. Meanwhile the zombies are now battering and the door and it’s threatening to give out at any second. How do they get out alive?

Well, they’re going to find a gun and shoot the zombies just as they finally break through the door, allowing them to escape unscathed. However, you can’t just have a gun lying around in the room they happen to have become trapped in, that would be way too convenient and reader just wouldn’t buy it. Instead, you could have them finding a gun at an earlier point in the story so that they are already carrying it when they become trapped in the cottage (which, for arguments sake, we’ll say happens in chapter 10). For example, you could introduce a gun when their search another house for food earlier in the day (maybe in chapter 8) with the line:

‘Just as John was leaving the room he spotted something, “Oh look a gun! That will come in useful if we ever get into trouble.” ’

Your readers now know John has a gun which can be used to help them escape from the cottage, but it’s not exactly subtle; you might as well reach of the page and smack your reader in the face with said gun and say ‘Remember this, it’s going to be important!’. A better approach might be something like:

‘Just as John was leaving the room, he spotted a bag which looked as if it had been hastily stuffed behind the couch. He pulled it out and glanced inside, finding it contained enough food to last them a week, two machetes and what looked like an old pistol. Before he could examine the contents properly there was a shout from outside telling him he only had time to grab the backpack and run.’

Here the gun is only mentioned as a possibility along with a list of other items and items like the food might be more critical to the plot at that specific moment in the story (since that was what they were looking for in the house at the time). Thus, the ‘plotling’ is planted but without drawing too much attention to itself. This means when you first write the cottage scene in chapter 10, you might have them being pursued by five zombies and have the following to reveal how the gun will be used in their escape:

‘Suddenly, John remembered the pack he’d found when they were looking for food; hadn’t he seen a gun in it? He frantically rummaged through the bag until he found what he was looking for. It was indeed a very old and very dirty pistol. John had no idea whether it would still work, but he knew it was their only chance. In a single movement he pulled it out and slid it across the room to Max just as the door finally gave way.’

Max grabs the gun, shoots the zombies and hey presto, your characters are finally free to leave the cottage and your readers are left thinking ‘lucky he remembered the gun when he did or they’d never have got out of there in one piece’ rather than ‘where’d that gun suddenly come from?’ or ‘finding that gun there just when they needed it was a bit too convenient’.

Of course, sometimes you’ll find that as you edit your story, you need to go back and change these little ‘plotlings’ to keep everything consistent. If we go back to the example above, the reference to an old pistol could be taken to mean a revolver, which would have a maximum of six bullets in it (assuming it was fully loaded). However, when you come back to edit this scene, you might start thinking that five zombies isn’t really enough to build any real tension, and you up the number to ten. Except in order to be able to kill them all, the gun would need to reload at some point and you’ve not explained where the extra bullets came from. This is when you’d go back to the scene where John finds the bag while looking for food and change it to:

‘Just as John was leaving the room, he spotted a bag which looked as if it had been hastily stuffed behind the sofa. He pulled it out and glanced inside, finding it contained enough food to last them a week, two machetes, a half-full box of bullets and what looked like an old pistol …’

It’s a small change but now the bullets are mentioned in passing along with the gun as part of the list of newly-found things, so you are free to use them in the cottage scene. Of course having to reload the gun half way through a zombie set piece also allows you to rack up the tension with things like:

‘With the first four zombies down, Max pulled the trigger again but it just clicked. He looked at it for a second before he realised it was empty. As John fumbled in the bag, trying to find the box of bullets he’d seen earlier, Max leapt backwards as the remaining zombies surged towards him. After what seemed like a life-time, John found the bullets and threw them to Max before pulling out one of the machetes …’

This has the advantage that you are now also using one of the machetes the reader knows was also in the bag. If these had never appear in the story again, your reader might end up wondering what ever became of them. This, of course, is the flip side of ‘plotlings’: you can’t introduce something such as a weapon, if your characters never make use of it. If you do, you’ll leave your readers wondering why you ever mentioned it in the first place. You don’t need to use everything mentioned in a single ‘plotling’ for the same escape scene, but you do need to use everything you mention at some point, even if it’s just something like (maybe in chapter 9):

‘In his haste to climb onto the tree which lay across the ravine, John flung the bag over his shoulder, sending one of the machetes clattering onto the rocks below. John cursed his stupidity, knowing they wouldn’t have time to retrieve it before the zombies arrived …’

This tells you one of the machetes has been lost and will play no further part in the story. The other, however, remains in play (to be used by John later when Max runs out of bullets in the cottage in chapter 10).

However, you still have a bit of a problem. Max has managed to grab a gun off the floor and shot four zombies with a maximum of six shots (which is pretty good going for anyone!), and you can’t have a character popping off perfect head shots like that without explaining how they know how to shoot (well you can, but it’ll probably annoy your readers!). This means you also need to mention this somewhere before the cottage scene. This can be quite subtle, with something like this placed in chapter 3:

‘As the night closed in around them and they reached the bottom of the whisky bottle, they started to reminisce about their lives before the zombies. Max took another mouthful and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, “I sure as hell won’t miss my old man. He was a mean drunk, forever wailing on me. When I was young I’d sometimes sneak his gun out of the bedside table when he was out drinking and use it to shoot tin cans off the fence in the back yard just to get my own back on him. Only one time he came back earlier than I expected and caught me. He beat me so badly that day I couldn’t sit down properly for a week. He’s one son of a bitch I’m glad I’ll never see again.” There was a brief pause as he took another slug from the bottle, “I’ll miss my little sister though.” ‘

Here the ‘plotling’ seems to be more about Max’s relationship with his (presumably now dead or zombified) family; yet it also serves to introduce the idea that Max knows how to shoot and would be capable of picking up a pistol that had just been slid across the room and scoring direct hits on the zombies as they pour through the cottage door.

So in the example here, the reader has been armed with the knowledge that: 1. Max can handle a gun (mentioned in chapter 3); 2. John has what might be a gun along with some extra bullets (from chapter 8); 3. John also has a machete, again in chapter 8, having lost another one due to his carelessness – in chapter 9. Each of these elements has been inserted into the storyline in an appropriate place long before chapter 10 when these two characters become trapped in the cottage, with what at first might seem like little chance of surviving. This means everything is in place for the characters to make their narrow escape as the zombies finally break through the door.

Getting the knack of slipping in these ‘plotlings’ into stories can be quite difficult, and probably the best way to learn how to do it successfully is to look at the work of others. J.K. Rowling is one of the best authors for this. The Harry Potter books take place in a relatively complex world meaning it would be easy for escapes to appear miraculous. Yet, she always introduces just the right amount of information ahead of time so the reader is never left feeling cheated whenever the characters escape by the skin of their teeth through one magical means or another. Sometimes the ‘plotlings’ for specific dramatic events are planted several books before they are needed, making them particularly impressive. For example, a major plot line in book 6 revolves around a broken vanishing cabinet which we hear about for the first in book 2 where it gets broken as part of a seemingly insubstantial action, and then again in passing in book 5. Even if you’re not a fan of her books or their subject matter, they are worth reading purely from a technical point of view to see how well she does this.

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.

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

What Makes An Ebook Sell?

19 May

What makes books sell? This is a question which interests all associated with writing and publishing them, but it’s something that you can rarely get a good handle on. This is because many publishers and distributors keep this sort of information a tightly-guarded secret. However, this isn’t true of all of them and a couple of weeks ago, Smashwords (on of the largest distributors of ebooks) published some very interesting results from a survey based on sales of ebooks they publish or distribute.

In total, they analysed data from 120,000 books sold between the 1st of May 2012 and the 31st of March 2013 (representing more than $12 million in sales). This included books sold through a range of outlets including Apple iBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo and Amazon, and represent both self-published books and books from small independent presses. The results provide some really useful insights into the ebook market and how to get the most from it, and they are a must read for anyone thinking of self-publishing an ebook (even if they’re not going to use Smashwords).

The first thing they found was the book sales follow a power law. This means that while most books only sell a few copies, some will become absolute superstars and sell loads. This differences can be quite dramatic. For example, the number one best seller on any given day may sell four times as many as the 10th best seller, and 37 times more than the 500th best seller. This is probably not too surprising, but it does show that sales of ebook follow a very similar pattern to traditional paper books.

What’s a bit more surprising is that longer books tend to sell more copies. For example, the average length for the 100 best sellers is a substantial 115,274 words. In contrast, the books that were 250 – 500 on the best seller list only averaged 77,467. By the time you get to the 100,000th to 105,000 best seller this is all the way down at 32,533. The message here is clear; readers like longer books. This is presumably because people are looking for value for money but is has an interesting implication for would-be authors: don’t break a full length book up into a series of several shorter parts as this will potentially damage your sales. Similarly, your time would be better spent on writing one full length novel than several shorter novellas because people like longer ebooks better.

Another surprise was that readers like shorter book titles. The average length of title for the 100 best sellers was 4.2 words, but for the 1000th to 2000th best sellers it was 5.7, and 6.0 for the 100,000th to 101,000th best seller. I’m not too sure why this would be. It could be that shorter titles are more memorable (and so easier to spread by word of mouth), or maybe it’s because it’s easier to make a short title stand out on the cover design, or it could even be that would-be readers think that short titles mean snappier writing in general. Whatever the reason, it’s an interesting observation and suggests that when you have a choice a shorter title is better than a long one.

When it comes to pricing, most ebooks are priced between free to $2.99, and fewer people are pricing ebooks greater than $5.00 than they used to. This is probably not too surprising, readers are likely to prefer ebooks which are substantially cheaper than paper books. However, when you look at the sales at different prices things get more interesting. The price that generates the most sales is between $3.00 and $3.99, followed by those priced between $2.00 and $2.99, and then books priced at $0.99. Oddly, though, books priced between $1.00 and $1.99 only sold about half as many as ones at these higher and lower prices. Again, it’s unclear why this would be. Maybe readers think that $0.99 is worth a gamble to try a book from an unknown author, while the sales of books at the higher prices are ones they’ve been recommended or read reviews for and so are willing to pay more (because it’s less of a gamble).

If this is true, it suggests there’s two quite different and distinct markets out there for ebooks and that books selling at these two price bands represent purchases by different buying audiences. The readers buying books at $0.99 may be ‘early-adopters’ out to discover the next big thing before anyone else (but without gambling too much money on each purchase). In contrast, those buying at $2.00 to $3.99 are readers who won’t take a risk on a complete unknown entity, but are willing to spend more when they follow recommendations from others (such as the early-adopters) to make a purchase. If this is the case, this is a really useful insight into the mentality of the book-buying public and it’s one that can help authors target these different audiences.

There’s one last point which I’m sure most writers will find interesting. This is that when it comes to making money, while $2.99 is the most common list price (which is set by the seller), $3.99 is the price which provided the greatest yield. This is because while they may make fewer sales, the generate a higher total income.

Smashwords is providing a great service by making this information available and it provides a great insight into how readers are buying ebooks. However, authors also need to be careful how they use this information. Remember, a lot of these numbers are averages, and we don’t know the shape of the curve around these averages (for that we’d need information on standard deviations as well as averages). This means you shouldn’t go away and cram an extra 20,000 unneeded words in just to bump up your word count to the average for the best-selling books; this will just destroy your narrative rather than bump up your sales. You also don’t need to go ditching your title just because it’s a bit on the long side. Rather, try to pull on the generalities: on average, people like longer books and shorter titles so bear that in mind when your deciding how to present your work for sale.

Similarly, when thinking of a price, $0.99 may sell more books, but $3.99 will potentially make you more money. This means you might have to adapt your price depending on whether you’re aiming to make an income you can live on (where you’d want to go higher) or generate a fan-base through sales by capturing those early-adopters who are willing to take a risk, but only if the price is right (in which case, you’d want to go lower). However, it seems that it’s better to follow one strategy or other, and that a compromise between the two will cause your book to fall into the in the ‘valley’ that lies between these two points (it’s too costly for early-adopters on whose recommendations those buying higher priced ebooks depend when making a purchasing decision).

If you want to read the full survey (along with some pretty graphs), you can find it on the Smashwords blog at http://blog.smashwords.com/2013/05/new-smashwords-survey-helps-authors.html?spref=tw

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.

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