Pitch Wars

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‘No, my manuscript is better!” “Pah! You don’t even have multiple narrators.” “At least I don’t have a talking dog as a protagonist!” “You dare mock Wuffles? You must die!” [I’ve no idea who this picture’s by; I stole it from here]

I have decided that what I really need is serious, professional-level input to help me across that final gap; to make my novel ready for publication. And by publication I mean ready for agents. And by professional-level input I mean free professional-level input.

This is why I’m submitting Oneiromancer to this year’s Pitch Wars competition. Full details are here, but in essence it’s an opportunity to work with a mentor – a published author – to develop your novel and your query letter. Which is exactly what I need.

First you have to have a finished novel with at least a modicum of polishing. You also need a query letter, and a synopsis is desirable. Then you choose four potential mentors, and this is where it gets tricky. There are a hundred to choose from – though only 37 of these deal in adult stories, and of those I’ve a longlist of twelve who take urban fantasy.

This is the first time I’ve attempted anything like this. I’m not one for competitions – there aren’t many for full-length novelists and I’m too mean to pay. Or, rather, I’m too cautious for uncertain returns. I’ve spent a lot of my life being poor and such habits run deep.

But social media is gradually winning me over. Slowly I am expanding my circle of influences: gradually I am becoming aware of opportunities, of new writers and – I hope – new perspectives. If there’s one thing I beg you take from my blog it’s this: be open. Even if you just watch from the sidelines and stay silent – as I’ve spent a lot of my life doing – let yourself grow.

Maybe Pitch Wars will be a bomb. Maybe I’ll be eliminated after the first read-through and I’ll just face more rejection. But at least I’ll have re-examined my manuscript and met (virtually) a few more authors. I’ve already learned there’s a difference between US and UK query letters. Really, what have I to lose?

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The point of blogging

Blogging for Fiction Writers

I’m curious what fiction writers have found works or doesn’t work in using blogs as part of their platform. It seems far easier for nonfiction writers, especially those who focus on particular subject areas, since they can provide a lot of added value for readers of their books by blogging on their subjects. But what about fiction writers? Thanks in advance for your input!

A question posted on LinkedIn ‘Books & Readers’

 

Kindle

In the best traditions of stealing ideas from other people, the above question got me thinking. And what I was thinking was that the questioner has missed the point.

A lot of you out there are writers. A lot of you are on Twitter, or have blogs of your own, or Facebook pages. How many of you are doing it to raise your profile? To sell books? For some similar purpose?

I’m doing the same myself. No point lying: I started this blog because I was advised that a successful author needs to be on social media, to have a groundswell of interest before publication, whether self- or traditional. To have presence.

Three years in and I can confidently say that hasn’t worked. Not that it’s been a failure either: I have followers, both of this blog (hi!) and on Twitter, that I wouldn’t have had before. But I’ve hardly got the legions of regular contributors that I’d happily dreamt of when I first committed text to internet. By any objective measure it’s been a failure. So why do I keep doing it?

Simple. Because I enjoy it.

And that’s the point. Even though some weeks I struggle to find anything interesting to write about, and some weeks I don’t feel like I’m publishing really quality or insightful posts: sometimes I wish I’d chosen fortnightly updates rather than weekly. But I enjoy it. I like the challenge. I like to have fun with words. I like to think of new angles upon which to focus. It’s one reason I gave myself a broad remit (‘A Writers’ Life’, rather than ‘This Particular Novel’, say).

And I think – although I can give no evidence – that this is truly the answer to the original poster’s question. The best way to ‘build a platform’ is to find something they enjoy and keep at it. I love Twitter. I have nothing to sell or to promote save vague promises for the future, but enough people seem to like my rambly tweets that I’ve a respectable number of followers. I’d like more because ego – and because soon enough I will have something to promote – but at the moment I’m happy with my slow progress.

Similarly this blog. I enjoy doing it. It’s good practice, and when eventually I do self-publish Night Shift and start sending out Oneiromancer to agents I will have that fabled ‘platform’ upon which to fall.

And, in the meantime, I’ve been opened up to other bloggers and writers and artists and I’ve expanded my own tiny perspective into a wider community.

So, Mr Original Poster, my advice to you – should you actually want it – is to relax and have fun. The benefits may come later. But for now, lay back and enjoy the process.

And, if you’re really, really interested, here’s a link to my (considerably longer) post on book promotion.

The propaganda war: how to sell your masterwork

Okay, here’s how it works: if you’ve just released a book – self-pubbed or trad – and you’re wondering how to promote it then you’ve already got it wrong. Sorry if that’s a harsh message, but it’s true. In order to successfully promote your work then you have to have been building a presence on the internet (because what else matters?) for months – if not years – prior to your first release.

It’s a rare thing that anyone will buy a book simply on the basis of its cover or its glowing Amazon reviews or on the endorsement of people they’ve never heard of. Studies (that I can’t quote, sorry) show that you have to have heard an author’s name (or a band, or an artist) at least five times before you’ll consider buying one of their works. I’m proof of this. I’m on Twitter. Some names I come across with regularity. Those people – whose comments I appreciate and enjoy – are the ones I’m going to take a punt on. The one-note shouters will never see my money, thank you very much.

Selling books is not an overnight thing. You are fighting the long war, deep in the longue duree. That’s why I’m writing this blog. That’s why I’m on Twitter and LinkedIn. I have no product to sell – yet. One day I will have. And I’ll have a body of work – more than that, I’ll have a personality. I’m (hopefully) not just another barker shouting on the street corner. I’m a human being and people are much more impressed with humans than they are replicants.

That’s what I think, anyway.

With that in mind, here’s my incomplete list of methods of promoting your book and a few thoughts thrown in, just for good measure.

Social media

o Twitter

Twitter is my favourite method of social-mediaising but one that is magnificently and amusingly misused. Anyone whose tweets consist of nothing but self-promotion will soon find themselves followerless. There is a rough guide or rule known as the 50-30-20 breakdown: 50% of your tweets should be other people’s posts retweeted; 30% should be your own thoughts/comments; and only 20% should be promoting your own work. Personally I’d say it should be more 45-45-10

o Facebook

I’m not quite sure why authors use Facebook other than to separate their personal and professional lives – which is not an insignificant thing and is something I intend to get round to doing at some point. I’d say that the same rule applies here as given for Twitter. Don’t just use it as a selling-point. The best thing you can do with all thee things is to get people looking at your blog/website, on which more later

o LinkedIn

LinkedIn isn’t a selling platform and shouldn’t be used as such. It is, however, a good way of communicating with other authors and building up networks, as well as finding interesting debates and learning more about other people’s perspectives/experiences

o YouTube

I’ve never done this, so my experience is perforce somewhat limited. But I gather that it’s increasingly common for authors to promote their work with book trailers and/or audio readings. I’m not too sure what to make of this. I’d suspect that you’d need something really well-produced (which is not the same as flashy) to make an impact. If anyone’s tried this I’d be interested to see how it worked for them

Being Nice to People

This section was originally called Networking, but people get the wrong idea about this. They think that it’s all about schmoozing in trendy Soho winebars (or, if you’re American, insert a poncy area of New York), or trying to catch an eye at a party, of pushing yourself beyond human decency for the sake of a small advantage. Hell, you’re probably thinking of the casting couch or something, aren’t you?

It’s not. It’s none of these. It’s about looking around you at your friends and asking yourself who they know. Or what they do. It’s about asking favours. It’s about being polite and respectful and not pushing – but asking nonetheless.

Just take a moment to think about your friends and acquaintances. Where do your colleagues work? Might they be willing to ask a favour on your behalf? Are they easily bribed with wine or chocolate (because a favour deserves a thank you)? By this stage in your career you should be in a writing group; there, already, are a lot of people who might have thoughts or ideas or contacts. Ask them. I wager they’ll be willing to help. The only price, save the aforementioned wine, is that you’ll be expected to return the favour.

Example: in my writing group there is a local writing festival organiser. There are a few who work for major (non-fiction) publishers. There was a professional copy-editor. At least one is agented: several past members are fully published. This is only a small selection – and here I’m only looking at professional activities. I’ve not even touched on their friends.

There is a reason why Six Degrees of Separation is a game/concept. You know people who know people who know people. You don’t have to push, you don’t have to dig, you don’t have to be some arrogant Hollywood big-shot to network. Just be polite. Be nice to people. Help others. And they’ll be a lot more willing to help you in return.

Personal appearances

Whether public appearances work for you or not really depends on your personality and the nature of your work: it’s a lot harder to do school visits if your work is a Regency Bonkbuster or The New Stephen King than a nice educational children’s book. Below are a few ideas, tailorable to your particular idiom:

o Book release parties
o School visits
o Library visits
o Care home visits
o Workshops
o Stalls in markets
o Book Fair appearances/stalls

A few notes: I don’t know about you, but the idea of most of these fill me with horror. The best way to overcome your fear is to combine your efforts with those of other local authors. If you’re not in a writing group then you’re missing out. The mutual support is invaluable.

Secondly, make sure you invite everyone. Not just your friends, but contact the local press, any book-bloggers you might be following on Twitter (not for school visits: they’re a bit fussy, these days, about who walks in to chat with the kids) – hell, take punts and invite celebrities. Remember what I said about having to have heard a name five times before it settles in the brain? Most people you invite won’t come. But really – what have you got to lose? Email is free. Just be polite and unpushy. Invite literary agents because you never know who might be in town. Note, though, that if you’re theming the event – for example if all the authors appearing specialise in science-fiction – then you’ll lose credibility if you send a group email to every single entry in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook.

Actually, never send group emails. To anyone.

The Written Word

There aren’t enough journalists these days. Those that still exist are overworked and underpaid and are desperate for copy to fall on their desk that they can shove in the papers without any input from them. So whatever you do make sure you write a press-release and send it out to the local rag. And when I say ‘local rag’ I mean any rag that you’ve ever been local to. For example: I was born in Bradford, moved to Norfolk, went to university in Belfast and now live in Oxfordshire. So that’s four places to which I am local, every one of which has multiple papers to target.

I won’t go into the ins and outs of writing a press release here. I’m sure you can find guides around the internet. A few quick notes, however:

o  Attach a photograph of you and your book
o  Say you’re available for interview (which can be done over the phone, Skype or other modern contrivance, so don’t worry too much about travel)
o  Personalise your letter to the area you’re targeting: for example, in my letter to Bradford I’d say how the local libraries shaped my writing growth
o  Try and make it ready to be inserted, as is, into their paper. Minimise the work the editor has to do to make it ‘fit’
o  Don’t send a copy of the book but do make it clear that you’ll provide a copy for review upon request

If they get back to you and invite you for an interview (don’t laugh; it’s happened to people I know) then for heaven’s sake take them up on the offer!

o Reviews

Before your book is released you should be contacting all the book-bloggers you’re following on Twitter (you are doing this, right?) and asking if they’re willing to review your book. Many won’t: the biggest will be choked with people like you. But you can only lose if you’re rude or abusive. And some will take it – and if you do a get a review, be grateful – even if they say you’re a horrible writer whose entire back catalogue should be ritually purged and all mention of your existence be expunged from history.

o Merchandise

It’s always worth getting some bookmarks (which double as business cards, with your internet presence highlighted – probably not email address: Twitter, Facebook and your website/blog addresses will be fine) to give out at any events you do host or take part in. Bear in mind that many people aren’t prepared to spend money on the spot. Most people like to go away and reflect before committing to a purchase. Make it easy for them. Chances are that if they have to hunt to find you they’ll just give up. Don’t let that happen.

o Your personal blog/website

I’ve left this until last because it’s the single most important thing you can have. It also ties together everything I’ve mentioned above. It doesn’t have to be anything like this: it doesn’t have to consist of regular musings on your life and of your irritations with the way the world is persistently ignoring you.

What you need is a portal from which people can see everything I’ve outlined above. It’s a place for people to springboard onto your Twitter feed, your Facebook group. It should outline your work and provide links for people who want to buy it. You can copy (or link to) any mentions you get in the press. Any events you’re involved with should be mentioned (and, if it’s an open event, this is where you place the invite).

Publishers and literary agents do look at these things. A good website might not sell you a deal but a bad one – or an absent one – might lose you one.

If you’ve not got one of these, do it. Do it now.

A final note (or two):

Perhaps the best thing you can do to promote your own work is to promote the work of other people. That might sound counterintuitive but it’s true. People remember nice people: not only the person you’re helping (who might well return the favour) but the casual Twitter-stroller will notice, maybe not even consciously, and will lodge you somewhere in their brains as someone to do – so to speak – later. I’ve followed many people because they’ve shared something I’m interested in: never heard of them before; oh, they’ve put something up. Let’s have a look at their profile…

It works. Try it.

Finally, just remember what I said about the longue duree. This isn’t a sprint. These things don’t happen overnight. No one single thing is going to make you the next Hugh Howey or – god help you – EL James. It takes sustained effort, time and patience to make a career as a writer. But it is doable. Relax. Take your time. Enjoy the process.

Remember: nice guys finish first.

The wet haddock of reality

So the WordPress annual report comes in, and I am happy. Slow growth across the social media world – I can live with that. I can sit back and enjoy this wave of adulation, my ego sufficiently bolstered..?

Of course not. Life’s never so straightforward.

2014 has been a bit of an enhumblement, professionally speaking. If 2013 was my ‘year of getting professional’, 2014 has been my ‘year of getting slapped in the face with the wet haddock of reality’.  I’ve been forced to face up to the fact that, in the grand scheme of things, I know nothing. And I’m very glad to have made this realisation. It’s only when you face your incompetences that you can turn them into strengths.

So what have I learned? For a start, I over-use rhetorical questions. A small, silly thing really but it’s a habit that’s surprisingly hard to break. Will I succeed? Can’t say yet. I also over-use sentence fragments, an annoying stylistic tic of mine.

More fundamentally, I need to work on character and pacing. I don’t want to go too much into this because I’ve whined on about it before; really both elements come down to not addressing these things properly before I start to write. I’ve spent the majority of the year working on correcting related issues within my work.

But really I think the thing that’s changed in the last year is my attitude. I began 2014 by racing to complete a revision for an agent – I rushed in order to impress and ended up with a failure. Now I am working slower, steadier, and leaving more time for my deep thoughts to catch and swallow the scudding shoals of inspiration before they can lead me into shallows of superficiality.

If I manage to learn my bitter lessons and prove I’m worthy, maybe 2015 will become the year of getting published. One can always hope. But always, always, work comes before dreams. Only one can lead to the other.

Oh, and I also got married this year. That was good.

Blog in the bubble

I was at a writery-type meeting a few weeks ago and the question was raised: what’s the point of social media? And, following on from that, what’s the point of blogging?

Over the last few years it has become an article of faith: if riches and fame an author doth seek, let them face the public at least once a week. It has become not just common but required; anyone seeking a publication deal must have an ‘author platform’. A webpage, a blog, or merely an active ‘soapbox’ on Twitter or Facebook.

What if this accepted wisdom is wrong?

It’s easy to see the problem. If we’re spending time lovingly crafting these tiny essays, carving and paring our Tweets or telling all our friends what we’re up to (‘just burned the toast lol #toastfail’) then we’re not doing ‘real’ writing. Beyond that – and this is the point of the abovementioned conversation – it’s almost impossible to reach any actual potential book buyers through social media. With so many voices clamouring for attention, and no big product to back up your words, there’s no way to get through to the general public. You end up with a circle of people in your position: other authors, in other words, and all the time you’ve spent ends up shared only within an almost incestuous group of people in the same position as you.

An example is some of these ‘blog-tours’ that I’ve been involved with, hosting and promoting other writers on this platform. Let’s be honest about this – although I’m absolutely delighted to have been involved in these, I seriously doubt they’ve really raised profiles, either mine or other people’s.

Well that’s still better than nothing, right?

When I first set up this blog I was explicit about my motives: I wanted to build up my profile so that I would be more attractive to potential publishers/agents. But over the year and a half or so I’ve been going my reasons have changed. I realised pretty early on that I wasn’t going to get thousands of followers all desperately hanging on my every word, who had been entranced by my witty author-voice and were now itching to get their grubby little mitts on my writing. Instead I found I enjoyed the discipline of working out something to write about, of spending my Monday morning writing-time trying a different style of communication. It’s a place for me to muse about writing, my own and other people’s, and to break down in my own head some aspects I wanted to consider myself. Writing is learning. And what better way to learn then by sharing with other people?

And this little incestuous group I’ve formed – it’s actually quite a nice place. I’ve found a lot of blogs, some of which I have great respect for. Finding other perspectives, other people in the same place as me, is a good feeling.

Now I have a backlog of writing that, should I ever actually achieve my goals and get something published, Josephine Public will be able to find once she discovers me via another outlet. I’ve got a history and a personality online, free for everyone to see, that shares a little of my story and my character. This will hopefully stand me in good stead for the future.

Whether this demand for authors to have their voice is a passing phase or the secret to a prosperous future – well, who can answer that? I know I don’t have much faith in ‘interactive fiction’, with its videos and links and electronic wizardry – don’t people realise that the whole point of books is that this already happens inside the readers’ head without having to step outside the adventure to click on the link?

All I know is that I quite enjoy my little bubble. I like the challenge of trying to be interesting. I don’t think that people should be forced to do the same as me, I don’t want to be a statistic or invisible or a lone voice shouting in the void and to those who have made a career in the field without resorting to Twitter I say ‘kudos’. But I like it here. I’ve made my blog and I’ll lie in it.

What do you think? I know many of my regular readers keep blogs themselves (incest!) and I’d be interested to know whether you consider bloggeration a success or a distraction.

But now it’s time to put my toys away and get on with some real writing. Ciao!

Insert witty title here

This social media thing: it’s a pain, ain’t it?

 

Who’d have thought that something designed to be fun could lay so much pressure on us? To be out there, on display, our words measured and evaluated and pored-over, each one allowing a (false?) insight into our personalities.

 

Once we’re past the arrogance of the teenage years there’s no certainty anymore. Everything is perspective, point-of-view. Almost everything we think could potentially cause offence to someone. Or could just be weak: the jokes, the witticisms that sound so strong in our heads can be as nothing on the page. No-one can see the crooked smile of irony on your lips. Subtlety needs space to express itself. Understatement needs to breathe. It’s a whole lot easier to be angry than balanced in 140 characters.

 

Every time I go to post on Twitter (@RobinTriggs, by the way) I get a sort of mental block. Is what I’m about to say witty? Does it give people any new information? Am I just coming across as a dick? But I have to post something; I’m trying to promote myself, for heaven’s sake. I’m only hurting myself if I let my account lapse.

 

As an aside, one of my favourite authors has recently started following me. Unfortunately, whilst I love his work, he’s not coming across as someone… shall we say ‘politically compatible’? Another problem with social media. There’s the risk of alienating as many people as you impress. And that shouldn’t really matter – you (by which I really mean me) should have the courage of your convictions. If only this wasn’t a PR-driven world.

 

Anyhoo, whilst I can happily slip into the world of my novel and get a thousand or two words down without breaking metaphorical sweat, I struggle immensely with Twitter – and, to a lesser extent, this blog. It’s my own fault for being disorganised. I should be carrying a notebook around with me at all times, ready to record any of my many ‘ooh, I should write about that’ moments. Indeed, that’s one of the most commonly repeated pieces of advice you read about writing: always have notebook and pen wherever you go.  Maybe that’s why I’m still unpublished.

 

I don’t know if there are any statistics to tell us the number of lapsed Twitter accounts vs active ones. I don’t know how many blogs have been abandoned after a lively start. I’m guessing it’s a hell of a lot. It’s kind of ironic that authors should be amongst the most guilty of this. Neil Gaiman is, of course, the exception. But a quick look around the web will show you that the pressure of deadlines, of being so caught up in the professional life of words, causes professional authors more than others to give up on their blogging ambitions.

 

Which means the best place to keep up with the world of words is Twitter. And that’s a very mixed blessing.

 

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I’ve said before that I don’t make extensive notes before starting on a project: I like to have a start and an end-point, and then work ‘twixt the two, feeling the way with my toes as I inch forwards. I prefer to roll things around in my subconscious rather than scribbling extensive lists and maps and diagrams.

 

These things can be very handy, though. I will, before I start, sit down in a coffee shop and jot down a few important facts about the world I’m creating; and by world I mean the environment in which the story’s set, not necessarily about an actual world. I’m talking names, jobs, relationships; that sort of thing. A very brief (and certain to be altered) cast list. For example, my first(ish) task with Night Shift was to make a list of what jobs would be needed – what roles there were to be filled – in a mining base in Antarctica. Only once that information was down on paper could I try to ‘hire’ people to fill them.

 

But once I’d actually started the story I barely even glanced at these notes. Once the characters were introduced I found I didn’t need them. My characters can tell their own stories a lot better than I can.

 

Things change, of course. After about four drafts of NS I realised that the story was sagging a little about two-thirds through. The solution? Graft in another character. Completely unplanned – a failure, you could say, in my original technique. It did the job, though. After all, nothing is ever perfect first time around. Persistence, a mind open to suggestion and criticism and the strength – the resilience, the stubbornness – to keep moving when you know that rejections will be flying around you: those are the key skills needed by the author these days.

 

*          *          *

 

SITREP: just easing up to 50,000 words of my first draft of New Gods. I reckon that means I’m about 3/5 of the way through. Happy days! I bloody love writing, I do.

 

Hope whatever gives you joy is an active part of your life.