Wednesday, 28 December 2011

On Writing

Back in … oh, quite a long time ago now; let's say about 2002 … I read Stephen King's fantastic On Writing. If you haven't read it, you certainly should.

One particular piece of advice stuck with me, but for completely the wrong reason. In fact, I'm kind of embarrassed to say it here, because just about everyone will probably look at me and say, "Duh. We could have told you that."

Anyway, the piece of advice was that you should cut 10% of a book's word count during revision. I read that, and I thought, Are you crazy? I can't do that. When I revise, I thought, my books get longer, not shorter. There's absolutely no way I could cut 10% on revision.

Obviously (I thought; feel free to laugh at me here), Stephen King's first drafts are very different from mine. He writes too much; I write too little. And, like all smugly ignorant wannabes, I left it at that.

Fast forward to this year, and I get feedback from an editor on my novel. She loved lots about it, she said, but it was too long. Could I cut it by 30% and send it back.

30%! The mind, briefly, boggled.

But, actually, for some reason, 30% seemed more doable than 10%. 30% says be ruthless. Be cruel. I set about rearranging scenes, removing certain unimportant side plots, figuring out different ways that other things could happen.

At the end of this attempt, I'd cut about 20% of the book. After that, I wasn't giving up. I gritted my teeth, remembered Stephen King's advice, and went through, word-by-word, line-by-line, paragraph-by-paragraph and deleted everything that didn't absolutely need to be there.

Now, I'm going to add a word about what 'absolutely need to be there' means. Because it's tempting when in mega-cutting mode to think that everything that either doesn't advance the plot or produce character development isn't absolutely necessary, but that isn't true. Books need colour as well as purely mechanistic progress, and those little bits of description, quirky dialogue, and incidental events are what make a book. That's not what I was cutting.

By the time I'd finished getting rid of all the really unnecessary stuff I had cut another 10% of the book, and I had realised something important: I use too many words in my writing. I repeat things that I don't need to repeat. I go on too long.

(And, incidentally, it made me realise another thing: if a scene or paragraph isn't working and I can't get it to work, it almost always needs to be cut; the book works better without it.)

I made a resolution at the end of that process: no matter how good I feel a book is, no matter how tight and how polished, my workflow will now always include a stage where I go through and cut 10% of the book before I let it go out the door, because no matter how much I think it doesn't need it, it does.

A final addendum: this book had been revised multiple times and read by several professional writers before it reached this particular editor's desk, and none of us had picked up on the bloat. We all thought it worked. And this is why books need editors, even (particularly!) self-published books. No matter how much work you put into it and no matter how many friends or other writers read and critique it, it needs professional editing to pick up the things the rest of you aren't seeing.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

On Choosing Ebooks

I've been thinking once again about ebooks, self-publishing and traditional publishing, after reading this post by author Richard Parks.

This time around, I've been thinking about ebooks from the point of view of a reader. I think it would be fair to say that I'm an occasional reader of ebooks, but I still do most of my reading on paper.

I want to read ebooks. I really do. Every surface in my house is covered in books. The garage is completely full of boxes of them, and I can never find the one I want.

But here's my real problem:

I don't know how to choose ebooks. I don't know how to find good ebooks in the vast and deepening electronic sea.

Obviously, there are two largely different classes of ebooks: self-published and traditionally-published.

Traditionally-published books, produced by a commercial, non-independent publisher, have well-established channels. They often turn up in bookstores. They get reviewed in established venues. They have, to some degree, at least, a basic guarantee of quality, if not of matching my particular taste. I can find them in libraries.

Now, I know there are plenty of traditionally-published books that never see a review, never see a bookstore shelf, never get near a library. But nonetheless, I know how to find a traditionally-published book that I will like, and I can easily find the ebook version.

I don't know how to do the same with self-/indie-published books, and I guess I am not alone.


The problem is, there are no gatekeepers in self-publishing. 'Gatekeepers' is often seen as a dirty word, and undoubtedly some great books are never published because there are too many 'gatekeepers' in the publishing industry.

But having gatekeepers gives the reader a certain security: someone, somewhere (probably several someones) whose job relies on them getting it right, believes that this book is good enough. I might not like that book. I might not agree with them. But my chances are higher with a traditionally-published book.

When it comes to a self-published ebook, I have two issues:
  • How do I know it will be any good?
  • How do I know there is a decent chance I will like it?

A part of a solution?

One solution is something that traditional publishers could and should be doing, but by-and-large don't.

That is branding of lines.

Yeah, yeah, I know. I'm using another swear word. First gatekeepers, now branding. Ugh.

I'm not advocating authors turning themselves into 'brands'. Personally, I hate that. I'm simply talking about a way of identifying books beyond genre or author. The 'brand' here is simply a way of saying essentially "if you like book X, here are some similar books". Similar in terms of genre, style, type, whatever.

Some publishers do this. Look at the Harlequin bookstore. There are dozens of very clearly branded lines. The SF Masterworks is an effective branded line of books. Baen by itself is close to a branded line of books.

But there could be a lot more of this. That there isn't is a failure on the part of traditional publishing. The closest most seem to come is simply cover-style (YA paranormal romances, for example, seem to have almost interchangeable covers, as do many thrillers).

However, if traditional publishers aren't doing this, there's no reason why self-published authors can't.

By getting together with other self-published authors, it should be easy to set up branded lines of books, allowing your readers to find other books. I'm surprised it doesn't happen more often.

And back to those gatekeepers...

Of course, this is where the gatekeepers reappear. For any kind of branded list of books, someone has to make sure that the books actually fit the 'brand' and that they are of high quality. If they don't or they're not, that brand will fail and readers won't trust it.

That means, I guess, being picky about the authors involved, and setting up clear guidelines about what books fit the 'brand' and which don't.

Right now, from the perspective of a reader, self-publishing in ebooks seems a bit too wild west. It seems to be every person for themself. And I get that. But it's a barrier to new readers, and I'd love to see it evolve.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Five Reasons Every Author Should Have a Website

A week or so ago, author Anne R. Allen posted:
That’s why a website you have to pay somebody to update for you isn’t as useful. People want to connect with you—not your web designer. The difference between a website and a blog is the difference between putting an ad in the Yellow Pages or personally giving somebody your phone number. Blogs are friendly. And if you have a blog, you don’t need an expensive website. Here’s what Nathan Bransford said about formal websites:
“The thing about author websites is pretty simple, in my mind. They're expensive. Are they worth the return on investment? I don't know. I can't think of a time I've ever bought a book based on a visit to an author's website. But I have definitely bought books based on author blogs. I know I may not be the average reader, but I still have a hard time seeing how it's worth the investment unless the website is really spectacular.”
So, naturally, I don't agree.

Let's skip over the "That’s why a website you have to pay somebody to update for you isn’t as useful". Of course, this would be true, but there is no reason why you should pay anyone to update your website for you. Modern systems make it as easy to update a website as post a blog entry.

Here are 5 reasons why authors should have websites:
  1. Full control
    Blogger is great. It really is. You can customize your blog design enormously, add pages, change the background, and so on. But there are limits. If you use Blogger (and even more so if you're using or LiveJournal), you'll still only be able to do a limited set of things with your website. What if you want to promote your brand new book, as author Lia Habel does on her website,

    For that, you need a real website. You need the flexibility to highlight different things in different parts of the website and different parts of pages: books, events, competitions, news, and so forth.

    Same goes for the design. A blogging system like Blogger is flexible, but only to a degree. A full website can contain or be pretty much anything.
  2. Full Information About Your Books
    At some point, you're going to have more than one book out. You'll have a back-catalog, forthcoming books, maybe a bunch of different editions. Your readers and potential readers need an easy, quick way to find out about these, because once they're read one, you want them to read more.

    You'll want info about the books, you'll want extracts, you'll want reviews, you'll want easy links to buy, you might want bonus material. Doing all that on a blog and keeping it easy to find would be nearly impossible.

    Add to that info for the media, the events and so on, and no one is going to find it all on a blog.
  3. Not Everyone Likes Blogs
    Shocking, I know. I like blogs. You probably like blogs. But not everyone does. If all you have is a blog, many potential readers aren't going to spend the time trawling through your daily thoughts. They want the bare information about you and your books.
  4. A Website Doesn't Have to Be Expensive
    You will always get the best result by hiring a professional designer who really knows what works and how people use websites, and who can give you a website that will meet your aims, whatever they are.

    But not everyone has that kind of budget, and you have to balance the cost against the returns. Luckily, that's not the only way to get a decent website. You can buy high-quality templates (either as a WordPress theme or as plain HTML/CSS website) from places like for around $35.

    In addition to this, you'll need to pay for web hosting (a few dollars a month) and a domain name (web address - about $10 a year). That's it. A professional quality website for a very reasonable cost.
  5. A Website is Low Maintenance
    If you want a successful blog, you need to post regularly. How regularly is up to you, but all the successful blogs I read have something new at least once a week. If you're working full-time and have a family, you may only have a lunch break to do your writing. Do you really want to sacrifice that for blogging?

    By contrast, you only need to update a website when there is something key to add, like a new book. You can have a great website that you only update twice a year, or one that you add stuff to every day.
Of course, a website and a blog don't have to be either/or. If you add an 'about me' page to your blogger and a page listing your books, you already have a website. And many people who run their own website integrate a blog into it.

Your blog is your chance to talk on a day-by-day or week-by-week basis to an interested community of people, many of whom may never actually read one of your novels. Your website can be a more static collection of information about you and your writing specifically for readers or potential readers of your books.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

A Brief Intro


This is the first post on the blog. If you try to go back from here, there's nowhere to go.

If you do want to go back, I've been blogging since 1816 over on LiveJournal, and before that, well, in various steam-powered places.

I'm a writer and web designer living in Wales, a small, wet country hanging onto the side of England. I've published a bunch of short stories, which are now available to read for free on my website. I've got a web design portfolio if you're interested.

Enough of that.

This blog right here is where I'm going to post about books and publishing and about web design, particularly for writers. I'm going to post once a week, on Wednesdays, so stop by and say hi.