Friday, 19 October 2012

Friday Links


I'm not sure whether a fluffy T. rex would be more or less scary than a scaly one, but this is a fascinating article.

The planned badger cull in England has zero scientific basis and is entirely designed to placate one of the Conservative's vested interest groups.

This is how vampires began.

Writing and publishing

John Scalzi on Amazon's new ranking of authors by sales.

The Seven Stages of Publishing Grief (or Hello Darkness, My Old Friend)
Robin LaFevers spins off from the new Amazon rankings to talk about 'the soul sucking land of Major Disappointment' of publishing. Brilliant, and well worth reading for any writer.

Guest Post: Dear Agent -- Write the Letter That Sells Your Book
A guest post by Nicola Morgan over on Writer Beware about how to create a great query letter for your novel.

The 11 Ingredients of a Sizzling Book Description
In a similar vein, from a couple of weeks back, Mark Edwards has a guest post on Catherine, Caffeinated on writing a book description.

Best Practices For Amazon Ebook Sales
While we're on the topic, have this one as well. I don't agree 100% with it, but it's all worth thinking about when you're putting your book description together.

A helping of just too cute...

ATE team rescue another baby elephant from a well
Video of the Amboseli Team for Elephants rescuing a baby elephant that had fallen into a well. A mixture of 'Was that really the best way you could think to rescue it?', cheering the triumph, and a complete tear-jerker of an ending. Watch it.

Monday, 15 October 2012

What does an author website need? Your input.

It's an unfortunate truth that a lot (maybe most) writers' websites tend to be rather awful. Not necessarily in their appearance (although many do look bad), but in the way they function and what they contain.

This isn't a surprise and it's not the fault of the writers, because getting a professional website can be a really expensive option, far beyond what most writers can justify paying. That leaves writers with three real options:
  1. Build it yourself
    Which is great if you're a web designer. Which most writers, of course, are not. If you're not a pro and you build the site for yourself anyway, it may be okay, but it won't be working for you in the way you might want.
  2. Pay someone cheap to do it for you
    Cheap is generally not great. Seriously. Even with the best intentions, someone who is only charging you a few hundred dollars just isn't going to be able to put in the time to make the website as good as you need it to be, not unless they intend to go out of business or starve within the year. 
  3. Use an existing template or theme
    If you sign up with, you can choose a professionally-designed template (theme), change certain elements, and create your website there. For free. You can even have your own web address showing on it. You can do a similar thing on blogspot (although the result won't be as good). But your choices will be limited, and none are set up with the needs of writers in mind. They are generic, and they mostly designed to be blogs, with a few pages attached.
None of these are at all satisfactory, in my opinion. They're not going to get you readers or promote you.

As a writer, having an effective way to present your books, build an audience, and sell what you've written is absolutely essential.

So, I've decided to start a project. I'm going to build a WordPress template / theme that is designed specifically for writers to use. Something simple, that can be 'branded' to match the needs of the individual writer. I'm going to make it free to use, modify, hack apart and reassemble, or (almost) whatever else you might want to do with it.

Before I do, though, I want to be sure I'm including everything important.

A while back, I wrote a post called '10 Things Every Author's Website Should Include'. But I want to know what you think.

If you're an author, what do you want in a website?

If you're a reader, what do you expect or want to find on your favourite writer's website?

I'm going to try to include all the important things I can. So, what would you want to see?

By the way, if you want to keep on the progress of this project and find out when it's released, I'll post updates here or you can follow me on twitter.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Friday Links

So, I could write a new blog post, or I could just SHARE THE TOTAL AWESOME that other people have written or created.

Oh, okay, you've convinced me. Let's do the latter.

Writing and books

Tips on how to handle your author reading without coming off as a complete fool.

JK Rowling: 'The worst that can happen is that everyone says, That's shockingly bad'
A few weeks old, this one, but still a really interesting interview with JK Rowling about writing, her life, and her new book.

The one day science fiction and fantasy convention is on Saturday week (October 20th). Steph and I will both be there.

The (literary) heroes who saved me - Booktrust blog
Stephanie Burgis writes a powerful and personal guest blog entry on how heroes in books helped her through a very difficult period in her life.


If you ever upload images to your website or blog, it's a good idea to crop them to size first. You can do this on your computer, using something like a photoshop or whatever photo utility you use, but makes it way easier to do it in the browser, while you're doing your blog post. It's free.

Need to sell books, ebooks, or pretty much anything else through your website but don't want to go to the effort and expense of setting up your own shop? Gumroad will allow you do to this. They charge a small commission, and handle the payments, gathering of delivery address, and hosting of ebooks. I've bought through them, and it worked well.

Only need to sell ebooks and don't want to pay any commission? Payhip lets you upload and sell ebooks and they don't take a penny of your money. You still have to pay whatever charges PayPal makes when they transfer your money, but that's all. They seem to intend to make money by offering premium, charged services, but the ebook side (they say) will always be free. This is a new service. I've not used it, so I can't vouch for it.


Ben Goldacre explains how pharmaceutical companies distort medical trials and hide results they don't like. It's pretty scandalous, and worrying if you rely on medication.

If you're in the UK, you'll be able to send letters to space. Actually, no you won't. But these space-themed stamps are gorgeous and very cool.

Web and Design

So true! If you want any design work done (book/web/whatever) this let's you know your options. (Humor!)

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Five favourite books

Choosing favourite books is like choosing your favourite children; you really can't have more than five of them.

Er. Or something like that.

I've been thinking about what makes a favourite book, because one of the books I think of as a favourite, I just can't read. (More on that later.) I think, for me, a favourite book is one that involves me totally and at which I look and think, There is no way in the world I could ever write a book like that.

So, in no particular order, here are my five favourite books right now.

1. Lavondyss, by Robert Holdstock

Holdstock's first Ryhope book, Mythago Wood, was a revelation, but this one was even better. In some ways, this may be the most perfect book I've ever read.

What Holdstock does better than anyone else is evoke the real feel of mythology, where things can be real and unreal at the same time, and where there can be multiple truths.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the series, the basic premise is that ancient, untouched woodlands are capable of bringing to life the myths that exist inside humanity's collective unconscious, and inside the woodlands, where time and space are warped, these myths live on.

In this book, Tallis Keeton journeys into Ryhope Wood in search of her lost brother, making her way to the realm in the center of the woods where all myths begin.

I've always been drawn to woodlands and mystery, and to stories with ambiguous endings, and this book has all of that. It's enormously perceptive and affecting, and it's one of the most convincing demonstrations of non-rational (which is not the same as irrational) fantasy around.

I found Mythago Wood occasionally a bit dry, but Lavondyss certainly isn't. Much recommended. 

Robert Holdstock was one of the authors I would most like to have met, but he died in 2009, far too young, and I never got the chance.

Mythago Wood won the World Fantasy Award, and I think Lavondyss should have too.

2. Dune, by Frank Herbert

I tend to read more fantasy than science fiction (although there are plenty of SF books I love), and Dune has more than a little in common with fantasy, with its feudal society, its low-tech universe and powers of prophecy, but it's science fiction nonetheless.

I'm not sure there's much I can say about Dune that hasn't been said many times before. It is, after all, one of the most famous science fiction novels ever written. In fact, I'd like to cheat a bit here and nominate the whole Dune series for this 'favourite novel' selection.

The whole Dune series, that is, by Frank Herbert. Not the unending series of Dune-books by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, where they attempt to turn every slight hint of backstory into a whole novel by itself (without seeming to realise that backstory and world-building are what give life to a story, and that if every last bit is explicated in detail, then the depth and colour are sucked out of the story; but I digress).

There was certainly a drop in quality with the first two sequels by Frank Herbert, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune, but by the end of the series, I think it was developing into something quite interesting again. Sadly, like Holdstock, Herbert died before he was finished with the series, leaving his son and his son's collaborator to exploit and degrade it. (Okay, getting bitter again...)

Brief summary, for anyone who has managed to have their head in a sandworm since 1965:

Dune (or Arrakis) is a desert world whose value comes from the 'spice' melange which increases mental powers, allows some limited glimpses of the future, and which allows navigators to guide their ships through space. This is a universe in which computers have been outlawed and in which dominant, feudal houses contend with each other for power. The imperial emperor has decided that House Atreides have become too powerful, and although he can't move against them himself, he gives them Arrakis and leads them into a trap.

This is a book about politics, power, ecology, religion, personal struggle and a whole let else. It really is a remarkable achievement.

Dune was turned down by every major publisher it was sent to, and eventually was published by a house that specialised in auto books and technology magazines. So, yah, boo, sucks to foolish publishers.

3. Passage, by Connie Willis

Can you actually have a favourite book that you can't read? I do, and this is it.

The first time I read Passage I was absolutely blown away by how Connie constructed this novel, how the structure and theme and style fit together so unexpectedly and so perfectly to produce something that is so much more. I'm struggling to say much here, because I don't want to give anything away to anyone who hasn't read it yet. But it is very unusual to have a book where the whole structure and action parallel the ideas so effectively.

Passage is funny and tragic and painful and brilliant. 

Joanna Lander is a psychologist investigating near-death experiences in a research hospital, desperately trying to get good data before people's experiences are contaminated by the fraudulent Maurice Mandrake, who takes advantage of the patients to sell his vision of the afterlife to gullible people.

This is about death and honesty and the lies that people tell each other about death.

Connie Willis's book fall into two rough categories: comedies, and comedies that turn into tragedies. Passage is one of the latter, like the more famous Doomsday Book before it. For myself, I've always preferred these to the comedies, because they have more emotional depth and stronger storylines.

My problem with Passage, and the reason I can't read it anymore, is that the emotion is simply too powerful. This is a book about death, and since I've read it, I've had too many people close to me die. If I hadn't read Passage before and I didn't know how it ended, I think I would be able to manage, but I have, and I simply can't put myself through this anymore.

Passage will always be one of my favourite books, but I think it'll be a long time before I can actually read it again. And that is probably a mark of how brilliant it is.

4. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

Okay, I'm not going to insult anyone by giving a plot summary of this book. You know what it's about. You've almost certainly seen the movies, and you've probably read the books.

The Lord of the Rings has been imitated many, many times, but no one else has managed anything comparable. 

In the various tales of Middle Earth, Tolkien was attempting to construct a possible root mythology for the northern European myths that remain. (He wasn't, as some unperceptive critics have suggested, simply retelling Norse mythology.) These are the stories of the ages before this one, imagined in an incredible depth, with a vast history, languages, cultures and legends of their own.

In fact, The Lord of the Rings is a book written about one tiny part of the history and world that Tolkien had constructed. 

When you read The Lord of the Rings, you can't help but feel that you're entering a world that has been imagined in the every last detail over periods of thousands of years. It is this depth, along with the warmth of the storytelling, that make it much more than any other high fantasy around.

Really, you either already like this or you don't. Nothing I say will make a difference.

5. A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin

This one really is cheating, because we're at five books and counting in this series (more if you're in the US, where some of the books were split in two). If anyone can make claim to a fantasy world as rich as Tolkien's, it's George Martin. 

This is an enormous story, full of rich, believable characters, compelling storytelling, and a vast scope. There's political intrigue, war, love, death, and betrayal, and characters who seem to be competing to be the most vile.

Yet one of the big achievements of Martin's series is that none of the characters are wholly good or wholly bad. There's no black and white here, and even the most vicious and cruel characters can be sympathetic, because they genuinely are the heroes of their own individual stories. These aren't the kind of baddies who think they're being bad. They think they are doing the right thing, by their own priorities and moralities.

A Song of Ice and Fire has been described as a fantasy version of the War of the Roses, but actually it encompasses a lot more, over a larger area and with more protagonists. In some ways, it's the history of Europe, in particular Britain, re-imagined in a fantastical alternate world.

But all of that is really besides the point, because the thing that makes A Song of Ice and Fire such a great series is that Martin is a remarkably compelling storyteller. Even though he jumps from place to place and character to character, the reader is pulled, sometimes against their will, with an inevitable force into the stories.

The other books

An awful lot of other books could have made it into this list, if I'd made it on another day or week. Excession, Feersum Endjinn and Against a Dark Background, by Iain M. Banks. A Deepness in the Sky and A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge. The Malazan series by Steven Erikson and the one by Ian C. Esslemont. The last two Harry Potter books. The Kat Incorrigible books, by Stephanie Burgis (omitted purely to avoid the appearance of nepotism). Stephen King's Dark Tower books. And so on.

At various points, these have all been favourites of mine, and I won't hesitate to recommend them to anyone.

So, what are your recommendations or your favourite books?

Monday, 8 October 2012


Today, I am going to talk to you about passion. The passion that dare not speak its name. Hot, steamy—

No, wait, wrong blog entry. This one's much more wholesome.

Last night, Steph and I watched the J.K Rowling - A Year in the Life documentary that aired a few years ago. (You can see the whole thing on YouTube.)

Now, watching this kind of thing with me is not — how shall we put it — the easiest experience in the world, but luckily my wife is tolerant and also used to it. Every couple of minutes, I had to pause the show and start ranting. This is the kind of thing I do.

Don't get me wrong. Rowling is articulate, intelligent and inspiring. Which could not be said of the narrator / interviewer in the documentary, who kept making the most trite observations in a tone that implied he thought he was saying something profound.

To the point!

The thing that most leapt out to me in the documentary was just how much Rowling cared about the characters in Harry Potter. Not just the heroes or the major characters, but all of them. She knew them. She knew about their lives and their passions and their fears and she cared. She felt with them.

Not only that, the story meant something to her. It was important and she cared about it. It was imbued and brought to life by things she really believed in. She wrote it with the passion flowing through her. You don't have to like Harry Potter or Rowling's writing to appreciate how important that is in writing.

Okay, this isn't an original observation. I expect some of you, if you got this far, are rolling your eyes at virtual me and going, yeah, whatever, I knew that when I was, like, 12. (In my head, you always say 'like' when you're rolling your eyes.)

Well, the truth is, so did I. Well, maybe not when I was 12. When I was 12, I was more interested in explosions and dinosaurs and lots and lots of blood. (Coming to think of it, not much has changed there…)

But it's easy to forget these things. For the last week or two, I've been feeling that my WIP has been going a bit flat. It had become very mechanistic. 

I've got an outline for this story, for the first time ever in something I've written, and for the most part, this has been fantastic for the story and my ability to write it when I'm tired and busy, but the last couple of weeks, I've fallen into just thinking, This has to happen next, and then this, and I have to get characters X, Y, and Z to A, B, and C by this scene. I'd forgotten that the story is about the characters. It's about what matters to them, and their emotions and reactions and actions, and the outline is there to help that only.

So, today, I went back and started to try to put myself in that mode that Rowling was so obviously in with her characters, making myself think about what matters to them and feeling what they think.

And I think it worked. The mechanistic turning of the wheel has gone, and the life is coming back.

Obviously, I'll forgotten this again in a couple of months, and you can roll your eyes at me again when I remember. Just try not to say 'like' when you do. It makes you sound like a teenager.