The trials and tribulations of a self-published steampunk writer

Monday, 19 November 2012

So how's it all going then?

Pretty good actually.

I'm very happy with how sales of Red Mercury are going. Whilst I'd obviously have been delighted if it had become a surprise bestseller, I was fairly realistic about the prospects of that happening! It's ticking along quietly but nicely, probably shifting an average of a copy a day now since the initial rush died off.

90% of my sales are still coming through Amazon, with about a quarter of those being actual print copies through Createspace. This was a real surprise to me. I assumed I would hardly sell any of the print version, and really only set it up so I could get one myself. Beyond the copies sold, I think the availability of the paperback also makes the e-book a more attractive proposition in price terms, and a couple of friends actually said to me that they only thought it was a "proper book" once it became available in print. So it probably does something for the book's credibility too.

I would heartily recommend any first-time writers set up their book for Createspace as well as for Kindle etc. It's relatively simple and whilst I love my e-reader, nothing beats the joy at having an actual physical copy of your own book in your grubby little paws!

I've been delighted with the reviews Red Mercury has received on Amazon in the UK. You can read them here, if you're interested - a whole bunch of 5-stars and a couple of 4-stars. The best bit about it all? Only two of the reviews are from mates, and even those were from folks who I have no doubt are blunt enough (no disrespect intended) to have told me if they thought the book was rubbish!

One small frustration is that UK reviews don't appear on Amazon in the US. A real shame, as the book is yet to really get much traction in the States. To date, only 5% of my sales are from outside the UK. I've got a couple of ideas to get a bit more attention over there - I might try leveraging some of my LEGO contacts! We'll see.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Words and Pictures

I love Wordle and couldn't resist putting Red Mercury through it for a bit of fun.

As expected, the character names, or substitutes like "General" or "Major" etc, provide a chunk of the words in the book. However, I was interested in getting an idea of any other words that were coming up a lot, and thought this visual map might be useful to highlight any weaknesses in my vocabulary.

Wordle lets you click on a word and remove it from the analysis, so I went through and took out all the names, their substitutes, and the place names.

This was really interesting for me. Looking at this makes me think I need to broaden my writing vocabulary in the areas of character movement, and also around them looking at stuff. I think my characters might spend a lot of time "turning their head" towards things, and "moving towards" things! One to watch for the future.

I enjoyed fiddling around with Wordle, and I love the images that resulted. I might turn one into a print for the house with my first massive royalty payment. Hmmm. Perhaps an A4 printout in a cheap frame might be more appropriate.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Top 5 signs of bad writing...

When I had finished my first draft of Red Mercury I wanted a bit of advice before I started trying to review and edit it. I read a whole heap of blog posts and websites on this - all really useful.

I thought I'd gather together the 5 hints and tips I found most useful. It was terrifying when I went through my first draft and found how often I'd fallen foul of these classic first-time writer pitfalls...

1 - 'Useless words'
Many words can be cut from a sentence without affecting its meaning. Classic examples are "just" and "that". I was amazed at how often the word "that" is utterly superfluous. I'd recommend doing a search of your manuscript for both these terms and challenge each and every instance. Using "that" was a particular crime of mine - I found 200 instances where I'd used it in my 40,000 word manuscript. I kept two of them.
Other examples of this are phrases like "he thought to himself". Well of course he did. He isn't going to think it to someone else (unless the novel is set in a world of telepaths). "He thought" will do just fine.

2 - Strong verbs beat adverbs, every time
"Crept" is much better than "moved quietly". "Trudged" is much better than "walked slowly".
I had been aware when I started writing that "adverbs were bad" and I tried to avoid them, but a whole bunch of them snuck in when I wasn't paying attention.
I did a search of my manuscript on "ly" and it popped them all up, one after the other, in an embarrassing but useful stream of signposts to chunks of flabby writing. I deleted almost all the adverbs I found and the manuscript was much improved as a result.

3 - Use 'Said'
Another crime I committed was to use a lot of dialogue carriers other than "said". I think I was worried that "said" was a bit boring, so I used things like "he whispered", "he shouted" etc.
Although these aren't as bad as having adverbs describe speech (see above), they're pretty bad. Maybe once in a hundred pages it's okay, but I learned my lesson when I was reviewing - stick with "said". If the speaker's tone isn't clear from the dialogue itself, rewrite the dialogue.

4 - Head-hopping
My first draft of Red Mercury had the point-of-view flipping backwards and forwards between characters with nearly every line! This isn't something I'd thought about at all while writing, but on reviewing the text it became a major distraction, and made the writing difficult to follow in places with the viewpoint character apparently thinking about things they couldn't possible know.
Big recommendation here is to start your writing aware of the perils of head-hopping. Keep the point-of-view in each scene in one person's head throughout. Starting like this will make editing much easier. The hardest part of the reviewing and rewriting of my second draft was getting rid of the head-hopping.

5 - Cut the backstory
I had a whole heap of backstory in the first draft of the book. From reviewing it myself, and from the comments of my beta-readers, it became clear to me that whilst I needed to know this stuff, the reader didn't.
My elaborate alternate history of the United States and secession of Florida was an example of this - all the reader needed to know was that Florida isn't part of the Union in this world and the two nations have an uneasy relationship. And this was something that readers could deduce from bits of dialogue and the attitudes of the characters, they definitely didn't need the page and a half of explanation I'd put in the first draft.

Hopefully those 5 pointers will help any other first-time writers out there. They certainly helped me improve the later drafts of Red Mercury. I recently re-read the first version of it again and cringed the whole way through. Whilst I make no claims that the finished publication is any kind of high literature, it's a hell of a lot better than  the first draft was!

Useful links
Here are some of the sites I visited in my quest to get some advice:

i09 - good writing advice, with a particular focus on science fiction

Mette Ivie Harrison - a good list of things to watch out for

A great Guardian article - with some lovely tips from Elmore Leonard

Friday, 13 July 2012

Rich! Rich beyond my wildest dreams!

Well, not really. But that was never what it was about.

My monetary ambition with Red Mercury was always secondary to getting the story out and shared. Whenever people asked if I was going to make any money, I said that my ambition was to be able to go out once for dinner on the proceeds - even if it was just me, and even if it was just to McDonalds.

Well, mission accomplished.

Red Mercury has been on sale for a fortnight now and it has sold 40 copies across the different distribution channels. I am frankly delighted at this and would like to thank each and every person who's decided to download it. At the pricing and royalty levels I've set, that means I've made about £8 in total. Ker-Ching! It's Big Mac time.

90% of the sales are through Amazon, and the rest through Smashwords. However, the book has only just been cleared to go into Smashwords' "Premium Catalog" - where most sales volume will come from with them. I'm hoping I'll see some more sales through Smashwords as the book becomes available in places like the Apple bookstore.

I've just used ClearSpace to set up print availability. I've ordered a copy of it myself and am really looking forward to see how it looks on paper.

Most excitingly of all, I just got my first review on Amazon - 5 Stars. That's magic! And it wasn't even a family member or anything!

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Publish! (And hopefully don't be damned)

Well, it's done. Red Mercury has been released into the wild.

I will post in a couple of days about the fun (or otherwise) of formatting a book for final publication on Kindle, and then re-formatting it for publication in other formats for other e-readers. Overall, simpler than I expected, but it still took me a whole afternoon and evening.

However, forget all that. I am totally stoked with excitement because Red Mercury is out and for sale on Amazon - in the US, UK and Europe. And it's also available in other formats at

If you think you might fancy a good old-fashioned adventure story in the grand tradition of The Guns of Navarone, but with an added dash of steam-driven sci-fi then please check it out.

Friday, 22 June 2012

It's getting a little drafty...

Right, got feedback from 2 of my 3 Beta readers. The good news - they generally liked Red Mercury. One of them described it as "the kind of thrilling, pulpy yarn that I really enjoy". I was quite delighted, and more than a little relieved, at the positive reception the book got from these guys.

The other good news is that both of them had some really good feedback on how to improve the book further. I was pleased they could do that, as I would have suspected that praise unaccompanied by suggestions for improvement would have been fairly hollow.

I'm now at the tail end of my third draft of the story, taking on board their feedback and trying to address some of the points they raised.

Here are some of the pointers they gave me (not including the ones that would be plot-spoilers, obviously)...
  • Visuals - Both Beta readers said that the book needed more visual description, especially of locations and characters. I suppose there's little point in setting your story in a fantastical steampunk world if you don't describe it to the reader every now and again. Now, I wanted to avoid any "stop to describe a face" moments and so cut a lot of this out of previous drafts in the interests of pace. I've gone back and spiced up the visual elements hopefully without slowing things down too much or being clunky about it.
  • Villain Earlier - Again, both the guys said that the villain needed to show up earlier in the story. They felt it could do with a Bond-style "false showdown" with the main villain or his henchman early in the plot. An actual encounter has proved difficult to stage, but I've tried to introduce the idea of the villain as a malign presence hanging over the earlier stages of the story. Our heroes don't get to actually meet the villain, but he's hopefully lurking there in the back of the reader's mind. We'll see how that works.
  • Characterisation - Some of the minor characters need a little more fleshing out, especially those who go on to affect the plot. I've gone back in and done what I can around this, particularly for the main supporting characters.
  • Naming - One of the Beta Boys questioned the main character's name. Was it intentionally bland? Hmmm. I had hoped the name would lend him the air of an everyman called upon to do extraordinary things. But "bland" was definitely not what I was aiming for! I'm struggling a bit with this one. I'd grown quite fond of this guy, name and all, so changing it feels wrong. I'll experiment a bit more and see if anything else comes up that sounds right to me.

Overall, really useful feedback that will undoubtedly make Red Mercury a better read. One more Beta reader to come back with his thoughts and then it'll be final draft and publishing time. Eek!

Sunday, 27 May 2012

It's all about the length...

When I first started writing Red Mercury I just got on with it, trying to write a few hundred words every day, keeping the story moving along. However, after a few weeks I started to worry about how long it 'needed' to be. Was this going to be a short story? A novella? A novel? What length is a book?

Looking online, the general consensus seems to be anything less than twenty thousand words or so is a short story. Anything above that but less than forty thousand words is a novella. Anything more than that is a novel. As a result of this info, I became slightly obsessed with hitting 40k and writing a 'proper book'.

As it was, my first draft came in at just over forty thousand words, and I was all pleased with myself. However, my ruthless editor (ie. wife) has a great eye for padding and pointless paragraphs, and through judicious use of the red pen, reduced that first draft by a full 10%. She decimated it. Literally.

There is no doubt in my mind that the story is much better as a result of this pruning - punchier, sharper, more active, more exciting. But now it's not a 'proper novel'.

I've decided to refer to is a 'novella', even though I don't really like the word. I think  it's a bit fey - especially for an action story. But novella it is. The last thing I want when I finally publish is for anyone to complain that it's shorter than they expected.

Of course, over time, the requirement for such a distinction is going to completely evaporate. That 40k number was originally driven by the minimum page count which old hardback binding technology could handle. Over hundreds of years, this technological requirement has created an expectation in people's heads about how long a book needs to be. But in the world of e-books all these old standards will eventually wither away. We're going to end up with short stories, long stories, short novels, long novels, epic trilogies - and their 'length' will be essentially invisible, experienced only as the reader reads, rather than in measureable inches of dead tree visible on a bookstore shelf.

My favourite story ever is one that Gibbo tells about another mate, Irish Dave. I doubt the word count on that one goes above a couple of hundred. Not one of them is safe for online publication.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Cover story

As intimated in my previous post, I started doing some cover art for Red Mercury. Apparently this is not something a first-time writer is supposed to do. It's supposedly as big a sign of a dodgy novel as drawing a really detailed map of your fantasy world*. So sue me.

I've done two cover images. I've posted them on my Flickr account and get folks to choose which version they think should be the cover. Alternatively, if anyone wants to comment here, feel free.

I like both images. I think I prefer the Lenin image to look at, it's something I might want on my wall at home. But I figure the other image is more visually striking and probably gives a better idea of what's actually in the book. I'll be interested to see what people think.

*I haven't drawn any maps of my fantasy world, because it's not a fantasy. It's set in late-19th / early-20th century Europe. I figure there are plenty of maps of that already. If it had been a fantasy world, rest assured I would have drawn a map.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Burden of proof

Today I sent off copies of the draft of Red Mercury to my two brave "beta readers", Richard and Doug. I'm bizarrely twitchy about it. Remember when you made a mix-tape of your favourite songs for your new girlfriend when you were a teenager? And you were all nervous to see if she would like it or not? That's exactly how I feel.

The only other people who've read it so far have been my wife and son. My wife has a fierce eye for a typo or a pointless passage. Thanks to her, the most recent draft is about 10% shorter than my first stab at a "final" draft. It's scary that whole paragraphs that I deemed essential to the story were revealed as adding little or nothing when challenged by someone else. Removing the dross has undoubtedly made the story punchier.

My 14 year-old son finished it (a good sign) and said he enjoyed it. I pestered him for a bit more feedback. "The ending was a bit cheesy," he said. Obviously, I couldn't let an in-depth critique like that go ignored, so I revisited the last couple of scenes and attempted to remove a little of the Parmesan.

I'm now waiting to do any more editing or rewriting until I get comments back from the "beta boys".

To keep me occupied until the guys get back to me, I've started on a couple of different cover designs. The first rule of first-time writing is apparently "Never draw your own cover art". Oops.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

What? No Prussians?

Red Mercury will be set in a Europe teetering on the brink of war, around the end of the 19th century. I've avoided being too specific as I wanted to mess around with some of the historical context. Notably, I've got the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia kicking off about twenty years early.

As soon as I decided to write a steampunk book, I thought it would be cool to set it in Soviet Russia. The obvious temptation is to include the pesky old Prussians as the enemy, but I figured that as my book is bound to be chock-full of steampunk cliches, how about we avoid a big one up-front?

Don't get me wrong, I like a Prussian mech or u-boat as much as the next man, but I thought those pesky Commies looked like a more promising bunch of adversaries for my intrepid band of Imperial heroes.

So if all goes according to plan, Red Mercury will be like Guns Of Navarone meets Jules Verne. With Russians.

We'll see how it turns out.

I know what I like...

There seems to be a raft of new steampunk stuff coming out recently. This is A GOOD THING in general. I reckon the more clanky works that appear, the more good steampunk writing / movies / games we'll end up with to enjoy.

However, a load of the new stuff seems to include more than "just" the clank. Lots of books with steampunk and magic, or steampunk and aliens, or steampunk and whatever. I'm afraid I prefer a good old-fashioned bit of classic clank, without the added seasoning of other fantastic elements.

My favourite steampunk authors are Jonathan Green, who writes the Pax Britannia series, and Cherie Priest, who writes the Clockwork Century books.

Although both writing steampunk (amongst other things), they have very different styles: Jonathan's books are like movie adaptations - rollicking, high-speed thrill rides that can be an absolute hoot, whereas Cherie Priest's books are more "writerly" - subtle and moody with a great sense of place (and occasionally downright scary).

If you haven't read them, I'd heartily recommend trying them both out.

As for other steampunk books, you've got to love Sterling & Gibson's Difference Engine - which for my money is one of the ones that really started it all, along with KW Jeter's Infernal Devices.

Philip Reeve's Larklight kids' series is brilliant, and apparently soon to be a movie (great website too). You also can't go wrong with Moore & O'Neill's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the graphic novel, obviously, rather than the disappointing movie) and, I have a big soft spot for Joshua Mowll's Operation Red Jericho.

The point of this post, is not to try and make out that my book is going to be a patch on any of these fantastic works. Rather, I just want to give folks an idea of what style of clank they might find if they decide to pick up Red Mercury when it comes out. More on this another time.

In the beginning...

Last Christmas I received a steampunk novel as a gift. It should have been right up my street. The 'blurb' on the back, even the cover art, gave me high hopes.

However, I thought it was really bad - poorly written and plodding. Utter crap, in fact. It made me incredibly cross that it had been published at all.

In a fit of childish pique I threw the offending article in the bin and shouted at it: "I will write a better book than you by Easter."

Well, I didn't quite make it for Easter, but my book* is nearly done.

I plan to post here about the book, how I found writing for the first time, and the process of publishing my stuff on the Kindle.

* "Book" is maybe a bit of an overclaim. Looking at word-count posts on tinterweb, I reckon it's coming in as either a short novel or a long novella. I've decided to call it a novella to avoid any complaints from anyone who buys it expecting some sort of opus. You can read more about that decision here.