The trials and tribulations of a self-published steampunk writer

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

4 steps to punchier, better writing...

I recently ran into a writing exercise on a marketing training course at work: we had to write a story in as few words as possible. This was to help us develop the skills to craft pithy, punchy brand positioning statements. The writing muscles this exercise made me flex reminded me of when the editing and rewriting process goes well, and I thought it would be worth sharing here.

My partner in the exercise and I were given a setting, the jungle, and told to get going. We kicked around a few ideas and settled on this as our first effort...

The lion was really angry because nobody had told him that the party was supposed to be fancy dress.

OK, not exactly Kipling, but it made us smile. I think we liked it because it hinted at a bigger world beyond what the reader actually reads, one where lions go to parties for a start. At this point, the editing and rewriting kicked in and we started trying to make it better.

Step 1 - useless words and adverbs

Straight away, look for the -ly words, a sure signpost of a flabby sentence. Did 'really' add anything? Is 'really angry' more angry than 'angry'? Maybe, but not much.

And look hard at every instance of 'that'. You probably don't need them. We didn't here.

The lion was angry because nobody had told him the party was supposed to be fancy dress.

Already it's better.

Step 2 - challenge the flabby bits

'Nobody had told him'? Hmm. Do we need the 'had'?

And 'supposed to be'? Hmm once again. Did we need any of that?

The lion was angry because nobody told him the party was fancy dress.

Ooh, much nicer. Much tighter. But still not quite right.

Step 3 - emphasise the emotion

Yes, we know the lion was angry, but it doesn't exactly leap off the page. And we'd already killed the idea of 'really angry'. Could we make it feel stronger? How about 'The lion was raging'? Much nicer.

And if you're getting into the land of anger and rage, you want short, clipped sentences, making things feel harsher and sharper. So we split our sentence into two and got rid of another word into the bargain. 'Because' is regularly another of those filler words - it feels essential in your first draft, but can often disappear in the rewrites.

The lion was raging. Nobody told him the party was fancy dress.

Much, much better.

Step 4 - add real character

The one thing still lacking for me was any character. Our lion is 'the lion', which is the equivalent of saying 'a lion' - any old lion, one lion of many. Was there a way to give him a bit more spark and interest?

How about we drop the 'The'?

Lion was raging. Nobody told him the party was fancy dress.

Boom. There we have it. Not just 'the lion', no. Suddenly this is a story about 'Lion' - a figure immediately invested with character. No longer a description, Lion has become a name.

In twenty minutes we went from:
The lion was really angry because nobody had told him that the party was supposed to be fancy dress.
Lion was raging. Nobody told him the party was fancy dress.

I know which version I prefer. The second one is 8 words shorter, but is invested with at least 8 times the character and intrigue. And I think it's much funnier too.

I'd recommend any budding writers to give this exercise a go. It's a good way of sharpening your skills and getting practice at honing your words into lethal weapons.

There is a famous story about Hemingway being challenged to write a story in only six words. He apparently thought for a moment and then scribbled the following on a back of a napkin: For Sale: baby shoes. Never worn.

He won the bet. Could you?

Friday, 19 July 2013

Can I call them "Bestsellers" now?

Holy crap.

Both books in the Top 10 Kindle Steampunk books in the UK. Genuinely delighted with that.

Red Mercury has been bouncing about the Top 10 for a few weeks now, but Neptune Rising has been bubbling under, never getting out of the teens until now.

I did a three day giveaway of Red Mercury using KDP Select about a month ago. Second one I've done, but this one really seemed to work - getting a whole heap of freebie distribution, but this time translating almost immediately into a paid-for sales bounce when the promotion finished. Really pleased.

Thanks to everyone who's given the books I go. I hope you enjoy them. Feel free to give them a review on Amazon or Goodreads.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

And the reviews are in!

So Neptune Rising has been out for about a month now and sales are going pretty well. It's definitely moving faster than Red Mercury did at the same stage of launch - which is good.

The thing I hadn't expected when I launched the new book was to see a spike in the first one's sales. With hindsight I suppose I should have anticipated something like this as publishing a second will prompt a bunch of people who had previously abstained to try the first (they probably figure if you've gone to the trouble of writing a second one then the first one might not be as terrible as they assumed).

My main route for publicising Neptune Rising was through Facebook, Twitter and this blog. Once again, my Facebook friends were incredibly generous in their support and sharing. Thanks to them, Neptune Rising broke into the Top 20 in Sci-Fi on Kindle in the UK for a few days, and peaked at 30-something in the US.

The first few reviews are slowly trickling in, and I'm delighted to say they've been very positive. Here are some excerpts...

"the perfect Steampunk boys own adventure - in fact it reminds me a lot of the old Ian Fleming "James Bond" books I've been rereading recently. Impossible missions supported by fabulous gadgets and contraptions, a little bit of love interest, and a LOT of style"

"a fast-paced war-pirate steampunk mash up. The cliché "couldn't put it down" is a perfect description of this book - the story is off like a whippett and doesn't slow down"

"all the action and high jinx needed to be a great read"

"Read this through in a single sitting as it was so easy to read, clipping along at a good pace. I would recommend it to anyone"

Overall, I'm delighted with the comments. If you've read it, I'd love to hear what you thought.

If you haven't read it yet, then what are you waiting for? Get thee to Amazon...

Friday, 17 May 2013

Neptune Rising

My new book Neptune Rising is out - available now at Amazon in both ebook and paperback.

I'm genuinely delighted with how this has turned out - from an initial crackpot idea of "Steampunk Pirates" into a continuation of the world I put together for Red Mercury.

It's funny, whilst I'm very proud of Red Mercury, this new one is definitely better - a smoother read all round. Interesting how much better my writing has got as I've got more practice.

If you fancy a good old-fashioned adventure story with a dash of steam-driven science-fiction AND PIRATES, then maybe give it a go?

If you do, I'd love to hear what you think of it.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Steampunks Assemble!

How exciting, I'm off to attend my very first convention as an author.

In June, I'll be heading down to "the North" for Steampunk Doncaster, a polite gathering of clanky-minded folks featuring authors, traders, artists and the like. Really looking forward to it.

I'll be taking along some copies of Red Mercury to sell and sign, and if I can get it done in time, I'll also have some copies of the follow-up with me. I'm going to do a brief talk on the Saturday too - subject TBC.

I've also committed to taking along a LEGO Steampunk display. Working on it already and it's going to be BIG (and rather cool, even if I do say so myself). It's going to be a harbour / town for this little beauty...

So, if you're in the North of England, and fancy a bit of steampunk action - there's nowhere better to be in June than Doncaster. Hopefully see you there.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Here we go again!

I've just put the finishing touches to the first draft of a "follow-up" to Red Mercury. It's not a sequel, although it is set in the same alternate history and features some of the same characters.

I really enjoyed putting together my first book, and have been pleasantly surprised by its reception, so I figured another one was in order.

The first draft is now in the hands of some "beta readers".

The worth of getting your drafts read by a bunch of people cannot be overstated. With Red Mercury I got some excellent feedback and comments which helped me really tighten the story up and improve some of the characterisation.

I heard it said that if a reader suggests something is wrong in your writing, they are almost always right, but how they suggest to fix it is almost always wrong. I try to bear that in mind when I receive feedback - whilst the suggestion of exactly how to improve things might not fit with my idea of how the story should develop, the suggestion itself is often a hugely-useful signpost to a patch of writing or a plot element that isn't working.

Aside from all that, it's simply good practice to get a bunch of folks to run their eyes over your prose. Having done this once already, I'd say the hardest part of self-publishing is self-editing. Get as much feedback as you can - from general thoughts on plot and place, through to helping spot those typos.

Once I have gathered the feedback from my brave guinea pigs, I'll get cracking with revising the text. I'm hoping to have the new book available on Kindle and in print by the start of June. I'll keep you updated.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Book Giveaway on Goodreads

I've recently become totally addicted to Goodreads, a book recommendation website that seems to be uncannily good at suggesting stuff I'd like. I'm very impressed with it.

Obviously I listed Red Mercury on there and was really pleased to pick up a few good ratings fairly quickly.

One of the services that Goodreads offers to authors is the facility to do a prize draw giveaway. Goodreads says it picks winners whose tastes match the type of book being given away. Winners are then encouraged, but not required, to write a review. I figured this seemed a simple way to generate a bit of publicity for Red Mercury, so I'm giving it a go.

If you fancy winning one of 10 signed copies of the book in paperback, click the box above, or enter here. I presume you have to sign up for Goodreads in order to enter, but I'd heartily recommend doing so. Good luck!

UPDATE: Over 1,000 people entered to win a copy! That's fantastic. Quite delighted with the exposure the giveaway has generated. Who knows if any of it will translate through to sales? We'll see over the next few weeks. I'm off to post the winners their copies.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Promoting an e-book with KDP Select

I've just finished a three-day promotion of Red Mercury using Amazon's KDP Select. I am genuinely delighted with the results and thought I'd post here about what I did.

If you don't know what KDP Select is, check out this post.

Having scouted around some websites, the general consensus seemed to be that the end of the week was the best time to run a promotion. For my first promo, I settled on 3 days, Thursday-Saturday.

Promotional periods start and finish at midnight US Pacific time, which causes a bit of complication for authors in the UK. I solved this minor issue by not sending out any notification of the promotion starting until I'd actually seen the book priced at free on both the US and UK websites, and whenever I mentioned the offer, I said "free until midnight Saturday" to avoid complicating things.

How did I spread the word?

I posted a link to the promotion in my Facebook status, accompanied with this message: "If you've read the book and enjoyed it, maybe you could pass this on to your friends. If you haven't read it yet, now is the perfect time to give it a go..."

Whilst I was keen for people to recommend the book, I was also nervous about upsetting anyone who had bought the book previously. This wasn't an issue thankfully, as most had bought their copies at launch six months before so were relaxed about it now being on promotion.

Many of my lovely Facebook friends shared the link, and even better, added personal recommendations. Another bunch of people had somehow missed that I'd written the book in the first place and went off to download it before sharing the news. I made sure that everyone who shared the link got a "Like" and a thank you. I was genuinely taken aback by how kind my Facebook friends were in terms of sharing.

I didn't try to describe the book that much on Twitter - 140 characters just isn't enough to give any meaningful detail. I tweeted "My #steampunk novel 'Red Mercury' is FREE on #Kindle until midnight Saturday - [link]". I figured this was the right balance of info. Two tags that were "search-worthy" in #Steampunk and #Kindle, and FREE in big letters.

The message went out each day of the promotion. I thought once per day was enough, I didn't want to piss off my regular followers as I knew many of them already had the book. This was targeted at people who hadn't already bought the book and would likely stumble on the tweet through searching one of the hashtags.

During the days of the promotion I regularly used Twitter's search function, looking for the book's title. This turned up a number of tweets from people saying they'd just downloaded the book. I made sure I sent a thank you message saying I hoped they would enjoy it. This resulted in a number of nice conversations online and couple of new mutual following relationships.

I have a lot of contacts on Flickr through my LEGO building. I figured this might be a good way to build some traffic, particularly in the US where sales have been slower, but my LEGO contact list is stronger. I built a couple of steampunk LEGO creations and posted them on the promotional days with a link to the offer.

Flickr's terms of service forbid linking to commercial pages, but I reckoned it was okay to link to Amazon whilst the book was free. When the promotion finished, I changed the link for one to this blog instead.

During the promotional period over 400 people saw each of the images I posted, and comments indicate at least some of those people downloaded the book.

Overall, Facebook was by far and away the most effective publicity tool for me for this promotion. However, it is one which I would hesitate to use frequently. My Facebook friends are genuine friends, and I would hate them to feel I was taking advantage of them to sell stuff. Whilst I will definitely run a promotion again, I will seek out other ways to publicise it next time around to ensure I'm not annoying my mates. I'm going to keep another Facebook campaign up my sleeve for pushing Red Mercury's sequel if I ever get it finished.

The Flickr campaign went ok, but maybe not as big as I'd hoped. Definitely worth doing though, especially as it will have generated more awareness in the States.

Whilst Twitter probably didn't reach that many people, it gave me the opportunity for a bit more personal contact with some new readers (and got me talking to a bunch of new interesting folks).

In the three days of the promotion, 200 free copies were downloaded in the States, and nearly 400 in the UK. The book shot up the rankings on both websites, but the UK performance was amazing: Red Mercury hit No2 in Amazon's Science Fiction - Adventure chart, and peaked at No7 in all Science Fiction. In the US it still managed a very respectable No37 in Science Fiction - Adventure.

Now, who knows how this will all translate across once the book goes off-promotion? But I've already got two great new reviews from it in the US, and hopefully a whole bunch of people reading the book which should generate a few more reviews. Key will be if Red Mercury now shows up in more "people who bought this also bought..." lists.

Obviously I'll be keeping an eye on sales and I will update with a post on this in the next couple of weeks.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Free! Free at last! (well... for a bit)

Red Mercury is free this weekend (17th-19th Jan) on the Kindle. Download it here.

This is the first promotion I've run using the KDP Select service at Amazon. I'll let you know how it goes.

To celebrate, and to get a bit more attention for the book in the States, I built some steampunk LEGO and linked to the promotion from my Flickr account. We'll see what that does in terms of driving a little more US traffic.

Here's what I built...

A cute little Soviet Tripod Mech. Quite pleased with the clank this one manages to have, despite it being so small.

EDIT: And here's something I built on Day 2 of the promotion...

Saturday, 12 January 2013

I wanna be selected...

I've recently taken Red Mercury off sale at Smashwords. Much as I like the site, and the distribution to other places it gives you, my sales through it have never amounted to more than 5% of what has been shifted through Amazon.

By delisting the book on other channels, it makes Red Mercury eligible for the Amazon KDP Select programme - allowing Prime members to borrow the book, but more importantly, allows me to set up promotional periods when I can make my book free.

With regular sales slowing down now, I'm keen to give the book a bit of a boost with some more promotional support. KDP Select seems just the tool to do it with, so unfortunately the Smashwords listing had to go for the moment.

I will get the first promotional slot set up and let you know how it goes.