Every day approximately seven zillion squillion books are self published. And the world takes absolutely no notice, assuming they are all rubbish. No doubt some of them are. Others, while not rubbish, are likely flawed. But there are also perfectly decent books which are self published.

Why are they self published if they’re so good? There can be a variety of reasons. A publisher invests a deal of time and money into every title they publish. They have their own agendas and criteria to meet, and simply being ‘good’ isn’t necessarily enough. Maybe it’s good, but they can’t see a large market. Maybe it’s good, but similar to titles they already produce. Maybe it’s good, but currently unfashionable. Maybe it’s good – really good – but just not quite as good as those other ten titles that they have decided to publish.

Some authors claim they self publish by choice; they retain control over every stage of the process, and reap far greater profits. Personally I find this doubtful. Sure, you make a greater profit on each sale – but only if people are buying your book. 70% of nothing is still nothing.

The self published author’s greatest challenges are visibility and credibility. No one knows or cares about their book. The only people they can persuade to read it are likely to be friends and family (certainly early on in the process). They would love for a real, objective reviewer to read and blog about it, but without some initial credibility there is little reason for such a person to take a chance on it.

This is where you can help. Those handful of reviews the book manages to garner in its early months are vital. The bottom line is that the more reviews a book receives the greater its credibility. Unquestionably.

But not all reviews are equal. While any review is better than none (yes, even a one star review), there are things you can do which make your review really valuable to the author, and things which make it … less so.

You have the best intentions. You want to help out the author; you certainly don’t want to upset or offend them. So you go write them that review. Here are the top three pitfalls to avoid.

1) Five Stars

range of reviews

Range of reviews on Amazon for The Golem and Djinni by Helene Wecker

You may think the greatest favour you can do the author is to award the book five stars (assuming five is the maximum on whatever platform you are reviewing). Unfortunately nothing screams ‘Self published author with only friends for reviewers’ like a very small number of reviews all awarding five stars.

That is not the natural pattern of reviewing. Go check out any mainstream, popular book. It will have 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 star reviews. It will have a range, maybe a bell curve, with most of the reviews clustering around four or five stars. Even a work of renowned genius does not garner uniformly five star reviews. It doesn’t garner uniform reviews at all. People have different opinions about it, and they don’t all think they’d better give it the same number of stars as the last person, so that they don’t look stingy.

Keep it realistic. Honestly.

2) I don’t usually read this genre…

‘I don’t normally read sci-fi/children’s books/romances, but this had me captivated from the beginning.’ You might think you’re saying, ‘Read this! It’s brilliant! Even if you think you don’t like the genre. Honest. It’s fantastic.’ But what you’re actually saying is, ‘The only reason I read this book is because the author is a friend, and asked me to.’

3) Boris has done a fantastic job

So the author is your brother, your old school pal, your work colleague. Maybe you don’t know anyone else who’s written a book. It’s pretty cool, right? Referring to the author by their first name subtley lets the world know that you personally know them. You, by association, are pretty cool too.

Or not. Again, what you are really saying is, ‘I only read this book because I know the author.’ It might be true, but it damages their credibility.

Similarly, if you happen to have the same surname as the author, maybe this is the one circumstance where ‘any review at all’ is NOT better than none :-S

If you can avoid those three pitfalls then your review could really help your author pal. So that’s what not to do. But what should you do?

Be honest

I know you don’t want to offend Boris, and really he has done awfully well, and you’re proud of him, but that bit in the middle with the elephant and the volcano didn’t entirely make sense, did it? The plot got a bit confusing around the time the mermen turned up through the oceanic rift, and come to think of it, the comedy sidekick otter was actually a bit irritating.

It’s okay to say that. I know you don’t believe me, so I’m going to say it again:

It’s okay to criticise your friend’s book!

Say that it’s interesting, say that it’s funny, say that you enjoyed it* – just don’t be afraid to also say, “But…” And don’t be afraid to deduct stars accordingly. Your author pal will thank you in the long run. Hopefully, if they have a bit of realism about their situation, they will thank you immediately.

Your friend has most likely spent years writing their book. They’ve put off social events, missed playing with the kids, maybe they’ve taken time off work, with the accompanying loss in earnings. They are serious about writing books and making a success of it. Patting them on the head and saying, ‘well done, that’s brilliant’ doesn’t help them. If there are areas they need to improve on then tell them. They want to get it right. They want to improve. But if no one tells them where they’re going wrong, how will they ever get better? Meanwhile, they are sitting scratching their heads, thinking, ‘if my book is so damn fantastic, how come I’ve only sold 20 copies..?’

In conclusion, you can help your author pal with their two main problems of visibility and credibility. You help with their visibility simply by writing any review at all. You can help with their credibility by reviewing their book as though it was written by someone you don’t know; by being honest, by pointing out flaws.

With a small range of honest reviews their book stands a far greater chance of being taken seriously by other readers and reviewers than if it only has a handful of glowing, five star reviews.

On behalf of all self publishing authors, thank you for taking the time to read this – and for every review you write for self published authors. It really does help.

Other authors, do you agree with this article? What would you add to the list of review pitfalls?

* assuming those things are true.

Today I am very pleased to recieve a couple of signed books from the delightful Krista D Ball.

Alongside her novels, Krista also researches and compiles authors guides. What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank is an entertaining and informative look at how food works (or should work!) in fantasy novels. Drawing on historical sources, as well as some enthusiastic home experimentation, Krista presents a lively guide to all things mead, ale and roast boar related.

signed books from Krista D Ball

signed books from Krista D Ball

A month or so ago I won a competition to supply Krista with an interesting food related fact. Having watched many series of QI, I had no difficulty in recalling that an allergy to Brazil nuts can be triggered by sexual contact with someone who has eaten them; it is the only food allergy which can be triggered in quite this way.

I was not the only entrant to explore the strangeness of Brazil nuts, but was fortunate to be chosen the winner. For this I received not only a signed copy of What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank, but also Krista’s new writers’ guide: Hustlers, Harlots and Heroes, a Regency and Steampunk field guide.

Huzzah! I look forward very much to reading it. Thank you, Krista :-D

You can visit Krista’s blog here.
You can buy What Kings Ate and Wizards Drank here, and Hustlers, Harlots and Heroes here.

Today is the first of May, and thoughts turn to the coming summer. If you could distil the essence of a perfect English summer day and transform it into music I think it would sound very much like The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan-Williams.

If you are not familiar with it, you can listen here.

The music is achingly sweet, conjuring a powerful nostalgia for a make-believe bucolic past of lazy summer days idling in corn fields, of swimming in slow green rivers – a time when we were intimately connected to the earth and the seasons.*

I must have heard it several times when younger (I am sure it has been used on the soundtracks of many pastoral, period TV series over the years, probably things like The Mill on the Floss, or Tess of the D’urbervilles). But strangely, the first time I remember properly noticing it was on the soundtrack to a very good, but seemingly little known Australian film, The Year my Voice Broke.

I didn’t know what it was at the time, but was struck by how incongruous it seemed played over the brittle looking Australian landscape; it is the most quintessentially English piece of music I know.

Although the location seemed wrong, in another sense the piece was absolutely right for the film. It is a bittersweet tale of young love, of the loss of innocence, and the sometimes painful entry to adulthood.

Bittersweet is precisely what The Lark Ascending seems to me; filled with heartache and yearning. Perhaps more so because everything it seems to represent is so rapidly disappearing from our world. But I think sadness was always inherent in the piece. Opinions differ on whether or not Vaughan-Williams was influenced by the outbreak of the first world war during its composition in 1914.

But regardless, I think that people of the early 20th century already saw their old ways rapidly disappearing in urbanisation and ever increasing industrialisation. I am certainly no expert on music history, but I suspect that pastoral nostalgia was already very much a part of its appeal.

All through 2014 BBC Radio 3 are collating a playlist of the best of British classical music. Nominated by members of the public, the playlist will feature 365 pieces by the end of the year.

I am nominating The Lark Ascending. Let Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have the other 364 days. I think this piece says pretty much everything that needs saying about English music.

* I am of course aware that when we were ‘intimately connected to the earth and the seasons’ that is precisely because we spent long days of back breaking labour in all weathers. But that is the magic of music (or perhaps of indoctrinated association by way of TV and film) – we tend only to think of the idealised parts that must have made up less than 1% of actual lived experience.

Did you know Getty are now allowing bloggers and other social media users to use their images for free?

Of course there’s a catch. You are actually hosting an iframe which embeds the image from Getty directly into your page. If privacy issues are a concern, then you may want to read more about what that means for you and your users.

I’m not sure how big a deal the privacy issue is (I’ve never been too good at corporate paranoia. Axe-murderer hiding under the bed paranoia, yes, absolutely!), and it allows me a sudden cornucopia of eye candy that would never previously have been within reach.

It’s also really easy – but bizarrely unadvertised. I’ve been looking around for a good half hour or so, thinking: okay, I’ve read all these reports that I can use Getty images, but, uh, how? Do I need to register? Where are some instructions? I’ve found an image I want, I can see payment options, but not a lot else…

Wonder no more! See the </> symbol below my image above? That’s all you need. Click that and you get a little snippet of code. Paste that into the html view of your web page, and bob’s your uncle. Pretty image on your site.

Hurrah.

If you need more info than that, see Getty’s own instructions.

Happy image searching!

me with fizz

me with champagne (not today, but I’ll look very similar when we crack a bottle open shortly – just wearing ten extra layers…) [photo credit: Uncut ID]

I know I have not been a good blogger recently. Work commitments stepped up and this left me with little writing time. What time I had I naturally wanted to spend finishing my two-years-overdue work in progress, Kikimora.

And today I finally have. Hallelujah! It’s been a hell of a slog. I originally envisaged it as a short, simple story, something a bit easier after the three plus years I spent on Darklands. Well, here we are four years later and 40,000 words over budget…

The edit can wait for another day. Today I’m just happy with having reached a draught (certainly not a first draft, and definitely not the last) – but a draught which is of reasonable enough quality that I may manage to hand it over to a trusted ally for some constructive criticism. Or I may sit in my darkened room for another year with a red pen, crossing words out and putting slightly different words back in…

The main issue is that it’s too damned long, clocking in at a hefty 136,000 words. Darklands was 114,000, and I thought that was really a bit too long.

The draught I’ve just completed started out eight months ago with the lofty intention of trimming the manuscript by a quarter. Instead I added about 10,000 words :-/

But I will persevere. I know roughly where I need to trim. I like the beginning, I like the end. The middle section sags and is all doughy and bleh. I need to whittle it down, and liven it up. As I say, a job for another day. Today I am so happy to have finally reached this milestone.

As a taster, here is the glossary I have just written, introducing characters from a variety of mythologies who either make an appearance or are referenced:

Baba Yaga A dreadful witch. She flies through the air in a pestle and mortar, and lives in a hut that stands on chicken’s legs.
Bacchus The Roman god of wine and revelry.
Banshee A female spirit in Celtic mythology, said to foretell death with a terrible wailing.
Czernoboch A Slavic god with dual roles of death and rebirth.
Djinn A genie.
Hecate Greek goddess of witchcraft, poison and necromancy.
Leshy The guardian of the forest. Fierce and wild; humans should be wary of him.
North Wind A frequent character in many mythologies, particularly European ones – bluff, fierce and unpredictable.
Old Silenus Companion of Bacchus, habitually drunken and riding on a donkey.
Orpheus Renowned musician from Greek mythology whose music caused riots and hysteria.
Red Cross Knight Saint George, as described battling with a dragon in Edmund Spenser’s epic poem of 1590, The Fairy Queen.
River Styx In Greek mythology the river you must cross to reach the land of the dead.
Rusalka In Slavic folklore a water spirit, much like a mermaid. Fierce and treacherous, their aim is to lure people to drown in their pools.

Any of that particularly take your fancy? I know my sister is looking forward to reading about Leshy, Baba Yaga and the Rusalkas – they are after all the main mythological presence in a Slavic set story. But the story’s characters are well read and curious, and well aware of other folklore traditions.

I have always been attracted to odd or funny or unusual words. I love that the English language has such a wealth of them.* As I child I would sometimes sit and read the dictionary – finding strange words and trying to work them into everyday speech (or the many unfinished stories I always had on the go).

gormenghast notes

My very old copy of Gormenghast, with notes. The same page also contains: raddled (either twisted or reddened) and pranked (adorned, shown off)

Words I remember learning in that way:

Grimalkin: an old witch.
Madder: a natural red dye.
Glabrous: smooth skinned.

I first read Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy at 15, and for many years adored it (although I have to say I prefer my prose a lot less fancy these days). But it was full of many words I didn’t understand. I would mark them in the text. Then when I reached a suitable break I would get out the dictionary, look up all the recent words, and write the meanings in to the margins – in case i forgot again by the time I re-read the book (you will recall from previous posts that although I love books, I am not precious about them).

Words I remember learning from Gormenghast:

Gibbous: the moon when it is more than half, but less than full.
Fastidious: fussy.
Osseous: made of bone.

For a time I became particularly intrigued by unusual names, and kept a small notebook in which I jotted down odd names that I came across.

My favourite company names, learnt whilst working as a temp for a variety of local, mostly mining-related businesses:

Norbert Dentressangle; a haulier, but the name always reminds me of Murun Buchstansangur, which I used to enjoy as a child, and – having now looked it up after *cough* years – is even odder than I remember.
Angst Pfister; they’re real, honest. And safe for work!

I also made up reams of names. Sometimes I would think up a character to go with the name. Sometimes they made it as far as (an unfinished) story.

Tragically I can no longer find the notebook full of my best names. But these are a few from a comic-adventure boarding school story I still vaguely intend to finish one day:

Boscoe Roast; a schoolboy and a bully.
Colt Saltarello; a handsome, laconic Texan, and dancing intructor.
Frances Botticelli-Irvingspoon; from a wealthy but dissolute family, she knows all manner of interesting things that a young girl probably shouldn’t, and is excellent at poker.

And finally, three very common words which for some reason when I see written down I often mispronounce/misapprehend to myself:

misled: (myzelled) I went out for a misle; now I’m thoroughly misled.
mishap: (mish-ap) I have no idea what that could mean. Perhaps it’s similar to a mashup?
doing: I want to pronounce it to rhyme with boing.

Anyone got a favourite word they’d like to share?

* German also has a great number of peculiar words, I later learnt. My favourite is ausgeflippt: freaked out.

Why is it so utterly impossible and infuriating and time-devouring to write a synopsis for your novel?

Since I’m currently taking a hiatus from Kikimora‘s editing, I thought I should have another go at a decent synopsis. Days later, I emerge, blinking and disoriented. I’ve done it! I’ve written 137 words that I only kind of hate a bit… :-S

This is my umpteenth attempt at Kikimora’s synopsis. There have been three or four major versions – all quite different, yet all equally true to the story. How is that possible?

My first attempt was perhaps a little high on whimsy and low on hook:

Raised in isolation by a brooding magician and his learned cat, Kikimora has almost come of age – and that means she has a destiny to fulfil. For Kikimora is no ordinary girl, but a monster spun from the breath of an ice wyvern and the crocodile tears of a killer, and her purpose is to wreak vengeance on mankind.

But Kikimora’s nature is not harsh or cruel. Sent out into the human world alone, she will need all of her ingenuity and resourcefulness to overcome the destiny laid out for her, and perhaps find her own path to happiness.

It clearly wasn’t good enough, so I sought some advice, courtesy of Mike Wells. With a formula* in hand, I had another go:

crazy bacteria stuff growing in thermal pools

I choose to express my feelings on synopsis writing in an abstract manner.

Since her creation, Kikimora has been raised to believe that humans are a blight upon the planet; greedy, stupid and unreasonable. Commissioned to bring about the ruination of a mining community, she wants to prove herself a good and dutiful monster.

But Kikimora finds that cruelty and spite do not come easily to her. Nor had she anticipated falling in love with the very worst of the men, the gunpowder master.

When a rockfall traps the miners deep underground and the caverns slowly fill with water, will Kikimora betray her master and upbringing to rescue the miners – even if it means sacrificing everything?

Meh. I get the need for a hook, but I don’t want to sound like a (bad) Hollywood thriller. Forgetting all about the formula, I took a fresh approach:

Korsakov forest is changing. Where carefree Rusalka once swam in golden pools, now sulphurous run-off from the mines has clouded and poisoned the waters. Where impenetrable forest stretched across the horizon, now ancient trees are felled and burnt.

But the inhabitants of the forest have a plan; a simple, ruthless plan. From the breath of an ice wyvern and the crocodile tears of a killer is spun a strange creature: half child, half nightmare. Schooled in cruelty, Kikimora’s sole purpose is to terrorise the encroaching humans and drive them away.

But Kikimora finds herself strangely unprepared for the realities of the human world. As she learns more about humans, she begins to question her upbringing and her purpose.

When disaster strikes the humans, Kikimora must decide where her loyalties lie: with the guardians of the forest or the humans she has sworn to destroy.

There are some elements of that which I like, but it still sounds stilted and clunky (they all do, I know!) Finally I’ve attempted a mash up with the above and the formula version, and I think it’s the best I’ve got so far. But I’ll probably have rewritten it by tomorrow…

When mining pollution threatens to destroy their home, the spirits of Korsakov forest enlist the help of the world’s greatest sorcerer to create a monster. Spun from the breath of an ice wyvern and the crocodile tears of a killer, Kikimora’s purpose is to terrorise the miners and drive them from the forest for ever.

But Kikimora discovers there is much her guardians neglected to teach her about humans: important things like music and friendship and love. Drawn into their lives, their hopes and fears, Kikimora’s heart rebels against her duty, and she begins to question her purpose.

When disaster strikes the miners, she must decide where her loyalties lie: with the guardians of the forest or with the humans she has sworn to destroy.

But defying her destiny could mean sacrificing everything – even her life.

Thoughts, anyone? I feel like I’ve bludgeoned the story to death, and there is no charm or life left in it. But that’s probably (hopefully) over-familiarity breeding contempt. Does anything about this synopsis intrigue or invite, or should I go back to the drawing board again? (or throw my computer out of the window?)

Who else has trouble writing synopses? Anyone got any great tips or advice?

* visit the site for the full version, but the essence is:
Hero + situation should = goal; unless villian causes it to = disaster.