I recently finished writing my next book, The Dragonfly Delivery Company. It’s a sequel, which is not something I’ve ever written before. Sure, I’ve had ideas for trilogies and series in the past, but I’ve never actually written one, which made writing The Dragonfly Delivery Company something of a unique experience. As such there are a number of things I’ve learnt along the way that I think you might find of interest.
Sequels Are Easier
Now you might think having to write a story as good or better than the first would put a lot of pressure on you as a writer, and whilst I can see that being true, it wasn’t something I experienced. Quite the opposite in fact.
Writing book two was easier because everything was so familiar. I knew the characters, the landscape, the type of story I wanted to tell. I had fewer decisions to make on style and substance because I’d made them all before. It was more like visiting an old friend than it was meeting someone new, and that was a lovely position to be in.
Fractured Timelines Work
I grew up with chapters being like scenes in a play. You arrive somewhere, you watch what happens, and you depart. But more and more I’m finding that treating my book more like a movie than a play works best for me.
It’s perfectly acceptable to leap from one scene to the next and back again, doling out little bits of information along the way. It’s preferable even, as it allows you to keep the whole thing fresh and interesting. It also stops you getting bogged down in unnecessary fluff and waffle, which brings me to…
It’s Okay To Just Stop
I am cursed with the need to wrap up each section of my writing. To put in a sentence or paragraph at the end that ties everything up with a neat little bow. But guess what, you don’t have to do that! If you’ve said what you needed to say you can just… stop.
Once you’ve got across the necessary information it’s perfectly fine to move on to the next bit. You don’t have to explain everything away, to make everything all nice and neat. Life isn’t nice and neat, so why should your writing be.
Don’t patronise your audience by treating them like children. They get what’s going on. You don’t have to explain it all. Plus, a little ambiguity goes a long way. Nothing make a reader want to move on more than mild uncertainty about what just happened.
I Am An Under-Writer
Book two has ended up sixty-three thousand words long. This is much less than the one hundred and three thousand words of book one. I’m not too worried about this because, unlike most writers, I’ve realised that I am an under-writer. I add words later to make my stories good, not take them away.
I can’t tell you how freeing this revelation has been. It has allowed me to be the writer I am, instead of the writer I thought I should be. I no longer worry about my work being boring, because I know I’ll fix it later. This has allowed me to finish my first draft in just nine months, instead of the usual God knows how long.
Yes it means more work further down the line, but that’s fine. At least I have a first draft to be getting on with. And whether you’re adding words or taking them away, all good books are made in the edit anyway.
I hope you’ve found these realisations of interest. Normally I would write a nice wrap up paragraph here to conclude this post, but because of my third point above, and in recognition of the fact that I’ve said what needed to be said, I’m going to just stop instead.
The thing with being a self published author is it can feel like the success of your book rests entirely in your own hands. You write, edit, format, design, market, and publicise all by your lonesome, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that any sales, or lack thereof, are a result of you and you alone. This is not true, and I’ll tell you why.
I’ve been reading Derren Brown’s book Happy recently. In it he talks about the ‘lost’ art of Stoicism.
At its most basic stoic philosophy is about recognising that there are two things in this world; that which we can control and that which we can’t, and how the things we can’t control aren’t worth worrying about so why bother (although most of us inevitably do which is where a lot of our daily frustration comes from).
But it goes even deeper than that. The things we can control can be divided into two things as well; what we think and what we do. So when you get right down to it all any of us has any real control over are what goes on in our own heads, and what we do about it.
NB: I know it may seem like we have no control over our thoughts sometimes, that they just bubble up unbidden from our subconscious, but we do have control over how much attention we give them when they do appear. We can either feed them, keeping them alive, or we can ignore them, allowing them to rise and fall like miscellaneous waves on the ocean of our mind.
So what’s all this got to do with writing you ask? Simple.
You can put all the effort you like into creating something. You can dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s. You can make it look as beautiful as it’s possible for it to be, truly breath-taking to behold. You can shout about it from the rooftops, extolling its virtues until the whole world has heard of your work. But once you send it out into the world that’s it, its success is no longer in your hands. People will either buy it or they won’t, and if it’s just not their kind of thing there’s absolutely nothing you can do about that.
Now I know some of you may disagree with me about this. I know some of you will still believe that if you just try hard enough success is guaranteed, and that’s fine. There’s nothing I can do about what goes on inside your head, which I’m afraid is exactly the point. Because just as I can do nothing about what goes on inside your head, so you can do nothing about what goes on inside someone else’s (no matter what the Big Bumper Book of Marketing tells you).
It is fair to say that if you don’t put the effort in you won’t get anything back in return. The sales of most self published novels die due to neglect more than anything else. But if you do the best you can, if you put your best foot forward, if you give the people every opportunity to engage with you and your work and still your sales are fair to mediocre, so be it. It is what it is.
Simply put, there are so many factors outside of your control within this whole process that to suggest the end result is entirely in your hands is absolutely ludicrous.
Three types of writing? What on earth are you on about, Keith. Surely there are more than that. Hell, I can think of half a dozen genres off the top of my head. How can there be just three? Have you gone you crazy or something!
Okay, this is going to get a little fuzzy, because what I’m going to talk about doesn’t have any defined terms. This is just something I’ve come up with to help me understand what I’m doing with my writing as I’m doing it. It’s not a steadfast rule, and like all rules sometimes it has to be broken, but it goes a long way to help make my writing easier to read and hence more enjoyable.
Let me explain…
1. What is that? (Non-Action)
I have noticed, whilst reading some of my favourite authors, that the ones whose work is easiest to read have a trick they do whereby they are very specific about what they are trying to achieve. If they are describing something – a building, a person, a piece of history – they will often stop telling their story to describe that one thing, before then carrying on with their story again.
Now you can intermingle your descriptions in with your story, and often will have to for clarity, but if you have something big that you want to set solidly in the reader’s mind, just describing that one thing is the way to go.
John had always liked Chard Manor, even if it did creep him out a little. He liked the higgledy-piggledy nature of the place. Years of revamps and renovations had turned a once average country house into a haphazardly stacked pile of architecture, held together by a ridiculous amount of pipework. A convoluted web of copper crawled all over the house, like out of control metal ivy, delivering the glory of steam to every room in the place. It was this that John didn’t like. Not the piping as such, but the way it would vent unexpectedly, hissing water vapour from every orifice in one big disgruntled sigh. It gave the impression not only that the building was alive, but that it was rather annoyed about the fact, too.
The local kids used to climb the walls of the estate to get a look at ‘Mr Chard’s Steam Castle’. Convinced it was haunted, they would dare each other to go and tap three times on the brickwork to see if they could wake the demons within. Few would, of course. Why risk being dragged to hell when you had your whole life ahead of you? But for those with guts enough to go for it, a lifetime of bragging rights awaited, and many an argument had been settled with the words, ‘Yeah? Well I tapped the castle when I were a kid. Has you?’ before now.
See how nothing changes in the story, but you now have a clear idea of what the manor looks like and what is feels like to be there. By doing this I never had to describe the manor again. I gave the reader a simple, solid description for them to hang their hat on, and then moved on to other, more exciting things.
NB: This is where most of your world building will happen.
2. What’s going on? (Passive Action)
Yes, I know “passive action” is a bit of a contradiction, but hear me out. It’s not the action that is passive but rather the main character.
When something is happening that maybe isn’t all that interesting, but which has to happen for the story to work, or if something is happening out of view from my main character, and hence it’s not something they have any control over, that to me is passive action. It’s not something you want to use a lot of, because passive story telling is not the most satisfying, but it has its uses.
NB: It’s also useful if you need to say a lot in a short space of time, giving an overview of what’s happening without doing too much of a deep dive.
Again, here’s an example:
Outside, John checked his watch. He had time to swing by Gravesend Bridge on the way to the airship factory. He wanted another look at the scene of the crime, to see if there was anything he’d missed. He wasn’t expecting to discover a hidden suicide note or anything like that, but he hadn’t been all that thorough the first time he was there so who could say what he might find. He would go by the bridge, go pick up Dexter, drop him off at home, then go have a word with Spencer Shelby the Third. He lived not far from Chard Manor. It was about time he answered a few questions. Arrogance and ignorance only bought you so much leeway. It was time to turn the screws a bit.
With his collar turned up and his coat pulled tight around him, John headed through the fog towards Gravesend Bridge.
Over the road from the Scion Club, two men stepped from the shadows of a shop doorway. After a brief yet animated discussion – involving lots of agitated hand gestures and some obvious protestations – one of the men was dispatched at a jog down a side street, whilst the other sauntered off up the road after John.
You know John is being followed, but you don’t yet know by whom or why. In this instance, passive action is being used as foreshadowing for what’s about to come next.
3. What are they up to? (Active Action)
This is likely going to make up the bulk of your story. This is where your main character is doing whatever it is they do to make the story happen. It is action, but it is also dialogue. It is any time your main character is doing something to change the world around them, rather than the world around them changing of its own accord.
This is the most satisfying for people to read, which is why it’s where you want to spend most of your time as a writer. It’s where things are ‘happening’, not where they ‘happened’. It’s exciting, and fun, and interesting, and if done well it’s the reason your readers will describe your book as unputdownable.
For the sake of clarity I’m going to give you two examples of this. They may seem different, but they affect the reader experience in the same way.
The man spotted John staring. He looked around, trying to work out what he was staring at, until he realised it was him. Crushing out his cigarette the man made a show of standing and stretching, giving John one last look before wandering off down the road, his hands in his pockets, his pace leisurely. He whistled to himself as he walked, kicking at the pavement as he tried to appear as nonchalant as possible.
John crossed the road. Passing the omnibus stop he followed the man, taking his time so as not to spook him, but still walking fast enough to start gaining ground. The man looked over his shoulder. He saw John and sped up. John sped up, the man sped up – both still walking, but only just. They looked like two men trying to maintain their dignity as they rushed to catch the last train home.
The road ran alongside a six-foot high brick wall that belonged to the house opposite Chard Manor. It ended at a corner a hundred yards up the road. Reaching the corner the man cut right, disappearing from view. John jogged to catch up, but when he turned the corner the man was already well away, hurtling full pelt down the road, arms and legs pumping hard.
John gave chase.
Notice how that one needed a little bit of description at the start of the third paragraph to give it some extra clarity. The scene occurs within an area that is already established in the reader’s mind, but as it moves elsewhere I had to throw in extra description to keep it going, with some actual Non Action in the ensuing paragraphs when it moves somewhere completely new.
This second one may be a lot of standing around talking, but I class it as Action because it changes the story, advancing the plot (whilst also giving is a greater sense of who these two characters are).
“You see! I told you that man wasn’t to be trusted. And now we have proof. So, when do we get him? When do we go to the police?”
“Whoa. Hold your horses. We haven’t got anything yet. We’re going to need a lot more evidence before we can go to the police.”
“Oh for heaven’s sake! So what now then? What do you want to do?”
“I want to go talk to Peter Chard, tell him what we know. Y’know, shake the tree a little, see what falls out.”
Dexter looked at him funny. “Are you sure that’s such a good idea?”
“Well, you’re not the biggest guy in the world. I’m not sure you could take him.”
“What do you mean? I… I’m not going to strong-arm him or anything. I’m going to talk to the man, to rattle his cage, see if he lets something slip. Shake the tree is just an expression.”
“Oh. I see,” said Dexter. If mechanical cats could blush Dexter would have been a beetroot. “Well… as long as we get him I don’t care how we do it. I just hope you’re up to the job is all.”
But why have these definitions in the first place?
Simple. When it comes to writing, or at least when it comes to my writing, clarity is key. The easier a story is to read the better. Note that I’m not saying the subject matter needs to be easy, you can have as in depth or as complex a storyline as you like, but the act of getting that story across should be as simple as a meerkat.
When I’m writing anything I try to know what each paragraph/section is doing, and then I only do that thing. If I need a lot of description I just describe. If I need to get some information across I just do that. If I’m telling the story, which is most of the time, I try to only do that (although there are, as always, exceptions to the rule).
To give you an idea of why this kind of separation is important, here’s a deliberately mixed up piece of writing, along with how it should read.
Down a dank corridor, sparsely lit by guttering gas lamps, they came across the police morgue.
The morgue was a large room, with small, high windows at street level to let in the light, and terracotta tiles on the walls and floor because they were easy to mop clean.
If John thought the smell in the corridor was bad he was unprepared for the morgue itself. It hit him as he pushed open the swing door, an unpleasant cloud of odour that shot right up his nose and parked itself so deep in his sinuses he could smell it in his brain.
Detective Hardigan tried not to smile but she was enjoying herself too much. “Bracing, isn’t it?”
Four large wooden benches stained with blood sat in each corner, and all of them were currently occupied. Thankfully each bench’s occupant was covered with a white sheet. John didn’t think he could handle it if they weren’t. As it was, there was an arm dangling down from the bench to his right, which was more than enough dead for him to deal with right now, thank you very much.
John tried covering his nose and mouth with his sleeve but it was no use, the stench was already in there. “I’ll say.”
“Don’t worry, you get used to it after a while.”
John doubted that very much, but what choice did he have? As soon as he felt something move past his leg he let go of the morgue door and dove right on in.
Down a dank corridor, sparsely lit by guttering gas lamps, they came across the police morgue.
If John thought the smell in the corridor was bad he was unprepared for the morgue itself. It hit him as he pushed open the swing door, an unpleasant cloud of odour that shot right up his nose and parked itself so deep in his sinuses he could smell it in his brain. He tried covering his nose and mouth with his sleeve but it was no use, the stench was already in there.
Detective Hardigan tried not to smile but she was enjoying herself too much. “Bracing, isn’t it?”
“Don’t worry, you get used to it after a while.”
John doubted that very much, but what choice did he have? As soon as he felt something move past his leg he let go of the morgue door and dove right on in.
The morgue was a large room, with small, high windows at street level to let in the light, and terracotta tiles on the walls and floor because they were easy to mop clean. Four large wooden benches stained with blood sat in each corner, and all of them were currently occupied. Thankfully each bench’s occupant was covered with a white sheet. John didn’t think he could handle it if they weren’t. As it was, there was an arm dangling down from the bench to his right, which was more than enough dead for him to deal with right now, thank you very much.
See how much less satisfying the first one is compared to the second. I mean it’s fine, it has all the same information presented in roughly the same order, but the flow is all wrong. It feels clunky and unfocused. The description doesn’t give a solid, single image for the reader to enjoy, and the character interaction has lost some of its charm. It leaps around too much, with a clumsy transition from corridor to morgue. In short, it lacks clarity.
So what does this all mean?
For me, understanding what each paragraph is doing makes my life a whole lot simpler. Not only does it make my story easier to read, but when it comes time to edit my story I can move paragraphs around without fear, knowing full well that moving a piece of description, or some Passive Action, to somewhere else in the book won’t affect the story. Or I can rewrite parts entirely, coming at it from a different angle (as I did with the Chard Manor description), again knowing that my main storyline will remain intact.
And, as I’ve said many times already, if you are clear in your mind about what you are doing, your reader will be clear in their mind about what is going on, which can only lead to a more pleasurable reading experience all round.
It also allows you to mess with their expectations, slipping in important information without them realising, but that is a topic for another post altogether.
I’ve been trying to think of percentages, of how much I do each of these things. Now, I’m not about to go through an entire novel to check, but for the most part I reckon you’re looking at roughly 5, 10, 85. That’s 5% just description, 10% passive storytelling (side action & world building), and 85% actual story.
These are not hard and fast amounts, and much of the active storytelling will contain elements of the other two, but as a general rule that’s the mix of styles I go for.
I was about to start this post with “Sadly, these days, it’s not enough for an author to write an awesome book to become successful, you have to be an awesome self promoter as well,” but then I realised that self promotion and writing have always gone hand in hand.
One of the reasons Charles Dickens became so famous was his flair for self promotion. He would go on tours and do stage readings, both here and in America, his novels would be serialised in newspapers and magazines, and he was all about the author branding in everything that he did (ever heard the term ‘Dickensian’ before?)
I’m not a big fan of the self promotion side of things, it does not come naturally to me, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s there, and it needs to be dealt with. Luckily, I have a variety of skills, an array of half remembered techniques that I can draw upon to make things that will (hopefully) get people’s attention.
Here are just a few of the things I’ve done, along with a few others I have in the works. Maybe they will inspire you to a few ideas of your own.
An author needs their own website, and they need to be on social media.
Now, before everyone gets up in arms about that statement, let me explain. You don’t need a massive social media following to be a successful author. You don’t need any kind of social media presence at all in fact. BUT, if you’re going to promote yourself you damn sure need a platform on which to put all that self promotion, and in general social media is the place to do it.
I have a website (this one), Twitter, and Instagram, the three of which I use on a regular basis. I also have a Facebook account, but its sole purpose is to funnel people to my other accounts. I don’t use Facebook, and I’m not about to start now, but it’s where people go to find people, so you need to have some kind of presence there.
Concentrate on the sites you will actually use, and then do them well. Engage, interact, make friends and gather followers. Be genuine and honest, and don’t make it all about you. It’s called “social” media after all.
The only people who can afford to ignore social media are the already rich and famous, and that’s because their marketing departments do it all for them. They may not be into social media, but you can be damn sure their brand manager is.
Except, of course, most of them are on social media. Do you think Neil Gaiman tweets because he needs the sales? No. But he does it anyway, because he likes to share, and he enjoys engaging with the fans. He just happens to take the time to promote his work while he’s there too, no doubt leading to more book sales along the way.
A tweet saying “Buy my Book!” with a link will get you zero sales, pretty much. Why should I buy your book? What’s in it for me? What is it even about?
I made some promotional images when my book came out, with a few different quotes that I thought would appeal to different readers in different ways. Whenever I promote my book I try and use one of them to give people a taste of what they might find inside, and to get them hooked, if possible, on wanting to read more.
These were originally a teaser campaign, but I repurposed them as general promotional items.
Anything you can do to make yourself stand out, to differentiate yourself from everybody else, can only work in your favour.
People Will Always Take Two Minutes To Watch A Video
There’s a reason Tik Tok is doing so well. People will watch and share a short video much more readily than they will a piece of text. The same goes from images. They’ll share a picture (like the ones above) before they’ll share just the words by themselves. It’s annoying, but that’s the way it is.
Due to the pandemic, the launch of my debut novel had to be a lot more virtual than I would have like. Thankfully, I had a few video editing skills that I could fall back on to at least make something memorable to mark the occasion.
I made those two videos for the Asylum (Sanctuary) Steampunk Festival, who very graciously agreed to allow my book launch to be part of their festival. I used my little pocket-sized digital camera that also records video, I recorded the audio on my phone using the headset mic I got free with my Playstation 4, and I edited it on a free piece of software called OpenShot, with images and audio I got from royalty free websites and and the Youtube audio library (since that was where it would be hosted).
You don’t have to spend a lot of money to make a decent video, you just have to know what you want, then come up with a way to get it. The more you do it the better you’ll become. Just practise and see what happens. You can always change it again if it doesn’t look how you want it to.
My launch video took three days to shoot because the fireworks looked pathetic. I had to reshoot a bunch of stuff around me setting them off, then insert all the library footage, then record extra audio to fill in the gaps I had in the footage I had shot. NB: My top tip for making good video is have good audio! Seriously, people will watch a blank screen if the audio is good (radio plays), but if they can’t hear what people are saying they’ll tune out fairly quickly and go watch something else. Good audio is like spell checking your novel, no one will notice if you get it right, but if you mess it up they’ll lose interest faster than you can say, “How many l’s are there in parallellolellolellogram?”
Also, your videos don’t have to be one shot, single use, promotional items either. I’ve posted these on my own Youtube channel as a sort of video archive. Maybe they’ll catch someone’s attention, and maybe they won’t. Who knows. It cost me nothing to put them up there, so why not find out.
Think Outside The Box
You’re swiping through Tik Tok, and it’s all talking head after talking head after talking head. Then someone appears on screen in a full skull make-up and you pause, wondering what’s going on? At that point the make-up has done its job.
Anything you can do to make yourself stand out from the crowd is a good thing. Anything you can do to build on your brand, and pull in more potential readers, also good.
At the time of writing this post I’m working on a few things that aren’t novels, but will hopefully expand the world of Dexter & Sinister beyond the page to a wider audience.
I’m looking into doing a video version of Dexter vs. Mr Nibbles, as a precursor to possibly doing the whole book as a series of ten minute videos on Youtube (something which my friend Matt has started doing to great effect). I also might turn the audio into an audio book, but that’s something I have yet to delve into seriously.
I’ve started work as well on a board game, the details of which I can’t go into yet. It’d be steampunk themed, and set (as much possible) in the world of Hammersmyth, expanding its “universe” a little and hopefully drawing in fans who might not have tried the books otherwise.
Like I said before, anything you can do to make your creation larger and more inviting, the better.
Do What you Gotta Do
Really, there are no rules about all this. You should do whatever you can to get eyeballs on your work. I’ve been featured on people’s blogs, done giveaways, been a guest speaker on podcasts and online events. I tweet, I put up photos, and I write blog posts like this, all to make connections with people.
And I do my newsletter, which to me is the most valuable tool of all. Not only does it all me to connect with people, giving them an insight into my personal life, but it also makes me do more writing, because if I don’t write, I don’t have anything to write about at the end of the month (which for an author would be a pretty poor show, let me tell you).
Do what you gotta do. Get out there. Get seen. Make connections, make friends, make progress in your work. And don’t worry about whether you are where you think you “need” to be. All such goals are an illusion. So long as you have more in the artistic bank tomorrow than you had yesterday, then you’re doing alright as far as I’m concerned.
I’m not a writing expert, but I have been at it since I was eight years old, I study the art of writing constantly, I’ve completed three novels (one published), and I’ve tried more ways to plan and write than you can shake a stick at, so I flatter myself that I know a thing or two about it.
I want to tell you about some of the things that work for me, how I go about planning a book, my own personal dos and don’ts. This won’t be a post about structure, development, editing, or where to get your ideas. This is about finishing what you start, and about making it interesting the whole way through.
It’s also highly personal to me, so if you disagree with any of it, or you’ve heard contradicting advice somewhere else, so be it. I can’t help you with that.
I Am What I Am
You hear a lot about Plotters and Pantsers, Gardeners and Architects, those who plan out their work versus those who just wing it. Within these very narrow definitions I am, what you would call, a Plotter.
NB: I actually don’t think anyone is either one or the other. I doubt there’s a single Pantser who doesn’t plot a little, even in their head. And I think that most Plotters, when a truly interesting possibility bubbles up during the writing process, are willing to investigate that possibility, even if it means restructuring their plot just a little.
But anyway, as a Plotter, I need details before I can start writing, which brings me to…
When Is It?
I’ve discovered, over the years, that I need to know what time of year it is. Seriously, until I know what the weather is like (Warm? Mild? Blowing a gale!), and what time it gets dark (Dark by 6pm? Light until 10pm?), I’m not happy.
Knowing what time of years it is informs so much for me. From what my characters are wearing, to how much time they have in the day to do a given thing. I hate those moments when characters do something impossible because it has to happen for the story to work, like teleporting around the map as if their destination isn’t three days ride away. It takes me right out of whatever I’m reading. Making sure a book’s timeline is grounded in reality is extremely important as far as I’m concerned.
Which bring me to my next point…
Make A Timeline
I’ve tried putting Post-It notes on the walls. I’ve tried writing and re-writing outlines from beginning to end. I’ve even tried detailed longhand descriptions for each chapter. But you know what works best for me? A proper timeline.
If I don’t have a timeline when I start a book, you can be damn sure I’ll have one by the end, which is why these days I’ll always start out with one. Knowing where people are, when, and how long it will take them to get where they’re going just works for me. I need to know my storyline is at least plausible, so that I can better sell it to the reader along the way. The more I am convinced, the more I can convince them
For example, in the book I’m writing now, The Dragonfly Delivery Company, I had to decide on an average airship speed, so that I could work out how long it takes the crew of the Dragonfly to fly from Hammersmyth, to Iron Bridge, to Helvellyn, to the very tip of Scotland. It’s not something I’m ever going to share with the audience, it’s just something I needed to know, for my own sake.
Timelines are especially handy when it comes to writing crime stories, to help you keep track of who was where, when, and how much they know at any one time. A murder mystery might be a “closed” story, in that the reader doesn’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, but the writer needs to know (especially when the investigation impacts on the crimes being committed, as it does in Dexter & Sinister).
I do an A4 sheet for each day, with the time down one side, and columns for each thread I want to include. I usually do three threads – the Investigation (Main), the Crime (Secondary), and Other – listing all the moments I want to show and when they might occur. I then draw arrows from one to the next, showing in which order I want those moments to happen.
I’ve basically taken a leaf out of Terry Pratchett’s book in doing this. He writes multiple threads, switching between them as he sees fit, arriving when the story gets interesting, then jumping to the next one when the story gets dull. It’s a great way to keep your reader, and yourself, engaged, being a very cinematic approach to storytelling (editing between scenes to keep things interesting).
It also helps cut out the boring stuff in between, the three day rides from one place to another where nothing happens; which brings me to…
I try and make everything happen in as little time as possible. If it can all happen in the same day, great. If it takes two days, so be it. If it takes a week there needs to be a damn good reason for that.
I know this may sound contradictory, considering what I talked about above regarding realistic timings, but it’s not. It’s more about having your characters turn up at someone’s house at midnight, instead of waiting until the next morning to be polite. It’s about injecting a sense of urgency and progress, about keeping the story moving no matter what, because letting things linger is the death of a good story as far as I’m concerned.
And no, I’m not talking about sticking some artificial ‘ticking clock’ in there, as you so often see in the movies these days. I’m saying that if your main characters don’t care enough to put in a little effort, then why should anyone else?
Story waffle is a particular bugbear of mine, which brings me to…
Too Much Description
One of the things I love about steampunk is the aesthetic. I love how beautiful everything looks, the outfits people wear, and the ancient equivalents of modern inventions that you get.
(To prove my point, here’s me in a hat and goggles.)
What I hate is when you read a story and the author stops everything to tell you in great detail what someone is wearing. Hat, gloves, waistcoat, jacket, pince-nez, cane, engraved pocket-watch, these are all things I don’t need to know about, especially if they’re not relevant to the story.
Now I know I may be in the minority here, but too much description kills a story for me. Not only does it stop the reader from using their own imagination, but it slows everything down to a crawl whilst the author burdens you with all the pretty/clever things they have in their head. I once read an entire paragraph on the history of a sofa that I knew would never feature in the story again. I mean, why?
Of course, if you have a major character, or what they are wearing is of great importance, then by all means describe them, but no more than you have to and not all at once. It’s Info Dumping, as far as I’m concerned, one of the cardinal sins of writing. I’ve no time for it, and neither does your reader.
NB: A timeline is a great way to avoid info dumps (burdening your reader with too information all at once, especially at the beginning of a story). If you know that you are coming back to a character or location later in the story, for an extended period, you can move that bit of exposition until then, leaving you free to get on with whatever it is your main character is meant to be doing right now. This to me is one of the main benefits of a timeline. It removes the need to say too much up front, because you know it’ll get said later on.
As an author, you don’t need to tell your reader everything. They’re generally pretty smart, and can fill in the gaps. Give them broad strokes and move on. As long as they know who someone is, they don’t need to know the intricate history of every little thing they are wearing.
But of course, just to contradict myself…
I like to describe writing a book as being like baking a cake, except that you throw in all the ingredients you have, then slowly take them out until you figure out what kind of cake you were making in the first place.
When I do a first draft I try not to self edit. I throw in everything I can think of, knowing full well that I can take it out later on. And yes, sometimes that does include unnecessary description and detail.
Quite often I’ll write something knowing full well it’ll get deleted at some point. To me it’s the same as needing to know how fast an airship flies. I need to write it for me, to get it out of my head. But I also have no compunction about getting rid of it when the time comes. Some description enhances a story, and some of it enhances a story by not being there anymore. It is the way.
I can go nuts when I’m writing because I have a timeline. Oddly enough, having a framework gives me something to explore within. If I was just making it all up off the top of my head I could end up anywhere, and indeed often have.
I once deleted three whole chapters of my second book because it had wandered too far from where I wanted it to go. I didn’t have a proper timeline then, although I did by the time it came to do the edit. Like I say, I always end up with a timeline, it’s just these days the timeline comes first.
Having a timeline doesn’t just help you understand What you should be writing, it helps you understand Why you are writing it. Or, more to the point, it gives each part of your book…
This is something I have stolen from screenwriting.
In a movie there’s no time to mess about. You can’t just have a scene do one thing. I scene should do two, or even three things, in order to be successful. It should provide us with either information we need, tell us something about the characters, or advance the plot in one way or another. And in an ideal world it would do all three.
Watch this scene from Apollo 13.
In that one scene we learn about what’s going to happen in the movie (or rather, what’s meant to happen – landing on the moon). We learn about what kind of a man Tom Hanks’s character is. We learn about his family life, what a good father he is, how he cares for those around him. We also learn about how dangerous going to outer space can be, that you could lose your life doing it, but also that he is confident that everyone at Nasa will do their best to make sure that doesn’t happen (Notice how he says “We fixed it”, not “They fixed it”, like they’re all in this together.)
We get all of that in one two minute scene. It’s masterful, and a great lesson in making sure that every scene you have in your writing serves a purpose.
I’ve cut entire characters before now, because they did nothing to effect the plot. I’ve cut out whole sections of story to visit locations once, rather than twice, to save time. The more you can do to tell your story as efficiently as possible, the better.
Word counts are for #nanowrimo. Tell your story as efficiently as possible and then walk away.
With that in mind, a final word on two things that many writers seem to obsess over…
Adverbs, And ‘Show Don’t Tell’
First of all, let me say up front that I hate the advice, “Show, don’t tell.” It drives me up the wall, because whilst it can be helpful at times, it can also turn your writing into a waffley mess.
The big quote is, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Now, this is all well and good, but sometimes you can get all twisted up trying to be clever, and that doesn’t help anybody.
I once had an editor try and get me to describe the action of sighing, instead of just saying, “he sighed.” It was cumbersome and unnecessary, and I chose not to work with that editor.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for making things interesting. But if all that’s needed is the line, “It was a ratty old sofa held together by an array of rusty nails and hope,” don’t waste my time telling me about all the backsides it has entertained over the years.
And as for adverbs, they get a lot of hate in the writing community; unjustly so in my opinion.
Adverbs have their place. Yes, you’re probably better off not using one, they can get a bit cumbersome at times, but if they do the job then why not have one. They exist for a reason after all.
In the example mentioned previously, “he sighed heavily” was used, which the editor wanted me to change to something like”he sighed, his head falling, his shoulders slumped with the weight of the world.”
Now that’s all well and good, but imagine a story full of that, paragraph after paragraph of flowery description, the literary equivalent of wading through mud. It just doesn’t work for me. A little, yes. A lot, no. Which is why, if I want to put an adverb in, I will. (Although, that is very much a first draft thing for me.)
I will always look to remove as many adverbs as I can when editing. They aren’t as necessary as you might think. But if they do the job, or if taking them out would make the writing demonstrably worse, then in they stay.
Never throw a tool out of your toolbox. They all have their uses.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this, this is how I write. It won’t be for everyone, and some people will no doubt disagree with some, if not all, of what I’ve said.
If you take something away from all this then fantastic. If not, then I hope you at least found it of interest. There are many ways to climb the mountain that is writing a book, some more perilous than others. This is the way that works for me, and who knows, maybe it’ll work for you too.
They say you should never judge a book by its cover. You know why they say that? Because everybody does it. That’s why getting your cover right is so important. Without a good cover people may never pick up you book. And if they don’t pick up your book, how will they discover the many delights that lay within.
Some writers relish the idea of working on a cover for their book. Hell, some writers will start designing a book’s cover before they’ve even started writing the book itself. Others though will approach the prospect with a little more trepidation. There’s a lot goes into designing a book cover, and it can be a daunting task if you’ve never done it before.
What follows is a rough overview of how I ended up with the design for my debut novel, Dexter & Sinister: Detecting Agents. I’ll tell you what I did, describe what it was like working with a designer, give you hints and tips, and hopefully demystify the process a little bit, so that even those with no design experience can get a handle on what to expect.
As with pretty much everything else in life, it all starts with…
There’s a certain amount of expectation in book cover design. The cover for a thriller looks different to the cover for a romance novel which looks different to the cover for a YA coming-of-age story.
Whichever genre you are writing in you need to know what people expect. I’m not saying you have to adhere to the norms, but you need to know what those norms are before you can subvert them.
For Dexter & Sinister I found two main threads in the steampunk novels that I looked at; fantastical machinery, and a hint of gritty dystopia. Not always both (or indeed, either) and not always to any extreme, but more often than not.
I also looked beyond the genre. I looked at fantasy and crime and comics, anything that contained the same type of story I was telling. If I thought my potential readers might be interested in it, I gave it a look.
I went into bookshops and photographed covers that stood out to me. I tried to work out why they stood out? What made them work? Why did I like them? I looked for common themes, themes that I could incorporate into my own cover design. In short, I thought about it A LOT.
And what monumental conclusions did I come to? I like the colour red because of how it draws the eye, and I needed a character on the cover. Abstract wasn’t going to work for me. I needed for people to know what they were getting from the very beginning.
I also needed a cover that was instantly recognisable as a Hammersmyth novel, one that stood out at a distance. I was going to be selling a lot of books at conventions, so I needed something that would draw people in from ten feet away.
And I needed a layout that was repeatable. This was the first in a series, so I needed a layout that could work for multiple stories.
Clearly there was a lot going on in my head by the end of all this, so for clarity I decide to create a…
Simply put, a brief is you telling your designer exactly what you want, and when it comes to writing briefs, clarity is your friend. Be clear, be concise, and don’t hold anything back. The person you are sending the brief to is coming at this fresh, with no preconceptions, so the more precise you can be in your brief the better.
Now that’s great if you know what you want, but what if you don’t? I am fortunate enough to have a bit of a design background, so I was able to sketch out my ideas first. That gave me a head start in knowing what would and wouldn’t work for me.
But if that’s not you don’t worry about it. You’re not expected to know about design. You’re a writer. So instead, focus on what you want to achieve.
Here is the original brief that I wrote. Note how I discuss the type of reader I hope to attract, and that I need it to work as a series. I know that I also mentioned in my e-mail the fact that I needed it to be eye-catching at a distance, for conventions. This sounds like something that might be obvious, but again, assume nothing!
Notice how the cover described in the brief differs to the one at the start of the article. We’ll get into that later.
Once I had a brief I needed to find a…
Unless you really know what you are doing, you need a cover designer. People can spot a poorly designed cover a mile away, and if the cover looks disorganised and slap-dash they’re going to assume what’s inside is disorganised and slap-dash as well.
That’s not to say you have to spend a lot of money. There are a lot of cheap options out there. But making your own cover to save yourself £20-30 isn’t doing anyone any favours (and yes, if you go on Fiverr.com you can get a cover done for that much).
I knew I would need an original illustration for my book cover, since it features one of the characters. I looked on Fiverr for designers, as well as Twitter, Deviant Art, Instagram, all over the place. I even messaged a publisher to ask who had done the design for one of their covers that I liked.
It’s a special kind of frustrating to find an illutsrator you like only to discover they are not open to commission, but then I was fortunate enough to come across Jasmin Garcia-Verdin, a very talented artist who was doing the kind of thing I was after and was available.
After agreeing terms and a fee, I sent Jasmin the brief, along with a ridiculous amount on supporting material. I’m talking design sketches, cat photos, maps, anything I thought might help. As previously stated, when it comes to getting your ideas across, clarity is key.
Jasmin then took my brief, came up with some initial designs, and together we started…
Developing The Idea
Based off my initial brief, Jasmin came up with this.
You may think you know what you want, but that’s like saying you know how your story is going to end. Ultimately it’s best to keep an open mind, especially when working with someone else.
Two things leap out at me looking at these initial designs. First, that designs A and B, which fit my original brief, weren’t as good as design C, the wraparound cover suggested by Jasmin. And second, that we were going to have to change the colour of Dexter, as he just did not stand out enough against the background.
We then had a period of back and forth where we discussed changes, I sent further supporting material – pictures of ships, block and tackle rigs, lop-sided celebrity grins, even more cats – until eventually we agreed upon this as the final design.
Note the airship with the number in it. That was Jasmin’s idea. An illustration to use as chapter headings, which I was very much on board with.
At this point I’d like to underline the need for you, as the client, to be decisive. It’s not for your designer to tell you what you want (and if they try, then by all means tell them to get stuffed). It’s the designer’s job to offer up possibilities, and the client’s job to consider those possibilities and either go with them, or turn them down. Be polite, be respectful, but if something doesn’t work for you then say so and move on. No one’s feelings will get hurt, this is all part of the process, and it’s a part that your designer will be all too familiar with. At the end of the day it’s your cover, so you need to get it how you want.
I’m quite visual in my thinking sometimes, so I couldn’t resist taking her design and adding a little text, so I could get my head around what the final thing would look like.
Once the design was finalised we then went into…
From the author’s point of view, this is the easy part. Just sit back and wait for it to be done, right? Wrong.
Whilst the general direction has been agreed, there are still going to be a number of decision that have to be made along the way to help keep things on track.
For me, these decisions came in two parts. First, because Jasmin was also doing the layout for my cover as well as the illustration, we had to discuss text placement and title design. And second, because I was self-publishing, we had to figure out how to make it work on Kindle Direct Publishing (aka Amazon).
As you can see, my first upload test into the KDP cover creator (I had to use the cover creator because the manuscript was still being edited – which is a whole other thing I need to go into) did not go well.
Now, I wish I could tell you why this was, but I can’t. We thought we’d done everything right, but KDP can be a law unto itself sometimes. You can do everything right and still get it wrong.
Thankfully it was something that we could fix simply by zooming in on the image a little bit, losing some of the edges but enlarging Dexter along the way, so swings and roundabouts in the end. It could have been a lot worse.
For most of you, you won’t run into this kind of problem. It’s only because I went with a wraparound cover that I experienced issues with width and height. If you just do the front cover, as long you get the ratio right, it won’t be an issue.
But if your cover is going to bleed over onto the spine or back, you need to get your starting calculations right. And my best advice is for doing that is finish your edit first, because how many pages you end up with is going to affect the width of the spine, and that’s going to affect the entire design.
Once we had the image the right size it was all a question of text placement and title design.
As you can see, we went through a number of iterations, moving the text around, and even changing the colour of the original image, to better make it work with the final title design.
Once again, as the client, decision making is key. You have to know whether something works for you or not, and you must communicate that to your designer. I know that can be awkward for some people, but it’s a necessary part of the process. And if your designer is in any way worth their salt, they will want you to be happy with your final design, so they will welcome clear, honest feedback.
I am lucky in that I know a little about Photoshop and image editing, so rather than just telling Jasmin what I thought was wrong, I could do a little cut and paste (image three above with the clumsily cut out text) and colour correction, to show what I wanted. If this is an option for you I heartily recommend it, but if not don’t worry about it, designers are used to interpreting verbal feedback. So long as you are clear you’ll get there eventually.
After all that, we ended up with our final image.
Job done, right? Nope. Wrong again, because now we had to deal with the joys of…
Uploading To KDP
As I mentioned before, KDP has its own little foibles. Take a look at the image below.
See all those dotted lines. The white one around the edge is the trim line. That’s the part of the image you can expect to lose during the printing process. But it’s not exact, you might lose a bit more, so the red line is the safe area. So long as the text and image you want to keep are within the red lines you should be fine. I say “should” because, you guessed it, there are no guarantees (to quote Dirty Harry, “If you want guarantees, buy a toaster.”)
Getting the text and the title in right right place, in the centre of the front cover, in the centre of the spine, in the centre of the back page, took over two weeks of work and six proof copies. Again, because it was a wrap around cover, changing one thing affected something else, so there was a major amount of tweaking going on.
One of the main problems, and not something they tell you about, is the helpful soul at Amazon who would move the image around to get the title in the centre. Now, whilst that seems like a good idea, it pushed the back page text, the spine text, and Dexter, to the left. And getting it so that didn’t happen took a lot of work.
I mean, we got there in the end, but it involved multiple versions of the cover with the title shifted by increments, to get it right. The final proof arrived the day after launch day, so you can see what a long, drawn-out process it was.
NB: I bought a font to use on the cover. You don’t have to, but I had something very specific in mind, and I wasn’t going to settle for what comes packaged with any design software. It was easy to do and only cost me about £25/$30. You can learn how to install fonts online.
So You’ve Got Your Cover. Now What?
Did you know that you don’t have to settle for the same, boring, flat book cover that everyone else has? With a little effort you can make your cover a bit more eye-catching, and hold people’s attention a little longer. And the longer you can hold their attention, the more likely they are to buy your book.
The two main things I did for mine were a 3D mock up that I could use in advertising, and getting an animation done.
I used a free website called DIY Book Design to do the design above. Pretty neat, huh? What’s great about it is that it gets across the fact that Dexter & Sinister is available as both an e-book and a hard copy without me having to say that, and, because you can also download a transparent version of the mock-up, I was able to use it in advertising as well.
NB: If you’re getting an illustration done for your book cover, make sure you get a clean version which you can use as a background in adverts and the like. It’s extremely useful. I was lucky in that Jasmin very generously provided me with a number of separate elements that I could use not only now, but in the future as reference for any future book designs (like a clean background plate for the title).
I also had an animation done, as I had seen a few of them on Twitter, and they are very eye-catching. Let’s be honest, a moving image will draw people’s attention more than a static one will.
This one was done by Morgan Wright, who was a pleasure to deal with and who is also very affordable indeed. I consider it money well spent. In fact, anything you can do that will allow you to tweet/ blog/talk about your book cover in a slightly different way, is money well spent in my book.
And there you have it. That’s how I went about getting my book cover designed.
It’s not the only way, and it’s not the easiest way, but I had the time, the money, and I wanted to publish Dexter & Sinister like it was the only book I ever will (you could get run over by a bus tomorrow) so I jumped in with both feet.
Don’t fear the process. It seems like a lot, but really it’s just a lot of little decisions that lead you from where you are to where you want to be. If you don’t know something research it, and if you need to ask, ask. No one expects you to know everything, and people are always willing to lend a hand and will give you the benefit of the doubt if your inquiry is humble and earnest.
There is a path to a great cover for everyone, regardless of budget, experience, or time restraints. It might take a little more work on your part, but I guarantee you will end up with something you’re happy with if you just put in the effort.