Thursday, 30 January 2014

Five Rules of Writing

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

These rules are not new. They are not mine. They were put together by science fiction writer Robert Heinlein in 1947 and have been quoted so often they've become infamous in the writing world.

Having a unicorn for a muse, you might have guessed I am not really into rules. I believe every writer has their own way of producing creative work and trying to follow someone else's rules can seriously interfere with that, if not kill it stone dead. But I have time for Heinlein's rules because they aim at the heart of what we do.

Rule 1 is obvious. If you don't write, you will never be a writer. Note Heinlein does not say "you must write every day" or "you must write 2,000 words an hour", or whatever the latest creative writing course tells you to do. These might work for some writers, but will destroy others.

The Unicorn says: Write as much and as often as works for you.

Rule 2 is also obvious. Nobody likes a half finished story. It's difficult, though, because how do you know when your story is finished? If you're anything like me, you'll keep going back to it and tinkering after the last word is written. Or maybe you'll delete half of it and start again. Or maybe, having a deadline for delivery, you're the sort of writer who will send it in anyway, even though it could do with having half of it deleted? Deadlines can encourage you to finish a piece, but if you accept one then you are following another rule - someone else's time limit - which might work for you or might not.

The Unicorn says: Trust your instincts to tell you when a story is finished, not someone else's opinion or an unrealistic deadline.

I've heard Rule 3 has creative writing teachers screaming in horror. But I don't think Heinlein meant "refrain from redrafting" or "refrain from editing your own work". That is all part of finishing a story to your own satisfaction. You might be a first draft writer who plans meticulously beforehand and so only has to do a final proofread when the last word has been written, or you might be someone like me who writes several drafts and lets the story grow organically. But however you work, you'll know when your story is finished. I think Rule 3 really says do not rewrite excessively unless an editor is helping you shape your story for the market once it will definitely be published.

The Unicorn says: Refrain from making changes to your story to please other people (e.g. creative writing teachers, agents or editors who have not given you a contract yet, your friends, your mum, your inner critic) who are really trying to make your story into their story.

Rule 4 only applies if you are seeking publication. In 1947 "on the market" meant sending it to publishers and/or agents in the hope of getting a publishing deal. Today, it might mean putting your story out there for people to read - either on a blog like this one, or as an ebook, or going the whole way and producing a paperback print run yourself. Until you do one of these things, your story will remain unread and unjudged.

The Unicorn says: Don't be scared to send out your work. That's the only way it will ever reach readers.

Rule 5 is a bit redundant today with the ease of self-publishing (see above). But if you are determined to secure a traditional publishing deal, then this can be the toughest one of all. Rejection, for whatever reason, hurts. I sent my first novel SONG QUEST to 16 publishers before it got picked up back in 1999 - I was sending it out to agents too, but an editor picked it off the slush pile first. It took me seven years altogether from writing the first word to seeing it published. I never gave up, but it's not an experience I'd like to repeat.

The Unicorn says: Self publishing is an option now for those who are happy to invest time and money upfront. But publishing deals are still out there. However you decide to publish, remember no rule works for everyone. The important thing is to have fun inventing your own!

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

My Top Ten Borrowed Books 2013

When I was a child most of my reading came from my local library, so I am always excited to see my annual UK library loans. Although libraries are sampled for the purpose of calculating the loan data (which means not all of them are represented each year), I think loan figures are a truer indication of how much people are enjoying a book than sales figures, since when readers borrow a book from a library they do not have to worry about its availability or cover price.

I'm pleased to report that my most popular borrowed title with over 5,000 loans is:

Book 1 of the Pendragon Legacy
The UK loan year runs until June so it's a bit early for libraries to report later books in this series, but I'm delighted to see some of my older books are still popular too. (Muse: maybe this means historical books are like wine... they improve with age?)

My top ten borrowed books of 2013:

1. SWORD OF LIGHT (Pendragon Legacy 1)
2. THE GREAT PYRAMID ROBBERY (Seven Fabulous Wonders)
3. SONG QUEST (Echorium Sequence 1)
4. THE CLEOPATRA CURSE (Seven Fabulous Wonders)
5. THE OLYMPIC CONSPIRACY (Seven Fabulous Wonders)
8. THE MAUSOLEUM MURDER (Seven Fabulous Wonders)
9. LANCE OF TRUTH (Pendragon 2)
10. THE BABYLON GAME (Seven Fabulous Wonders)

Sword of Light, Lance of Truth, and Song Quest are still in print and available to buy new in paperback or hardcover. My other titles are now available as ebooks.

The Unicorn sends glitter to libraries and all who work in them!

Saturday, 11 January 2014

The Unicorn's Best-Selling Formula 2014

January is traditionally a time for taking a step back, reflecting on the year that has passed, and working out what to do in the year ahead. Using some kind of oracle like the Grail Code in my last post can be good for drawing hidden issues from the subconscious and giving general guidelines, and maybe you were inspired to try something similar. But there's nothing like hard data to give you a kick up the backside (or a slap in the face), so this post is going to take a look at the numbers.

Last week, I wrote a post over at the History Girls asking why some blog posts are more popular than others, based on which of my posts had collected the most "hits" over the past year. Of course, as some of the comments pointed out, a "hit" might simply be someone searching for a certain term on Google. So if their search string happens to be in your post title (by accident or design), then it will count as a hit even if the person searching has no intention of reading your post. This is either very clever or very stupid, depending upon what you are trying to achieve. It will bring readers to your blog, but many of them will be the wrong readers, so unlikely to explore further, or buy anything from the site, or come back for more. The equivalent in books is a cheap or free title, which attracts readers outside its genre but might not please all of them.

Then some people might click on your post title thinking it sounds interesting, but quit reading at the third line because they hate history (duh!), or are otherwise finding your post a bit boring. In that case, the title is probably misleading, or just didn't work quite the way you intended. Same applies to book titles - and, as every publisher and author knows, titles are not easy to get right. Finding one for "I am the Great Horse" took several months.

Other people might read your whole post - result! - but not really enjoy it much. The equivalent with a book is a reader who perseveres hoping it is going to get better, but is left disappointed at the end. That's the kind of book that gets 3 star reviews, if it gets any - right kind of book, just not as brilliant as others they have read, and in some way vaguely disappointing.

The perfect "hit" is a reader who clicks on your title, reads the post to the end - maybe twice, and either loves or hates it enough to tell a friend or retweet it to their thousands of Twitter followers. That post will naturally get more hits because of their recommendation, some maybe falling into the categories above if Twitter is used, but others who might be inspired to do same. This is the post or the book that gets promoted around the world by word of mouth, sells in huge numbers, and makes its publisher very happy.

But WAIT just a minute, I hear you say... loves it or hates it? How can something that someone hates count as most popular?!

Well, love is obviously nicer from an author's point of view - but hate is also a strong emotion, and links to blog posts/books/videos that rub people up the wrong way get passed around Twitter, just as often as those everyone loves like these popcorn kittens on YouTube. (Have you found anyone who hates that? I haven't!)

I can see this happening in a small way with my republished backlist titles. In 2013, I am the Great Horse accounted for almost half of my total backlist ebook sales over the year - and I had 12 backlist titles selling that year, most of them priced lower and some of them promoted more often. So what is selling this particular book? I can only think word of mouth - and presumably not always the love kind, since this was the book that ended my relationship with my first publisher in the UK, was not supported by booksellers in its original format, and did not make it into paperback in the US (where it sells the best as an ebook). If you want further proof, it collected a 2-star review on Barnes and Noble shortly after publication criticising it for being unsuitable for young readers because it mentions violence and (very briefly) rape. I understand it's not a very marketable book because it's difficult to shelve, so that might have been the problem. Yet it still sells the best out of my backlist, and collects some great reviews from those readers who discover it. The numbers do not lie.
So here's the unicorn's theory for writing a popular blog or a best-selling book in 2014....

Forget the safe middle ground. Forget trying to please the largest number of readers while avoiding upsetting everyone else. Forget the latest computer analysis of best-selling titles, which claims to predict with 86% accuracy if a book will be a best-seller or a flop. Write something that arouses strong emotions, give it a title that works perfectly for that particular post or book (and if you can squeeze a couple of popular search strings in there, go right ahead). Then put it out there, and let readers do the promotion for you while you try to come up with something even better.

Hmmm... off to get writing!

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Happy New Year!

I have a confession to make. I already wrote this post once, but took it down an hour later since it felt like too much pressure. As you've probably guessed, I've been making my New Year's resolutions and thought it would be a good idea to announce them here... but changed my mind. (If you are one of the four people who read my post before I deleted it, then I hope you didn't laugh too hard.)

However, the unicorn says I should still write a New Year post about making my resolutions, for which I used the Oracle of the Grail Code - this beautiful card set he unearthed with his glittery horn while I was working on my series about King Arthur's daughter.

These cards focus on the female energy of the Grail legends and come with a book that contains simple 'spreads' for answering deep-seated questions. This morning being an auspicious one, I asked the cards a general question concerning my writing and my life - which, for me, feed and nourish each other.


In this spread, the card on the left indicates "lack", the one on the right is "need", and the one in the centre is "do" - this central card, SEASONS, seems particularly appropriate for an author, since it reflects the cycle of creation needed to write books.

The Grail guide for SEASONS suggested I meditate on a deciduous tree, so I chose the Rowan (Mountain Ash) in my neighbour's tiny garden, which gets pruned regularly and is a tree I feel a bit sorry for since it always seems to be trying to grow in the wrong place.

Rowan tree, or Mountain Ash

This morning, I became that tree. I experienced its winter sleep, followed by an energetic budding in the spring. I survived the summer drought, felt sweet rain bathe my leaves and soak into my roots, enjoyed a beautiful leaf fall in autumn, then withdrew energy into my roots once more for the dark time of the year, while my branches lay bare. You cannot always see what is happening inside a tree, and at the moment, out in the stormy night, it looks quite different from the tree in this picture. Some years, the Rowan is so late coming into leaf, I am sure it is dead. Yet it will burst into leaf again quite suddenly, late in the spring when all danger of frost is past, and its tender new branches will shelter nesting birds until winter comes around again to complete the cycle.

If you are making some resolutions and would like to try the Grail Oracle for yourself, you can find a set here. Meanwhile, I am off to prepare for a mysterious and perhaps miraculous budding... I'll be back when the storms stop, and maybe by the time the sun comes out some leaves will be starting to show.

Happy New Year to all my readers!


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