Tag Archives: Writing

On Horribly Incestuous Bridge Troll Clans

I have some spare time on my hands this week and I found myself watching all of Once Upon a Time in Wonderland. It’s a simple series, but a lot of fun, and I recommend watching it if you ever get bored. It did make me think of a very important point regarding writing novels, however.

First off, here’s a quick rundown on the general plot of the single-season series. This is a stupendously massive spoiler so please don’t read it if you haven’t seen the series. You’ve been warned!

Once Upon a Time in Wonderland

  1. 3 Brothers need some magical water to heal their mother after a fire. They aren’t allowed to take it so they steal it.
    The Guardian of the water curses them and turns the three of them into genies. This happens after they use the magical water to successfully heal their mother.
  2. Their mother (somehow) becomes a powerful sorceress who is determined to find the 3 genies (her kids).
  3. The bastard child of the local emir tries to be recognised as a prince, fails and is killed by dear old daddy.
  4. The child finds the sorceress, becomes her apprentice and becomes a powerful sorcerer himself.
  5. Now both the sorcerer and the sorceress are looking for the genie. The sorceress is trying to rescue her kids while the sorcerer wants ultimate power to get revenge on his father.
  6. Alice (of “in Wonderland” fame) finds one of the genies and falls in love with him.
  7. The Queen of Hearts and the sorcerer kidnap the genie and Alice, with her friend the Knave, spend a season trying to get him back.
  8. The Knave was the boyfriend of the Queen of Hearts before she ditched him to shack up with a king. The Queen of Hearts gets together with the sorcerer to get ultimate power so she can get the Knave back.

What’s the Point?

So, complex? Every character knows every other character, the actions of 1 precipitated the actions of the next and the whole season snowballed from there.

Every character was related to every other character. It’s a very tight, closed storyline. It’s like a southern redneck BBQ where the family tree doesn’t actually branch at all – it just keeps feeding back in on itself.

Right now I’m in the middle of writing a long, deep, epic fantasy series which’ll end up spanning 4 or 5 full-length novels and probably 10 short stories. The urge to reuse characters is huge. It’s just so much easier than constantly coming up with new ones. The desire to add one more link in the web to prove how clever I am at crafting intricate plots in overwhelming.

Stop it!

This isn’t Star Wars (or the Spiderman movie franchise, or one of a hundred other examples). Every character doesn’t have to have a personal history with literally every other character. You’re allowed to have random people come into the story, do stuff and leave without realising he’s just spent 200 pages banging his long-lost sister.

Be more creative, and frankly, put in more effort. It can actually be easier to just reuse characters, but it’s been done to death.


On Prematurely Spawning Forth New Bridge Trolls

I apologise in advance for this long, rambling mess, but it’s an important, and often discussed topic.

Writing  novel is both much easier than you think and much harder. I have so many people tell me that putting 80k words on paper would be too big a challenge while most people seem to think that coming up with a winning idea isn’t that much of  problem. The opposite is actually true. Everyone has a book inside them, or so the oft repeated phrase goes, but most of them shouldn’t ever try.

I’m a (drum roll please) published author, which is a phrase bandied about on Twitter like it’s in some way related to winning a gold medal at the Olympics. Not only am I a writer, but I’m also published, which is a distinction most writers never attain. Well, I called myself an aspiring writer until I published, and only now do I dare to call myself a writer. I hope to add successful to that label later.

Here’s the point. Writing is easy. Type words into a keyboard. Good words? Excellent. Bad words? Please stop embarrassing yourself. Acceptable words that are in desperate need of good editing? Good enough! What’s difficult isn’t the writing, it’s the planning.

Now that I’m published, I get people asking me for advice on writing. Like I’m suddenly, miraculously, some sort of expert. I’m not. Most recently, my sister send me the alpha of the beginning of her work-in-progress.

My sister wanted to know a single, important thing:

  • Does her story have potential?

Wrong question. I can’t answer my sister’s question based on the alpha she sent me. It’s just not complete enough yet. And anyway, how the hell would I know? Here’s a few better questions:

  • Does the story, as presented so far, seem interesting and/or compelling?
  • Is it cliche or is it in some way unique?
  • Does it have enough conflict to form a full story?
  • Does the author seem to have enough talent to pull it off?

Answering these questions, I’ll say that my sister should continue working on her story and (in my humble opinion) I think it could turn into a good book. With that in mind, (I’m sorry to say this, but) my sister represents an excellent case of what not to do when writing a novel. Let me explain.

  1. She sent me the alpha text. It’s 16 pages long. It has a few problems:
    1. There’s basic spelling mistakes throughout. Sure, it’s an alpha, but F7 is a pretty simple button to find.
    2. There’s a bunch of comments saying things like “How will character A’s presence affect character B?” We’re talking about main characters here so how can this question not have been answered yet. More on this in minute. This is the important bit.
    3. The document doesn’t even include half of the names. You need the names up front. The names help define the characters, cities, rivers, etc. If you don’t know the name, you don’t understand the character/thing.
    4. Chapter 3 doesn’t end. Instead, there’s a note saying “To be continued”. It then goes on to chapters 4 through 7. If she hasn’t finished chapter 3 I’m not going to continue reading. I’m not trying to be an arrogant douchebag, she’s just spoiling the story for the alpha reader. How can I evaluate an incomplete storyline?
  2. She sent me a map in .odg format. How many people can open that? As it happens, I can, but only by accident. .gif/.jpeg/.png please. It’s a simple thing, but makes a big difference to the average tech-illiterate. My tablet can’t open that file even when my laptop can.
  3. She sent me an 86 page planning document. Seriously. Problems:
    1. As an alpha reader, I don’t need it.
    2. As an alpha reader, I shouldn’t see it.
    3. It’s a template from some website which is almost entirely empty anyway. This document is my main concern, and what I plan to talk about from now on.

So, my sister’s writing  novel. Excellent. Will it be good? No idea, but potentially, yes. All of the problems I wrote about above are completely irrelevant. I promise you that my novel, Equivocal Destines, looked exactly like that for a long time. So why complain about these very normal, and very temporary problems in a public blog post? How can others actually benefit from this? To put it simply, polish the alpha into a beta before you show it to anyone.

Here’s the thing…

The problem is my sister probbly has too little confidence in her writing, but she should. Her idea is fairly unique, her descriptions, when included are clear, her characters interesting so far. Who knows if she has talent (probably, yes) but people, please, ditch the formality, the planning templates, the special writing programs, and all that junk. Put words on paper (as my sister’s done) and get the idea down – this is most important – but don’t let all the other stuff get in the way, and don’t seek confirmation until you have something confirmation-ready.

When I first moved to Poland (I always find an excuse to mention that) and started telling people I was working on  novel, I had 30 of these conversations:

ME: I’m planning a novel

THEM: How much have you written?

ME: Nothing, I’m still planning it.

THEM: How long have you been planning it.

ME: A few months.

THEM: That’s stupid. Just start writing. That’s a better idea.

No, it’s most certainly not a good idea, but neither is endless planning. I have a planning document for Equivocal Destines that’s currently 49 A4 pages long. When I started writing the novel it was about 20 pages long. It’s growing with the novel as I add ideas while writing. I have to go back and update my plan at lest weekly.

For context, the book series, Upheaving Nidola, of which Equivocal Destines is book 1 will end up 5 books long. I’ve got character and various other profiles and at the end, 2 separate plans for the plot:

  1. My plot outline is very high level, and only 1 page long. It lists everywhere the characters go, who meets whom and when, how to fix the grand problem, etc. But not much else. Everything else is details.
  2. My story outline is broken up by book:
    1. The story outline for book 1 (completed and on sale) is 6 pages of bullet points.
    2. The story outline for book 2 (currently in progress) is 5 pages long and growing as I write.
    3. The story outline for book 3 is currently only 1 page long and only includes the specific plot points that I have to hit in a certain way because of what I’ve already written in books 1 and 2.
    4. The story outline for books 4-5 are skeletons.

OK, so more of me talking about me, gain. What’s the point? I have a high level outline and 20+ pages of bullet-point detail about the characters in a 4-column table (including the critical characters who don’t appear in books 1 and 2) but I haven’t wasted months on planning things in such minute detail that I have no room for creativity.

Conversely, I have a plan! Without any sort of high level plan, how can you get your characters to where they need to be at each state of the story? Do you even know where they need to go?

You’re probably going to end up having to rewrite (maybe big) parts of your story (a few times) anyway, as you come up with cool new ideas while you write, but if you have a broad framework and a more detailed plan for it, then you know where and how to be creative and how to slot your new ideas into what you already have.

  1. Step 1 – Write a high-level plan so you know what has to happen, but don’t go into any more detail than you need to.
  2. Step 2 – Figure out who has to do what. Build mental images and make them real. Not on paper, but to you. Names help.
  3. Step 3 – Write the damned thing, at least to the point that other people can read it without your private notes, understand it, and give you useful, critical feedback.

You have to have confidence in your work, first and foremost, and flesh it out to the point that others can begin to enjoy it. Then let others tear it to shreds so you can improve it. Wash, rinse, repeat.

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On (Cryptographically) Shackling Bridge Trolls

I’ve been having a bit of an internal debate recently about the dreaded D-word (whispers “DRM”). I’m talking about Digital Rights Management, which is a fancy name for various different flavours of encrypting your digital words so people who get (buy, lease, borrow) copies can’t then go on to copy, print or otherwise redistribute them. Is this necessary or inherently evil? I’ve heard both sides of the debate.

Now, I’m a tech guy. Seriously, an actual tech guy. I worked as a Network Administrator back in Australia before moving to Poland and teaching business English. I’m Cisco certified and I have a decade of experience working in various IT departments it real, paying jobs. What this means is that, irrespective of my being an author, I actually, seriously know what I’m talking about with DRM. Why am I currently so vigorously pumping my ego? Because it’s useful for my (10) readers to know that what I’m about to say is the meandering thoughts of someone whose  meandering thoughts are worth listening to.

What is DRM?

Digital Rights Management, as I said above, is just encryption for your book (movie, song or any other digital copy). The goal is simple, to stop unauthorised copying, either digitally or onto paper or whatever.

How does it work? Let’s not go into details because every system works differently anyway. The methods are broadly the same and the goals are exactly the same.
The infrastructure provider (Amazon, Apple, Google, maybe Smashwords, etc) get the free text version of your masterpiece from you.

Note 1 – if you email a copy to anyone, all of your DRM is automatically dead. If you send a copy to the infrastructure provider over an unsecured network, all of your DRM is dead. If someone steals your laptop… you get the idea. The DRM only starts working after Amazon encrypts it. They still have an unencrypted copy too, so if someone hacks Amazon, you’re boned.

Now that Amazon (or whoever) have your text/images, they package and encrypt all of this. They’ll use some sort of public or shared key cryptography. Usually, they have an encryption algorithm which uses a master password to encrypt the document and it can only be decrypted with a second password – not their master password. They then put a copy of this second password in every device that needs to be able to display the book (or whatever).

Note 2 – If anyone ever disassembles even one of these devices and gets that password, every book is automatically completely unprotected. Amazon’s licensing terms state specifically that they provide no warranty about the integrity of their DRM system at all. i.e. Amazon says they don’t provide any security against theft or anything in their DRM. It’s all for show. Why? Because if anyone gets that key, everything’s up for grabs, and Amazon’s got millions of copies of that key on millions of devices all over the world. Now, realistically, each device type will have a different key, and possibly every model of every device, but that makes little difference.

So how does this prevent copying? Well, basically, only their devices and software have the password, so only their devices can display the content, and their devices don’t have copy and print buttons. It’s as simple as that.

Note 3 – There’s nothing to stop some weirdo who clearly needs a girlfriend from, instead, spending a month diligently transcribing your masterpiece into a new document by the age-old method of read, type, read, type. The content has to be unencrypted at some point, to be usable to the end user and at this point it can still be copied, if painfully slowly. This, BTW, is why DRM is doomed to fail for movies.

Should you use DRM?

The short answer, in my humble opinion, is yes.

There’s nothing to stop a determined copyright-infringer from getting their greasy mitts on your work and disseminating it for free, or charging other people directly. DRM will only ever stop what I’ll call casual infringement. This is where the average Joe has your book and simply makes a copy for his friends, because, you know, why not? These are the people who don’t specifically want to break the law or to profit from your work, but just don’t feel like their friends should buy your work after they had to. It’s the equivalent of lending a book/DVD to a friend, in their mind, but it’s not because the friend won’t ever give it back. If you want to make a living from your writing, you need to keep a lid on casual copying. If you want people to respect your copyright, etc, you need to actually do something to stop it. After that, you can only hope but to be so popular that the professionals try hard to get copies of your works.

What about fairness to readers?

My book is currently available on Amazon and I’ve setup these options:

  • Anyone who buys the paperback can have a Kindle edition for free.
  • Anyone subscribing to Kindle Unlimited (or whatever) can rent it for free.
  • I’ve already done 2 free giveaways.
  • I’m planning a 99c promo for sometime soon.
  • I use DRM.

I really do believe that more people reading my book is (for now at least) more important than my making money (in the short term) because it leads to more awareness (popularity) and will lead to more sales of book 2 or 3, etc. That doesn’t mean I should leave my book open to being abused however. If you want it, I applaud you and I’ll help you as much as I can (with the above list) but still do it the right way.

You respect my time and work and I’ll try hard to make it easy for you to access my book. You treat me badly and I’ll try to stop you from overly abusing my work. I don’t think it’s unethical to use DRM. I think it’s worse to charge $9.99 for the paperback and $8.99 for the Kindle edition. That’s just disrespecting the readers, DRM isn’t, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the reading (like region encoding in DVDs).

On Free Advertising

I just finished my second, 1-day promotion, and the results re very different from my previous one. First, check these out:

Here’s what I did this time, in brief. I’ll post a whole page with way too many details on it sometime soon.

What I Did How Effective It Was
I rebranded all of my profiles.
Banner Ad - 20150404
 As with last time, I doubt this achieved anything.
 Infrequent Twitter and Facebook spamming. To be honest, Easter got in the way and I didn’t post anywhere near as much as I should have. I don’t think this was too effective, but see below for the real Twitter work.
I searched Twitter for “book suggestions” and replied to every tweet I could find where someone was asking for a book suggestion and I thought they might be interested. I wrote many versions, but they were similar to: “Dreading a dull Easter period? Try Equivocal Destines – #free this Sat 4th. authl.it/B00SZ63XY6?d #kindle #fantasy I seriously think this was the most useful thing I did. I have no way of knowing, but I think a lot of people would have downloaded my book based on this direct, personal approach.
I investigated the Top 100 Reviewers on Amazon and emiled only those whose profiles and review histories showed that they might be interested in reviewing my book. I spent a lot of time on this but only ended up sending about 10 emails. I got 1 reply and don’t know (yet) if this reviewer actually downloaded it.
I searched for  retweeting accounts. This was a wash out. There are very few real retweeting accounts. Pretty much all tweeting accounts seem to be fronts for paid advertising sites.

Not that I have a problem with paid advertising sites – I plan on using some soon – I just didn’t use them this time.

I added a forum post to http://www.amazon.com/forum/meet%20our%20authors/ No-one read it.
 I added a forum post to  the Amazon Kindle Forum thread for free books I don’t think anyone saw it.
I added a thread to www.kboards.com http://www.kboards.com/index.php/topic,212239.0.html

It was read 17 times.

 I checked a bunch of sites that automatically scan Amazon for free books. Some found my book, some didn’t, 1 I had to manually add my book.

I think this one’s pretty hit-and-miss. None of them tweeted anything about my book.

 I signed up to IndieBookDiscovery Do this! Their methodology seems to be better / more fair and that actually tweet, so they’re useful. Right now, they’s also free.
 I registered my book here: http://www.philipsmith.eu/indie-author-promotion @PhilipSmithEu is actually really cool because he retweets my posts anyway. I don’t know why, but he’s very cool.

So how’d I do? Much better than last time:

Date Marketplace Units Sold
Apr 04, 2015 Amazon.com.au 4
Apr 04, 2015 Amazon.in 1
Apr 04, 2015 Amazon.ca 5
Apr 04, 2015 Amazon.co.jp 1
Apr 04, 2015 Amazon.de 1
Apr 04, 2015 Amazon.co.uk 5
Apr 04, 2015 Amazon.com 177
Apr 05, 2015 Amazon.com.au 3
Apr 05, 2015 Amazon.es 1
Apr 05, 2015 Amazon.co.uk 10
Apr 05, 2015 Amazon.com 3
Total 211

Some notes:

  • The promotion is split over 2 days because I live in Europe. It begins t midnight, US-EST, which is 9am, my time.
  • The promo actually started at 9:40m on Saturday and ended at 9:40am Sunday (today). This is in Amazon’s terms of service so I wasn’t surprised.
  • My first promo gave everyone I’ve ever met a copy, so they didn’t get  copy this time, so these copies went almost entirely to people I don’t know. That’s more useful in the long run.
  • My single-unit giveaways to Indonesia, Japan and Spain are most likely the result of my spamming of people on Twitter who asked for book suggestions.
  • There’s only 9 sales in Australia and Canada, which re conceivably from friends and friends of friends. That’s a very small number and percentage.

And what were my immediate results:

  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,170 Free in Kindle Store
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #9 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Action & Adventure > Fantasy
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #15 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Fantasy > Epic

The final question for now is, how good is this? I don’t know how many free books were in each of these categories because Amazon only makes the Top 100 lists east to find. I was on the first page in each of my categories though, for a few hours at least.

I put together a quick, informal count of what types of books were in the Top 100 of all free books. It’s… illuminating:

Category Count
No category listed 1
Americana 2
Biographies 1
Children’s 2
Christian Diets&Healing 2
Comedy 1
Cooking 1
Erotica 2
Horror 1
Military 1
Mystery / romance 3
Romance 40
Romantic comedy 5
Romnce – fantasy 6
Self-help / marketing 2
Sci-fi / fantasy 6
Thriller 16
Women’s fiction 6
Total 98

First of all, I said it was the Top 100, and it was. It doesn’t total 100 because I was being harassed to return to Easter breakfast (Polish people take their Easter festivals really seriously). Close enough. I also took a lot of liberties with the categorisations, so don’t take this too seriously. I wanted to keep the number of categories low, so I fudged it a bit based on cover art, merging categories, titles and things like that. It’s a relatively accurate list though.

This list really does show how hard it is to get into the Top 100 if you’re not writing boring books for bored housewives (according to the broad-brushstroke stereotype), so I’m not worried about only getting to 1170 on the main list. I’m really happy with my rankings in my categories though, especially since my book only had 5 reviews while most of those in the Top 20s had a lot more. Often, hundreds.

Now I have to wait and see if it results in sales and/or reviews 🙂