Attracting the Reader’s Attention: Choosing the best eBook Cover Design

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For us British, anything related to self-promotion tends not to come naturally. We’re brought up in a culture where mentioning your achievements is only a step away from boasting – and we don’t approve of boasting, ho no! If you’re a writer, the chances are you’re at the quiet and shy end of the social spectrum, possibly a little insular, with perhaps a tendency towards self-doubt too. I’d put myself firmly in this category.

This means I’m mostly doing the social media equivalent of standing at the back of a busy room, raising my hand and giving a polite cough to get everyone’s attention. Sometimes no-one notices. Sometimes I don’t even have the courage to do it at all. Everyone carries on talking, and I just stand there thinking I probably should mention what I’m doing, but maybe it’s not the best time.

But now I really ought to tell you formally about my latest project. I’m writing a book. Just a little one you understand (so that you know I’m not boasting!). It’s my first non-fiction book: “Short Story Competitions: A Writer’s Guide”. I’ve aimed to incorporate all that I’ve learned from my own experiences as both entrant and judge – the idea being the reader will be able to learn from my mistakes rather than having to make so many of their own!

Alongside drafting the text for the book, I pondered the cover design for a long time. There’s no way I’d attempt to create my own eBook cover, but I sent a couple of ideas to Shar, my cover designer, and she mocked up three designs for me.

 

As I’m pretty rubbish at making decisions, I decided to consult family and friends, Facebook and the Twittersphere. The results were really interesting – each cover got lots of support, and there were also some good comments, discussions of the relative merits of each, and suggestions for improvements. Of course, with an eBook cover, you have to think about how the design will work both large scale and in thumb nail form when the reader is quickly scanning through the available options.

If you’ve not chosen a favourite yet, or you’d like to make a further suggestion about one or more of the designs, I’ve love to hear your comments. If you’d like to see the final cover design before the book is out, please click the link on the right hand side of the blog to join my new mailing list. (Oh, did I mention…. *whispers* I’ve got a new mailing list!) 😉

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Writing Aims: Overambition and Underachievement!

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It’s December already! How did this happen? I swear it was late summer just a second ago… OK, so I have to face facts, it’s coming up to the end of the year, and I daren’t look at those “Aims for 2017” which I have pinned up on my noticeboard (they’ve been strategically hidden under a post-it note and a postcard, so I don’t have to continually beat myself up about not having achieved any of them…).

Of course, I’ll wait until the traditional ritual-shaming at the end of the month to blog in detail about this year’s failures, and to entertain you all with my next batch of unlikely ambitions for 2018. I will say though that realistic goal-setting has to be based on a suitable mix of self-knowledge and boundary-pushing. Yes, you need to push yourself to strive for that which is currently just beyond your reach, but you also have to take into account your need to turn up at the day job, or the necessity to spend time with your nearest and dearest or indeed, your desire to watch Strictly.

Writers are notoriously good at beating themselves up – either for crimes of procrastination and under-achievement, or though constant (unfavourable) comparison with others. We read lots of articles which attempt to shame us into better working/creative practices. And there is probably much truth in these (I don’t need to watch any more amusing cat or dog videos on Facebook – I know this!), but you have to extract the bits of advice that work for you.

This is why I was so amused to read Sophie Hannah’s latest blog post. As you may know, I’m a big Sophie Hannah fan, and I came across the article through following her on  Goodreads (but you can find it directly from her website here). In it, she goes through the most common advice available for authors, and gives her take on the wisdom contained therein.

It’s a refreshingly down to earth (and entertaining) article, and the strongest message which comes out of it is that you have to discover a working pattern which works for you, taking into account your responsibilities, internal body clock, levels of OCD etc. For this, you need self-knowledge.

I think this on a weekday when I am rushing (always rushing – always late no matter what time I get up!) to get ready for work. And I glance longingly at my writing desk wishing that instead of the day job, I could be spending my day here. But I know full well that on my non-working days, I will find it impossible to make it to my writing desk anywhere near the time I’d make it to my work office desk. Would I be any more productive if I didn’t have a day job? I’m really not that convinced!

There’s that old adage, “if you want something done, ask a busy person” and I’m pretty sure it’s true. When you’re busy, you can shoehorn in an extra task. On a lazy day, leaving the sofa to make a cuppa can seem too onerous.

So, I shall leave beating myself up until the end of the month. In the meantime, I’ll do as much as I can. As much as I can fit in around the rest of life. Probably not any of the things on my “Aims for 2017” list – but perhaps instead achieving some things I’d not anticipated. I’ll tell you more about that in my next post. 😉

 

Platforms for Publishing your ebook: To Select or Go Wide

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In my last blog post about smartphones I mentioned I was now hooked on podcasts – in particular I’ve been listening to The Creative Penn, The Book Marketing Show, and the Smart Author podcast. Listening to a writing-related podcast at the same time as doing everyday chores is great because at least I feel like I’m learning something new about the indie-author world, and making a positive impact on my own writing, even when I’m not able to be at my desk. It’s also really inspiring to listen to the experiences of other writers – especially those who’ve had lots of false starts or disappointments in their careers, but have ultimately been very successful.

One of the topics I’ve been thinking about as a result of this is whether or not I should continue to stay in KDP Select, and thus stick exclusively with Amazon for my eBooks, or whether I should consider striking out to Kobo, B&N Nook, Apple iBooks, etc.

There’s no doubting that Amazon is currently the major player in the eBook market, and it’s difficult to imagine a future in which this is not the case. As a newbie to self-publishing last year, it seemed entirely sensible to trial my initial ebook upload through KDP, and having done that, it also seemed sensible to maximise my potential readers by clicking to join KDP Select. Now though, with a couple of ebooks under my belt, I’m considering my longer term strategy.

The ebooks I’ve published to date, The Camel in the Garden and Beyond Words are both short story collections, but I’m currently working on a non-fiction project. One of the reasons I’d like to consider cross-platform publishing for this project is to enable it to be borrowed via public libraries (though applications such as OverDrive). I’m also coming around to the view that the all-eggs-in-one-basket approach may not be sensible in the long run – especially when the basket it owned by such a huge, powerful organisation. In order for us as indie-authors to have choice in the way we self-publish, alternative platforms have to exist – and in order for them to exist, they need authors and customers.

So at the moment, I am exploring Smashwords and Draft2Digital and learning as much as I can about opportunities to publish across multiple platforms. I’d be really interested to hear any other self-published authors’ experiences of and opinions on either staying with KDP Select, or using a multi-platform approach. And if you’ve come out of KDP Select in order to “go wide”, please comment below to let us know how you go on.

 

Smart Phones for Smart Writers

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One of the great conundrums of the modern age is that despite all the technology which has been developed, and despite all the labour-saving devices we have in our homes, we appear to have less and less time. How can this be?

Well of course, we still have exactly the same amount of time as we’ve always had. Those 24 hours won’t grow or shrink. It’s what you do with them that counts. So, yes you can get up at ridiculous-o’clock to squeeze in a few more useful hours. You can multi-task up to a point. You can choose to stop doing certain tasks to devote the time to something more important (see Kath McGurl’s Give Up Ironing book for more ideas on this approach!). And you can stop getting distracted.

I’m not a big TV fan – and you’ll absolutely never hear the words “box set” pass my lips in the context of losing a whole weekend watching 400 episodes of some show or other. (I am the person who can’t take part in office discussions about Game of Thrones etc.) But I am totally addicted to the internet, particularly because of my smart phone. I love YouTube videos which help me improve the way I ride my horse. I can lose hours googling random facts, or watching amusing or tear-jerking videos on Facebook. I’m also plagued by a kazillion emails (many from all the great writing-related websites I’ve signed up to). And I think this is the route of the time problem we all face. Whether smart-phone-related or not, there is simply too much information out there for our brains to process. So, I’ve decided I need to be more selective.

Before I had a smart phone, I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. People had managed perfectly well for centuries without such a gadget. It was just a silly fad. Now? It’s an integral part of pretty well every aspect of my life. Its alarm gets me up in the morning, and the sleep app tells me how long and how well I’ve slept the night before (last night was amazing – 8h 4mins – almost a record!). My running podcast takes me through my morning’s run, and the health app monitors my steps/distance travelled. On my way to and from work, I listen to a writing (or sometimes horse riding) related podcast – at the moment, I’m checking out the backlist of The Creative Penn which is amazingly informative about the indie author world – and also very entertaining.

This week is National Short Story week, and my smart phone has been invaluable in helping me advertise my two short story ebooks The Camel in the Garden and Beyond Words, which have been on special offer. Using my phone has enabled me to access Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, post photos and links, join in discussions, to post and comment on this blog and, of course, keep track of downloads – at any time, not just when I’m at home at my writing desk.

But I need to get better at sifting online information, saving the important bits (such as story competition info) and managing it in a way which means I won’t overlook it later.

If you have any top tips on the way you manage this process, please share them in the comments below.  I will be eternally grateful!

And if you’re the sort of really organised person who has arranged their life so efficiently that you have an afternoon free for a spot of reading, Beyond Words is still half-price for the remainder of this weekend. 🙂

“I am a #writer” – Keeping the Faith

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One of the best Christmas presents I ever received was a portable typewriter. Granted, we’re going back a bit. I was 13. My mum had watched me scribbling away in notebooks, or head buried in a kazillion novels over the previous months/years. She had listened when I told her I wanted to be a writer. And she wanted to help. Opening my present on Christmas Day was one of those rites of passage moments – not only was it something I really wanted (I appreciate this makes me a pretty nerdy teenager!), but it was a proper grown-up present. And most importantly, it meant that my parents didn’t think I was being silly. I said I wanted to be a writer: they believed me, and believed in me.

I now know how lucky I was. And I also now know that having people around you who believe in you is only half the battle – you also have to believe in yourself. There are so many hundreds, thousands, of great books out there, so many talented writers, it’s easy to become discouraged, to think there’s no place for you. Even literary success may not wholly dispel feelings of “imposter syndrome”.

After some initial (perhaps too easily won) success in short story writing when I was a teenager, my writing “career” took a nose dive. For many, many years I dabbled, but didn’t work at it. Only when I made the decision to do a Creative Writing MA did I truly start to take myself and my writing seriously. There were huge benefits – from writing regularly, from being exposed to other people’s writing processing and discussing each other’s work, and from learning about the wider publishing industry. Building my author identify online (instead of hiding way in anonymity) was a huge step for me (I kept waiting for the sky to fall in – just for reference, it didn’t). Achieving the MA gave me some kind of validation – as did publication and success in writing competitions. But hearing feedback from readers is the best thing. (This is the first year I’ve had “fan mail”! Thank you so much to the people who have emailed or contacted me via Twitter to tell me they’ve enjoyed my stories – I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your support.)

I know several would-be writers who are too nervous to show their work to the wider world, or even talk about their writing. But if you write, you are a writer, and if you want the wider world to believe in you as a writer, you must first believe in yourself. If you want the wider world to know about your writing, you have to talk about what you do.

Next week is National Short Story Week – a great opportunity to talk about all things writing and short story related. To coincide with this, I’m running two special offers on my eBooks:

The Camel in the Garden will be FREE from Monday 13th – Friday 17th November 2017

Beyond Words will be HALF PRICE from Monday 13th – Sunday 19th November 2017, so you will be able to pick up 12 stories for a mere 99p.

To find out more about either of these short story collections, click the relevant tab at the top of this page.

If you’ve struggled with self-belief or “imposter syndrome” and would like to tell us about something which made the difference for you, please comment below. Similarly, if you read any great short stories over the coming week, please let us know. 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

5 Things I learned from short story judging

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The shortlist came out last week for the Hysteria 2017 Writing Competition – so huge congratulations to all those who feature in either the poetry, flash fiction or short story categories. All of these will be published in the forthcoming Hysteria 6 anthology, so it really is a great competition for showcasing talent in women’s writing. You can see all three category shortlists on the Hysteria blog.

I’ve already blogged with tips for entering short story competitions here but I thought it might be useful to mention a few things I’ve learned from the judging process too. I judged in the short story category, but the anthology will include comments from the judges in all three categories, so will be useful to read if you are intending to enter the competition in the future.

The Hysteria competition uses a panel approach, using several judges in each category. Every judge reads every story, and the overall winners are those which receive the highest combined rating from all judges in that category.

So, here’s a brief summary of five things which struck me about the judging process:

  1. There are an amazing number of good writers out there. The vast majority of  stories submitted were competently written, and professionally presented. There were some great voices, good dialogue, interesting settings, and thought provoking themes. Nonetheless, when judges are reading multiple entries, each story only has a brief opportunity to make an impact, and probably only 10-15% of the entries stood out as being really special. These were the stories which made you momentarily forget you were judging in a competition, and instead simply read for pure pleasure.
  2. I was a little anxious before the process began, wondering if I would be able to make a valid judgement about other people’s work. I worried about how to go about the process – should I read several stories at the outset to give myself an internal ‘benchmark’? Would I be more generous on one day than the next? Would I be out of step with the other members of the panel? In fact, the format of the process meant that it was surprisingly straightforward to come to a conclusion about the various aspects of a story’s merit. And Linda Parkinson-Hardman, who co-ordinates the competition and edits the anthology, says that in her experience, the judges are, for the most part, surprisingly in alignment.
  3. I now completely understand why editors are so adamant that short story submissions should not dwell on depressing subject matter! Reading several gloomy stories in a row is a dispiriting experience, however well-written they might be. There is though a difference between tackling difficult subject matter, and writing a depressing story. There were examples of stories which addressed traumatic domestic situations, bereavements, injustice, mental instability and so forth, and yet managed to do this while still creating an engaging and entertaining story. These were great to read.
  4. This competition required submissions to be made online, and the uploading process caused a few problems for a small number of entrants. Be very careful when you complete an online entry process. You need to ensure you have uploaded the final version of your story with any corrections dealt with. You need to upload to the correct category, and you need to make sure you have uploaded the complete text – especially if cutting and pasting. You don’t want to spoil your story’s chances through a silly formatting error.
  5. Finally, there were a couple of stories which I absolutely loved which didn’t make it to the final shortlist. If you were unsuccessful in this competition, please don’t think that your story was unappreciated. Yours might have been the one which made me wish I could show all my friends! This is why it’s so important to keep writing and keep submitting – your story has to be read to have a chance, and the next editor or the next judge might be the one who thinks your work is amazing.

The final winners in each category will be revealed when the anthology is published. If your story is on the shortlist, I wish you all the very best of luck. And thank you for submitting your story to the competition, and therefore giving me the chance to read it. It was a great experience, and I’ll certainly be looking out for similar opportunities in the future.

Short Story Competitions: Making Your Entry Stand Out

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wowThe winners have just been announced for the latest “1000 Word Challenge” competition. If you’re not familiar with the site, it runs a different contest every three months, with a new word, theme or starting phrase. You have to come up with a 1000 word story which reflects this theme, but which is original enough to catch the eye of the judges. The entry fee is £5, and the winners are published on the site.

The theme for the last contest was “Kiss”, and was won by Anna Haldane with her story “The Tiller’s Daughter” – a fantastic version of a fairy story.  Anna’s unusual vocabulary immediately makes her prose stand out, but it’s not a gimmick – the story is artful and very clever. A worthy winner indeed. There are two published runners-up this time, and several others get mentioned in despatches, including mine. I’m telling you this last bit not because I’m blowing my own trumpet (well, maybe a tad – but you know, if you don’t, no-one else will!) but because my story is described as “surprising”, and I think that’s important for a competition entry.

I’m currently about three quarters of the way through reading all the entries in the short story category of this year’s Hysteria Writing Competition. There are lots of good, well-written submissions, but probably four or five have really stood out for me so far. These are stories which have a particularly entertaining scenario, an unusually compelling narrative voice, or an ending which has left me momentarily stunned and thinking, “Gosh, that’s clever.”  And this is what we, as story writers, should be aiming for – something which lingers in the mind of the reader long after they’ve finished reading. This is the unique power of the short story.

 

 

 

 

Ode on the Blessed Printer! #writersrhymes

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Ode on the blessed printer
(or “I wish I could make all submissions by email”)

I’ve just finished my story
It’s ready to submit
I’ve tweaked the dodgy plot line
Proof checked and re-checked it

So I fire up my printer
Plug in the USB
But my laptop does not recognise
The software that it sees

I wiggle all the cables
Until it finally connects
Then wait for several seconds
For the command to take effect

The printer starts to rumble
But the text’s a right schemozzle
Onscreen a warning light appears
I need to check my nozzles

I press the “OK” button
And watch the screen with dread
The problem clearly isn’t fixed:
Now I have to clean my heads

Then another warning light
A cartridge out of ink
And though I’m only printing black
I somehow still need pink

Next I fix the paper jam
Has the printer given up the ghost?
No, the pages finally tumble out –
But by now I’ve missed the post!

Resolving NOT to Write

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Yes, you read this correctly. I’m NOT writing. Deliberately. I’m itching to make a start. I have the first line in my head and I’d love to get going and see where it takes me, but I’m not allowing myself to do so.

Why?

Because although I can write a short story with just the glimmer of an idea, allow it to take hold and just go with it, when it comes to writing something longer, the whole “pantser” thing has failed me. I have about five half-written novels languishing in my hard drive. They have each suffered the same fate. They started with an idea, they grew and developed, their characters became well-rounded and compelling, plot devices sprang up which promised to keep those pages turning…. And then about two-thirds in, everything went horribly wrong. The plot fell apart. The path to “the end” faded and then disappeared altogether. And I couldn’t get myself out of it.

I thought I was a pantser, but it turns out I’m not. I need to plan. So this time, I’ve promised myself, things will be different. The initial idea for my current project actually came to me in a dream….  No, really!  I woke up, and the characters were there in my head.  Of course in the dream, it all made total sense and was already planned out – and then when I woke up, there was just the impression of the story which needed all the details filling in. So that’s where I am at the moment. Filling in the details.

I’m currently researching the setting, pulling together all the backstory for each of the main characters, drawing up a chapter plan (horribly sketchy at the moment), and working out the plot. I’m determined that this time I will have it all planned in advance – before I so much as begin to write the first page. Of course, I’m prepared for the story to develop in ways I’d not expected, so it’s possible the plan will need some revision on the way, but the plan needs to exist at the outset.

I know this isn’t the way that all writers begin a new piece of work – I know of many who say they just have an outline, start writing and see where it takes them. I wish I was like that, and who knows, maybe one day I will be. But right now, it’s me, a notebook, a pad of post-its, some highlighters – and a lot of time on Google!

If you have any great planning strategies and tips, I’d love to hear them! In the meantime, I’m attempting to develop my own method. Wish me luck – I’ll let you know how it goes. 🙂

Time Travel for Writers

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Readers know all about time travel – you sit down with a good book, and before you know it, a whole afternoon has passed in the blink of an eye! And through the medium of fiction, you are magically transported to another time, another place, perhaps another world. (Who needs a TARDIS?)

It’s the same for writers, of course. “I’ll just spend a few minutes editing this paragraph,” you say to yourself, and when you next look up, you realise you’ve missed a meal/an important appointment/a whole day. We all know there’s nothing quite like the feeling, when the writing is going really well, of leaving the everyday behind and being totally immersed in your fictional world. [NB: Social media is also an extremely effective way for writers to hurtle through a few hours at great speed!]

There is a flip side for writers: whilst time flies when there’s an approaching deadline, it positively crawls when you’re awaiting a response to a submission, or the outcome of a story competition, or – joy of joys! – publication day. [NB: Or indeed payment…but I hesitate to add that, for fear of sounding mercenary, and not having the right attitude to the true rewards of the creative process!]  Writers also experience a distortion in time as often the fruits of their labours are not evident until long after the labour itself. (Sometimes long, long, long after the labour itself.) Recently I’ve had two short stories appear in print, and had another placed in a competition – so to the outside world, all seems busy, busy, busy in my writing world. But in each case, the writing process itself took place many moons ago. Writing is created from not just inspiration but anticipation – thinking ahead to future competitions, and planning in advance for seasonal submissions.

Yesterday was National Writing Day – I’m ashamed to say I didn’t honour the day with any writing-related activities of my own.  I…erm….didn’t have the time. Presumably in some parallel universe, it’s National Writing Day right now.  Hmmm, if I could just find my TARDIS…

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