Most people in the writing and publishing world would agree that marketing short stories is tricky. Unless the author is already famous (as is the case with, for instance, Tom Hanks’ Uncommon Type) short story collections don’t tend to get the hype of novels, and it’s harder to pique the interest of readers.
Part of the problem is encouraging a prospective reader to pick up a short story collection in the first place. How can an author encourage someone to give their stories a try? Well, how about giving them an extract or two?
We’re told that images and (increasingly) video footage have a greater chance of catching the attention of people scrolling through social media – so I decided to have a go at recording myself reading a short extract from a few of my stories. Each video is only around 2 minutes long, as I felt anything much longer would put people off. At the beginning, there’s a short jingle (created using the “Clips” app on my phone), and another at the end which reminds the viewer which collection the particular story comes from – plus a view of the collection’s front cover. The link to the collection on Amazon is given in the “show more” section of the accompanying description.
It took a few takes to create the extracts, and they definitely aren’t perfect. Each time I listen, I realise there are parts I could have read better – and the sound quality isn’t perfect – but in a way, the imperfections are part of it. And hey, maybe I’ll get more professional if I do more!
I’m curious to know what people think. I’ve had someone tell me that they aren’t interested in watching a video of someone reading – that they would only listen to audio (which I would agree with for a whole collection or a novel – but this is meant as a taster of the stories). Personally, I like watching authors read – particularly if they read their work in a way I wouldn’t (e.g. I watched a video of Sophie Hannah reading an extract from one of her thrillers – and they way she read it emphasized the humour in a part I had read in my head as much more bitterly sarcastic).
If you’re a writer, I’d be interested to know if this is something you might consider doing. If you’re a reader, please let me know if you enjoy listening to authors read their work, or if it doesn’t interest you.
And if you want to see one of the videos, click below:
A big thank you to all those who took the time to vote in my “title poll”, and to those of you who added comments to support your choices. It was interesting and helpful to hear the thought processes behind the voting. For some people, the choice was clear (they either strongly liked one, or strongly disliked more than one, narrowing the field!). Some people liked all of them and found choosing difficult.
The very long title was a bit of a “Marmite” choice – quite a few votes for 1st place – quite a lot of people thinking it was silly. A friend of mine who works in publishing pointed out that often readers get the title of Jon McGreggor’s short story collection wrong (see my last post if that doesn’t make sense), so (without Jon McGreggor’s fame) it might be harder to market a collection with a similarly long title. A fair point.
Several people asked me if I had a personal favourite (not really – that was the problem, and the reason I needed to canvass opinions) or if seeing the results might make me realise I did have a favourite but didn’t realise. I’m not sure about the latter – possibly.
Which brings me to the outcome. You’d think it would be easy. Get everyone to rank order their title choices. Pick the one with the most votes. Job done. And there absolutely is a clear winner using the “first past the post” definition of most votes for 1st place. (And let’s be clear, this is what I’m using!) The only confusion for me is that Polljunkie provides a statistical analysis of the whole rank-order process, and gets a different outcome (which largely comes about from the combined votes for first and second place – i.e. the statistical winner didn’t get so many first place votes, but got many more second place votes).
I think I would be happy to use this stats analysis outcome if the votes for 1st and 2nd place were a little bit closer, but the “winner” is the one with 45% of the vote, versus the runner up with 31%. (Just for the record, you know earlier when I was pondering about whether seeing the outcome might make me realise I had a favourite? Well, turns out I secretly expected the majority to pick “Trotting On”, but that wasn’t the outright winner, and I find I’m OK with that.)
So…(drum roll)….the title with 45% of the votes is…
A Friend at the Paddock Gate
But there were some comments agreeing that this should be shortened to:
At the Paddock Gate
I’ll probably go with the latter. I mean, I guess I could do another poll, but you’ve probably had enough by now! 😉
Thanks again, folks. Next stop, cover design! Gulp!
Thank you so much to everyone who contacted me with a suggestion for the title of my forthcoming equestrian themed story collection. I spent lots of time collating them and considering each one. Some I had to discount because they were more appropriate to a different kind of story (e.g. dressage or racing – neither of which feature in the collection). Others (including one or two I really liked) I had to rule out as when I checked, I found something similar had been used before. Whilst there’s no copyright on titles specifically, it would be more difficult to market a book which could be easily confused with another book, TV programme, website, etc.
I’ve narrowed it down to four possibles at the moment, and have set up a poll via PollJunkie.com to gauge which you like best. Here are the choices and the reasons behind them:
“A Friend at the Paddock Gate” – this collection is meant to be about the relationship between horses and the people who own them, ride them, or look after them. Yes, human relationships are also explored, but the horses are essential to the stories. So this title is attempting to reinforce the idea of the horse as partner and friend in the person’s life. Does it sound a bit twee though? Other variations could include simply “At the Paddock Gate”.
“Trotting On” – I liked this suggestion because it’s short and simple so will look good on a cover. It would also be great if I wanted to write a second collection, which could then become “Cantering On” etc.
“Haven’t you Grown out of Horses by Now?” – I’m a fan of Jon McGreggor, especially his short story collection “This isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You”, so I was channeling his use of long quirky titles when I came up with this one. It’s also something that has been said to me in the past! The plus side is having “horses” in the title, the down side is the difficulty with the cover design!
“Still Horse Mad, Huh?” – in a similar vein to the above, but not quite so wordy. If I wrote another collection, it could possbily be “Still Horse Mad too?” (geddit!)
Whichever title I go with, there will be a sub-title explaining this is a short story collection for grown-ups.
If you’d like to vote, please do so via “Poll Junkie” (which means I can collate the responses across numerous platforms!) – the link is here. You have until next Sunday (9th August 2020) to vote. The poll also allows you to make an optional comment if you have another brilliant suggestion.
If you’re reading this blog, it’s either because you’re a short story fan (writer, reader or both), and/or you quite like seeing the occasional photo of a horse! So, my dear readers, I need the benefit of your advice and opinions.
The current work-in-progress is a collection of short stories aimed at horse mad grown-ups who were avid readers of pony books as a kid, and would now like to read something which still addresses the horse-mad bit, but which better reflects the concerns of an adult rather than a child or teenager. Don’t get me wrong – I still re-read Ruby Ferguson’s Jill books, Patricia Leitch’s Jinny series, and Monica Dickens’ Follyfoot and others, and they are still marvellous – but it’s great to be able to read realistic adult horse stories. I wish there were more available – particularly set in the UK.
Anyway, there are two things I need your advice on. One is the cover, but that’s only at the ‘vague thoughts’ stage, so we’ll put that to one side for the moment. My current issue is…the title.
I admit, I’m fairly rubbish at titles. Occasionally something brilliant will occur to me, but in the vast majority of cases, I struggle. (A couple of the stories in this WIP don’t yet have titles, let alone the collection as a whole.) With my three previous collections, I’ve simply chosen one of the story titles to be the book title. In each case, the collections were specifically themed, which is why I think this was a sensible approach. With the horse-stories collection, the theme is obviously the horses, but within that, they are quite varied, and I’m not sure that any of the individual story titles will adequately reflect the book as a whole.
So, I’ve pondered equestrian themed titles which might be suitable – and the main problem is they’ve all been done to death. I quite liked “Back in the Saddle” to reflect the idea of someone older getting back into horses and riding again – but a quick search on Amazon shows there are already hundreds of books with this title (notwithstanding that some of them are indeed ‘adult themed’ in a way I don’t mean!). “Riding Lessons” was another possible, but of course that would have exactly the same problem (there are double entendres aplenty in the horse world which doesn’t help!) and to be honest, it sounds a bit dull. All the exciting sounding things like “Flying Changes” have been done to death. There are loads of interesting racing-related terms, but I haven’t written any racing-related stories, so they wouldn’t be applicable. “Faded Rosettes” makes it sound like all the stories are going to be sad and reflective, which isn’t the case.
So, I’m stuck.
At the moment, the book consists of eight or nine stories, of varying lengths (including two relatively meaty ones). All but one has a female protagonist, and they have a reasonable range of settings – horse owners, non-horse-owners, characters who have a horse at livery, characters who complete, etc. There’s an element of love interest in one or two but lots of other themes too. Some are light-hearted, but one in particular….well, it made me cry when I wrote it.
If you are a whizz with titles, or simply mad about horses, and can think of something which sounds intriguing, appropriate, and not smutty, I’d be really grateful for any suggestions. Because right now this is proving to be harder than writing the actual stories!
Writers often talk about imposter syndrome – the gnawing self-doubt that continues to make even successful, published authors still question their ability. And since many of us oscillate between loving and hating everything we write, it’s all too easy in the low points to feel like a complete fraud. There are plenty of times when I’ve been writing something for this blog without having actually written any fiction for months. And I find myself looking at the blank page and thinking “What right do I have to write about writing if I’m not actually writing?”
Over lockdown I’ve found myself being a whole different kind of imposter. Words have been flowing from my pen (ok, ok, poetic license – from my keyboard) and the equestrian-themed story collection for grown-ups (not a catchy title….need to come up with one of those too!) is growing apace. So what’s the problem?
During lockdown I’ve not so much as thrown a leg over my horse. I’ve taken him for a few walks. Spent a bit of quality time with him, but haven’t actually ridden. All the while lots of my horsey friends are sharing photos on Facebook of all the stuff they’re getting up to. And there’s me writing about fictional characters riding, but not daring to do it myself.
I chose not to ride given it seemed an unnecessary risk during a pandemic. I made the choice for a good reason, but it still felt cowardly. And thus I was safe, I did not put any additional stress on the NHS, but for a long time I felt like a chunk of me was missing.
I’ve ridden since I was about 10, I’ve had a horse of my own since I was 28. I have British Horse Society qualifications and have even worked at a couple of riding schools. But, much like with writing, if I’ve not done it for a bit, I always end up feeling like all this experience is erased.
This weekend I decided enough was enough. I’d had his shoes put back on, it was time to get back on the horse! Yesterday I worked him on the lunge and sat on him for a few minutes, today I did a few minutes schooling in the paddock. It might have only been a few minutes, but I feel like I’m me again.
I often wish I was the kind of fearless, live-in-the-moment type, who didn’t constantly over-think everything. But then, maybe if I was like that, I wouldn’t be a writer? So, just in case, I’ll hang on to my neuroses!
I’ll probably ache tomorrow. But hopefully if I work on my stories, I’ll now feel like a genuine horsey person while I’m doing it! 😁
It’s been a good writing week for me (despite it also having been a busy week at work) – I’ve written over 4,000 words of a new story for my next collection. I’m hoping to finish a first draft over the weekend so that I can share it with my writers’ group in time for our next meeting.
I’m not quite sure why it’s been such a productive week. Partly it’s because the original idea must have been incubating in my subconscious for a while and suddenly chose this week to say “a-hem – could you write me down, please?” And I’ve found myself consciously thinking about it before I go to sleep at night, and so far things seem to be slotting into place so that when I go back to it each day, I still find myself with something new to write, or an improvement on a part I’ve already drafted. (This is so much better than staring blankly at the flashing cursor!)
But I also think it might have something to do with having what feels like the right space to write. For the last three months, I (like so many other people) have been working from home, using the desk and specific area of our spare room which I usually use for my writing. As a result, I’ve not much felt like sitting in that same position to write in the hours around my day job. For many weeks this meant I simply didn’t do much writing (although I did do some scribbling long-hand in a note book a few weeks back, which is always interesting – I’m sure it makes a difference to the style of the prose produced).
Anyway, the spare bedroom was the only room left in the house which we’d not properly decorated – until the last couple of weekends. The rest of the house is “Natural Hessian” (creamy beige!) throughout, with a feature colour in each room (mostly blues and greens). I blogged about my writing room in our old house before here and as you’ll see, it was pretty lively – it was L-shaped, and I painted every wall a different colour (red, orange, blue, green and teal). The spare room in our current home has to function as both study and guest bedroom, so we wanted two distinct parts to the room – and those parts are demarcated by shelving in the centre of the room, filled with books and ornaments. The smaller part of the room is my study area – with my desk against an orange wall and, behind, a batik I bought from Botswana many moons ago.
The bedroom side has a dark brown feature wall with brown and gold curtains I picked up from a charity shop years ago (because I just liked them even though at the time I didn’t have a window for them!), and a couple of framed Egyptian scrolls from our honeymoon trip. The side wall is covered with kilims and wall-hangings (from Egypt…..and…er….eBay!). I’ve tied it in with a bedspread from loudelephant.com (you can read all about them here).
The majority of those 4,000 words I mentioned earlier have been written lying on the spare bed, propped up on a load of pillows, with my laptop on my lap. If you’re a Health & Safety officer you’re probably having kittens at this, but honestly, I am extremely comfortable, and (currently!) productive, so you have to do what works for you.
I’ve seen a lot of beige walls in my MS Teams meetings over the past three months, and if neutral tones are your bag, that’s great (as I’ve said, we use lots of a beige in our house too) but colour and texture are glorious – and I’m convinced they give me a bit of a boost. So, if you feel your writing could do with a lift, perhaps an injection of colour might be just the thing you need!
If you’re interested in horses, and particularly in reading and writing about them, you might be interested in Carly Kade’s podcast – the Equestrian Author Spotlight.
Carly has written a blog since 2015, interviewing various equestrian authors and providing writing advice, but found the blog couldn’t keep up with all the writers she wanted to feature. Now she is doing weekly interviews with authors on the podcast.
Carly lives and writes in the US. Her stories have both equestrian and romance themes, and one of the importing things she mentions is that in her fiction, “the horses are as vital to moving the story forward as the human characters”. This is very telling, as so often in supposed horse books, the horses themselves seem to be just the backdrop for the main characters, and not essential to the story at all.
Whilst living in the country comes with a host of advantges, sometimes it can mean fewer writing opportunities than may be the case for city dwellers.
This is why I was pleasantly surprised to be contacted this week by Amber Knipe, Producer at Pentabus – a Shropshire based touring theatre company which believes that “every person living in an isolated rural community has a right to exceptional theatre”.
Pentabus is looking for local writers (within 30 miles of SY8 2JU), currently living in a rural setting. They are commissioning a series of 5-10 minute plays to be written and performed by writers currently living in a rural context, and are specifically looking to commission writers from The Marches – Shropshire, Herefordshire and Mid-Wales.
There’s a £250 payment to each writer per commission, and expressions of interest should need to be sent by 12pm on Monday 8th June.
You can find all the details on the Pentabus website here.
Yesterday, I spent a very happy day re-writing one of the children’s stories I originally wrote over 20 years ago. I had expected to type up the story (which I only had in hard copy) and as I typed, to make the necessary alterations to bring it up to date, and perhaps to go back and revisit an earlier paragraph or two as I changed something material. In the end, the further into the story I progressed, the less I looked at the original – or rather, I looked at it for the storyline, and then whole chunks I re-wrote from scratch. And the thing I found most incredible? How much I bloody enjoyed doing it!
I mention this because sometimes it can seem that writing becomes a bit of a chore. Much like a rather rubbish relationship which you continue to cling to more in desperation than hope, about 80% of the writing life is feeling guilty about not writing, or doubting one’s ability, or hating what you’ve written, or making yourself write when you don’t really feel like it. When you have the unusual combination of both the time and the desire to write, it truly is the best feeling. And that was how I felt yesterday. As I already had the storyline and characters worked out, all I had to do was write the story. And as I wrote, lots of additional ideas popped into my head. So the whole process was a joy. (I’ve not re-read it yet though, so of course, I could be unpleasantly mistaken about the quality of yesterday’s output!)
Anyway, having gone through this re-writing process, I thought I’d share with you some observations about the types of changes I needed to make:
1) Technology: This was one of the things I was aware I’d need to amend before I started. Things have moved on in the last 20-odd years. It’s largely impossible to write a story (especially one with a 13 year old heroine) which doesn’t make some reference to mobile phones, or the internet. The whole way society works now owes an awful lot to the way we can share information quickly and easily via computers and phones. (One of the stories in the original version of the collection has a girl using a phone box. A phone box? What’s one of those?!) There are a whole host of plot devices that have been rendered useless by the ubiquitous mobile phone – and a whole host of (often unconvincing) methods writers have employed to get around the problem. Clearly, there are plenty of storylines where they are not relevant, but to ignore them completely risks your story seeming unconvincing.
2) Attitudes and legislation: Society’s attitudes to class, race, political correctness, health and safety, etc. continue to evolve almost without you noticing, so that it comes as a surprise when you re-read something from 20 or 30 years ago and find yourself thinking “Ooh, that wouldn’t happen nowadays.” In the horse world for instance, gone are the days when kids habitually hung about at stable yards and worked in exchange for rides (as I did when I was a kid) – the requirement for, and conditions of, public liability insurance has done for that! Horses need to have passports now – and whilst it’s far from a foolproof system, it’s more complicated to buy a pony from an auction and save it from the meat man (again, as I’ve done back in the day!). There have also been changes to the way equestrian competitions are run, and the safety measures put in place.
3) Speech: Partly this is linked to No 2 above in that what is acceptable to say changes over time. But language itself is constantly evolving, again, often without you noticing. More specifically, these are children’s stories. I’m acutely aware that as someone who is 40-something-mumble, I’m not going to be up to date with children’s speech patterns. And even if I wrote authentic speech for 2020, in a year or two it will already feel out of date. So I find myself writing fairly anodyne dialogue, which is a bit depressing for someone who generally loves this aspect of writing.
4) Decimalisation: OK, OK, you may laugh. Decimalisation was introduced in the UK before I was born, so how could it cause a problem in stories I wrote 20 years ago? Because I’m writing about the horse world, which was very slow to adopt decimal measurement. Despite the fact I’m the product of the decimal age, and would use metres and centimetres for other measurements, in all things equine-related, I’m feet and inches all the way. I know what a 2 foot 6 jump looks like. I know what a 14.2hh pony looks like. I can’t instinctively picture a pony measuring 148cms, or a show jump at 80cms. Decimalisation has definitely reached the top level of equestrian sport – show jump heights are listed in centimetres, except for things like the Puissance at Olympia (the equivalent of a horsy high jump!) where they have to tell you the imperial measurement too, else you can’t ooh and ahh at how close to the record they are! But the everyday rider has been slow to abandon imperial measurement. I worked at a riding school a few years back, and even then the kids were OK with feet and inches for jumps, and hands for measuring ponies, but I’m aware that this is likely to change over time.
5) Names: in fairness, the original names I’ve used in these stories don’t seem terribly inspired to me, but I’ll be careful to amend them to something more appropriate. Much like the speech patterns, the idea is to use something which rings true now but won’t seem too dated in another 20 years.
Of course, there’s one thing that hasn’t really changed: the love that pony-mad kids have for their ponies. I feel pretty confident that I’ll be able to write about that authentically forever. 😉
I think we’re coming to the end of Week 6 of lockdown (though I could be wrong – time has begun to lose some of its meaning recently). I have no doubt that some strong minded individuals have used their extra time in a constructive manner. Me, well, this morning I found myself re-arranging the magnetic words on the fridge…
The magnetic poetry set was a present from a friend years ago, and now we have the tall type of fridge freezer once again (rather than the under-the-counter or built in variety) the words are at a much more convenient height! There are many things I love about the set (the fact that the word ‘apparatus’ is included for one), but as quite a few of the words have been used up over the last few months (not in poetry, it has to be said, but in random sentence construction – some of a dubious nature), it was getting difficult to find the word you wanted when trying to write something new. This has been a source of (admittedly, very mild) irritation for a while, so this morning I thought I would sort them out. In the process, I learned something.
My schooling occurred mainly during the 1980s when English teachers didn’t dwell on boring stuff like grammar – the idea was you wrote stories, read other people’s stories, and talked about stories, and you picked up sentence construction and so forth intuitively in the process. No complaints from me about this approach – when I hear snippets of what children are expected to study nowadays, it leaves me cold, and I’m ever grateful to my teachers for making English a creative and engaging subject for us. And it didn’t seem to do me any great harm in undergraduate or postgraduate study either.
Still, there I was this morning, trying to separate out the remaining words into verbs, nouns, and those little ending bits provided by the set: -y, -ly, -ed, -ful, -ous etc. Whilst accepting that there are some words which fall into more than one category, I didn’t have much trouble picking out the adjectives, I’d got most of the pronouns together, and most of the prepositions in a group (though Mr Google had to confirm that’s what they were!). To my amusement, all the words I had trouble classifying turned out to be adverbs. So there you go – in thirty years of writing, I’ve apparently always been a bit hazy about adverbs. Must have been away the day we skimmed over those in class! 😉