In this video, I talk about the concepts of hard and soft sci-fi, the differences between them, and the importance of consistent style.
How Not to Write a Novel is one of my favourite books of writing advice. It contains 200 examples of common writing mistakes, written in a way that’s highly entertaining as well as containing really tips. Here’s me talking about why I like it.
I am trying something new. Instead of a written writing advice post, this is my first video on writing advice, covering the subject of prologues in fantasy novels.
This is my first video of this type, so I’m interested in feedback on how I could improve it, as well as ideas for other topics I could discuss.
The series/books I discuss in this video are:
The Lord of the Rings/The Fellowship of the Ring by J R R Tolkien
A Song of Ice and Fire/A Game of Thrones by George R R Martin
The Kingkiller Chronicle/The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J K Rowling
My biggest problem with writing is not writer’s block, but new ideas. I will have a half-finished first draft that needs writing, or a second or third draft that needs edits, or a fanfic that’s half-posted with people in the comments saying they can’t wait for the next chapter, and a new, shiny idea will pop into my brain and go, “You’re writing me now.”
That idea sits in my brain, soaking up all the creativity energy, demanding to be written, taking up the space where I can think about writing things and crowding out all the other stories.
And I know I should be finishing the half-finished things, but this idea is just there and writing it feels easy. I can force out a couple of hundred words of the thing that I was supposed to be finishing, or I can blast out a couple of thousand words on the new thing with no apparent effort. And it all seems to go great until that idea is no longer so new and shiny. It’s become another half-written story and there’s another new idea jumping up and down in my brain going, “Me! Me! My turn!”
It’s very easy to have a hundred half-written first drafts with nothing ever finished. It takes discipline to force yourself to go, “Yes, I know that the new idea is shiny and exciting, and I will write a bit of it today, but I still need to dedicate some time to the other thing.”
One of the reasons I’m posting this now is because I’ve recently written several thousand words of a new and shiny idea, while the third Shadows of Tomorrow book is nearly finished, requiring edits on the last few chapters. It would be very easy to ignore the editing while I go write the new thing, but I’m putting this post out here as a commitment to myself that I will do the editing. If I just play with the new and shiny, nothing will ever get finished to the point of being read, so I will be getting this editing finished and I’m posting this publicly to try and hold myself accountable.
I enjoy celebrating Christmas even though I’m not religious. I enjoy spending time with my family, exchanging gifts, eating good food, seeing all the lights everywhere, decorating the Christmas tree, and all the different traditions that go around it. But you also find that different family groups have their own traditions and practices. For some families, religion is the central piece of the celebration and so there are carol services and nativity events, mangers and midnight mass. For others, religion doesn’t play a part in it and the traditions are centred around family and friends.
We have a few traditions in my family. Like meeting up to go and look at the wildlife photography exhibit in the Natural History Museum. Various aunts, uncles, cousins, partners of cousins, and so on all meet up to have a look at the photos and then go out for a nice meal. This isn’t something you would find in any summary of the Christmas traditions, but it’s something we’ve done for a few years now and so it’s become part of our tradition.
We have other things, like a trip to the cinema on Christmas Eve with my parents, and a hamper that we all contribute too. This isn’t a fancy hamper packaged up by a shop, but a box that we all fill with special treat foods, things that we don’t get very often, or things that just seemed different and fun. Sometimes things in the hamper are specifically intended for one person (like the crystallised ginger my mum loves) but other things are intended for all of us (like a shared chocolate orange).
So why am I talking about this on a writing blog?
I think when world-building, it’s tempting to make everything too homogenised. All the people in this area follow the same religion and practice the same traditions in the same way. In the real world, it doesn’t work that way. Everyone has their own subtle takes on the standard. Even in the same region, culture, and religion, you will find variations. It’s worth including that in your stories, and especially tying it into other factors. The differences around a shared experience can be a great way of highlighting other differences between characters or showcasing their backgrounds or even bringing in moments of conflict and character development.
Perhaps one character makes a big deal about the shared meal because they used to go hungry a lot when they were younger, and having lots of good food is a reminder to themselves that those days are over. Perhaps one character follows an older set of traditions because of a religious upbringing. Perhaps one character feels that they have to shower everyone with gifts while another feels uncomfortable receiving so much and ashamed because their own gifts are small. Perhaps that could be a cause for resentment between those characters.
I enjoy creating traditions, rituals, and celebrations in my world building, but it can be fun to think about all the different takes people might have on these same traditions, and the ways that they might add to them based on their situation or character. Next time you’re inventing some big holiday in your world, consider each of your characters and imagine how each of them might treat this holiday a little differently.
In writing, the antagonist of a story is a person who is directly opposed to the desires, goals, or well-being of the protagonist. They are the person that the hero of the story is fighting against or trying to overcome, or an obstacle in the path to achieving their desired outcome. Very often, people conflate antagonist with villain and often, especially in sci-fi and fantasy, they clearly are. Sauron in Lord of the Rings is the main antagonist and he is definitely a villain – a force of evil trying to conquer the world. Voldemort is a fascist murderer. But someone can be an antagonist without being a villain – and this can sometimes lead to interesting conflict and more nuanced stories.
I’m going to give an example for a TV show recently aired on Netflix that had surprising nuance for the kids fantasy show that it is: The Dragon Prince. Only a handful of episodes have aired so far, so it’s not certain what direction the writers will take the story or how the conflicts between characters will play out, but it seems to have a lot of potential for interesting dynamics between the characters.
The heroes of the show, the protagonists, are clear. The story is about two human princes, Callum and Ezran, and the elf assassin Rayla trying to stop a war by returning a stolen dragon egg to its mother. The antagonist of the show are more complicated because there are a number of characters who directly oppose these characters without necessarily being villains. I am going to give some spoilers here, so if you’re interested in watching the show, be warned, but I’ll try to avoid spoiling anything major.
Runaan is the leader of the assassins who come to kill the human king and Prince Ezran. He wants Ezran dead along with their father/step-father. He won’t hesitate to kill humans he comes across. At first glance, his character seems like a clear villain, except his actions are also about protecting the lives of his team, and getting justice for a crime committed by humans. Within the narrative, he is quickly put in a position where we as the audience are meant to feel pity for him. While he is narratively opposed to the heroes, we can have sympathy for him as well.
Soren is even less like a villain. When he is introduced, he is training Callum in sword-fighting, doing so in a teasing and joking manner that shows affection between the characters. He is a friend to the princes, and is a generally likeable character, laughing and joking, messing with his sister. He has his flaws and shows occasional meanness in his jokes, but overall his character is firmly on the side of the good guys. Except he is given the instructions to kill the princes. This order is framed as being for the good of the kingdom, to ensure that someone with experience is on the throne when war comes. He is told that this is for the greater good, but the choice still clearly troubles him. This is a character who wants to do what is right being told to kill the heroes of the show but still not quite being a villain.
Claudia is in a similar position. She is given the task of hunting the princes down and in an early episode tries to kill Rayla, but she does so to protect Callum and Ezran. She uses magic and sometimes has the appearance that would more normally be associated with a dark magic doer in a fantasy show, but she uses her magic to defend the princes from a perceived threat. Seeing the scenes where she’s joking with her brother, it’s hard to picture her as a villain, but she’s clearly an antagonist.
General Amaya is even more clearly one of the good guys. She tries to kill Rayla but she does so because she thinks Rayla is a bloodthirsty elf who had kidnapped the princes. She wants to protect the princes and the kingdom. She wants to stop someone claiming the throne through treachery. She stands in the way of the heroes’ goals, but because she is trying to help them without having all the information.
It will be interesting to see where the show goes with all these different character dynamics, but I’m looking forward to seeing it. As writers we can look at an example like this and think about how to put more nuance into the relationships between the characters in our stories. Just because someone is an antagonist doesn’t mean that they have to be an evil villain. There’s a lot of potential for interesting drama when they’re far from it.
Drip feeding is the concept of providing your readers with information on your story’s world or your character’s backstory a little bit at a time, with small pieces here and there that come together to form a bigger picture over time. This is in comparison to, for example, a prologue that explains the entire history of your sci-fi setting in one lump of exposition. This works because it allows the reader to get to know the characters before being dumped into a history lesson, it allows for hints at a bigger and more complex universe without you necessarily needing to explain every tiny detail, and it allows for reveals and plot twists through the story about that history.
I want to talk about a TV show that is a very good example of drip feeding done right. Steven Universe is a cartoon aimed at kids, but it has a complexity to it that has given it a large number of adult fans too. In the early episodes, we are introduced to the protagonist Steven, who is living with three gems – beings who each have a gemstone that is their core being but who can project a physical form that looks similar to a human (but often in a colour that matches their gem). We learn from the start that Steven is a hybrid between a human and a gem and he spends these early episodes trying to control his magic powers, going on adventures with the gems, and fighting monsters.
What we don’t know about right away is the thousands of years of history, rebellion, warfare, betrayal, and loss that led up to this. That comes later and no all at once. We are shown little hints that point to something bigger going on. In one episode, Steven is taken to a gem battlefield that is covered in fallen weapons. Looking at what’s left, all these years later, it’s clear that a battle on a massive scale took place here, but the details of exactly who was fighting whom is not revealed until later.
Similarly, there are hints about the gems being in hiding. The gems use warp pads to travel around Earth, and one episode shows us the galaxy warp – a pad that will do the same thing but allow gems to travel from planet to planet. This warp is broken and the gems are performing a regular check to make sure that it’s still broken. An episode has Pearl trying to build a spaceship and wanting to show Steven the galaxy. At one point, she mentions homeworld, but she doesn’t talk about taking him there, she talks about maybe seeing it from a distance. When something finally comes to Earth from another world and starts trying to repair the galaxy warp, the gems are scared and the reveal comes that they rebelled against their government and are in hiding. They don’t want anyone from their homeworld to know that they’re still alive.
This reveal fits with all the clues that have come before it. As the audience, we’ve seen all the hints leading up to this moment, so the information slots into place and completes the picture.
This is just one example of many. Over the course of the show’s run, information has been provided about where gems come from, how they’re grown, the structure of the society, the rulers, the powers that they have, the war to protect Earth thousands of years ago, the history of the main characters, and so on, building up a picture of a complex setting with a rich history.
This means that the plot twists aren’t necessarily a complete shock to the audience, especially in a case like this where a lot of the audience are adults watching a show that’s primarily aimed at a younger audience. The adult viewers pick up on clues that the younger viewers might miss, speculating about future reveals, but there is something very satisfying about being proved right when one of those twists comes. When the show makes a revelation, we can look back at the clues and think, “Yes, that makes sense.”
Often, drip feeding isn’t about shocking plot twists. Instead, it’s about having a box of jigsaw pieces and gradually putting them together to reveal more and more of the picture to your reader/audience.
A short while ago, I got into an exchange online with someone about writing and the publishing process. We discussed a few different aspects on the subject, but I was surprised to find that they had a very strong feeling against using a traditional publisher. When I asked why, their answer was that it was because the author only gets about 20% of the income from a book, so it was like giving away 80% of your business earnings for all time, in exchange for a small start up loan (i.e. the cost of producing the book).
My response was that the “loan” can actually be pretty big, and that publishers do a lot more than just provide the costs at the start. This is a slightly expanded version of the answer I gave them.
The initial creation of a book is a long process and can be quite costly. If we assume we’re talking print books, then a traditional publisher is covering the cost of an initial high-level edit (going through and offering advice on how to improve the structure and pacing of the book, perhaps commenting on characterisation or areas that need improvement), as well as line editing, copy editing and proof-reading. A book can go past four or five pairs of eyes before it gets published (and still somehow typos slip through). On top of this, the publisher will be doing type-setting and laying the book out for printing.
How much all of this costs would vary based on the length of the book (most editors charge by the word count or page count, or by how many hours they spend going through the book), whether the publisher has those people as full time staff or if they contract the services out, how clean the manuscript is (a friend of mine who does line editing and proof reading work looks at a sample of the work first and charges based on how many problems it has, because a book with loads of typos, spelling mistakes, and grammatical errors will take more effort to edit than one with only a few), and the level of skill and experience of the people doing the work. It’s hard to put a number on the cost for all these rounds of editing because it varies so much from book to book, but you’re probably looking at a couple of thousand pounds at a minimum, and it could be substantially higher for longer books.
Then there are things like the cost of a cover designer. Again, the cost of this would vary depending on whether the artist is an employee or contractor, but you could expect another few hundred pounds to go on this.
Then there’s the cost of printing the book, not to mention storing the physical copies and handling the distribution.
So before your book has even hit the shelves, a traditional publisher has already made a substantial investment in a book.
Then comes the second half of the discussion, around how what the author gets stacks up against what the publisher gets when the book is sold. The normal rate of royalties for a printed book is between 10% and 20%, depending on the publisher. This is based on the sale price. So if a book sells for £10, you could expect to see £2 of that money. But does that mean the publisher gets the other £8 as profit? No. Some of that will go to the bookshop. Let’s assume the bookshop takes 15% for transacting the sale, that leaves the publisher with £6.50. But there’s also the physical cost of the book – the paper and the printing – so that’s not all profit. Going by the print costs of one of my books as a model, that could be another £3.50 (large print runs are cheaper per book, so if you’re selling thousands or millions of copies, this cost would drop) leaving the publisher with £3 per book.
Please remember that these numbers are all very rough.
Now, you might look at these estimates and wonder why, even after the other costs are taken into consideration, the publisher chunk is still larger than the author’s chunk. The person who I was discussing this with originally seemed to believe that once the book was produced, the publisher wasn’t doing much to earn their cut. So here is a short list of what my publisher has done/is doing for me with my most recent book, Wolf Unleashed.
- They organised the launch event and paid for the wine and nibbles
- They got the book reviewed on Readers’ Favorite (it was a five star review, but the publisher couldn’t control that)
- They print the copies of the book
- They store the printed copies of the book
- They handle distribution out to retailers
- They handle the registering of the book on the distribution/ordering services that are used by the major retailers
- They promote the book on social media
- They have dealers tables at science fiction conventions to sell copies of the books they’ve published, including mine
- They sell the book through their website
And that’s just the most tangible things. There’s also a less tangible aura of legitimacy that surrounds a book that’s been traditionally published, no matter who that publisher might be and whatever else they’re doing. I recently went into a branch of Daunt Books and asked whether they would stock a copy of Wolf Unleashed. To start with, the guy I was talking to was very reluctant, talking about how the stock decisions were made in another branch, and how I’d probably have to take a copy of the book in to show them, but when I mentioned that the book had a traditional publisher, he looked it up on his system and said he could order a copy in.
Having a traditional publisher isn’t a guarantee of quality, but it does substantially reduce the risk for bookshops because they know that someone who isn’t the author thinks that it’s a good book, and that it will have gone through some editing and proofing. Bookshops are vastly more willing to take a chance on stocking a book they’ve never heard of if they know it came from a traditional publisher, even if that publisher is a small one.
So when it comes to getting a paper book published, I would definitely recommend looking for a traditional publisher. E-books are a little trickier, since it’s much easier to publish an e-book yourself and the initial costs are lower, and you lose some of the intangible benefits like being in bookshops. On the other hand though, a lot of publishers offer a more favourable royalty split on e-books and they still help with getting the book out to a wider audience, so you probably won’t have to do quite as much legwork yourself to reach the same number of readers.
There are advantages to going the self-publishing route (speed of publication, complete control, the ability to publish books that are too weird or different to fit into normal publishing categories, not having to deal with piles of rejection letters) but if you’re going to make such a big decision about your book, you should know what you’d be missing out on if you choose not to go with a traditional publisher.
There’s a lot of advice out there for writers but one thing that comes up time and again is the advice to read. I whole-heartedly agreed with this advice. Read writers you admire and try to figure out what it is that they do that makes you like their work so much. Read books you dislike to try and figure out what it is that puts you off about it and avoid it in your own work. Read widely in the genre you write so that you can pick up on the tropes and cliches. Read in other genres to see how stories are crafted differently for different audiences.
But I would also recommend reading non-fiction. There’s a lot that can be learned from books that can be useful in your writing, but I’m not talking about researching a specific subject with a book in mind. Reading more broadly can give you a foundation of knowledge to build on when creating your fiction. Personally, I read a lot of popular science simple because I find it interesting, I’m also very keen on psychology, which I think is a really useful area for writers to read up on. As we create our characters, we want to have them feel believable, like real, solid people with personalities that make sense and whose actions are plausible in their circumstances. Even for those of us working in science fiction and fantasy, we want the characters to feel like real people. Reading psychology books can give us insight into what makes people act in certain ways and that can help as build more nuanced characters.
If you’re writing stories of political intrigue or dealing with the rulers of a fantasy land, it could be useful to read about historical rulers, but I would also recommend The Dictator’s Handbook, which I’m currently reading, a book all about the ways people gain and keep power, and the rules by which they’re able to rule.
There’s an old adage “write what you know” which a lot of writing coaches shy away from these days, but there is an element of truth to it. If you know a subject, you’re more likely to be able to write about it in a way that people believe in. At the very least, you can avoid the more obvious mistakes that will make experts on the subject cringe. If you want to follow this piece of advice, then the next step is to try and know more about as wide a range of topics as you manage. In other words: read more non-fiction.
If you do anything on the internet you’ve probably noticed that everyone seems to be updating their privacy policies at the moment. The reason for this is a handful of letters that have been causing major stress for businesses all across Europe: GDPR.
So what is it and, as an author, do you need to worry about GDPR? The answer to the second question is maybe.
GDPR, or General Data Protection Regulation, is a new set of legislation about how personal data can be stored and used for people in Europe. It doesn’t matter if you’re somewhere else in the world, if you store data about European citizens, GDPR applies to you. So if you have a mailing list containing names and email addresses and at least one of the people on your list is in Europe, you’re storing personally identifiable data for European citizens and therefore you need to comply with GDPR.
A lot of authors maintain mailing lists so you need to make sure that yours follows the new rules. Some of them you are probably following already, but some you might not be, so here are some of the key ones that are applicable in this situation.
You can’t have an opt out approach to storing and using someone’s data. They have to specifically say that they are OK with you using their information. So if you have a form like the one below, where people have to enter their information and choose to sign up, that’s opt in. If you get their email address for another purpose and add them to their mailing list, that’s not.
For example, a little while ago I exchanged some emails with another author about doing an interview with him on this blog. A couple of weeks later, I started receiving his monthly newsletter. I never said or did anything to sign up to that newsletter but I was put on it anyway. I could easily unsubscribe from it, but unsubscribing is a whole different issue.
If you’re going to sign people up for a mailing list, you have to make sure that they have specifically and deliberately chosen to be signed up, whether by entering their email in a form or ticking a box to choose it if they’re giving you their email for some other purpose (and that box can’t be pre-ticked).
If you’re going to be storing and using someone’s personal data, it has to be done in an informed way. You have to tell people what you’re going to use the data for and then only use it for that purpose. So if someone signs up specifically to receive news about new book releases written by you, you can’t also send that person information about your friend’s book.
You may have noticed that my sign-up form has two distinct tick boxes. One is for my publication news, the other is about updates to the queer reading list. There have been plenty of people who have signed up to receive the (at most) weekly emails informing them about new book recommendations being added to the reading list, but they don’t sign up to receive my publication news. So if I get a short story accepted in a magazine, that means I can send that news only to people who have chosen to receive those updates, even though I have the list of email addresses for the other people.
Be specific. Say what you’re going to use their information for and then only use it for that thing.
I mentioned above that unsubscribing was another issue. You have to make it really easy for people to choose to stop receiving your updates and stop you storing their data.
If you use a solution like Mail Chimp, this is actually done for you, but if you manage your own list without these tools, you need to ensure that there is a clear and easy way for people to take themselves off your mailing list.
Only storing necessary data
You should only store information that you need for the purpose you collected it. So for a mailing list, you need to store people’s email addresses. Maybe you want to store their first names as well so you can address the emails to people personally, but you probably don’t need to know their physical address, date of birth, eye colour, or anything like that. Store the minimal data you need to do the job.
And you should only store the data for as long as you need it. So if someone unsubscribes from your mailing list, you should remove their information from your list. You shouldn’t keep a list of old email addresses from people who no longer what to receive your updates.
This is where it gets tricky, because unless you’re a technology expert, you’re probably not highly involved in the technical security behind where your list is stored, so it’s hard to know how safe it is. The rules under GDPR are that you have to keep the data safe for unauthorised access, and you have to inform people if there’s a breach and their data gets stolen. There are a lot more specifics on the GDPR website, but this is where using a solution like Mail Chimp is really helpful because GDPR also applies to them. They have to hold their data securely – and their data includes your mailing list. They have to inform people about data breaches – which means they would have to tell you and the people on your mailing list, as well as the appropriate authorities.
So while you are ultimately responsible for the data and have to follow these rules, working with a major company to manage your mailing list lets you breathe a little easier because that responsibility is at least partially shared. You don’t have to worry about the technical security side all by yourself.
It is possible that your list may already be compliant. If you’ve always made sure that people opt-in to the mailing list and you’re clear about what you’re using the data for and only storing the necessary data and there’s a nice unsubscribe button, you’re already meeting the most relevant criteria.
But it’s still a good idea to check your list. Clear out old data if you’re not sure how those people signed up and whether they were properly informed. Send an email asking people to confirm that they still want to receive your updates. Take this time to do a bit of spring cleaning of your mailing list.