When I was at Eastercon, I had a conversation with David, my editor at Guardbridge books, about book submissions and the process from his perspective. I did a video interview on the subject for my YouTube channel, but there are a few points of advice I thought it was worth highlighting here.

  1. Send Your Book to the Right Publisher

Guardbridge Books publish science fiction and fantasy, usually books that have something a little bit weird or different about them. Yet, I was told that they receive quite a lot of submissions from authors of Christian fiction. I once attended a talk by another editor who talked about how the publisher she worked for, which produced educational books and text books, received loads of fiction submissions despite the fact that their website and information clearly stated they didn’t publish fiction.

If you submit a book to a publisher that doesn’t publish your type of book, it’s a waste of everyone’s time. These days, a lot of publishers accept electronic submissions, but you might also be wasting paper, printer ink, and postage if you submit your manuscript physically. When you’re sending your book out to publishers, do a little bit of research to find out what publishers are likely to be interested. Check who publishes books that are similar in style to the one you’ve written. Don’t waste time sending your book out to publishers that will never in a million years publish it.

  1. Read the Instructions

Pretty much all publishers have submissions guidelines on their website. These include information on how to approach them (inquiry email, sample chapters, full manuscript) as well as information on the formatting they’re looking for. Most publishers like double-spaced, left-justified, 12 point font, and things like that, but once in a while, you’ll come across a publisher that has a particular format they want to see. You’re shooting yourself in the foot if you don’t follow their guidelines.

There are similar variations when it comes to synopses. Some publishers want a 1 page synopsis, some a 2 page, or 2-3 page. Some will ask for 1000 words or 500 words. And so on. When I was sending my first novel out on submission, it felt like every publisher had their own rules for how long the synopsis should be.

You want to follow the guidelines of the publisher you’re submitting to. After all, if you can’t read their instructions, why should they trust you to write?

  1. Proof-read your submission

This was one that David didn’t mention in the video, but he did mention to me afterwards. The submission doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect, especially since editing and proof-reading is part of the publishing process, but one thing an editor is going to do when looking at a submission is think, “How much effort is this going to take to get ready for publication?” A first page that has two or three typos in it is probably fine. A first page with two hundred is another matter entirely.

If the editor looks at your story and it seems like you don’t understand how to punctuate speech or spell common words, they’re likely to think that your book will take significant effort. If your book is absolutely mind-blowing in other ways, you might get away with it, but you are definitely stacking the odds against you. Publishers put a lot of time and effort into getting a book ready to be released into the world, and the more you can do to convince them it won’t be a trial, the more likely they are to be interested in your book.

Check out the video for the other suggestions and comments David had about the submissions process from an editor’s perspective, and good luck with your publication efforts.

Writing Advice: Selling at Conventions

In this video, I offer some advice for selling books at sci-fi and fantasy conventions, a lot of which is also applicable to book fairs, Christmas fairs, village fetes, and anywhere else you might get a table for a few hours to sell your books.

There’s some general advice and tips from my experience. I’d hope some of it, like being nice to people, would be obvious, but it doesn’t hurt to say it.

In convention news, I will be at Bath Comic Con, on 23rd March 2019. It’s in the Bath Assembly Rooms and I will have a table in the ball room if anyone wants to come along and talk to me about books, writing, or fandom in general.

Writing Advice: Prologues

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.

Traditions

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.

Antagonists and villains

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

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.

What has a publisher ever done for us?

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.