The Fun of Feedback

Someone told me once that feedback was like a gift – you should always accept it, but it was up to you to decide what you were going to do with it.

One of the more nerve-wracking elements of publishing a book is that you will inevitably get feedback that you don’t agree with.  It’s a bit of double-edged sword, because whilst reviews are really useful and valuable, it shouldn’t be an open invitation to pan someone’s hard work.  I’m really open to thoughtful critics who call out specific areas that they think could have been done better, but I have no time for people who just want to trash the work.  That’s really lazy and we can all do a little better.  Actually the same is true about positive feedback.  Simply saying that it is good, is nice, but not especially useful, either to me or to anyone else reading the review.

I had some feedback on Facebook the other day from someone who had read The Greyfield.  Overall they said they had enjoyed the book, but that one thing that could have done without was some of the bad language.  I found this really interesting because by the standards of most modern novels there really isn’t that much swearing in the story.  There’s probably more swearing in an average 15-rated film than in the book.  So I checked with a few other people who all said more or less the same thing.  It is not the language itself that is especially noticeable, it’s the character who says it and the context in which it is used.  This is a fair point – the scene that they are referring to (and it’s always the same scene) is explicit and was intended to be so.  Having reread the passage again this week, I still think that it works in the context of the larger story and the words and actions were chosen intentionally for the purposes of the narrative, no purely just to shock the reader.

Feedback like this is really useful because I can take it into consideration for future projects.  So the next time I am writing dialogue for the main antagonist I can make a more informed decision about whether or not they should mind their Ps and Qs.  I might still decide to proceed according to my gut instinct, but I might also make a note in the margin to make sure I get a second opinion.

Review Writing 101

I keep asking people to write 5-line reviews of The Greyfield.  This initially was a pithy way of saying “a short review” but people started taking it literally so I thought I’d give them a hand

How to write a 5-line review:

  • This is a story about….
  • I really like…
  • The best part is…
  • The characters are…
  • I would recommend this book…

Obviously, people can write more if they want, but this covers the key points of any review.  (And yes, they do assume a positive review, but that is easy enough to change).

So, if you have read The Greyfield please spread the word via social media or by leaving a review on Amazon

Rowan

The Greyfield – 1 Month Later

It’s been 1 month exactly since The Greyfield went on sale.  1 month since the output of many weekends and holidays was let out into the world.  1 month since it all became very real.

I am very very grateful to all the people who have bought the book.  The fact that anyone – beyond my immediate family – has taken an interest is rather wonderful.  Even more incredible to me, is that people are willing to put their money down on the table.  In addition, some of the feedback that has come my way has been really positive as well.  You can see some of these on the re-worked website www.rowanides.com.

In terms of actual sales, I never made a prediction for what I was hoping or expecting, so there was never a target to hit.  What I will say is that The Greyfield is doing well in the selected sub-genres – and that is with a minimum amount of advertising.  So, Stephen King, I am coming for you – just very slowly so no need to panic just yet.

Another thing that surprised me is just how many people still want a physical paperback in the hands.  Due to the way Amazon structure their print on demand offering, I had to set the price of the paperback quite high – the same as you might pay for a hardback version.  Nonetheless, about 25% of all the copies sold have been paperback versions, despite them costing five times more than the e-book.  This suggests that there might be value in getting a small batch of books printed and then selling directly.  The economics work out better for everyone in the long term so it is something I am looking at.

The first month was always likely to be a relatively good month in terms of sales since all the pre-orders are included here.  The challenge now is to maintain momentum over the coming months.  There are three things that are needed for that to happen.

  1. Blogs – I’m going to keep sending out news and updates roughly every one or two weeks, depending on whether there is anything worth saying
  2. New Material – This might be new short stories or maybe something more episodic i.e. weekly instalments of a new story.  My main focus is developing the sequel to The Greyfield which is coming along nicely in the background
  3. MOST IMPORTANTLY – REVIEWS.  The Amazon algorithm feeds on reviews in order to drive visibility and recommendations.  However, the algorithm also prevents me from writing my own review (obviously) but it also means that immediate family and close friends are also likely to find their reviews rejected.  Basically, the more strangers who write reviews, the better.  So, if you have read The Greyfield, please go ahead and write a short review and post it on Amazon and Goodreads and Bookbub etc. 

In the meantime, thanks once again for all the support and kind words.

Rowan

Why a Broad Reading Range Matters

There is a long-standing convention that books fall into distinct and definite categories.  If the story involves spaceships with laser-blasters, it is classed as a Science Fiction story.  If the lead character has pointy ears and fights with a bow and arrow, then it would probably be regarded as Fantasy.  And, if the story involved a murder victim and a detective working to solve the case, well, clearly that is a crime novel.

These shortcuts can obviously be useful and bookshops use them to help customers navigate around the store and they provide a simple shorthand for cataloguing and organising.

However, there is an argument to say that this is a lazy way of looking at literature and that, rather than helping people find books that they might like, it funnels readers into definite silos that they can find it hard to escape from.

Let’s imagine for a moment that I’ve written the greatest love story of all times (I haven’t, but just go with it for now).  If I set that story in some rural setting circa 1833 with period costumes and rugged scenery, I can guarantee that you’d find this book under the Romance section in Waterstones.  But, if I set the same story on a planet called Hellenia and make it about two terraformers in space suits, then it’ll be found next to the works of Isaac Asimov on the Science Fiction shelf.  Yes, the context is different, but the fundamentals of the story could be exactly the same.  Does the emotion and empathy of the writing become any less relevant or powerful by the relocation in time and space?

Would a story that explored loss and grief be more likely to be set in a modern day, urban environment or in a tree-city and involve a character called Earik?  Would it make the writing any less powerful or the emotion any less real?

I don’t mean to suggest that the location where a story takes place doesn’t impact how events are perceived – see my previous blog about locations as characters – but that isn’t my point here.  The fact that we insist on characterising books in a certain way almost certainly limits the types of stories and the quality of the writing that people are exposed to.  

Consequently, when something comes along that mixes or clashes genres, it presents a conundrum to the publisher on how to market it.  Unlike films, that can use trailers and star name actors to help sell and showcase the story, books don’t really have that option.  Yes, there are book trailers, but their quality varies massively and the only star name every attached to a book, is the author.

All this reinforces the importance and having a broad reading range.  If your literary diet consists only of the ilk of The Lord of The Rings and A Song of Fire & Ice then you are missing out on so much other great writing.  Never be afraid to mix up genres – it’s totally fine to go from 2001 to 1984 or from The Shining to Sherlock Holmes.  Don’t be afraid to put down a Jane Austin and pick up Mary Shelley.  Throw in non-fiction as well – biographies and histories can be supremely entertaining.  I believe that the more you read across as many genres as you can, the greater the appreciation that you’ll have when a story comes along that doesn’t fit neatly into one of these pre-defined boxes.

Final Week

This week’s blog is a little later than usual – apologies for this – but final preparations for Friday’s launch took priority.  I received the printed proof copies in the mail on Sunday.  These are basically prototypes of the finished product that you can examine to see if they look as you expect them to do.  I have never been so happy to get a book with so many things wrong with it.  

Many of the items that needed correcting were linked to layout rather than copy – which makes them no less annoying – but slightly less arduous to fix.  Nonetheless, I did run the rule over the text one last time, both through the eyes of a proof-reader and by using a powerful automated writing tool.  Interestingly, there was surprisingly little overlap between what errors the two approaches picked up – which, to me, shows the danger of relying on only one approach when checking the text.  I am sure that there are still some errors that have slipped through the net, but I’m not overly worried.  First editions often have small errors in the text – often making them collector’s item later on – and these are often ironed out in later editions and reprints.

And so now, there is nothing more I can do.  The deadline for the submission of the ebook passed at midnight Tuesday and now it’s just a case of waiting for March 1st to come around.  I’ll put the paperback version up for sale once I’m happy that the layout changes are OK – maybe after ordering a few more proof copies to be sure that everything looks right.

People keep asking me whether I am looking forward to the launch day and if I am going to have a launch party.  I think I am looking forward to getting the book out there and getting the feedback.  It will be interesting to see if the readers and I agree on what the weaknesses of the book are.  I do hope people will like it but it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea and that’s perfectly fine.  And, no, I don’t have any sales targets.  As I keep saying, this is just a hobby that has gotten a little out of hand!

As for a party, well, I’m taking my wife to see Hamilton in London.  Does that count?

The Last Temptation of the Self-Publisher

We are less than two weeks out from the launch date of The Greyfield and I think everything is ready to go. My modest (read tiny!) advertising budget is doing its thing on Amazon.com and Goodreads.com and I’m working on a few other DIY marketing elements that will materialise over the coming weeks, fingers crossed.

The paperback version – which several people have requested – is 99% confirmed, however, because I’m using a POD approach the price is a bit on the high side. Sorry about that. I’ll look at ways to get that down over time.

The final tweaks have also been made to the ebook – small things that no-one would actually really notice. In fact, it feels that all I’ve done for the past few weeks is change small things – almost for the sake of changing something.

Self-publishing in 2019 means that you can make changes right up until the last minute – and there is big temptation to do just that.

For example, I decided at 10:31 yesterday that I didn’t like the paperback cover that I had previously approved, so I spent a good portion of the rest of the day addressing that. One of the key changes was to re-write the story description on the back cover. There wasn’t actually anything really wrong with what I had originally put there, but having looked again at the blurbs on some of the books at home, I decided that it could be improved.

The truth is that I’ll probably always think that elements of the book could be improved – things that, given all the time and resources in the world, I would do differently. That is not to say it would make the book much better – my limitations as a writer certainly outweigh any cosmetic tweaks that I would make to the book. And that’s the point – you have to draw the line somewhere. As much as there are things about the book that I know aren’t quite how I’d like them to be, spending an excessive amount of time fretting about them, can become a way of putting off the inevitable.

In the end, you have to stop fiddling and face the music.

I genuinely have no idea whether people will read the book, much less whether they will like it or not. And, to be honest, I’m not actually too worried about it. I write because I enjoy writing. There is absolutely no pressure on the book to do well. If people enjoy it – wonderful – if they don’t – well, nothing really changes. I’m going to keep writing in my spare time and whenever I reach the end of a story, I’m going to put it out into the world. That makes it much easier to live with the flaws and imperfections that exist in the novel.

I’m not sure I’d be quite to so calm if there was a necessity for the book to perform to any measurable level. For every well-known author who has topped the New York Times bestseller list, there are a hundred or so talented authors who are writing for a living and are barely making ends meet. That’s real pressure – when every word actually matters and where a good review can mean the difference between making rent or not.

For the rest of us, we need to keep some perspective. Yes, we should absolutely do our best work, but agonising over every word and punctuation mark can quickly become an obsession. When writing is a hobby, isn’t it better to get the stories out into the world, then seek out feedback on to improve and go again?

Yes, we might fall foul of the grammar-police and the language pedants and not everyone is going to like everything that we do. But that’s OK – it’s supposed to be fun – serious fun, perhaps – but fun nonetheless.

If all else fails, just remember, no one died from the improper use of the Oxford comma.

Community Matters

I’ve spent a bit of time over the last week or so using Twitter to engage with the wider book-loving community.  I can honestly say that, in the frequently toxic atmosphere of social media, I find reading tweets from fellow writers, reviews and publishers to be a relaxing haven.  Whether it is discussing our favourite books or helping overcome common writing challenges, there is a genuine sense of community here.  It is a broad church, with all sort of literary interests represented – romance, horror, sci-fi, fantasy, crime, history, humour and everything in between.

What I like most is that there is a great sense of collaboration here.  Writing is generally a solitary pursuit, so I suspect there is something quite cathartic about sharing problems with people who have likely experienced them themselves.  And everyone is super supportive – I don’t think I’ve seen one negative, snide or nasty comment from anyone.  There is a recognition that writing is a hard and often lonely activity, that can easily eat into social and family commitments.  Most writers are also very self-critical, perfectionist and often lack confidence in their abilities.  The last thing we need is to be exposed to the bickering and nastiness that is prevalent across most social media.  So, to find a tranquil corner of Twitter where people are supportive and genuinely interested in what you are doing is quite special.

There is one small downside, however.  With so much good advice, inspirational material and alternative suggestions being shared, it can be difficult to know which to incorporate into your own work and which to leave alone.  In truth, there is no science to this, so I’ve decided to take a more pragmatic “test & learn” approach.  With less than three weeks to go before The Greyfield hits Amazon, it is too late to change the text, but there are plenty of things to try when it comes to marketing and promotion.

And besides, there is always the sequel.

Horses, Start-ups and Book Promotion

One of the things that have become increasingly obvious to me over the last few weeks is that it is far easier to write a book than to promote a book.

It’s true. While you are writing, you are total control. If you want a character to do a particular action, you have the ability to make him do it. There’s something rather God-like about holding the power to control the world – albeit the one you’ve made for yourself on the page.

However, once all the words have been written and everyone is living happily ever after – or not, as the case may be – you then need to find people who a.) want to read it and b.) willing to part with their hard-earned cash for the privilege. This is a significantly more difficult task because this something completely out of your control. The expression “you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink” is very apt here, except you have to go a few steps back where you have to tell a bunch of horses that water is available and then round them up to point them in the right direction. Except, instead of horses, it’s kittens and instead of water, it’s a mystery liquid that no one is quite sure how it tastes.

As someone who works in a marketing and business environment, I cannot pretend that I wasn’t aware of these challenges, I was. The key difference is that, unlike many of the clients I work with, I don’t have an advertising budget stretching into the 7-figures I can use to promote the book, nor do I have a popular brand name that I can use to engender trust in potential buyers.

In fact, self-publishing a book is more like running a small start-up. It’s all about heart, soul, blood, sweat and tears, you are starting out from nothing, there is a lot of competition out there and, to be very blunt, the odds are not in your favour.

That being said, there are plenty of lessons that self-publishing authors can learn from entrepreneurial start-ups – and indeed many online courses, who advertise as helping new writers find their audience, follow approaches that are essentially copied and pasted from books aimed at helping start-ups grow and prosper.

I’ve followed a few of these approaches in my own efforts to promote The Greyfield – this blog entry is an example of one of them – but my expectations are of success are hopefully very realistic. Time will tell whether I have been able to persuade those horses/kittens or not.

Can a Location also be a Character?

For anyone who has ever read any of Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels, then the answer is almost certainly “yes”. 

The Edinburgh that Rebus inhabits is not the Edinburgh seen by the tourists as they wander from the Castle down towards Holyrood House.  There are no jolly pipers or happy-go-lucky tour guides.  The pubs don’t welcome outsiders with open arms and you won’t always find haggis on the menu.  The strange thing is that Rebus’s Edinburgh still feels absolutely real.  It’s still totally recognisable as Edinburgh – all the key elements are present and correct – but because it has been stripped of all the adornments, what you are left with is the pure product.  More real, more vivid and a lot more dangerous.

There is no doubt that Edinburgh is more than simply a backdrop to the Rebus tales, it’s an essential part of the fabric of the story.  It is very much a character, whose relationship with Rebus is just as important as all his other relationships, possibly more so.  And although, there are other writers who base their stories in and around a specific location e.g. Stephen King and Maine, the role of Edinburgh in the Rebus stories is special

Now I’m not comparing myself to Ian Rankin – there’s a long way to go to get there – however, where I have tried to emulate him, is in the way he’s made the location a critical part of the Rebus mythology.  Where he has Edinburgh, I have Cardiff – which is a bit of a doubled edged sword.  Cardiff doesn’t have anything like the history of many major cities – it is one of Europe’s youngest capitals – and it’s nowhere near as well known.  However, Wales, as a whole, is chocked full of history so there is a LOT of material to mine for ideas.  I think the fact that this is not just a detective story also helps.  By giving the story more supernatural element, certainly opens up ways of using that rich history that otherwise would be quite tricky.

The Cardiff of The Greyfield is probably recognisable to anyone who knows the city pretty well.  Most places of interest are where they should be and several real locations get a mention in the story, including Cardiff Bay, The Millennium Centre, The St. Davids Hotel, Whitchurch Village and my old school, Ysgol Glantaf.  But, at the same time, I hope that there is something slightly wrong about it as well, just enough to stop people from getting too comfortable.

You can judge for yourselves when The Greyfield goes on sale on March 1st

The Art of Creativity

I had an interesting conversation this week about the times of day that different people feel most creative.  Someone said that they had a read a theory that stated that people were most creative during those times of the day when they were least efficient.  In other words, if you were a night owl, then you would be more creative in the morning (assuming you were awake) or in the afternoon, than in the evening.

My first reaction to this was that it didn’t really resonate with me.  I am very much a morning person and The Greyfield was almost exclusively written during morning sessions in various cafes.  But then I reflected on what exactly was meant by creativity.  If it meant crafting the story, working out what would happen when and how everything came together, then maybe there was something in the theory after all.  Before a word is even typed, the idea has to exist somewhere.  Then it germinates and grows and spreads and, eventually if all goes well, it flowers.  This is not an efficient process, in fact, it is hopelessly meandering, perfect material for a tired mind to casually play with at the end of a day. 

If coming up with different ways of taking a character from point A to point B (be it physically or emotionally) is a creative process for afternoons and evening, then sitting down and committing it to paper is often more of a morning workmanlike process.  By that point,  I usually already know, pretty much what has to happen and so all I am doing now is telling the story.  It also helps explain why on those, all too frequent occasions, that I realise that I’ve written myself into a hole, that I need some time and space to find a creative way to get myself out of it again!

Everyone is different and this is not a “how to” guide, still it would be interesting to hear what works for you.  Feel free to leave a note in the box below.

What’s in a Name?

One of the questions that I get asked the most, is why am I not writing under my own name?  The answer is, alas, rather dull and pragmatic: there is already an author with my real name out there in the world.  So to avoid confusion, headaches and lawsuits, I decided to have a bit of fun and choose a new name.

So, how did I come up with Rowan Ides?  Well, I took the letters that are in my real name and looked to see if I could make an anagram out of them.  However, with an “m” and a “c” in the name, many of new names sounded very Scottish.  Nothing wrong with that at all, but a Scottish author who writes predominantly about Wales felt a bit odd.  But, it turned out that all I had to do was remove those two pesky letters and, low and behold, Rowan Ides emerges.

Of course, pseudonyms are hardly new; JK Rowling and Stephen King, have both released books under other names.  And, if you believe Edmund Blackadder, even Jane Austin was “a huge Yorkshireman with a beard like a rhododendron bush”.

Until next time!