Byeeeee

There has been a draft in my blog’s dashboard for about half a year. It’s called “saying no” and it’s languishing there, never quite ready to be published.

Saying no to work is hard. Saying goodbye is also hard.

It’s a time of endings and a time of assessing what works for me, and what does not. Something does not need to make me money to be worth it – I do give up hours of my time each week on various voluntary things, because I am lucky enough to set my own hours which means I can be free when I am needed. There are other things that I do, almost out of habit, that don’t have any value to others, society or myself. And a further heap of things where the cost to me – my time, sanity or whatever – outweigh the benefits.

We don’t always get the choice to end something. Loveyoudivine Alterotica is an ebook publisher that has lasted over seven years – from the very beginnings of ebooks to the current boom. I’ve been with them for about four or five years. This month, they have closed due to illness. Over those seven years, ereaders have gone from novelty items to standard and common. Even better, what was considered “alternative” then – gay and lesbian stories – is now mainstream, at least to a greater extent that it was before. I feel very sad and wistful that the company’s closed, but I have some happiness too because I learned so much from everyone that I worked with.

It does free up a whole chunk of my week but diminishes my income slightly. This was one of those cases where I worked far more than I earned, but the experience was invaluable so I didn’t mind at all. The stress involved in trying to run a secure ecommerce website based in the US when I was on patchy internet in the UK however… I’ll not miss that!

The closing of loveyoudivine wasn’t my choice. I am choosing to end this blog, however. It’s been nearly two years since I started it, with the intention of tracking my progress from teacher to writer, and I’m comfortably in the position I wanted to be in. I have nothing new to say that other people haven’t already said, much more eloquently, and I feel that new chapters in my life are opening – that don’t need to be scrawled over the internet. I’m running 3 pennames in my writing now, in erotica, erotic romance and traditional romance. I’m developing Top Hat Books and it’s gathering momentum now. I’m still writing for magazines, mostly about cycling. I’m proofreading and copyediting for John Hunt Publishing and fellow erotica authors. During term time, I spend a day or two a week teaching cycling to primary kids – this is essential to my mental health not my financial health! I have found that full time home based working is not good for my well being as I tend to stay introspective and aloof anyway, and without a reason to interact with people, I never would – and that’s ultimately detrimental to all aspects of my life, including my writing.

I don’t know what I’ll do with this blog. Let it fester for a bit, maybe, then remove it. Who knows.

So long, folks, it’s been fun and thanks for being here on the ride!

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Social Media – Worth The Hassle?

I’ve been thinking about promotion, marketing and publicity a lot over the past month. I’ve talked about it before, and how some authors get a little defensive when you speak of targeting an audience. This time, I’m thinking about how I find and connect with my audience.

I see a mistake repeated over and over: authors spending lots of time on social media, working on their connections… to other authors. I’ve been on forums and Facebook pages where it’s simply endless self-promotion, everyone shouting about their own book and ignoring everything else. This just doesn’t work. It’s so easy to fall into this trap and we have all done it.

The second mistake I see happening is when someone builds a page or whatever, and then endlessly spams with their latest release. That’s the quickest way to have someone turn off your updates’ visibility. Again, this is something I did when I started the Top Hat Books facebook page – it didn’t work, and it will never work. It works against you. So, learn from my mistakes…

Do you need to promote, as an author? Depends on what you write, I suppose. There IS no one magical answer. My short erotica stories are never promoted. I write them and publish them, and I know my audience – my audience is willing to seek out the kinks that they like. As long as I ensure my cover meets their expectations and the blurb lays out what they are getting for their money, they find me. I sell around 300 of these a month, without any promotion, because of the type of book and the type of audience.

My romance, however, has not sold 300 copies a month! The Duke’s Disguise was written under a “transparent” penname – Sara Barlow – that I didn’t mind sharing, so I was able to tout it a little on facebook and so on. I know I won’t sell much until I have a catalogue of sweet romances out, but it is disheartening to compare my 70,000 word novel with a 5,000 word filthy smut-fest, and realise people prefer the smut. I am playing the long game, though, and let’s look at these numbers again in a year’s time.

I’m now moving into novel-length erotic romance – you can define this in two ways. Either it’s romance but with a lot of sex which is essential to the plot (not just jammed in to make it spicier) or it’s erotica where the characters develop and change, like in any other story. Either way, it’s meatier and more fun to write. So it’s time for another pen name, as I’ve no wish to confuse the different audiences, and this time I’m thinking about promotion from the start.

I’ve looked at all the different places an author can promote, and I’ve asked myself, “where are the readers?” I have also had to be honest about how much time I can devote to the new name. I won’t be blogging, for example. I cannot commit to that. Twitter works best if you converse with others and I haven’t got the hang of it. I’ve thought about, and discounted, Tumblr and Pinterest. I’m left with the options of Facebook, Goodreads, and a website. Facebook is where the readers are – where everyone is! Goodreads is useful for giveaways. And a website means I can have a URL that brings it all together, and also apply to All Romance Ebooks.

I’m going to use what I’ve learned. I’m going to use Facebook as a place to share, and to make people laugh. My promotion will be minimal, in a way – it will happen through building a personality, not by battering my books at people. Goodreads is a place to support other writers, as well as be a good reader and help other readers with reviews and so on. I aim to increase my visibility by increments.

It will be interesting to compare how this strategy goes. I’ll be comparing it against my romance penname (little promotion) and my erotica penname (no promotion). The comparison is slightly skewed because of the genres being different, but I’m curious to find out how effective social media is. It’s a huge drain on the time yet thousands of authors swear that it’s essential… let’s find out.

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Trying To Keep Up!

It’s been a busy few weeks and things have occasionally got a little overwhelming. I have a week-to-view diary and I write deadlines in here, and gradually each day fills up with a to-do list around it. It’s become a mass of scribbles and I was feeling panicked every time I opened it.

I had to take a step back and look at a few things logically. Such as, was I actually very busy? If so, why? And for how long?

I drew out a ten-week planner and filled in my deadlines. I noticed immediately that they were in bunches, two or three a week. Next, I filled in my other commitments such as Bikeability teaching until the end of term, my week in France, and my week at Swanwick Writers’ Summer School.

Was I actually busy? Yes.

Why? Success breeds success, of course, and I’ve carried on with my usual commissions while constantly seeking out more, in the fear that whatever I’m doing is not enough. Furthermore, as I seem to have become a cycling journalist, the summer is packed with events and opportunities for me to cover. Last week I was teaching Bikeability all day then dashing off to interview someone about the Rossendale-Bocholt challenge, or heading to Manchester for a bike polo session, or taking part in the World Naked Bike Ride (yes I did, and no you can’t see the photos). This week has been equally busy, including my first attempt at a Time Trial.

Seeing it all laid out over the next 10 weeks helped to calm me down. I can see the end, I can see the peaks and troughs, and I can see my deadlines. I can see when I have a gap – and I am determined to keep those gaps as gaps. They are not chances to fit more things in.

It’s also useful to split up what I have to do from what I’d like to do. I only put on my planner what I have to do. I discovered that lots of my diary scribbles were vague things that I wanted to do, and it made it looked more pressured than it was.

I think we all get points in our lives where everything crowds in at once. On the one hand, we know we ought to be grateful for the busyness and work, but if you don’t step back now and then it can feel relentless. Everyone has their own way of taking time out, and if you don’t – or it’s not working for you – block off half a day in your diary right now.

And write down: staff mental and physical wellbeing session. Priority: urgent.

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Writer’s Block? It’s A Sign.

I’ve had a kind of writer’s block recently, but I think I’ve identified the cause – and the solution.
I spent a long time plotting out The Duke’s Disguise, so when it came to the actual writing part of things, I was already thinking about my next book under the Sara Barlow name. I knew I wanted to set it in Lancashire around 1860, and I knew I wanted to feature the Whisky-Spinners – the inhabitants of a now-desolate area who were famed for their illicit stills. I had my characters sorted, and I even had the plot all marked out with post-it notes. I took a break after The Duke’s Disguise, then sat myself down to begin this new story, tentatively called A Rich Man’s Redemption.
I couldn’t. I knew what the first chapter would be – the setting, the emotion, the story. But nothing grabbed me about it.
I’m not one to sit around and whinge, so I turned to my erotica penname and set about a full-length novel exploring cuckoldry and love triangles. Within days, I had 20,000 words, and I was amazed at my flying start.
Why has one story flowed from me, and the other has not?
I have spent a few weeks trying to work it out and I’ve finally come to this conclusion: I knew the theme of the erotica story, but the sweet historical only had plot.
Plot is what happens. Both of these stories have a detailed plot. Both stories have a character arc, with development and resolution. But only the erotica story had a theme that was definite in my mind: “love conquers all” perhaps. It was exploring issues around control, women’s careers and home lives, aspirations and secrets. It was giving me room to bounce around these kinds of ideas.
On the other hand, the sweet historical was just a series of events that were happening to characters. Without a theme, without something to explore, without some “meat” to it, it was just a story and ultimately quite unsatisfying to write – and clearly, would be pretty dull to read.
Themes don’t have to be explicitly stated. In many cases, you’ll read a book and never be aware of the theme the writer intended. But I do believe that it’s that extra something that marks a good book from an uninspiring one, even if you can’t put your finger on it.
Now I’ve identified the weak spot, I’m thinking about the characters and their situation, and what that makes me feel. It’s led me to consider how we develop our sense of right and wrong – and how that changes depending on circumstance, especially under family pressure. Stealing, for example – always wrong? What about if your kids are starving? What about a neighbour’s kids? Where do you stop… I think I’ve found my theme, and it’s making me much keener to get on with the writing.
I’m no expert on writer’s block and I wouldn’t presume to say I’ve found a cure. I would suggest, though, that if the story won’t come, maybe your subconscious is telling you something about the story…

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Indie Round-Up

I’m a difficult person to buy presents for. I tend to get given Amazon gift cards, and that’s great. I load up my Kindle with the self-published books of friends, acquaintances and random connections from Facebook, and settle down for a good read.

If I were spending my own money, I think I’d be rather conservative in my choices. I stick with what I know. I’d buy another Philippa Gregory or Elizabeth Moon. However, supporting indie authors has meant I’ve read a wide range of books outside my usual genres.

It also means I tend to impulse-buy without always reading the blurb properly. I was three chapters in to Jan Warburton’s A Face To Die For before I realised it wasn’t a murder mystery. You know when you take a swig of drink, expecting lemonade, but it’s water and because you’re primed for a particular sensation, it tastes all wrong? It’s the same when you read a book thinking it’s one thing… and it’s not. I’m glad to say that this book kept my interest enough to keep my reading on (even if I was thinking, “when is she going to die?”) It’s actually a sweet slice of sixties life, set in the fashion world at a very exciting time. The lives of the characters intertwine and develop. It was well-formatted and well-edited, which is highly important in any book. Self-publishers start at a disadvantage as they have to prove they are as well-produced as a traditional book, and I think they come under closer scrutiny for it. I’m glad to say that Jan Warburton’s book was of a high standard.

I am going to pick holes, because I want to give a fair assessment. At times, it felt too much like a memoir – there was a lot of tell, where whole years were briefly touched upon. I understand of course that there was a lot of information to get across, but sometimes it felt a little dry and unemotional. The solution? Perhaps it could have been longer, and given the characters a bit more room to breathe. That said, I enjoyed the writing style and the topic, and I would look for more from this author.

Dark Ghosts And Flamingos is a collection of short stories from C L Holland. These do exactly what short stories ought to do – plunge you abruptly into another world, and then drag you out again, gasping and wondering what the hell just happened. Some ended perhaps a little too sharply – and yet, I am being very picky, because the question-mark endings meant that the stories lingered in my mind. Strongly written, and haunting. If you like powerful and dark shorts, then this is highly recommended.

The Governess Affair by Courtney Milan is a big-name self-published book. Courtney Milan is one of the big league writers in historical romance, and this book is a freebie. The advice is always to make a very good book free if you want to attract sales to your others, and I totally enjoyed this one. It’s a novella, but it’s tightly crafted and sweet, with a very appealing hero. It did what it needed to – it made me a fan, and I will be buying more of her work. It’s also a very professional piece of work. I checked in the credits, and the author herself made the cover. People buy books from the cover, and my heart sinks when I see a self-published book with a dowdy or embarrassing image. This is one area where you ought to think about paying for help. In Courtney Milan’s case, her cover is excellent and fits the genre. She does credit editors and proof-readers, though, and this is a great example of outsourcing what you cannot do. It’s not enough to ask a mate to beta-read. A proper editing job really shows.

Paragon by Aubrey Watt is an unusual book which I wouldn’t have chosen if I hadn’t had my attention already drawn to it on a forum. It’s a science fiction romance. Again speaking of covers, Aubrey Watt is a cover designer for other writers, so if you’re flailing, do check her out. The book itself was great, and I am glad I read it. It’s a typical can-robots-love sort of premise, but the characters make it come alive. My only gripe (I must have one gripe!) is that it ended rather suddenly, just as the character’s love affair was taking off. I wanted to know what happened next…

I Married A Billionaire by Melanie Marchande is one of those romances that seem to be everywhere at the moment. It’s the age-old story of a woman being swept off her feet by a rich man. From fairy tale princes to modern billionaires nothing is new. This story was a quick and light read. It felt a little rushed, and could have developed the characters’ emotional landscape more fully – after all, that’s the reason people read a romance. For the emotional roller-coaster, not the plot.

Anyone For Murder? is a collection of crime-themed short stories by Maggie Cobbett. I liked these little gems. Unlike C L Holland’s dark, unsettling work, these were lighter and more in the “cosy crime” traditional. Think Midsomer Murders and that ilk. They’re the sort of stories that leave you with a smile on your face, each one a little nugget of fictional English life. I liked them for their simplicity, and I mean that as a compliment.

I still have two self-published books in progress on my Kindle: a historical novel called More Than Gold by Janis Pegrum Smith, and King’s Priory by David Hough, which is an emotional thriller straddling modern times and World War II. I’m about 20% of the way through both of them, and will report back as soon as I’ve finished them. They are two very different stories, both in tone and subject.

There are also heaps of self-published books that I simply never finished, usually because of poor editing or terrible plot. I’m not going to review them. Anything I’ve mentioned here, I am happy to recommend – if it’s awful, I simply won’t write about them. Life’s too short to waste on bad books!

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Don’t Go Here, Go There!

In fine doofus-mode, I wrote a blog post for here, and put it on the Top Hat Books Blog instead, accidentally. So, leave here at once, and go there to read it! Doh.

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Working And Not Working

I’m thinking about that philosophy of “work smarter, work less”. There are folks who reckon they only work a few hours a week. How tempting! However, when you examine this claim, it dissolves into discussions about how we define “work”. If you don’t enjoy it, but you have to do it, it’s “work”. Everything else isn’t.

I suppose, by that criterion, I work very little. Most of what I do is enjoyable. I enjoy cycling, and I enjoy writing, and when those two things coincide, I’m doubly lucky.

It also means that I sometimes feel as if I haven’t been working “hard” and that I have to “work harder” to somehow justify to people that I am, in fact, working at all. I have friends who loathe their jobs, or who don’t have a job at all, and I feel almost guilty for having got to a position that I’m happy with. I feel as if I ought to be doing something unpleasant to off-set my daily pleasure in working!

I’ve been very busy at weekends lately. I’ve been out on bike rides, which then have been written up as features and articles. Yes, it’s fun, but I’ve had to have my professional-head on.

So I am very much looking forward to this weekend. Today I’m off to Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, to take part in the Sealed Knot’s civil war battle re-enactment. I’ll be camping in a wet and muddy field until Monday. I’ll be cold, tired, and hungover. But I certainly shan’t be working.

I’m also looking forward to taking my Kindle and having the chance to finally read a whole heap of books I’ve got on there. Lots of my friends and acquaintances write and self-publish, and I’m going to work my way through a list of them. I’ve been promising reviews to too many people for too long.

Enjoy the bank holiday whatever you do!

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Win Your Very Own…. Limerick

After last week’s successful launch of Silver Hands (read more on the Top Hat Books Blog and see the photos on Facebook here) I am delighted to bring you more book promotion gubbins.

As part of the advance publicity for her comedy steampunk novel, Intelligent Designing For Amateurs, Nimue Brown has initiated a bizarre competition. If you reblog her post here, or the pre-order link to her book, then let her know and she will write you a limerick of your very own! You can love it and keep it and call it George. They are house-trained and will need minimal care, but I am told they can sometimes escape and cause havoc in your peonies.

I’m very excited to see what limericks and verses emerge from all this.

There once was a druid called Nimue

Who lived on a boat in a floaty way

She wrote a steampunk book

Which is worth a good look

It will make you laugh all day.

Nimue is on twitter as @brynneth_nimue so do link up there if you wish.

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Let’s Meet Up… Tomorrow, Emporium of Dreams, Bradford

Elizabeth Hopkinson’s historical fantasy, Silver Hands, was released last week and there’s a little launch party tomorrow, Saturday 11 May 2013, at 2pm. Come along to the Emporium of Dreams, 7 Market Street, Bradford, BD1 1LN – there will be giveaways, a reading, and CAKE. I’m making the cakes.

You can read more on the Top Hat Books blog.

In other news… since The Duke’s Disguise was released last week, I’ve sold… wait for it… twenty copies. JK Rowling can continue to sleep easily in her bed at night!

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Sweet Historical Romance

thedukesdisguiseWell, so this is scary. I’ve been writing a lot of erotica since August, and though it is going well, I’ve been itching to write something longer and meatier. (No pun intended! stop sniggering at the back there!)

And The Duke’s Disguise is the result. I had intended it to be an erotic romance – a romantic novel with sexy scenes that drive the plot. However, the characters had other ideas! I was certain that I wanted it to be historically accurate, and my heroine, Ruby, turned out to be the sort of Victorian girl who wouldn’t have sex before marriage. Plenty did, of course – but not Ruby. She was quite adamant about that.

I was a bit worried about this, as most romance novels these days have at least one sex scene in them. Once I’d finished the first draft, I wondered whether to add a final chapter with the wedding night but I decided against it. It would be too obviously artificial. I did some research and apparently there is a market for romances like this: and they tend to be called “sweet”. Hence the title of this blog post!

It’s not a world-changing novel of grand ideas, but there is a subtle theme around family duty and responsibility, and the importance of learning to communicate. My aim has been to create a small slice of entertainment where the reader can step outside this world for a little while, and into another place of passion, intrigue and emotion.

It’s available on Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, and Apple.

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