Tuesday, 31 December 2013

New Year's Revolution

No, that was not a typo. I really do need to shake things up this year. 2013 was all about beginnings; getting married, buying my first car and publishing my debut novel. 2014 needs to be when I take the latter to a level more aligned with my ambitions.

I spent the best part of two years submitting to agents before deciding to self publish, and until I become successful there will always be times when I may regret that decision. I will always wonder if I should have waited and had one more shot at the big leagues. Except of course, the big leagues are not what they once were.

Sure, self publishing comes with a fair amount of stigma (there is a lot of crap out there), but whilst the standards continue to improve, traditional publishing is also on the decline and the two will eventually meet in some happy medium. I must point out that when I refer to decline of traditional publishing, it is from a quality standpoint rather than that of profitability. Agents are no longer looking for gifted writers, but for 'easily marketable ideas.' Many of these ideas will be ill conceived and poorly executed, but because they so closely resemble a Dan Brown or a Stephanie Meyer, they will sell.

So whilst the book trade is not going anywhere, it is changing rapidly. The challenge for me is to make sure that I am not swept into obscurity by this massive tidal wave of easily accessible and often under priced work available to readers. I currently have two books published and once the third hits Amazon, I will be starting with my free promotions via Kindle Select. Many authors talk of the rapidly decreasing benefits of the Select program, but I believe that if I can only get my books into the hands of enough readers, I may be able to generate some buzz. The books are good enough to sell themselves, but only if they have the visibility to make that happen.

Therefore, my resolution for 2014 is to get noticed. Social media will not do this for me. The only way to show people how good my books are is for them to read them. If that means that I have to give my books away, then so be it. I know that the best advert that a writer has for his or her new book is the one that he or she wrote before it.

Happy New Year.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Midas Touch

Everybody is familiar with King Midas, the much fabled monarch of Greek mythology. According to the legend, King Midas was granted the power whereby everything that he touched would turn instantly to gold. This has led to people applying the expression, 'the Midas Touch' to anybody who makes a success of every venture that person undertakes. 

These people did obviously not read the story, because this week I have had the metaphorical Midas Touch and it brings about anything but success.

When Midas first received the power to turn all that he touched to gold, he tested it on a rock. As expected, the rock was instantly transformed from something worthless into an object of great value. All good so far. However, when Midas returned home and ordered his servants to prepare a feast, he encountered his first problem. Upon picking up an apple to eat, it turned instantly gold, rendering it completely inedible. Even the water and the wine turned to liquid gold once it touched the King's lips. To cut a long story short - The Midas Touch was not a gift; it was a curse.

Turning worthless objects such as rocks into a valuable metal is one thing, but turning everything into gold is nothing less than a nightmare. Essentially, everything that Midas touched was instantly destroyed. Even his daughter was turned into a golden statue. Not even James Bond can save a girl from that fate. Therefore, when I say that this week I have had the Midas Touch, it has been really bad.

It all started when I decided to recharge my phone on Sunday. I have a brand new Samsung Galaxy III Mini that is worth more than the laptop I am using to write this blog post and perhaps rather stupidly, not insured. After plugging in the phone, I noticed something was lodged behind the back of the cabinet I was resting it on. I bent down to retrieve the object (it was the dongle for the wi-fi) and inadvertently got my leg entangled with the cord from the phone. As soon as I walked away, the phone went flying from the cabinet and crashed screen down onto the hard wooden floor of our living room. I now have a used, badly scratched Samsung Galaxy III Mini with a crack in the screen, which is worth considerably less than the laptop I am using to write this blog post.

The next occurrence of My Midas Touch came about when my wife, Katie, asked me to help her in making some chocolate truffles to take up to my family for Christmas. The recipe called for some double cream to be brought to a light simmer and then mixed with melted chocolate. Simmer, boil - it is all the same thing. Apparently not. The components of the chocolate separated and we ended up with ugly brown sludge sitting on a think layer of pure fat.

Not learning from the previous outcome of placing her trust in my ability to help with her baking, Katie enlisted me in the preparation of some gingerbread biscuits. Again, these were intended for my family at Christmas. It started well, as I up-scaled the gingerbread man cookie cutter to the size of a human child, but then things went downhill fast once we removed the life-sized gingerbread baby from the oven. The biscuit had expanded whilst baking at heat, making it an overweight baby. I took it upon myself to rework some definition into our creation and began carving at the body with a knife. We now have a freaky, headless life-sized gingerbread baby.

The list goes on. A kettle with a blown fuse and a car running low on engine coolant that turned into a car with perhaps a little too much engine coolant, to name just two. For fear of wrecking a thus far pleasing first draft, I have not done any work on my latest novel recently. I had also planned on sorting out my tax enrolment this week, but have now decided to wait until after Christmas when, hopefully, my luck will have changed somewhat and I will no longer be cursed with 'The Midas Touch'.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Writer vs Storyteller

This post comes two weeks after my last, which is the longest gap I have left since starting this blog back in April. My original plan had been to post three times a week. This soon dropped to twice a week. Not long after that it reduced again to just one post a week. So what now - fortnightly updates?

First and foremost, I am a novelist. The blog is only an extension of my chosen career path. It has been due to a hectic period of writing the first draft of a new novel that has recently slowed my blog output. You see, writing a novel requires a full time commitment and something, somewhere has to give eventually. I have had to scale back the blog and other social media activities to ensure that my books get as much of my time as possible. The question that I have to ask myself is - how much time is enough?

One or two hours per night is about the most that I can devote to writing at the moment. At that rate the novel will take years to complete, which is significantly more than the 6 months that I was hoping for the first draft. If I am going to reach my target, I cannot afford to spend time sitting at a blank screen waiting for the words to come. I need to be productive.

The reason that I am hopeful of reaching my target is that although I have extremely limited time for writing, writing is only a very minor part of creating a book. In fact, writing is not important at all. Novelists are not writers. We are storytellers and there is a difference. The plot of a book is not created by putting pen to paper or tapping away at a keyboard. Stories are created in the imagination.

I may only have those two hours to write, but I have every other hour that is available to come up with my story. I think about it over breakfast. I think about it on the journey to work. The mundane nature of my job means that I spend a large portion of the day thinking about my stories too. And then for those two hours each night I get to transcribe those thoughts from the day.

A writer has tight deadlines and so little time, but a storyteller has all of the time in the world. Even in our dreams, we can find inspiration. Take this blog post. It was not created at a keyboard. That was merely the means by which I was able to share it with an audience. The words and the thoughts that make this post were actually created an hour ago when I was in the shower.

You don't need a pen and paper to create stories. You need only your imagination and that is something that you can take with you anywhere.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Writing, Running and Albert Einstein

Like many art forms, writing requires a mixture of skill, practice and confidence. Of the three, it is confidence that is perhaps the most overlooked, yet in many ways it is the most important. It can mark the difference between running off five thousand words in an evening or falling victim to the dreaded writer's block. Writer's are no different to any other artist and as such their egos can be fragile. A great work by another writer can inspire or intimidate in equal measure.

What we need to ask ourselves is whether we have any control over becoming inspired or dejected when reading the writing of another. Before I address this however, I need to digress a little and pose another question.

Who is the fastest man on Earth?

I can probably guess which name will have popped into the heads of most. Usain Bolt, right? He is after all, the reigning Olympic Champion and current world record holder in the 100m and 200m athletic events. Does this make him the fastest man on Earth? Well, no, actually. It does not. What about Mo Farrah? Mo is the reigning Olympic 10,000m champion. He can run this distance faster than anybody else currently competing. So why then do we not consider him to be the fastest man on Earth?

I did hear rumours not too long ago of a race between the two. The only problem was in setting the distance. 100m, 200m, 400m, and it would certainly be Bolt every time. 1500m, 5,000m, 10,000m, Mo would have it in the bag. What about 800m or even 600m? That puts us on completely unknown territory as to who could possibly predict the outcome when both runners are pushed out of their comfort zone.

The point I want to make is that it is really pointless trying to compare two such different athletes. Although they are both runners, they do it in completely different ways. It may not be a perfect solution, but in their way they are both the fastest man on Earth.

This brings me back to the original question regarding inspiration or dejection. Writing is a broad term and it encompasses many different disciplines. There are many who call themselves writers, but that does not make them the same. That is something that we have to remind ourselves if we are to avoid the disappointment of thinking we are not good enough.

A writer should not feel down because somebody else can write more interesting blog posts or if they can knock out 50,000 words in NaNoWriMo. You see, writers, just like runners, are not all the same. Writing a novel is completely different to writing a poem. A short story is not the same thing as a screenplay. A news article is not a novella. Different forms of writing require different skills.

I am a novelist. Whenever I read a great novel, I feel inspired to emulate it. That is the format of writing that my talents are most suited too and I believe that I can compete with the best in this format. When I read a great short story however, I cannot help but feel a little dejected. The reason being that I could never hope to match it for quality, but that is okay, because I am not a short story writer. Likewise, when I read an intelligent, cleverly pieced together poem, I lament the fact that I am unable to do the same. Again, this is because I am not a poet. I am sure that any short story writer or poet would feel the same if they were to read a great novel. The most eloquent writing comes with the fewest words and the most imaginative comes with the greatest number of words. It does not matter if a writer only excels at one of these.

Mo Farrah will never be a sprinter and Usain Bolt is unlikely to ever win a marathon. It is not important. To put it into the words of Albert Einstein:

'Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid'

(Above) Every rule has its exception. Some really can do it all.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Genius Needs Company

With the Dr Who 50th Anniversary being celebrated this weekend, I thought that it would be a good time to draw attention to perhaps the single most important factor of the show - the companion. It is easy to overlook the significance of the Doctor's sidekick, but the show would simply not work without them. Without this human aspect we would be left with a super intelligent, 1000 year old alien who has control of all of space and time. Seriously, who can actually relate to such a character?

The main problem comes down to perspective. How can we mere mortals possibly be able to understand the inner workings of such an advanced mind? How can a writer (also a mere human being) be able to convey the thoughts and feelings of such a mind to their audience? The short answer is that they cannot, without inadvertently humanizing the character and bringing them down to our level.

To get around this problem there needs to be somebody in the story to ask the questions that the audience need answering. There needs to be empathy. The audience needs to be able to put themselves into shoes of a character and to do this they have to relate directly with that character. Above all, we need fallibility. Genius is not something that a non genius can easily relate to. It cannot be understood, it can only be appreciated. Genius therefore, is best viewed from afar. 

Essentially, the audience needs a filter. The writer must provide an anchor to ground the genius character in a way that does not compromise said character's incomprehensible brilliance, but instead allows it to shine. They do this through the sidekick. Sherlock Holmes has Dr Watson, Poirot had Captain Hastings, the Jedi have their droids and Dr Who has his companion.

(Above) A Dalek and the TARDIS at Blackpool Illuminations.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Fact in Fiction?

Today's post is not a debate about whether or not to write true stories or imagined stories. It is a little more existential than that. What I am interested in is the idea as to whether fiction can also be fact. Again, I am not referring to the age old 'life reflecting art' debate. What I am considering is a little more ambitious than that.

To begin, you will have to take a little trip with me outside of our solar system (don't worry, I will bring this back to writing - eventually). We then need to carry on past the edge of our galaxy, the milky way.  A good way to do this is to simply imagine a camera, focused on the Earth, rapidly zooming out to reveal a much greater sphere of vision.

Now that you can see the galaxy (picture it as a big swirly, spiral), I want you to keep on travelling outwards, until our galaxy becomes nothing more than a modest speck amidst a hundred billion similar entities. What you should now be picturing in your head is a giant black dinner plate (the diameter will be roughly 84 billion light years across), covered in billions of grains of salt, sprinkled fairly evenly over the surface. This is the Observable Universe.

The difference between the Observable Universe and what would be more commonly referred to as 'the universe', is that quite literally, it is the part of the universe that we can observe (provided that we have a very, very, powerful telescope). This is because for an object to be visible, it has to have been touched by light and light has only had so much time to travel since the beginning of time.

Some people will be throwing up their arms in disagreement at this point, because it is a commonly known fact that the universe is approximately 13.7 billion years old. If this is the case, then why is the Observable Universe not 27.4 billion light years in diameter (remember, the light spreads out in all directions, so the distance that it travels is the radius and not the diameter. If a path goes 10 miles to the east and and 10 miles to the west starting from a central point, the path will be 20 miles long)? Before I carry on with my thought experiment, I should perhaps explain why it is 84 billion light years and not 27.4 billion.

Einstein may have taught us that nothing can accelerate faster than light and whilst this is technically true (nothing can cross the light barrier), there are still things that do indeed move faster. The expansion of space is the prime example. If you picture light travelling through the universe like drawing a line across a balloon this will become more clear. What you have to imagine is that the balloon is being inflated as the line is drawn. When this happens, it stretches the length of the line that has been drawn in direct proportion to the expansion. It is effectively the same with light in the universe. Space stretches the distance that light has travelled and hence we end up with an observable universe that is 84 billion light years across as opposed to 27.4 billion.

Now we have cleared that up, I will return to my thought experiment. I want you to now try and imagine what exists outside of the observable universe. If you are having trouble, then try to imagine the perspective of an alien being living on the edge of our observable universe. What would they see? They would actually see the same as we do - a universe that expands outwards to a distance of 42 billion light years in every direction. What we now have is two "bubble" universes that are like two interlocking circles. The most important thing is that this shows us that what is outside of the observable universe is exactly the same as what is inside. As our internal camera pans out further, we find a wider universe that is infinite in its scope, where any particular point is surrounded by one of these observable bubbles.

So what does all of this mean exactly? Well, given that each of these "bubble" universes is of finite size, it means that there is only a finite amount of matter that can be contained within each one. A finite amount of matter in a finite space, means in turn, that there are a finite number of combinations in which the matter can be arranged. Since there are an infinite number of these bubble universes in the greater expanse of the universe as a whole, then logically every possibility must exist somewhere. It is exactly the same principle as the old saying about an infinite number of monkeys sat at an infinite number of typewriters.

Once you have let the above thoughts sink in, I want you to consider the implications. Effectively, if the universe is infinite (current scientific understanding greatly implies that it is) then everything that is possible will exist, somewhere. There will be an infinite number of worlds that have evolved exactly as ours and with every variation that goes with it. Somewhere, you are king of the world (as is everybody else, although not all on the same planet). You will be married to everybody else in existence (again, not all at the same time) and rather mundanely, there is an exact duplicate of you, sitting in an exact duplicate of Earth, reading an exact duplicate of this blog, but the one difference is that they are wearing different socks.

Now, earlier I promised that I would relate this to writing, so here goes. Basically, if your novel is set in the real world (ie, follows the fundamental laws of existence) and is free of plot holes, then somewhere in this vast and ridiculous universe, it will be played out for real. Your characters really will exist! This is not some plot to a weird book, it is actual science (there has been a lot written on the subject by people much, much more clever than I).

So, there you have it. What is a made up story to you, is actual real life to your characters, wherever they may be (I would not advise looking for them as the universe is a really big place and you will almost certainly get lost). Of course, what this also implies is that in some way, we writers are all Gods. We have merely to think it and by some bizarre cosmic coincidence the universe will make it true.

Before you get carried away however, remember that all this really means is that you are just another monkey sat at a typewriter like all of the rest of us. Better still, somebody out there will most probably be writing your life story. Let's just hope that they decide to give it a happy ending.*

*The above theory is based on an actual scientific hypothesis, which for obvious reasons (we will never be able to see beyond our own "bubble") it can never be proven. In a way, this technically brings it into the sphere of faith rather than science. I learned of it through an excellent book by the acclaimed science writer, Marcus Chown: The Never Ending Days of Being Dead, a truly remarkable and easy to follow peek into the world of Quantum Physics.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Are We Born To Write?

When I woke this morning I was not sure what my blog post was going to be about. Having recently taken the decision to concentrate a lot more of my efforts into my novel writing, I try not to think about anything else during the week. What I am writing today is therefore a spur of the moment piece and it was inspired by an article that I came across on Twitter.

I see a lot of these type of lists being shared on social media and normally I find that I tend to disagree with just as many points as I agree with. Writing is a subjective medium and what works for one author may not necessarily work for another. In this case however, I found myself agreeing with everything. Considering that PD James is now 93 years old (almost 60 years older than I) I found this quite remarkable that our views could be so closely aligned.

Rather than go through the entire list, the point that I want to draw attention to is the first. It is also what I consider to be by far the most important issue to be taken into account for would be novelists.

1. You must be born to write

"You can't teach someone to know how to use words effectively and beautifully. You can help people who can write to write more effectively and you can probably teach people a lot of little tips for writing a novel, but I don't think somebody who cannot write and does not care for words can ever be made into a writer. It just is not possible.

Nobody could make me into a musician. Somebody might be able to teach me how to play the piano reasonably well after a lot of effort, but they can't make a musician out of me and you cannot make a writer, I do feel that very profoundly."

A lot of people will disagree with this point. I know that there is a strong sentiment that the rise of self publishing somehow democratizes publishing. That anybody can be a writer. However, it is curious that this sentiment does not extend into other creative fields.

What if I wanted to be a professional footballer? If me and a group of friends form a team, hire a coach and enlist the help of a professional kit designer, would we be equal to Manchester United? Just by kicking a ball, does it make me the same as David Beckham? Of course not.

What about the music industry? I have always wanted to be a rock star. In fact, fronting a successful rock band would be my dream job. The problem is that I am almost completely tone dumb (not tone deaf - I can hear the notes, I just cannot replicate them). I know that there are many making a living from singing who cannot sing, but that is not the point here. The point is raw talent and you either have it or you don't.

I could list many more examples. I have always been interested in science. Maybe I could design spacecraft. The only problem there is that I lack the intellectual capacity to understand the mechanics of extra terrestrial travel, but that should not stop me from trying should it?

If I said to people that I wanted to play for Manchester United, become a rock star or the head of NASA, they would think me a fool and they would be right. Who am I kidding to think that I could do any of those things? So why then is it acceptable to call myself a writer? For many, the fact that it is so easy to self publish means that they do not question whether they should. This is a mistake. Publishing is an overcrowded market and everyone considering being a part of it needs to ask themselves whether they are genuinely contributing or merely swelling the numbers.

Referring back to an earlier statement in this post, I should point out that I told a little white lie. I stated that fronting a rock band would be my dream job. That is not true, because in reality I would completely suck at it. For the same reason, I have no desire to ever play football for England or land the lead role in a Hollywood blockbuster (or build spaceships). My dream job is to one day become a full time writer. To be able to earn a living from my novels. The reason being that I excel it. You see, the honest truth is that I never actually wanted to become a writer. The reason that I did was because I discovered I have a natural talent for it. I have a creativity and a way of putting that creative impulse into words that cannot be taught (or if it is, it will not come across as natural). Ultimately, I write because it is what I was born to do. And that is what makes the dream worth chasing.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

A Book is Only as Good as Its Reader's Imagination (regardless of its author)

In a previous post I explained how buying a book is like buying a car. Today, I will expand on this idea a little. As before, first I need to talk a little about cars. To be more precise, I want to talk about driving cars.

My wife and I bought our first car a little under 3 months ago. It is a small automatic and thus far (touch wood) I have had no problems with it whatsoever. Of course, this is only my experience. For Katie, things have been very different. Although to be fair, the car has been against her from the start.

The first time that Katie drove the car she steered it into a bush. Her reasons for doing this are still not entirely clear. The result of this accident (deliberate would be a more accurate term) is two scratches running parallel across the entire length of the passenger side. I begged her to be more careful the next time and to think before she acts.

Her next motoring drama occurred just weeks ago when she tried to parallel park for the first time. I stated earlier that our car is an automatic and up until that point, I did not think it possible for such a car to stall. Evidently, I was wrong. About five minutes (!) into the manoeuvre the engine began to have a panic attack. It reminded me of the noise created when I apply pressure to an egg as it fries. Seconds later, it went dead. Stalled. It also would not restart. Well, for Katie at least. When I got in it started just fine and I was able to park without further problems.

As you can probably guess, the next time that Katie came to drive she was a little nervous. As it turned out, so too was the car. It would not start. In fact, it refused to even let her turn the key in the ignition.

'The car hates me,' she said.

She may have had a point. When I got in, it started with no problems whatsoever (as it has every time before and since). In the weeks that followed, Katie has taken the car out for small journeys and is slowly rebuilding its trust. The driving is never fun for her.

So how then, can these experiences be applied to the art of reading? The main point to consider is that both Katie and I have had very different experiences of driving. Same car, different drivers = very different outcomes. And so it is with reading. What makes literature the most versatile of art forms is the fact that every reader's experience is unique. For each person, the characters who inhabit the fictional world each have their own unique voices and traits that are different to all who come across them. No matter how descriptive a piece of writing is, there is no guarantee that a reader will picture things how the writer wants them too. As with Katie and the car, sometimes a reader and a book simply do not go well together. This does not mean that it is a badly written book. Nor does it mean that the reader has a deficient imagination. It just means that sometimes it is not meant to be.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Why Characters Need to Speak With Their Own Voice and Not The Author's

Every story has a central protagonist. This is the character who mostly drives the action of the story and it is through their experiences that the plot is filtered for the reader. We may not always agree with this character's motives, but it is important that we empathise with them and understand what it is that drives them. For an author to achieve this, he or she must give the character their own unique voice.

A common trap for authors to fall into is to put too much of themselves into the lead character. This is particularly dangerous because it removes the character from the action. It makes them appear hollow and somewhat fake. The character no longer reacts naturally to the story and comes across as bland. A good author does not dictate the decisions of their characters, but instead tries to second guess and figure out the way that such a character would genuinely react to the situations thrown at them.

When writing in the third person, the author can add description and information about the characters in any way that they choose. In a first person narrative this is not so easy. In this case, the author cannot tell us directly about a character, but they must show it through the way that said character speaks and acts. The voice that tells the story is no longer their own, but that of their character. If a story has multiple narrators it is imperative that the reader can distinguish each one as an individual entity with its own style and flavour.

In my second novel, Stealing Asia, the story is narrated by three different characters in turn. Each one has their own motivation and each knows information that the others do not. Only by putting their three stories together does the full picture become visible. Each one also has their own unique voice, which stands apart from the other two. When the narrative baton is passed, we know instantly that we are going to get a very different take on events.

The first narrator is Ben, a naive and inexperienced backpacker. He is unsure of himself, but also trusting and optimistic. This is how he begins his story:

"Travelling is supposed to be easy. People join the trail all the time. It is simply a matter of bumping into them in the right place and at the right moment. A hostel dorm room, a crowded bar; anyplace can provide the backdrop to an unexpected bringing together of kindred spirits. You could find a drinking buddy for the night or make a lifelong friend. Who knows?."

The second narrator is Esteban. He has a conscience, but does not allow it to cloud his decisions. Esteban is also a realist and he speaks bluntly and tells the story exactly how he sees it. These are his first lines:

"My name is Esteban Cruz. I do not consider myself to be a bad man, but I have done bad things. Terrible things. For this, I am not proud. I thought that I could make amends for my past, but I was wrong."

The story is completed by Asia. She is also bluntly honest, but unlike Esteban she does not take responsibility for her flaws. She can be antagonistic and mischievous and this shows in the way that she opens her part of the narrative:

"I knew that it was wrong, but I could not help myself. A psychologist would call it a plea for attention. I just call it one in a long line of easily forgettable hook-ups. If I am really honest with myself, I only screwed him to see if sex would feel any different on a boat."

For each of the above, I essentially had to take on the persona of the character as I narrated the story through them. I had to allow them to tell it how they saw it and to not let my own opinions and prejudices get in the way. In order to write a realistic character, we must first become that character. When writing fiction, particularly in the first person, the one voice that does not belong is the authors.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Three Is The Magic Number

It is generally regarded that the key to publishing success on Amazon lies in writing a series of novels. Readers love a series and it also has the added bonus of an inbuilt marketing plan whereby the author can make the first book free (known as a loss leader) in order to attract more downloads, of which a large part will hopefully convert to paid sales of the other novels in the series. This is all very well if what you choose to write about cannot be told in just one book. Unfortunately for me, my writing thus far has been based around standalone titles, so I have been unable to take advantage of these supposed benefits.

However, after The Outback and Stealing Asia, my third book has provided me with the opportunity to take the story further. Thus far, I have plans to convert it into a trilogy. Of course, with this, there comes certain considerations that I did not need to take into account with the standalone novels. This will be most felt during the editing process. The books need not only be self consistent, but they must also be consistent across the entire series. When then should I publish - one book at a time or wait until all are completed before publishing the first?

After some consideration, I have decided to go ahead and publish the first of the trilogy, Diamond Sky, as soon as it has completed the editing process. Having looked at some successful trilogies, I have noticed certain patterns emerging. As evidenced in movies like Star Wars and The Matrix, the first of a trilogy is often a standalone in its own right. They have endings that are tidy and satisfying, but leave space for further exploration without the need for an unresolved cliffhanger. Diamond Sky fits in with this style.

Books two and three of the series however, are a different prospect. Like with The Empire Strikes Back, my sequel will be left with an unresolved ending (ie - the battle is finished, but the war is far from over) and like the Matrix sequels, I will be writing them back to back. This way, if complications arise in part three, I will have the luxury of adapting part two to suit any unexpected story developments. In terms of release dates, this will place me under pressure, but the most important thing is always and always will be the story. The moment I compromise my art is the moment that I have no further right to call myself an artist.

Diamond Sky is due for release this Christmas and (hopefully) the sequels will be ready for spring and summer of next year, respectively.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

My Literary Autobiography

My earliest memory of reading comes from the Garfield comic strips that were on the back page of my Dad's newspapers when I was a child. Not only did I used to look forward to coming home from school to read these short 3-box panels, but I also used to cut them out and paste them into my own scrapbook.

After Garfield, I moved on to regularly collecting the weekly Transformers Comics. Although, if I am honest, I did not so much read these as just want to own them as an extension of my favourite childhood toy. This in turn led me into collecting the Transformers - Find Your Fate series of books. These were printed back in the day when 'interactive' had nothing to do with digital content. They were written in the first person-present tense and at the end of each page, the reader gets to choose what happens next by picking from 3 options (by page number). I do not think that I ever survived right through to the one successful ending, but this was not for want of trying!

The next and final step of my childhood literary journey came from reading Asterix comics by Goscinny and Uderzo. This may seem like a literary step backwards from the choose your own adventure books, but thanks to a plethora of complex and sometimes funny (Cacophonix) French sounding names, it was not always easy going. Every night I would spend my reading hour after bedtime with my head buried deep into one of Asterix and Obelix's adventures.

There were other tomes from my childhood, but none made as much of an impression on me as those listed above. I then had a barren few years lost in the world of Sega where my reading lapsed considerably. Unless required to do so at school, I never really read at all. That is until I turned fifteen and a friend introduced me to Terry Pratchett's Discworld series of novels. The same friend also introduced me to the wonders of alcohol at around the same time and both had a profound effect on my outlook. My mother kept grounding me for the drinking and my English teacher kept marking me down for the surreal tone that my Pratchett influenced writing was taking on (I recall a story that digressed into a brief section written from the point of view of an irate stick). Between that final year at school and starting university, I was never without a Discworld novel to guide me through any moments of spare time (when not too hung over).

Discworld was a peak for me, as after that, once more, my reading lapsed. Doing an English Degree seemed to sap the pleasure out of reading. Sure, I enjoyed many of the books that I studied, particularly anything from the Gothic and American Fiction modules (Maybe it is personal taste, but I find Twain has aged far, far better than Dickens). Favourites from this period were Catch-22The Monk and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to name just three. Other highlights were being introduced to the works of Paul AusterToni MorrisonVladamir Nabokov and of course, William Shakespeare. The downside was that reading had become an academic pursuit and no longer something that I did for pleasure.

After leaving University, I slumped into a dead-end office job and forgot about a lot of my prior passions. It was only when I bought a one way ticket to Australia that I began to read again. Every hostel had a book exchange and I always took full advantage. I usually played it safe and went for authors that I had heard of. I worked my way through the bulk of Stephen King's catalogue this way. The author that had the biggest influence on me however, I would find by complete accident. I have never been a fan of courtroom dramas and so had stayed away from John Grisham novels. Only when presented with no other choice was I willing to give Grisham a go and it turned out to be one of the best decisions that I have made. Twenty odd books later and barely a courtroom scene between them, I can honestly say that Grisham is my favourite  author.

The list is now getting nearer the present and recently I have tried to be more eclectic in my reading approach (I have also run out of Grisham) so I am now more likely to grab a book I had never heard of by a writer that I am not familiar with and give it a go. This list is a lot more eclectic and there are too many names to mention, so I will simply say that I have developed a taste for the humorous and the slightly offbeat. I will also eat up any speculative science books, the best of which (and most accessible) are by Marcus Chown.

I suppose the only thing now missing is my favourite book. The answer to that is simple as it is by the most outspoken member of my favourite band; the Beatles.

In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works is an anthology of John Lennon's short stories and poetry. It is very off-kilter, extremely politically incorrect and a remarkable insight into the mind of a very troubled and often misunderstood genius. It is not a book that would appeal to anybody (possibly only die hard Lennon fans), but that does not matter. Nobody else has to like my favourite, only me.

Two books that are not on the above list, but are very much favourites of mine are my own two published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are now available in paperback and as ebooks at Amazon and selected online retailers.

Refusing to Give in to the Spam

In my first few months of blogging, I was feeling optimistic. The traffic to my site had been steadily growing and far exceeded my expectations at the outset. Then I began to notice something rather peculiar in the stats of my blog. On the slower days between posts, the total number of hits did not match with the total of my individual pageviews. At first, I thought nothing of it, but then the gap started to increase. It got to the point where my stats would be showing 40-50 visitors to my blog, yet my pageviews only totalled a dozen or so. Clearly something was amiss.

After posing the topic to several message boards and forums, I finally got the answer. I had been the recipient of something known as 'Referrer Spam'. Without getting too technical (I don't actually fully understand how it all works), basically the spammers send a load of links to my blog (usually to porn sites) and if I click on them (I never will) they receive a fee, just like pay per click advertising. By far the majority of this unwanted trash comes from Russia and the Ukraine (the links show as .ru) and as far as I know there is no way to stop it. All that I can do is ignore it and hope that it goes away.

If you have a blog and are experiencing the same - Do Not Click on any of the suspect links. This will only encourage the spammers. Our best means to fight them is to spread the word and try to get as many people as possible to stop clicking on these links as that is how the spammers make their money. As writers, we are curious as to were our blog traffic comes from, but in this case, curiosity will only increase the spam. I repeat - Do Not Click on any unknown links to your blog (particularly any with a .ru domain name).

Suffice to say, the early optimism that I felt about blogging has sagged. That is not to say that I have lost it completely. I am determined to fight back. Okay, not literally fight back. I have already discovered that I cannot do anything against these spammers, but I can try and boost the number of genuine visits to my blog by giving it greater visibility to my potential readers.

I have joined a site named 'Networked blogs', which always me to syndicate my blog feed with my FaceBook Fan Page and allow readers to access them directly from there. I have also connected my blog to my Goodreads Author Page and my Amazon Author Page. And most importantly, I am going to continue to blog regardless of whether my website traffic is made up of genuine readers or shameless spammers. With luck, I will in time, attract more of the former and a lot less of the latter.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Climbing a Mountain (The Hard Way)

I do not know whether it is because I am a writer, but recently my life has been taking on elements of the novels that I write. Namely, it seems to contain much more drama than is necessary. I could go into a lengthy discussion of the age old argument of life reflecting art, but instead, I will talk about my recent expedition to the top of Mount Snowdon.

As is usual with this sort of activity, I left all of the planning to my wife, Katie (minus 5 man points). The summit can be approached by several tracks (the Pyg, Miner's and Llanberis tracks), but Katie decided on the most difficult - the Snowdon Horseshoe. With no climbing/scrambling experience, we should not really have attempted this route, but that is my wife for you.

People who had previously scaled the summit had warned me that it can get very cold up there and we planned accordingly. At the start of the climb I was wearing a warm base layer under my fleece, a pair of leggings under my trousers, hat, gloves and full body waterproofs. The thick mist smothering the base of the mountain suggested that all of this was necessary too. With so many layers, I was bound to sweat profusely, so I also filled my extra large backpack with 4.5 litres of water.

The beginning of the track was steep and despite the cold, after just ten mins we were soaking in our own sweat. The only way to cool down was to strip back the layers, so into my backpack they went. It was a tight squeeze, but I managed to get everything in (although my sandwiches got considerably squashed).

We then carried on up the path until we came to the first fork in the road. We had the choice to take the easier Pyg Track or to begin the steep ascent up towards Crib Goch. I gave Katie one last chance to change her mind, but Crib Goch it was. After a few mins of following a steep, grassy trail, we came to an almost sheer cliff face.

We checked our instructions and they stated that we should 'follow the track up'. The problem was that we could no longer distinguish a track. Some more people had joined us at this point (Aussies or Kiwis - it has been so long I can barely tell the accents apart now) and they were equally confused. We tried making our way around at several different points, but each led to a dead end. It was at that point that we were joined by a group of British girls who unlike everybody else, had followed this route previously.

'Which way?' I asked.

'Up,' came the reply.

It was at that point that I realised that we would be literally climbing a mountain. Feeling nervous about supporting the weight of my fully laden backpack, I followed the girls as they climbed what seemed to me like an almost vertical ascent. All the way I tried my best not to look down. After about ten minutes of climbing, I began to notice that the fog had dissipated. We now had the sun shining directly upon us. It was only when I stopped on a small ledge for a break that I realised that the fog had not really dissipated. We had merely climbed above it. It turns out that the fog was actually a cloud.

We were high. Very high. The fact that I could not see exactly how far away the ground was did not help either. I tried to tell myself that we were only twenty feet up and the cloud was actually a covering of snow. This did not work for one very simple reason - I knew that I was lying. I wanted to give up (minus 25 man points), but going down looked a lot steeper and therefore a lot scarier. I had no choice but to continue upwards (regained 20 man points).

The view at the top was incredible. Words could not do it justice, so it is highly convenient that I can instead show you a photo (left). At just over 3,000ft we were only at a tenth the height of Mt Everest, but just to put that into a more useful perspective - we were as high as 3 Eiffell Towers! If it were not for the clouds shielding me from the true tower of the path ahead, I may have had to call Mountain Rescue. Rather than show my fear, I volunteered myself to lead the way for Katie across the infamous 'Knife Edge' (plus 25 man points).

Some people would walk across the top of the ridge, but some people are just insane. With a sheer drop of 3,999ft on the right, I decided to cross on the left side of the ridge. It began easily enough, but soon started to become tricky. This was mostly due to the fact that every so often, I had no option, but to look down. When we were at the halfway point and I found a flat enough platform to stand upright, Katie noticed that I was suffering from what is known as 'jelly legs'.

'Perhaps, I should lead the way,' she said.

'Okay, Pet,' I replied. 'I love you.'  (minus 25 man points).

After about fifty or so metres of traversing much steeper rock, I noticed a rather unpleasant consequence of what we were doing. I was wearing my wedding ring and it was taking a battering on the sharp, exposed rock. Not wishing to damage it any further, I quickly removed it and placed it in my pocket. It was only a moment later when I was at the most perilous part of the climb that something struck me. Don't worry, it was not a rock. It was instead a terrifying thought. Was removing my wedding ring bad luck? Ridiculous, I know, but that was not the worst of it. If you remember, my last words to Katie had been 'I love you.' In literary terms this was not so much a bad portent as inescapable fate. I was going to die on the mountain!

Ignoring my very precarious footing, I briefly let go of my hand hold in order to fumble about in my pocket to get the ring back. Once it was safely on my finger, I called out to Katie.

'I'm going to die on this mountain!'

This may seem rather alarmist, but I had my reasons for saying this and no, it was not just to scare Katie. Statistically speaking, the odds of an unqualified climber falling to their death on a mountain could be quite high, but the odds of somebody correctly predicting their own death from a freak accident has to be astronomical. (Using absurdly impossible logic to justify my actions - +30 man points). Just a short while later, we were both safely across the knife edge.

From that point on, the rest of the trail should have been easy, but for the two of us at least, it was about to get a lot more difficult than we could have imagined. By this point, we were both a little tired of rock climbing, so when we saw what appeared to be a clearly marked trail to the left of the next rock face, we followed it.

If you look at the photograph on the left, you can see that I have added two lines. The black is the route that hikers are supposed to take. It starts off rocky, but soon levels out onto a flat plateau with unparalleled views of the surrounding national park. The red line represents the route that we took. The trail we were following soon disappeared and the mountainside got very steep very quickly. Unlike on the other climbs, the terrain was now composed of loose shingle and was extremely dangerous. My initial reaction was one of panic and I foolishly ignored Katie's advice to climb upwards and began sliding downwards on my bum! (minus 30 man points)

It did not take long before I came to the conclusion that this was a stupid idea. The problem was that at this point I was committed and turning back was impossible. As was continuing the ridiculous plan of sliding down. We had no choice but to climb this non designated and highly dangerous mountainside. At times I wanted to cry and at times I wanted to vomit with the sheer effort of it, but in order to stay strong for Katie, I kept this to myself this time (plus 10 man points). It took a lot of effort and an even greater amount of concentration, but we eventually made it to safety, joining the Pyg Track just as it started its steepest ascent (plus 25 man points).

Having survived such an obvious near death experience, I did what any man would in that situation. I texted my mates to tell them all about it (+30 man points). Amazed not only to be alive, but also to have full mobile reception at the top of a mountain, I then decided to call my Mum and tell her all about it (minus 100 man points).
Once I had reassured my Mum that I would never be so foolish as to attempt something so stupid ever again, we made the final climb to the summit of Mt Snowdon. Suffice to say, it had all been worth it. I had made it to the summit of the highest mountain in England and Wales and took time to enjoy the view (plus 20 man points).

The horseshoe track carried on over and down another mountain, but after our diversion, I thought that we had more than earned our mountain climbing stripes. We took the Pyg Track back to the car park. This may seem like taking the easy way out, but it was still a steep descent and there was an easier option should we have felt so inclined. With some cold ginger beers waiting back at the car, I hurried down the track, sometimes leaving Katie trailing far behind, but always being chivalrous and waiting for her when I noticed this (plus 25 man points).

For those who have been counting, you will see that I gained 175 man points and lost 175 man points, meaning that the climb was man-neutral. However, it did not take long for me to break the promise that I made to my Mum. Just 3 days later, Katie and I went canyoning. We slid down steep white water slopes, abseiled over a waterfall and leapt 20ft off a sheer cliff face into a deep freshwater pool (plus 500 man points).

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Why You Should Get Into the Habit of Reading Books Backwards.

We have all seen the test where we are asked to read a paragraph of text and to count the number of times that we see the letter F. Nine times out of ten (completely made up statistic - too tired for research) we get this wrong. The reason being that our brain registers the soft 'eff' sound in most words, but not the hard 'vee' sound in the word OF. We fail to see what is staring us clearly in the face. The same problem is encountered in a variation of the test where we are asked to look for the letter 'V'. This time we will overstate the answer for the same reason.

The lesson to be learned is that we cannot trust our eyes (or ears). Sometimes we see things that are not there and sometimes we fail to see things that are. We do this all of the time. Our brain is constantly filtering an enormous amount of information and whenever it can, it will use shortcuts. When it comes to editing a book, this can be a particularly awkward problem.

Many think that a writer is too close to their work to accurately self edit and they are probably right. A second (and third, fourth etc) pair of eyes is essential. The problem is, that all of our brains work in much the same way.  A proofreader or an editor is just as likely to read words that are not actually on the page, because their brain can so accurately predict what will be written that it subconsciously fills in any blanks in a sentence.

There is however, a way to get around this problem and that is to proofread your text backwards. Obviously, I am not talking word for word. sense no make would that Because. You need only take it one paragraph at a time, starting from the final paragraph. This will still make grammatical sense, it will just not make any sense from a story telling perspective. Your brain will not have enough information to make its usual subconscious predictions. In short, for the first time you will be able to approach your manuscript completely objectively. Of course, this does not help when it comes to spotting plot holes, but purely from a spelling, punctuation and grammar perspective, there is no better approach.

I have recently finished my final backwards check on my second novel, Stealing Asia, and hope to have it available for download and purchase by next weekend. I revealed the basic cover a while ago, but have since made one slight adjustment and that is to add a little text under the main title. It is very rare for a trade book to have only the title and author name as text and to do so looks a little bare (again, this is down to the expectations of our pesky brains). By adding text (it does not even matter what. A tagline, sales boast or as I have done - an also by this author) it makes the cover appear more professional and therefore, more legitimate in the eyes of the reader.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

An Artist's Resonsibility

I am going a little off piste with today's blog post. Normally, I will try to find a way to relate a tale from my travelling adventures to what I am writing. What I am going to talk about here could not be any further from an adventure. Last night, with some reluctance, my wife and I called the police to report our next door neighbour.

We do not live in a particularly enviable part of town. Although to be fair, I am not sure that Portsmouth has any enviable parts to it. It is one of the most densely populated cities in the country and yet it has the amenities and employment opportunities of somewhere a tenth of its size. Everyday I come into contact with aspects of human nature that I would rather avoid, but last night was particularly bad.

The neighbours have only been living there for a few months and the closest that we have had to meaningful contact is when we throw the cigarette butts back over the fence that the woman living next door keeps dumping into our yard. Occasionally, we will hear shouting. Nothing though, could have prepared us for last night.

I arrived home from work at 5pm and the shouting had already started. I was not paying it  much attention, but I could tell that it was the woman and her ire was being directed at her kids. It was fifteen minutes later when Katie got home that it took a marked turn for the worse.

I had never heard another human being scream with such hatred as I heard that woman screaming at her children. They are only young too - maybe 7 to 10 years old. Yet, the expletives that the woman used would ensure an r-rating if an actor were to use them in a movie. We could not make out everything that was being screamed, but the basic gist was that this woman was blaming her children for 'ruining her life'. The worst part was when the kids pleaded with her to stop.

'Please mummy, I love you,' one of them cried.

'WELL I DON'T LOVE YOU. I HATE YOU - GET OUT!' the mother screamed back, her vocal cords sounding like they were about to tear in two.

'Mummy please, I love you!' the little girl cried.

I do not want to go into details, but my wife, Katie, had to endure some pretty rough times when she was a child and as such, she could not bear to listen to these children crying any longer. I was debating with my conscience whether or not to call the police. Katie just picked up the phone.

I am sure that there has to be more deep rooted problems as to why this woman was behaving the way that she was. Maybe she is psychotic or maybe she is an alcoholic. One thing was for certain though. No child, in fact, no human being, should ever have to endure that level of verbal abuse. I can only hope that being paid a visit by the police was a wake up call for this woman and she takes the necessary steps to turn her life around. If this was a novel, I know how I would want the story to end, but it isn't. It is real life. And that brings me to a very important question. Basically, what is the purpose of art?

There are many ways to answer that question, but what I am most concerned with is how we address the darker side of human nature in art. I see films like the Saw series and I honestly do not understand the point of those movies. The same can be said for a lot of  'psychological thrillers'. Particularly the ones where the killer prevails. Again, what is the point to it?

There is nothing wrong with creating monsters in art, but I also think that the artist does have a responsibility for his or her creations. If we create a monster, then we should make sure that we also slay that monster or what kind of message are we sending out? A lot of people will disagree. They will argue that life does not always have a happy ending and it is the artists duty to reflect life. I could not disagree more strongly. I know what the world is like. I see it everyday on the streets and in the news. I do not need somebody else to paint me a picture of the horror that goes on. If art reflects life, it is nothing but a pale shadow of life. It is imitation. If an artist is to be truly successful, then life will reflect their art. I will say it again. Do not paint me a picture of how the world is. Paint me a picture of how the world could be.

Looking again at the domestic problems of the family next door. How should this be addressed in art? British soap operas have a history of approaching the 'gritty story-lines' and I despise them for it. The reason being, that for 'gritty' read 'realistic'. There is enough misery in the news, that we do not need it in our dramas as well. Unless of course, the story attempts to offer up a solution. Unless it attempts to slay the beast.

There is a movie I watched, a few years back, with Robert Redford called The Last Castle. In a scene near the beginning, Redford's disgraced General is viewing the military memorabilia of James Gandolfini's cruel prison Commandant.

'Any man with a collection like this is a man who's never set foot on a battlefield. To him a miniƩ ball from Shiloh is just an artifact. But to a combat vet, it's a hunk of metal that caused some poor bastard a world of pain.'

I think that the same can be true when we look at any art form. The artist who has truly felt pain, who knows what misery is, will not throw it up purely for entertainment, for titillation (again, I refer you to those awful Saw movies). They will use their pain to try to create something positive. The writer does not produce for a mass audience. A writer creates a personal dialogue between them and the reader. If that little girl who has just suffered abuse at the hands of the one person in the world who she thought she could always count on picks up your book, what would you want to tell her? What kind of a world would you want to show her? I know what I want to say to her. I would want to give her hope, because ultimately, that is the greatest power of art.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

How to Create a Table of Contents (ToC) Using Microsoft Word

In this post I have created a simple step by step guide on how to create a contents page for ebooks using Microsoft Word. This is my first how to guide, so I will just get straight into it.

Step 1 - Create the text for the ToC menu.
This is the simplest step and it basically involves just tying up the contents page at the front of your book (or back - it is up to you). Make sure to include all relevant sections such as the copyright notice and author biography.

Step 2 - Create Chapter bookmarks.
For this step, you need to locate each of the chapter headings within the body of the book's text and then bookmark each of them in turn. To do this, simply highlight the chapter heading (note - highlight only the title and not a complete paragraph) and then click on the insert tab at the top of the document. Select the option labelled 'bookmark' and this will open up a dialogue box. All that you have to do here is type in a name for the bookmark eg Chpt1 (best keep it short and leave no spaces) and then click 'Add'. Repeat for each chapter heading in the book.

Step 3 - Adding a navigable hyperlink to chapters.
Return to your ToC menu at the front of the book. Highlight the first chapter heading in your contents and then open up the 'insert' tab. This time you want to select 'hyperlink'. Again, a dialogue box will open up. On the sidebar, you will see an option for 'Place in This Document'. Selecting this option will change the interior of the dialogue box. You will now see a list of all of the bookmarks that you added during the previous step. Select the one that corresponds to the chapter you have highlighted and then click 'okay'. The chapter entry in the contents should now be underscored and highlighted blue. You will be able to check if the link works by following the instructions that come up when you place your cursor over the link. Repeat for each chapter/section of your book.

Step 4 - Linking Chapters back to the ToC page.
This step allows you to link back to the contents page from each individual chapter. To begin, you need to highlight the header on your contents page and open up the bookmark tag. This time you will name the label as 'ref_TOC'. Once done, use your hyperlinks to go straight to each chapter in turn and add a hyperlink from the chapter headings back to the ToC using the process in Step 3 and each time selecting 'ref_TOC' as the destination. Each chapter heading in the book will now be underscored and blue and when selected, will return you to the contents page.

Step 5 - Publish Your e-book.
That is it - your book is now ready for publication (assuming it is properly edited and formatted, of course). You will be able to test all of the hyperlinks when you preview the final document and if you are still nervous, download the file to your Kindle from amazon and test it out for real.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.

Which Way is North?

In a weeks time I will be heading off on holiday to Wales. My last trip away was for my honeymoon at Disney World so this time we are planning to keep it lower key (and considerably lower budget too). With that in mind, the holiday is likely to involve quite a lot of walking. We have done our research and Snowdonia is blessed with an overabundance of scenic trails (including the mountain itself), but one thing that I have come to learn is that I have no idea how to read a map or even a compass for that matter.

I am referring to the large fold-out ordnance survey maps designed for serious walking aficionados, not simple road maps or street plans. If I am completely honest, I would actually go so far as to say that I am scared of them. Normally, I would try and leave this type of task to my wife (just lost a huge number of man points for admitting that) as in our usual roles of travelling, I am the driver and she is the navigator. With us now owning our own car and Katie having acquired a license of her own, the dynamic has altered. I am expected to do my share of the navigating and this extends beyond driving.

Previously on this blog, I have stated that I like to fly by the seat of my pants when it comes to writing and I suppose that when I go travelling it is no different. Guide books are all very well, but only when I get to see a place with my own eyes and breathe in its air, can I really know how I want to spend my time there. Sometimes though, forward planning is essential, hence we have bought the maps. Without them, we run the risk of finding ourselves well and truly lost.

This brings me to my writing again. A map is ultimately an essential part of any journey (whether we choose to use it or not) yet when I published my debut novel, The Outback, I did not include one. In this instance, by map, I am obviously referring to the Table of Contents (ToC). Amazon guidelines state that they must be included, but the rule is not enforced and has devolved into more of a guideline.

Why did I not include a ToC in my book? Well, the short answer is that I was a little afraid of them. The instructions on how to add a ToC on the KDP website are atrociously complicated. And to be honest, I never really understood the purpose of them. I do not own a Kindle or any other type of e-reader. Whether that changes is up to Santa Claus, so for the time being I am using the Kindle for PC app to download e-books from Amazon.

It was only a few weeks ago when I was fortunate enough to procure some free advertising for my novel that I realised that I really needed to add those final professional touches to my book (the other thing that I was missing was a mailing list sign up, but that is another blog post altogether). Every traditionally published e-book has a full contents added and therefore to omit one immediately makes a book look amateurish. I had to overcome my fear of technology and learn how to create a fully navigable ToC.

Editing is an area of the novel writing process that requires either professional or at the very least an objective pair of eyes, but formatting is something that every author can learn how to do. It is also so simple a process, that an author would be have to be crazy (or have an abundance of capital) to feel the need to hire somebody to do it for them.

As I stated earlier, the guidelines given by KDP were beyond my comprehension. I do not know how to write in HTML and the only time I use it is when pasting pre-written code into my webpage. I was, therefore, amazed to discover that there was a much simpler way of doing things using the inbuilt functions of Microsoft Word. I found the information in the Smashwords Style Guide. This how-to manual was produced with Smashwords in mind, but the information on creating a ToC is one of the sections which is universal to all formatting when using a Word Doc.

The post immediately following this one will feature a step by step guide to creating a ToC using Word. Here, I simply want to state the importance of having the ToC in the first place. When readers browse books by indie authors they are always on alert for anything that sets the novel apart (in a negative way) from one that was produced by a publishing house. If the bright blue highlighted text indicating a workable ToC does not appear in the sample, this will be noticed. Whether it is strictly necessary does not matter. It implies that the book has not been formatted to a full and professional standard and we all know what that then implies. A badly written book.

If you found this post interesting, why not sign up to join my blog using one of the tools on the sidebar to the right. You can also check out my two self published novels The Outback and Stealing Asia. Both are available as ebooks and paperbacks.