Tony’s Thoughts: My writing playlist…and why

Playing music when I write doesn’t always work for me. My home and my “office” are pretty quiet most of the time, apart from – to quote Belinda Carlisle – the sound of kids on the street outside.

So when I listen to music when I write, it isn’t necessarily because it’s something I want to hear anywhere else. It’s more like it’s another barrier between me and the outside world, another way of getting through the hole in the page where I write without distraction. Earphones and an MP3 player are essential…I don’t want anything to distract me once I’m in there, don’t want to pop back out of the document I’m working on and fiddle with my computer’s media player.

In a way, I can listen to anything…because there comes a point when I’m listening to it and not consciously hearing it; tracks will zip by on my MP3 and I won’t even notice when one starts and one ends until the end of the playlist.

Having said that, if I stick on Beethoven’s Ninth symphony and I’m still writing at the end of it, that’s a solid piece of work; that sucker’s 78 minutes long. I sometimes air compose towards the end, something I always do when I come across The William Tell Overture. It’s too catchy not to. (Trivia of the day: A recording of Beethoven’s Ninth was chosen as the run length of a CD).

Anyway, I have things on my MP3 I never listen to other than when I’m writing. Ten symphonies by Joseph Haydn, and one by his son Michael. Four Beethoven symphonies and 1st and 2nd piano concertos, tons of Mozart. I’ve been getting into some Salieri as well.

I tend to prefer longer pieces of classical when I’m writing, but I have some soft rock on there as well – some Belinda Carlisle (My wife pointed me towards The Go-Gos, and I’ve been having a blast with them), some Bryan Adams. A whole playlist of “Late 20th Century”, 80s and 90s stuff. A long list of 50s and 60s, and The Beatles.

I think the thing for my MP3 is familiarity. I’m listening while I write because the music is familiar to me and I don’t have to focus on it. I’ve heard it a thousand times before, so it doesn’t have any surprises. There’s stuff on there I listen to when I’m not writing, but most of it…most of it is the equivalent of white noise.

And sometimes I even have to turn that off because it’s simply too distracting, and sometimes it’s too easy to get distracted rather than writing – I spent a good few hours on Saturday playing with my playlists rather than writing, for instance. I wrote my last three books without a soundtrack, but I did stick it on when I went back to editing. Book Five feels like a soundtrack novel, and so far it is. It’s early days yet.

I know some people do it for the rhythms, assigning a piece of music to each character, and that sounds like fun and something I wish I could do. You’re a better multitasker than I am if you can focus that well. For me, it’s another wall between the world and the page, and sometimes you need all the walls between you and the world outside, so you can get into the rabbit hole and fall forever.

Writing 101…Stepping Outside Your Genre

Self-published authors have to work hard to build up a fan base and to establish themselves as “real” authors in the eyes of their readers. That’s why stepping outside your genre and writing something completely different can be pretty tricky and scary business. What if you go out on a limb…and lose all of your fans? 

Outside the Box

After putting all that time and effort into building up a fan base, stepping outside that comfort zone with a totally different book is a brave thing to do (some might say foolish). While some of your fans may stay true, others may be turned off because they aren’t fans of that particular genre. That means you’ve got to start all over again, and start targeting fans in your new genre to find the readers that will be interested in this new book of yours.
It’s a lot of work, but it’s not all that different from all the marketing you’ve already done. You should re-focus your efforts with every new book you release, whether it’s in the same genre as your others or an altogether different one. Stepping outside your genre actually gives you a unique opportunity to gain an even bigger fan following, and reach out to readers you mightn’t find otherwise.
Don’t ever be afraid to make a change. One of the joys of self-publishing is that you get to do whatever you want, write whatever interests you, and let your own skills as an author develop and grow in any way you like. You don’t have to answer to anyone, uphold contracts or write sequels you aren’t really feeling. If you have to do some extra marketing to get more readers, that’s just something that comes with the job.

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This post originally featured on Jade Varden’s author blog in 2012.

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Author Jade Varden is a regular guest contributor on Aside From Writing. The Writing 101 features originate from her own blog  at http://jadevarden.blogspot.co.uk where you can see more of her thoughts on writing, as well as her own books. Her debut novel Justice and sequel The Tower are available now! Read our review of Justice here.

Tony’s Rambles: The Curious Curse of the Cellular Phone

Sherlock Holmes lit his foul briar pipe and settled back into his chair, staring moodily out at the London fog.

“It has made your life much harder, Watson.”

Watson, startled out of examining his latest ApplePlum phone, looked up. “Sorry, old boy?”

“Cellular phones, Watson, cellular phones.”

“Not following old boy.”

Holmes leaned forward, his thin face harsh angles in the firelight. “No, of course not Watson, of course not. Now, observe and note.”

He leaned back again and ticked off points on his fingers.

“Firstly, description of character. I had to rely on hearsay and exaggeration. Now you bring that thing -,” (he waved towards Watson’s phone) ” – press a button, and bring me a precise image.”

“True, Holmes, true.”

“Secondly, and I use the vernacular, Watson, you understand, the vernacular. Backup.”

“Backup?”

“How can we be in any peril when you merely bring out your magic device and call for assistance?”

“Impeccably put, Holmes, but what’s your point?”

“As chronicler of my narratives, Watson, you must realise the problem?”

“No, afraid not, Holmes.”

“I will provide you examples then. Take the Hound of the Baskervilles. Someone snaps a photograph on that machine of yours, and the mystery is solved. A mysterious ghostly hound? No, obviously just a dog painted with phosphor. Add a Geotag, and tell us exactly where and when.”

“Ah, yes. That would spoil the mystery somewhat.”

“And are we in peril, Watson, when Lestrade and London’s finest can be called at any time?”

“By Lor Holmes! You’re right!” There was a pause while Watson considered. “What am I to do, Holmes? As a writer of fiction, my readers demand suspense. They demand drama.”

“There are few options, Watson. Break it. Let the potential energy run down, the battery as you would say. Leave it at home. Have it stolen.”

Watson spluttered. “What about my RSS? My Twitter updates?”

“Sorry, old friend. They have to be forfeited. You cannot write tension and drama into a story while that thing is in your pocket.”

Watson considered the slab of plastic and rare earth metals in his hand for a long moment, then placed it on the table beside him.

Holmes slapped his thighs and cocked his head to one side. “Excellent, Watson, excellent! Now if I’m not mistaken, that’s Mrs Hudson on the stairs and a woman with size four feet following. Your tension and drama are restored, and  the game is afoot, my friend…”

Writing 101…How to Use Apostrophes

Apostrophes are an essential element in punctuation, but so many authors get their placement confused — or worse, leave them out entirely. A tiny little apostrophe can change the meaning of a sentence entirely, and when a wrong one appears it might just lead readers astray. Always be careful with your apostrophes, and learn how to use them well to make sure your words are getting the point across.

Using Apostrophes, Let Me Count the Ways

Apostrophes serve many extremely important functions in language; certain words could never even exist without them. To understand how to use apostrophes correctly, you’ve got to understand how, exactly, they’re used.
  • Missing letters
In certain circumstances, apostrophes can be used to represent missing letters — this is the case in absolutely every single contraction. Words likecan’tdon’tyou’re and all the rest rely upon apostrophes to exist. We get so used to seeing contractions, it’s easy to forget what they mean, easy to forget the function of the apostrophe. But without it, you’ve got two words that sound stiff and formal. In the examples above, without the apostrophes you’re working with cannotdo not and you are. The apostrophe takes the place of the letters and spaces that you’ve eliminated.
It’s important, because many writers have used the apostrophe as a device in dialogue. Certain regions of the world have their own specific accents and sayings. For example, no self-respecting southern writer would pen a tome set in the southern US without the word y’all in it. Brits are known for sayingi’n’it, a bastardization of isn’t it, and in words like this the apostrophe is essential to make the text understandable to readers who might not be familiar with regional speech. Because the apostrophe in y’all takes the place of the missing and u, you can never write this word as ya’ll — though I’ve seen this in several situations. It’s wrong, and it’s truly an insult to apostrophes everywhere (not to mention southerners). When you use contractions for any reason, don’t ever forget what the punctuation actually means.
  • Possession
Apostrophes don’t always represent missing letters; they’re also an integral device if you want to show ownership, or possession, of any object (or idea, or person, or what-have-you). For example: This is Jade Varden’s blog. Now, the apostrophe clearly shows that the possession (the blog) belongs to Jade Varden (that’s me!), and the apostrophe placement is correct.
See what happens when I put it in the wrong place: This is Jade Vardens’ blog. When the apostrophe appears after the s, rather than before, it’s used to denote plural possession. In the sentence above, the apostrophe suggests that there is more than one Jade Varden (which is no good for anybody, not to mention confusing for all the readers). The only time, and I mean the onlytime, the apostrophe is placed after the s is to show possession of any object or objects by more than one person. It’s used for plural possession, and only then.
  • Getting it Wrong
I touched on this problem briefly in a previous post, but it bears repeating because this is a mistake that I see literally every single day. It seems the apostrophe is a little too common and a little too useful, because a ton of writers from the casual to the professional want to shove it into the middle of words where it absolutely doesn’t belong. It certainly is a cunning little piece of punctuation, and I love using it as much as the next blogger, but there are times when you’re going to have to keep the apostrophe from crashing your party. Otherwise, everyone’s going to know you have no idea what you’re writing.
Again, and I cannot seem to stress this enough, apostrophes are coupled with the letter s only to show possession. I can have possession of this blog, the words I write, an idea, the pair of glasses I wear when I don’t have my contacts in my eyes, my fingernails. I can have possession of all these things because I am a person. Animals may also have possession — I might say my cat’s coat was shiny. The cat is mine, but I’m not in possession of the shiny coat of hair — my cat is, so that’s where the apostrophe goes.
But when I am pluralizing something, because there’s more than one of those things, I only need the letter s. For example, my cats have shiny coats. No apostrophe, because I’m already showing possession with the word have. If I eliminate that word, I’ll have to bring the apostrophe back to show the possession (otherwise, the reader won’t know who has the shiny coats): my cats’ shiny coats…. 
When you are simply pluralizing an object, you only need the letter s. Remember that, and don’t let a spare apostrophe show up and completely change the meaning of the sentence. By the same token, if you’re attempting to show possession and you don’t include an apostrophe, you’re muddying the reading waters in a different way. Proofread all your apostrophes, and make sure they’re only where they’re supposed to be, and nowhere they shouldn’t.

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This post originally featured on Jade Varden’s author blog on 15th June 2012.

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Author Jade Varden is a regular guest contributor on Aside From Writing. The Writing 101 features originate from her own blog  at http://jadevarden.blogspot.co.uk where you can see more of her thoughts on writing, as well as her own books. Her debut novel Justice and sequel The Tower are available now! Read our review of Justice here.

Guest Post…What, Exactly, is a Dystopian Book?

It has come to my attention, during my various adventures in writer and reader forums around the Internet, that lots people — even some authors — don’t actually know what a dystopian society is. It’s not really a big deal…until you start incorrectly marketing your work as something it’s not. It’s true that a lot of readers might not know the difference, but plenty of them will. The readers aren’t the ones who are going to look bad for not understanding the genre…you are. It’s time to find out just exactly what makes a dystopian book dystopian. Don’t assume you already know; you might be one of the people who made me sigh recently with a forum post.

Dystopian Society

 If you want to get technical about it, calling something “dystopian” isn’t altogether accurate anyway. More properly it ought to be referred to as a dystopian society, and that’s the first piece of really important information you need to know. Dystopian books and stories of all kinds are deeply rooted in the society itself; often, authors will present the readers with a world view of this society through the eyes of a main protagonist.
 What’s characteristic of a dystopian society? For starters, the people who live within it are being oppressed and usually wholly controlled by some sort of all-powerful government or collective. Control is the most important word here, and one of the defining characteristics of a dystopian society. In many cases, there are at least two distinct classes present in such stories: the people who are being controlled, and those who are doing the controlling. This type of society is also called anti-utopian, and the word itself is derived from the Greek word for “bad.”



Dystopian vs. Post-Apocalyptic Societies

It seems to me, after wading through all the confused readers and writers on the forums (which shall not be named), that the big stumbling block in all this is post-apocalyptic societies. People who don’t fully understand the idea of a dystopian society seem to think that dystopian societies are identical to post-apocalyptic societies, that in fact the two go hand-in-hand. This is patently incorrect.
A post-apocalyptic society isn’t necessarily dystopian. In this type of society, some horrible event has occurred which has fundamentally changed the world on a global scale. Nuclear war, catastrophic weather events, alien invasion — take your pick. Often, a new society rises in this new world in place of the old society…but there’s no reason to presuppose that this new society is dystopian simply because the Apocalypse has occurred.

The Necessary Separation

I’m going to go ahead and blame lots of the current confusion on The Hunger Games, though let me add that I have nothing against Suzanne Collins or her work or her fans or anything else that has to do with her books. In The Hunger Games, a society which is both dystopian and post-apocalyptic is the setting for the events which take place. However, readers and writers should not take this to mean that all post-apocalyptic societies are dystopian, or vice versa.
I recently saw a list of “favorite dystopian movies” which included such films as Waterworld. This is not a correct classification of this film, based on my somewhat hazy memory and cursory research. As I understand it, the “bad guys” in this film are pirates…and not government officials. People are not being controlled. They’re just trying to figure out life on the water. Also on the list: The PostmanThe Book of Eli and Repo! The Genetic Opera. Two of these films are post-apocalyptic, and there is little to no mention of the government in them. One of these films is dystopian, but not post-apocalyptic.
Your Role as an Author
What do you look for if you want to know the difference? Control.Catastrophe marks post-apocalyptic stories; control marks dystopian stories. Knowing the difference is important if you’re going to write a story that’s one, the other, or both. If I go shopping for some all-hell-has-broken-loose post-apocalyptic fare and find a bunch of dystopian stories instead, I’m not just going to hate you as the writer who got it wrong.
I might hate all indies, because I might think that none of them have any idea what they’re talking about. So don’t be that guy. Know your business, know your genre, know your categories. Know what the heck you’re writing, and how to identify it. If you don’t identify it properly, you’re not going to like the way you get identified as an author hack. Never forget that the title author is absolutely necessary for the word authoritative. That is not a mistake.

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This post originally featured on Jade Varden’s author blog on 4th June 2012.

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Author Jade Varden is a regular guest contributor on Aside From Writing. The Writing 101 features originate from her own blog  at http://jadevarden.blogspot.co.uk where you can see more of her thoughts on writing, as well as her own books. Her debut novel Justice and sequel The Tower are both available now! Read our review of Justice here.

Writing 101…Pricing Your Books

You were careful to choose great words for your book. You sweated it out through the editing process. You went through the formatting line by line to make certain every page is perfect. If you don’t price your books the right way, you’re going to watch that hard work go to waste. If you want readers, you’ve got to take a hard look at your book pricing.

How Much is Your Writing Worth?

A lot of factors are at play when writers are pricing their books. For any given book, whether it’s a short story of a full-length novel, every page represents hours of work in formatting, writing, editing and reading. If authors charged by the hour, every book would cost hundred of dollars.

But that’s not really feasible for the readers, is it? As a writer, you’re expected to love your book. You’ve poured soul into it; sweat, blood, tears, heartache. And, if you’re like many writers, you probably want to do nothing but write full-time. It’s easy to get lost in the math. Charge five bucks, sell a million copies — just imagine those numbers for a little while. Your book is a huge piece of your life, your heart and your skill. And you’ve got to forget all that. The price of your book isn’t a reflection of your skill or how much you put into your work. It’s a reflection of the market.

So the first thing you have to do when pricing your book is cut any and all attachment you have to it. Forget about the fact that you’re an author, that this single book represents all your hopes and dreams and everything you’ve worked toward for years. None of that matters, and honestly your readers don’t really care. They’re looking for a story, and it shouldn’t be one about the book that costs way too much. How much is your writing worth? Much more to you than to anybody else. Keep that in mind when you go to set a price, because now is not the time for sentiment.

The Book Market

You don’t determine the price of your book — the market does. Once upon a time, every book was hand-bound and printed on vellum. Making a single page was a big process, and books were costly. Today, they’re churned out every single day by automated machines on huge reams of paper that cost less than a penny a page. They are everywhere, and that’s just the printed books. The ebook market is getting bigger every day, and in the time you’ve been reading this post more ebooks have been published. You can’t navigate online without bumping into seventeen of them on your way to your favorite sites.

So if the first rule is to forget about the feelings you have for your book, the second is remind yourself that you are not alone. Yes, your book is probably special — let the content reflect that, not the price. There are way too many other books out there, and yours has got to be competitive.

You should know, by now, in which genre your book belongs. Before you set a price and publish your book, take the time to look around the virtual bookstores. Find bestsellers in your genre, and look for other indies in your genre, and find out what they’re charging. You cannot charge as much for your self-published book as the traditionally published books. Your work is probably just as good, but you don’t have the same name recognition or cachet as those big publishing houses and their authors. Know your market. When you self-publish, you need to take your pricing cues from the other indies — not just the other authors.

99 Cents

A great many indie books (mine included) cost 99 cents. This is a very common price in the ebook market, and you’re likely to find that many indies in your genre charge this amount for their work. It’s always good to stay competitive in your own market, and you don’t want to stand out by charging too much for your book (because readers have so many much cheaper choices), but you also have to be aware of the 99 cent stigma.

Self-publishing in general has a bit of a bad reputation among some readers, for good reason. I have found many indie books that are poorly edited, terribly formatted and otherwise riddled with errors — but I have also found some truly great indie books I’d be happy to read again. But because of all the bad apples in the bunch, many readers have been burned by indies. Some avoid self-published books altogether as a result, but others try to avoid the bad by avoiding 99 cent books. There are even self-published authors who turn their noses up at 99 cent books. To some, they are thought of as cheap and not worth reading. If it was any good, the author would charge more, right?

On the other hand, if you charge too much for your work and go above what others in your genre and in your position are charging, you will probably get fewer book sales. Pricing your books is a monumental task, and it’s not as easy as arbitrarily picking a number. Once you’ve taken the market into account, let that determine how to price your books and forget the rest. You can overcome the 99 cent stigma and other small pricing problems that may arise by getting good, and genuine, reviews of your work (just make sure your work is well-written, so that you can get some good reviews).

Readers will be more willing to look beyond their own preconceived notions and buy a book they might think is too cheap, but it’s much, much harder to convince them to buy a book that’s too expensive. If you’re going to err, do it on the side of affordability.

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This post originally featured on Jade Varden’s author blog on 18th May 2012.

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Author Jade Varden is a regular guest contributor on Aside From Writing. The Writing 101 features originate from her own blog  at http://jadevarden.blogspot.co.uk where you can see more of her thoughts on writing, as well as her own books. Her first two books in the Deck of Lies series are out now! Read our review of Justice here.

Writing 101…Copyright

So, you’ve finished a book. You carefully wrote an outline, craftily developed your characters, sweated out the formatting to make every page perfect. If you don’t get yourself a copyright through proper and legal channels, you don’t want to self-publish that story. If you do, I can download it, put my name on it and sell it as my own — legally. If you think slapping a copyright symbol and writing a disclaimer is enough to protect your rights, you might be wrong. Getting a copyright is pretty easy…but it’s not that easy.

What is a Copyright? 

You can’t have one unless you know what it is. When you own the copyright to a work — usually a piece of music, a book, artwork or a film — you and you alone are allowed to sell, distribute and duplicate that work. This means that if someone else wants to sell and/or distribute your work, they’ve got to go through you first. Copyrighting your book legally marks you as the owner, and it’s something you’ve got to do before you make that book available to the public in any form or fashion.

…If you live in the United States, that is.

Obtaining a Copyright

Obtaining a copyright is a legal process, and there may be certain channels you’ve got to go through in order to get it. If you live in the US, you’ve definitely got some work to do before you start happily self-publishing. Elsewhere…well, it’s quite a bit easier.

  • In the UK

If you create and produce your book in the UK, it’s automatically copyrighted. The UK copyright goes into effect the moment an idea leaves its creator’s mind and becomes an object (rather than a concept). The moment you type your first word, you’ve got a copyright on your work. You do not have to be a citizen of the UK for this copyright law to protect you; as long as you create and produce your work within the UK, you’re covered. The UK Intellectual Property Office offers more specific details.

  • In Canada

Canada’s copyright laws are similar to UK laws. Once you create and produce your work in country, you’re protected under Canadian copyright law. However, you should take the time to legally register your work through the Canadian Intellectual Property Office, a process which does include some monetary fees.

  • In the United States

If you live in the US, simply creating and producing your work absolutely isn’t enough. As an author, the responsibility falls to you and you alone to officially copyright your work and register it with the Library of Congress. It’s a relatively simple process that includes filling out a form and sending a copy of your work (for inclusion in the Library, of course). Use the online Electronic Copyright Office for ebooks and digital works. Filing the copyright does cost money, but it’s a necessity if you want to be legally recognized as the owner of your work.

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This post originally featured on Jade Varden’s author blog on 17th March 2012.

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Author Jade Varden is a regular guest contributor on Aside From Writing. The Writing 101 features originate from her own blog  at http://jadevarden.blogspot.co.uk where you can see more of her thoughts on writing, as well as her own books. Her debut novel Justice is available now, with The Tower scheduled for release in summer 2012. Read our review of Justice here.