Set the scene for success

March 25, 2012

Queen's College... an inspirational setting

A late night followed by the dawning realisation that the clocks had sprung forward an hour while I’d been sleeping, had left me tired and bleary-eyed for day two of the Oxford Literary Festival.
What was I doing going to a lecture at 10am on a Sunday (9am real time) anyway?
I hadn’t been very good at going to lectures as a student and, now that I’m working, my weekends are prized possessions not to be squandered.
My tired mood soon evaporated in the sunshine though, and when I arrived in Oxford the dreaming spires woke me up.
Everywhere looks great when the sun is on, but Oxford… well… it must be up there with the best of them.
I made my way to Christ Church to collect my ticket to hear agent Leah Thaxton, publishing director of Egmont, and Julia Churchill, of the Greenhouse Literary Agency, share their views on what makes a successful children’s book author.
On the way down Oxford’s wide streets and through its narrow alleys, my mind was transported back to earlier times when I worked in Oxford shops and businesses, drank in the city’s pubs and spent many of my weekends there.
Entering the college, my eyes roamed over the ancient stone, and manicured lawns and made me wonder what it might have been like to study there.
Queens’ college, where the talk was held, had more secret sights and ancient walkways, and a few open doorways for me to peek into as I made my way to the lecture room.
Oxford’s older colleges are inspirational places to be. The history, the privilege, the traditions, the beauty behind the doors that often only admit the country’s elite students – these are interesting things that spark the mind. Oxford University is an amazing setting for a book. A crime or a murder in such a hallowed academic setting elevates it, as Morse discovered, and Philip Pullman’s novels are given another dimension because of Oxford.
And that got me thinking about how important the right setting is for a story… or for anything really. I believe everyone attending the talk turned up positive, and inspired thanks to the setting and the sun. The scene was set for a great lecture, even before our esteemed speakers arrived.
And then, almost an hour into the talk, Julia Churchill summed it up perfectly.
“Setting becomes a character in its own right”, she said.
Think Narnia, think Hogwarts… think Oxford.
We had Julia to inspire us, we had Leah to inspire us and our third speaker/character was Oxford.
So, ground your story somewhere, and use the setting to the best effect you can.

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A beautiful combination

March 24, 2012

I  have to say I’m liking FocusWriter very much!

Today was its first proper “used in anger” moment – when I took my new netbook with me to my daughter’s dance class and sat in the car (when I would normally read) and got back to my much neglected novel.  In the 23 minutes I had between dropping her off and walking back to the car and then leaving the car to go and collect her again I managed to get 431 words down.

My well worn Asus 1015PX

My well worn Asus 1015PX

The netbook (an ASUS 1015PX) sits perfectly on my knee in the car, the back of the screen rests on the steering wheel (I don’t even have to move the seat back) and it’s a very comfortable sitting position (more comfortable than sat here amongst the end of week detritus that litters the kitchen table – although at least the netbook manages to find a space amongst it, not something I could have done with my big work laptop).  I think it’s going to be a very beautiful relationship!

My one little gripe with FocusWriter is that it has a US English dictionary, so I’m having to ignore its little quirks and add British (proper!) spelling to it as I go along.  Apparently you can add the British Dictionary from Open Office to it (but this info I found on the web was before the OpenOffice, LibreOffice split) so this will require some investigation and no doubt some fiddling.

Just before I came to write this, according to FocusWriter’s daily counter I had achieved 167% of my self-imposed 500words/day total (this is good, but it doesn’t do (it would seem) cumulative totals, so I can only feel pleased or disappointed daily.  Being able to set, for example, 5000 words per month would be more useful to me at the moment!)

I turned on, for no other reason than it amuses me greatly, the faked old fashioned typewriter clicky-clacking sound as I type.  I never been a touch-typer exactly and I do have to keep looking down at the keyboard when things start to go wrong (the netbook’s keyboard is about the biggest and most well-laid out and tactile I could find on this class of computer – it’s one of the reasons I bought this particular model) but when I’m in full flow and the clicking is rhythmic and rapid its a great incentive to keep going and not pause to think of exactly the adjective you were looking for or to go back and correct a typo.

Well, there you go, a 400+ word blog…  There will be some in Wordwatchers that might argue that’s 400 words wasted since they’re not in the novel and they could be right, but I just wanted to share!

John (on his netbook)

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Who the URL are you?

March 22, 2012

Who? Urls? You?

The daunting subjects of online marketing and search engine optimisation have at their core two very simple principles. The first is the use of ‘keywords’ and the second are ‘links’. Links are what I’m talking about here. They are connections, or doorways, that are used to take you to websites or content within websites. The link contains a URL, which is the address of the destination. The words Link and URL in internet speak are conjoined. I use the word URL for the main part here to refer to both, not least because this post’s title wouldn’t sound half as good if it were: ‘Who the link are you?’

URLs are important because search engines such as Google use the number of URLs pointing to your content, to rate your content in context to similar sites. The more URLs that point to your site, the higher ranked it will be when people type a keyword relevant to your site. If you type ‘Chasing Innocence‘ to Google right now, the chances are my book will magically appear somewhere, at least once, on the first page of results. That’s because there are quite a few URLs on my various sites pointing to my book, along with the keywords: chasing innocence. The interesting aspect is these URLs can exist within your single site or blog, so they not only draw people to your site but can also channel people within your site to the bits you really want them to see. In fact embedding URLs within your content is vital. URLs within a web page are doorways. A web page with no links (URLs) is like a room with no doors. Once the reader has seen all there is in the room, if there’s no doors there’s nowhere else for them to go. So what is a URL and how do you use them?

A URL is an internet equivalent to a postal address. For example, a URL most people will be familiar with:

HTTP:// – Is the language your computer will use to speak to the destination when it eventually gets there. In this case HTTP is web-browser speak.

WWW – Is simply the name of the computer at the destination. It’s the equivalent of speaking to someone called WWW at the destination. It does not have to be WWW, it can be almost any name within certain parameters. HTTP://KDP.AMAZON.COM means I want to speak to KDP at AMAZON.COM and I want to speak HTTP (web-browser speak) to KDP when I get there.

AMAZON.CO.UK – Is the address where you can find, in this case, the computer named WWW. It’s equivalent to the full postal address for a building, anywhere in the world. It can be further broken down into .COM or .CO.UK or .INFO or a number of other identifiers, but knowing the breakdown and why, is no more necessary than understanding the breakdown of a ZIP code. All you need is the ZIP code (post code).

That’s the detail on a basic URL. You now know how to get there, you know who to talk to and you know what language to speak. But if you’re linking to content actually within the site the URL will need to contain more. For instance:

/DP/B006Z0KYEQ – These are specific locations or layers at the destination that WWW at the address AMAZON.CO.UK will take you to. The /DP can be equated to a room in the building and /B006Z0KYEQ, can be equated to something in that room.

So, we can now look at the address again:

We now know this means I would like to talk HTTP to WWW at AMAZON.CO.UK and I would like WWW to take me to the room DP and to the item referenced: B006Z0KYEQ

If you type the link into any web browser right now you will find /dp/B006Z0KYEQ points to Chasing Innocence on Amazon UK.

Sometimes you will look at the link and see lots of symbols towards the end of the URL. This is simply extra information WWW might use to find extra content.

So how do we use these URLs? Now we understand what a URL is, actually using them is simple. You add a URL to content on your site. You might have a line of text that reads: Check out John’s book on Amazon. To create a doorway to John’s book on Amazon you first highlight the text and then click the add link button within the application you’re creating the web content. In WordPress it’s the chain icon. In Blogger you simply click on the Link button.

In WordPress you click on the Chain-Link icon

In Blogger you click on 'Link'

As creating links is a core function of any internet content tool,  each will have a link creation button. Once the relevant ‘Link’ button is clicked you will be presented with a dialogue that requires the following:

Creating the Link

The URL – In this case:
The Title – Which is optional. I might enter: Chasing Innocence on Amazon. Adding this might also help search engines to additionally rank the content.
Open a new Window/Tab – This is quite important. Clicking a URL will take the web browser to the destination, if you want the reader to come back to the page containing your original content, you want to open a new browser window, or they might get to the destination and find a whole bunch of new doors and forget all about where they started.

Once you’ve entered the detail you click ‘Add Link’ and the link will appear in your content when you publish it.

So to the final and briefest stage. How do you find out what the URLs for your content are? So that you can link to it. Simples. You go to the content you want to link to on your site, then you look to the address bar at the top of your web browser. Most browsers will list the full URL. For instance if you look at the address bar right now, you will see the URL for the page you are currently reading is:

If you want to link to this page you highlight ALL of the URL in the address bar and (right-click) Copy it and then Paste it to a link in your content as described above.

That really is it. I hope that’s a little clearer than mud. If not then be sure to fire away with questions in the comment section below.

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Backup, backup and then backup again

March 20, 2012

Happy JohnI do a lot of work at home (one of the joys of being a university lecturer is that I seem to spend a lot of my own time staying on top of emails, preparing for lecturers and marking) and so I have a work issued laptop.  It’s a beast of a machine, weighs over six kilograms and stretches the concept of “lap” in laptop to the extreme.  However, over the last eighteen months or so I’ve put up with toasted and crushed legs because using this laptop, when I had the opportunity, to also write my novel was preferable to hiding in the hallway where my sickly old desktop PC lives.

All of that was true until this weekend when that beast of a laptop died, without warning and (at the time of writing) quite catastrophically.  As well as losing the marking I’d been working on I discovered, when I checked online, that I’d also got out of the habit of backing up the novel.  In fact, I’d been out of the habit for two months…

So, why the happy face in the picture?  Well, it’s an old picture and I like it, so why not?  You really don’t need to see the face I pulled when the laptop failed to boot up (indeed, failed to show any signs of life at all).  Also, and more importantly several good things have come out of this potential disaster…

Firstly, I have finally stopped procrastinating over buying myself a netbook (specifically for writing my novel, to separate it from the same IT I use for work), which I was supposed to do when turned 40 (a dim and distant half-year ago now).  So I’m actually writing this on a little ASUS EeePC 1015PX.  I’m liking it very much and I’m just about used to the keyboard layout (I apologise now to the guys in PCWorld who perhaps thought, over the last few months that I might actually buy one of their machines, when in fact I was just sussing out keyboard feel on what was on offer).  What amazes me is that it weighs less than just the power supply for the big work laptop and so far has been running for over six hours and claims still to have two hours left to run on its battery.

Secondly, I’ve found (or was at least reminded of something I’d seen before) a fantastic little program called, delightfully, FocusWriter.  It only takes a few seconds to start (even on the netbook) and then you’re presented with a completely blank screen.  No settings to fiddle with, no icons, no menus…  Just a nothing, daring you to fill it up as quickly as possible.  FocusWriter also has a Daily Goal setting, allowing you to pick a daily time or word count.  I have decided that there’s no point in picking a time (I can stare at a blank screen for 30 minutes a day no problem at all) so have opted for 500 words a day instead.

Thirdly, even though a chunk of the novel is currently (and possibly permanently) lost, I have my overall plan. I know where I got to, I know where I’m going, so I’m going to carry on and if I ever get my work back, that’ll be a bonus and if not, I will chalk it up to experience and write it again.

So, I’ve decided to look upon the good rather than the bad of my current predicament, because what else can I actually do?  I have my lap back, no longer superheated by high performance graphic card exhausts or crushed by six kilograms of 3-year old, no longer cutting edge gaming machine.  I finally have my long promised birthday present and I’ve found a really nice little writing app that can nag me nicely that I haven’t yet reached my word count, or pat me on the back when I exceed it.

Writing is quite hard enough without looking for an excuse to throw in the towel, so I have decided not to give myself one!

Until next time…


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Chapter Planning – a ‘means’ not an ‘end’

March 15, 2012

Chapter Plan - WhiteboardI am currently in a strange place.  Not for the first time, I admit.  And certainly it’s no unique experience in the writing world.  But it’s strange nonetheless.  I am hauling myself from one writing state to another, and this time around I am finding it to be a particularly interesting journey.

So much so, I thought I’d share it.

For the last couple of months (okay, nearer four), whenever people asked me how the novel was coming along, I was able to tell them, “It’s going well.  I’m chapter planning.”  At this point of the conversation, however, the more informed would observe that it was a little late to be doing that sort of thing, given I supposedly finished it last year.

Yes, well…

There’s a big difference between getting to the end of the plot and finishing a novel.  I have seen this many times through the experiences of my published friends, many of whom are in this group; ‘finished’ means it’s practically on the shelves, and just because your characters have achieved (or failed to achieve) all you had in mind for them and gone racing off into that wilderness that lies beyond the confines of your story, it doesn’t mean you’re done.

The feedback I received, which brings me to the title of this blog posting, was that the plot was cross-genre, and that I needed to go back and think where I wanted the novel to sit – in crime or general fiction (and, believe me, this whole ‘cross genre’ thing is definitely worth a post of its own.)

It was a fair point, and one I was happy to accept, but tackling something as fundamental as genre, and therefore plot, meant… I was back to chapter planning.

Now, I happen to love chapter planning.  As you can see from the first photo, it starts as a very tactile thing for me, involving whiteboards and sticky notes.  I find it helps me think, much as I imagine Rolf Harris used to feel when he was hurling paint on to his bare wall, saying, “Do ya know what it is yet?”  It’s a very liberating experience.  Each scene, each significant event or clue or turning point in the story is captured as a distinct entity (on its own colour-coded sticky, based on which plotline it supports) and becomes free to go wherever it needs, or indeed be cast out entirely, for the purposes of the story.

Chapter Plan - DocumentIn terms of process, once the stickies and whiteboards have done their job, I capture it all in a Word document, in a series of ‘swim lanes’, one for each plot line, transfering all those individual stickies on to the relevant row and column.  It worked for me first time around with this novel, and has been hugely useful this time.  (In fact, this time, with the benefit of seeing what those editing types get up to on the path to publishing a book, I’ve added another row at the bottom of each chapter… Hook, telling me what the reader is supposed to care about at the end of the chapter, as well as what mini-hooks I have included earlier on.)

So, why am I in a strange place, if it’s all gone so well, and been so helpful?

Because, as with anything, it’s easy to get too comfortable and find that ‘means’ has nudged itself over into ‘end’.  Fortunately, that’s one of the wonderful things about Wordwatchers; the excuses soon start to burn a hole in your conscience.

So, as I said at the start, I am now hauling myself out of the comfort zone of planning and into the actual hard graft of writing, of delivering my book.  And, much as I love writing (can’t you tell – this was only intended to be a short piece on planning chapters :-)), making the transition from one to the other is not easy.  Especially when it involves tearing apart 100,000 words of well-loved, well-structured story in the name of rebuilding something you hope will be even better.

But started I most definitely have; one chapter in and moving slowly.  Soon the old addiction will kick in, replacing the lure of the plan, and the pace will pick up.  Still hard.  Still graft.  But a much healthier writing state for me to be in.


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A lonely business

March 15, 2012

John Potter

I never really understood the saying: ‘Writing is a lonely business.’ I suppose if you consider the physical logistics it’d be difficult if you weren’t alone. As for the solitude, I’m never tapping away thinking I could do with a bit of company. It’s often the opposite – solitude means longer to write. The reality is the characters of my stories exist as vivid entities with hopes and fears all of their own. Writing is about walking their journey with them, it never feels lonely at all.

For some strange reason I really thought I’d be able to publish a book alone too. It has been rightly said I struggle on the control front, in that I’m not very good at letting go. It’s not so much I think I’m better at doing stuff than everyone else, it’s just that I struggle to imagine anyone doing what I have in my mind better than me. Of course I did eventually realise I would need help, a realisation driven by a need to do the story justice. As it happens turning my story into a book was one of the most creatively liberating experiences I’ve ever had. The copy editor heroically worked to give the story a consistent grammatical narrative and fixed so many typos it took me almost a day to go through them. The proof editor spotted the last few plot inconsistencies and a whole bunch of missing hyphens, and a few more typos.  A photographer took my fuzzy concept for a cover photograph and added story to the image itself. The model danced her way from shot to shot, rarely giving us the same look until we had ‘the look’. A graphic designer surpassed my wildest expectations in stylising the image and creating a title that demanded attention.

This wonderful collaborative experience led me late in December to give my approach to writing a serious rethink. I wondered what I might learn from other writers and what I might have to offer in return. I’d spent some time on writing sites but never interacted with living breathing people. I’m not normally a social animal. I’m an outside looking in kind of person, not someone that is the life and soul of a gathering. Back in 2005 broadening my reading scope had propelled me to a different level of writing, which gave me the platform to begin ‘Chasing Innocence‘. Collaborating to make the book a quality product was a real revelation to me. My experiences as an indie publisher and author have slowly pulled me towards the value of collaboration. In fact I think within the indie forum it is even more important.

At the end of January I found myself nervously amongst a group of other writers. This group of writers. It was the first time I’d sat down with people with the sole intention of talking about writing. How liberating. Usually when people that don’t write learn you’re writing a book, they ask whether it’s finished? Is it published? And cough politely and move on, while your still only half-way through your speel about the book. In this group there are writers of childrens and YA fiction, Sci-Fi and country living websites, a life coach building a website and finishing a book, and a proper published author of historical romance. Others are doing what I spent the last two years doing – trying to turn their fiction into something people might want to read. Two months down the line I have found it incredibly exciting and have learned so much from the shared knowledge and different approaches. I possibly get too excited, I’m like a kid in a candy store. And while I always love to get back to my keyboard and characters, this writing world is even less of a lonely business than it ever has been.

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Just a little weekly round up

March 11, 2012

Quite a few members of Wordwatchers already have websites and blogs of their own. So this is just a little micro-blog to pull together a summary of their work and a few other things I’ve found interesting on the web this week.

John Potter, author of Chasing Innocence talks candidly about going from the creative stages of Push to Pull of creating a new work. If you want to find out what John means by Push and Pull, you can go here to find out: John Potter’s Blog

Sarah White, like John Potter, is one of Wordwatchers newest members and in her most recent blog, she teases us with the cover of her latest book, The Self Confidence & Self Esteem Bible. More details can be found here: Sarah PJ White’s Blog

Charlotte Betts while working hard on the final edits of the soon to be released The Painter’s Apprentice, still managed to time to interview Christina Courtenay (winner of the 2012 Historical Romantic Novel Award). The very lovely interview can be found here: Charlotte Betts’ Blog

If you’re into Crime Novels, you may be interested in this Story Competition: Bloody Scotland Competition. And, while I’d love to own a £2,000 bottle of whisky, Crime writing is definitely not a genre I have any skill in at all! (Perhaps I’ll leave that to Julian and John Potter then…)

Dan Banks (@DanBanks) wrote a very interesting blog about websites and “Homepages” on Jane Friedman’s (@JaneFriedman) Blog. Fascinating, if, like Wordwatchers has recently, you’re spending a lot of time trying to get your Shop Front just right. The Blog can be found here: Importance of Homepages Blog

Well, that’s it. I hope to do this again next week, unless of course, one of the other Wordwatchers members beats me too it!

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It’s all about having something tangible…

March 4, 2012

John Hoggard

I love books. In my early 20s when I was at University I worked part-time in “The Bookshop” (underneath the Crowtree Leisure Centre at the time). Each Saturday, Steve, the owner, would give me my wages and I’d then show him a stack of books I’d put aside during the week. Steve would nod sagely and take the money back.

There’s something very comfortable about a bookshop, especially a 2nd hand one. Here, books, no longer loved seek out new owners who will take them away and love them once more. I have fostered many a tatty copy of a well-thumbed early Philip K Dick or Frank Herbert in my time. Occasionally, usually due to lack of space, I have had to release a book or two back into the wild. It’s never easy.

My dad already knows that his book collection is to become mine when he finally shuffles off this mortal coil, for we have completed many a series by buying them for each other as Christmas and Birthday presents, so our tastes are shared and so are our books.

So today, when I moved our biggest book case out from underneath the stairs out into the living room and was thus forced to spend several hours making it presentable (removing the double stacks, sorting into some kind of author based order) I wondered about the rise of the e-Book and the e-Book reader.

Will these days eventually become distant memories? Stories told to grandchildren who stare incredulously in much the same way as my ten year old currently stares at the big black flat disc called a record when I get the box of vinyl out. Will they simply use their smart phone issued token/voucher to download the latest blockbuster to their Kindle as a Christmas or birthday present? Never to know what it feels like to pick up a present from under the tree and know that it’s a book, but to not know what book. To listen to the gentle flap-flap-flap-flap as you flick through a hundred pages in a few scant seconds. To miss out on teasing the olfactory system and to not know the smell what a new book smells like. To never stand in a queue clutching your newly purchased tome reading it as you shuffle forward waiting for your idol to add their signature to the inside front cover and, if you were lucky, a personal word or two. Perhaps, in years to come, e-Book readers will come with a finger print scanner or a touch sensitive pad where authentication that you stood in that queue can be added electronically…

It’s odd that I, self confessed techno-geek, lover of all things electronic, find myself torn by the relatively sudden rise of the e-Book (and reader) phenomenon. To this end, when my friend and fellow writer Drew Wagar published his first pay for novel (the rest have been available as free downloads) I paid for the much more expensive print-on-demand copy.

I am not yet ready to embrace the electronically printed word, not for my books at least…

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