Research is a key part of writing any novel and has always been something of a passion of mine. Whether it is researching the Anglo-Saxon world of 6th century England for my novel This Sacred Isle, or building an entire secondary world for my Tree of Life trilogy, I love digging down to establish key facts. Sometimes, this research takes the place of visiting actual historical sites or museums / galleries – often, though, my research is through non-fiction works (I am a regular customer at my local library!).
Often, I will use non-fiction books to confirm important details about the world in which my story takes place – for example, for This Sacred Isle, although it contains elements of fantasy, I very much wanted the setting to have a strong historical basis, such as the food people eat, their clothes, their weapons etc.
However, good non-fiction can also provide inspiration for elements I would never have thought of otherwise, taking the story in different directions. In this post, I am going to talk about four non-fiction books that I have found inspiring when writing my novels, non-fiction books to which I’m sure I’ll continue to return.
The Book of English Magic - Richard Heygate & Philip Carr-Gomm
This is a wonderful survey of England’s magical past, covering druids, Anglo-Saxon runes, Merlin, Alchemy, Freemasonry, and much, much more. Erudite but accessible, this hugely entertaining, enrichening book is a primer for occult history, and has opened for me many rich seams of research and inspiration. I returned to this book a number of times whilst writing This Sacred Isle, both for the sections on Anglo Saxon magic and the Matter of Britain, and also for the section on Alchemy and Tarot, which in their way influenced the shape of the story.
The book contains short biographies of leading figures within magical history, such as Aleister Crowley, as well as focuses on writers inspired by England’s magical tradition such as J.R.R. Tolkien, Susanna Clarke, J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman. There are suggestions for places to visit, and articles written by modern day magical practitioners, which I found fascinating and in places, very moving.
Even if you don’t believe in magic, read The Book of English Magic with an open mind, and it will take you on a trip to the Otherworld…
Wonderbook – Jeff VanderMeer
Wonderbook has proven to be a valuable addition to my non-fiction collection. It is an illustrated creative writing book, aimed mainly (though not exclusively) at writers of the fantastical (all SF, Horror and Fantasy authors will find reams of good material to explore here). It is jam-packed with advice on plotting, structure, characterisation, world-building and many more aspects of fiction writing.
I used this book during the edit of This Sacred Isle, and it helped me to see some different perspectives on my work, especially in terms of narrative design and testing my characters. The exercises and advice contained within Wonderbook made me challenge my work even more, to question my assumptions, to keep trying new techniques.
The heavily visual, often playful and irreverent, approach is bold and innovative, and the book also contains articles / interviews with writers such as George R. R. Martin, Neil Gaiman and Ursula Le Guin.
And it is not just the practical advice that makes Wonderbook such a valuable book for writers – it gives plenty of inspiration just to keep going, especially when the going gets tough.
Encyclopaedia of things that never were - Michael F. Page and Robert Ingpen
I picked up this book many years ago, and it’s been a faithful companion for my writing since then. It might be tricky to get a hold of a copy now, but it’s worth it if you can.
Drawing on examples from myth, legend and fantastical literature from around the world, you’ll discover all manner of mystical places, people and creatures. Richly illustrated, it is an entertaining, witty read, and I used the book to spark ideas for my Tree of Life trilogy - the saga takes place in an invented secondary world, and the Encyclopaedia of things that never were sparked many ideas for the creatures that inhabited that world and lands in which they lived.
For any lover of fantasy, I would recommend this book – leave logic at the door, and enter a world of dreams…
The illustrated Signs and Symbols Sourcebook - Adele Nozedar
This is a comprehensive and well-illustrated guide to the secret knowledge of signs and symbols, which I found both useful as a source for research and an entertaining read in its own right.
The book is divided into themed sections, covering a vast array of subjects such as magic, flora and fauna, deities, geometry, numbers and landscape.
I love using symbolism in my novels, and found this book extremely helpful as a guide and a source of fresh ideas – the structure makes it easy to dip into, and although in some areas it might be necessary to carry out more detailed research, there is a lot of depth to certain sections, for example the pages for tarot and astrology.
I’ve continued to use The illustrated Signs and Symbols Sourcebook for the research and planning of my latest novel, Second Sun, and I’m sure this will remain a well-thumbed tome for many more years and books to come!
Completing a first draft is a key milestone in the long process of writing a novel. Although it is most definitely not the end of the process, it certainly is the culmination of a considerable amount of research, planning and writing. In a slow literary alchemy, dozens, hundreds of scribbled notes, fragments of descriptions and segments of dialogue have been transformed into a (more or less) coherent narrative. The journey is not yet complete, but I think it is important to take a moment to reflect that reaching the end of a first draft is an achievement in itself, and a crucial staging post on the road to the final destination – a completed and published novel.
I have discussed in a previous blog post my process for writing a first draft and have recently finished the first draft of my latest novel, a dystopian SF story called Second Sun. It has been an enjoyable, if testing, draft to write – the research / planning took longer than expected, and the setting proved to be more complex than I had initially expected. However, this is, for me, one of the chief joys of writing a novel – the opportunity to learn new things; for example, as part of the research I have delved into subjects as diverse as the poetry and art of William Blake, the history of the Avebury stone circle, and 1970s space rock. I was also lucky enough to visit the sublime Living with Gods exhibition at the British Museum, which both helped to inspire my writing and shape some of the themes of the book. I believe learning derived through research is valuable not only for writing, but for life in general, and I welcome the chance to explore subjects I otherwise would perhaps miss.
So, once the first draft is completed, what is the next step? Well, lots of reflection and lots of revision. At this point, you need to step back and look at your first draft with a fresh pair of eyes to understand the weaknesses and (hopefully!) strengths of your work. It can be a dispiriting experience – I always find the quality of my writing and storytelling is much lower than I expected; I stumble across glaring inconsistencies, there are pacing issues, needless repetition, and a myriad of other problems. It is easy, and understandable, to feel at this point like giving up, or starting again from scratch. The important thing I always try to remember is that it is a first draft – no one else needs to read it, there is a lot more work to do and the final published version will be much, much stronger.
Even putting aside the quality of the writing, I always find my first draft is different, sometimes very different, from the idea of the book I had in my mind’s eye. Unexpected themes emerge, and characters who I originally perceived as relatively minor players develop into leading roles; this is certainly true as I begin to read back the first draft of Second Sun. For example, one character, a former soldier named Jael, was, in my original plan, only in the story for a short time – however, the more I wrote about Jael, the more I found her an interesting, challenging character with strong potential for a rich and resonant back story, and a good counterpoint to the main character. I like writing Jael, I think I found her voice quite quickly, and the more deeply she is involved with the narrative, the better the story becomes.
In this way, reading back and revising your first draft becomes something of a journey of discovery, both revising familiar, expected components of the story, and finding new, unexpected elements. As I begin to work on the next draft of Second Sun, I know I will add new ideas, and remove and reshape existing ones – this will continue both throughout all future drafts too. There is lots more work to come, but in the months ahead I look forward to gradually developing my somewhat messy first draft into a final book that I hope readers enjoy.
How do you feel when you've just completed a first draft of a story? Leave a comment and join the conversation.
If you’re interested in my writing, you can get the ebook version of my first novel - The Map of the Known World – for free, from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, iBooks or Smashwords.
Writing the first draft of a book is tough, exciting as well, but definitely tough. I’ve blogged previously about the first draft of my last novel, This Sacred Isle, and some of the challenges faced, and now I back in the same place, writing the first draft of my new SF novel, Second Sun.
So what is Second Sun about? Well, in very high-level terms, Second Sun is set in a present day but alternate Earth roughly thirty years (the timescale is important, for reasons I won’t reveal here) after a successful alien invasion, an invasion that was welcomed and supported by much of humanity. Despite their conquest, which has become known as the Redemption, the aliens largely allow humans to continue their lives as they see fit, although the conquerors proudly claim to have reduced the threat of war, especially nuclear conflict, in an effort to herald in a new era of peace. The aliens work through the human proxies and encouraged a society which places the highest value on personal enrichment and self-actualisation. For many, it is a utopia, but there are whispered rumours of discontent, rumours that challenge the aliens’ claim of benevolence…
The main character of the story finds himself, unwittingly at first, drawn into the schemes of the Union, a revolutionary movement sworn to overthrow the rule of the aliens. As the story develops, and he is drawn into ever greater danger, he slowly begins to discover the true nature of the alien rule, and of the depths of human cruelty.
Inspired by SF greats such as Philip K Dick and John Christopher, and dystopian books such as 1984, Brave New World and We, I have long wanted to write a SF novel and although I do not consider myself in the same league as those inspirational works and their creators, I feel that I have developed enough as a writer where I can strive to create the kind of SF book I would want to read and others would enjoy. In the development of this story, I have drawn together a range of inspirations and themes, such as ancient mythology, Outsider Art, fear of the survelliance state and the effects of materialism. I have researched extensively and made copious notes – most of them ending up in the notebook below, along with other ideas and thoughts scribbled down on whatever piece of paper I had to hand!
Following my research, I developed a ‘treatment’ for Second Sun, which in essence is my plan for the novel, and this took some months of work. And from this treatment I am now working on the first draft – however, although I plan extensively, I certainly allow myself considerable bandwidth to amend the story as I go along. Just because I have planned a certain character or plot point does not mean I consider it cast in stone – my planning gives me some structure, confidence that I will be able to get to the end of the story without getting too lost or succummbing to the worst ravages of writer’s block, but it is not the final product, I am still open to new insights, and I hold the belief that a writer has to always scrutinise and challenge his or her ideas and be ready to amend any detail to better serve the story.
For Second Sun, I have completed the first (of six planned) chapters and am working through the second. I do find those first few pages challenging, a bit like exercise if you have been resting for a long time, but I am definitely starting to get into the rhythm. To maintain motivation and focus, I set myself a monthly word count target of 15,000 words (approximately an average of 500 words a day), which is a testing but realistic objective. I am expecting Second Sun to be a relatively short novel, probably in the region of 60,000 words, so I hope to have a complete first draft by the end of January 2018.
I try to write every day (I am very conscious of the maxim of ‘never a day without a line’) to help build and maintain momentum. At the moment, Second Sun is progressing well, the characters are taking shape and I have plenty of ideas, but I’m not fooled into thinking that there aren’t tricky times ahead! From my experiences of writing This Sacred Isle and the Tree of Life trilogy, I am acutely aware that although starting and finishing a first draft can be difficult, perhaps the hardest part is the midway of the book, where tiredness starts to kick in and a little of the optimistic excitement you feel at the first page is ebbing away. There is no easy answer to this – I just know I have to keep going and not panic if the pace slows and the ideas stop flowing. Word by word, line by line, paragraph by paragraph, the book will take shape and the end will come into view. And of course, when the first draft is completed, the next task is months of editing – well, no-one said writing a book is easy!
What do you find most difficult, and rewarding, about writing a first draft? Add your comments below and join the conversation.
All authors draw on a wide range of inspirations for their stories – they use real-life experiences, their concerns about their world, books they have read. For me, and I suspect many other writers too, visual art is hugely important for inspiring and shaping my novels.
In the early stages of planning and writing a new novel, I always try to visit art galleries, and as well as being enjoyable experiences, I always come out fizzing with ideas – paintings and sculptures suggest to me scenes, characters and ideas. I am fortunate to live relatively close to London and Cambridge, and so have access to the incredible art galleries there, many of which are free to enter!
I believe art allows us to see the world from different perspectives, to challenge our assumptions and beliefs. Art can make us all feel a little less alone in this world – it can provide a safe space for us to consider and explore feelings and fears we might otherwise feel uncomfortable in confronting. Although I could never claim to come close to matching the insights and skill of the artists who are important to me, I hope their work can unlock new dimensions in my own work. I also try to remember that the masterpieces hanging on the gallery wall are the product of years of dedication, of learning, of mistakes and experiments – they did not come easily to the artist, their high level of achievement had to be earned. And when I am battling through the writing and editing of a book, I find that an encouraging thought!
I see each book I write as an opportunity to learn new things, especially about art. I am certainly not an expert in art or art history, but I find it an endlessly absorbing subject, as there are always new artists and works to discover.
When writing The Tree of Life trilogy, a number of artists were important to me in developing the landscapes and inhabitants of my invented fantasy world, for example the nightmarish creations of Hieronymus Bosch, the dark visions of Francisco Goya and the mysterious paintings of Arnold Bocklin (whose The Island of the Dead painting was a key image for The Last Days, the final book in the trilogy). I also found great inspiration in Assyrian sculpture, and enjoyed many happy visits to the Assyrian palace relief rooms in the British Museum, absorbing this intricate, undeniably powerful work.
I hoped that, in some small way, absorbing the work of such artists not only broadened my own knowledge, but provided extra depth to my writing, and made my fictional worlds a little more convincing.
When I wrote This Sacred Isle, I continued this fascination with art and there were several specific paintings that heavily influenced imagery within the book, for example Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion by Francis Bacon, Apollo and Python by JMW Turner, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, Mammon by George Frederic Watts and The Ghost of a Flea by William Blake.
But for This Sacred Isle, two artists were particularly important to the book’s development and symbolism, although both are painters from a far more modern era than the novel depicts. In the work of symbolist painter Odilon Redon, I discovered enigmatic images that chimed with the dreamlike atmosphere I was searching for in certain scenes of the book.
And I never failed to be inspired by the paintings of Paul Nash, possibly my favourite painter. It was crucial to me to establish the landscape of This Sacred Isle as a character in its own right, and to hint at traces of history it had witnessed and sustained. Paul Nash had an intense and deeply personal relationship with certain landscapes such as the Wittenham Clumps and Avebury, landscapes he claimed possessed a quality he named the genius loci.
I have written before about the influence of Paul Nash on my work (see my earlier blog post), and I am sure this influence will endure through all my future stories.
Art is certainly central to Second Sun, the SF book I am currently writing, in particular the concept of ‘Outsider’ or ‘Naive’ Art. I am fascinated by art produced by untutored artists working outside of the normal conventions of the art world. For example, the primitive quality of Alfred Wallis’s paintings has inspired one of the key characters in the novel, ‘The Captain’, who produces art not to sell, not to achieve fame, but to preserve memories of things now lost. I loved the sense of an artist expressing a profound, unorthodox view of the world, totally at odds with the norms of society. I was fortunate enough to view a small display of Wallis’s paintings at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and seeing them close up demonstrated the raw power of his approach to scale and perspective, and the muted colours seemed to heighten their drama. The work of Alfred Wallis, and discovering more about his life, unlocked for me the character of ‘The Captain’, who although is absolutely not Wallis, does share some of the same motivations and obsessions.
Away from ‘Outsider art’, a number of other painters and sculptures continue to influence the imagery and atmosphere of the novel. The paintings of Australian artist Jeffrey Smart also resonated strongly with me as I began to plan Second Sun. I have kept his empty, somehow dislocated urban landscapes very much in mind when creating the setting of my novel. The narrative paintings of Paula Rego (definitely one of my favourite artists) also fascinate me, both for the challenging, often violent themes she explores and for the way she weaves fairy tales and legends in her paintings as powerful symbols, something I am attempting to do (though with much less skill than Rego, I’m sure!) with Second Sun. And finally, the sculpture is a vital influence for this book: for example, the enigmatic figures produced by Antony Gormley (especially installations such as Event Horizon), and the smooth, rounded forms of Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures, will in different ways shape elements of the story.
I hope this post gives a sense of the importance of art to me as a person and specifically as a writer. I look forward to discovering new artists, exploring their unique perspectives and letting their work encourage me to push myself further with my writing.
Who are the artists who influence your life and work? Leave a comment and join the conversation.
We all love a memorable villain – they can elevate a story and challenge a hero to the utmost of their limits. Think about the unforgettable impact of characters such as Voldemort and Darth Vader; their deeds repel us, but we find them fascinating. The very best villains allow us to thrillingly explore those aspects of our personality we normally hide!
So, if you are writing fantasy fiction, how can you create a villain that will excite and grip your readers? I know from writing The Tree of Life trilogy and This Sacred Isle, it can be a fun and demanding challenge.
In this post I’ll look at three ways you can develop a worthy adversary for your hero.
Make your villain three-dimensional.
Never forget that your antagonist is a character, not just a convenient plot device. You must understand their motives and perspective. Everybody is the hero of their own story – however cruel and selfish our behaviour, we are all capable of holding an internal narrative that depicts our actions as noble and justified. If you make your villain evil for evil’s sake, they can come across as flat, one-note characters. Instead, strive to show what motivates their actions, what quirks of personality and experiences have driven their behaviour.
A fine example of this is from Tad Williams’s majestic series Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. The chief protagonist is the Storm King, who although in many ways represents the typical ‘Dark Lord’ actually transcends this trope. The Storm King does not act out of simple-minded evil, for his dark sorcery is a reaction to the suffering and near annihilation of his people (the Sithi) at the hands of the humans.
In my novel, This Sacred Isle, the main antagonist is Merlin – he is far removed from the wise, benevolent mentor of King Arthur. The slaughter of the Dark Ages and the suffering endured by his people has left him bitter and vengeful. Worn down by the cruelty of Man, he seeks to cleanse Britain of those he sees as usurpers. Yes, Merlin’s plan is merciless, but he believes, truly believes, he has no choice.
A well-written villain should explore the darker sides of our nature, sides we all possess; they should ask an implicit question of the reader: “If I had their power, how would I act?”
Make your villain a worthy foe
You must make sure your antagonist is as least as strong as your hero. They should possess the very real ability and intent to ruin the hero’s life, for it is through meeting this challenge that the hero will prove worthy. If your hero can easily overwhelm the villain, where is the tension? In the traditional story arc, the hero should through the course of the story develop the skills, allies and strength required to face and defeat the villain.
And villainy might not just be a simple test of physical strength or magical power. One of the ways an antagonist can threaten a hero is to try to exploit their weaknesses by tempting them to follow an evil path and betray their cause – the idea of a hero being corrupted is in some ways more chilling than any threat to their life. Think how close Luke Skywalker strayed towards the dark side. Consider how the One Ring all but consumed Frodo Baggins. The fact that such heroes were tempted by evil does not diminish their heroism – it humanises them, makes them relatable and actually elevates the bravery of their defiance. A villain should push the hero to the extreme, to the point where they question everything they have learned, everything they have believed. And it is at this moment, that true heroism is revealed.
Keep your hero and villain in contact
For the purposes of your story, your hero and villain need each other, are often defined by each other. If they are in close proximity during the tale, then it is obviously easier for them to interact. However, do not despair if your story dictates they should rarely meet. This is where you can make use of proxies. The best way to do this is to employ effective proxies, not just mindless henchmen or henchwomen – use characters who have been twisted by the antagonist. A strong example of this comes in the Lord of the Rings; Sauron never meets Frodo, but he exerts his power through, among others, the Ringwraiths and Saruman, who have all been corrupted by the Dark Lord and thus demonstrate his strength and evil intent. Such proxies test a hero’s strength, resolve and abilities, and help to develop a sense of escalating danger as the story moves to the climatic moments.
Who are your favourite villains? What makes them some memorable? Add a comment and join the conversation!
If you are interested in my fiction, you can download the first novel in the Tree of Life series, The Map of the Known World, for FREE from Amazon, iBooks, Barnes and Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.
In this second part of my three part blog series, I will be looking at what I learned about worldbuilding from writing my epic fantasy series - The Tree of Life.
In common with many epic fantasy trilogies, The Tree of Life is set within a secondary world. ‘Worldbuilding’ is often a key element of fantasy literature and a daunting challenge when about to embark upon a trilogy. Some authors create their secondary world in great detail (Tolkien obviously being the most famous example), inventing languages and histories, devising complex genealogies and drawing maps. There are stories where this is absolutely a valid approach, provided this background information does not swamp the actual book; it should only be added in small amounts to support the story.
And the other great danger is this: world-building is fun, great fun – you are playing god – but it should not be done at the expense of actually writing your book. It is easy to fall into this trap; when I began work on my trilogy I turned immediately to worldbuilding. This did not extend to the creation of new languages etc. though I certainly did compile maps to help orientate myself within the story, plotted the main cultures (with information on their worldview, customs, beliefs and technology) and I worked out an historical timeline listing major events and turning points. I enjoyed this process immensely and it is easy to absorb oneself within the joy of what Tolkien memorably called sub-creation. However, as I filled notebooks with ideas and notes, the realisation dawned that I had done little to actually progress the story – I was staying within the gilded cage of world-building, and although this work was necessary, I could not delay writing the book. I needed to get on with planning and writing my trilogy.
Building a consistent setting
Your fantastical setting can be as bold, imaginative and wild as you can possibly make it but it must possess an internal logic, it must be consistent. You are free to set whatever internal rules you like within your secondary world, but you must then adhere to them, otherwise your creation will seem random, fragmented. And the settings you create must impact on your characters (and on occasions, vice versa) – we are influenced by our environments and this must be reflected by your fictional cast in their attitudes and behaviour.
So, how to achieve this? Well, there are as many techniques as there writers, but for me, I always wanted my fictional world to echo our world, and decided early on that all the lands within the book should resonant with certain times and places in our history. As I think there are links and shared symbols between cultures in our world – however distant – I felt that drawing on real time periods and civilisations would give my setting stronger foundations, hinting at connections between the different realms and peoples. This helps create the sense that there is consistency in the world, that the various cultures have been shaped, for both good and ill, by contact with others.
For example, Helagan, where the hero of the trilogy, Elowen Aubyn, lives and much of the action of The Map of the Known World takes place, is heavily influenced by early 17th century England, with a comparable level of technology and social structure. Why did I choose this period? I wanted the story to take place in a world on the cusp of modernity, with the first shoots of industrialisation appearing and the power of magic, of the Eldar races, beginning to fade – this would underpin much of the conflict and tension within the story.
And one last point in achieving a consistent setting: I would leave areas of your invented world unvisited and unexplored. However big and sprawling your trilogy, is it really plausible that your narrative will venture into every corner of the world? Much better to leave whole regions to the imagination of the reader – make reference to those unexplored lands (for example, in The Map of the Known World I made mentioned to the Firelands, a mining, proto-industrial part of Helagan, but did not bring the characters there), but consider them as the sort of references we make every day of our lives to places we know about but are highly unlikely to visit. This somehow feels more real, suggesting that the world you have created exists beyond the limits of your specific story.
Know your world - research
If you want your world-building to be convincing, then you have to know your world, and in my case, to know my world meant I had to research.
To use again the example of Elowen’s homeland of Helagan, I researched early modern England in great detail and used this information to establish features such as clothes, food and weapons – I believe this gives the world a more authentic feel. Where possible, I visited locations analogous to those I was creating in the book, such as St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall and Wastwater in Cumbria, and this allowed me to bring a greater sense of place to my descriptions of the settings. I continued this approach when I wrote my latest novel, This Sacred Isle, a book in which a sense of place was of fundamental importance.
I developed other cultures within the trilogy in a similar manner, using, for example, researching in detail elements of medieval Russian, Mongol, Japanese, Ancient Greek and Assyrian history. I read books on these and other subjects, and visited many museums and galleries to immerse myself in the art and artefacts of these people and time periods. Adding specific details gives more authenticity to the secondary world and strengthens the credibility of the cultures being described, as it hints at their history in artistic, religious and technological terms.
Of course, I was writing a fantasy novel, not an historical novel, so I allowed myself significant latitude to twist my invented cultures into different directions, but I always used my research as the sound bedrock on which to build. And as much as I enjoyed researching the books (I love visiting museums and reading interesting non-fiction!), I was careful not allow research to eat all of my available writing time. For all the research in the world means nothing if the story itself remains unwritten…
Make the setting personal
One last thing to remember: the world you create is your world. Of course, you should bring into that world a host of factual information drawn from your research, but for your creation to really resonant, it has to be meaningful to you. Think about the great secondary worlds created in fantasy literature - such as J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth, Stephen Donaldson's The Land and J.K. Rowling's Wizarding World; these worlds reflect the passions and concerns of their authors in profound ways.
For my Tree of Life trilogy, I wanted to explore issues relating to prejudice, abuse of power and the destruction of the natural world – these issues shaped my secondary world as well as the plot and the characters. Think about the themes and issues that inspire you, and allow these to drive how you design your world.
Takeaway tip: Worldbuilding is important but do not concentrate on this at the expense of getting your books written. And make sure your invented world is consistent and feels authentic – where possible research real world cultures etc. that echo your creation.
The first part of this blog series can be read here.
Look out for the third part of the series, coming soon.
The Tree of Life trilogy is now available as an ebook boxset for just £1.99 / $2.40 (each of the volumes is also available individually in both paperback and ebook format). See links and a preview below:
Are you working on a trilogy or series? How are you building your secondary world? Add a comment and join the conversation.
It is easy for authors to feel isolated - all those long lonely hours spent at the keyboard are not conducive to an active social life! But contact with, and support from, other authors is important, so how can we achieve this? One of the best ways is to join an online community, where you can share ideas, writing experience and motivate each other to keep going when the writing gets tough.
The best online community I have come across is SFF Chronicles, which is a Science Fiction and Fantasy Community. Through the forum I have been able to connect with other authors and readers, and as well as finding support and encouragement, there are also a host of topics covering books, films, games, politics etc. If you are an indie author writing SF / Fantasy books, (or just a fan of the genre), I strongly recommend joining this community - from my own personal experience, when I published my most recent book, This Sacred Isle, the SFF Chronicles community were very supportive; a nice morale boost at a tricky time!
So, I am very pleased that author Brian G. Turner, the founder of SFF Chronicles, has kindly agreed to an interview discussing the community and his own writing.
What motivated you to start SFF Chronicles?
It was originally a support forum for my writing. However, by 2003 I realised that I wasn't going to be published any time soon, so decided to broaden the forums remit - and also host it separately.
There's been a huge amount of work behind the scenes over the years. Trying to make a success of a forum is not for the faint-hearted. I've seen plenty die-off because the owners couldn't retain an interest, allow for the time needed for maintenance, or handle technical problems.
How can communities such as SFF Chronicles help indie authors?
The most surprising way is the professional contacts that can be made - for examples, editors, artists, and beta-readers.
There's also the ability to get critical feedback on your writing - I've had so many useful and insightful comments over the years. By that I'm not talking about plot, character, and spelling / grammar, but more serious technical points of POV use, emotional development arcs, and structure, for example.
Then there's the ability to connect with readers once finally published. Frankly, without the forums, I would struggle to reach readers when the marketplace is so flooded with new books.
What have you found to be the most rewarding aspect of running SFF Chronicles?
Probably the social aspect in meeting people with similar interests. Writing is a solitary and often lonely job. I don't mind that, but the chrons forums helps provide a social outlet I would not easily have.
I also don't know many people in real life who read regularly - let alone in the genres I'm interested in. So it's great to be able to connect with other people in the forums to talk books, whether it's favourites, ones that I'm reading, or others that I've read.
I also enjoy seeing links to interesting stories, features, or articles. I have a big interest in history, and so do some of our members. It means I find information I wouldn't easily come across.
You’ve recently published Gathering, the first book in your Chronicles of Empire series – what can readers expect from the novel?
The basic premise is that it's an epic fantasy - but it has far more of an historical feel than most. There's also a major science-fiction element to the plot, which is revealed in the opening chapter.
After that, the story develops with what appears to be a fairly familiar and traditional band of adventurers.
However, not long after that, I start work on challenging the tropes, stereotypes, and expectations that a reader might normally expect of such a book.
By the end of the story, the reader should be left feeling that they've read an original and entertaining story, that defies easy comparison with other novels.
You've developed a whole fantasy world for Gathering – what kind of research did you carry out?
I came up with the idea for the series in the 1990's, but I wanted a sense of historical detail to make it feel more authentic. So I began researching as much as I could about ancient and mediaeval history. I haven't stopped.
So anyone who picks up Gathering can easily find all sorts of references to Ancient Rome, Byzantium, and Mediaeval Northern Europe. However, the details are in the living history rather than political history.
So when the reader enters the city of Corianth with the characters - the setting for most of the book - they will be experiencing something analogous to what a Mediterranean city might have felt like in Mediaeval times.
When will the next book in the Chronicles of Empire series be published?
I'm aiming for a Dec 2018 publishing date. However, it's very difficult to write a true multi-character story.
Most novels feature a single protagonist, perhaps with a love interest and best friend and a couple of supporting points of view. The result is that the main character goes from point A to point B, then C, etc. It's a simple and linear progression.
With multiple characters, while one is going from A to B, another is going from A to C, another from B to D, etc., and all the time their stories are intersecting and impacting each other. It makes it much more challenging to write. I can totally appreciate why George R R Martin takes so long with his epic series - then again, he has a lot more characters!
Thank you, Brian.
To find out more about Chronicles of Empire, go to: http://www.chroniclesofempire.com/
And there is a Chronicles of Empire discussion page at: https://www.sffchronicles.com/forum/brian-g-turner/
Many indie authors now predominantly publish their work in e-book format and there is a sound logic to this: it keeps costs down and provides an easier way to reach a wider readership. E-books are wonderful for readers and authors, but as a lover of paperbacks too, I really wanted physical copies of my books to complement the electronic versions.
Initially, I did consider a small / medium print run with a local book printing company – I am sure they would have done a good job, but frankly the costs were too high. Therefore, I decided to take the online, Print on Demand (POD) option. A number of companies offer this service, foremost among them CreateSpace, Lulu.com and IngramSpark (and many others).
After much research and consideration, I decided to use CreateSpace. The Amazon-owned company have become a major player in indie-publishing but is the service they offer authors a good investment? In this post I am going to describe what it is like for an indie author to use CreateSpace.
Before I used CreateSpace I had previously published paperback books through Lulu.com. On the whole, my experience with Lulu.com was positive: the print quality was high, the distribution outlets worked well and the publishing process was relatively straightforward.
So, why did I switch?
A couple of factors attracted me to CreateSpace and they were both areas I perceived as weaknesses with Lulu.com’s service.
The first was cost – in comparison, I found it cheaper to publish paperbacks through CreateSpace. Like all indie authors and publishers I have to keep a close eye on the bottom line, so CreateSpace’s cheaper production costs were a benefit. Admittedly Lulu.com regularly holds offers and special events, which reduce unit costs, but this can be tricky to tie in with publishing schedules. CreateSpace’s shipping costs are a little on the high side (I’m based in the UK) but the overall unit cost is still cheaper than other providers. I wanted to price my latest book (This Sacred Isle) at £7.99, which I felt was in line with similar books in the fantasy genre. The CreateSpace production costs made this possible, while still allowing a small royalty on each copy sold - had I used another POD provider, I estimate I would have had to price my book at £8.99 or higher.
The other attraction of CreateSpace over Lulu.com was the ability to print a paperback in my preferred trim size of 5.06 x 7.81 inches (standard, in the UK at least). My earlier books were printed in a 6 x 9 inches and while I know some authors / readers like that format, for me it feels too large for paperbacks and is seldom used by traditional publishers. There was a drawback to using the 5.06 x 7.81 trim size, namely that (with cream paper) it does not qualify for CreateSpace’s expanded distribution. This was disappointing and a little frustrating but I viewed it as a trade-off I was willing to accept. I wanted a paperback that looked and felt right, and I was willing to compromise on distribution to achieve that – of course, others may disagree with my decision!
So, I decided to switch to CreateSpace, both for my latest book and for shiny new editions of my Tree of Life fantasy series!
And I must say I have found CreateSpace publishing relatively pain-free! To create the interior file, you download a Word template for your chosen trim size, and it proved an easy enough task to transfer my story into this format. There are more than ten printing options (trim sizes) for black and white paperbacks (and a similar number for full-colour books) so you should be able to find a size to suit your needs and preferences.
For your book’s cover, you can make use of CreateSpace’s free online tool – this looks rather limited but I guess if you’re looking for a simple cover this would be suffice; I doubt it will give you a fully professional appearance though. The other, and I think best, option is to upload your own cover. The submission requirements for doing so are clear, and you can download the CreateSpace template (a format that will match your books’ trim size and number of pages) for you or your cover designer to work from.
Once your book’s interior file and cover are ready to go, you simply upload both files to CreateSpace. The files will then be ‘reviewed’ and you should hear back within 24 hours as to whether or not they meet the technical requirements for printing. If you have taken some care and followed the instructions up to this point, you shouldn’t have any problems. After CreateSpace reviews your book files, you will sometimes get the following message:
“The cover contains transparency which is flattened during our processing and may result in a slight change in appearance.”
Although this looks a little alarming, in my experience, even when I have received this message the proof has printed without any issues at all. So if you do get this message, I wouldn’t worry too much.
Once CreateSpace confirms your book meets their technical requirements, you’ll have a print-ready document you can view via an online previewer, which operates like a virtual book. This is a good way to preview your book and spot problems, though you are (correctly) recommended to purchase a printed proof copy for a full edit.
Adding key data about your book (title, description, edition number etc.) is simple, as are the processes for pricing and distribution. There is a royalty calculator as well as an online tool to work out how much it will cost you (including shipping) to buy physical copies of your book (for your own distribution). You are handheld through these stages (and you can save and return to them at will), so regardless of your technical competency with computers, you shouldn’t find it too taxing. In addition, there is an active CreateSpace Community, which is an invaluable source of advice and inspiration.
Professional services and distribution
CreateSpace advertises a number of paid professional services such as editing, formatting and cover design – I cannot comment on these as I sourced such services independently. CreateSpace also offers a Kindle e-book conversion service ($79, with a charge of $139 for a ‘complex’ conversion). Again, I did not use this service, opting instead to create my Kindle e-books separately through KDP, which was simple to achieve.
There are two distribution options – standard and expanded – and both are free to join, although as I referred to earlier, only certain books qualify for ‘expanded’. Both standard and expanded are decent options, as even standard makes your book available across the various Amazon platforms as well as the CreateSpace e-store.
The final product…
So, what is the finished article like? I was very satisfied with the print quality of my books. I believe they stand comparison with industry standard paperbacks. The interior paper feels of a good standard, and the cover colours are clear and vibrant. I did have an issue with one of my proofs – some of the lines in the interior pages were slanted. I queried this with CreateSpace support; they investigated the problem and found it was a printing fault and sent me another proof (which was fine) at no further charge – from a customer perspective, I can’t say fairer than that.
The books appeared on Amazon within a few days of completing the publishing process, although the ‘Look inside’ feature took a little longer. If you have a definite ‘release date’ for your book, you might want to publish at least three or four days in advance to avoid the embarrassment of your book not being available for the eager readers who want to buy it!
I have found CreateSpace a good solution for my publishing needs. The costs are reasonable, the process is user-friendly and transparent, and their customer support proved responsive and helpful. It is shame I cannot access extended distribution for my chosen trim size – I hope this is something CreateSpace will offer in the future!
I plan to use CreateSpace again for future books and would not hesitate to recommend them to indie authors. Of course, others may have different needs, but I think CreateSpace would cover most criteria for paperback indie publishing and at a cost that shouldn’t break your budget! Happy creating…
Have you used CreateSpace? How did it work for you? Post a comment and join the conversation.
Well, it's that time again - time to start a new story! Writing a book is often described in terms of scaling a mountain; at this stage the peak looks very high indeed and far, far away.
I’ve spent three years planning, researching, writing and editing This Sacred Isle. I dived deep into the Dark Age, and loved learning about the history, mythology and cosmology of the Anglo Saxons. It was fascinating (and such fun to write about warriors, dragons and Dark Age gods!) and I feel the novel stretched and improved my writing ability and allowed me to develop new techniques. Every book is a chance to learn new things – it is part of the experience, a good part.
As far as modesty permits, I’m very happy with This Sacred Isle – it’s the book I set out to write - but now it's time to move on. I cannot wait to start a new story, and this one is tentatively called: Second Sun. It is a SF novel set in an alternate Earth, where the destiny of humanity has been altered by alien visitation. It is a world like our own in many ways, but being a generation after colonisation by an extra-terrestrial race, also very, very different. The main character is something of an outsider, and he has grave misgivings about the alien 'benefactors' controlling the planet and the 'paradise' they have created. He leads a quiet, almost solitary life, but then his routine is shattered when he is approached by forces who secretly oppose alien rule...
Why write a SF story? The genre has long interested me as a reader, and some of my favourite books are SF (for example, Dune, 1984, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, The Day of the Triffids). Although I have written predominantly fantasy books, writing a SF novel has always been an ambition of mine and it's exciting to finally embark on this project.
I also believe SF, like fantasy, provides the author with a canvas on which to explore a range of issues and themes, and can hold a mirror to the real world. Within Second Sun, I want to write about inequality, about indifference to the suffering of others, and the effects of colonisation. And above all I want to write a compelling, exciting tale with relatable characters, a tale which will stay with the reader long after they have read the final page...
So, what stage am I at with Second Sun at the moment? I suppose the best way to describe it is ‘ideas gathering’ - my notes are filling up with thoughts, plans, inspirations and snatches of dialogue. I am researching a number of key subjects and developing characters. I also need to decide what format to use. I currently think that a novella is more appropriate than a full novel, but of course the tale can grow in the telling...
As with all stories, it's going to be tough at times. So many decisions: narrative, characters, tone, imagery - headspinning, but I love the process!
So when will Second Sun be published? Late 2017 is the aim but as Douglas Adams famously said,
"I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by."
The hard work has started though, and I'll keep you posted...
We are used to thinking of novel writing as a solitary discipline: the half-starved author in the garrett, suffering for their art, cloistered from the outside world.
But I would challenge this cliche. Yes, when it comes to writing a novel, the author is of course the primary agent, but dig a little deeper and you'll find a network of direct and indirect helpers. This is certainly true in my experience. Although my books come from my mind, my life, they would not - could not - truly exist without the help of many others.
So what forms does this help take? Well, to write my books I've benefitted from a wide spectrum of support and reassurance!
Family is my primary support. My wife puts up with my writing obsession and has proofread innumerable drafts (eliminating many typos!) when I'm pretty sure she'd much rather end a busy day in front of the TV. She also helps to organise me on the business / administrative side, which is a good thing...
Although a little too young to read my books, my daughter's energy and endless good humour keeps me going. And the rest of my family, my parents, brother, uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces, have always unconditionally supported my writing efforts.
I must be honest - I often find talking about my writing embarrassing, and the fault (if there is one) lies with me and not with anyone else. Perhaps (probably) it stems from a lack of confidence, but I can't help but feel as though I am bragging, or being laughably ambitious, or being a total fraud by even beginning to think of myself as an author. Despite these hang-ups, friends all help me, often more than they know. For despite my frequent discomfort when asked how my latest book is coming along, it is the same time encouraging, and pleasing that people are showing an interest.
And do not forget the digital world! I've lost count of the times a perfect stranger on a forum has helped me with advice on technical issues. These acts of kindness and generosity have saved me many hours. Certainly within the SF / Fantasy genre there are many thriving online communities (SFF Chronicles and SFF World being two good examples) - there you will find support, advice, inspiration and many other interesting discussions. Being part of a community can be huge encouragement for any author as it helps to remove that feeling of isolation.
There are also many inspiring and helpful indie-publishing websites, which give out free advice and inspiration; two of the most helpful are: JF Penn's The Creative Penn and Jane Friedman's website. These sites have helped me greatly during my publishing journey, and if you're interested in writing, please try these sites - I promise you it will prove time well spent.
Some professional input is necessary to produce a book; for example, as I have mentioned in an earlier blog post about editing, an editor / proofreader is a must. A professional edit gives a book a more polished patina and gives the author more confidence in their work. You cannot edit a book alone - beta readers, editors, you need 'em!
A book is a method of communication, and as such, it only really comes to life when somebody reads it - I know from experience that readers will find aspects and interpretations of the story that will surprise the author! And I often think how books I have read have inspired me - without them, I would not have picked up a pen, I would never have written a novel. I'll never meet those authors, but through their books they created a dialogue and allowed me to see different perspectives of the world.
So, as you can see, it might be my name on the cover, but the book only exists because of the generous support and inspiration of many others.
Who helps you to write or create art? Join the conversation - post a comment.