17 December 2013

Christmas Trees for Literary Fans

Whether you're a reader or a writer, you're happy and grateful that books exist. Most of us have never thought about having anything other than a Christmas tree (real or fake) in the festive season, but some have.

Following my earlier post of the book Christmas tree, Linda Lee directed me to the ones she's found online, which you can see below.

Have you found any others, and what are your favourites?

9 December 2013

Amazon Matchbook - Finally!

I don't own a Kindle. I'm not alone in that, but there's a certain peculiarity for me, as I'm a huge fan of technology and also of reading, so Amazon's marketers would expect me to be first in line.

But I never have been.

Not that I don't understand the appeal or the benefit - in 2011 I spent 6 months in America with my then-girlfriend (then fiance, then wife), and our shared appreciation of books meant we spent a fair amount of time in Barnes & Noble. Buying books. I purchased a few hardbacks and some paperbacks, all of which were quickly enjoyed. Then came the day of packing to board the plane and suddenly those hardbacks didn't seem like such a wise investment - they took up considerable space, but also, worse, valuable weight. Adopting the "We never leave a man behind" military approach I got each book home safely, tucked away into their appropriate places in the bookcase.

Shortly after, I bought my wife a Kindle, as she decided she wanted one. I saw the benefit - especially after that flight - but I wasn't ready to part with real books. I'm still not. Given the choice, I will buy a CD over a digital song purely for the fact that I enjoy the aesthetics and the effort that went into the liner notes and images. Music and books still represent art to me, total products, and increasingly the digital world seemed to be devaluing them to me, reducing the total products to commodities.

Romantic ideals aside, I wasn't ready for a Kindle for other reasons - I like scanning my bookshelf and having a title jump out at me, I enjoy flicking through a book, I like the smell and texture. I like books. The digital copies don't accommodate those facets, and I haven't been ready to sacrifice them for portability and convenience.

I could buy real ones and digital ones

I could, but I wouldn't (I am, however, more open to that now). What I never understood is why there wasn't the same solution for books there is for music and film - buy the physical thing and get the option to have the digital files too. Amazon couldn't do it because of the rights, and it seems publishers were too stubborn and felt it would undermine their business model - which has been eroding beneath them anyway. I'm a strong believer that if a consumer buys a product, they should be able to consume it in the way they desire, and not need to buy it multiple times. I was ecstatic when I bought a DVD one day and found a sticker explaining I could watch it on my electronic devices too, just like we've been enjoying with CDs for years

Welcome Amazon Matchbook

Finally, the publishing world has caught up. I read this wonderful news last week, and if you haven't yet heard of it, the gist of it is this: Matchbook will let you get digital copies of books you already own for up to $3 (and as little as nothing). It's not quite as good as the way it works with music and films, but it's a leap in the right direction. There's now a solution for people like me - buy the physical book, and enjoy the digital version for convenience (or, if you're very particular, read the digital one and keep the physical one in pristine condition. Maybe one day books will be so rare they'll be hugely expensive collectibles).

The bad news is that this is only in America for now, and most books aren't on it. But given that Amazon is behind it, it shouldn't be long before both of those things change. As soon as it hits the UK, my publishing company will be placing our books to Matchbook, so our customers can enjoy the books in both formats without having to pay out for both.

This new development is great for the consumer, and also great for the industry. With any luck it will end the arguments of whether or not 'real' books will die to digital books, and we can get down to what really matters: enjoying the output of the hard-working authors in whatever format we choose. It could also prove to be a big boost to the publishing industry - an indication that it will stop seeing digital books as the enemy and embrace them as a way to sell more copies, reach a wider audience, and increase its bottom line.

As I see it, writers, readers and publishers have a shared interest of appreciating literature, and Matchbook makes it easier for all three to come closer together.

5 December 2013

An Agent Agent? Just Say No

Earlier this week I read an enlightening post at Jennifer Represents, the blog of literary agent Jennifer Laughran. In this particular entry, Jennifer posts a great mock conversation with her and an agent agent (which I won't reproduce her but I urge you to click the above link to read the entry), as well as the following, which I've included here to explain what an agent agent is:

Much more often -- every couple of weeks at least -- I get the same basic thing but in email form:

Hi Agent, I'm Random McNoname, and I'm writing to reffer [sic] my client Author Sapsucker to you. Sapsucker has a pHd in Neurocathology [sic] and 78 followers on twitter so he's the real deal. The manuscript is attached, I look forward to hearing from you by next week.

If you're not quite following, this is the gist: Jennifer is an agent. Authors need agents to send their manuscripts to publishing companies that won't deal with unsolicited submissions. Agents are easy to get hold of - they have to be, because their livelihood depends entirely on having authors to represent. Somewhere along the line, deceitful cunning people have created a new job, that of the agent agent - an agent that an author pays to find them an agent for their book. As if getting published wasn't hard enough...

Jennifer further explains:

These are what I call "agent-agents" or third-party queriers. They convince authors that their "services" are necessary to query (aka spam) literary agents*. Authors who are totally new and/or desperate will take the bait and pay, in the hopes that it will give them a leg up on the competition. 

But it won't give a leg up on the competition, all it will do is frustrate or anger the agent, cost the author a lot of money, and all but guarantee their work is rejected on the basis that the agent agent is causing problems. The agent agent works on the premise of 'if you throw enough mud at a wall, some of it will stick' i.e. hit up enough agents and one may show interest. As such, they don't take the time to research each individual agent and find out what books or categories they represent; after all, a rejection doesn't matter to them, it matters to the author, so they need no qualms about accuracy. Spamming an agent is the quickest way I can think of to alienate an agent - and the very last thing any author wants to do is alienate agents. If they remember the title of the author or the book, that can haunt the writer if they approach the agent directly after ditching the agent agent - we all make mistakes and act in ignorance, but agents can afford to be picky about who they represent and who is going to want to recommend someone who doesn't do basic research into the appropriate steps to take?

Remember, budding authors, agents represent authors. By virtue of that fact, they need to hear from you, get to know you, and communicate with you and you alone. Querying is a step that authors need to take for themselves, and authors are already being represented - by their books.

Querying can be time consuming and tedious, but it isn't hard. It's made much easier by agents, because they post visibly on their websites how to approach them and clear instructions on what to include with a query. Paying someone else to do that for you isn't just expensive, it's alienating. 

29 November 2013

Still wondering if you need a proofreader?

The answer is always yes.

And remember the December promotion of 10% all services, and 15% off services for NaNoWriMo books

27 November 2013

Writing a Book With Dictation Software

In simpler times (last year) the thought of writing a book through talking had never occurred to me. Not that I didn't think it was against a writer's ethics, it just didn't enter my mind. Then the Day of Change came: through editing a client's book, I found her mentor's book writing how-to guide, in which he recommends writing a book through dictation. It seemed like a good idea to me to incorporate a dictation program into my suite of software used for work, and I obtained a copy of Dragon, which is what I gather to be the most popular and feature-rich dictation program out there.

Before going any further, I'll admit that I didn't get around to writing a book with Dragon. I didn't even write a letter with it. I learned shortly after installing it that I think and write much faster through my hands than my mouth - meaning dictation software just slows me down. Colour me crazy if necessary, but the words flow much easier when I'm not thinking about them, and verbalising everything required definite thinking.

That being said, I understand that there are people out there who would prefer to use a dictation program to get their words done - and if I ever break my hands or find my hands too cold to type, I'll be doing the same.

So, if you're wondering if Dragon is worth the money, and you're sure you'll use it, I can confidently say it is worth the money, in the sense that it is excellent at what it does. It has a superb training section where it gets to learn your voice and how you pronounce certain words, minimising the chances of typos. It also can control your entire computer, from opening programs to shutting down, with Dragon, you won't need to touch your keyboard again (so extreme germophobes may also be interested in a copy).

Dragon also has mobile apps, so you can record your thoughts on the go and then sync it with the computer version later. The usefulness of that is without question - if you get an idea as you're drifting off to sleep or while cooking dinner, you can get it noted without having to write or go to the computer.

Dragon also allows editing, so you can tell it where to place the cursor and then input new words, or delete as necessary.

Dragon's downside is the price: coming in at £149, it's on the steep side for casual users. If you're not interested in controlling your whole computer with your voice, it may be worth exploring other options.

If you're a Mac user, you can stop looking straight away. Mavericks, the latest system update, improves the native dictation ability tremendously. You can now create entire documents with your voice, using a hotkey command (by default you active Dictation by double tapping the Fn key, but this is configurable in System Preferences). The program understands commands like 'New paragraph' and gets to know your voice to improve accuracy. In my own testing of this, it works very well - certainly good enough to not require spending money on a different program.

The downside of course is there are no apps that sync to it from on the go, but that's not necessarily a problem - you can use Evernote to sync between mobile and desktop, or create notes using voice commands on your phone and copy them to the computer later.

Is Writing a Book This Way Possible?

Absolutely. Creating any document via dictation is a simple process, and certainly one I'd use if it wasn't considerably faster for me to type. The software mentioned here are both able to interpret words properly and understand formatting and editing commands, which makes writing part or all of any document very simple indeed. 

21 November 2013

Do Ebooks Confuse You? They're Just Documents

Earlier in my career I was quite surprised at the number of requests I had from people asking me how much it would cost to "edit my ebook", or who spoke about them as their own entity - "I want to write an ebook" for instance.

I've also experienced people asking whether they should write an ebook, and being baffled at the technological advances.

Actually, I think my confusion was comparable to that, and it was simply a case of "Why is there this extra, boundary-defined category?"

That's not to say ebooks shouldn't have a name, but rather let's not create confusion where it need not exist. Ebooks are documents, that's all there is to it. In the case of books, they're manuscripts just like any other book. The only difference is the final format, and saying "I want to write an ebook novel" is no different to saying "I want to write a hardback novel". In reality, you want to write a book, and publish it digitally. Isn't that clearer?

But What If It's Not a Novel?

It doesn't really matter. As usual, we've got caught up with labels and the insatiable need to define everything as separate from other things. In the simplest definition, an ebook is a digital version of what it would be in physical version. So, if you have a three-page pamphlet on caring for a baby, but you email it to someone, it's still a three-page pamphlet. If you write an 80,000-word novel on your computer, it's a manuscript, and when it's published it will be available as a physical book or ebook - or maybe just an ebook, if you so desire.

Words are words, stories are stories, documents are documents. Don't get caught up in the technicalities or you'll get dragged down by the technicalities.

As I said to my clients at the time, "Editing an ebook will cost the same as editing any other format of book", and "Writing an ebook is no different to writing a 'regular' book, it's just available digitally".

What About Marketing?

Marketing is probably where the confusion arises the most. You know what it's like - you visit a website or blog and there's a big shiny photo of a book and it says "Enter your email address to receive our free ebook!" or you receive marketing instructions telling you to write an ebook so you have a saleable product you can make passive income from. 

It's true to say ebooks have become very popular for marketing and income purposes, but that's not because they're different than regular books, it's merely a sign of the times. For the first time ever, we can all be publishers. I could, very easily, put all my blog posts into a single document and sell that document as an ebook, at low or no cost. That's the whole reason ebooks are used as they are - they're either free or very cheap to make and put on sale. 

Years ago, paperback books were used in the same way, but less prolifically because they needed traditional publishing. You can find them, though - take a look on Amazon for 'how to' books or 'make it as a...' book, and you'll find untold numbers of (typically small or pocket-sized) books telling you how to do something, and they are marketing tools, basically. Exactly the same as today's ebooks, just less convenient for the writer. (Therein lies my cynicism with these marketing books, too - if the authors are so good at making lots of money following the rules in them, why do they need to write the books persuading us to cut in on their market?)

So there you have it, ebooks in a nutshell. They are digital versions of physical products that were already used, written and sold. No more and no less. 

14 November 2013

Encouragement for NaNoWriMo Writers

November is a busy month - it's not only the month that confuses shop owners into playing Christmas music already, it's also host to Movember and, ah, the event that inspires and terrifies writers: National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.

There's no denying it's a popular event, according to the website there are 299,589 novelists signed up this year, no doubt some of them serial attendees. Just in case you haven't heard of it or you're hazy on the details, entrants have between the first and last day of November to write an entire novel, at a minimum of 50,000 words. It sounds tough (because it is tough), but the organisers have plenty of resources to help keep you going - physical events, online pep talks, a forum, and the option to upload your latest word count as and when you want. 

If you've signed up and are still going strong, congratulations - you've made it further than many others and that alone is incentive to finish. If you haven't signed up but want to, you can (but you'll need to really know what you're going to write in order to finish on time).

Now, I've not yet partaken in NaNoWriMo - partly because fiction isn't my primary outlet when it comes to writing, and partly because I forget about it until people start talking about how well they're doing. That being said, I still feel equipped to help and encourage others, because timeframe aside, the challenge is writing books - and that's something I have done and continue to do (if you're new to me, I offer professional ghostwriting services (but no, I won't write your NaNoWriMo entry...)).

Books are daunting, there's no escaping that, and NaNoWriMo is the London Marathon of book writing. But, at the risk of further exhausting a very tired cliche, the biggest journey begins with a simple step. Have another one too: "You don't need to be great to start, but you need to start to be great." Actually, to salute the power of three, have this one as well:

Those cliches are tired because they're true, and they're as true today as the time they were first spoken. As with any book, approach it one step at a time, one page at a time, and forget about the deadline - it's knowing that there are only 30 days in which to write the book that makes it more difficult, and if you're the type of person that can't cope with that pressure, forget about it. Just focus on the writing, and once you're absorbed in the story, you'll write a better book faster.

Part of the beauty of writing is that there are no rules. You can start on page one and work right through to the end, or you can start at the end and work backwards, or start in the middle. Whatever works for you - do alternate chapters if it helps. Write down plot and character notes, then when you're having a hard time continuing with a certain scene, push it aside and develop one or more of those earlier notes. Not only will it ease the frustration of a deadened in the scene you were working on, you'll also see the word count and overall story swell at a faster pace.

It can also be important - depending on the type of worker you are - to not get too concerned about other writers, or sticking exclusively to 'rules' of the event. No one knows your story better than you, and if you're certain of what you want to write and the direction it will take, forge ahead. That being said, if you're losing pace and need some help, Galley Cat is running tips for NaNoWriMo throughout the month, with today's tip being character point of view.

Writing a book in a month is made even more difficult by the presence of Real Life - work, family, social events to name a few. For that reason having some dedicated time to set aside can make a difference in ensuring you meet your writing targets, as well as helping other people know that it's your time and not to disturb you. "But writing isn't like a tap, I need to be inspired and can't just turn it on!" I hear you cry. If that's your thought, you're not alone. It's difficult to just turn it on because the clock struck 7pm. So if that doesn't work for you, find your groove - is it better for you to collect notes and ideas throughout the week and then after a lie in and gallon of coffee on Saturday morning spend the weekend tying it together to rack up the word count? Then do that instead. It can't be over-emphasised that the only rule is there are no rules. Do what works for you, not what other people are doing. When you play by other people's rules you lose the game because you're restricting your own ability to work. A wise person once said the only way to get through something is to go through it, so, with that in mind:

11 November 2013

"Should I Write for Content Mills?"

Content mills are a contentious topic in discussions amongst freelance writers, because of their reputation of being the sweatshop of the freelance market.

What is a Content Mill?

Essentially, content mills, or content farms, produce copy for clients at a low rate, by paying even lower rates to writers. They aren't clients that are cheap, they act as middlemen, or agencies, between clients and writers, paying pennies per word - and often only paying if work is used by the client. 

The problem with content mills is that the wage offered is impossible to make a living from, short of churning out articles all day every day. Yet their high visibility in search results means new writers find them, apply to them, then join them, and before they know it, they're trapped in the content mill wheel. They need to keep writing a lot of articles to earn money, which means they don't have the time or energy to find real clients elsewhere.

It's easy to see why they have so many writers on their lists, though - they require no marketing, no client communication, no effort to draft adverts or attend networking events, instead you simply login to the website and take on the offered articles.

Many writers join under the impression of getting experience, developing a portfolio, finding actual clients, or just earning a little money on the side of their day job. They're all understandable reasons, of course, unless we add a little context to it: would a trained chef join McDonald's to flip burgers to get experience in order to work for Gordon Ramsey? No. To produce gourmet food, you must get experience producing gourmet food. Similarly, if your writing portfolio consists of content mill articles, it's unlikely to impress the better paying clients.

How Cheap are Content Mills?

Very. While they pay pennies per word (if that), private clients valuing the work will pay anything up to £2 per word - so a 1,000 article will net £2,000, rather than a few pounds a mill would have paid. No matter how you look at it, even after taking into consideration the expense of advertising and sending query letters, a content mill writer has come out worse off than a writer producing content for private, well-paying clients.

And that's really the crux of it: value of the content. The adage 'you get what you pay for' applies to writers as much as it applies to anything else, so a company genuinely interested in having the best content won't expect to get it for £2, and will factor in a decent wage to their marketing budget. 

Cheap Content - Low Rankings

Arguably, content mills were somewhat worth it for certain projects in the past - if a company just wanted to get some keyword-rich content on multiple pages, going to a mill could have done the job. Things are different today, though, as Google has made various changes to its rankings algorithms. No longer do the robots search for the amount of times a keyword appears, but it checks how often it appears (too much will count as spam), where it appears, and, crucially, the overall quality of the writing. So, if a writer produced a crappy quality article that made no sense, but had a 3% keyword density of the client's specified keyword, it will no longer improve the Google rankings. In fact, it could significantly harm them. In a swift move, Google immediately put cheap writers out of work (or at least, once the companies using them realise the change and its impact, they're unlikely to keep using the writers of that caliber). 

Content mills may roll with the change and try to adapt accordingly, by trying to demand a certain level of quality in the writing, which may involve writers taking an initial test to join the company. On the other hand, few writers are likely to jump through hoops of a convoluted sign-up process to earn peanuts, and if the content isn't helpful to the clients, they won't be developing a portfolio.

Ultimately, then, now is a bad time for mills and a good time for writers who understand quality content and how to write it. Not only will writers with an understanding of SEO and an ability to write a focused article be a true asset to clients, they can charge accordingly.

Carol Tice's website

7 November 2013

"I, Lucifer"

It's been a long time since I discovered a writer as talented and engaging as Glen Duncan, not to mention criminally overlooked.

I won't give too much away, but if you've ever wondered what would happen should the devil get the chance to take on a human form and walk the streets of London, here's your chance. God gives Lucifer the opportunity to get back to heaven if he spends some time being good first.

A tremendous book that will frankly leave every writer lamenting their own skills in comparison to Duncan's. His religious knowledge (and unique insights) presents some intriguing and hilarious ideas to ponder, and between explaining that he invented rock n' roll and what a dullard Adam was, a sublime story is created - and in its wake leaves everyone else realising the total artistic freedom writing as the Tempter of Mankind affords the writer, and wishing they had done it first.

Get your copy here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/aw/d/0743220137/ref=mp_s_a_1_1?qid=1383867868&sr=8-1&pi=SL75

25 July 2013

Placing punctuation with speech marks and parentheses

The English language is notoriously tricky, mostly because of the numerous subtle nuances within - silent letters, placement of apostrophes, and variations between UK and US spelling. Of them all, apostrophes and working out where to place punctuation with parentheses (brackets) or quotation marks.

An example for punctuation around speech marks and brackets could be:

He said, "Paul told me to go to the market and fetch his soup".


He said, "Paul told me to go to the market and fetch his soup."

With with brackets/parentheses:

 At the market (which was only down the road.)


At the market (which was only down the road).

While an example for the use of apostrophes could be:

"The Rolling Stones' first chart single"


"The Rolling Stones first chart single"

Because phonetically there is no difference, many writers assume no apostrophe is needed, yet that is a mistake just as it would be if it were missing from a name:

"Ross coat is upstairs" is wrong; rather, it should be: "Ross' coat is upstairs"

Although the rules themselves are actually simple, they can trip up even established writers because there is no way of knowing what to do based on how it sounds. So, to make it simple, apostrophes go after the existing 's' (Rolling Stones) if it's possessive. A good way to remember it is by imagining a name without an 's' at the end and determining if it would need one in this context. For example, "Coldplays new album" would obviously need to be "Coldplay's new album". Thus, if it's a noun with an 's' at the end, add an apostrophe afterwards - "The Rolling Stones' new album". Simple, right?

It's no more complicated with punctuation with quote marks. Simply put, if the quote actually included it, add it within the quote; if not, add it outside. For example, if you quote a person to the end of their sentence, the full stop goes inside:

"Turn left at the top of the stairs for the bathroom."

If, however, it's not the end of the sentence, place it outside:

They told me to "turn left at the top of the stairs".

With brackets/parentheses, it's incredibly easy: if they are used within an existing sentence then the punctuation mark goes at the end, outside the bracket, otherwise the whole sentence is left wide open:

It started to rain (and Angie liked that).

If, on the other hand, the sentence ends prior to the use of brackets, the parentheses become their own sentence and so the full stop is placed inside:

It started to rain. (Angie always enjoyed the rain.)

That's pretty much all there is to it. The only exception is if you're using US English, in which case a full stop goes inside a quote mark even if it's technically incorrect - for example, if you list a song in quote marks (as you should), it would be thus:

The single that really made them famous was "Fun Time."

Even though, of course, the song title doesn't have a full stop in it, and placing it within quote marks would infer that it does. It's a strange anomaly with American English that a quote will hoover up punctuation that should come after, but, right or wrong, when in Rome...

17 April 2013

A Ratings System for Teen Fiction

Attending the London Book Fair yesterday (April 16), a seminar entitled "Does Teen Fiction Require a Ratings System?" caught my attention. The discussion featured author C J Daugherty and children's book reviewer Dinah Hall. I wasn't able to listen to the seminar in its entirety, but it was a fascinating topic with some very interesting discourse.

Society today largely revolves around children, and perhaps too much. In the entertainment world, children are restricted from certain themes or content, but whereas films have age restrictions and music has parental guidance stickers, books lack any external content information system. Yet are we protecting them too much anyway? An audience member commented that the idea of keeping children in a protected bubble is an adult construct with no grounds in reality - in other words, children are already exposed to 'adult' content far more than is often admitted. C J validated this with tales of her own experience - when researching her books, she spent a lot of time listening to teenagers in public, and said it was "an education". They are discussing themes and using language that many parents would like to think they are ignorant of. She also made the point that ratings are really for the parents rather than the child; they exist so the parent can be aware of what the child is consuming, but kids will read, watch and listen to things regardless - if their friends are doing it, they'll do it too, with or without an age restriction.

C J Daugherty and Dinah Hall discussing a ratings system for teen fiction
Censorship is always a divisive topic, and C J mentioned that with or without a ratings system, there exists a self-editing mentality anyway, as even if she wanted to include certain words or themes she knows her "editor won't want to edit it, the publisher won't want to publish it, and Tesco won't stock it". While there may be a strong argument for not exposing young people to certain themes, is the focus on children stifling creativity?

22 March 2013

When Should I Use a Semicolon?

For many people, one of the most confusing aspects of English grammar is the semicolon - when should it be used? Can I use a comma instead? In fact, the semicolon is often seen where a comma should be, thus breaking up a sentence that shouldn't be.

The following image should help clarify when to use a semicolon:

So, if a clause is dependent, meaning it could not be a complete sentence on its own, then a comma should be used. If a clause is independent, a semicolon should be used.

19 March 2013

25% discount on all services this week

I'm a little late in publishing this entry, but in honour of St Patrick's Day on the weekend, there is a 25% discount on all of the literary services until midnight March 24.

As a brief overview, that includes ghostwriting, copywriting, editing, proofreading, consultancy, book promotion and social media management.

Word Edit caters to all types of clients - authors, businesses, students and private individuals. Of course, the services for each group are available to everyone.

Whether you need professional manuscript editing or your business blog maintained, get in touch before midnight on Sunday, March 24 and you will be guaranteed a 25% discount on all work agreed on. That's the important part - the discount applies to all work agreed to, not just all work completed by the 24th.

12 March 2013

An Ironic Typo

Typos are just a given in life, and they sneak past the best of us. That being said, there are some that make everyone scratch their head and wonder just how it happened. We can probably all agree that this is probably one of the most ironic typos imaginable:

6 March 2013

How to Spell Definitely

Definitely is definitely one of those words that is misspelled a lot. I have lost count of the number of ways I've seen it written (even defiantly, believe it or not), but the most popular seems to be "definately" - as in, Defin ate Ely, whoever they are.

If you're one of the offenders of this crime against literature, here's a funny image to help you next time. (Alternatively, think of finite, as in, something that has an end. That's how it's spelled.)