Read All About It: bonus features and adding to the story

One of Terry Pratchett’s ongoing tricks with the Discworld has been ‘the idea whose time has come’. Some genius/evil force from the Dungeon Dimensions creates an oddly familiar invention and the population of the Discworld embrace it as though there was a hole in their experience and history and thinking that could only be filled by this new innovation.

As ever, Pratchett makes an excellent real-world point. There are some things which, once invented, are clearly things we’ve always needed, not just as useful items but as ways of thinking and doing.

Take that terribly simple innovation enabled by the internet: the book bonus feature.  Back in the day, either you finished the story and drew a line under it or you wrote another full book. Snippets and ideas, little plot threads that didn’t fit in a novel, backstory that wasn’t plot-relevant: it all had to lurk in a notebook, unwritten, unread, waiting for an academic to pick you for their PhD.  We the reader never got to find out what happened to that lovely pair of minor characters, or to see that offstage scene, or to find out where the hero had been before the book began – because none of that got written, or at least published.

And now, we can. In one of my favourite romances of the year, Glitterland, the hero makes a rather dramatic gesture. Because of the way the ending is staged, we never get to see the lover find out about this (which is structurally correct but a little agony for the reader).  Except now there’s a free bonus feature with a post-ending scene so we can see his reaction. You don’t have to read it at all if you’re a ‘just the book’ purist, or you can wallow in it if you’re all teary over Ash and Darien. (I wallowed.)

This is on my mind as I have been spending the last few weeks writing shorts set in the world of The Magpie Lord. There will be a little taste of my hero Crane’s backstory in China, and a story that takes place two days after the ending of book 1. There’s also a print exclusive story set after the end of book 2, with another of Stephen’s cases of magical crime.

These aren’t plot-crucial. There’s nothing that will spoil a reader’s enjoyment if they don’t see it. They’re just bonus features, a little treat for readers who enjoy the characters, to deepen and broaden the experience of Magpie-world. If I wrote in a period before the internet, when there was no reasonable way to put out a 5000-word short just to amuse readers of the previous book, I wouldn’t have written them.

Here’s a funny thing, though.

The print exclusive story is happening because book 2, A Case of Possession, is a bit too short for print. My publishers are not the sort of skanky people who just mess about with font size and margins to stretch the text. (I speak as exactly that skanky publisher. I once made a 35K word text fill a 50K print length. Shame, shame.) However, book 2 is dedicated to my best friend, who ruthlessly insisted on seeing her name in print. So my publishers agreed that I could write a special exclusive story to make it work, and I muttered under my breath about lousy rotten friends and set off to come up with a story.

And as I wrote this unexpected thing, without any plan to fit it into the main flow of the characters’ ongoing adventures, I quite suddenly learned something about one of my main characters, Merrick. Something huge. Something that shines a completely new light on his backstory, and his relationship with Crane. Something that clarifies a massive plot difficulty in Magpie 3, which I am currently writing, and turns everything on its head, and enables me to go down a plot path that I’d been fearing and resisting because, until I knew this fact, it simply didn’t quite work – and now it does.

Magpie 3 will work in a completely different way to my original plan because of what I learned about Merrick in this short story. I don’t know if I’d ever have learned that about him if I hadn’t written it. I find that rather scary.

How often did a character remain unilluminated, a plot unexplored, because there was no opportunity to tell readers the story, and so the author never found out for herself? There’s no way of telling. But I’m glad I live in the age of the bonus feature. They’re useful little buggers.

The Smuggler and the Warlord will be exclusively on the Blog of Sid Love from 2 December. Interlude with Tattoos will be a free download from Smashwords and Goodreads from 10 December. I will probably mention it when they go live.

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Cover design by the fantastic Susan Lee

A Case of Possession will be out from Samhain 28 January 2014. I for one can’t wait.

Bonus features: do you love them, are you unexcited, or it is just evil modern nonsense?

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Get Some Perspective: musing on different points of view

I have a really great idea for a big fantasy novel. It’s got a nice concept, a whole developed magic system, a huge cast including three main characters who are flawed and sexy as all get out and two more decent ones who provide the moral and emotional grounding. It’s had two partial drafts adding up to 80K words so far, and it is stuck as a pig because I can’t find the right point of view to tell the story.

Seriously. I can’t make this story work because I have set about telling it from what turns out to be the completely wrong perspective, and it is killing me.

Let’s think about points of view, and if I don’t have a revelation by the end of this blog, I expect someone to solve it for me in the comments.

First person

Written as ‘I’. I’ve done this a couple of times, in my free ghost/romance short story and in my forthcoming romantic suspense Non-Stop Till Tokyo. It’s immediate and direct, but it’s confining, in that you have to nancy around a lot to convey things the narrator doesn’t see/know, and it can be alienating to the reader if the narrator’s quirks and flaws are too prominent or unappealing.

It’s possible for first person to be distancing. The stylistic device of an ‘I’ telling the story can be very present, reminding you that you’re reading a book. (My narrators always end up addressing the reader and commenting on their own stories. That works in some cases, it wouldn’t for this.) Ditto where the narrator is unreliable or flawed, and the pleasure lies in working out what’s really happening.

Often the viewpoint character isn’t the main character of the story. To Kill a Mockingbird, for example, where Scout is really only a witness to the adult action, narrating an experience that the reader understand more than she does. Again, it works in some cases, not all.

I’m not, generally, a massive fan of first person in romance, even though some of my favourites (Widdershins and Glitterland) are first person.  Mostly, I prefer to watch. And I find it a bit weird to have first person in thrillers, where the question of whether the main character will survive is generally answered by the fact she’s narrating her past adventure, unless you’re reading one of those really tiresome books narrated by a dead person. (You may ask why I wrote a first person romantic suspense, given all that, and I can only answer, Shh.)

Second person

You go to the shops. On the way, you see a kitten die, alone. You are oddly unmoved.

However, you are not a poncy American novelist c.1987, or a Fighting Fantasy choose-your-own-adventure author, and you reject this as unnecessary showing off with no obvious benefits. You really can’t imagine how this would work for a romance novel, especially one with sex, though you feel a sudden unholy compulsion to try, which you tread on heavily if you have any sense. You start to feel slightly badgered by the author telling you what you are thinking. You wish she’d get out of your face.

Single viewpoint tight third person

All told from one character’s in-head perspective. I love tight third. You get all the benefits of first person – immediacy, a single perspective leaving the other characters as mysteries – while being able to look around a bit more, and without the stylistic awkwardness of first person. It makes it a lot easier to write characters who aren’t very self aware, to comment and supply backstory. But it has the same problem as first person in a large-scale story: you only get a restricted view of the action.

This can be what you want, of course. I used single tight third for A Case of Possession, the sequel to the alternating-viewpoint The Magpie Lord, because in the first book I needed to track what was going on in both characters’ heads, while in the second, one character was the focus of the emotional development so we needed to stay with him. My forthcoming Think of England uses single viewpoint tight third because much of the story depends on that character not having a clue what’s going on in his love interest’s head, and the reader needs to be on that emotional journey with him rather than ten steps ahead.

Both drafts for my godforsaken Problem Project are in tight third, from the POV of a character who isn’t actually turning out to be the dead centre of the story (as with To Kill a Mockingbird but in third). I did this to handle the worldbuilding – introducing a character to a new world and have people explain stuff to him, and thus to the reader – but I am just now realizing why that was an incredibly dumb thing to do: Tight third has to be a character right at the heart of the action. You can’t have a witness narrator, s/he has to be a key actor. Otherwise you have two layers of distance – the author talking about Bob talking about Florence.

Multiple viewpoint tight third person

Switching from one head to another. This is useful when you need more than one perspective. Benefit: you can get deeper into the characters, from inside and outside, seeing them as they see themselves and as others see them. You get a broader view and can cover a wider story without the need for other characters filling in what’s happened offstage. Risk: head hopping.

Bob smiled. He liked it when Florence got angry and he hoped to make her even angrier in a moment.

Florence glared at Bob, wishing he would stop smirking. ‘Please pass me the paintbrush,’ she said, wondering if she could jam it in his face.

James walked in, thinking about his dog…

Editor, stat!

Omniscient third

Story narrated from a non-character perspective, which can tell us what everyone is thinking and feeling and doing. Probably the easiest way to handle a big fat sprawling multi-character epic. But it can be distancing (you’re not in someone’s head) or revealing (the narrator knows all and thus can tell all) and it can make it hard to find a voice.

Bleak House alternates omniscient third with first person, keeping us engaged with Esther Summerson and puzzled by her mystery, while supplying clues and action and storyline to which she has no access. Plenty of books switch between omniscient and one or multiple tight third viewpoints.

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So where does that leave me with the Problem Project? I have several characters with multiple interweaving relationships, in geographically and socially different locations. Two whose real motivations have to remain a mystery. One who will betray everything and everyone, hopefully including the reader. And a lot of worldbuilding to convey.

It’s starting to sound like I need alternating tight third perspectives (no omniscient narrator knowing everything, because I need to keep secrets, but several different POVs to give the reader the wide view and all the info). I still don’t know exactly who should be telling this story out of the extensive cast (the problem of picking the person to narrate out of a large cast is a post in itself), but now I can start to see a structure that will let them tell it.

You may even get to read this thing some day.

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What’s your point of view preference? First, third, don’t notice? Do you need a viewpoint character in multi-character books? Like unreliable first-person narrators? Think I’m making a terrible mistake and should write this thing in second person, future tense? Thoughts welcome! 

Terrible Advice for Aspiring Authors

You’ve written a book. Woo! Now you want to get it to an agent, or a publisher, since you have your heart set on traditional publication. So you flick through the Writers and Artists Yearbook or what-have-you, and what do you see? ‘No unsolicited submissions. No unagented submissions. Not accepting new clients at this time.’

And you go through all the steps that people tell you – make it the best book you possibly can, research agents and publishers, follow the submission guidelines slavishly – and still nobody will even look at it, and now you’re getting desperate and frustrated and angry, too, because God damn it, you know your book’s at least as good as a lot of other published stuff. And surely there’s a way to bypass what seems like a set of arbitrary barricades…

At this point, some people turn to more extreme methods. As a commissioning editor, I have experienced all of the following. None of them have worked.

Fake an agent

Publishers want agents: fine, give them one. How hard is it to pretend to be an agent anyway? Mock up some letterhead, write a covering letter and away you go, agented submission!

Why it doesn’t work: Editors rely on agents to pick out good MSS from the pile. If I get approached by agents I haven’t heard of (and generally, editors have heard of agents in their field), I won’t assume they’re reputable: I’ll check them out. At best, the faker might persuade me he has a shonky one-man band agent, which is probably worse than no agent. Much more likely, I will know he’s lied to me. And I don’t much want to sign up a liar for a financial relationship.

(It may not feel like lying if you’re desperate to be published. It feels like lying if you’re wondering whether to invest several thousand pounds of your company’s money, many hours of your time, and your professional reputation in this person.)

Pretend the MS was requested

Dear KJ, Thanks for requesting my full MS THE UNLIGHTABLE BEINGNESS OF BEARS. I attach the full. To refresh your memory, you requested this 160,000 word novel set in a bear sanctuary…

Why it doesn’t work: I may struggle to remember my children’s names but, like most editors, I have a memory like a steel trap for MSS. I know damn well I didn’t request this. It goes into the recycling, while I stalk off to make an angry cup of tea.

Ask to be requested

For a thankfully brief period, my voicemail was full of messages that went, ‘Since you don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts, please will you call me back and ask me to send mine in?’

Why it doesn’t work: Even though my company doesn’t accept unsolicited MSS, I still find about five a week on my desk. I always look at them, albeit mostly only at the first page. I have followed some of them up. I have even bought a few. I am happy to give five seconds of my time to an unsolicited MS, just in case. But I am not going to make a phone call and specifically ask for one out of the blue. The odds are too good that the goods will be odd.

Get noticed!

Things people have included with MSS: glitter, confetti, sweeties, links to Jacquie Lawson ecards, topless photos, those pompom things with feet and googly eyeballs, perfumed paper (bonus points if it’s red), hand-drawn mocked-up cover art, CDs that I’m meant to insert into my work computer (yeah, right).

Why it doesn’t work: There is good noticing, like ‘Wow, what a great MS!’ and there is bad noticing, like, ‘Hey, that man has just got his penis out on the bus.’ The above suggestions are classified under bad noticing.  The only positive thing to say about opening an envelope full of glitter is, ‘Well, at least it isn’t anthrax spores,’ and even that sounds pretty damn Pollyanna-ish. Don’t even talk to me about topless photos.

Don’t give up on your MS! Follow up! More!

In my last job I received a MS, which I rejected nicely, saying that it didn’t fit my list. The author sent it back to me six months later in case anything had changed. I rejected it again. A year later, he sent it in again, asking if it fit my list now. It did not. I then moved jobs to another publisher. The author got hold of my new email address, and, on the grounds that we have a working relationship, sent me the same MS for a fourth time.

Why it doesn’t work: There’s a fine line between ‘persistent’ and ‘stalker’.  Plus, it gives the impression that you only have one story in you, and that is a story that I don’t want to buy.

You may still hear of people who got their MS read and then bought by one of the above methods. All I can say is, you don’t hear about the thousands of people whose MS was binned by an editor who is annoyed, bewildered, slightly alarmed, or swearing like a sailor while covered in glitter.

Authors and Self-Promotion: A reader’s view

This post will not tell you how to do social media properly. I am in no way a high achiever in that field. In fact, I’m only slightly less unqualified to talk about the correct use of social media than about brain surgery. So I am not writing this in my capacity as author or editor, but purely as a reader.

I’m a painfully heavy book buyer. (When my husband and I last moved, the removal people estimated we had half a tonne of books. Matters have not improved since.) I download and read a sample off Amazon if a book or author even slightly piques my interest. If I like a book I will go through the author’s backlist like a cartoon chipmunk gnawing through a tree trunk.

And I love social media about books. I love seeing that an author I like has a new book out. I want to be linked to reviews that I might have missed, to see what other people are reading and recommending. I will cheerfully buy books because the author has an amusing Twitter voice, or a good blog, or has left interesting and pertinent comments on my blog, or seems like a fun person on Facebook. I want to hear about books!

And as a reader, I have had it up to here with hard sell.

Facebook and Twitter direct messages, without even exchanging a token civility, plugging books and demanding likes. Repeated announcements of how the book is doing in the Amazon sales rankings. Cross posting everything to Facebook and Twitter, so that people who were interested enough to friend as well as follow are now bored because they see everything twice. Automated repeated tweets. Automated repeated tweets. Automated repeated tweets.

The other day I checked Twitter on my phone and my entire visible timeline was one author plugging her book. A link to an Amazon review, an Amazon sales ranking, a boast that she had 50 reviews on Goodreads, another sales rank…There was not one amusing comment or interesting link to suggest she was a human being, not a book promo robot. Nothing to give me any value in following her. Pure relentless LOOK AT ME BUY MY BOOK. Which I won’t, because I am assuming her writing is as tiresome and clueless as her social media presence. Unfair? Perhaps, but if you can’t manage a thoughtful tweet or funny status update, why would I believe you can create 200 pages of good text?

Obviously, authors have to use social media for self promo. Obviously we all want to sell books. But you don’t do that by grabbing your potential readers and screaming in their faces.

I used to work with a sales manager, let’s call him Harry, who was the greatest salesman I’ve ever met. (He was once mugged on a train; by the time they got to the station he had got the muggers to give back his credit cards and negotiated a refund of £20 cash as well.)  He sold books like you would not believe, and he did it by having a fantastic, funny conversation with the book buyer, then in the last five minutes of his half-hour sales slot, telling them frankly, “this book will go a bomb for you, this is underwhelming, this one will need hand-selling but it’s really worth stocking.”

In effect, Harry sold himself as a reliable, truthful, intelligent, funny man, and buyers trusted him to be as good value professionally as he was personally. He built relationships, and people opened their hearts and their wallets to him. Of course he was there to sell books, nobody was under any illusions about that, but he made it part of a larger human exchange. Buying anything from Harry got you a package that included hilarious stories, disgraceful gossip, bizarre anecdotes about celebrities, raucous laughter and a general sense of your day being the brighter for having met him. He made it worth your while to hear his sales pitch. And he sold good books.

We all have to sell books, I know. I just wish we could all do it like Harry.

 

Am I being unfair? What are your self promo hates? Got any better ideas on how to do it right?

(And talking of self promo, my free story Butterflies is available for download at Smashwords. Only if you like that sort of thing. No pressure.)