Category Archives: things I’ve learnt

20140319-162524.jpg

6 Social Media Tools Every Writer Should Know About

This post is prompted by a conversation I was having with my dad, who runs Magic at Events. We were talking about whether it’s best to schedule Twitter updates or not and he pointed out that there’s no way of knowing when the best time for a tweet is. When I pointed out that there are some sites that can figure it out for you, he asked me “how do you know about this stuff?” And my answer was “someone told me”. And then I realised I’d been told about a lot of stuff and I should really pass on that knowledge. So here’s 6 Social Media Tools That I Think Are Cool And You Might Too.

Don’t get me wrong here. The purpose of this post is not to say “I use Twitter/Facebook/etc and so should you”. Some social media sites aren’t for everyone. This is strictly about tools; stuff you can use for a specific purpose other than networking.

Twitter

Put aside the networking aspect and Twitter becomes a fantastic search engine. It’s great for gauging mood, measuring conversation or getting real-time updates. Most of the time you’ll probably use Google, but I recommend making Twitter your secondary search engine. I’ve found links, blogs and people full of information on subjects where Google had let me down. Set up a dummy account and start searching!

Buffer

I’ve already written about whether or not scheduling social media posts is a good idea but, if you’re convinced, this is the tool to do it with. You can link it to Facebook, Twitter, Google+ Pages, LinkedIn and App.net. The advantage to Buffer is you don’t have to pick a time for each update. You pick your posting times in advance and drop updates into a queue. You can still specify a certain time for an individual update if you want to. Otherwise you can sit back and let Buffer post for you!

Tweriod

The service that sparked this post. Say you want to schedule your posts but you don’t know when to do so. Tweriod can help you out. It only works with Twitter at the moment but it will analyse your followers and tell you at what times your posts have the greatest potential for reaching them.

Google Alerts

Not quite social media, perhaps, but a good tool all the same. A Google Alert will send you an email when it indexes something matching a search term. Say you want to keep your ear to the ground regarding Branwell Bronte. Set up a Google Alert and, instead of having to search every day, Google will send you an email as and when something is posted.

Mention

The next level from Google Alerts, Mention can perform the same service but will trawl blogs, Facebook, Twitter and so on as well. It was suggested to me as a way of keeping track of people who post links to your website; that way you can thank them accordingly! That’s a great use for this tool but it’s a good way of keeping up to date on a certain topic, too.

An RSS Reader

Instead of visiting a dozen different sites to keep up with news on those things you like, download one RSS reader and read all those blogs in one place. Personally I recommend Flipboard but there’s plenty of choice out there.

Do you agree that these are handy tools? Do you disagree? Have I missed any out? Let me know in the comments!

20121103-101337.jpg

Buy an Ebook, Own an Ebook

I’m about to step in from a limb, open myself up to almost no criticism and pretty much snub controversy by stating the following: if you buy an ebook, you should own it.

I know, me with my crazy ideas. I’m not the only one who thinks so. In the wake of the news that Amazon wiped a Norwegian woman’s Kindle and denied her access to her paid-for ebooks, plenty of people have complained that we should own our ebooks. After all, Waterstones aren’t busting down your front door and stealing back your paperbacks. But this isn’t a one-off. In a move so beautiful it might collapse under its own irony, Amazon secretly deleted copies of George Orwell’s 1984 from hundreds of Kindles. You couldn’t write this stuff.

But I’m not writing this to complain or demand reform or justice or what-have-you. Amazon are a business. If we don’t like the way they do business, we can only vote with our wallets. The reason I’m writing this is to make a recommendation to you.

Download Calibre.

Calibre allows you to backup your ebooks to a computer. So if Amazon decide you’ve been naughty and wipes your Kindle, you have backups. You haven’t lost what you’ve legitimately paid for.

Calibre is also useful because you can convert ebooks into different formats. Kindles, for example, won’t let you read .epubs, the format Apple and Kobo and a lot others sell. But Calibre can convert an .epub into a .mobi which the Kindle can read. The conversion might violate some terms of service, however. (The ethics of those terms is for another day.) I’ve also heard that you can download some plugins that let Calibre strip out DRM. But, if they exist, that would definitely violate terms of service and I can’t recommend you do that.

But the backup thing? I can’t recommend that enough.

I’m still interested in hearing your thoughts on Amazon wiping Kindles, though. Are they stealing back paid-for property or are they within their rights?

20120926-214158.jpg

Twitter Followers Don’t Matter; RRFs Do

Anyone noticing a trend? It’s possible I’ve already written about Facebook in a similar fashion and now I’m banging on about Twitter. But bear with me: it’s worth reading.

Talk to anyone who uses Twitter for five minutes and one word is bound to come up: followers. Twitter users always want more followers. Why? Because the bigger the crowd the further your voice will travel. More followers equals more people who can see your tweets. Makes sense, right? So it may come as a surprise to many to hear that Twitter founder Evan Williams is advocating a move away from the follower count. Surely he’s lost his marbles?

Not at all. He just knows that it’s quality, not quantity, that matters.

Evan Williams is now advocating the importance of the retweet over the follower and he’s absolutely right. In fact I would go further and advocate the RRFs: Retweets, Replies and Favourites. Because a follow means only that someone has clicked a button that says “follow”. It doesn’t mean they like or even read your tweets. It’s literally just the button thing.

An RRF, on the other hand, means that someone has:

• read your tweet;
• enjoyed it enough to click a button that leads to engagement;
• engaged in a public fashion that increases your exposure to other Twitter users;
• opened the door to further and continued engagement with you;
• given you a way of actually measuring which of your tweets are popular and which are not.

In short, the number of followers you have is a false comfort and an unreliable metric. But the number of RRFs your tweets earn? They’re pure gold.

You might agree (I think you should) or you might think I’m talking pure cods wallop. Get opinionated and leave a comment!

20120912-212710.jpg

5 Easy Steps to Verified Authorship for a WordPress Blog

You may have noticed that some search results have a picture of the author next to the link. Ever wondered what that was? Me too. Turns out that it’s called Google Verified Authorship, it takes five minutes to set up and it can increase the number of visits by up to 400% (apparently).

So what are you waiting for? Here’s five easy steps to get your pretty face next to your links and get the people clicking on it.

1. Set up a Google+ profile.

Whether or not a presence on Google+ is worthwhile at this stage is a topic for a whole other post, but a Google+ profile is essential to this process. (For bonus points, find and add my Google+ profile!)

2. Add your website to the Contributor To section

This points your Google+ profile towards your website. This section is right at the bottom of your profile when you click “edit”.

3. Make sure your +1s are public.

The process won’t work without this step. I don’t know why.

4. Insert the following into your header.php file

This code will point your site to your Google+ profile and complete the online handshake, as it were. Find the “head” section of your header.php file and insert the following code:

link rel=”author” href=”https://plus.google.com/112830526540548509787/posts”/

The link is the link to your Google+ profile, so be sure to substitute it with your own link. Be sure to place a < at the beginning of the line and an > at the end too!

5. Use Google’s Rich Snippets Testing Tool to see if it worked

It won’t work straight away – Google will have to re-crawl your site – but this tool can tell you immediately if everything has been set up correctly.

Now make yourself a margarita, you’re all done! Was that nice and easy or what? Leave me a comment and let me know.

20120704-201155.jpg

5 Books Every Fantasy Writer Should Read

I’ve previously posted a list of five books every writer should read, irrespective of genre. But, once you’ve read them, I’ve got five more that will not only help fellow fantasy writers but are chock-full of inspiration! So, in no particular order:

Medieval Lives by Alan Ereira and Terry Jones.

The majority of fantasy literature is inspired by medieval England which, we know, was full of ignorant peasants in brown, noble knights saving damsels and maybe some royalty with absolute power. Thanks to Ereira and Jones, we know different. Peasants could be smart and colourful, knights were often thugs, and royalty wasn’t all that. An easy and entertaining read and your fantasy world will feel more real for it.

Lore of the Land by Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson

One of my very favourite books. A veritable tome of folklore and superstition, every page is full of budding story ideas. Spring-heeled Jack, the Seven Maidens, King Arthur, the Swan Knight, mermaids, there’s just so much crammed in it will keep you inspired for years.

Celtic Mythology by Geddes & Grosset

Mythology is always a plundering ground for authors, but all too often it’s the Norse, Egyptian or classical myths that are plundered. Celtic mythology is just as rich, and this book serves as a good introduction to give your fantasy world a unique flavour.

The Real Middle Earth by Brian Bates

Published at the height of The Lord of the Rings movie fever, this book tries a little too hard in places. Nevertheless, it’s a fantastic exploration of dwarves, elves, dragons, ents and so on as they were seen by our Dark Age forbears.

The Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland

Like the sound of Odin, Loki and Thor and want to know more? This is the place to go. A fantastic modern telling of the myths, along with an introductory essay on the Norse society and beliefs and capped by an appendix and index. I’ve never wanted or needed another resource on Norse myths, which I think says it all.

These are my suggestions but I’d love to hear yours. Let me know if there are any other books that ought to be in this list!

20121227-123002.jpg

Why Lots of Facebook Likes Aren’t Important

Facebook Page owners are getting uptight because Facebook want to charge them to reach more of their fans. Kristen Lamb has written a good blog about it, which you should read if you haven’t already. In essence a lot of Page owners are missing the point. Too many of them view social media as a broadcast channel instead of an engagement avenue.

Billboard Networking

The number of likes a Page has is often taken as an indicator of success. But this is a fallacy. As an example, I recently saw a Page with triple-digit likes that had single digit entries into a competition. Why? It had adopted billboard networking.

Because a billboard can’t tailor itself for its audience, it needs to get in front of as many eyeballs as possible. If it can broadcast its message to thousands of people, a handful of them might notice. They play statistics and win on the 24% of people they influence. But imagine if you met someone at a party who wore a sandwich board and refused to speak to you. A large number of people would see the board. But I don’t imagine it would work too well.

Yet this is the essence of billboard networking. People approach your Page expecting to meet a person and instead they see only “Buy my book. My book’s on sale. Check out my book.” Cue a lack of engagement and that dearth of competition entries.

Social networking

Social networking is the complete opposite of billboard networking. It’s a conversation, in which you engage people on a one-to-one or one-to-few basis. At that same party, it’s the guy who spends the evening with a handful of people who share common interests and a similar sense of humour.

That guy won’t reach as many people as the sandwich board. But he’s deeply engaged with those he does reach. He’s talking but he’s also listening, and the discussion will range from books to weather to food to whatever. In social media terms, he’s posting questions and sharing good, funny and useful content. If and when his book comes up in conversation, the people he’s talking to will pay more attention because he’s not selling them something; they’re just talking.

So stop being a billboard and start being social. Stop chasing after likes and try finding friends instead. Sure it feels good if our Page has 15,000 likes; we feel popular. But if none of those 15,000 talk to you, you’ll be the loneliest popular kid around. And the girl with 50 likes who all talk regularly will be having a pretty good party without you.

20120612-094636.jpg

Writing Lessons from Joss Whedon

With the frankly wild and unexpected success of Avengers, Joss Whedon has never been held in such high esteem (not even when he was helming Buffy). But he’s long been the king of the geeks and I swore fealty a long time ago. He’s one of the few TV writers that I will always follow, and therefore worth paying attention to. So here’s what I think writers can learn from Joss Whedon.

1. Kill the one they love

One of Joss’ staples and yet it works every time. Loveable supporting character are never long for the world. And it’s always supporting characters, perhaps because they’re easier to love; it’s more permissible to have a two-dimensional, all-good supporting character. But killing this character off ups the stakes and increases the tension; if the writer could kill that awesome character, they could kill anyone!

2. Make dialogue a strength

Whedon’s true trademark is zippy dialogue, usually with plenty of banter but also laden with character and exposition without being dry. Dialogue is by far easier to read on the page and it’s more natural for people to talk about what’s going on than have pages of deep, info-dumping thoughts. Remember, too, what the characters don’t say; that can speak volumes.

It’s easy to get dialogue wrong, so listen to other people’s conversations and take notes (try to be discreet or you may lose some friends).

3. Challenge yourself

After hearing for the umpteenth time how much someone liked his dialogue, Whedon wrote an episode of Buffy where everyone loses their voice. After making his name in supernatural dramas Buffy and Angel he made the sci-fi space western Firefly. It’s easy to stick to what you know and what people love. But stretching yourself keeps your work from becoming staid and repetitive; two words no-one wants to see in their reviews!

What else can writers learn from Joss Whedon? Or do you think they can’t learn anything at all? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so leave a comment!

20130807-080455.jpg

Why Book Covers Matter

I’ve recently posted a couple of blogs about what goes into making a good book cover. It’s an obvious area of interest for any writer (especially if they’ll have to design it themselves) and it’s easier to talk about covers than about writing. “Today I wrote ten words and deleted nine of them” isn’t that interesting. Well, it is to me. But I’m special. My mummy says so.

Anyway over the weekend my brother asked me why I was “obsessed” with book covers. We can debate the semantics, but it raises an interesting question: why do book covers matter?

A writer could have written the greatest masterpiece history will ever see. But a reader won’t be able to see that. All they see is the cover. A bookstore browser will spend on average eight seconds looking at the front cover[source]. That might seem too short to worry about, but in eight seconds a book cover can:

• tell the reader that this is their kind of book;
• intrigue and encourage them into reading the back;
• impress the reader with its quality and suggest the content is just as good.

I know what you’re thinking: anyone can say that covers matter. But where’s the empirical proof?

Thankfully those chaps over at The Book Smugglers have conducted a survey of 616 readers. I recommend reading the whole thing, but I’ll summarise the best points:

• 48% said covers play a major role in their decision to purchase a book (though 41% said they played a minor role);
• 72% said “it depends” when asked if a good book cover could compel them to buy a book;
• an astonishing 40% said a book cover could be or has been the sole factor in a book purchase.

You’ll notice that none of these figures have blown your socks off. That’s because the cover’s job is not to sell the book. It’s to get the reader to pick it up. Those 72% who said “it depends” were probably thinking “it depends on the blurb and a sample of the writing itself”. The cover gets the reader’s attention. The content sells it.

And in a world that is seeing more and more books published, getting noticed is more important than ever. So I think my “obsession” is rather well-founded.

What are your favourite book covers? And have you ever bought a book based purely on the cover?

20120411-133340.jpg

What Makes A Good Book Cover? Part Two

I’ve previously posed the question as to what makes a good book cover. Never one to leave a question unanswered, I’ve garnered feedback and done the research and this is what I’ve come up with so far:

1. Remember the size

In these days of online shopping, covers are displayed in small thumbnails. That means images and text need to be readable at small sizes. For this reason, make the title large, don’t use overly decorative fonts and make sure the cover still has a strong focus.

2. Keep it simple, make it bold

Few articles about cover design fail to make mention of the Twilight Saga covers. But they get mentioned for a reason: they’re striking and they grab the attention through high contrast and simple design. You don’t have to copy the style but you can borrow the lessons. The cover’s job is to grab the attention instantly. Big, bold images can do that.

3. Don’t be afraid of your demographic

If you’ve written a fantasy novel, does the cover design appeal to fantasy readers? If the cover doesn’t encourage them to buy it, is it really going to encourage anyone else?

4. Avoid stock photos

I know a lot of indie publishers swear by stock photography, but let’s be honest: it sticks out like a sore thumb and screams amateur. Commission some original art. It’s worth the investment.

5. Avoid too much symbolism

Yes, the violin is symbolic of your hero’s quest to be heard by his peers, but a stonking great violin on the cover will tell people that this is a book about violins. If they don’t like violins, they won’t pick it up. Symbolism is great in the text, but the cover is pure marketing; its only purpose is to encourage a customer to buy it.

6. Read Joel Friedlander’s Book Designer Blog

A bonus tip! Joel Friedlander’s Book Designer site is a fantastic resource for anyone who is looking to self-publish a book; it’s brimming over with information. Cover design is just one aspect of the things he examines, but you should definitely start reading it now.

These seem to be the main ingredients to good book covers. What do you think? Are there any missing, or are any just plain wrong?

20120305-183033.jpg

Writing Lessons from George Lucas

Last week I mentioned the three last-minute books I bought before I embarked on No More Books 2012. But now I have a confession to make: I was lying.

There was one other book.

That book was Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays.

A friend of mine called this purchase the geekiest thing he had ever heard. And he’s a huge geek himself. But I don’t care. I love stuff like this, the behind-the-scenes of the writing. It’s a chance to see how other writers work, a chance to examine how they do things and to learn from them.

To prove it, here’s three things I’ve learnt from the geekiest purchase ever.

Steal From Other Stories If Need Be

“I have a bad feeling about this”, a line which ended up in every Star Wars film, was originally in the script for Indiana Jones. But Lucas felt it would work better in Star Wars, so he took it out of Indiana Jones’ mouth and placed it in Luke Skywalker’s. If you’ve an idea that would work great in one project but you originally envisaged it in another, don’t protect one and hurt both. You need to make this current project as strong as it can be.

Remove Characters With Nothing To Do

In earlier drafts, Lucas didn’t kill Obi-Wan. But he found he was making no contribution to the film after the escape from the Death Star. Alec Guinness was going to be very expensive set dressing. So he killed him off.

If a character is a good one, killing them off should feel like a loss. But that doesn’t necessarily mean a loss to the story. Sometimes it’s a gain.

Don’t Be Precious; Change Whatever You Need to Make It Work

Lucas’ first treatment was radically different to the final film. About the only things that remain from treatment to screen are an empire, a rebellion, a force and a few names. Luke Skywalker was Annikin Starkiller. Obi-wan was after a Kiber crystal. Darth Vader was a bit part.

No writer should be afraid of the red pen, even if it causes the end result to be almost unrecognisable from the first plot outline. If it’s making things better, it can only be a good thing.

(Bonus Lesson: If you’re tempted to create a Jar Jar Binks? Don’t.)