‘Proactive promotion’:investing time, not money

I’ve just done an interview with Paul Teague for his forthcoming podcast series about self-publishing and it got me thinking about the challenge which faces all self-published authors – how to get people to notice your book when you haven’t got the budget for promotions that traditional publishers have.

Let’s assume that you have no money to spend on promotion: what can you do at no cost? First, there’s the local newspapers in your area. Every day, or every week, they have papers to fill with local news. They don’t have the staff or the time to sniff out stories of interest to their readers, and you can help by taking your story to them, in a form that they can use with minimum effort. If you have a tame PR person among your acquaintance, get them to show you how to write a press release, and then do one to send out. Alternatively, look at the newspapers and magazines that people who might be interested in your book would be most likely to read, and analyse the articles in there. How long are they, what kind of headline, and content, and style? Write something like this about your book, thinking of a ‘hook’ that might attract the interest first of the editor and then of their readers. Visual stuff helps too. Do you have a picture of yourself holding the book, or talking to a group about it? Is it of good enough quality to go straight into the paper alongside the article you’ve written? If so, send both the piece (with the word count in brackets at the end) and the picture to the features editor with a note explaining who you are, and ask if they could use it. In my experience, they will, and you now have a few hundred words and a picture in your local newspaper for nothing.

What about your local library? They often have readers’ groups, or do special author events. If you write or see the person responsible locally for organising these groups, tell them about your book and what you might enjoy talking about, and see if they’re interested. Don’t expect to be paid for the talk or your travel. This is a ‘loss leader’, but they will promote the event, again with a blurb and a picture around the area and probably online as well, and if you ask they will invite a photographer from the local paper to come and take the picture for publication with a short caption explaining what you were doing, what the book is about. That’s two promotion strategies in one shot, and again it costs you nothing but your time and travel.

Local radio? They need to find newsworthy local stories for hours of air time every day. Check out the presenters online, listen to what they do and then decide which of them and their listeners might be interested in your book. Write, email or call them and be persistent if needs be, without being a pain. Send your chosen person a copy of the book and a summary of its content, and some ideas about what you might talk about. The presenters often have a journalism background, so a well-presented press release would be familiar to them too. Radio is far easier to get access to than television. They might be wary of whether you will come across well on radio, so if you’ve had any prior experience in this field they would find that reassuring. They won’t pay, and might suggest that you go to the nearest studio and have your interview from there. My suggestion would be that you go to where the programmes is being made and have a face to face conversation with the presenter, which comes across far better, and you have then you have actually met the presenter, which will help if you want to go on the programme again with your later books.

All these approaches take time, but without them you may have a great book and no buyers. Doing any of these for the first time may seem difficult or nerve-wracking, but so it is with anything new, and your confidence grows with practice and experience. The second step is so much easier than the first. There’s lots more you can do: this is just a start.

What does an editor do?

I’ve never been an editor. I’ve never been on a course on how to do it, or read a manual. But I’ve been on receiving end of a number of editors’ work, and I think I’m beginning to understand what a good editor does. Here’s what an editor does that works for me as a writer.

  1. The good editor asks really good questions about the plot plans as they develop. Some writers don’t plan at all, which means that the editor has to wait till the first full draft is available before they can ask these questions, by which time the writer may be thinking about the effort of re-writing, not whether the editor’s comments are valid. If you’re trying to write a story with twists and turns, as I’m trying to do, it takes more confidence than I have to embark on that without a pretty good idea of how those twists and turns are going to work. A few days ago I sent my editor Charlotte the outline I’d been working on, arranged roughly in chapters so we could both see how the ‘arc’ of the story would look. She read it very carefully, and came back with questions and comments such as: ‘why is that sub-plot left hanging?; ‘is that clue feasible?’; ‘should there be a reference to x earlier in the story?’; ‘does this tie in with the same character’s details in the previous book?’. Because I trust her, and she reads a lot and has a good ear for a story, I consider each point she makes, go back to the outline and think some more. The second draft of the outline is always better than the first.
  2. With some idea of the overall shape of the story, the editor is a good sounding board for key scenes or chapters as the writing develops. Sometimes I agree with the comments or suggestions she makes, sometimes I don’t but it’s a good idea to be asked to think again occasionally. If she likes the ways things are going she’ll say so, which is encouraging when you’re ploughing on day after day, trying to find a balance between a pragmatic need for progress and the search for perfection. Sometimes she and I will talk in depth about a section of the work, and disagree. Then she says, ‘This is your book, so the final decision rests with you,’ and it does. In the early days it took me a while to realise this. It’s easy to feel badgered by an editor when you lack experience and confidence in your own work.
  3. When the first draft is done, off it goes for really careful scrutiny. Now the editor is concentrating on the finer detail. Charlotte is especially good at checking chronology: ‘Surely,’ she might say, ‘the events in Chapter 13 must be on a Sunday, not on a Friday, so would that shop be open?’ The writer might be tempted to respond, ‘Who cares? Poetic licence’ etc, but you and I both know that some reader somewhere will spot any anomaly and tell you about it, which can be VERY irritating.
  4. Second and third drafts will follow, and more, each carefully checked. The daunting process of proof-reading is already underway, and typographical errors are picked up as we go, before the final preparation for submission to printer or ebook publication. Reading the ‘proofs’ is of course the final process, but by that time only minimal changes are possible. Woe betide any writer who wants to change anything much at this point. If you are making both hard copy and ebook versions, conversion from one to the other may create some typographical problems and require further proof-reading. I reckon the last proof copy was read by me, Charlotte and our book designer several times before it went to print and there are still three tiny errors, which kind and careful readers have been quick to point out. These will be dealt with before any reprint. The misprints are usually of punctuation, such as comma instead of full stop, or type-setting such as one extra space between words. It’s embarrassing when someone spots them, but the margin of error is three or so words out of one hundred thousand, which isn’t bad in the great scheme of things.

Charlotte is an old friend as well as a professional editor, so that could be helpful or not, depending on her expertise and our trust in each others’ judgement. It’s good advice not to have a friend teach you to drive, but the editor/writer relationship is  – or should be – less fraught than sitting side by side in a potentially life-threatening situation. I commission and pay for the editing and book design services that she and her partner provide. The book designer handles the layout of the book, works with me on decisions about headings, illustrations and other design matters, chooses and liaises with the printer. Yes. it costs, but the quality of my self-published book is now as good as anything produced commercially, and I have had final word on every part of the process.

That’s how it works for me. I’m interested in how other editors and writers work together.

Point of view and ‘peripheral vision’

I had an eye test this week. ‘Excellent peripheral vision’, said the optician after I looked for the flashing lights at the edges of the screen, pressing the button whenever I saw one. Have you done that test? It’s like a game.So, that means that I can see what’s happening away from the centre of my vision. Maybe that extends to my writing too.

As I carried on ‘plotting’ over the past few days, I wondered whether I am too interested in the ‘peripherals’, that is what’s happening away from the main action of my story, at the expense of the principal storyline. That was the problem with the first novel I ever wrote. What about ‘point of view’? said my ‘professional critic. And it was a fair question. In every scene, what caught my eye was someone at the edge of the action, watching, listening, thinking, reacting. That felt right to me as the writer, but I was persuaded that the reader might find it confusing. So I try now to decide at the beginning of each chapter, whose shoulder am I sitting on in this scene? Sometimes the POV might switch from one paragraph to the next within a single chapter, but that would be rare and deliberate, not continual and accidental as it had been in the first draft of ‘A Good Liar’. I think maintaining that discipline has probably been helpful, but I still yearn for the ‘triangulation’ you can get when the same events are witnessed and commented on by a range of people.

As I prepare to start writing the first full draft of Book 5, I wonder whether I can experiment a little this time: have my previous four books given me permission to push against the constraints of style without losing my readers? Life is complex: the same events can be perceived quite differently by different participants.

We’ll see. As the starting point of writing gets closer I find myself itching to get going, now that the planning and research is almost done. And you know where my cursed peripheral vision is taking me now? Even before I’ve started on writing Book 5, I’m thinking about Book 6.

Stop it, Ruth. Focus. Focus.




Research: when, how and what?

I’m doing an online crime writing course with the Professional Writers’ Academy, and Week Three is devoted to ‘research’. This is not the first thinking I’ve done about it: you can’t write a family saga based in a specific place (West Cumbria), and a specific time  (the first half of the twentieth century), without spending a daunting amount of time digging for details, followed by even more time deciding how little of that detail is actually needed. What I’m beginning to understand are the various layers and type of research to be undertaken, and when’s the best time to do it. The first duty of a writer after all is to write, and you have to make sure that research doesn’t become a distraction from the writing rather than a necessary preparation for it.

As soon as I’ve decided on the ‘setting’, both time and place, I’ll start researching the first layer of information. It could be about the geography of the area, using maps and visits, just to get the lie of the land, literally. Or it could be combing through the newspapers for the given time, looking for the details of lives lived at the time and the background events. In 1969 the first people walked on the moon, and the provisional IRA was formed, both of which might be in the minds of my characters at that time, or have a bearing on the plot. The original germ of an idea for a story can be helped by this immersion in the times, and some details or incidents jump out at you. Many things may find their way into your notebook, but only a few really stick in the mind. I recall the court case reported during rationing in 1947, where it was explained that an illegal ham hanging in someone’s attic was discovered when a mouse ate through the string and the ham crashed through the ceiling into someone’s bedroom. That found its way into my second novel ‘Forgiven’. In the third one ‘Fallout’ I’m inside the nuclear plant at Windscale ten years later and learn that one of the essential maintenance procedures for the reactor required someone to hold down a button with their finger for long periods of time, until the finger hurt. Who knew? It showed just how troublesome the care of the old reactor had become.

You have to know when to stop ‘reading around’, or the fascination of what you discover can absorb too much of the energy that should now be devoted to the next stage, getting on with the development of the plot and the characters, and on into the first draft. When you get writing, you quickly discover the gaps in the research that will need to be filled, and the list of specific questions mount. What model of motorbike would someone buy in 1947? What were police radios like in 1969? What would be on the juke box in the cafe in 1970? When and why was the decision made to turn off the fans in the burning reactor?

A remarkable number of these questions can be answered without ever leaving the house, if you’re prepared to pick away online until the answer is found. Even better, you can sometimes discover the gold seam of authentic first hand ‘primary’ information, such as the transcription of the accident enquiry about the William pit explosion of August 1947 that was part of the backdrop of ‘Forgiven’. Or the 1985 Hughes Report on the Kincora Boys’ Home scandal in Belfast that provided much of the background of institutional child abuse that I used in ‘Cruel Tide’.

But some of the best information is uncovered when you talk to people. They give you snippets that you would never find elsewhere and add valuable authenticity to your story. I heard from an ex-policeman that he refused to drive a Panda car on his rounds when they came into use because it would have meant swapping his helmet for a flat cap, and he wouldn’t do it. The daughter of a woman who’d sorted coal in the screen shed at a local pit told me that the screen lasses had to wear gloves whenever they went out to cover their scarred hands that no amount of scrubbing could properly clean. Hard work, and hard times, before the process was mechanised and the screen lasses passed into history.

I learned the hard way that much of this wonderful detail can slow your story down and has to be sacrificed to ‘pace’. In the first novel ‘A Good Liar’ great swathes of background detail about a minor character’s clothes and shoes was cut out, and some of looping ‘side-stories’ needed to go as well: however interesting, they were a distraction and inessential to the main thrust of the action. They had to go, however much it grieved me.

Maybe I’ve made this rod for my own back. It might be less onerous, and authentic detail more straight-forward, if I chose contemporary settings. Historical settings make the writing life harder, with more hours necessarily devoted to gathering and checking the detail. But I still think that such a setting lengthens the shelf-life of the book, which matters a great deal to a self-published author whose promotion and sales have to be spread over a longer time frame than the commercial publishers. So long as I keep writing and publishing, my previous books will keep selling as they are already set in the past and cannot therefore age.