Does My Blog Look Big in This?

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I get lots of lovely comments about the design of my blog and while I always welcome praise, warranted or not, I do try to point out that it was actually Word Press who did all the designing. I use a free theme – Bueno – and WP features that are available to all, for free. The only thing I pay for is the domain name upgrade that gives me “catherineryanhoward.com” instead of “catherineryanhoward.wordpress.com”. But by following a few simple rules and using my imagination, I ended up with a blog that some people think has been professionally designed especially for me. So what do I do with WP that (from what I’ve seen, at least) most other people don’t?

My Header Picture Matches My Theme

Pick a theme that allows you to insert a photo of your choosing across the top of your blog, i.e. a header image. Most of them do. Then when it comes to inserting one, choose a photo that color co-ordinates with your theme, as well as reflecting what your blog is about.

Not quite the same, is it?

This one simple step can radically improve the look of your homepage, so take the time the find the perfect image – browse stock photo websites or even take one yourself. Some themes also enable you to change the color scheme (under Theme Options) if you want to give yourself more to work with.

I Use Pages to Build a Blogsite

A blogsite is a blog that acts like a website. One of my pet peeves is when I see authors – famous, traditionally published authors included – with a website about themselves and an entirely separate blog in a different location. How many hoops do you want people to jump through, eh? Instead, you should get a Word Press blog and make it look like a website, so you can have a one-stop-shop online home.

WP allows you to insert “Pages” – static sections that exist outside of your blog posts. All you need to do to insert one is to find Pages on your Dashboard, click “Add New” and build your new page or section. Whatever you call it will complete the URL, e.g. if I make a “Contact” page, its URL will be https://catherineryanhoward.com/contact. You can also create a hierarchy of pages. For example, I have a “My Books” page (https://catherineryanhoward.com/mybooks) but under that again, I have a page for Results Not Typical (so its URL becomes https://catherineryanhoward.com/mybooks/resultsnottypical.) On some themes, these pages will immediately appear across the top or down the side of your home page, but don’t worry too much about that for now – we’re going to sort it using the custom menu feature.

I Have a Customized Menu

Some WP themes allow you to create a customized menu which could well be my favorite WP feature. By default, any pages you create will appear as links across the top or down the side of your homepage, i.e. create an “About” page and “About” will appear as a link under your header image, most likely. If you create a tiered stack of pages – for instance, an “About” page that has a “Contact” page on the next level down – these will appear in drop-down “sub-menus” under the main page link. But this has its limitations. You may not want every page you create to appear in a menu, and you may want to link to outside locations, e.g. for a “Mailing List” link.

The custom menu allows you to override the default menu your blog has created, and dictate exactly what goes across the top of your blog, and where your blog readers will go if you click on them.

This is mine:

  • ABOUT leads to my “About” page
  • MY BOOKS leads to my “My Books” page and underneath that are MOUSETRAPPED (leads to MousetrappedBook.com), BACKPACKED (leads to Backpackedbook.com), SELF-PRINTED (leads to SelfPrintedBook.com), RESULTS NOT TYPICAL (leads to my “Results Not Typical” page) and WHERE TO BUY THEM (leads to my “Where To Buy Them” page).
  • SELF-PRINTING leads to my “Self-Printing” page where I manually add links to all relevant posts
  • VIDEOS leads to my “Videos” page
  • NEWS leads to my “News” page
  • MAILING LIST leads to an external site, MailChimp.com, and the sign-up form for my newsletter, The Caffeinated News
  • CONTACT leads to my “Contact” page.

I Widget Witch Hunt

Anyone who has read Self-Printed knows how I feel about a sidebar of mismatched, multicolored, flashing and usually irrelevant trinkets that come in so many different shapes and sizes that no two are the same. If you haven’t read Self-Printed, how I feel about it is something like this:

Just like the rest of your blog, all sidebars and footers should look neat and tidy, and match. Filling them with multicolored widgets, images, graphics and the kitchen sink does not a tidy blog make. They are also extremely distracting. If your blog matches and is laid out well, what comes to the forefront? Your content which, let’s not forget, is what this is all about. If you have the sidebar equivalent of a Sixties UFO (i.e. flashing lights, if that wasn’t clear!), then all I’m going to do is stumble back, blinking, into my Twitter stream before I read any of what you’ve got to say.

So stop adding every little widget you find online in the same way a bird adds twigs to its nest. Well, actually, the bird is probably more discerning than the average widget-abusing blogger. Don’t just fill the space because it’s there. Think about what you should and shouldn’t have in your sidebars and footers. I’ll give you some clues.

You should have things like:

  • A comment policy
  • An e-mail subscription box
  • A hit counter (but ONLY one designed by WP, so it matches)
  • Links to blogs you like
  • Links to guest posts you’ve written
  • Links to popular posts or posts of a certain category
  • Your book’s covers linking to their Amazon listings or more information
  • Links to other social media accounts, e.g. Twitter, Facebook, etc.
  • Other things that are relevant, match and look good.

You shouldn’t have:

  • A badge from every forum, group, club and queue you’ve ever joined
  • The kitchen sink
  • Anything else.

And size does matter. When I insert book covers or other images into my sidebar, I always make sure they’re the same width across. The beady-eyed among you will notice that there is one widget that isn’t the same width as the others – the Facebook one – but it’s important to have a link to Facebook and there’s little I can do about it other than try to avoid looking at it because when I do I feel a twitch coming on.

And it’s RIGHT THERE (—>).

*Twitches*

[UPDATE: Angela left a comment that has changed my blogging world. Somehow I didn’t notice that you could specify the preferred width of your Facebook widget, and so have now set it to 300 across, so it matches everything else. Thank you Angela!]

I even go so far as to make my own widgets. Do you see those little pink Post-Its in the sidebar? One links to my self-publishing posts, because that’s what a lot of people are looking for, another to book reviews because I didn’t have space for it my main menu and another is a reminder that I have a mailing list. Well, I made them. I used Pages (Apple’s word processor; MS Word works too), inserted an object that looked like a Post-It, changed the colors until they matched my blog, changed the fonts until they matched my blog and then took a screen shot and cropped it. Finally I inserted my screen shot into my sidebar as an image and then embedded the image with a link to the relevant place, e.g. the “Self-publishing info” Post-It/widget links to my “Self-Printed” page.

Yes, that’s how far I’ll go to keep my sidebar looking pretty. I stopped at making all my book covers pink, but I did think about it…

I Obsess About Cohesiveness

I’ve seen Bueno used on other blogs and I am only slightly exaggerating when I say that I come out in hives and develop a twitch in both eyes when I see other bloggers commit this cardinal sin of Theme Bueno:

Ugh! What are you DOING to that MENU?! Noooooooooooooooooooooooo!

It. Drives. Me. CRAAAAAAZY. Probably a lot more than it should, I acknowledge that much, but it does. Because it’s just all sorts of ugly wrong. Even just looking at that image makes my scalp itch, and my blog was only like that for a second.

(Yes, I was one of those girls who wouldn’t allow “baby” dolls, WWF wrestlers or Sylvanian Families figures into Barbie/Sindy games because they weren’t the right size. They weren’t the right size!)

Now I know that most of you reading this are rolling your eyes and thinking things like:

  • I can just about create new posts! Leave me alone, you technical wunderkind.
  • It’s what’s inside that counts. People aren’t going to read my blog just because it’s pretty, or not read it because it’s not. All that matters is that it’s readable.
  • My blog looks like a MySpace page circa 2006 meets an LSD trip meets Times Square and I got a trillion unique visitors a month. How do ya like them apples?
  • Isn’t blogging supposed to be fun? You seem to be sucking fun out of this at a rate of all per second.
  • That girl really needs the assistance of a mental health professional.

To which I say:

  • I have no special technical expertise. All I learned about Word Press I learned by doing and although it does seem a little tricky if you move here from Blogger, you’ll soon get used to it.
  • I’m going to hand you the greatest book ever written, slathered in dog poo. Enjoy! Because it’s what’s inside that counts, right?
  • I’m happy for you. But perhaps your readers are using Google Reader to shield their eyes. And after seeing your blog, I wouldn’t really be running off to buy your book.
  • I have plenty of fun with my blog. But never at the cost of being professional and organized.
  • You don’t know the half of it…

The point is, what are your aims here? Is it to become a professional writer? If it is, you need to start acting like one, and a professional writer would either create a cohesive, well laid out blog or blogsite, or have one designed for them. And would a web designer come back with a design that had orphaned menu links, MySpace-like widgets and a scheme that included every color in the rainbow? If they did I think you’d double-check their credentials.

If you were sending your manuscript to an agent, would you bend all the corners, flip half the pages over the wrong way, handwrite the synopsis in scented ink, leave off page numbers and then smoke a cigar over it, dropping some ash into the envelope so the odor lingers? No. You’d want to put your best foot forward, because you want to give yourself every possible chance of appearing like a committed, professional individual who knows what’s required of them and is out to make a great first impression.

So why do you take an entirely different attitude with your blog? It’s exactly the same thing – you want your blog readers to come back, or maybe even check out some of your work. You want to start acting the part of the professional writer, so that one day you might really become one. And you want to stop making my eyes bleed, because it’s distracting me from the great blog posts you’re writing.

How Do You Know What You Don’t Know?

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Lizzy walked into the pub. “Susan?” she called out excitedly. “Susan?” she added, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear and then readjusting the hat on her head. There was no response. Susan could see her but after what had happened yesterday she wasn’t interested in answering her. Lizzy knew this but she was in denial. Instead she watched as Lizzy cocked her head and peered into the murky darkness of the room, the blinds keeping the sun out like a unicorn’s wings pierces the air. “SUSAN! WHERE ARE YOU? I NEED TO TALK TO YOU!” Lizzy exclaimed angrily. “Now!” she added. “Sue?” she added to that, hopefully with a hint of impatience. She folded back the cuffs of her Burberry oatmeal-colored three-quarter length mac and pulled off her Hermes gloves and shook the snow flakes from her Nine West boots. Then she caught sight of herself in the mirror in front of her. Wow. She thought, smugly. “I love how good my long brown hair goes with my blue eyes.” Peter looked up then, seeing Susan ignoring Lizzy who was looking for her. He stood up suddenly and put his hands in his pockets. “This ISN’T what I signed up for!” he shouted heatedly. “And Susan,” he added, pointing with aplomb to the woman seated next to him across the room from Susan if she were looking at it reflected in the mirror. “Lizzy is looking for YOU!!!?!”

Yeah.

That is only a slight dramatization of a scene in a self-published novel I read (bits of) recently. 

Five minutes of my life I’ll never get back. And a paragraph of words that will never quite make sense.

You and I can look at that and instantly see what’s wrong. (Clue: all of it.) We’ve been constantly reading books since we figured out how, perhaps we’ve been given some writing talent to start with by the universe and maybe on top of that we’ve spent months or years putting two and two together to improve our craft. So we know the paragraph above is Grade A Self-Published Poop, now with Extra Stinky, and doesn’t bear any resemblance to any good book we’ve ever read.  

But the writer who self-published that book, presumably, didn’t set out to make a fool of themselves. They didn’t intentionally self-publish extra stinky poop. The very fact that they self-published suggests that they thought this book was good, and that they thought the discerning reader would be happy to shell out some of their hard-earned cash in exchange for the experience of reading it. (Let me also just say that this book was priced much higher than 99c.) The writer thought this because the writer didn’t – doesn’t, presumably – know that they can’t write very well, or at all. They don’t know how to write well, and they don’t know that they don’t know how to write well. But then, how can anyone know what they don’t know?

Since I first self-published, I’ve found out plenty that I didn’t know I didn’t know. For instance:

  • Sarah, who edited Mousetrapped and Backpacked, taught me how to use a whole new world of fancy grammar (I’m looking at you, semi-colon) that I was too scared of using before, and also pointed out plenty of American English words (like “someplace”) that I’d thrown, unknowingly, into my British English book
  • Averill, who proofread Results Not Typical, pointed out that when you’re writing a character’s thoughts, it’s EITHER italics or “she thought”, as in it’s either I don’t think so, Emma thought OR I don’t think so. I had always put all thoughts in italics
  • Joel of The Book Designer offered me some very welcome advice about my paperback’s interiors, including that if a page is blank, is should be completely blank, i.e. no page numbers, no running headers, etc. I didn’t know that and I didn’t know that I didn’t know that. But he did, because he’s a professional book designer. 

Speaking of The Book Designer, Joel has started an e-book cover design award and even though he’s too nice to say so, some of the covers submitted could be brought up for grievous visual harm. In fairness, what the submissions have shown above all is that a fantastic standard of e-book cover design is emerging from all this self-pubbing, but there were a few in there that would only convince you not to buy the book they were on. But it was a competition, and the submitters knew their covers would be showcased on the site. So they hardly thought their covers were bad. On the contrary, they must have thought they were good. They thought they were so good that they could compete with professional cover designs. Why? Because they know nothing about covers or, perhaps, even books. But they don’t know that they don’t know.

Nobody really knows what they don’t know and having a little bit of knowledge in a subject – for instance, being a writer who has read lots of books – only clouds your view even more.

And this is why you can’t self-publish alone. You have to get professional feedback to find out if your book is good, because you can’t tell and if you have an opinion… well, it’s just your opinion and something tells me you might be a tad biased. You have to get professional editing and proofreading services because what they do is not typo-hunting and spell-checking – it’s finding the mistakes and misuse of language and muddled thoughts that you don’t even know are there. If you wouldn’t recognize what you’re looking for, how can you expect to find it? And you need to get help with your cover design, because self-publishers get all misty-eyed when they see their book – “My book!” – and flip the switch in their brain that would otherwise alert them to the fact that it looks nothing like anyone else’s book, now or ever.

So while I don’t blame our adverb-loving, POV-straying, formatting-abusing friend from the beginning of this post for not knowing that he can’t write, I do blame him for putting that kind of crap out into the world and worst still, charging people for it. Because the first thing he should’ve done after typing “The End” (although it was probably “THE End!!%!”, knowing him) is employed the services of people who do know what our aspiring writer friend doesn’t know he doesn’t know, and will gladly tell him for a reasonable fee.

This is why self-publishing cannot be a one warm body and a coffee machine job. You need professional input. You need a team.

Why? Because you don’t know what you don’t know. But they do

Guest Post: Bringing Your Readers to the Edge… Serialization with E-books

Today we have a guest post from David Wright who along with his writing partner Sean Platt has been bringing the cliffhanger experience of prime-time TV dramas to e-books by way of serialization. Welcome to Catherine, Caffeinated, David! 

You know that feeling you get at the end of every episode of Dexter?

That dread as the episode’s remaining minutes are ticking away, and you just know the show is gonna leave you hanging? Then, when the ending comes, you scream at the TV, “What the… ?!”

I LOVE that feeling!

It’s not just Dexter, but all the best TV dramas — LOST, Breaking Bad, Battlestar Galactica, The Wire, The Walking Dead, plus a ton of other shows which love to tease and torment by bringing you to the edge of your seat before leaving you dangling in the aftermath of an awesome cliffhanger.

That is what serialized fiction does best. And yet, so few authors are presently writing serials.

Serials used to be big. They’ve been around for hundreds of years, but have, for the most part, fallen out of fashion in book form. However, I suspect what Amazon has done for digital publishing is about to change that.

Which is why my writing partner, Sean Platt and I are thrilled to launch our post-apocalyptic serialized thriller, Yesterday’s Gone.

STEPHEN KING: GODFATHER OF SERIALIZATION?

Yeah, I know, Charles Dickens is considered one of the best known early adopters of serialization, but for me, Stephen King was my mentor.

While I was a huge fan of serialization on TV and in comic books as a kid, it wasn’t until I read Stephen King’s six-book series, The Green Mile (later adapted into a full-length novel and then a movie), that I fell in love with the concept of serialized books.

They were easy to get into, like the best short stories, yet held the promise of returning to the world and learning more about the characters as full length novels do. It was the best of both worlds. And… I LOVED being kept in suspense for a full month!

I WANT TO LEAVE PEOPLE HANGING!

Sean and I met in 2008 and started serializing a vampire story, Available Darkness, on the Internet shortly after. However, a PC browser isn’t an ideal place to read fiction.

Unfortunately, eBooks hadn’t yet taken off, let alone dominate print sales. Self publishing our story in print didn’t seem financially feasible, either, especially in serialized form. And to be honest, Available Darkness worked better as a book, not a serial.

So we pressed pause on our serialization plans… until this year, when Amazon exploded into the stellar success story for writers it has become.

Suddenly, indie authors can find and build audiences without having to worry about the costs associated with Print On Demand. In short, the Kindle (and other eReaders to a lesser extent), made it possible for an author to earn a living on the merits of their own work with fewer obstacles in between them and their happily ever afters.

THE PLAN

Sean and I have many stories in our story garden, but for our first eBook serial, we wanted to write around something new. We decided to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch… literally. We began with the question:

What if everyone (save for a few people) on the planet all vanished at once?

What would the survivors do?

What would happen to them?

What was responsible?

And what the hell is that lurking in the shadows?!

We decided we’d plan the series similar to a TV show, in terms of episodes and seasons, building rising suspense to the end of each 100 page book (borrowing King’s book length from The Green Mile). Six episodes make up a season, with the best, most WTF ending being held until the final moments of the season. We planned to release one episode a month, starting this summer.

Note: we wound up putting the full first season out sooner, since a month was a bit long to expect readers to wait while keeping track of several complex story lines.

We’re returning in January with Season Two.

While it might seem easier to plan out 100 page mini-books than writing one larger one, you’d be way wrong.

THE CHALLENGES OF SERIALIZATION

While serialization is seemingly perfect for the Kindle generation, there’s some challenges to selling your serialized books.

Firstly, there are some people who don’t like the format and never will. They don’t want to wait to read the full story. This is one of the reasons we’re also releasing the seasons as individual books, giving readers a choice in how they would most like to consume our story.

Next, you must consider cover design. You want to create covers with similar branding so people know each book is part of the series, but you don’t want them so similar that people mistake them for other editions of the same book. If you’re paying someone else to do your covers, this will add to your expense significantly.

Fortunately, I’m also a cartoonist with a decent eye for design, so I made our covers and saved that expense. I stuck with a specific title design, always in the same place, at the top of the book. Beneath that, we have a colored band (different for each episode) with “Episode” followed by the number. Beneath that, we use a compelling photo which conveys the theme for that particular episode.

Designing a cover for the full Season One book was also a bit tricky. We had to clearly indicate that this was not a new book, but rather a compilation of the first six. I think I did a pretty decent job at that and haven’t had any complaints or confusion that I know of.

Part of the clarity comes in the marketing, and explaining to your readers what you’re delivering. We were also sure to explain the difference between the editions in the sales copy of the Season One book at Amazon.

Pricing also presents a problem. If you sell a book for less than $2.99 at Amazon, you get 35 percent of the sale. Not a lot, especially when you’re splitting sales with a co-author. It’s even more of a problem when you’re selling your 100 page book at .99 — unless you pull John Locke-like numbers.

If you want to make a 70 percent royalty, you must price your book at least $2.99. Now, if this were just a short story or novella, I’d have no problem pricing it at three or four bucks. Short stories are a smaller market, so you have to price accordingly.

However, if you’re expecting people to buy all six episodes of your book, they’re gonna have to shell out almost $20 for a full eBook, which is way too much!

And here’s where it really gets tricky… we WANT people to experience the episodes one at a time. But since we make little money at .99, we had to incentivize buying the full season at a higher royalty for us.

The full season is $4.99, cheaper than the single books at .99 (and much cheaper than the $1.99 we bump the prices to once a full season edition is available). When people buy that, we get 70 percent of the profits.

Additionally, we’ll market Season Two a bit differently, since we’re releasing the episodes every week, instead of every month. This way, we cater to those who prefer to read it at their pace, encourage more full season purchases since people only have to wait six weeks for the full season, while still offering the single episodes to those who can’t wait.

THE RESULTS

So far, serialization seems to be working for us. Our full season book is outselling Episode One by a nice clip and reader response has been amazing.

We also get great email from people angry that they have to wait to find out what happens next, which, as an author, is about the most awesome thing in the world, to know someone is that invested in something you brought to life.

Sean and I are writing Season Two of Yesterday’s Gone now, and planning for a second title using the serialization model. We’ll probably rotate titles like HBO does with its shows. For two months, you’ll get Yesterday’s Gone. Then we’ll debut our next serial, and rotate titles every two months or so, as long as readers keep reading what we’re writing.

David W. Wright is an indie author who loves serialized fiction and is the co-author of the post-apocalyptic serialized series Yesterday’s Gone which you can pick up the pilot episode here or get the full season for just $4.99 here. Sign up and Be A Goner to keep up with the latest in Yesterday’s Gone news and to get exclusive chapters from Season Two and short stories long before anyone else. Follow David on Twitter @thedavidwwright.

[Yes, I’ve gone back to the original text color. Couldn’t do it. This is what goes, people! Fiddle with your screen brightness if you’re having trouble reading. Or read me on Google Reader instead. But for the love of fudge don’t make me use a text color that doesn’t go!]

Heads Up: My E-book Prices are A-Changing

Chuck Wendig wrote a post some time back on Terrible Minds in which he argued (as far as I can recall because I can’t find the original post!) that it was fine to charge 99c for your e-book as long as you didn’t charge 99c for all your e-books. He said that when you have a number of titles available you should have the e-book equivalent of a gateway drug – something that gets readers to try you out in the hope that they will succumb to your literary charms and buy everything else you have available for a higher price. I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, and I’ve come to the conclusion that rather than having everything priced the same, the best way forward is to have tiered price points.

Um, Why?

The longer I’m in this game the more convinced I become that the biggest driving force behind my e-book sales are Amazon’s algorithims: people discover my book because Amazon happens to churn it up out of the masses through features like “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought…” and personalized recommendations. But this only happens if you sell enough books – and so, create enough connections – to get noticed by the all-powerful computer code. A 99c or similarly rock bottom-priced novel seems to be the best way to achieve this, volume wise. But would a reader who knew nothing else about me really jump from a 99c novel they bought for entertainment to a $2.99 memoir about topics they potentially have no interest in? Probably not. So in between the 99c novel and the $2.99 travel memoir, I create a stepping stone, a $1.99 travel memoir to ease you in.

Something’s Getting More Expensive

I’m also raising the price of Self-Printed to $4.99. Yes, raising. When I first released it I, of course, wanted people to buy it, so I set it at $2.99. But based on the feedback, reviews, etc., the amount of information that’s in it and its usefulness in potentially earning other people money, I think it can take a higher price than that. 

Now before you all start screaming about how this is hypocrisy considering how many times I’ve said that the price of a book does not determine its value, I think this is different. First of all, this isn’t about I think it’s worth more than that. Well, it’s not just about that. This is about I think I can raise the price and still sell it, and hey, it takes a lot of coffee to keep me going. This is how I make my living, and I need to make it wherever I can. 

There’s also the issue of perception. If I want a book to tell me how to write a novel and the #1 bestseller is a 99c e-book and the #2 is a $9.99 e-book, which am I going to think is the better book? Aren’t I going to think that the 99c is just #1 because it’s 99c and that if the #2 book can be #2 at ten times the price, it must be pretty damn good? When what you’re selling is advice and information, I think a higher price helps rather than hinders. 

So here is my new e-book price list, as demonstrated in this snazzy graphic I prepared earlier:

I’ve also done this in PDF. If you are buying anyone a Kindle for Christmas, kindly print it out and stuff it in the box. Or if you know anyone who’s getting one, print it out and tape it to their fridge. Or if you work in a place that sells Kindles, print it out, make photocopies and slip them into your customers’ bags.

I’m kidding, of course. 

(Or am I…?)

Some Other Stuff

It may seem stoopid of me to tell you that some of my books are going to be decreasing in price soon, but I’m assuming those of you who’ve been around these parts for a while and would ever have wanted to read my books already have. The real reason I’m telling you is that Self-Printed is still $2.99 – if you want it, go get it now before it goes up to $4.99 next week. Aren’t I nice? The other books have already had their prices changed.

When both Mousetrapped and Backpacked were $2.99 each, the combination title – Mousetrapped and Backpacked Too – was $4.99. Readers saved about a dollar by buying them together. But now that Mousetrapped is $1.99, I still want them to save a dollar, so Mousetrapped and Backpacked Too is $3.99. Likewise but in the opposite direction, when Self-Printed goes up to $4.99, the Self-Printed shorts will go from 99c to $1.99. 

This isn’t a Let’s See How This Goes for a While deal. This is how it’s going to be. Trust me, I learned my lesson back with the whole Mousetrapped-99c-promo headache. The next time I change a book’s price, it’ll be because I’ve released a new one.

P.S. Yes, the color of the text has changed. People have been complaining that the light grey was hard to read on a white background while I have been saying, “Turn down your screen brightness, then!” Problem is, the light grey is what’s part of the theme. It’s what goes. And we know how I feel about things co-ordinating, about things going, don’t we? I know the light grey isn’t great to read but I have never in my life chosen function over style and I’m loathe to start doing it now. Suffice to say that I will probably have to get up in the middle of the night to switch it back so sleep can come. We’ll see. 

Mining Yourself: A Guest Post from Victoria Mixon

Today we have a great guest post from editor and writer, Victoria Mixon. Welcome to Catherine, Caffeinated, Victoria! 

There are no new stories, only new perspectives.

Has anyone ever told you that? It’s true.

There are two ways in this world to get into trouble: with other people and on our own.

If we want to get our protagonist into trouble with others, we give them a relationship. If we want to get them into trouble on their own, we give them a quest.

How many kinds of relationship are there? Well, there are romantic/sexual relationships (with women, with men), family relationships (with children, with parents, with siblings, with extended family), friendships (individual, group, crowd, close, distant, estranged), business relationships (with bosses, with subordinates, with peers, with allies, with competitors), and antagonists (original enemies or any of the above gone bad). We can also have relationships with things, as the narrator does in Marie Redonnet’s Hotel Splendid, but unless they also involve either other people or a quest they’re going to get boring pretty fast.

How many kinds of quest are there? Two. The kind where we actually go somewhere, external, and the kind where we stay in one place, internal.

See? Only a handful.

So how do we write something new, something unique, something that wasn’t already beaten to a fruity pulp long before we were even born?

These days everyone knows about Monty Python, that pillar of British non-sequitur and daftly logical conclusions. And many of us are even conversant with The Meaning of Life. But how many actually know the lyrics to The Galaxy Song?

Along with a plethora of cosmological facts (apparently first disproven and then re-proven, causing Eric Idle to demand ‘the bastards’ make up their minds), the song gives us that nihilistic reminder how amazingly unlikely were our births. And although it’s meant, in context, to scare us, I for some reason have always found it rather encouraging.

After all, if my birth was amazingly unlikely—which isn’t debated by scientists on either side of the argument—that means I’m unique, doesn’t it? And if I’m unique, then my experience of life can’t be duplicated by anybody, anywhere, at any point in history, can it? At least, not without my express written permission.

Take this to heart. You are unique.

We may have to paw through the minimalist slush pile of potential stories to find the ones that strike our fancy, but once we do we’ve got unlimited rein to do with them what we will.

Mine yourself.

No matter what story we want to tell, relationship or quest, we must look to our own lives to teach us how to tell it uniquely.

We must be alert wherever we go, whatever we do. There is only one person in history in a position to perceive and note down the specific, telling details of this life—nobody else’s—in all their extraordinarily singular significance. Does cheese remind us of telephone wires because of our cheese-slicer? We give that to a character. When we’re scared, do we finger our buttons? Some people do. When the one we love tells us they don’t love us anymore, is our first thought of tango’ing off an Argentinian cliff to the anguished wail of Tito Luisardo?

Does it, in fact, inspire us to travel to Buenos Aires and there meet the ravishing grandson of Tito, who tells us of the secret amor of his grandfather and the violet-eyed Amelia Bence? Is it our passion for 1930s Argentinian music that teaches us, in its complex, magnificently-detailed, ultimately poignant way, what it means to be alive?

There is only one person who can discover the links between one detail and another that illuminate the workings of their own bizarrely convoluted human brain. (Have you ever seen a human brain? Convoluted doesn’t even begin to cover it.) There is only one person who loves the unusual conglomeration of hobbies each of us loves in exactly the way we love them. There is only one person who will ever come up with the strange and unusual meanings each of us knows, in our heart of hearts, lie just beyond the surface of everything we do, everything we say, everything that ever happens around us.

It’s not getting our books on a bookstore shelf that makes writing worthwhile. Believe me, I know.

It’s getting to spend our writing time scrutinizing ourselves and our own lives for the devastating, electrifying, inherent beauty of living that is the essence of us—all that we will take with us to the grave.

Victoria Mixon has been a writer and editor for thirty years and is the creator A. Victoria Mixon, Editor, one of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers. She is the author of The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual and the recently-released The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual, as well as co-author of Children and the Internet: A Zen Guide for Parents and Educators, published by Prentice Hall, for which she is listed in the Who’s Who of America. She spends a lot of time horsing around on Google+ and Twitter.

Coffee Break: I Want to Have an Idea THIS Good

I don’t normally dine in McDonald’s because the one item on their menu I like – the Sausage and Egg McMuffin – stops getting served way too early for me. But there is a shopping centre (mall, American friends) in Cork that has the most horrendously inadequate offering of coffee-drinking options of any place in the civilized world and so after seeing Jurassic Park a couple of weeks back we were forced to get some McDonald’s coffee in the food court.

Which is how I discovered that someone at McDonald’s has had a brilliant idea.

(Or, potentially, stolen it from someone else. But someone has had a brilliant idea.)

In theory, a coffee (or other hot beverage) loyalty card is a great idea. You’re buying coffees from the same place on a regular basis, so why wouldn’t you want to get a free coffee after every five or ten purchases? And of course it benefits the store, because on that morning you almost hit another cafe for a bit of a change, you remember your loyalty card and make like you’re loyal.

But in practice, loyalty cards are a pain in the arse. The company has to get them designed, produced and then kept in stock, and the staff have to remember to keep them to hand by the register and/or offer to hand them out. When a coffee is ordered, they also have to remember to ask if the customer has a loyalty card, and then they have to stamp the card, if the little stamp-thingy hasn’t been lost since its last use, or dried out by that weirdo who works Friday nights and spends his time tattooing his arms with it. The customer has to remember to bring the loyalty card with them, which is where I always fell down. I’d leave the office with cash in my hand, leaving the card in my wallet back at my desk. The cashier would give me a new loyalty card so the purchase wasn’t “wasted”, a practice that eventually filled with wallet with single-stamp loyalty cards. So, no free coffee for me.

I couldn’t find a single suitable image of the loyalty card-embedded coffee cup, and I didn’t have the foresight to take one. So you’ll just have to use your imagination.

McDonald’s have, in one move, removed all these problems. The sleeve of the cup has a loyalty card within it that you can easily peel off, along with a sticker to get your loyalty card started. If you already have one of the cards, you just peel off the sticker to add to it. With you having that cup in front of you for at least as long as it takes you to drink the coffee, you won’t forget to peel off the sticker. Even if your card is back in the office, you’re probably taking your coffee back there anyway. At no point does the staff have to get involved in the operation and as the card is part of the sleeve, if it’s unwanted there’s no additional waste.

It’s just all kinds of great, isn’t it? I’m an avid watcher of shows like Dragon’s Den and I can’t recall anybody coming in with an idea as simple as this that solves as many problems. Sure, those problems aren’t world hunger or global warming or anything, but it’s still good stuff.

I hope I can have an idea as good as this someday. Of course I hope mine is more along the lines of “How to sell a gazillion books a minute” or something, but still. I live in hope.

The Results Not Typical blog tour continues! Imagine your surprise. Yesterday I was on Writer’s Rest, the lovely blog home of Cel and Anna author Lindsay Edmunds, answering questions about creating fiction versus writing non-fiction, writing snacks and the benefits of drinking gallons of water mixed with lemon juice and pepper. (Spoiler alert: there are none.) Today I’m over on the lovely Mel’s High Heels and Book Deals, with an ode to flip-flops. Yes, I know they’re not technically high heels, but I love than more because I can actually work in them. Find out more about the RNT blog tour here

It’s That Time of Year Again

Two years ago this month, I was holed up in a little holiday cottage in East Cork, writing Results Not Typical. I’d hit upon the idea after reading an interview with Irish crime writer Alex Barclay in which she mentioned that she’d written her first novel in a “series of holiday homes” around the country. Thanks to my then newfound status as unemployed/aspiring writer, I was living with my parents and working out of a room approximately the size of a large cupboard – Harry Potter had probably had more space than me. So this holiday home thing sounded intriguing. Especially since the summer was now over and with it, presumably, the majority of bookings. Who’d want to be down by the beach when it was freezing, wet and grey? Only me, as it turned out. I got a cheap rate and total solitude, and I managed to write the first draft of Results in just six weeks.

Inside the holiday home where I wrote Results Not Typical in 2009. It all happened at that very kitchen table. (Note proximity to coffee-making facilities!) 

Last year I had a trip to the States booked for October, so between the cost of that and its timing, I couldn’t get away to a holiday home. But there was still a novel to write. One of the editors who had read and rejected Results wanted to see something else, something different. I started work on it at home and got about 30,000 words done, but it was like blood from a stone. I just couldn’t get in the zone but there was too much going on in the house, and I was constantly interrupted. I wasn’t blameless of course; there was many a day when I somehow managed to time my afternoon coffee-making so that it coincided with Oprah and well, I might as well just sit down and watch it during my break…

So now that my self-publishing stuff has been sorted for this year, it’s time to turn my attention to Novel No. 3 (or finished Novel No. 2; last year’s efforts probably don’t count). I have a great idea for it – I hope! – and I’m itching to get started, but I don’t want to take any chances this time around. I want to get it right, and I want to get it finished. So I’m away in a holiday home again, but this time I’m really away; I figured some sun wouldn’t go astray…

Upgrade! So, on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being not even a little bit and 10 being you’re upchucking into your mid-morning coffee right about now, how jealous are you? 

I’ll still be blogging, of course, and reminding you all several times a day about the Results Not Typical blog tour for the rest of the month, but I’ll be a bit quieter on Twitter, Facebook, etc. My crown as Queen of Near Instant E-mail Reply will probably slip off too. But fear not: it’s not because I’ve suddenly taken a dislike to you. It’s because I’m sunbath– I mean, um, writing.

(Note that I haven’t told you where I am. That’s because I like a little mystery.)

The Results Not Typical blog tour continues. On Friday I was on Emma Newman’s Post Apocalyptic Publishing asking just who is it who’s reading all this 99c novels (because I don’t anyone who does), and today I’m on Love and Chocolate, the blog of the lovely Sally Clements,  talking about the headache of explaining what self-publishing means – and doesn’t mean – to family and friends. If you’ve haven’t already entered the Goodreads giveaway for your chance to win one of five paperback copies of Results, just what have you been up to?