Building a world in your book

5C92BC89-929B-4996-AC80-38B9D05D586FJust a short one from me: a few people reading my August post brought up my use of the phrase “building a world” (or whatever I said) when crafting the theme of a story. How do you do this in a believable way, that audiences buy into and so forth.

Well, that’s a huge topic, one I’m certainly not qualified to go into depth on, but here’s a few observations I have on the matter. Maybe you have some better ideas. If so, I’d love to hear them.

I think for many writers, world-building is something that happens naturally. Especially if you’re writing something set today. And there’s not too much worry about something set in the past – even long past. If we know the date, and we know the location, we’ll have a rough idea of what things were like then. You can write away without too much stress. The challenge is for stories set in the future, a parallel universe, or a total fantasy setting. And the hardest challenge as I see it is one of exposition.

If you’re a fantasy or Science fiction writer, you’ll be all-too-keenly aware that you will have to build a world to set your story in. This won’t be a world that your audience will know innately, so you will have to explain it.

The real challenge with this, is to be able to still write in a contemporaneous fashion. That is to say, how do you explain all this without exhaustive and boring exposition? How to you tell your audience what they need to know with brevity and ease, so you can get right on with telling your story?

Any time spent pausing to explain the intricate – if necessary – details about the world you’re creating, can slow your story down and take people out of the plot. I don’t have any specific tips to deal with this, except to say that I would only recommend explaining things in as sparse a way as possible, and to do so only at the exact point it’s needed. Don’t start every scene or chapter explaining the location you’re now in, and why it’s different and how everything works. Just start it like you would anything else, and as an important element crops up, give us the detail then: briefly, and simply. Don’t let “good grammar” get in the way. Single word sentences might work? Just paint the picture in broad strokes. Your audience’s minds will fill all the blanks. Ask yourself: “Do they really need to know everything I’ve just written here? And do they need to know it now?”

Anything about the world you’re creating that isn’t an absolutely necessary could probably be left out. That way, you’re allowing your readers to fill the void all by themselves, which can be much more satisfying.

But yeah, it’s tricky, regardless!

Using a pen name

878F7035-4FE2-46E7-9AF1-CF51D18D4E58When you write books – if you write books – do you use a pen name?

I’ve got to admit, it’s something I hadn’t even thought of, until last year. I had the privilege of speaking to a highly successful literary agent. I haven’t asked her permission to identify her, and frankly it doesn’t matter for the purposes of what I’m writing here. Suffice to say she represents some of the biggest names in fiction, It was a fascinating discussion, and her advice has been really helpful for me.

But one area she highlighted to me was about using a pen name, and whether or not you should. Her advice to me was I should. Despite the back-catalogue of work I have.

If you’ve got a fun, interesting name, why not stick with what you have?

That’s the problem for me. Andy Jones is pretty boring. And while I’ve been writing books for years, there’s a much more successful (and I’d argue, more talented) chap with exactly the same name. Now don’t get me wrong: in many respects, that’s an advantage. I’m sure many copies of my books have been purchased by people who thought I was the “other” Andy Jones. Hopefully some of them enjoyed what they were reading that it didn’t matter, and they even were then inclined to try some of my others. I had a lovely email about two years ago from someone who bought my book Everything in Seven Stories thinking it was by the other Andy Jones. But they loved it, and started looking into my back-catalogue and ended up buying a couple other pieces by me, including Succession of Power. Win.

Though is it really a win? It sort of feels like cheating to me.

And this agent’s insight into how an author’s name can affect who chooses to buy a book (and who doesn’t), really turned things on their head for me.

She told me some things that might be of interest to you. They were to me, and it’s why for my new book, I used My new pen name. And I’m sticking with it from now on. It’s a decision I have not made lightly. But I’ve made it.

Firstly, she said I should keep the name simple. Is it easy to say the name? Is it easy to spell? Are you going to be easy to search for?

Secondly, is it uncommon and therefore interesting? This question might contradict the first, but think about it this way: Is there a name that’s simple, but no one else in the literary world is using?

Thirdly, is it nice to say? Is it maybe alliterative, or pleasant in some other way? Is the first name just initials, or something that doesn’t directly indicate whether the author is a man or woman? Apparently that’s advantageous too.

And finally, is the surname one of the first six letters of the alphabet? A, B, C, D, E, or F? Why does this matter? Well, when you’re browsing in a bookstore (or even online), you might be doing so alphabetically, if you’re not just browsing the “top sellers” lists. So, for example, let’s say you’re in a bookstore, browsing along the romantic fiction section. The books are going to be listed in alphabetical order, by the author’s surname. You’ll look at the As, the Bs, the C’s and the D’s happily. But you’ll start to get bored by the Es, and the Fs will often be the last ones you look at before moving on. Believe it or not, this “retail truth” as been tested by publishers and booksellers.

Do you need a pen name? Absolutely not. Should you consider one? Maybe. Just maybe.

NEW BOOK: Back in the Shadows

It’s done. My new book is here. I wrote it back in 2019, but it’s been up and down with a literary agent and publisher for quite a while before I decided to just release it myself. I want it “out there” far more than I want any sort of deal right now, so that will all have to wait, if it happens at all.

But yes, here it is, my new novel, Back in the Shadows.

You might notice that it’s not my name on the top. Well, that’s still me. I’ll write more about this at a later date, but I’ve had some really valuable advice from the above-mentioned literary agent, regarding the reasons people pick pen-names and the sort of name to consider. I took one that ticked many of these boxes, and I’m actually quite happy with it. It’ll separate it from the rest of my previous work, but Drew David is what I’ll be using for new novels.

I had the idea for this story as I started writing Succession of Power, and it’s just stuck with me for some time. In a strange way, it’s ended up being one of the most personal pieces I’ve ever written on some level. Again I’m sure I’ll explore that point at a later date.

Anyway, it’s yet another labour of love, so I hope you’ll enjoy it. You can see more at my store here, or if you’d rather dive straight into Amazon, the US site is stocking it, as is the UK site – and most of the others around the world, in both paperback and ebook form.



The value of theme

close-up-of-eyeglasses-on-book-336407It’s not always an obvious question to answer, particularly if you’re new to novel-writing: What’s the theme of the book? Yes, you have a story, of course. That’s probably been the big thing you’ve been concentrating on. But how much time have you spent thinking about theme?

I’ve described theme in the past as the answer to a follow-up question: Firstly, someone asks you what your novel is about. You answer. That’s usually the plot. But the follow-up question is “Yeah, but what is it REALLY about?” The answer to that question is theme.

I don’t want to offer any advice that stifles your creativity. Especially in the first draft phase of writing a novel. That’s the delicate moment, when you just want to let the words flow. Get it out there, on paper (or more typically these days, on screen). Don’t try and overthink anything. There’s a strong chance – if you’re any good – that you want to tell this story for a reason, and maybe it’s best that you don’t overthink it at first.

As you write, the world you’re creating will start to form. And as you put your protagonist and other characters through their paces, that world will take shape and before more real, more tangible.

Once it’s clear you can see your characters and the world you’ve built around them – possibly after you’ve written that first draft – I reckon it’s worth thinking THEN what the theme is. What were you REALLY thinking as you were writing? It can involve a lot of soul-searching. Difficult questions about yourself might need to be asked. What were you trying to say, underneath it all? And – if you dare ask – why?

I would suggest that upon making a discovery in this area, the worst thing you can do is go back into your subsequent drafts and start shoehorning more indications of the theme in your work. Audiences are smarter than you think. They’ll pick it up. You don’t need to signpost. And if they don’t pick it up, they’re not the sort of audience who care much about it anyway, so don’t worry.

So sure, go back into your second, third, forth drafts. Tighten up. Think about theme, and where it needs to be more effectively demonstrated. Be creative. But please, try to dial it back. Make it subtle.

The difference now as you re-work the book is that you know a theme is there. And knowing what the theme is can help inform your best creative decisions and as you re-draft and re-write and finalise your work, you can seriously elevate the quality of what you’re creating.

The best novels all have solid, thought-provoking themes. But I personally think for contemporary work, it’s crucial not to be too heavy-handed. No one wants the theme to be too didactic and on-the-nose. Don’t clobber your reader over the head with it.

And seriously, don’t think about this stuff too much. Especially in the early stages. Just fire up that laptop or whatever, get out there, and write something amazing. Good luck!

Self-publish or traditional?

book-printing-communication-font-font-composing-room-37413There will always be people who look down their noses at self-publishing. And that attitude can be perfectly understandable. I think most people would prefer the validation that comes from getting a publisher in a traditional way. If a publisher has picked novel to produce – out of the tens of thousands out there – it’s a way of saying your work has some merit. Readers like the traditional route too. Someone has acted as a gatekeeper in advance, and already selected the wheat from the chaff, and curated what they think to be the best work out there.

But just because you can’t get a traditional publisher, it doesn’t mean that your work is bad. The sheer amount of manuscripts and submissions publishers get every year means that a whole lot of solid wheat gets thrown out with that chaff. It’s impossible to preserve everything that’s good. And how do we even define “good” in the first place? But that’s probably a question for another day.

Most people would like the validation that comes with getting a publisher in the traditional way, but given the competition, that is far from easy. And before the modern self-publishing revolution, the ratio of what’s written to what’s chosen by publishers meant that thousands of stories and ideas were left in a drawer, never to see the light of day. There’s something quite sad about that. I wonder how many real gems were lost among the garbage?

Yes, the old way of doing things meant that some great stuff would never be published. And back in the 80s, 90s, etc., self-publishing was a very expensive business. There were no real ebook models, and print-on-demand was just a twinkle in its creator’s eye. The only way to self-publish, was to get a load of copies printed yourself, with huge risk and upfront cost.

But, to steal the title of a Bob Dylan song, The Times They Are A-Changin’. And overall, for the better. Easy self-publishing using ebooks or print-on-demand services means it’s never been easier – or cheaper – to get your work out there, regardless of what the “gatekeepers” of the publishing world make of it.

Also, if you do it yourself and your work is really popular, (it’ll be for sale in many of the same outlets the “traditional” stuff is sold in), there’s every chance you could get noticed and picked up by a traditional publisher anyway! But of course, that means there’s also a hell of drivel out there now too. And competition has never been higher. But on balance, this is a good thing, and it means something positive for us all.

It means that while everyone has always had a voice, everyone now also has a platform. On balance, I think that’s a good thing.

Audiobooks vs written books

5C59DD6E-3A03-438F-A0ED-3383EA40415AIs it fair that audiobooks play second-tier to their print (and let’s include ebook forms and say written) cousins? People love audiobooks. Not just in that sense of “oh I love reading, but with my job and the kids and everything I just don’t have the time to read any way near as much, and it’s great to have an audiobook in the background while I get stuff done” – I mean, loving audiobooks in the “this is my favourite storytelling experience” kind of way.

But there’s an innate snobbishness about audiobooks. That they’re somehow less “worthy” than their written counterparts. Even if you’re comparing the same book on both mediums. Like audiobooks are a lower, dumbed-down equivalent. Do you feel that’s fair?

I love audiobooks. Not as much as written, as it goes. There’s something truly special about hearing your own “voice” as you cascade into a world constructed entirely out of those strange marks on the page. That’s the funny thing about written stories. It’s a shared accomplishment between the reader and the author. Okay, in practical terms the author has to do all the heavy lifting, but the creativity part is shared. That’s quite true for audiobooks too, but just a tiny bit less so for me. An actor or narrator is making some of the decisions about character voices, pace, and tone, for me. That’s not always a bad thing, but when you get to make those decisions yourself, the world you create in your mind is somehow a little more significant I find.

But wait a minute. Those of us who author novels don’t call ourselves “story writers” do we? At least, not usually. Generally, we call ourselves “story tellers.” And that’s important. The print book came before the audiobook, sure. But the art of telling a story -that is, actually gathering around a stage or a campfire or a commune or a family living room and telling a story, to others, out loud: that’s the oldest form of story there is. The best stories that got past down over time weren’t necessarily the ones with the best story. They were the ones that were told the best. So don’t knock that medium, it’s the oldest and longest-lasting we’ve had.

But to bring things a few thousand years ahead to the present time: Does listening to an audiobook count as consuming a book, or is it “cheating” somehow? Sure, it’s different to reading, but I think it’s wrong to see it as a much lower form because of it.

Scientists who study linguistics and communication say that for most (but not all) of us, we retain more information if we read it as opposed to just hearing it. But that fact doesn’t help give us an objective judgement on whether an audiobook is better or worse than a written book, it’s just that they’re different. And only marginally so.

So is the idea that audiobooks are inferior to the written word? No. No. A thousand times no. The medium doesn’t really matter. But the story? Yeah, the story matters.

Dashes and dots

AC31F4E2-0634-4524-842E-58616DF28FCBJust a short one from me on the uses of dashes and dots in dialogue when you’re writing a novel. When should we use them and for what purpose?

When a character leaves a thought unfinished (which I think is worth having as long as it’s not every other sentence), then deploy the ellipsis, i.e. the three dots (never two, never four) one after the other. In the “proper” grammatical world this is a tool to omit superfluous words for speed. But of course, in fiction, we’re not bothered by “proper” grammar. We won’t let what we learned in our English comprehension classes get in the way of making our dialogue “feel right.”

Here’s an example:

“But I don’t know how to stop him. If he keeps going, then he’ll ruin everything and we’ll end up…”

In this example, the character is stopping to prevent themselves from saying the dreaded conclusion to that sentence.

Or occasionally the ellipsis can be used at the end of one piece of dialogue and at the start of another, if one character is finishing off another’s thoughts. Like this:

“But if I can by-pass the security system before we even get there…”

“…We could just walk in,” said Sarah. “That’s brilliant.”

By contrast dashes are generally for when people are interrupting each other. The ellipsis is to help finish a thought as above, or let a thought “hang” (as in my first example – the most common form). But I use dashes for when one character won’t let another finish their thought. Maybe in an argument, or a moment of high tension and drama? Though it can be used in many different ways. Example:

Brian couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “But you can’t just—”

“—Enough Brian,” said Jane. “I won’t let you take over like that.”

Okay, that’s a quick take on dots and dashes. Short and sweet, but I hope it helps?

Dead tree sales vs e-book sales

Here’s a nice little video from CNBC last year that shows the surprising resilience of paper-based books.

You know, e-books are still my go-to choice personally. They don’t take up any room on the bookshelf. They’re still cheaper than most paperback versions, though as I’ve said before, innovating production and distribution for paper-based books, as well as the price-controlling of e-books has made the difference slight.

But, it seems that at the moment, most people are not like me. They like a tangible book that you hold in your hands.

What do you prefer when you have the choice? Print books or ebooks?

The unlikely (but inevitable) success of the iPad

C65E0696-1AC7-4389-9D14-F81C5F4136D9The iPad will be ten years old next month, and with something north of a third-of-a-billion units sold, it’s one of computings biggest success stories. But if we’re honest, at the time, most pundits didn’t see it. And you only have to see the responses from tech journalists across the world to get a sense of their negativity.

IDG’s PC World Magazine said: “…at the end of the day, the show’s centrepiece – the iPad – is just a big iPod Touch. Lots of folks will want it, in a hypothetical sort of way. But it’s hard to imagine all that many of them will fork over the initial $499 for a crippled version…”

They weren’t alone. And it wasn’t just the tech publications. Fortune magazine said: “When I put it down on my sofa and caught it in less flattering light, I saw my unattractive fingerprints all over it. When I took it to work the next day, it weighed down the new handbag I’d bought in part because it would fit it…”

It’s hard to find positive reviews for the iPad. Given the huge success of the iPhone, it might surprise you to learn that Steve Jobs actually considered the iPad to be “the most important product of my life.”

The criticisms from journalists and “experts” continued unabated for two months. That’s how long in advance many of them had an iPad before they were released to the general public.

Then the public got their hands on it. And the success story was complete. It ended up being the device that took on the netbook and won. Each iteration got bigger and better.

And here’s the thing for writers: more and more people are using it to write (or at least organise) their stories and/or ideas.

And now, the advent of iPadOS has given users a file system and even more flexibility for creative professions.

The only reason for today’s blog post is to say this: I’m seriously considering using my iPad Pro (which I’m writing this post with) as the main writing tool for my next novel. As in, this will be the thing I write my first draft on.

Is that crazy? What about you? have you written a novel on an iPad? Or some other long-form project? How did it go? I’d appreciate your views and experiences (and issues!) before I dive in!

Andy Weir’s delightfully unlikely story

Just a quick one today. I wanted to draw your attention to this really nice – and very short interview with author Andy Weir. It’s just a short Q&A really, nothing special. But I love writers who cut through all the pretentious stuff and just tell us their experience in a simple and relatable way. Andy is an absolute master at that.

Like many, you’ll probably know Andy Weir from his breakthrough novel The Martian, that garnered him fame and fortune. Andy actually wrote many sci-fi stories before The Martian, which became a hit as a novel and a successful motion picture.

His story about how he got successful with The Martian is fairly well-known, and isn’t too special. Many authors have a similar experience. But with Andy, what makes it special, is how he tells the story of that success. There’s a great example of this in his “Authors at Google” talk, which you can see below:

Part of the fun of his story is how down to earth it was. No fancy shots to the moon, (if you pardon to space metaphor), just a regular guy who self-published a really nice story, which turned into a success by virtue of its quality, energy, and the enthusiasm of readers who flocked to it.

Hopefully you find it as inspirational as I have. Happy writing!