Lydia’s Song – a book review

I was in tears by the time I’d finished this novel. Katherine Blessan has written a deeply moving story of a young girl’s experiences of being sold into sex slavery in Cambodia.

Lydia’s Song is not a book I’d have normally chosen to read. Neither thriller, nor crime fiction, nor mystery, yet containing elements of each of these that eventually hooked me in to the point where I finished the last half of the book in one sitting, desperate to know how it ended.

The novel starts from Lydia’s point of view, looking back on her time working for a Non Governmental Organisation in Cambodia. I found the beginning slow going initially as it could almost have been a romance as Lydia (the Westerner) develops a relationship with Radha (the Cambodian). I don’t read romance generally, so struggled with the start. Yet even in this, it was fascinating reading about the daily life in Cambodia and I enjoyed that insight. I worked abroad for a time myself, also for an NGO and could relate to some of the struggles and incidents.

Lydia finds a young Cambodian girl in her garden one night – the Song of the title. Song has effectively been orphaned and the story gently shows the developing relationships between Lydia, Song and Radha. Until it all goes wrong…

This for me is where the story really started to come alive as Katherine Blessan manages to create a sense of realism in her descriptions of a child being made into a sex slave, without titillation or eroticising the experience. Harrowing is one word I want to use, yet, because of the way the story is structured, there is a sense of hope throughout.

If you enjoy stories that give you insight into another culture, that contain real characters and deliver an emotional kick, then I recommend Lydia’s Song. If you would like to try it out, a sample is available below.

Available from all good bookshops and also from Amazon on Kindle and in paperback.

About the Author

Katherine tweets @kathblessan
Check out her website at: http://www.katherineblessan.com/

As well as writing, Katherine works as an English and Creative Writing tutor and an Examiner, together with juggling parenting and volunteering in the community. She is married to Blessan – yes, her surname is his first name! – and they travel widely and love to meet new people. Katherine lives with her family in Sheffield, UK.

Other stories by Katherine Blessan include:
• ‘A Heart on Fire’ – a love story inspired by Chariots of Fire. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Heart-Fire-Katherine-Blessan-ebook/dp/B06XD2D2FV
• ‘Travels by Wheelchair’ was shortlisted in a Patrician Press competition in 2016 and published in an anthology. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Refugees-Peacekeepers-Patrician-Press-Anthology-ebook/dp/B01MUG2YIV/
• ‘Beyond her Scream’ – a story of a mother-daughter relationship strained by the effects of FGM. Short Story Beyond Her Scream from cutalongstory.com

Going Physical – Getting a book printed

Getting your novel ready to be printed as a paperback book is a challenge – much more so than publishing an eBook. Formatting is more involved as the template has to fit to certain specifications, but several companies (including CreateSpace and Book Printing UK) offer templates you can start with. (I have to say, CreateSpace offer an excellent range of templates!)

Some in the indie-author community simply won’t bother with having a printed copy made available, but the markets I’m aiming for with both The Great Scottish Land Grab and Fallen Warriors still has a lot of readers who prefer physical books and I would lose out on a lot of sales if I don’t provide a physical version.

So, I’ve been working with Book Printing UK over the past three months to get 100 copies of Fallen Warriors into print.

It’s taken so long as I’ve been fitting the work around my full-time job, my family, and initial attempts at marketing the eBook version of Fallen Warriors.

I had two initial proof copies printed up, one with a gloss cover and the other with a matt cover to see which worked best.

The matt cover looks a lot better, but unfortunately the initial printing of the matt cover was blurry (the gloss was sharp) and also, despite having had several proof-reads, I found some additional typos inside that I decided had to be fixed. Myself and a friend re-read the whole book (I went backwards, a page at a time!) and found some more missing commas etc. so I’ll be updating the eBook version soon as well.

I was expecting the final proof yesterday, but only received a card through the door from our Postie…

Guess I’ll be getting up early tomorrow…

Sharpening my axe

You’ve heard the story of ol’ Abe Lincoln who allegedly said that if you need to cut down a tree quickly, the first thing you should do is spend time sharpening your axe.

All being well, I’m planning to spend tomorrow (my first day of writing the sequel to Fallen Warriors) on the writers equivelant: plotting, gathering my notes, brainstorming, mindmapping and generally trying to set out a structure to guide me as I set out to write two novels in two months.

Maybe I’ll actually spend some time writing, but I’m sure that I’ll get more done over the next weeks if I’ve got a plan to follow than if I’m constantly struggling to work out how to connect everything together. I’ll let you know how it goes…

Better late than never…

Is it better to be late than never?

For your own funeral?

I guess you could argue that both ways…

For your wedding?

In all honesty, it depends…

Every time?

To those who depend on you, the lines may become blurred…

Every now and then?

Yes. Sometimes it might be better late than never. Other times, never may be preferrable.

Today I am late. I could have just left it, I’m taking a weekend away and didn’t manage to pre-schedule a post for today.

It wouldn’t have mattered to take a day off, right?

Except, in my heart I believe – it’s better late than not at all.

God loves a good story

Take the book of Esther. You have a beautiful young woman, sent to work for a rich and powerful man who seduces her and… (Wait a minute, just where did the idea for Fifty Shades come from?)

Anyway, we have a classic villain, Haman, who wants to kill every single Jew everywhere. (Genocidal villian – Ian Fleming could have based a few characters on him…)

We have the wizened old man, Mordecai, acting as mentor and spiritual guide… (A source for George Lucas’ Obi Wan Kenobi?)

The heroine risks her life to save her people, tricking her enemy and eventually leading a revolt that sees the Jews rise up to overpower those who would have slaughtered them.

Without doing too much reading between the lines, you have an orphan story, romance, sex, political intrigue, thriller and violence.

Someone should really make a movie out of that book!

10 ways to fail at publishing and marketing your book

When you’ve never done something before there is a high chance you’ll try things that just don’t work. Then again, perhaps you’ll eventually look back and have mixed feelings about what you did. I’ve found that I’m not at all sure that every mistake I made while publishing The Great Scottish Land Grab was quite as bad as I saw it at the time.

For the last few days I’ve been carrying out an analysis of Sales of The Great Scottish Land Grab. You can find my first post here and Thursday’s here. (Friday is my flash fiction day…)

Here is a round up of some of my biggest (maybe) fails while publishing and marketing my first novel:

1. Paying for a libel read
In 2014, in the UK, if you wrote a book defaming a person or organisation you could find yourself being sued. The situation in the US is much safer for writers and it may have improved in England with recent law changes, but don’t quote me on that! Currently in Scotland an MSP (Member of the Scottish Parliament) is being sued for defamation for something published on his blog.

Defamation of character is a problem I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand I don’t think we have an absolute right to say whatever we like about other people. On the other, I think that defamation law is abused in the UK to protect the rich and powerful. I think the law in the US is too lax while the law in the UK is too extreme. There has to be a better way.

Regardless, when I set out in early 2014 to rewrite Land Grab, I knew I needed to be careful. The first draft lampooned various well known political figures and while politicians are one group of people who can be legitimately targeted with humour, there was a real undercurrent of nastiness as the Scottish independence referendum grew closer. One of the main campaigning groups – Better Together – had set itself up as a limited company, potentially allowing it to sue anyone who attempted to defame them.

I run my own company and had no desire to lose that, or my house if someone took offence at what I was planning to publish.

I contacted several solicitors for quotes and ended up selecting one. They read each of the three books as I wrote them and offered their legal opinion on whether I was at risk of being sued. It cost me £2,580.

Just to put that into perspective, I receive £1.67 per ebook novel sold through Amazon. I will need to sell 1,545 full ebooks novels before I break even on that cost.

As I wrote here, I’m nowhere close to that.

I have regretted that decision. Yet, as I wrote above, I have mixed feelings about it.

I was extremely nervous about publishing my first novel. The process of discussing the situation with the solicitor and applying his advice gave me a confidence that helped me overcome a real hurdle. In my writing now, I’m conscious of the threat of defamation and do research my characters to ensure I’m not inadvertently libelling real people.

I believe that far too few indie-authors give proper thought to the risk of defamation. Certainly if you’re writing fantasy or off world science-fiction you are unlikely to be at risk, but even in these genres, if you lazily base a character on a real person and that person can identify themselves – and is offended by how you’ve portrayed them – and they can show it in court, you may find that that catch-all declaration “Any resemblance to actual people living or dead, events or locations, is entirely coincidental.” doesn’t save you from legal costs…

And that is the real killer in the UK. You can win your case, but still lose everything when the bill comes in.

2. Paying for indemnity insurance
Being aware of traditionally published authors who had found themselves in court defending themselves against defamation, I decided to take out indemnity insurance, insurance that covers legal costs and gives some protection against damages awarded.

Six months on and £265 lighter I cancelled the insurance. The fact was that I’d already paid more in insurance premiums than I’d earned on book sales. I’d sold nowhere near enough copies to think that I’d managed to find someone who would consider themselves defamed and since I’d followed the solicitor’s advice, it was extremely unlikely anyone would have a case against me.

Again, the act of taking out the insurance policy gave me confidence to write what I felt needed to be written, while also reminding me to take care with how I did it.

Still, that’s another bill that it’s going to take some time to pay back…

If you are writing a contemporary novel and there is a risk that you could defame someone, even inadvertently, it may be worth you considering.

3. Rush into marketing decisions
In the summer of 2014 I was commuting to Edinburgh from Cumbernauld on the train and I had this brain wave that I could get a T shirt printed up with the book cover on it and could become a walking advertisement for the book.

It was a disaster.

I still was in love with my first cover design and was filled with a sense that if I didn’t get the word out there about the book, no-one else was going to.

I turned up at a printer with a USB drive and the notion that since everyone was obsessed with voting Yes or No in the referendum, I should add some text above the book cover image saying:

Vote Yes?
Vote No?
Vote For…

It didn’t take long for me to decide that wearing that T shirt may actually do more harm than good.

Fortunately that mistake only cost me £12.95

4. Don’t tell anyone how to buy your book
I think I’ve mentioned this already, but it is worth repeating. I had thousands of leaflets and business cards printed up, none of which told people how to buy my books on Amazon. I still mentally kick myself over that mistake.

It meant that every time I gave out a leaflet or card, I had to tell people where they could buy the book. Yes, some of those people did then log onto Amazon and did buy it, but I’m sure I could have given more leaflets out and had more sales with just a few extra words telling where the book was on sale.

5. Tell people your book will make them scream
Unless your genre is horror, that just doesn’t work, trust me…

I was desperate for someone to review the first book in my trilogy and allow me to include their quote on my marketing material. Unfortunately, one of my earlier reviewers was extremely taken aback by my reveal and cliff hanger ending at the end of book one and wrote the following:

“Interesting ideas as one man searches for answers to the direction his life has taken, to the backdrop of the referendum. Knowing the author I can see where the story could be going, but I’m sure he will surprise me. I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in current events in Scotland, though I know a fair few who would be shouting at the screen. Look forward to the next instalment if only to find out what he has done to Eck”

For some reason I thought referring to this reaction would be a good idea. I think that deep down, I want to avoid people having a negative reaction to what I’ve written and so want to warn them that it might be somewhat controversial…

I foolishly included the following statement on business cards I had printed up:

“Described by some as an easy read, by others as making you want to shout at your screen
The Great Scottish Land Grab
Scotland’s future is in your hands”

It’s wrong on so many levels.

I’m advertising a book, why is it talking about a screen? I could see people reading it, confusion growing on their face as they asked me what I was selling them.

Then there was the statement about shouting (okay, not screaming.) How many readers actually want to sit down, relax and get comfortable with a book that might make them throw it across the room?

6. Don’t try and get reviews for your book
While there are clear benefits from splitting a book into a series and making the first part free, one downside is that you will draw reviews away from your main book.

With Land Grab I wasn’t very focused on reviews. I was delighted to get them as I published each book in the series, but was focusing far more on selling copies than trying to get reviews.

Then, when I published the full novel, I failed to ask people I’d known to go on to review the full novel. As a result, three years on, I still only have one review for The Great Scottish Land Grab – The Complete Trilogy. I need to rectify that!

For the last few months, almost a year now, I’ve been almost totally focussed on Fallen Warriors, but Land Grab is still a book of interest and at some point over the summer I need to get my begging cap on and start asking people for reviews because even just a few positive reviews make a huge difference to how people perceive your book.

7. Waste time by contacting people who are never going to review your book
I emailed every single MSP (Member of the Scottish Parliament) and offered them a free copy of Land Grab. All 129 of them.

It was such a waste of time. A couple did write back, but the vast majority either ignored the email or it went straight into spam. You would think a novel exploring issues around independence might appeal to a few politicians, but how many of them actually have time to read. Especially during the run up to a critical referendum.

I’ve started to discover this group of people called book-bloggers… They are the people I really need to get to know and spend time on…

8. Rush out and get thousands of leaflets and business cards printed
While getting thousands of leaflets printed is a cost effective way to go about it, the problem is with the rushing.

However much time you spend on your book cover, you probably should spend as much or more on your marketing material. You get it wrong and you’ve just invested in some very expensive fire lighting material…

I still have several thousand leaflets and cards that I really should just recycle. I confess that the whole situation is holding me back from getting better thought out material printed up. That’s something I need to overcome soon.

9. Expect bookshops to buy your Print On Demand books
Print On Demand is not the way to go if you intend to sell paper copies. The per unit cost is way too high and that’s before you factor in delivery costs and the discount the bookshop will need to make it worth their while stocking your book! Finally, you may have to accept returns to be stocked by many bookstores. Not all of them, but most.

Using CreateSpace is great for getting your book available online and ordering a few copies to sell yourself to friends and family, but it is a poor option for small print runs compared to contacting a book printer and ordering 50 or 100 copies.

I actually walked into bookstores asking them if they would like to stock my book when all I had was a couple of POD copies. Once I realised I would make no profit on the deal, I gave up. It seemed like too much effort for no reward.

I’m now working towards my first small print run for Fallen Warriors and will go back to organise one for Land Grab over the summer.

10. Give up.
At various times over the last few years I have given up. I stopped writing, I stopped trying to market my novel, I stopped trying to get it into bookstores.

Giving up is the easiest way to slide into oblivion. If you never write another book, people will forget about your first one. If you never try and sell your books, people won’t know to buy them.

Don’t give up!

If you have a good story, if you believe in your heart you are a writer, keep trying. Keep trying different methods until you find one that works. If you can learn from my mistakes above and avoid them, great! You probably will make your own mistakes and that’s okay. If we want to achieve anything great in life, we’re going to make mistakes.

To misquote Edison: “You might find 10,000 ways to fail at publishing and marketing your book, but all you need to find is one right way…”

Are you willing to share some of your biggest mistakes below?

Another lightbulb moment

I know electric cars don’t use fuel. Everyone knows that, right? Not unleaded, not diesel. It’s kind of obvious. Perhaps too obvious?

When we got use of a demo electric car – a Nissan Leaf, apart from setting off, it was no different to normal driving. Setting off is seriously weird though! There is literally no noise, apart from a slight whine which apparently they have had to add to warn pedestrians… You just press your foot on the acelerator, the car begins to move and inside the car you can’t even hear that whine. It feels surreal. Once you pick up speed, the sound of the tyres on the road and cars passing makes it feel more normal.

Anyway… The Nissan Leaf doesn’t use fuel. Though it does need charging…

I forgot to take a record of the mileage before we left the dealership, so did so once we got home. I charged the Leaf using a normal three pin UK socket for a few hours in the evening and again for a couple of hours the next morning.

As well as a kind of “battery life remaining” dial that looks a bit like a fuel gauge, the Leaf shows estimated miles you can travel. By the time I unplugged our Tekna model, the charge was up to 107 miles. You can see this on the right of the image below:

We drove pretty much as normal the next morning – Saturday – with a mix of city and motorway driving. As you can see from the next image, we drove a total of 49 miles and took our remaining miles down by 55 miles to 52:

The Leaf is an electric car… So, we had used the fans and the radio and the heater and played around with the gadgets available. You use electricity in an electric car and it does impact the distance you will be able to travel. But not by much…

I still wasn’t convinced. We were looking at just under £280 a month for three years plus £1,000 deposit on a PCP deal for a second hand car. £11,080 in total, £3694 a year. Far more than we’d ever paid for a car.

Except, the Leaf was really nice. We’ve wanted an electric car for years. Still tempting.

That’s when I had my next lightbulb moment…

You already know this right, so feel free to have a laugh. The Leaf is an electric car. It doesn’t use fuel. Fuel costs money. Money we wouldn’t have to pay each month…

I did a rough calculation of how much we spend on petrol each month (we actually have two cars just now so this is just for the car we’d be replacing.) £108 a month we’d save on petrol.

I travel roughly 170 miles a week on that £108. Per month that would be 736 (170 X 4.33) Nissan estimates it costs £0.02 a mile to charge if you charge using a low rate. Even if you double that, that would cost £29.45 a month, saving £78.55 a month.

Which would bring the monthly total cost of the Leaf (including the deposit) down to £230. (£3694 a year divided by 12 = £307.83 less £78.55)

£230 a month. It’s starting to seem affordable…

A lightbulb moment

Have you ever had the exhaust fall off your car while driving?

It sounds and feels like the world has exploded underneath you – at least if the front gives way and you’re driving that exhaust into the ground!

Do we or don’t we? That’s the question I’ve been asking myself as we’ve considered buying a Nissan Leaf.

Electric cars are still more expensive than internal combustion, no doubt about that, far more for both new and second hand models than the normal price range we’d look at.

A dealership offered us the chance to take a 30kW Tekna home overnight. A longer demo. On the way home we chatted over the pros and cons. I mentioned the possible increased cost of maintenance when my wife pointed out that at least we wouldn’t have to replace the exhaust…

I felt rather foolish. Electric cars have no exhaust… Of course they don’t! They’re electric!

That’s a few hundred pounds we wouldn’t have to shell out every few years…

Analysis of a Project

Back in 2013 I completed one of the largest projects I’d tackled to date and decided to work out what I’d actually managed to produce during four months developing a complex business application. I realised then that I’d actually produced the equivalent of a book with all the code, queries and user documentation I’d written. That realisation was pivotal in helping me believe I could finish my first novel.

Last week I completed a much smaller project, one that only took 17 days and decided to carry out the same analysis.

The final application had:

  • 12 user forms, each providing a different type of functionality to the users.
  • 3635 lines of code.
  • 13 database tables
  • 57 SQL queries.
  • 28 user guide.

Converting those lines of code into pages, that’s 95 pages, plus effectively 57 pages for the SQL queries and the 28 page user guide. A total of 180 pages, not including the forms or database design. 180 pages equivalent, after editing and testing… A proof read, formatted, final draft…

Divided by number of days on the project, that works out to just over ten pages a day, full time. So, in theory, if I could match that level of output for my fiction writing, I could potentially write a 300 page novel in 30 working days, or in six weeks.

Writing that last sentence, I still find it hard to believe that it’s possible. But, it’s worth noting that I’ve been working as a software developer for 13 years now. Enough time to have honed my skills, to have learned the methods and routines that allow me to tackle complex projects.

If we keep working towards developing our skills and experience in areas we want to improve, we will see progress. Often, there is no substitute for perseverance. For taking the long road, building discipline and habits. This is part of the reason I’ve set myself the challenge of writing at least 100 words a day for 100 days.

What goals do you want to achieve? What skills will you need to achieve them? Will you commit to developing those skills, day in and out? If you do, one day you’ll look back and be amazed at how far you’ve come.

Looking back

Growing up I was taught to look back, to consider what I’d done. My father worked as a printer and I would help him in his printshop. At the end of the day he would take stock of what he had achieved: 5,000 pages numbered; 2,000 sets of carbon sets collated; 500 tickets printed…

He looked at what he had planned to achieve and what he had actually managed to achieve. Comparing those two allowed him to see whether his estimates were accurate or needed refinement, to see whether he needed to charge more for the work he was doing.

It’s a valuable habit to get into. Reflecting on what we planned to achieve against what we actually achieved and then considering whether we should change how we manage ourselves based on that analysis.

More about this tomorrow…