Surviving Writers Block

I thought I was making really good progress on the sequel to Fallen Warriors early this year. I’d put together a plot that seemed to allow me to tell the story I wanted to tell, I’d managed to write around 30,000 words, then I ground to a halt in the Spring.

It didn’t help that I’ve been working flat out all year, going straight from contract to contract, sometimes spending more time working than I’d hoped or planned. Yet I think the real problem was more practical even than that.

I was trying to write and edit at the same time. It just killed my ability to continue the story.

My first draft of Fallen Warriors was a glorious mess, full of odd scenes that had no apparent relevance to the overall story, but which I found myself writing simply because I knew I needed to write something, anything to take the story forwards. The plot was too complex, the characters… well there were too many of them. Trying to be creative and adhere to some sort of structure at the same time kept me stalling and was probably a major cause of the book taking ten years to write.

Those odd scenes ended up being some of the most beautiful parts of the story for me. The chance for me to explore who the characters were in more depth and understand what made them who they were.

I now feel I need the same freedom with the sequel, but last year and early this year I didn’t give myself that freedom and I ended up unable to continue.

I didn’t stop writing though, I simply changed track. Here’s something I don’t know if I’m ready to share, but here goes… My working title for the sequel was Fallen World. It would be good to hear what you think of that title, but you should know that I’m already considering another.

I wanted to explore what the title might mean and so began writing a couple of short stories set in the Fallen Warriors universe. My hope is that I’ll be able to publish these soon, allowing you a wider glimpse into where the story will go while I aim to complete the first draft of the sequel.

In addition, as I’ve had to focus on work far more this year, I’ve used that to motivate me to complete a first draft of a non-fiction book. If you signed up to my mailing list you’ve already heard about it and even had the chance to read an ealy draft and give feedback on it. If you’re not on my mailing list and would like to be the first to hear my news, you can sign up from the link at the top of the page or here.

I had a bit of a breakthrough last week with my thinking about the sequel and am aiming to take a new approach in January. I’d appreciate your prayers and encouragement.

I’ve two more Christmas/book Fayres to attend in the next couple of weeks, one in Argyll and the other in Dundee.

Poster for Dundee Book Fair on 8 December 2018

If you’ve any connection to Dundee, please share the above poster and let people know the book fair is on Saturday 8th December 2018 from 10am till 4pm at City Church, Tulideph Road, Dundee DD2 2PN. It would be great to see you!

A Fallen Christmas

My wife was accosted a couple of weeks ago by a lady she didn’t know. The lady approached her and demanded to know when the sequel to Fallen Warriors would be released. My wife doesn’t know and right now neither do I. However I can share that a teaser for the sequel has been included in a Christmas themed anthology released last month by the Association of Christian Writers: Merry Christmas Everyone

Picture of ACW Christmas Anthology: Merry Christmas Everyone
ACW Christmas Anthology

My short story: A Fallen Christmas, introduces a new character who will have a major role in the sequel to Fallen Warriors. When I say short, we were limited to 1,000 words in our contributions to the anthology. However, the quality of the other stories, poems and essays included is excellent and I’m delighted to be included.

I bought a few copies to sell on at Christmas Fayres over the next few weeks.

I’ll be selling the anthology and my novels at the Abronhill Community Christmas Fayre today from 12 till 3pm.

Next Saturday, 24th November from 10am to 1pm, I’ll be at St Maurice’s Christmas Fayre. If you’re in Cumbernauld today or next Saturday, come and meet the author!

I’m nervous to share more about the Fallen Warriors sequel until after I’ve finished the first draft, but for everyone who is waiting, I’ll post more about where I’m at with it next week. Or you can ask me in person at a Christmas Fayre…

Uphill most of the way

I started a new contract last week and now have a longer walk to work after the train gets into Waverley Station in Edinburgh. It’s not actually uphill all the way, but first thing in the morning those steps were quite daunting the first week. At the end of my second week I’ve managed to take a few two at a time. Maybe in a few more weeks I won’t be out of breath at the top…

I sent out my first ever proper mailing email last week and am planning to do the same again today. If you didn’t receive an email, that’s either because you haven’t signed up using my new process using the link at the top of the page:

(Don’t try clicking here, go to the menu at the top of the page!)

…or because you did sign up and your email client/provider is shunting my emails into your spam or junk folder. Please do check! If you do find emails from me and you want to stop them being flagged as spam, add my email to your email clients address book.

I had set what I thought was a reasonable stretch target of 1000 words a day for this week. I failed miserably. I managed an hour and a half, but ended up getting bogged down in editing, moving scenes about.

It didn’t help that I’m meeting friends on the train and I’d rather catch up with them than write. Also that I’m conscious that friends are emailing and I’m not managing to respond. Or that starting a new contract always takes it out of me for the first few weeks.

By mid week I was disillusioned and tired.

I think I need to admit that I’m not done with the adjusting I started last month. There are too many interactions between characters in the scenes I’ve written to allow me to move on until I’ve got it all in order. Hopefully then I can move from editing mode back into writing mode and begin to make real progress.

So, my commitment for next week is simply to spend an hour each day getting what I’ve written in it’s logical order so I can start to continue the story. Fallen Warriors Season Two will make progress!

What next after completing my 100X100 challenge?

A major reason for challenging myself into writing 100 words a day for 100 days was to get myself into a daily habit of writing.

I was extremely tired after editing the final draft of Fallen Warriors and for over two months had been spending all my time proof reading and formatting. I had fallen out of the habit of daily creative writing. This challenge seemed like a great way to force myself back into that habit and to that extent, it has worked.

However, I’ve noticed that writing this blog has taken up time that I could have been working on the sequel and I can’t have that continuing. So, I’m now considering switching to a weekly blog post that will be linked to my mailing list, with maybe the occasional mid week post if there’s something urgent to share.

I’ll still be writing, it just won’t be visible immediately.

Seven grams

As I gradually start to get orders from bookshops for Fallen Warriors and The Great Scottish Land Grab, I’m learning how important packaging and delivery choices are.

I went to post my latest order from The Orcadian Bookshop in Kirkwall yesterday. Two copies each of Fallen Warriors and Land Grab. I’d placed the four books in a box, put the invoice in along with some flyers for Land Grab and wrapped the whole thing in brown paper. I weighed the parcel before I left home: 1.992 Kilos.

I got to the post office only to find the parcel actually weighed 2.007 Kilos…!

That’s a big deal. Currently in the UK we can post under 2 Kilos for £2.90.

Because of the size of the parcel and those extra seven grams, it was going to cost me £13.75! That would have wiped out all my profit and put me at a loss for the sale.

I asked for the parcel back.

I actually went to a second post office in the mad hope that maybe there was some difference in the scales that would have got me under the limit. Nope. Exactly the same weight. At least UK post offices are consistent in their scales!

Flyers. I’d put flyers in the parcel… I asked if I could borrow a pair of scissors, cut open the parcel, removed half the flyers and then asked for it to be reweighed. 1.940 Kilos.

I had been thinking I needed to buy more tape, so happily bought some, retaped the parcel and was able to post it at the expected rate.

Seven grams… It doesn’t seem all that much, does it. Crossing some boundary lines can be very expensive…

My Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) Analysis

How does a writer find people who want to buy their books?

It’s the question keeping many writers up at night, myself included. I had dreams of being the next big author when I published my first novel (The Great Scottish Land Grab) which slowly, but surely faded as I realised the enormity of the task before me. Publishing Fallen Warriors this year, I’ve set out to learn from my mistakes and experiment more.

One potentially useful tool to help writers sell books is Amazon Marketing Services (AMS). In America they are currently offering $100 free advertising to new sign ups until 30th September. There are terms and conditions which aren’t 100% clear whether the offer is open to Kindle authors (On the front page of their website it states “Amazon Marketing Services is currently available to Amazon vendors and KDP authors” but the terms and conditions at the bottom of the page only refer to vendors.) If you sell ebooks through KDP in America then I recommend signing up and asking if the offer applies to you – what could you lose?

So far I’ve only tried using AMS in America. It may be possible to use in the UK, but that’s another blog post…

I have a tiny marketing budget, but have been experimenting over the last few months to see whether I can use AMS to get the word out about my novels.

I believe Fallen Warriors has a better chance in America than Land Grab. There are more Christians in America than Scots so I’ve primarily focused on Fallen Warriors as I’m marketing it as a Christian thriller.

Here’s the high level view of what I’ve done, all nicely laid out on AMS’s dashboard:

If you’ve never heard of AMS, basically it allows advertisers to advertise their product (an ebook in my case.) I can select keywords that I think people will use to search for books (author names, book titles, themes etc) and I set a bid price I am willing to pay up to to get my ad shown when someone uses those keywords. I only pay that bid price if someone clicks on my ad. All advertisers are competing to see if they pay enough to display an ad, but Amazon only charge 2 cents above the next lowest bid so in theory you shouldn’t pay more than you need to.

I started in May with a toe in the water $5 a day campaign. It ran for five days, appears to have been shown 66,862 times, clicked on 43 times with an average cost per click of $0.13. It cost a total of $5.55, but appears to have resulted in $9.98 in sales.

Amazon actually take 30% margin as their profit from my sales so I netted $6.98 giving a profit of… $1.43.

Well, that is $1.43 I probably would not have made if I hadn’t experimented.

Excited by the possibility I could maybe make some more sales and find more readers I tried again.

I wondered if my timing was wrong and so this time ran the ad over two weekends thinking maybe people are more likely to buy then.

Eleven days later I only had the ad shown 46,087 times. Quite a drop. I only had 20 clicks at an average cost of $0.17 costing a total of $3.34. I had no sales…

That was discouraging, but only a little. I’ve been following the SPF Podcast and that has been useful for understanding the fluctuations that can occur.

I then wondered if it made more sense to send people to my free ebook: Fallen Warriors Episode One. If I could get them to download that and hopefully read it, would it result in more sales? Here’s what happened:

I had been averaging around 6 downloads of the free episode a week. After that short campaign I saw an extra 30 downloads. That was interesting.

The AMS stats are also useful:
Impressions (when the ad is shown): 120,406
Clicks: 88
Average cost per click: $0.12
Total cost: $10.60

I can’t tell if I had any follow on sales of the later episodes or the full novel, but the hope is that once people start reading, they’ll get hooked and I’ll see sales over time.

I then decided to try a more radical experiment. I signed up for a $20 a day maximum spend, campaigning with the free first episode again. I upped the bid price on many keywords and let the campaign run for a full two weeks. The results?

Impressions: 303,834
Clicks: 295
Average cost per click: $0.29
Total cost: $84.38

Over those two weeks I had an extra 118 downloads.

I would need to see 72% of those downloads convert into purchases before an ad campaign like that was worth trying again. (Though I confess it didn’t cost me anything…)

My total American sales over this period looks like this:

The spikes are less grand than they appear, those are mostly for individual episodes which earn me a much smaller royalty at 30%.

However, it suggests that people are slowly going on to read the free episode and buying either the full novel or the individual episodes.

I’m planning to start a new campaign soon and will be experimenting more. I need to be careful that I take into account what I’m actually selling and whether the advertising I’m doing is providing a return.

What are your thoughts and experiences with getting the word out to readers?

Making sense of chaos with Scrivener

I switched over to using Scrivener as a tool for writing and editing books a couple of years ago. It’s taken me a while to get familiar with the interface, but I stuck with it as it seems to be a much more suitable environment for editing complex stories than my previous favourite: Microsoft Word.

I took one of the Scrivener for beginners courses a while back and noted it should be capable of enabling you to keep track of which scenes contain characters and locations, but at the time, couldn’t get my head round how to actually do that.

I should have made more of an effort to learn how! Fallen Warriors has an element of complexity to rival a standard Tom Clancy. A dozen characters in multiple locations with events happening simultaneously. It was a struggle to keep track of what was going on.

I resorted to sticky notes, spreadsheets and elbox grease to get the novel completed, but was determined that I would suss out how to use some of the more advanced Scrivener features.

Tagging characters and locations in a scrivener scene

I’m indebted to Rog (@pigfender) for his post: Tracking characters with Scrivener keywords

It’s actually really easy to do and I’ve started tagging characters and locations in the scenes I’ve written for the Fallen Warriors sequel.

I won’t rehash the pigfender post here as Rog does a really good job of explaining it, but here’s some insight into how I’m actually following his instructions:

I needed to do two things to make this work, first add a tag for each character who appears in a scene and one for the location(s) in the scene to the Document notes section of the Inspector window:

And also create Project Keywords (from the Project menu) to match those tags exactly:

Now, if you’ve read Fallen Warriors then you might notice a couple of reveals in the pictures above… Shhhh (I’ve blanked out the working title as I’m still not fully sure if I will use it.)

The really cool bit is once you’ve got that all in place, to find all the scenes with a character or multiple characters in them, you can search and you get those scenes back… In order!

This is really helpful for me for so many reasons. One of my characters full name and title is: Detective Inspector Daniel Martin. But he is referred to as Danny, as DI Martin, as Daniel etc. By setting up the tags, I can search using one term and always find him.

Take a look at this clipping from my Scrivener Fallen Warriors manuscript

Now, I don’t want to give too much away from either book in case you’ve not read the first and certainly don’t want to give any plot away from the second, but I set up some keywords in my first manuscript and then did a search for “Emma_Present” – this is what was returned:

I reveal these events in the book description, so hopefully no spoilers there!

If you haven’t struggled to find characters in a long manuscript this maybe won’t be as exciting as I find it, but just getting those three results back is amazing for me. I spent hours each week for weeks just having to find where I’d written about a character. This is a game changer for me!

How do you make sense of the complexity in your books?

Meet The Authors at Cumbernauld Library

I’m delighted to be appearing at Cumbernauld Library on 16th September 2017 from 2 till 4 pm.

Supported by Culture NL Libraries in North Lanarkshire, I’ll be joined by Scottish authors Wendy H Jones and Caroline Johnston.

If you are interested or planning on going, it would be great if you could let us know through their Facebook event page.

“Join Mark Smith and friends at the launch of his new book Fallen Warriors at Cumbernauld Library. Mark will be joined by fellow authors Caroline Johnston and Wendy H. Jones who will also give the audience a brief introduction to their own works.

Mark is a local Cumbernauld author of four books including The Great Scottish Land Grab. His new book, Fallen Warriors, is an intriguing story in which a group of ordinary people are drawn together to stand and fight against the largest attack the West has ever seen.

Caroline Johnston, author of What If? is a fantastic teen fiction author who knew at the age of 7 that she was going to be a writer when her love of writing began at an early age.

Wendy H. Jones, author of Killer’s Crypt has written a thriller series based on the character DI Shona McKenzie with Killer’s Crypt being the sixth in the series.

Don’t miss the chance to find out more about these upcoming authors. Book a free place by contacting Cumbernauld Library by phone, email or in person.”

You can find more information on the Culture NL website and book your free ticket for the event there or through their Facebook page for the event.

Cumbernauld Library meet the author

The messy middle

I’ve struggled this last week to make any real progress on the sequel to Fallen Warriors. At last count I was at 23,892 words.

I have a beginning and the start of an ending, but have found myself bogged down in what writers technically know as “The Messy Middle”.

I had the same problem with the first novel. Too many characters and an uncertainty of how best to bring them together. I had a look at how many characters I’m planning to work with during the sequel. Eighteen! Eighteen characters for whom I want some sort of character journey, some interaction with other characters.

You know that mathematical issue where you increase the number of participants and get an exponential growth in terms of interactions? I think that is part of the problem. There is a reason why writers who are starting out are advised to stick to simple plots.

Anyway, there is a simple solution to the interaction growth issue and the messy middle problem. Technically this is known as “Bum In Seat”.

In theory all I, or any writer facing a similar problem, needs to do is place bum in seat and keep writing. Gradually the problem is resolved, one scene at a time.

It’s a solution that can be adapted to many issues and problems. One’s bum does not have to be in a seat – it can be standing at a workshop bench, or running another mile. Sonetimes the only way to resolve a problem is to keep working towards resolving it, no matter how messy the middle may be.

Going backwards

Well, yesterday was a bit of a disaster writing wise. I’d been going so well, 3,000 words a day on the Fallen Warriors sequel for a whole week and then – bamm! 789 words. Not only that, but I’ve decided I need to delete 300 words from another section.

On the plus side, I think that loss of 300 words allows me to do something that will be much better in terms of plot, making the story more interesting. I’m going to try and write some more today (Saturday) so I may yet get closer to my target. I’d hoped to be at 25,000 words by yesterday and I’m still 2,000 short.

So what actually happened? Why did I fail to hit my word count goal?

I did what I promised myself I would not do, I spent time on admin in the morning and got caught up in that, putting off writing until I knew I was going to struggle to hit my goal. Then when I started writing, I felt under such pressure that it took me longer than it should have to write anything.

Yet, I’ve been putting off the admin all week and I really needed to do some advertising. I called some more book shops and while I didn’t get any sales yet from those calls, I also had a followup from a previous contact which is looking promising.

I’m not going to spend all day writing to try and catch up. It’s the weekend and I’m in one of the most beautiful villages in the world on Regatta day. I’ve got kids to look after, ice-creams to buy and water to avoid falling into…