Monday, 21 May 2018

Volume Problem With Amazon Kindle Fires

This isn't writing-related (though I suppose it touches on written communication, and how some Customer Service departments don't seem to be able to interpret or trouble-shoot basic problems). However, I couldn't find any information about this problem online, so thought I'd put it here in case it helps other people. This problem applies to Amazon Kindle Fires directly, but is likely to appear in other devices which can play back media.

I had two Kindle Fires so gave someone else the newest one (I actually prefer the older Kindle Fires - the new ones require closing down loads of open apps every time you use it, whereas the old ones closed apps automatically as soon as you opened another). She registered it in her name so that she could put her own stuff on, though our accounts are connected via Amazon's household scheme.

As someone who has used Kindle Fires for a long time, I was obviously on hand to answer questions. Last night we were testing out the main things she wanted to use the Kindle for. One of them was listening to music or podcasts. We have external powered speakers in some rooms, so we can plug in an mp3 player, phone or media device to play music with better quality sound than the tinny internal speakers most devices have. This has been fine for many years, and worked without problems.

However, this Kindle Fire was behaving strangely - when I plugged it into external speakers the volume dropped to 50%, and there was no way to increase it. I looked in the settings but whatever I set there still got halved when I plugged the speakers in. So the result was that plugging in high-quality external powered speakers actually made the volume lower, when it should be the opposite.

The speakers were Logitech S-220. I tried another set of speakers with the same result: Sony SRS A202. So two totally different brands – plugging them in suddenly stopped the volume going past around halfway (or a bit under). I tried my Sennheiser MX365 earphones – the Kindle again limited the volume. Same with some Apple iPad earbuds. I should add that both speaker sets and both headphone sets work perfectly on every other device (two laptops, a different Kindle, a smartphone, an iPad, a HDD jukebox music player etc).

I suspected this was a bug in Kindle software, rather than a fault in the individual device - the behaviour was too uniform. I said I'd look into it. You know, being nice and helpful.

So I contacted Amazon via Twitter. They knew nothing about it and had no answers, and pushed me towards using Amazon chat instead. I was reticent to do that because I've had bad experiences with Amazon's Customer Services people in the past, but decided to have a go. It didn't work out:

Just to clarify a few things. There are no security issues with finding out how to use a Kindle in general. We shouldn't have to go to support to find out how it works and how to get round Kindle problems; but if we do then we should be given clear answers, not be fobbed off. They could forget the individual device and just imagine it is a generic question about Kindle Fire 7s. It's not difficult. Especially when it looks like it is part of how all those versions of Kindles are set up. (Further - the "connected account" thing is a problem with how Amazon sees things. In reality two people own adn share the device, but Amazon refuse to accept that this is possible, and force it to only be connected to a single person. The real world, and Amazon's policies, don't match up.) Anyway, Amazon Help refused to look into it.

I went back to Twitter and explained that, but a raft of different support staff ("FJ", "RB", "KI", "NV", "RS", "BZ", "TP", "ES", "CN" etc.) kept telling me to go back to Amazon chat or phone help, even though I'd get the same response. Not one of the Amazon staff suspected that Amazon may have set the devices up like this on purpose.

That's my suspicion, anyway (since they won't confirm it). I think Kindle Fires have been programmed to limit the volume to 50% when things are plugged into the headphone/speaker jack. It's mentioned in obscure places on forums, where people run into the problem (such as here), yet Amazon Support don't seem to be aware of the problem.

I further suspect that it is an update implemented as a knee-jerk reaction to something like this EU mandate on "new safety standards for personal music players". Though that mandate also says "the safe exposure level will be the default setting on personal music players but users will be able to override the default setting if they expressly choose to do so. The key is that they make and informed choice, fully aware of any potential health risks." Whereas I can't find any override on the Kindle Fire, so Amazon have either not put one in, or have made it unintuitive to find. I'm guessing Amazon implemented this limit, but just didn't consider the repercussion that plugging quality powered speakers in makes the device quieter than it's tinny internal speaker, when speakers shouldn't be limited. That makes it a buggy implementation of a safety feature.

At the first contact with Amazon they should have spotted what it was about, and been able to start a discussion of it - why the Kindle was behaving like that, how to over-ride it, or how to report it as a bug if they didn't implement an over-ride.

In conclusion, there are two issues

1. Amazon seem to have implemented a "safety feature" that limits the volume of Kindle Fires when output is sent to the 3.5mm output jack. Amazon presumably meant to apply it only to headphones, so there should be an over-ride for when using it with speakers. Except there is no obvious over-ride for speakers, so connecting quality powered speakers actually makes the Kindle quieter. It's an example of not thinking through the implications of knee-jerk updates.

2. I dealt with a large number of Amazon Customer Services people and not one of them knew anything about it, they just sent me in circles for a whole morning, telling me to use contact methods that I'd already used and where staff had refused to help - going through the same process again would lead to the same outcome. What should have been simple has instead wasted half a day and is still not resolved or acknowledged. This isn't new. I've had problems with Amazon's terrible communication in the past - see this post and the ones it links to at the start if you want to know more.

Here's a video I made of the problem with the audio output jack on the Kindle Fire:

Update: 23rd May 2018
After all the communications with Amazon a few days ago I was told they would sort it out. On 21st May one email said the "Kindle technical specialists" would ring me "within the next 4 hours".

48 hours later I've still not received a call, a reply, or any answers.


Saturday, 19 May 2018

Bad Language

My irregular series highlighting common mistakes that make me want to throw macaroni. Who has incurred my wrath this time?

Enthusiastic shop signs

I took this photo in Shrewsbury. Hopefully I don't have to point out the error (but just in case: you don't add apostrophes for plurals. Well, not unless you are a greengrocer.)

Until is a word. Till is a word. You can use them interchangeably. "I won't stop saying this till it sinks in; or at least until my fingers drop off." Technically you can drop letters and use an apostrophe, since it is one of the functions of an apostrophe (to show omission), so you could write 'til, but there's no point when the word till exists. However, there is definitely no apostrophe before 'till (as seen in the image above) because there is no omission - there's no such word as untill.

In this case there was a happy ending. I contacted GOG and they fixed it:

On to my last annoyance for today. It's not so much a mistake as an irritation. I hate patronising tiers which are all monikers for "best". Here's one from the defunct CoPromote:

They could just have used the traditional Bronze, Silver, Gold; or Basic, Normal, Pro; or Sugar, Cheese, Chocolate.

(I avoid any grading system that includes cats and dogs, it leads to too many arguments.)

Companies always try to make each option sound like it is as precious as their super-special-favourite-customer, but it is such a false bit of marketing bollocks that they just look needy and patronising.

That's me, how's your day been? :-)


Friday, 11 May 2018

Lost Solace: The Computer Game

Sadly, there isn't yet a computer game (or film) of Lost Solace, despite requests. One day, maybe.

Just for fun I had a think about what games you could play in the meantime; games that capture a feel of the book, or some element of it. This is my short list (the game names link to where it can be bought).

Opal and her armour in Starcrawlers

Opal getting ready to investigate a Lost Ship in Starcrawlers

Starcrawlers (2017)
Pick a female cyberninja and name the character Opal. You have an armoured suit and swords and a rebellious attitude. Explore derelict spaceships while supported by banter from your orbiting ship. Your first main mission can lead to developing an AI companion. This is a great way of living through something that resembles Opal's world.

You encounter some creepy things in Soma

Lots of abandoned environments to explore in Soma - but are they really abandoned?

Soma (2015)
This game is great for the feel of being vulnerable in lonely and dangerous places (the game is set in a base at the bottom of the sea rather than on a spaceship, but there's the same feeling of claustrophobia, and being surrounded by a fatal and alien environment). There are fantastic horror elements in this story of survival and artificial intelligence. Generally it is a slow-burn horror, where you sneak around trying not to make a sound, punctuated by tense scenes where you may have to flee from something you don't even want to look at. You can also watch some creepy live action films that were made before the game's release.

It's clear something's wrong in System Shock 2

 Those "people" need help ... System Shock 2

System Shock 2 (1999)
This is one of my favourite games. I've lost count of how many times I have completed it (along with all the fan-made missions and mods I could download). You explore a spaceship which has been taken over by something alien. There are mutations, psychic manifestations, artificial intelligences, and experiments gone wrong. You are underpowered and vulnerable for most of the game, your only help being the guidance of a companion you communicate with over your suit's radio. This is one of those games where my character hid behind a desk and hoped the creatures wandering nearby wouldn't find me ... and even after they left, I was scared to come out. You can also choose how you play the game, and be a hacker, or a scientist, or a soldier, or an engineer. And be warned that this game doesn't pause while you fix the weapon that has just jammed ...

I don't even know what that is - I ran away before I found out. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

Two bloodsuckers. An encounter with a single one is usually fatal ... S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (2007)
In this case I don't mean the whole game - much of which takes place on the surface of the irradiated land around Chernobyl. But there are underground sections where you explore abandoned bunkers and tunnels, which really give me that Lost Solace feel. Even though you have guns and armour, you never feel safe. There are deadly enemies that will stalk you, and can turn invisible (only their glowing eyes betraying them); others that affect your mind; hauntings and poltergeists; beautiful yet dangerous anomalies. It is creepy to explore, you never know what to expect, or if you’ll survive, as you scavenge for supplies by torchlight while looking for a way out of the hell-hole. The game is loosely connected to the excellent 1971 Strugatsky brothers novel Roadside Picnic and the 1979 Tarkovsky film Stalker.

Even in a straight corridor, you never feel safe while playing Aliens versus Predator as a marine

I don't want to go through that ominous doorway ... Aliens versus Predator

Aliens versus Predator (1999)
If you want speed mixed in with your horror, then this is it: just make sure you play the marine campaign. (The Alien and Predator campaigns are fun, but not scary, because in those you are the monster; but as the marine you are always vulnerable, despite your hi-tech weaponry.) Some of the levels are set on spaceships, and with others you can easily imagine you are on one since the levels are often tight corridors (with Hadley's Hope being the exception). In this game there is no time to rest. You run. You watch the motion detector nervously. You hear the beeps as something closes in, fast. But you can't pinpoint it. Will it drop from above? Pounce from behind? Ambush you at the junction ahead? You throw a flare into the shadows, but it doesn't help - now you can only see hellish red flickering light, and deeper shadows everywhere else. Death is coming, and you don't know which way to run. You shoot at nothing; you spin and shoot behind, in case it's coming from there. Even on the easiest difficulty level (which is the one I recommend) your heart will often be pounding. You know you'll die if you panic, and the only way to survive is to keep moving, keep calm, cover all directions, don’t waste time or ammo, and watch the dark corners and entry points.

(Note: I refer to Aliens versus Predator by the name it was released under, and which was on my boxed version, rather than the name it now has on sites that sell it - the trend of publishers releasing new games with the same name and then retrospectively renaming the earlier versions is confusing.)

There you go - hopefully at least one game there will give you the Lost Solace feel. Have I missed any? Feel free to suggest others (and say why they fit the book) in the comments. Or suggest games that resemble my other books (e.g. I counted Resident Evil 4 as one of the inspirations for Turner in this list).

Oh, and if you've read all this and don't know what Lost Solace is - it's my latest book.


Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Focus On The Act, Not The Actor - Cockygate

I'll probably get flack for this, but what the hell ...

If you haven't come across the hashtags #cockygate #byeFaleena then you're probably not an author.

They're applied to a recent issue where the successful romance author Faleena Hopkins trademarked the word "cocky" in relation to romance book titles, a move that has caused widespread consternation.

If you want to get up to speed then here are some possible source articles (I'm not vouching for any of them, but they all contain parts of the background):
I think it was a dick move to trademark the term, and there are all sorts of issues around whether it should have been allowed, the copyright on the font etc. It has really backfired on her, and I support the current attempts to overturn the trademark.

However, the amount of vitriol and hate that has been poured upon her as a person in many places online is totally out or proportion to what she did. Often cruel stuff, and sometimes based on misunderstandings (for example, it wasn't preventing use of the word Cocky, even in book titles - only in those in the same genre). I am not defending the trademark attempt - as I said already, since I am generally against moves like that and favour more open copyright laws - but I always get an uneasy feeling when I see anyone being vilified online in the way she has been, out of all proportion to the foolish mistake she made. Huge companies get a free pass for acting much worse than this every day (e.g. Apple has over 280 trademarks and won't hesitate to take people to court to defend them, as would Disney, Microsoft, etc etc). Look at all the hassle Amazon [here; here] or Paypal [part 1; part 2] caused me, without provocation or reason. Politicians and councils do worse every week and it quickly fades away.

I'm totally for attacking the way trademarks can work and for overturning this. I'm fine with pointing out why this was a bad move on her part and why others shouldn't do the same. But I think it should always be done in a balanced way, and remember that there's a real person involved, who is probably feeling very bad right now (whatever front they put on as a public persona). Critical (in the true sense) is good. Hatred and attacking are bad. We should always also try and see things from the other side, and make sure we are focussing on the act more than on the individual. Some of the stuff I've seen makes me feel like it's a modern day witchhunt, yet the truth is she made a bad business decision that is causing hassle for some other authors but which will probably get overturned - she hasn't killed anyone's children, or exploited resources from poor countries, or deforested countries for palm oil etc etc. It's just worth bearing that in mind.

She closed a few of her social media accounts since the weekend (e.g. Facebook and Instagram) and most ways of being able to contact her, which is always a worrying sign. This blew up very quickly and I think the anger people naturally felt at the action escalated when fuelled by all the encouragement to target her as a person. It makes me feel concerned and also despairing of how the two sides seem to have pushed each other further into separate corners when an ideal world would have seen cooperation and mutual understanding that led to an outcome that benefited all of them (e.g. Faleena dropping the TM issue and apologising, and other authors in turn supporting her over the issues that led to this in the first place: all authors lifting each other up rather than publicly tearing each other down).

An important rule we should always apply to our own behaviour is: don't be a dick. That doesn't mean we can't be activists. It's important to challenge things and change bad things. But don't go overboard and become personal. Always remember that the person we're facing and disagreeing with is just that - a person too. And the image of ourselves we project publicly, especially on social media, is not always the reality.

Update: I was asked "What the hell did she expect?"

In reality, I imagine she didn't expect the magnitude of this response. Whether that's through naivety, or following bad advice, or because trademarks and branding are standard and everyday things in many areas and go without comment. I certainly don't think she expected it to blow up like this.

I know I have misjudged things myself in the past, sometimes badly, both private and public things. I'm grateful I never got called out on them in such a huge way. None of us are perfect.


Thursday, 3 May 2018

Some Things Pass Me By

Me, in the Chateau de la Rochefoucauld, France, 2012. You may kiss my ring.

In a writers' group recently an author was worried that their book sales might be hampered by coinciding with some UK royal wedding. A few of us didn't even know about one. As I said: "I live in the UK and had no idea that there was going to be a royal wedding. I guess if your target audience are obsessed with rich people and hereditary privilege, then hold back. If your audience are normal, then go ahead, you'll be fine."

I think another author was surprised that I didn't know about this wedding. I suspect that people think I'm pulling their legs sometimes, but - as usual with me - the more outlandish things I say are generally 100% true.

Then again, I will admit that I am not normal. I don't have a TV, listen to the radio, or read newspapers. I use a lot of websites but not general news ones like the BBC - I go to sites related to particular topics such as the environment, animals, music, ancient history, horror, and so on. So I tend to know lots about the subjects I'm interested in, and what the current issues are, but not "general news" (which, to me, isn't news, just distraction). My friends tend to be people like me, so we'll discuss music, and games, and food, but not things like royalty or TV programmes. So all that kind of stuff genuinely passes me by. My mum watches TV and is always saying, "Oh, such and such is doing x or y" and I have no idea who she is referring to, because it's some TV celebrity that does not cross the nexus of any of my interests. There you go. :-)

Oh, and I don't believe in marriage either, so it's even less likely to cross my radar! Let alone total strangers I have nothing in common with getting married.

Still, you are welcome as guests at my castle any time.


Monday, 30 April 2018

Watchers, by Dean Koontz

I've read Watchers a few times, and love the concept, though I am a bit more critical of it nowadays.

It certainly has all the ingredients of a tense plot, all the pieces lined up to fall over at the end. It does some things well, some things very well. It works as a story. And it has a charming character in Einstein, who only says a handful of things in the book yet still steals the show. If you want to read a thriller, then this is a fairly good one. I'm torn between 3 and 4 stars. I'll go with my gut instinct of 4, because I always prefer to err on the side of generosity.

Where it drops the ball for me is in not going far enough. There's a noticeable authorial voice between the lines; and the beliefs it betrays, as with those made more overt in the plot, are those of an attempt to push at a boundary. But it does not go far enough, does not question enough, does not realise that it has pushed a bit but then created a new arbitrary boundary. If it pushed harder it would have been more true to its central thesis, and could have achieved much more.

I often ask what the values are underlying a work, as illustrated by the way it portrays happiness. Here, it is pretty standard Koontz (based on the books I've read). Success = a manly heterosexual man, paired with a less active woman (but who is a good home-maker), seeking monogamy/marriage with the ultimate goal of having children. There is no questioning of those values anywhere in the book, or even recognition that they are particular viewpoint - the underlying impression is that no other alternatives can be conceived. That's not a criticism, just a clarification of how the core values never drift far from what is seen as a predominantly conservative set of views. At the end of the novel the female protagonist is making apple pie. In another location a pair of men are "tending to the steaks on the barbecue" while "their wives made salads in the kitchen". This is the happy ending. It is presented without irony.

Many books are from this viewpoint - probably most books. Culture (mass media, entertainment etc.) is often presented in ways that will appeal to the biggest market, for maximum profit. In turn, that widespread prevalence creates the impression that there are no alternatives, and this is "normal". Again, it's not necessarily a criticism, though I do think the bias should be perceived by both creator, distributor, and consumer - otherwise, without perceiving the cultural values for what they are, it can lead to close-mindedness and perception of all other values as being "lesser", rather than just alternatives. A book that praises "the ingenuity of man" can become irony if that self-understanding is not then present in the text.

Back to the book. With this book Koontz tries to challenge a few values. You can see him doing that, and perhaps thinking he is being transgressive, making big changes. But in each case it is a tiny shift while following the same line, and does not follow through or recognise how much further the questioning could have gone. Okay, an example.

The plot involves Government experiments on different beings. In this case, putting human minds in non-human bodies. It involves death, failures, murders, suffering, madness, enslavement, enough money to cure a range of problems if spent differently, and much more. The author makes it clear that there is immorality involved. I'd agree. But he can't take it to the logical conclusion - and, as if in panic when he realises that the implication is that the same things apply to all non-human experimentation, he feels the need to suddenly have a character give us a mini-lecture from the point of view of those who exploit beings in this way. Watchers involves characters who take an experimental animal and keep it from the Government - it is not portrayed as "stealing", or "ruining years of important research" - because we have seen that the things referred to are a form of injustice, and we have been allowed to see things from the sufferer's perspective. But the author wants to have his cake and eat it, so he undercuts the whole point of the novel by having a character that we are supposed to respect say "People who raid labs and steal animals, ruining years of important research ... they make me want to spit." (He goes on to actually state that revering life is "ignorant" and "savage".) Whoa. Talk about being blind to the concept of hypocrisy. It doesn't even touch on the fact that the majority of animal research is profit-motivated (from the race to patent, to the "me-too" generic pharma industry). It's as if the author wants to question things, but then to suddenly fall back into accepting them; to claim that the overall thrust is not a questioning of concepts, but making a special case for the cute dog who can act as lucrative product placement for the rich Disney Corp in the inevitable film version.

Remember I said that the underlying author views were mainstream? (In this case, mainstream US.) Here's an example. The author is trying to think of examples of goodness to use in a simile. He suggests "feed the hungry or nurse the sick"; no argument there; but they come second place to "build a business empire" as an example of the most "worthwhile and commendable" goals. That's the protestant ethic of capitalism for you! Most people would see the generic goal of "business empires" as profit-driven (and, as stated in that generic way, inherently selfish - very different from, for example, building an ethical co-operative). Yet here, it is unquestioningly given as a specific example of goodness that is _higher_ than selflessly helping those in need (in that it is the first in the list, the first thing to pop into thought). Viewed from outside the unconscious cultural values of the author, it can seem bizarre. Though that continues - the character who makes that bizarre interjection speech about wanting to spit is a vet who is portrayed as loving dogs. So what does he want to do? Turn his dog into a breeder "and maybe wind up with some nice puppies to sell later".  Breed dogs to sell for profit. Despite there being no shortage of unwanted dogs in shelters desperate for homes before they are destroyed, the predominant value for this character is breeding more, and profiting financially from it. Mmm.

One more example of the mainstream views: celebrating Christmas. In one speech it is actually equated with "life", and nowhere does the text acknowledge the overt shift from religious meaning to one of force-fed consumerism (even though the book shows the level of it, equating spending money on unnecessary consumer goods as being the same as loving someone, and refusing to see over-consumption as a possibly bad thing - those big companies and business empires have sure done their work on indoctrinating all these characters). People can do what they want, but we should always be able to trace where values come from, and what they really are. It's part of being responsible.

So we have a story that seems to push at boundaries, to question things, but which pulls back from any genuine commitment to the line of enquiry. It's similar to the difference between the viewpoints of animal welfare/vegetarianism ("it is okay to exploit other beings for our own ends, but we should try to be a bit nicer about it, and kill less") - which represents a shift, but not a qualitative change, from mainstream speciesism - and the viewpoint of animal rights ("we should not exploit other beings for our own ends, and rights should be regardless of sex, age, species, intelligence, skin colour, sexual preference etc. etc."). The novel shifts slightly in that it says the application of value should not be on the arbitrary basis of species; but instead of questioning all arbitrary values, it simply picks another one (in this case, intelligence) as a means to assign rights. Obviously this is pre-Singer.

One other annoyance - it regularly has chocolate being given to dogs as a "treat". That's quite surprising when the author acknowledges himself as a dog lover. The chocolate consumed by humans is often highly toxic and poisonous to dogs.

There's one other element I'd like to touch on: antagonists. This book has two. One is a hitman. One is the creature known as The Outsider. A problem for the author is that The Outsider is far away from the main characters for most of the novel, which is probably why the hitman was needed as a more imminent and portrayable threat. But The Outsider is a double-edged villain, because it is also a victim. It suffers deformity; it is aware of how people feel revulsion when facing it; yet it is intelligent. It has been imbued with killing urges it never wanted. Like Frankenstein's monster, it is an intelligent being cursed by its creator. It is a victim. It does some horrible things, though far fewer than those done by many humans. By the end it is "whimpering and hugging itself"; it is in pain, and taught itself to say so; it possibly showed pity on another creature and temporarily overcame the nature that had been forced into it by humans. And yet, on the previous page, the novel's main protagonist (through whose eyes the author wants us to see most of the story) describes it as "an enemy of unparalleled evil". Hold on a minute. Unparalleled? It is described as the most evil thing that is possible to exist? More than anything else, this made me question the authorial voice, because that description would apply more accurately to the military scientists performing these experiments on intelligent beings, with the goal of being able to kill other humans more efficiently. But the text falls back on black-and-white extremities, with the worst vilification applied to a victim. I didn't like that.

When I was fifteen and first read the book, I didn’t think so deeply about what is said overtly in books, and what is also said between the lines. As an adult, I’m more critical. But that doesn’t mean this wouldn’t be a 5* book for you.


Sunday, 22 April 2018

Bad Language

My irregular series highlighting common mistakes that make me want to do the angry dance. Who has incurred my wrath this time?

This is the most horrifying thing when people write about zombies

HORDES. ZOMBIE HORDES. Hordes are large groups. Hoards are secret stores. Please, this kills me a little more every time.

"Save Big"
Marketing speak is often a culprit of bad language.
"Save big."
No. Big is an adjective. Save big what? Coins? Christmas baubles? Testicles?
Lulu actually mean "save money." Though even that is disingenuous. You would actually spend money, which is the opposite of saving it. What they mean is that you will spend less. Or rather, they are offering a discount on their usual price.
Either way, the printer/distributor Lulu has made disappointing.

"that game suffered an apparently torturous development process"

It was probably a tortuous development process (long, convoluted, winding), rather than a torturous one (involving torture). Though who knows with big publishers?


Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Tips For Working With Editors

Over on the ALLi website you'll find an article where I give various tips on how to choose and work with editors. Here's a backup of the article.

These tips can save time and money when working with an editor. It follows on from my article about Ways To Polish Your Manuscript.

Polish first

Make your work as good as possible before sending it to an editor. These self-editing tips will help with that. The editor can then focus on bigger issues. Or, if they are paid by the hour, you’ll save money because they won’t waste time fixing all the small errors you could have spotted. I’ve edited books for others that are a joy because they are so well-polished that I can focus on more complex issues of style and structure and character.

Provide information

If you use a particular style guide then let the editor know. Likewise if you have a house style covering things like which numbers will be written as words, serial comma use, -ise versus -ize etc., then pass that on too. If you don’t have a fixed style that’s fine, those things will come up in queries: but having one can save a bit of time (and money). I’d recommend that anything of this type that is raised by your editor should form the basis of your style guide for the future, or add to your existing one. After working with a few people you’ll have a comprehensive list of your editorial preferences, and it will soon become a subconscious part of your writing, aiding consistency.

Get a free sample

Most editors will edit a sample of your work for free, usually a few pages, and provide a quote based on that. Make use of the service. If (after due consideration) you don’t agree with their suggested changes, or you don’t feel like you’d enjoy working with them, then go elsewhere. It helps if author and editor think along the same lines. And if the editor made suggestions where you can see that your work would be improved by them, then you’ll be off to a great start.

Pay for a partial edit

If you suspect your work has problems of style and repeated errors, then you could save a lot of money by getting an editor to just edit a few chapters. Then whatever common things they pick up on (mistakes of style, grammar, sentence structures, overuse of passive voice, speech tags, punctuation etc.), you can go through rest of book yourself fixing those. Then you’ll really understand that issue, and be less likely to make the mistake in the future. Also any future editorial work won’t require the same little things being pointed out again and again.

Likewise you could get an editor to look at just the areas you feel are weaker, such as the opening of your novel. I did this once with a short story collection where I knew most stories were good since they’d been polished in the past; some had even been published already and just needed a few tweaks. However, other stories were brand new, more experimental, and I was less sure about their strengths. In that case I just paid a substantive editor to work on the new stories.

Types of edit

There are different kinds of editorial process.

The first edit (called the developmental, structural, literary, content, or substantive) will flag up the “big picture” story, character and prose issues. Much of their work will be suggestions. They can’t rewrite your book and make the decisions for you, but they will suggest what it is needed, and give pointers on how to do it – whether it is throwing out unneeded characters, adding in a subplot, working on style, or coming up with a different opening or ending. You read the suggestions, decide which way to go, rewrite as necessary. Yes, the author does the bulk of the work, because it’s your book.

Common advice is that it’s generally better to have two different editors than have one act as both literary editor and proofreader. The benefits go beyond fresh pairs of eyes, or the fact that one person will never find all the typos and errors in a book. The description of a developmental edit above shows why one editor can’t do everything – it is not a “final” edit, because you’ll make changes after that, which may well introduce new errors and create a new version of the document. Likewise there’s not much point the editor spending too much time correcting typos in sections that they are recommending for deletion and rewriting. The assumption is that after the first editor you will do more work. Sometimes a lot more.

When the book is deemed “finished” it needs at least one final pass for error-catching, ideally by a person who hasn’t read it before. This may be referred to as a copyedit or proofread (there is a difference between these, but both are final-stage types of edit). This is generally cheaper and quicker, and less work for you after it - ideally just making changes to errors and typos.

I use this two-step process. After I’ve done my first draft, as polished as possible after various re-reads, software tools and so on, I send it to my literary/substantive editor. They focus on the big issues like character, plot, style and so on. After more rewriting, restructuring, edits and fact-checking, and only when I’m satisfied that it’s the best it can be, it goes on to my proofreader for the final polish.

Use the right editor for the job

As well as finding the right type of editor, there are some other considerations.

Genre. Some editors specialise in particular genres or styles. They are more likely to know the tropes and expectations of the genre than one who is a stranger to it. Likewise they all have their own specialisms in terms of writing – one may be great at dialogue, another at structure, another at developing mood. This is where an editor who is also an author can be a big help.

Nationality/region. If your editor is in a different country (e.g. UK/US) then make sure they are familiar with your country’s spellings and idioms. If the book’s content is heavily tied to a region or subculture where there are all sorts of nuances of language or dialect then it might be advantageous if the editor is familiar with that area.

Editorial variety

There are benefits to sticking with the same editor over time. They get to know you and your style, the rapport is strengthened, and the writing can be taken to the next level. Sometimes it also becomes cheaper because they know your work won’t contain basic errors any more.

There are also benefits to working with different editors, since you learn different things from each of them, like having different teachers.

I adopt a mixed approach: I have my favourite editors, but when they are busy I never mind trying out a new editor.

Don’t look at it as just one book

When you work with an editor you are not just working on that single book. You are learning things that you will take forward and apply to future works. I always learn a huge amount from my editors, and I have worked with a lot of them over the last ten years.

Realise that you need more editing at the start of your career

Editing costs can go down over time as you become a better writer. Early in your career money spent on editing is as an investment in your writing future. When I left paid employment to become a full-time writer I invested most of my savings in my business, from buying ISBNs and software to going on writing courses and setting aside the money for editing and proofreading costs for a number of books.

Over time an author’s style and writing improves, especially if they’ve worked with good editors, until they end up with first drafts that need far fewer tweaks. (I work on the assumption that an author needs to write 5-10 novels, in a reflective way that involves feedback from others, to become fully proficient in the craft side of writing. The art side is a different matter, but in both cases good editors speed up the process.)

Related to this growth in skill, there is nothing to stop you going back to previous books and revamping them after you have a few more titles under your belt. I’ve done that with my early works, applying new skills, choosing new covers, reformatting interiors, and writing new blurbs. A lot of the rewriting was easy because I had learnt more in the interim, having worked with other editors.


Friday, 30 March 2018

Recent Promo Images And Videos

A selection of promotional images and videos I've used since the last post on this topic.

Enter the haunted gallery - Karl Drinkwater's Horror Collection
All work and no play makes Jack ... Move Below. With Them. They Move Below

The Bayeux of Turner

A story for brainy people (and geeks). Cold Fusion 2000

2000 Tunes. One love.

A new Harvest Festival trailer - my favourite one.


Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Friday, 23 March 2018

Ways To Polish Your Manuscript

Over on the ALLi website you'll find an article where I give various self-editing tips. Here's a backup of the article.

An author should always aim to make their book the best it can be. Unless we are literary geniuses, you can’t get away from some element of human feedback. Working with a professional editor is the gold standard, but if for any reason that doesn’t occur there are still other things that can improve a work. And if you do use a professional editor the tips below still apply, since it is best to do edits and rewrites before sending the work to an editor. The better the work is, the less time they have to spend correcting basic errors, and the editing costs on a more polished manuscript may well be cheaper too. If your book was important enough to write, then it’s important enough to nurture.

Read through the work multiple times

This is basic, but still needs stating. It’s also important to vary how you do this. Sometimes you need to get away from the screen, so print a draft out on scrap paper (I often do two pages per sheet) and sit in the open air with it. Mark it up with green and red pens (ideas and corrections).

Use software tools

Here are some writing and editing tools for authors that can flag up potential errors – though you’ll then need to apply human consideration to understand the issues raised and weed out false positives.

Critique groups

Make use of critique groups. You may be lucky enough to have a local face-to-face one (or you could set one up – I’ve been involved with both types in the past), but there are also many online groups that may be useful.

Beta readers

Many authors have a small and trusted group of committed superfans who act as beta readers – reading the work when it has gone through numerous edits and is just about finished. They can give lots of useful feedback. Many authors provide a questionnaire to guide the beta readers. This ties in to developing a good-quality list of newsletter subscribers.

Writing courses

Go on writing courses. Look out for the ones that give you one-to-one time with a tutor so you can discuss your work-in-progress. I have been on a lot of courses. Here are some tips for attending courses. Though note that residential courses can be as expensive as working with an editor, so weigh up the best use of your money.

Read out the work

Reading your work aloud really helps to pick up on clunky phrases and repetitions that you miss on the page. I started doing this when I was preparing my novels for audiobook versions, but now do this on everything I write. If it reads well, it flows well.

There are also lots of software options. I purchased a professional SAPI voice from Cereproc in a half-price offer, and use it with the free software Balabolka to generate an mp3 file of any document. The quality is excellent and I can listen to the book on my phone anywhere (even walking or exercising) and make notes of phrases to change. Lots of improvements will be spotted this way. A final tip – I purchased a Scottish voice. This makes me hear the novel in a new way and it becomes unexpected and fresh, so that I hear the words spoken, not the words I expect.

Rinse and repeat

None of those stages are one-offs. Some of them you will do multiple times across the whole work, or for specific problem scenes as you rewrite them.

To the future!

The biggest problem with first books is that they are often not quite ready; there’s good stuff in there but there hasn’t been enough rewriting and editing in the rush to get them out the door. Established writers are better at spotting weak points but beginners don’t have that experience yet: so make use of everything you can and invest in your book. We want our work to shine because our reputation, fanbase (and how quickly it grows), and future book sales all depend on it. Ratings and reviews hang around for a long time, and we owe it to ourselves and our readers to make a great first impression.


Saturday, 17 March 2018

The Tank (La Cisterna), by Nicola Lombardi

I had never heard of Nicola Lombardi before. That's not surprising. He is an Italian horror author and this is the only one of his books translated into English (as far as I am aware). I only became aware of this book because it was in the preliminary ballot for the Superior Achievement in a Novel category of the 2016 Bram Stoker Awards (the same year as one of my books was in the preliminary ballot, though for a different category). I like to follow prizes so acquired many of the books on the preliminary ballot, to discover new authors and titles. And then, of course, it took me a long time to get round to reading them ...

Well, I read a lot, and only two of the books I'd acquired from the list really moved and horrified me. This was one of them. (The other was The Sadist’s Bible, by Nicole Cushing.) I finished The Tank last night and the ending was every bit as bleak as I'd expected.

I'm not going to tell you what it's about, or what the titular Tank is for. No, it isn't the kind of tank with a gun and metal treads. But this story follows a single character through a year of their life, and almost every moment of it takes place within just a few rooms. In lesser hands that could be repetitive and slow, but I never felt that was the case here. I was always compelled to read on, even when I occasionally felt sick. I _had to know_. And the character arc and revelation both rewarded me and punished me for my morbid curiosity, totally in keeping with the contents of the story. Some things are so horrible that they create a sick fascination; the imagination wondering "What would it be like if ..." and refusing to stop prodding and probing. Here the reader almost experiences the same gruesome obsessions as the protagonist. Why are we doing this? What awaits us? Will our soul be permanently degraded by the experience? And what is the worst punishment for a crime?

The story is set within a totalitarian fascist regime, the New Moral Order (NMO). We have the stifling observation and secrecy of 1984 crossed with the moral bleakness of The Road, and told through a perspective that isn't a million miles away from "potentially deteriorating mental stability of a lonely lighthouse keeper" stories.

I thought this book was brilliant. It did everything it should, but with the most important being: make me pick up the book again and carry on. To know the truth even though I suspect what it will be, and it won't be pleasant.

There is one element I haven't touched on. The translation. Much as I hate to criticise things, it sometimes reads as if Google did it. On the one hand we get strange turns of phrase that wouldn't come about from a native English speaker - and that's actually not a problem. If anything it adds to the charm and the alien-ness of the thoughts, and the freshness of the imagery, and I would keep that aspect. However, there are also a lot of typos and incorrect words, and they are all ones that would have been easily picked up by a native-English proofreader (e.g. "the voices were suddenly louder know.") Now, please bear in mind that I am a stickler for punctuation and writing and grammar. I make my living as a writer and editor. I have been known to drop books for far fewer mistakes. So, the fact that I give this five stars DESPITE THOSE ERRORS is a huge vote of confidence. I am sure the original work in its native language is much more eloquent, and the issues are all minor translation issues that could be easily fixed whilst keeping the bulk of the translation exactly as it is. It's as if I am looking at the original story through a dirty window. And the view is enough that, despite the grime, or the barriers to communication, I keep looking. That's actually high praise. This is truly one of the most compelling and horrible books I've ever read.


Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Lost Solace On Jera's Jamboree

I love the great reviews Lost Solace is getting. The other day I came across this one, on Jera's Jamboree. Have a read of that first. It got me thinking.

I’m really glad that the reviewer loved the book, and that they commented on some of the things I tried to do. In particular, one of the rules of fiction (or a blurb) is that you have to show the character, what they want, and what’s stopping them – as soon as possible. So I turned that on its head and asked: what if I break that rule and don’t even reveal what the protagonist wants until the final chapter? That led me to think of ways of working with that, hence the focus on immediacy and dragging the reader into a compelling high-risk scenario, and trying to make the characters immediately identifiable. When I work with writers I often instil various rules in them, but always emphasise one that is above everything else: you are allowed to break any rule of fiction at all, as long as the end result works.

I have the story arc plotted out for all three books of the Lost Solace trilogy. I am so excited about writing them and continuing Opal’s quest, since the first book only hints at some of the stuff going on.


Friday, 9 March 2018

The Sadist's Bible, by Nicole Cushing

I had little idea of what to expect with The Sadist's Bible, having never read Nicole Cushing's work before, but I was quickly pulled in. There is no dallying about - we get a strong premise right away, and are dropped into the crux of the situation in a way that inspires confidence in the author. Then there are twists I didn't see coming, and imagination that surprised me - not easy to do - and I was left pondering this fascinating and horrible tale that does not overstay its welcome. My favourite books leave me wanting more, but being denied it. This fits that pattern.

Some elements reminded me of The Hellbound Heart, others of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. The book impressed me in both concept and execution. From me, that is high praise. 5*

[I've avoided spoilers, but be warned that this book contains some (well-done) extreme horror and potentially upsetting content.]


Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Sources Of Images

Where can you get images to decorate your blog posts? Can any of them be used for book covers, banners or business cards? Here are some ideas. I'll go beyond images and include some other media types.

General Images
If you want to re-use things then Creative Commons is one option. The Creative Commons search is really good, and lets you search different types of media (you can do the same for Flickr).

These sites are the main ones I browse when I am looking for free images or inspiration.
There are also sites where you pay for images. I have reservations about some of these.
Never forget the option of just taking a photo yourself! It is sometimes the easiest way, if you need have a good camera and want something very particular.
Other Media
Image Editing
I favour Gimp for editing images, including book covers. Gimp is a free, community-maintained tool. There are also free online options such as Pixlr, and paid options such as BeFunky - though both of those require crappy Flash. Many people also praise Canva for having good control of image and layout, Facebook/Twitter covers etc.

Always Check Permissions!
Many of the sites I have linked to offer images that are free as in "no money" and also free as in "no restrictions" (or fewer restrictions) on use. Although the quality of images may not be as consistently high as those on professional stock sites, I have often been impressed with the free ones available.

Note that not every image on the sites is available for every use though. Here we get into the issue of "licences" - the rules governing what the photographer says you can do with their image. Always look at the small print and check in case the images are free for personal use (e.g. decorating a blog post), but not for commercial uses (such as a book cover). Most sites will make the licensing information and permissions clear from a link. Do read this, and abide by it - it's not worth breaking the law for the sake of a minute checking what you can do with an image! If in doubt, go elsewhere. And be aware that even on the same site, different images might have different restrictions - some sites let the photographer decide on the particular licence. I usually make a screenshot of the licence and save it in a subfolder along with the image URL, for future protection.

Sites may well have their own licences, but many use Creative Commons, which has a variety of licences with different meanings. There's also public domain and royalty-free works. Even Creative Commons includes a Public Domain licence where the creator surrenders all rights in the work, so you can use it for any (legal) purpose. If you work in education then Xpert can be a useful tool - as well as finding images, it can build in the source, attribution and licence, so also teaches students about these issues.

Any graphics sites you use which other people should know about?

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

The Hippo Hangs Out . . . . with Karl Drinkwater

Recently I was interviewed on The Haphazardous Hippo. Here's a backup of the interview.

The Hippo Hangs Out . . . . with Karl Drinkwater

I’m hanging out with an author who writes several genres of books ranging from horror to contemporary fiction and I’m delighted to welcome Karl Drinkwater to The Hippo today.
Lost Solace is Karl’s latest book so let me tell you a bit about it.
Sometimes spaceships disappear with everyone on board – the Lost Ships. But sometimes they come back, strangely altered, derelict, and rumoured to be full of horrors.
Opal is on a mission. She’s been seeking something her whole life. Something she is willing to die for. And she thinks it might be on a Lost Ship.
Opal has stolen Clarissa, an experimental AI-controlled spaceship, from the military. Together they have tracked down a Lost Ship, in a lonely nebula far from colonised space.
The Lost Ship is falling into the gravity well of a neutron star, and will soon be truly lost … forever. Legends say the ships harbour death, but there’s no time for indecision.
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Lost Solace has got some fabulous reviews so I think it’s well worth taking a look at but don’t rush off and do that just yet as Karl is here now and I know you want to know more about him.
Photo courtesy of Karl Drinkwater
Karl Drinkwater is originally from Manchester but has lived in Wales for half his life. He's a full-time author, edits fiction for other writers, and was a professional librarian for over twenty-five years. He has degrees in English, Classics, and Information Science.
He writes in multiple genres: his aim is always just to tell a good story. Among his books you'll find elements of literary and contemporary fiction, gritty urban, horror, suspense, paranormal, thriller, sci-fi, romance, social commentary, and more. The end result is interesting and authentic characters, clever and compelling plots, and believable worlds.
When he isn't writing he loves exercise, guitars, computer and board games, the natural environment, animals, social justice, cake, and zombies. Not necessarily in that order.
Karl is a professional member of the Horror Writers Association, and an Author Member of the Alliance of Independent Authors.
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What book/books made you cry and why?
Harry Cat's Pet Puppy by George Selden. I read it as a child when I was coping with the death of my guinea pig. The portrayal of all the animals and the way they suffered from neglect really hit me. I was probably about eight years old. I remember crying my eyes out, wanting all beings to experience love and protection. Along the same lines would be Black Beauty by Anna Sewell and Watership Down by Richard Adams. All kids should read those books, then maybe we’d have more compassion in the world.
As an adult, I cried when I first read The Road by Cormac McCarthy. To see our world of such potential beauty destroyed by human choices, actions and cruelty … I think it hit home quite hard.
Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?
Yes. As a child I hated my surname, and wanted to change my name to James Bond. I’m glad that never happened: can you imagine the bullying I’d have endured? Anyway, I eventually made peace with my quirky surname. And since I was about seven years old I told people I’d be a writer; it then seemed better to use the name they’d recognise, so they could see I’d stuck to my obsession.
It can be difficult using a single name when you write in multiple genres as I do. I try and make it clear from each book’s description what genre it falls into, so my horror fans don’t pick up a quirky contemporary love story, or my litfic fans don’t pick up a sci-fi thriller. Then again, if it is my writing and ideas that people connect with, then perhaps having some crossover is a good thing.
What other authors are you friends with and how do they help you become a better writer?
So many. The writing community is a supportive one, and we all help each other to improve. All of the literary editors I’ve used are also authors, since authors best understand the processes and methods – when something doesn’t work, we will have suggestions to fix the problem. My friend Julie Cohen has given all sorts of useful pointers over the years, to me and many other authors, so I count her as one of my main mentors at the moment, but there have been lots of others. I also learn from the authors whose work I edit. The process of analysing text in close detail, identifying issues, and how they can be improved: doing that for other people also makes you a better writer. And the end result is the circle of friendship and support grows.
Do you often hear from your readers and what do they say?
I do get emails, blog comments, messages and so on, and they say things about my writing that make my heart swell. As with reviews, it’s a more intimate affirmation than quantitative royalty statements and sales. My last book was Lost Solace and not only has the feedback been amazing, but I’d say 90% of the praise in messages and reviews is about the main character Opal, and her artificial intelligence companion/friend/spaceship Clarissa. People fell in love with them and their relationship, their strength. And that is something that makes me proud, because in an experiment that could have backfired I had decided to write a novel that, for the bulk of it, features only those two characters. To feel the love from people’s words … that means I succeeded.
What do you think is more important: characters or plot?
Which is more important in a painting: shapes or colours? You can’t separate them, because they are both equally important overall, even if different individual works gain an effect from focusing more on one or the other. Without characters that intrigue the reader, and who face obstacles to their desires, it is hard for a reader to connect. Without things happening as a result of how characters react to the obstacles (which forms our plot), you have meandering introspection and random chance. A good book needs both. Lost Solace is praised for the characters, but without a tense and fast-paced plot (made up of obstacles to their desires, of course) the characters wouldn’t be able to show their strength and become interesting. The two elements of plot and character are entangled and mutually supportive (then ideally overlaid with other elements such as style and voice).
You get a brilliant idea/thought/phrase at an inappropriate moment (eg in the shower or driving) what do you do?
Happens all the time. I keep a pad by the bed and jot notes in the dark. Or I grab my phone and record an audio file with the ideas in. If I am in the shower I will repeat the idea until I get out and can record it; or if it is complex, I’ll develop a mnemonic that fractally compresses the concepts for decoding later. I often think of things on the verge of sleep, and am quite good at repeating then storing the idea, so that when I wake up it is the first thing in my mind and can be recorded.
 If a genie granted you three wishes what would they be?
The first one would be something to do with compassion. Maybe if humans felt the impact of their choices we wouldn’t be so selfish and thoughtless. If we felt the pain from any action that causes pain, then it would destroy selfishness and thoughtlessness at a stroke. I don’t see the point of free will if it leads to suffering. So I’d do this, and humans could be united with each other and with all sentient beings.
I’d implement a guide so that humans would restrict ourselves and our impacts to a percentage of the earth – maybe 30-40%. The rest would be left to nature, with interconnected corridors for wildlife. The problem is that currently humans and human law see the whole earth as belonging to us, just one species, and unfortunately the most destructive one. Our level of consumption increases year on year, as does our population (even when birth rates drop slightly, they still result in an overall global population increase). We’d have to voluntarily restrict our population to sustainable levels to achieve that. Covetousness of all that the eyes behold is not an endearing trait.
For the third, it would be gifts resulting from those above. Reduction of pollution. Increase in compassion and community connections. We’d have support networks, more natural lifestyles, better diets, reductions in disease. Minds that are surrounded by beauty and love and support, rather than obsessed with time pressures and hemmed in by concrete and alienation. We’d have peace. I don’t think there’s any point looking to expand to other planets until we can learn to live sustainably and at peace within the beautiful one we have already.
I love your three wishes Karl, if only we could find a genie that could grant them! I thought that the above quote fitted in with them very well and I hope you do too. 😉

You can find out more about Karl, his books and connect with him using the links below:
I'd like to thank Karl for hanging out with me today. It's been great getting to know you better. 🙂