Ten Bookmarks for Indie Authors

I don’t like chocolate.

There, I’ve said it.

So rather than some guilt-inducing transient pleasure which will probably make you nauseous anyway, my gift to you is a different kind of egg. Unwrap these goodies instead.

When I get lost, confused and start running round in wobbly circles, I need someone to hold my hand and help me understand the shifting new frontier that is independent publishing. My blog readers, I imagine, are balanced, determined individuals who never wobble and would probably pooh-pooh helping hands. Still, I’m going to share some of my favourite resources. Pooh-pooh at will.

ALLi (The Alliance of Independent Authors)

A non-profit, global, collaborative, collective of self-publishing writers, with vast resources of information. Lots of first-hand experience and a powerful force for the publishing community. Publishes daily paper with up-to-the-second news. Example post: http://selfpublishingadvice.org/blog/find-time-for-social-media-eight-tips-for-self-publishing-indie-authors/


Online community and news hub built specifically for indie authors and small, independent imprints. I gleaned so much of my print research here. Example post:


The Writing Platform

Website and programme of live events dedicated to arming writers with digital knowledge. Free online resource for all writers and poets ­ emerging, established, not yet published, traditionally published and self-published ­ who are looking for neutral information about writing in a digital age. Rescue remedy for technophobes.


The Creative PennTIPE Jo

A personal favourite, who’ll be delivering her third Zürich seminar this autumn, Joanna Penn shares her breadth of knowledge as an independent author. Writing, publishing, marketing, speaking; she’s got it all going on. Example post: http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2009/08/14/3-steps-to-start-author-platform-building/

Indie ReCon

Last month’s virtual conference for indie writers provided advice and intelligence on EVERYTHING. Seriously, check out the schedule and tell me what they missed. Here, you can find all you need to know.


Jane Friedman

Outspoken, opinionated and extremely well informed, Jane shares her knowledge on writing, reading and publishing in the digital age. Down to the nitty-gritty, this is one woman you want on your side. Read this:


Emma Darwin

Another friend of the Zürich writing community, Emma’s blog is a go-to site for authors particularly curious about the craft. All her posts are useful, but for me, this one resonated like a cathedral bell.


Catherine Ryan Howard

Writer, blogger and coffee enthusiast from Cork, Catherine helps writers with all the questions we are afraid to ask. This post on US tax issues has been one of the most popular and useful pieces of advice ever.


David Gaughrean

As well as being the chief source of the information in Catherine’s tax post, David hosts his own blog, Let’s Get Digital. His advice is solid, realistic, practical and indispensable to the contemporary writer. I recommend David’s book to everyone because he been there and done it. Then shared. Look at this:


Triskele Toolbox

And of course, our own growing bag of goodies on manuscript presentation, time management, indie reviewers, crime and historical research, peer review sites, cover design and more to come.



Happy Easter!


… Dwight V Swain – Techniques of the Selling Writer.
I read Swain’s book a long time ago but recently picked it up again as a refresher.
Here’s a summary of the bits I found most pertinent.

1.      Story elements: character, situation, objective, opponent, disaster. Write the story question: two sentences – one statement which establishes character, situation and objective. One closed question which nails opponent and disaster.
When high-profile Fat Cats start committing suicide, Detective Beatrice Stubbs investigates if something more than conscience got to them. Can she track down the puppeteer behind these murders before the killer cuts her strings?
2.      Get started: use desire, danger and decision. Start with a change – a character in an existing situation is affected by an event, triggering consequences. But answer the three reader questions: Where am I? What’s up? Whose skin am I in?
Don’t labour backstory; the past holds no suspense. The end of the beginning comes when the character has committed to action, to answering the story question. Will she? Can she? The reader must care.
3.      Develop the middle: don’t stand still. Every unit must build, focused on the story question, taking the character(s) from frying pan to fire, adding complications and constantly changing. (See scene and sequel below.) Begin to snip off loose ends as you build to climax.

4.      Climax: set up the situation where the character faces the ultimate dilemma. Make her act on her irrevocable choice and reward/punish her for her decision. Box her in, make principles preclude the easy option, the alternative must spell disaster but the goal remains vital. Use a gimmick – an object or phenomenon which exerts a powerful emotional pull. Register this early in the story – the talisman, thunderstorm, sound of a sitar – and bring it back at the climax, tipping her in the desired direction.

5.      Resolution: after the climax, the character suffers a moment of anguish – did she do the right thing? Reverse the situation with an unexpected development; the obvious won’t do. Give her the reward. The satisfying ending is not the same as the happy one. Her original desire may have changed completely, but an emotional need is met. It’s the original goal you need to fulfil/deny, depending on whether your ending is positive/negative. Tie up any loose ends and indicate the characters have a future.
6.      How to write in scenes and sequels.
A scene is a unit of conflict, lived through by character and reader. A sequel is a unit of transition to link two scenes. A scene should follow a pattern: goal, conflict, disaster. The reader must understand the goal, which needs to be specific, and aware of the forces of opposition, which generates conflict. Within the conflict, you can add more challenges & complexities, upping the stakes and increasing the challenge. Finally, a curveball arrives, throwing your character into a situation where she faces a choice. This is your hook – what will she do now?
7.      Scene-writing Dos …
Do establish time, place, circumstance and viewpoint at the start – confusion infuriates readers. Even if the main character isn’t in this scene, it must have a focal character to orient the reader.
Do establish scene goal quickly. It must be specific and achievable within the time frame.
Do ensure strong, unified forces of antagonism for power and clarity.
Do build to a curtain line. The disaster may not be actually disastrous, but it raises the question – what’s next?

… and Don’ts
Don’t write too small. It’s hard to develop a meaningful scene in under a thousand words.
Don’t go into flashback. Scenes need forward movement in the present. Flashbacks at moments of conflict are unrealistic, straining the reader’s patience. Don’t summarise. Let the reader live every moment of the tension.
8.      A sequel’s function is to translate the previous disaster into a new goal, to telescope reality and to control tempo. Sequels show the character’s reaction and new direction, based on logic. This takes longer and may lack movement, so summary is essential. This is the valley after the peak, a breathing space. Sequel’s structure is reaction, dilemma, decision. These may involve incidents and interactions, but no conflict. Skip the emotionally non-pertinent, use the symbolic fragment to indicate state of mind, create an impressionistic montage to convey the essence.

Scene/sequel balance: if it’s boring, build the scenes. If it’s improbable, build the sequels.

9.      Motivation and reaction. A motivating stimulus occurs, a factor outside your character, and causes a reaction from within. These motivation-reaction (MR) units are what carry your story forward. Emotional reactions need to be presented sequentially: feeling into action into speech. This pattern of emotion represents an increase of control for the character. Feeling is impulse, action is choice and speech a considered step. One of the stages, if obvious, can be left out on the page. But it’s there in the reader’s mind.

10.  The words you use. Bring images, sounds, tastes, scents and feelings to life with vivid use of words. To achieve vivid use of words, your two key tools are nouns and verbs. Nouns should be specific, concrete and definite, while verbs must be active. The verb ‘to be’ is weak because it’s static. Cut ‘to be’ forms every chance you can, and avoid the past perfect ‘had been, hadn’t done’ wherever possible. Active description can sidestep adverbs and be sparing with adjectives. Making a comparison to another image (metaphor or similie) is an excellent device for achieving vividness.

… the Zurich Writers’ Workshop

I spent a May weekend in the company of fourteen writers; reading, discussing and analysing what makes great writing. Two successful authors gave us the benefit of their experience and guided us towards making improvements in our own work. Two practical, useful and inspiring days, in which I also met some amazing writers.

Here’s what I learned and/or remembered, from major issues to the tiniest details:

1. Root your story. Place, time and character orient readers and help them interpret the action.

Example – Julia Alvarez’s Snow.

2. Choose the details which perform this orientation with care, avoiding obvious and familiar examples.

Example – Carolyn Forché’s The Colonel.

3. What are the stakes for your character? Do we know from the outset what s/he stands to lose or gain? And do we care?

Example – Alex Garland’s The Tesseract.

4.  Is the story arc clear, representing fundamental change between beginning and end? Example – Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love.

5. Even if a story is true, it must be believable as a story. Reality often makes the worst fiction. Add those details which bring the piece to fictional life.Omit those which don’t.

Example – Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher.

6. Look at where you begin your story. Do you need your prologue, your framing device? Is that the best place to start, or a writer’s conceit? What purpose does the section before the story serve?

7.  Be aware of subtext. Dialogue and action, as well as serving a purpose in moving the story on, can carry subtler resonances.

Example – Tobias Wolff’s Say Yes.

8.  Rewrite. Ensure every scene, every line, every word earns its place. Check that every line, paragraph and chapter ends with the strongest word.

9.  When writing a query letter, be professional. Avoid excessive arrogance, but do sell yourself. Avoid fawning humility, but show respect. Compare your work to well-known writers or books relevant to yours. Make your target agent’s life easier by putting your name, title and page count (eg; 3/15) in the header/footer.

10. Your profile on the Internet can be a useful tool. It can also shoot you in the foot. Be professional at all times.