HOW TO SUCCESSFULLY LAUNCH A BOOK IN WELLINGTON

KiwiBookFeast

Dear Wellington...

Your taxi drivers are very polite.

Your streets are bustling.

You love books.

Thanks for having me.

Kind regards,

Kirsten McKenzie, Author


On the 18th February, I flew down to Wellington for the inaugural Kiwi Book Feast with six other New Zealand authors. The concept being that sharing the costs involved with a launch, and sharing the publicity, and the work load, would make all the more impact. And it did.

Having seven diverse authors all marketing the Kiwi Book Feast to their own networks was far more effective that slathering the city with posters and tweeting into the ether...

For an inaugural event, it was a learning curve, deciding on the run sheet, the catering, the venue, the date, the time, the authors, the layout. A hundred different decisions. For an event we hope to repeat around the country - with future books, some new authors possibly, who knows, it's a fluid thing.

Potentially a library or a bookstore may have been a better location, although holding it in a bar ensured fantastic food, a flow of beverages, and a dedicated sound guy, and a stage. So there were plenty of pluses! 

We had a lovely bookish Wellington crowd, and plenty of Twitter personalities turned up to support us, which was fabulous. And I was blessed by two friends flying down from Auckland to surprise me. I should have worn waterproof mascara...

We were also all very grateful to the support given to us by the New Zealand Book Council. They've just launched their beautiful new website. You should go and have a look at it - NZ Book Council Website

Ten things you need to know for a book launch, anywhere in the world:

  1. Sensible shoes. I sat down once, for about 10 minutes, over the four hours of the event.

  2. Cash - have a float. $10 notes, $5 notes. Just enough to provide change if everyone only pays with $20 notes.

  3. Have a display which is sympathetic with the content of your books. Historical? Have a couple of vintage props. Western themed? Horsey type props. Science Fiction? Not sure where you'd get your hands on some space junk, but maybe cobble something together!

  4. Extension cord... I have battery powered lights which I tuck in the side of my suitcases, but I did note that one of our authors came prepared with a multi plug and an extension cord. Pack it.

  5. Mailing List Sign Up Sheet. I've put that in bold, because I didn't have one. I must pack this into my book display suit case. That's this weeks job. Pack some pens too. Practice signing your book. 

  6. Price List - People don't like to ask the price of your books. They like to see clear signage showing the price of one book, two books, or the complete set. Make it easy for them.

  7. Books. Self explanatory. But also book type things that can be slipped into your books, or into handbags. Nothing bulky. A bookmark, a postcard, all with your book and contact information printed on them.

  8. Don't sit behind your table. I know lots of people feel more comfortable doing this, but I'm more a stand to the side, or stand to the side in front of the display. Its easier to engage. Easier to pass the book to a prospective customer. And on the topic of your table. Buy a table cloth. If you can't afford a table cloth, use your top sheet and iron it first.

  9. Dress to impress: You're trying to portray that you are a professional, that you're serious about your writing. You don't have to go all Annie Hall, but maybe think beyond your usual old jeans and t-shirt. At the first two NZ Book Festivals I went with a long skirt and a velvet jacket. At the Kiwi Book Feast I wore smart jeans and a white cotton shirt, with a brooch. I felt smart and comfortable. The brooch was a nod towards the vintage theme of my books. Something to think about.

  10. Smile. Smile and engage. Ask the people at your table about the weather outside. Ask if it's improved, or if the rain has finally arrived. Weather is a very safe topic. It's an easy opener. Even if you're shy you can say "Has it stopped raining today?" or "Isn't it a lovely day for being out and about". Give it a go. Relax and have confidence in your work. That'll flow through to your own personal confidence. Good luck.

BRAVING THE CURIOUS ROLLERCOASTER OF AMAZON RANKINGS

Eat your heart out Disneyland and Universal Studios, you have nothing on the stomach churning rollercoaster of Amazon rankings...

Rollercoaster Postcard

Every author does it. Everyone tells us not to do it but we still do. We can't help it. It's like a drug. A legal high. It's either an adrenaline rush or a crushing debilitating blow, but we go back the next day, and the next and the next. We hit the refresh button with the same frenzy a gambling addict pulls the arm on a slot machine in Vegas. We check our rankings on Amazon.

Yes. We hit that refresh button so often that we wear the feet off our poor little mice.

Sometimes our rankings are up. And sometimes they're down. And sometimes there's such a tiny change that we'd rather see a noticeable drop than no change at all.

Queen of Hearts

And the worst of it is that most of the time, we have no idea why our rankings change. That's right. We, the authors, have almost no idea why they change. Sometimes we can pinpoint an upswing because we spent $28 on Facebook marketing (yes, Facebook marketing really worked for me!) or sometimes it's because a well connected book blogger raved about our book. Sometimes it's just because it's sunny, or the moon is in Jupiter, or the History channel is running its tenth repeat of a documentary about the gold rush and suddenly people are interested in everything that glitters.

I'm not going to go into the mechanics of how the Amazon algorithms work, many minds greater than mine have done that all over the internet, and you can read some fascinating pieces of research without having to search too far. I just know that over the last couple of months I've seen a lovely upwards trend in the sales rankings for Fifteen Postcards and The Last Letter, and I am eternally grateful to the people who have bought and read my books. What an honour it is you've placed your trust in me to write something which will entertain you.

Last year I set a goal of making the Top 100 for Historical Fiction on Amazon. It was part of a longer list I had laminated and had stuck to the wall of my shower so I could read it everyday. I can categorically confirm that writing your goals down and keeping them visible is as effective as everyone says it is. First I hit #91 on the Historical Fiction list, and I thought all my dreams had come true. THEN I HIT #56. WHAT AN ACHIEVEMENT. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I'm not too concerned about the why's and how's of the Amazon algorithms, I'm purely in the camp of "selling more equals a higher ranking". Simple really. I'm sure I could be a lot more pedantic about tracking my social media activity against the subtle changes in my sales ranking, but I'm not that sort of person. I've got a family I need to interact meaningfully with, and more books I should be writing, and reading, so I'm happy just celebrating these milestones when I notice them.

Thank you for reading my books. Here's to slowly creeping up the rankings as the new year kicks into gear.

BLAME THE PARENTS - MY RESPONSE TO BEING SUCCESSFUL

I've just returned from exhibiting at the 3rd Annual New Zealand Book Festival, which was held in Auckland on the 5th November. It is a showcase for independently published authors (formerly known as self published authors). They graciously let me join them because my publisher is based in the United Kingdom, and I'm all on my own down here in New Zealand.

While my goal at the festival was to interact with potential readers, and sell signed copies of my books, I also had an opportunity to look around, to see what everyone else was selling, and how they were doing it. And it was clear that not all authors have the same level of expertise of selling direct to their potential readers.

Some of my clearest childhood memories revolve around being carted around the North Island of New Zealand while my parents exhibited at numerous small town antique fairs - Taupo, Cambridge, Tauranga, Rotorua, and at the big fairs in Auckland. I've carted so many boxes and pieces of furniture, and valuable antiques, that it's second nature. As is setting up an attractive stand, and selling to the public. My father would set it all up, while Mum, my brother, and I would unpack all the crates. Dad would go outside for a cigarette, and Mum would rearrange everything until it looked perfect. As I got older, I was allowed to help serve. Setting me up with valuable life skills.

It was with that background that I planned my stand for the New Zealand Book Festival. I marked out the dimensions of my stand in the garage, gathered together my props, paid for professional signage, and fiddled with it until it looked right.

The photos above show the mock up in the garage. The signage was from last year's festival - I still had to pick up the new signage from the printing company, and the "table" is the old gas heater, standing in for the larger card table I was picking up the next day from Antique Alley. I was fortunate to be allocated a corner stand.

The photographs below are from the 2016 New Zealand Book Festival. This is my finalised stand in all its glory. The only downside being that copies of 'The Last Letter' didn't arrive in time for the festival... Antique rug, bowl of flowers, clear signage, props, books on display, postcards to hand out, professionally presented author with smiling face.

Note the complete absence of a chair. Last year I had a chair behind my little card table, a nice chair mind you, but I sat on it, behind my table, seemingly unapproachable to potential readers. This year I ditched the chair, wore flat (gold) brogues, and had a far more successful festival. I engaged with people walking in the door, I handed them postcards for my two books (designed by my publisher, and printed in Auckland). I also sold books. Lots more than I did last year.

And I blame that success on my parents. They showed me the benefits of having a beautifully presented stand. They demonstrated how it made a difference if you dressed nicely, instead of wearing grubby jeans and a polo shirt. They taught me invaluable customer service skills - smile, and don't play on your cellphone. You're there to work, to interact, to make connections. 

The NZ Book Festival committee worked hard to make the festival a success, and for those of us who put in the effort at our end, it was a success. For those stall holders with hand written signs, and big scary trestle tables at the front of their stands, and half a dozen chairs behind it, filled with authors reading the newspaper or playing on their cellphones, it wasn't a success. There are learning points in all things, and hopefully those authors will learn for next time. I didn't have the right point of sale signage. It sent mixed signals. So after half a day I took it down. Sales took off. I won't make that mistake again. Another author, Andrene Low, had very clear point of sale signage showing the deals she was offering on her books at the book festival. I'm stealing her ideas for next year!

We all learn, and independent authors need to learn faster - if they want to shake off the yoke of their work being considered less than professional. If you look unprofessional or your stand looks unprofessional, sadly people will judge your book to be unprofessional too. I'm sure their work is excellent, but as much as we all say 'don't judge a book by its cover' (about books and people), humans invariably do. Especially in a cavernous hall with eighty other authors competing for the finite amount of money in the pockets of the attendees.

On the plus side, not only did I sell books at the festival, but I bought one as well - 'The Psychology Workbook For Writers' by Darian Smith. He had great signage, was standing up, and was engaged with the attendees. I've started reading it. The chapter which starts on page four is titled: Blame The Parents... #fate 

I'm excited about next years New Zealand Book Festival. I think it will go from strength to strength, and I'm honoured to be part of it.

THE ENTIRELY TRICKY TASK OF CHOOSING A BOOK COVER

NEVER EVER JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER...

ALWAYS JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER...

IT'S WHATS BETWEEN THE COVER WHICH COUNTS...

With the publication date of my second book, 'The Last Letter', looming, now comes the trickiest part of publishing. The cover design.

Writing the book was easy. Editing the book was fairly easy. Choosing a cover for the book? Not at all easy.

So far, we are up to draft #3, and I'm hopeful draft #4 will be the final version.

Before signing a contract with Accent Press, I'd paid for a cover design through the website Design Crowd. To this day, I still love their version.

       The winning Design Crowd cover

       The winning Design Crowd cover

Accent Press advised that this image wouldn't work when its shrunk down to Amazon icon size. So, after signing my first publishing contract with them, they proposed this cover:

It was a little more gruesome than I'd anticipated...

It was a little more gruesome than I'd anticipated...

After some discussion, revolving around a cover with less blood, we agreed on the fantastic cover which now appears in your bookcases.

And now we move onto the process of choosing a cover for my second book, 'The Last Letter'.

Without giving too much of the plot away, the story takes you back to New Zealand, India and England. With a splash of Roman antiquities, Maori carvings, and a hint of Spitfire pilots in WWII.

My publisher is based overseas, so understandably their knowledge of the appropriate use of Maori imagery wasn't as up with the play as mine. Especially when there are hundreds, if not thousands, of stock images of Maori carvings and taonga (treasure) available on the Internet. And while I did adore the first cover they designed, after taking advice from two trusted Maori colleagues, I had to veto the use of the Maori carving, which in essence, is the depiction of someone's ancestor, a high ranking chieftain by the looks of it.

So then we toyed around with the idea of a greenstone necklace, a Roman statue, pocket watches. I've now realised that pocket watches are synonymous with time slip novels, and adorn almost every cover out there. The designers at Accent Press then came up with an image of a hei tiki (tiki), which I loved.

After much discussion on Facebook and Twitter, it was roundly agreed that the balance of the two images was out. Do you agree?

Draft #2 of the cover for 'The Last Letter'. We all agreed that the balance was out.

Draft #2 of the cover for 'The Last Letter'. We all agreed that the balance was out.

So it was sent back to the designer, who tweaked the colour balance, removed an errant watermark off the tiki's hand, and deleted a random full stop at the end of the tagline. This was the version that came back:

Draft cover #3 for 'The Last Letter'

Draft cover #3 for 'The Last Letter'

Almost there. Almost, but not quite.

I compared a printout of the draft cover, with the cover of 'Fifteen Postcards', and was struck with the fact that my author name wasn't in the same position. Which, to me, looked peculiar. What do you think? Is this just my OCD, or do you agree that the author name needs to be in the same place on both books, and on the future third book in the series? So it was sent back for more tweaking!

Comparison of draft cover #3 and the final cover of Fifteen Postcards. Note the placement of the author name.

Comparison of draft cover #3 and the final cover of Fifteen Postcards. Note the placement of the author name.

My publisher is in the business of selling books, and they know which covers work, and which covers don't. I'm hoping to have the finalised cover back this coming week, ready for 'The Last Letter' to be released on the 1st of November, my birthday...

So there you have it. Choosing a cover is by far the hardest part of this whole process. So if you'll excuse me, I'll go back to writing another book in the meantime!

WHEN YOUR INTERVIEW INCLUDES QUESTIONS ABOUT YOUR UNDERWEAR...

Here's the transcript of an interview I did with the New Zealand based bookshop 'Writer's Plot Reader's Read', an incredible independent bookshop which only stocks work by New Zealand authors. 

What’s your favourite type of takeaway? 

Indian. Butter Chicken. The bastardised NZ version, with a plain naan bread and rice.

Describe your current mental status.

Grieving. This year I’ve lost one girlfriend to Singapore, one to Tauranga, and now one to Perth. All due to job availability. I’m in need of more friends…

I know how I do what I do … but how do you do what you do?

Through the life giving strength of coffee and wine, although not at the same time.

Could you tell us a little bit about your latest work?

The one I’ve just finished, or the one I’m half way through? The one I’ve just finished is the sequel to my first historical fiction novel, ‘Fifteen Postcards’. Titled ‘The Last Letter’, it’s due for publication on the 1st November, which is also my birthday. So I thought everyone could buy a copy in honour of my birthday…

Do you have a favourite coffee or tea?

Just a little bit of wine...

Just a little bit of wine...

There are different coffees? Seriously, I’ll drink almost any version of coffee presented to me. When it comes to tea, I am a little more picky - English Breakfast first, usually Twining's. Followed by Earl Grey (but only if nothing else is available). I’ll drink peppermint tea, which is okay, but I don’t seek it out.

Walk us through a typical day. (Do you make sure you’re wearing your lucky underpants before you sit down to write, perhaps you prefer commando? While we’re discussing your underpants, boxers, briefs, or budgie smugglers. Inquiring minds want to know. Yes, that includes my Admins… we don’t piss off the Admins.)

Underpants must match your bra (or at least that was the case before I had children. Now I’m lucky if my bra is clean…).

A typical day is wake up, drink coffee, make breakfasts, make lunches, tell everyone to hurry up, walk them to school, walk home, drink more coffee, think about writing, faff about on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, read the NZHerald online, faff about on social media some more, kid myself that I’m making connections, make another coffee, make lunch, see that its 2pm, start writing, get into a great writing groove, bash out 500 or so words, then pick up the children from school, forget what my train of thought was, feed children, take them to their after school activities, come home, drink wine, make dinner, put children to bed, faff about on social media, at about 10pm find the motivation to start writing, write about 300 great words, then realise I have to get up in seven hours, so go to bed, and lose train of thought again…rinse and repeat.

Tell us about your main character

I first met Sarah Lester when I was at work in the family antique shop. Oddly, she’s a little bit like me. Although one reviewer described her as a ‘bubble-head’. I was hurt at first, but actually I’ve embraced that side of her in my writing, and I think the reviewer did me a favour by calling me out on that. I like that she misses her Dad so much. I miss mine desperately, and have everyday since he died suddenly ten years ago of heart failure. Through her pleas to her father, I’m really releasing my own dreams for my father to come back.

Who are your favourite writers?

Edward Rutherfurd, he of the massive multigenerational tomes such as London, Paris, Russka, Sarum.

George R.R. Martin - for his utterly amazing character development, and his descriptive passages.

Deborah Harkness. It was reading her Old Souls trilogy which encouraged me to write.

Who inspires you to do better? 

My brother, who in the beginning said I never finish anything, when I told him I was going to write a book…well I’ve finished two books now, signed two publishing contracts, and I am half way through my third one! My husband was all good with my quitting my job, and my children (mostly) leave me to do my writing after I’ve begged time to write “just two hundred more words”.

Do you ever put pants on your dog, cat, or budgie?

We have a fancy Santa suit which we try to dress the cat up in every year. She hates Christmas…

Describe your perfect day

Late sleep in. Breakfast in bed. Move from bed to outside in the summer’s sunshine, with a book, a guava juice, then a dip in the pool, cocktails by the pool, a dinner cooked by someone other than me. Did I mention the wine with dinner?

Who is your favourite fictitious villain? Or are you all about the hero? Who do you love to hate?

I like the cunning of Moriarty. The droll delivery of Professor Snape. And the creepy evilness of Hannibal Lector - where you can’t help but actually like the guy…

Do you have any quirks?

I am an eye roller…got me in plenty of trouble at work. Sometimes I just can’t help myself. Stupid people deserve a gratuitous eye roll…I must work harder at controlling this.

All-time favourite movie and why?

Midnight in Paris. 1/ It’s Paris. 2/ It has the best actors playing some of the best authors and artists history ever gave us. 3/ The soundtrack - I’m listening to it now as I type this.  

Do you enjoy the editing process?

Actually yes. I find it easier than the writing of the initial story. 

If you could live anywhere in the world where would it be and why?

New Zealand seems pretty safe to be honest. And progressive. And clean. And I have travelled a lot. I’d prefer to live by the beach than in central Auckland, but that’ll come in the future. 

Lake Tarawera, New Zealand

Lake Tarawera, New Zealand

Favorite Pizza topping?

Pepperoni. But we have started buying the three cheese pizza, which is fast becoming my favourite. 

What were you before you became a writer?

Writing is my third career. I was a Customs Officer for fourteen years, before my father died. After that, my brother and I both quit our jobs to run the family antique business, which we did for ten years. Now he owns it. And I write full time.

What is the most random thing you have ever done?

Went on an archaeological dig at Vindolanda in Northumberland in England for two weeks. Two of the best weeks of my life. I loved every shovel full of dirt I moved. And I’ll be putting my name down for another go next year.

If you’re not working, what are you most likely doing?

Volunteering on the PTA. For my sins, I am the chairperson. The PTA is not for the faint of heart I can assure you. I have made some wonderful wonderful friends, but it is a lot of work. 

Who is your ultimate character?

Arya Stark in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books. She just gets on with it, and doesn’t wither away in the dark. 

Whiskey or Bourbon? Red or white wine? Tequila? Beer?

A whiskey liqueur - Glayva. Any wine…usually I’d prefer a Pinot Gris or a Riesling for a white wine, and then an Otago Pinot Noir for my red. Never tequila, nor beer.

What’s in your pockets? (Or handbag, whatever you carry your stuff in. Are you apocalypse prepared?)

I have a small country in my handbag. I have two children…

Laptop, PC, Mac, tablet?

MacBook Air

Ebook or tree book?

Any book. I have a Kindle. But I also have a stack of library books, and books from friends, old favourites. 

Favorite apocalyptic scenario?

The Hunger Games scenario seems to be the most likely scenario to descend upon earth sadly…

Where do you do most of your writing?

At the dining room table. I have an office, but theres a better view from the dining room. Which is also closer to the kettle.

What’s the hardest thing for you when it comes to being an author?

Singing my own praises. We have a saying in our house, “be more American”. American’s don’t seem to have any problem singing their own praises. In New Zealand we are all far too scared to being tall poppies and being cut down by our peers.

 

Note: This interview was first published on the Writer's Plot Reader's Read website on 13th October 2016.

 

THE EXCITEMENT OF BEING PUBLISHED BY PENGUIN

On the 15th March this year, I opened my email and found this:

Penguin Thanks

Is there anything more exciting than the iconic image of the penguin from Penguin Random House? Well yes, a publishing contract with them would be more exciting, but I digress! 

Now I'm not being greedy, I have a publisher, Accent Press, a fine publisher based in the United Kingdom, who I have just signed a second publishing contract with, but when you've grown up reading Penguin books, that little logo brings back so many happy memories.

A stack of penguins

I had written a short poem celebrating my beautiful mother, and Penguin had selected it for inclusion in their Mother's Day anthology, 'Thanks Mum', and I was so proud, and I couldn't tell anyone about it!

I'm not known for my secret keeping ability, I'd make an appalling spy, but I didn't want to tell anyone as I wanted to give Mum a copy of the anthology for Mother's Day, so this was a secret I kept. And it ate away at me. I told my husband, swearing him to secrecy. I told my hairdresser, and swore him to secrecy too. And that's it!

Finally Mother's Day brunch rolled around, and I presented Mum with her own copy. There were tears. So now I can share it all with you. And now I can also legitimately say that I have been published by Penguin...although they didn't use my surname...

Thanks Mum
Mums Poem

WHAT HAPPENS AFTER YOU SIGN ON THE DOTTED LINE?

THE SEQUEL TO FIFTEEN POSTCARDS IS COMING.

Contract.jpg

In late May I signed my second publishing contract with Accent Press, a publisher in the United Kingdom. The contract was for the sequel to Fifteen Postcards, titled The Last Letter. And now the work begins...

Now my manuscript is in the very capable hands of my editor, David Powell, and he'll massage it into something far better than what I sent him.

When I say he'll massage it, he'll make a few thousand notations down the sides of the pages, correcting grammatical errors, and querying a myriad of issues he'll no doubt discover in the 131,000 words I wrote.

Then we'll spend several weeks sending the document backwards and forwards across the Tasman Sea, via email, until we are both happy, and then the final product gets sent to the UK for my publisher to typeset, and massage into book form.

In the meantime, I'll also be sent a draft of the cover for approval, or comment. That may go back and forwards a couple of times. I suggested some concepts this time, and now I wait to see if those meet with favour on the other side of the world.

It's a scary thing putting your creative efforts into the hands of others, who then have the power, and the signed contract, to do with as they please! But this is the way of authors who have chosen not to self publish. There are pros and cons with both sides of the coin. I've chosen this side.

It's not a free ride, either way. Even authors with one of the big five publishers have to do their fair share of the marketing. Blog posts, guest posts, book signings, media articles, radio interviews, library visits, book club attendances, Goodreads, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, yes, even Google+. Don't forget LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Instagram. I've drawn the line at Snapchat - there is only so much time in the day, and my family would like me to speak to them at times. 

There's all this, and...you still need to write the next one!

Workspace.jpg

WHY WOULD YOU GIVE IT AWAY FOR FREE?

There are thousands of blog posts on the subject. Q&As on Goodreads and Facebook, and on every other site purporting to help authors with their marketing. Long streams about the pros and cons of giving your books away for free on LinkedIn. Even Google+ has its share of posts relating to giving away eBooks on Amazon, and on the hundreds of other sites out there.

Book Stack

Each post talks up the benefits of giving away eBooks as a method of getting your name out there, of attracting a following, for marketing purposes, to generate reviews, to be the next Andy Weir. But does it work? Or are there millions of free unread eBooks mouldering away on Kindles, discarded and forgotten?

An Amazon search brings up 93,488 eBooks currently available for free. A plethora of erotic novellas, Game of Thrones-esque length fantasy books, fan-fiction, and self-help books feature heavily. The result of those 93,488 free eBooks? Readers expect more books to be free, and balk at paying less than the price of an average coffee for your average book.

There was a post recently detailing the circumstances where a reader, who’d enjoyed the eBooks they’d purchased on Amazon, had returned them, because, although they’d enjoyed them, they only wanted free books, and asked the author to list their books for free from here on in. They didn’t want to have to pay for them

Many people would be surprised to know you can return eBooks, or that such a facility exists on Amazon. Have you ever tried returning a book you’ve read to a bricks and mortar bookstore, and asking for your money back? There wouldn’t be many instances where they’d refund you after you’d read and returned a book you’d purchased. So why does Amazon allow it? The internet is littered with petitions asking Amazon to fix this, but nothing ever changes.

A book can take anywhere from a few months to a few years to write. Then, traditionally, authors have to find an agent, a publisher, followed by editing, cover design, marketing. Even self-published books need editing, formatting, a cover. It all takes time, and money.

I haven’t listed my book on Amazon for free. The eBook remains at the same price it was when it launched – $2.34. That’s about the price of half a cup of coffee but it’s still something. I put too much work into it to give it away for free. My book is in libraries. It’s in bookstores. I’ve done readings. I’m on Goodreads, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram, and yes, even Google+. I work hard, and damn it, I want to reap the rewards of that, in the form of quarterly and annual royalties from my publisher. You don’t get royalties from free eBooks.

In all the posts about the pros and cons of giving your work away for free, an overwhelming number of authors point out that giving their work away for free has not resulted in reviews, or increased exposure, or a stratospheric rise up the Amazon Best Selling Lists.

So my advice is: don’t do it. Put the effort in and do some old-fashioned leg-work. Make personal approaches to well-regarded book reviewers. Take a table at a local fair and talk to your potential audience. Approach your library.

Keep writing. Value the work you do. Because if you don’t value it, no one else will either.

Note: This post first appeared on The Spinoff : thespinoff.co.nz

6 July 2016

Setting Your Scene - How Much Research is Enough?

Today I welcome Historical Fiction author Tom Williams to my blog where he talks about how much research is too much, and goes into a nice little aside about how to forge bank notes...

Kirsten's background in the antiques business means that she is very aware of the historical artefacts that appear in her books. In fact, Fifteen Postcards is based around things that she might have found in her antique shop.

In writing historical novels, authors will be continually concerned about the items that their characters see, talk about, or use in their day-to-day activities. Getting them right is crucial, but continually shoehorning them into the plot to prove that you have "done your research" can lead to appallingly turgid writing.

Different novels, for different audiences, will emphasise different aspects of the past. Historical romances tend to dwell on clothing, often described in loving detail. I struggle with descriptions of clothes. I'm not generally that interested in what my characters are wearing, although I do usually check some images of people at the time so I have some idea of what they would have looked like. Of course, in my James Burke books, set in the Napoleonic wars, there are a lot of characters in military uniforms and these provide obvious descriptive opportunities. Still, I do try to avoid the trap that many specialists in military history seem to fall into when every uniform is described right down to the decoration stamped onto the buttons. I suppose, though, that this is again a case of who you are writing for – there are clearly people out there who love this sort of military minutiae and probably resent my failure to go into quite so much detail.

In many of my books there are some items that seem crucial to characters or plot or both. For me, getting these right can be central to the writing process. In Back Home the idea for the book came from accounts of 19th-century coiners and I decided that I wanted to be as accurate as possible in my depiction of their activities. I read a lot about coining in Mayhew, whose account of criminal life in London (in London Labour and the London Poor) gives a great deal of detail. I was lucky that while I was writing there was an exhibition on crime at the Museum of London and this included items that the police had confiscated from forgers, letting us see the actual tools they used in producing fake money. I read some modern accounts of electroplating, which was used to put the finish on the coins, and studied these until I was reasonably confident that I could make my own coinage using items I could readily have obtained in 1859. Most (but not all) of this information did make its way into the finished book, but, more importantly, it let me imagine the practical realities of turning out significant quantities of coinage in a basement workshop. With the core of my story firmly established in my mind, I was able to relax more with the tale built around it.

Writing about 19th-century London was relatively easy, because, living in London and with ready access to 19th-century prints and novels – let alone a plethora of television dramas – I, like many people, have a reasonable "feel" for the place and period. Even so, it's easy to find yourself completely lost. If somebody walks in to the lodgings of a poor person in 1859, what would they expect to see? Again, I often fell back on Mayhew. He provides masses of descriptive passages with street scenes, interiors and the characters who inhabit them. My loiterers in Seven Dials are unashamedly stolen from him and the back story of some minor characters is also taken from his book. I used contemporary maps to plot the paths of my characters’ walks around town and visited some of the locations myself so that I could imagine, from what they look like today, what they must have been like then. Imagining “then” was helped by descriptions in Dickens’ novels.

Most of my historical novels have included significant references to real people, but only one of the characters in Back Home is an actual historical figure – Karl Marx. As with other people I have included in my books, I read his letters to get a feel, not only for the facts of his life, but for the way that he talked about them. He is only a minor character in Back Home, but his dialogue reflects the way that he wrote. Of course, we can't know how he actually spoke, but I suspect it was like that.

Overall, then, I try to give my imagination a lot of space to move around a few fixed points, some of them defined by the objects in my characters’ lives, some of them by pictures and documents referencing them, some of them by place and, whenever possible, some of them in their own words.

There's a lot of real history in many historical novels, including mine. Part of the trick, though, is that this shouldn't be immediately obvious to the reader. A novel has to work firstly as a story – the items in the lives of our characters are the set dressing. It is our words that are the script.

BOOK LINKS

The White Rajah

Cawnpore

Back Home

The James Burke Series

Burke in the Land of Silver

Burke and the Bedouin

Burke at Waterloo

Bio:

Tom Williams used to write about boring things for money. If you wanted an analysis of complaints volumes in legal services or attitudes to diversity at the BBC, then he was your man. Now he writes much more interesting books about historical characters and earns in a year about what he could make in a day back then. (This, unfortunately, is absolutely true.) He also writes a blog (http://thewhiterajah.blogspot.co.uk/) which is widely read all over the world and generates no income at all.

Besides making no money from writing, Tom makes no money out of occasionally teaching people to tango and then spends all the money he hasn’t made on going to dance in Argentina. 

Tom has a wife who, fortunately, has a well-paid job, and a grown-up son who has resolved that he is never, ever, going to write anything.

Tom's blog

Tom's Facebook

Tom on Twitter

What Should My Next Novel Be About?

A tricky question indeed!

Having written two books in the Old Curiosity Shop Series, I could just as easily work on Book #3...which will come as a surprise to those of you who thought I was only going to write two books in the series. I changed my mind. There will be three.  A trilogy. 

But should my next book be the third (and final) book in the trilogy, or should it be something else? I think it should be something else. My mind needs a break from Sarah Lester and Warden Price, and the poor Raja.

Last week I stumbled upon a snippet of information while researching our family trip to Italy later this year, and it stuck with me. I wrote it down, and today I visited my local library. Have I mentioned how much I love my local library? I do. I love it. I love my librarians. I love the building. I love its contents, and I love how welcoming they are. Anyway, I found a couple of books which will help with the background for my next book. My children checked out their books - Geronimo Stilton for my youngest daughter, Jacqueline Wilson for my eldest, and off we went.

The TBR (to be read) pile next to my bed is heaving with books set in Italy, through the ages. That should give you a hint... I'm excited. And tomorrow I'll start putting some words down, but only after going to see Antony & Cleopatra at the Pop-Up Globe in Auckland. Nothing could be more stimulating than seeing the work of Shakespeare on stage. 

TBR Pile

First Draft Is Off To The Editor

Today I emailed off the first draft of my second book, The Last Letter, to my editor.

Happy Author Face!

Happy Author Face!

When I say I emailed off my first draft of The Last Letter, I actually mean I emailed a version of my manuscript where parts of it are version eight, other parts are version six. Some chapters, mainly the later ones, are versions three or four. Some sentences, nay, whole paragraphs, have gone through so many edits, they bear no resemblance to the very first draft I wrote.

So when I say I've emailed off my first draft of The Last Letter to my editor, what I really mean is that I emailed off the first version of my manuscript that someone other than myself will read. A scary thought. Exciting, and terrifying too.

About twenty minutes after I hit the send button, I started thinking about all the things I could have done to improve that first draft. What about the Raja? Will how I've left things at the Old Curiosity Shop make the readers happy? Thoughts tumbled over and over in my mind, querying my attention to detail, my historical accuracy. Did I have enough tantalising tidbits about antiques? Have I done justice to India? To New Zealand? To my characters and their hopes and dreams?

But, in the immortal words of Queen Elsa (from the Disney juggernaut Frozen), I have to let it go. It's out there now. My editor will tell me, in his gentle manner, whether what I've written is good enough, or whether I need to brood over it for a period of time before I send it back to him. And somewhere along the line we'll go through the manuscript page by page, line by line, where the annotated word document flies through the internet at various speeds, correcting comma's, tenses, removing Americanisms (which tend to creep in), and various other issues.

And so I wait. And in the time it will take my editor to read my 131,000 word manuscript I'll attend to my social media platforms, which I have left forgotten in the corner while I tried to fill plot holes and create characters who pushed their way off the page.

Thanks for your patience everyone. This will now very much be a case of watch this space!

The Last Letter
By Kirsten McKenzie

What Does Being A Full Time Author Mean?

This is the beginning of Week Four of being a full time author.

What does that mean? It means drinking a lot more coffee than I used to, and having a very tidy house for starters. It also means I've had to get pretty serious about my writing, my writing goals, and my personal writing habits.

What have I done so far? Well, number one, you're looking at it. A shiny new author website - www.kirstenmckenzie.com. Secondly, I've created the template through Mail Chimp for semi regular / semi sporadic author updates, to be emailed to those people who put their name down to receive it. You too can add your name to the list, via the handy form on this website.

I've written a schedule. It looks very much like my old school schedule, but without Double Maths (thank goodness), and no PE. Although looking back on it, I should have enjoyed PE way more than I did. I've allocated time for writing, naturally, and time for website updates, online marketing stuff (probably too much time), time for Goodreads surfing, and time for competition writing.

What is competition writing? On my list of personal goals, I've written down that I want to enter 12 writing competitions this year. It's good to give my brain a break from 1860s New Zealand, and the troubles in India in the 1800s, and the dastardly Benjamin Grey. I've already entered one, so only eleven more to go! I'll keep you posted about when I win some.

Future plans, from April I'll be posting guest blogs from other authors, but there will be a cohesive theme to their posts, complementary to what I write, so as to not throw you all. So keep watching, check in for more posts, and don't forget I'm on Twitter and Facebook and Google+ and Instagram too. 

Author Q&A - What Does It Mean To Be A New Author?

On October 25 2015, I was kindly hosted on Maureen's Books for a Q&A. Here are the answers to those questions :

Q: Tell us a little more about who Kirsten McKenzie is?

A: I'm forty, and I've had two 'real' jobs in my life, the first as a Customs Officer for twelve years - both in England and in New Zealand. The second as an Antique Dealer in my family antique shop. I'm fortunate to be able to honestly say that I've loved both jobs. 
I don't see writing as being a job. Not yet anyway. I'd love to be able to say one day that writing is my third 'real' job. And I'm looking forward to that day.

Q: When did you decide you wanted to become an author and write your own book?

A: When my youngest daughter was about to start school. My family were all asking what I was going to do in my 'spare time'... Bearing in mind I was already working part time in the antique shop, and any parent can tell you that 'spare time' is quickly filled with household chores. But in this instance I announced that I was going to write a book. And so I sat down and started writing one.

Q: You are also an actor. Does being an actor help your work as an author?

A: You know, I believe it does. I can see a 'scene' in my head and can run through it as though a director is giving me directions. I think it's been very beneficial. Since reading your question, it’s the first time I've considered it that way! I've worked with some very talented directors, and it's their voices I hear in my head as I'm imagining my scenes. 

Q: Tell us more about your novel ‘Fifteen Postcards’? How did you come to the idea of writing this story?

A: It was a quiet day at work, we sometimes have those, it’s the way of the retail world, and I was sorting through some stock which had just come into the shop, including a pile of old postcards. In this particular lot there were a numbered series of postcards from a soldier in WWI, written to his mother. Although I don't write about WWI in my book, the concept of a series of postcards between two people, telling a story, was born.

Q: What is the best thing that happened since your book came out?

A: There are three things:

1/ Reviews. Even the bad ones. They make my heart sing. Someone has taken the time to read my book, and provide feedback.

2/ The love I've received from my local library. I will do everything in my power to support libraries. Such an essential service to humanity.

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3/ The absolute support from other authors. I've never known another industry where your competitors are also your biggest champions. It's been an amazing experience.

Q: Can you describe your writing process? Do you have any sort of ritual you follow?

A: I'm what they call a 'by the seat of your pants' writer. I've got no idea how it’s going to turn out or where it’s going to go until I've written it. I make notes when and where ideas come to me, but everything I write is entirely influenced by what I'm doing; what I've seen; or what I've stumbled across at the time. For example, I've just helped a customer at work find half a dozen old poison bottles,  ones with the words "Not To Be Taken" on them. Suddenly poison is appearing in the words I'm writing this week. I'd never planned on poisoning any of my characters, but it’s their bad luck that a jeweller in Auckland wanted poison bottles for a window display!

Q: Are you a reader yourself? And what is your favorite book(s)?

A: Yes! I love reading. It’s a family trait. I went through a period when my children were very little where I didn't read very much, and I felt empty. I'm making up for lost time now. My four favourite books, in no particular order, are: Gone With The Wind; Five People You Meet In Heaven; A Discovery Of Witches; A Suitable Boy. A very eclectic mix I know. Edward Rutherfurds books are a must have on my bookshelf - I've loved every single one of his epic tomes - Paris, London, Russka, Sarum.

Q: What are your future plans in writing?

A: I'm currently a third of the way through my next novel, the sequel to 'Fifteen Postcards'. Tentatively titled 'The Last Letter'. This is the story which involves poison...

Q: What would your advice be to new aspiring authors?

A: Two pieces of advice.

1/ Share your journey. One thing that kept me going was that I would periodically post a screenshot of my word count on Twitter and Facebook, and my friends and followers would encourage me to carry on. They were like my cheer squad.

2/ Just write. Initially I tried writing 1,000 words a day. But you know what? That number can be very daunting. So I reduced it to 500 words a day. When I sit down to write, which isn't every day - I have two young children remember, I just try to write 500 words. Sometimes I'll just walk away from my computer as soon as I hit that magical number, even if it’s in the middle of a sentence. Walking away mid-sentence gives me something meaty to start with next time I sit down at my laptop.

Here is the link to Maureen's website : http://maureensbooks.blogspot.co.nz/

Author Q&A - When Did You First Get Serious About Writing?

In January 2016, Richard Schiver hosted me for a Q&A session on his website for Fridays5. These are my answers:

1.) When did you first get serious about writing?
A.) When my youngest child was about to start school, and my family started harassing me about what I was going to do with my 'spare time'. Although I was already working part time in my family's antique shop, I'd always wanted to write a book, to leave a little piece of me behind so to speak (other than children), so I sat down and wrote a book.

2.) What is the hardest part for you about writing?
A.) Avoiding the Internet. I sit down at my laptop, fully intending to write until my fingers bleed, but then I get sucked down the Twitter rabbit hole, something interesting pops up on Facebook, or I find a fascinating article about writing on a website somewhere. 

3.) How did you feel upon publication of your first completed project?
A.) Surreal. It still feels surreal.

4.) What is more important to you, story, or character? Why?
A.) The story. The story has to be balanced between good and bad. There has to be a level of "Oh no!", and "Oh yes!" to keep the reader's attention. Of course the characters are equally important, but how can you fully love a character (or hate them), if the story doesn't grip you? A reader can overlook a clunky dialogue between characters every now and then, but they will never forgive you for writing a dire story, with no ebb and flow. Reader's want to be taken hold of, their faces glued to their pages or kindles.

5.) What is a typical day like in your world?
A.)  Get up. Make coffee. Get the children up and off to school. Come home. Have another coffee. Procrastinate on the Internet. Do some laundry or housework. Have another coffee. Realise its lunchtime. Eat lunch. Followed by coffee. Panic that its 1pm already. Actually start writing. Get into the writing mood, then in a really frustrated way, save all the work I've done, and  pick up the kids from school. Think about writing after they've gone to bed. Actually drink wine and procrastinate on the Internet.

Author Q&A - What Is Your Best Advice For Budding Authors?

On August 15 2015, Jim Vines hosted a Question and Answer session on his blog. Here are my answers:

Q: Kirsten...what made you become a writer?
A: When my youngest daughter was about to start school, my family were constantly asking me what I was going to do with my "spare time." I declared that I was going to write a book, as I'd always wanted to leave a piece of me behind when I'm gone. So I sat down and wrote one. 

Q: What is your typical writing day like?
A: Get up, kids off to school, coffee, procrastination, coffee, procrastination, frantic writing, pick the children up from school, family/household stuff, dinner, kids to bed, wine, casual and calm writing, astonishment that its bedtime already, bed. Really I should only write at night, and give up trying to write during the daytime!

Q: Do you outline? If so, how extensive are your outlines?

A: Ah, no. I've never outlined in my life. I've jotted down notes about things I need to resolve, but I've never outlined. My writing is influenced by what happens in my day. What I've seen, or experienced. 

Q: How many revisions will you typically do on a novel?

A: Two by me alone. Followed by however many revisions the editor needs.

Q: What is your best tip for editing a manuscript?

A: Start from the very beginning. One word at a time. Resolve any issues you come across straight away. Don't leave them till later as they will only bother you. 

Q: Which writing habits and/or tricks of the trade have made you a better writer?

A: Save in different places - hard drive, drop box, USB. Save, save, save. Always finish mid sentence - as it gives you something to come back to the next day. Do not create inflexible word count goals. If you only made 500 words, do not punish yourself for not making 1,000 words. Every word on the page is one word more than you had the day before. 

Q: Do you ever suffer through writer’s block? If so, how do you fight it?

A: Yes I do. I can go days without writing anything - although I still find time and inspiration for social media engagement. I deal with it by walking away from the computer, and reading something else. I read a lot. Since joining Goodreads, my reading list has grown out of control. I love seeing what other authors recommend. 

Q: What drew you to write your preferred genre(s)?

A: I don't think I consciously decided to write historical fiction, but its certainly turned out that way. And I love it. My day job is an antique dealer, so there is a tangibility about the things I'm writing about. I can feel them, or something like them. Every day at work I find inspiration from the things surrounding me.

Q: Do you utilize beta readers?

A: I did for a brief time - I used two, one was more forthcoming than the other. But now I prefer going it alone. I could use them, but I'd need to find the right one. I've been a beta reader for a fellow author, and I enjoyed the role. It is something I would consider doing again. 

Q: In your most recently published novel, what’s one scene you really enjoyed writing—and why?

A: I very much enjoyed the scene set in India, where my characters embark upon a tiger hunt (I certainly don't support hunting, but this is set circa 1860). I had a cast of servants, officers, older ladies, simpering young girls, Indian royalty, and rifles. And I had a ball moving them all around like chess pieces. 

Q: What makes the main character(s) of your most recent novel so special?

A: My main character in Fifteen Postcards, Sarah Lester, has semi-autobiographical hints to her. The others I've tried very hard to give faults to, even the good guys. No one is perfect, and it would be a very dull read if you just gave the readers cardboard good vs evil characters to read about. 

Q: What is your best advice for author self-promotion?

A: Engage, engage, engage, but do not spam. You want to make friends with your potential readers, but you don't want to be the equivalent of junk mail shoved under their front doors. And even if your book is months away from being finished, start your self-promotion now. People want to know who you are before you start trying to sell them your book.

Q: How do you deal with negative reviews?

A: Ignore the outliers. For middle tier reviews - take note of their feedback - and learn from them. And bask in the good and great reviews. 

Q: What is your favorite aspect of being an indie author?

A: No one is telling me what to write, or how to write it. 

Q: What is your least favorite aspect of being an indie author?

A: Feeling like everyone is getting more support or help from some magic well that you haven't found yourself. 

Q: What is your current writing project?

A: The sequel to Fifteen Postcards. I never intended to write a novel with a cliff hanger, but it happened. So now I have to resolve it!

Q: What are three of your favorite novels?

A: Gone With The WindA Suitable Boy, and The Five People You Meet In Heaven.

Q: If you could have lunch with any novelist, living or dead, who would it be? What would talk to them about?

A: Ernest Hemingway. What would I talk to him about? Paris. His life. His decisions. We'd drink a lot together I'm sure. I spent some time in Cuba, and really felt his vibe there. I think I am in historical love. 

Q: What is your best piece of advice for budding authors?

A: Just do it. And share your journey with others, everywhere. I'm on Instagram, Pinterest, Google+, Twitter, Facebook & LinkedIn. I am constantly posting pictures of my current word count, things I've researched, pictures that have inspired me, amusing images - but different things on different platforms. You'll find the general populace is very supportive of people following their dream. And engage, engage, engage. 

Q: What is your favorite inspirational quote?

A: "It is what it is." That's mine. I don't know if someone else said it before me, but its how I live my life.

The link to Jim Vines blog is here : http://jimvinespresents.blogspot.co.nz/ 

HOW TO HANDLE REJECTION AS AN AUTHOR

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On the 17th July 2014 I received my first rejection letter. It was from a small publisher in Scotland. I was surprised I wasn’t more upset, which may have been because even as I submitted my unsolicited manuscript, I was aware there were some factors against me being published by that firm. One being that I’m not Scottish, despite my surname. Two, I don’t reside in Scotland, or even near Scotland, not even in the same hemisphere. I presume publishers like their author’s to live nearby. Three, and perhaps the key point here, it was an unsolicited manuscript. 

Yes I had researched which publishers accepted unsolicited manuscripts, and the type of books they normally published before I picked them to send my manuscript to. The firm that rejected me only publishes a tiny number of books per year, and I don’t really blame them for not wanting to take a risk with a new author, who has written a cross between the Antique’s Roadshow meets The Time Traveler’s Wife, with a hint of The Far Pavilions, all wrapped up as a love story!

The rejection lead me to research famous authors who had been rejected before going on to literary success, and I found this amazing site:http://www.literaryrejections.com/best-sellers-initially-rejected/     

My all time favourite movie is Gone With The Wind. The fated love story between Rhett and Scarlett, and the inordinate amount of time she wastes on Ashley, tore me apart. I still want to give Scarlett a good slap for her stupidity. But I never knew that Margaret Mitchell was rejected by 38 publishers before she found one to publish Gone With The Wind, which went on to sell over 30 million copies.

What I am trying to say is, there is still hope! One rejection is one rejection closer to being published. If that makes sense!

Gone with the Wind
By Margaret Mitchell

17 July 2014

WHAT IS THE BEST WORD COUNT FOR A NOVEL?

George R.R. Martin, author of the fantasy series Game of Thrones to be more precise. I’ve never really been into fantasy books. My mother devours them. I’ve read a few. But I started reading this series a couple of summers ago on my Kindle, and I was catapulted head first, and whole heartedly, into the world Martin created. So much so that I now have the actual books, as well as the less satisfying electronic version.

I’ve written nearly 75,000 words for Fifteen Postcards to date, and I figure I’ll end up with a book which is about 90,000ish words. Martin’s word count is extraordinary:   

A Game of Thrones: 284,000

A Clash of kings: 326,000

A Storm of Swords: 404,000

A Feast for Crows: 300,000

But is it his word count or his words that make the books nigh on impossible to put down? As I’m rereading his massive tomes, I am struck by Martin’s ability to provide a visual feast through his words. He needs that word count to make it real. Even describing a soldiers tunic creates such a vivid picture for you as the reader that you can see Arya driving her sword into the stitching of the leather tunic, you can smell the blood seeping out once she withdraws her sword. And you feel joy on her behalf. Odd I know!

What does this mean for me? For Fifteen Postcards? I know that my newfound appreciation of the perfect descriptive verse will probably translate into extra words for the story I am creating, and I hope that in time you’ll feel that you can almost reach out and stroke the gleaming grains of the Georgian rosewood table.

28 April 2014

WHAT HAPPENED WHEN I VISITED HEMINGWAY'S HOME IN CUBA?

In 2010 I had the good fortune to travel to Cuba. Whilst there we drank mojitos at Hemingway’s bar in Havana, and took a day trip to visit Hemingway's house - Finca Vigia, which translates to "lookout house".

Finca Vigia is located in the town of San Francisco de Paula, a small fishing village. Picture postcard perfect, apart from us, the hordes of tourists visiting Hemingway’s home. 

You may not go into the house, but the windows are ajar for you to peek into the life of a Nobel Prize for Literature winner. You can also meander through his gardens, view his boat, sit by his pool. And you may also view his study where he did his writing. 

For a small bribe, the attendant in the study, located at the top of a set of dubious concrete stairs, will use your camera to take a photo of his typewriter for you. One presumes that the attendants are all quite wealthy given the number of tourists prepared to surreptitiously hand over a few CUC’s to have a photo of the great author’s typewriter. I know I certainly did. 

Its here that Hemingway wrote two of his most celebrated novels: For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea. A Movable Feast was written there as well. I certainly don’t profess to have the literary skills of Hemingway, but even just that brief touch of familiarity with Hemingway’s life has encouraged me to follow my dreams.

The Old Man and The Sea
By Ernest Hemingway

10 March 2014