Today it is my honor to have on the blog, writer Ciara Ballintyne. She shares some of the best Twitter writing advice, I've read. She has been kind enough to share her writing process with us, and offers some savvy editing advice for self-published authors and writers thinking about going Indie. Thank you, Ciara for helping other writers achieve their dream!
I always like to start with a little background, where were you born?
How old were you when you realized you wanted to be a writer?
Oh, about eleven… I used to write short fiction at school, and suddenly it dawned on me ‘Hey, I can actually do this’. A few years after that, I actually came to grips with how difficult it is to achieve.
How long does it take you to write a book? What is the average word count?
Yikes, on average? I’ve written 8 in about 20 years, but how long each took varies tremendously depending on where in my life I was when I wrote it. The last one I wrote in three months, but editing has to be tacked on top of that, and when asked how long it takes to edit something, I think the standard response should be ‘how long is a piece of string?’
Deathhawk’s Betrayal is 105,000 words. Before that, they were much longer – probably too long.
Do you have a critique partner(s)?
Yes, I am a member of Infinitas, a speculative fiction critique group here in Sydney, and Dionne Lister and I often trade stories for critiquing. I couldn’t survive without a critique partner. I truly believe we can’t see the errors in our own work. I recently sent Dionne a story with the note ‘I know something’s not working, but I don’t know what!’. Her reply was ‘One of your characters isn’t very sympathetic’. As soon as she said it, I knew she was right. So obvious… but I couldn’t see it.
Do you ever use beta readers?
I did on my last book. Before that, I didn’t know what a beta reader was. I will likely use them in the future. It was a good experience to nut out a few reader issues.
The criticism of many self-published and Indie books is the lack of editing and proof reading. Did you hire a professional freelance editor before publishing?
I haven’t actually self-published yet – my latest manuscript, which is the only one actually worth publishing (even the one before that had me cringing when I looked at it this week) is currently with Voyager. I’ll try my luck with traditional publishers before I self-publish, but if I self-publish, then yes, I will definitely use an editor. In fact, the manuscript would have gone to my editor before I sent it to Voyager, even, if I’d had the time (Voyager were accepting unagented submissions for a 2 week window only). If rejected, it will go straight to my editor before I do anything else with it.
Did you submit your work to agents or publishers before deciding to self-publish?
I think I answered this above, ha ha. That said, I did submit some of my early work – we’re going so far back now to the times when many large publishers accepted unagented submissions. Of course, it was total crap, and they rightfully rejected it. If I were to try and salvage those early stories (which I probably won’t), I’d have to rebuild them from the ground up.
What made you decide to self-publish, and had you tried to be traditionally published before going the self-publishing route?
If I self-publish, I want to have a few books to release in quick succession – I’m led to understand this can help to get a bit of momentum going, and of course if an author chooses to offer promotional offers, it helps to have other books to sell at full price to people who buy the first cheap or download it free. So I’ll shop the current manuscript around to publishers while I write the other two books in the series, and if no one picks them up, I’ll self-publish when I have a complete trilogy.
What is one of the hardest things you’ve experienced while on this self-publishing journey?
I’m not sure I can be rightfully said to be on a self-publishing journey yet – or if so, it’s the very early stages. That said, the marketing can be exhausting. I do co-host an online book club, and marketing the launch of that was quite grueling – I think I did something like ten guest blogs in the space of a month in addition to my usual twice weekly blogging schedule (on top of writing, and working full-time, and studying, and mothering, and… you get the idea). The thought of doing the same for an actual book launch makes me weak at the knees.
What editing software programs do you use?
I use www.autocrit.com – it’s a useful tool for finding repetitious use of words and so forth, but I warn against anyone thinking it’s a substitute for an editor. If you spend any time using it, you’ll quickly see it flags as ‘problems’ things that may be justifiable for artistic reasons, for example, generally we want to weed out repetition, but Greek rhetorical devices actually use repetition to create emphasis.
What do you think about the less than complimentary remarks often made about self-published / Indie books vs. traditional publishing – and do you think this perception is changing?
I’m not always very popular for my opinions in this area, but I stand by my reasons. I happen to agree with a lot of the remarks. That said, yes traditional publishing isn’t perfect either and suffers from quality issues, but let’s be clear – the ratio of poor books to good books is much higher in indie publishing than traditional publishing. In traditional publishing, there is an externally imposed standard – whether you like it or not, agree with it or not, it does ensure a certain minimum bar. In saying that, exceptions to that standard will always be made for moneymakers, and I’m sure a few of us could name the examples which are currently all the rage.
In indie publishing, the only standard is self-imposed, and people don’t know what they don’t know. That manuscript of mine I mentioned that was rightfully rejected in the late 90s – it was crap, and I know that now, but I didn’t at the time because that was my skill level. If self-publishing had been around, would I have published it? Quite possibly, but it certainly wouldn’t have been worth anyone’s time or money. That’s the scenario we see now, people publishing a work, which should never have seen the light of day because they don’t know enough about their craft to know what’s wrong with it. I’m not saying all Indies do that, but it is a problem.
Qualities, and the 99c price point, are my two biggest gripes about the indie publishing industry. I’ll tell you right now I won’t offer my books at that price, except for short promotional periods, or short story collections. It devalues literature. If I were to charge at my legal rate for all the hours I’ve spent on my book, it would generate a bill no client of mine would want to receive. Clearly, I realize they are different kettles of fish – the point is only to note how many hours of hard work go into a book. Given that is the case, I should like to think my efforts are worth more than a cup of coffee.
I don’t know why indie authors get so hostile when it comes to talking about these issues. They affect all of us who are in the indie movement, and instead of defending the quality of all indie books, when some of them are laughably bad, we should be collaborating on ways to improve the standard across the board, because the bad examples of indie publishing reflect negatively on everyone. Perhaps it is only that no one wants to be fingered as belonging to the ‘bad’ group, but any indie author who cannot give and take honest criticism, any author for that matter, of any stripe, has no business being in this business, because that is the very core of what makes us better writers.
Is the perception changing?
I’m not sure it is. I think readers are getting savvier – where before they didn’t know what indie was, and thought everything published was of the same standard, now they are beginning to know, and to be selective about what they read based on that. I won’t read 99c indie books unless it comes with a strong recommendation from someone I know (or it’s on sale from a higher price point). I’m sorry if that offends anyone – I know there are some good books at that price point, but the reality is I’m time poor, and I don’t have time to waste sifting through bad books to find good ones. I’m not the only reader I know who has that policy. Something for indie authors to consider when pricing their books.
Were there any major revisions to your debut novel?
Setting aside the fact it hasn’t debuted yet… well, I can safely say it will be my debut novel, eventually. I made some pretty major revisions to it, especially the ending. I think I changed the ending about three times. Also, the beginning – I rewrote the first chapter from scratch to make the character more sympathetic, and reordered most of the scenes in the following four chapters, as well as adding complete new scenes.
There is a lot of talk about the publishing industry being in a huge state of change, did this influence your decision to self-publish?
It influences my decision to wait and see what happens. I’m worried about where the publishing industry is going. I’m pretty sure it’s not dying, demand for books has increased with the advent of e-readers, but I’m not really sure where it’s going exactly. Amazon has made changes to its algorithms that affect the number of free downloads indie authors get from promotions, as well as limiting their use of other platforms if they want to use KDP Select, and lately have been removing significant numbers of reviews without warning or explanation. These things are affecting indie authors – but how far will it go? I don’t know. Publishers need to adapt from print to digital, if they don’t want to go the way of the woolly mammoth, but they’re quite late to the party as some of the Big 6 publishers just now start releasing their digital only imprints. Where is this going to settle, and how will it affect authors? Also, what about bookstores? What role, if any, do they have in the future? There’s so much change going on right now I don’t think anyone can predict where it’s going, and that’s part of the reason I’m content to wait while I finish these next two books before publishing.
Do you have any advice for someone looking to self-publish?
Learn your craft. Doesn’t matter if you traditionally publish or self-publish, you need to be top notch at your craft. That means study – workshops, online classes, tutorials, writing classes, whatever you can get, but also join a critique group, and offer to beta read. My first big jump in quality writing was joining my critique group, the second when I started doing any and every online workshop I could get my hands on. No amount of marketing will sell a truly bad book (although it may sell a mediocre book if you have a fantastic plot line).
Second, be aware of how much marketing is involved. Your book will not sell itself. Don’t fool yourself into thinking self-publishing is any ‘easier’ than traditional publishing. The hurdles may be different, but they’re no easier to jump. Social media marketing can suck up huge amounts of your time, and it’s exhausting.
They say that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but most readers do anyway. Did you use a designer for create a book cover for you? If so, what difference do you feel this has made?
I haven’t designed a book cover yet, although I have a local artist in mind that did Dionne Lister’s artwork – it looks incredibly professional, the kind of cover you think to see on a shelf in a bookstore. I think the key difference is whether your cover appears professional or amateur. Those who know anything about indie publishing will judge an amateur cover as indicative of the quality of the writing. A good cover doesn’t mean the contents are any good, but it’s certainly a good start to getting noticed and taken seriously.
What marketing platforms are you using to promote your books, and how much of your time does the marketing take?
Oh, lord, where do I start? I’m on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+, I run two blogs off my website, and I co-host an online book club. I couldn’t begin to quantify the time it takes. I’m lucky I can do most of my marketing around my day job, without it affecting my writing time, but I’m sure collectively it’s quite a few hours a week.
Are you happy with the level of your sales? Do you think there is more you could do to improve your sales?
I’ll get back to you when I have some sales!
What do you see as the pitfalls in self-publishing or publishing with a small press?
Again, quality and marketing. I see so many bad books by authors who don’t realize what’s wrong with them – books without plot, or conflict, which commit some of the cardinal writing sins by info-dumping huge chunks of backstory, and so forth. Books that read like a bad first draft. I cannot emphasize how important quality is. There are indie authors out there who know this, and theirs are the diamonds in the rough – unfortunately, they are also needles in a haystack!
With marketing, it’s the Indies who are sending auto-DMs asking people to buy their books and spamming links. It’s annoying, people, and because it’s annoying, it doesn’t work!
What was your motivation for this story?
In the late 90s, I wrote a trilogy, and had the first book assessed. The feedback of the editor was I had used the wrong viewpoint character. Oops. Major rewrite necessary, but I couldn’t face it. The books featured a supporting character, a female assassin called Astarl, and the editor said she was interesting enough to justify her own book. So I gave her one.
Your book title rocks! Was it the original title or did it change along the way?
Deathhawk’s Betrayal was the original title. Sometimes a title just comes to me, and this was one. It reflects the themes of the story, and I can’t imagine changing it, or what I‘d change it to.
Be honest, how many drafts did you do on this book?
About eight. Brandon Sanderson, author of The Way of Kings, and currently completing Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, says he does eight for his own books, and twelve for Wheel of Time. So I think I’m in the ballpark.
How do you come up with your character's names?
Um… just do. Usually I think of a starting letter and sound out some things until I’ve got a name that sounds good, and fits the character. Then I’ll have to play around with some different spelling variations until I find one that looks good as well.
Are your books available in both eBook and paperback versions?
Deathhawk’s Betrayal is not available yet. My short story, A Magical Melody, appears in Spells: Ten Tales of Magic, edited by Rayne Hall – it’s only available in eBook format.
Which is more difficult to write, dialogue, action, or a love scene?
For me, dialogue. All my characters sound like stilted, formal lawyers until I revise. Getting dialogue right and suited to the character is tricky for me. Action used to be hard, until I figured that one out, and love scenes can be awkward, but they usually flow pretty well for me – I don’t usually have that many. There’s only one in Deathhawk’s Betrayal, and it’s pretty pivotal, so I knew exactly how I wanted it to be.
How do your family and/or friends feel about your book or your writing venture in general?
My husband supports me, but has never read more than a few pages. He’s enthusiastic, like a puppy. My Dad has read my book and he likes it, and supports it, but then it was my dad who got me into fantasy in the first place. It’s a shared passion. I’m not sure my Mum really understands, nor most of my friends, although they’d all support me and be happy for me in a vague kind of way. Honestly, I’ve been doing this for so long I think they just accept it as part of who I am – it’s not special, or different to them anymore, it’s just normal. If I wasn’t writing, it might be a sign to them that Armageddon is coming.
Who is your favorite author and what really excites you about their work?
Just one? In that case, I’ll have to say Brandon Sanderson. The man is just so damn perfect – although he admitted at a book signing it doesn’t come naturally to him, he has to revise the hell out of his prose to make it so perfectly elegant. I am in awe of the perfection of his sentences – my editor describes him as almost technically perfect. At the same time, I’m inspired by how hard he has to work to achieve it – maybe there is hope for me yet.
Tell us a little about your next book.
Deathhawk’s Penance is the sequel to Deathhawk’s Betrayal. It’s hard to say much without ruining all the really evil plot twists in the first one, but let’s just say the poor woman doesn’t get a break just yet – once again, she’ll be forced to make an impossible decision. More specifically, Astarl is an assassin of the Order of Nizari. In the first book, she’s trying to find a magic artifact to heal her dying father, and events lead to her betrayal by everyone around her. In the sequel, she’s been roped into helping the Council of Kings put an end to the influence of the Order of Nizari. Why is she helping them? They’ve got something she wants very badly indeed…
Fun Bonus Questions
What are you currently reading?
The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon.
What’s your favorite movie or TV show?
Stargate SG-1. Love it. Could watch it over and over and over… oh wait, I already did that.
How would you describe yourself in three words?
Opinionated, argumentative, perfectionist
Laptop or desktop?
Desktop, but in reality I do most of my writing on my mini-laptop. What I really want is a Microsoft Surface tablet.
PC or MAC?
PC. Apple may be against my religion. In any case, I’m hostile when anyone attempts to convert me to anything… I’ve recently converted my husband away from iPhone.
Who is your fictional character crush? (movie, TV show, fiction)
Oh gosh, so many choices…. Dean in Supernatural. I know, I’m in a queue… If the queue’s too long, I’ll take Richard Rahl from Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
I already have a superpower, it is called honesty!
Where can potential readers find you online?
Official Website: www.ciaraballintyne.com
Twitter name: @CiaraBallintyne
Ciara Ballintyne is a writer of high fantasy, lawyer, and dragon expert. Bent on world domination and born argumentative, Ciara invested her natural inclinations in a career in law. Her short story, A Magical Melody, is available as part of the Spells: Ten Tales of Magic eBook anthology.
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