mjhearle

Month: August, 2013

Lune Diary: Stitchwhistle

Chapter Four of LUNE introduces the character of Stitchwhistle. Often, I struggle with names. Especially, names for characters from fantasy realms. I guess I didn’t play enough Dungeons & Dragons when I was a kid. ‘Stitchwhistle’ came easily though. So easily, in fact, that I had to check online to make sure I hadn’t heard it before. It’s a real danger when creating imaginary worlds that you’ll accidentally plagiarize another author’s work. My imagination is sometimes a lazy beast and would rather dredge up some half-forgotten word rather than put the hard work into creating a new one. I constantly have to challenge myself while I’m writing, asking the question ‘Is this mine? Or have I stolen it?’

That said, Stitchwhistle is not some shockingly original character. He’s a cousin to Dicken’s Artful Dodger and Rictus from Barker’s Thief of Always.

Watercolour of The Artful Dodger from Oliver T...

Watercolour of The Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist by ‘Kyd’ (Joseph Clayton Clarke) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And I think he would have felt quite at home living in Enid Blyton’s Magic Faraway Tree. Or maybe not? There’s an edge to Stitchwhistle – a cynicism that Blyton’s characters didn’t exhibit. When he first meets young Lune he’s very charming, but that facade soon drops the moment he learns he’s made a mistake and Lune isn’t the boy he’s been sent to find. We catch a glimpse of the real Stitchwhistle. Someone who’s crafty and mischevious and more than a little desperate. But not wicked. No, I don’t think Stitchwhistle is wicked. Then again, I have only the vaguest notions of how the story will progress so maybe Stitchwhistle is a villain? That’s one of the exciting parts in not plotting your story too tightly and letting the characters take on a life themselves.

So Stitchwhistle arrives to take Lune to the world he comes from which at the moment is called Tira-Vale. This is a placeholder name until I can come up with something better. Tira-Vale owes its genesis in Tir na nog which according to Irish mythology is where the fairies live. I don’t hate ‘Tira-Vale’ – it just doesn’t feel quite right. Tira-Vale could almost be a suburb in Sydney. It’s not ‘otherworldly’ enough. I’ve put my imagination back to work on the problem so we’ll see what the lazy bugger turns up.

We learn through Stitchwhistle that there is a prophecy about an October Child who will lead the Silver Dragon’s army against the Witch Boy. Is Lune this October Child? Hmmmm….no. I find the prophecy device to be incredibly hackneyed so have included it in the story only so I can tear it apart later on. Every fantasy novel seems to have a prophecy in it – sometimes unnecessarily (see Harry Potter). The whole concept bugs me because it predisposes that we are victims of fate. Or pawns in some cosmic chessboard of the gods. I think we are completely responsible for the direction our life takes, specifically the way we surmount the varied obstacles placed in our path. One person may fall, while another struggles on. It comes down to character and choice. And luck. Not fate. I hope LUNE will serve as something of a secret thesis on this subject. Or at the very least an interesting exploration on the notions of fate and freewill.

M.J.

Why didn’t my book sell?

Last week I wrote a post detailing my thoughts on having the unsold copies of my novels, Winter’s Shadow and Winter’s Light, liquidated by the publisher. I went to great pains to establish that I wasn’t seeking pity, that I was grateful for the luck I’d had as an author so far, and the same disclaimer goes for this post as well. The experiences I’ve had in the publishing world have been nothing but positive. I’ve met some amazing people who I hope to keep working with in the future and overall feel incredibly blessed.

To repeat myself, this is not a pity piece.

It is, however, an opportunity to explore some thoughts and theories as to why Winter’s Light , the sequel to Winter’s Shadow, didn’t sell as many copies as the first book. I would also invite any readers out there to put forward their own theories in the comments section. I’m genuinely curious.

Theory 1: The book was rubbish

Obviously, I am in no position to argue against this point objectively. I did receive enough positive reviews though, to suggest the book wasn’t terrible. In terms of notices, Winter’s Light had roughly the same amount of good reviews as the first book. My personal feeling is that Winter’s Light contains much stronger writing than Winter’s Shadow. Not only was I a more experienced writer when I attempted the sequel, I also didn’t have to worry as much about clogging the story with boring exposition because I’d already established the characters and world. The narrative moves faster and from a language point of view, the prose feels tighter and more stylish. This is, of course, open to debate.

Theory 2: Poor publicity

A lot of writers complain about their publisher not supporting their book enough. Not me. I was blessed with an incredibly passionate PR agent (Hi Charlotte!) on Winter’s Light and did even more radio and newspaper interviews than the first time round. Granted, I was not always the best interviewee (it’s damn nerve wracking being interviewed) but I warmed up as I went along and by the end of the junket could actually string a couple of sentences together without stuttering. I didn’t get the subway and bus side posters that some authors get, but I honestly didn’t expect to. Winter’s Shadow wasn’t a huge bestseller so there wouldn’t have been much financial sense for the publisher in spending money on a massive outdoor print campaign for the sequel. Would I have sold more copies of Winter’s Light if there’d been a bigger advertising spend? Yes, but I don’t know how many more. It would have been a gamble and in these tight economic times, publishers are less likely to roll the dice. You can’t blame them.

Theory 3: Generic cover

This theory actually holds some water. I was never overly fond of the cover for Winter’s Light. It looked far too similar to other YA paranormal novels. Absolutely, there is marketing sense in targeting a specific demographic with familiar imagery but I think we didn’t do enough to stand out from the crowd.  Another potential issue was that while the Winter’s Light cover looked the same as other paranormals, it deviated considerably from the style and colour palette established with Winter’s Shadow. Most book series (see Twilight/Hunger Games, Fifty Shades of Grey, etc.) retain visual similarity from cover to cover to identify them as part of a set. Browsing the shelves of a book store, a casual fan of Winter’s Shadow wouldn’t necessarily recognise Winter’s Light as a sequel as there aren’t enough consistent visual signifiers. If the publisher wasn’t interested in continuing the style of Winter’s ShadowI would have preferred they went in a completely direction. Do something quirky and unexpected rather than try and follow a visual trend. The Winter books aren’t like other paranormals; their covers should reflect this.

Theory 4: The story wasn’t YA paranormal-y enough

And now we get to an issue that concerned me even before the book’s publication. When I wrote Winter’s Shadow, I was well aware of the YA paranormal genre conventions and how I was honouring them with my story. I had the wide-eyed ingenue, the handsome and mysterious stranger, the tragic love story, the teen angst, the supernatural paraphenalia – all elements I knew fans of the genre would gobble up with relish. Unfortunately, I did something stupid with Winter’s Shadow – I killed my love interest. This meant, Winter’s Light, couldn’t contain a strong romance element. It also meant the book was shot through with a very real sense of melancholy and grief. Not the most commercial of themes and certainly not the sort of story material the YA paranormal genre is popular for. I tried to compensate for the lack of romance by ramping up the thriller and mystery elements of the book and in the process think I created a much more compelling narrative, but still the romance element was missing. I hoped that readers would respond to a different kind of YA paranormal, something a little darker and weightier than the traditional fare. However, even some of the most favourable reviews mentioned their disappointment at absence of romance in the story. YA paranormal fans are some of the most passionate in the reading community, but they also know what they like, and it seems, are wary of stories that stray too far from the established model. Ultimately, I feel like this was the main the reason Winter’s Light  wasn’t as popular as Winter’s Shadow. It was too different. Too unusual. Not romantic enough.

You know what? I don’t care too much about the book’s lack of commercial success. Sure, I feel bad for my publisher that they didn’t make more money but I like Winter’s Light. It’s the best continuation of Winter’s story I could have written. And I think it sets up what’s promises to be one helluva third book.

M.J.

What happens to unsold books

I received a letter from my publisher last week. Usually these letters are cause for excitement – royalty statements and what-not. Not this one, though. It was informing me that all the unsold copies of my books, Winter’s Shadow and Winter’s Light, were being pulped unless I wished to purchase them back from the publisher at a reduced rate. Looking at the book figures quoted in the letter it seems I sold about eight-five percent of my first run of Winter’s Shadow. That’s a big win in today’s publishing climate. I sold a considerably lower percent of Winter’s Light. I have a few theories as to ‘why?’ but that can wait for a later post. 

First of all, I’d like to assure you dear reader that this is not a pity post. I am not seeking consolation or sympathy. I have had far too much good luck to feel hard done by. As most struggling writers know getting published at all is something of a miracle. Plus, the many beautiful emails I’ve received from fans of the book series are more than enough to keep me from getting maudlin. So no, this is absolutely not a pity post. Instead, I hope it merely serves as a sobering insight into the current publishing climate.

Winter’s Shadow was in bookstores for two years. Winter’s Light has been out for just one. During that time it has not found a big enough audience for my publisher to risk keeping it on the shelves longer. In the past, books were given more time to build an audience. However, with big chains like Borders closing and shelf-space in independent stores limited, it seems publishers and (more to the point booksellers) simply can’t afford to give titles that much of a chance anymore. They either sell or they don’t and if they don’t then they’re pulped to make way for new books. It’s as simple, and as sad, as that.

And I understand the fiscal sense behind this model. People are buying less books so publishers and booksellers have to be ruthless in their business decisions. Why throw your support behind a sequel to a book that wasn’t financially successful to begin when you can gamble on something new? Something that might be the next Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games or – god forbid – Fifty Shades of Grey.

So, where does that leave the Winter series? After all, readers will know that Winter’s Light ends on something of a cliffhanger. Rest assured, I will be writing a third book which, if everything goes according to plan, should be ready midway next year. Whether it is published conventionally remains to be seen. If I can’t find a publisher I may float it as an ebook or publish it myself. Whatever happens the book will exist and it will be available. If nowhere else, then on this very site. That should hopefully comfort those concerned readers out there who were fearful I was going to leave poor Winter and Blake’s story unfinished.

In the meantime, I have my novella Claudette in the Shadows, coming out as an ebook later this year through MOMENTUM. The story isn’t so much a prequel to Winter’s Shadow as it is a character study of Claudette Duchamp, Blake’s troubled sister. There’s lots of magic and mystery and a healthy dash of romance as well. I’m very proud of it and can’t wait to see what the fans think.

I’m also nearly halfway through LUNE and it’s shaping up to be something special. I’ve shown what I’ve written to a few folk I trust and the feedback has been universally positive. Whatever I’m doing seems to be working. Hopefully, I can keep it up.

As for all those copies of Winter’s Shadow and Winter’s Light waiting to be pulped? I’ve decided I’m going to buy them back. Every single book. I just can’t bear the thought of them being destroyed. The plan is I’ll sell the recovered books on this site at a reduced rate. On the surface, this might not seem like a fiscally responsible decision but I feel like if you’re gonna gamble it might as well be on yourself. I’m gaining new readers every week. At least some of them might be curious about picking up the first two Winter books. Especially, after Claudette in the Shadows and the final Winter novel are released.

I don’t look at writing as a career. I look at it as a journey. I’m just at the beginning now and I have no idea where this twisting path will lead. Let’s find out together.

M.J.