Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Joys of Being Helpless – Throwing your Writing Platform out the Window


A few days ago I discovered WEbook. You tough, veteran writerly folk who’ve been on the frontlines for a few years now will be rolling your eyes at this point. WEbook is old news, I know. It started back in 2008 and reached a peak of activity around 2010-11. I’m blogging about it not because of some sort of writing-hipster revival quest. It’s just I only discovered it last week, and it’s great.  

Summed up, WEbook is “an online community geared towards discovering new writers and helping them on their path to publication” (thanks Wikipedia). They offer various services (all free), but the one I’m going to talk about, and the one that I’m giving a shot, is the “Page to Fame” system.

It’s delightfully simple. You submit a very brief summary of your novel, its title and the first page of writing. Other WEbook users then rate it on a scale of 1-5. If people rate it highly, you progress onto the second round, where you submit the first 5 pages and repeat. If you make it to round 3, agents start getting involved.

Pretty nifty, right? But there are other writing forums and platform-assists out there which do similar things. What makes WEbook a wee bit awesome is that this voting system is totally anonymous. Voters have no idea who it is they’re rating until round 3, and there’s no search engine so you can’t hunt down someone’s work and vote for it specifically. To rate you’re given random stories within your selected genre. Nor is the author of the work informed about who rated them (though the rate-bestowers can leave a little feedback).

All this means that on WEbook writing is all that matters. It’s not about your name, your publicity, your platform. You’ve got a few hundred words to hook and impress an anonymous stranger. It’s commercial writing at its crunchy best.

Coming straight from trying to attract Jukepop Serial votes (and since you asked yes, I’ve just uploaded the latest chapter of Werekynd) this is an absolute breath of fresh air. There is a very real danger, when pursuing a commercial drive, that writing and attention to detail can fall by the wayside in the manic rush to build a platform, attract readers and look generally smouldering in your windswept sepia author bio photo.

WEbook blows all of that out of the water. It’s great to be able to go back to the roots, focus on what’s really important – the crafting of words to tell a compelling story. The only downside is, as mentioned, WEbook is kinda old news now and it doesn’t seem that many people are active on it. But I can assure those who haven’t tried it yet, it’s addictive. The work to be read and rated is all bite-sized, can be finished in barely a minute, and there’s some really great stuff on there. In all, it’s an excellent lesson in what makes a great opener.

I doubt much will come of my own WEbook entry, but that’s not the point. The past few days have really prioritised my objectives. Being rendered helpess when it comes to publicity is a liberating effect. It’s not just about the platform, so stop worrying about how many followers your writing Twitter account has, and get back to making great stories! 


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The Oldest Question Since Blogging Began


So, next month marks the first birthday of my blog. I’ve been reviewing the progress of the past year and looking into sprucing the place up a bit in preparation for the big 0-1. 

Which has thrown up the age-old question, that which hath vexed the minds of men great and small alike down the ages…

Do you like my new theme?

Too cluttered? That header too pixilated? Too downright pretentious (from which, my our modesty deliver us)? Thoughts, comments and abuse all much appreciated! 


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Interview: Robbie MacNiven, author of “Werekynd–Beasts of the Tanglewild.”

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Interview: Sean Munger, author of “The Armoured Satchel.”

ImageToday marks a happy departure from my usual half-baked, I-just-had-an-idea-let’s-write-about-it posts. Instead of the brain-to-keyboard detritus of a 21 year old writer wannabe you’ll be treated to the more measured responses of a seasoned author because, yes, this is my first ever interview piece!

Sean Munger (above) is a fellow Jukepop Serials author whose current work, The Armoured Satchel, is poised to spring into the site’s thirty most popular pieces (if you haven’t already, send your votes his way on the site!). The Armoured Satchel is a riveting work of historical fiction, so you can see what got me on board, but it’s worth pointing out that Sean’s Jukepop work is merely the latest in a successful and ongoing publishing career. Of particular note is Zombies of Byzantium published by Samhain Publishing just earlier this year. His blog, linked above, lists his numerous other pieces (Beowulf is Boring looks especially awesome!).

But enough from me, this post belongs to Sean! And if your appetite for writerly QandA really isn’t sated by the end of this post, hop on over to his blog to read my own interview on the joys of trying to convince publishers I can realistically represent life 400 years ago despite only being 3 years out of high school…

Robbie: So what got you into history? It’s a tried and tested question for authors of historical fiction, but everyone’s story is unique. 

Sean: I’ve always been fascinated by history for as long as I could remember. For some reason, understanding what things were like in the past has been a constant hunger in my life. I remember one time—I was probably about five or six—my parents took me to this restaurant that was decorated with all sorts of retro junk. There was an old car, like a Model T, in the centre of the place. For some reason I remember asking my mom, “Was that Abraham Lincoln’s car?” I was fascinated when she told me that Abraham Lincoln lived so long ago they didn’t even have cars. I also used to think—based on things I’d seen on TV—that the world used to be in black and white, and colour was a recent invention. When my parents told me that the world had always been in colour, but it was only early pictures of it that weren’t, that blew my mind. So I’ve always had this strange curiosity about the past.

The public has a general idea that people who write about history do so academically, especially teachers such as yourself. Why did you choose the fictionalised path over the scholarly one?

Well, actually I chose both. I do academic history as well. I recently had a scholarly article published in the Madison Historical Review. But scholarly academic history is only one way to interact with the past. I think historical fiction is an equally important way, because it shows people what the past was really like—what it smelled like, what it was like to live there, and the kinds of things that would have mattered to you if you lived in a certain time and place. Many more people who would never read a scholarly history article would love to read a novel set in a historical setting. Plus, I’m a writer and I love to tell stories. So, history and writing fiction seem a natural match for me. 

Moving on to your ongoing work for Jukepop Serials, how did you discover the site? What convinced you that they were the right home for The Armoured Satchel.

I think someone on Twitter RT’d a link to JukePop on my timeline shortly after they started last fall. I looked at it and I was intrigued, but I was then working on another book (The Zombie Rebellion, which will be out from Samhain Publishing next spring) and had another one ready to go, so I decided I didn’t want to sign up for the commitment of doing a weekly serial. I was also not sure whether JukePop, which was then brand-new, would find an audience. But I did bookmark the site in case I changed my mind.

In January I took another look at the site and saw it had gained a lot of readers as well as some great stories. I started to think seriously about pitching a story to them. I’d wanted to do a World War II spy story for years but never had a workable idea for it, but at that point I began working on one, and what emerged was the concept for The Armoured Satchel. I wrote the first chapter very quickly and frankly didn’t expect it to be accepted. I thought I would pitch it, and if they liked it I would write it, and if not, I could say that I tried.

What do you want to get out of your time writing for Jukepop? 

I’d love to build a readership and a fan base outside of my published books. Readers love serials—they have since the genre started in the early 19th century, and now the rise of the Internet has brought them back. I’d like to be on the cutting edge of that revival. The world of letters is changing dramatically now that readers aren’t limited to the traditional books that a handful of big publishers choose to invest in. Serials are one manifestation of that change. Above all I want to tell a story and participate in the fun of watching a readership for that story grow in real time. It’d also be nice to make a little money. When writers and readers both gain, that’s a sign that something is going very right.

Your historical settings are incredibly diverse. The Armoured Satchel takes place during World War Two, whilst Zombies of Byzantium is set in the 8th century AD. The Giamotti trilogy spans all eras (and universes!). So the question has to be, what’s your favourite historical time period to write about?

This is a hard question to answer! So many historical places and settings interest me that I would never have to write about the same one twice if I didn’t want to. That said, I absolutely loved writing about Manhattan high society in the 1950s in Life Without Giamotti. The research I did for that section of the book was some of the most interesting and fun book research I’ve ever done. So it’s conceivable I may return to the 1950s in some future project. This summer I’m gearing up to write a book set in New York in 1880, and I’m excited about that because the Gilded Age is such a fascinating and atmospheric setting. The lavish clothes, gas-lit parlours, horse-drawn carriages—it’s going to be awesome.

My all-time favourite historical era, however, is the one I’m studying in my professional career, the U.S. Early Republic. That’s usually defined as the period from the creation of the Constitution (1789) to the eve of the Civil War (1860). My upcoming book The Zombie Rebellion takes place in 1794, so I’m firmly in that period. There’s a lot of potential for great stories set in this era, which was a very unique and unusual period in history, for a number of reasons.

Like almost all authors, you hold down a day job alongside your writing. Do you find the two clash or complement each other? 

I’m lucky that in my case they complement each other. I teach history as part of my Ph.D. program, and that together with my professional research means I’m always in a library, always thumbing through a book and always gathering historical information. You’d be surprised the amount of historical “ground” I cover in a normal day’s work—in the morning I might be teaching about the street revolutions in Paris in 1848, then in the afternoon I’m reading environmental history from the 1930s, something about Imperial China or even contemporary events that have just barely crossed over from “news” to “history.” Slipping questions for The Armoured Satchel into my daily to-do list, things like “What sort of planes would have been parked on the runway of an RAF base in 1944?” or “What kind of identity card would an SS officer carry in Occupied France?” is very easy to do. It’s all part of the many questions I try to answer day in and day out. I love reading history and I especially love presenting it to others, so I love my job.

Does your job as a teacher of history give you a lot of writing inspiration?

Yes, it does. Especially teaching the sections in the broad survey courses, where most of the students have had very little background in history, it’s amazing how much of a blank slate they are. I mean, they may know that a war called World War II occurred several decades ago, and they know or can at least intuit that the United States and Great Britain won it, but they might not know much more than that. Readers are the same way. Maybe a few readers of The Armoured Satchel would know, if they happen to be World War II buffs, anything about cryptography or the Ultra Secret or how the Germans tried to protect their communications, but the vast majority of readers won’t, so I have to present it to them in a way that both sets the stage for the story and also draws them into it so they enjoy being a part of it. I have to do that exact same thing with students. It’s a challenge, but it’s fun.

When you deal with something really far out there—like 8th century Byzantium, for instance, something that very few people know anything about—this gets even more pronounced. You might as well be writing high fantasy, like Lord of the Rings or something. The world you create did exist and the things you describe about it do come from historical sources, but the readers don’t know that, nor, in most cases, do they care. You have to build the whole world for them on the page. What do these people look like? How do they dress? What do their houses look like? What’s their religion? What are they afraid of? You have to paint this picture for students too in order for them to understand the history.

Do you have a writing routine? What’s your favourite time to write? 

With a spouse, a full time job and course of study, and whatever passes these days for a social life, I’ve found that “my favourite time to write” has morphed into “whenever I get a chance to write,” and I have to seize what chances I have! For The Armoured Satchel I do try to keep up a routine, though it doesn’t always go according to plan. I write a very script-like outline of every chapter, and I’ll usually do that at night during the week, after work/school but before dinner. If all goes well that outline will be complete by Saturday morning, and then I’ll spend much of the daylight hours on Saturday writing the chapter, polishing it up and uploading it to the site. If I’ve got some place to be or something else to do on Saturday, it’s often a challenge to find the time to get the chapter done.

What plans do you have for both the short term (typing up your Jukepop work) and long term (the next novel) future?

I still have a lot more chapters of The Armoured Satchel to go through, so I expect it will continue running through the rest of the summer. I’ve also toyed with the idea of doing a sequel. Max is only 20 at the time the story takes place, and I thought, if readers continue to like him, it might be interesting to catch up with him later in his life—perhaps in the ‘50s he’s working for the CIA against the Russians or something. Who knows? This summer will be busy for me, though, as I have another horror novel to write that I hope will be published by Samhain Publishing, the outfit that published Zombies of Byzantium. This is the new novel set in the 1880s. Beyond that I’m not sure, but my work never seems to be done, so I’m quite sure I’ll still be writing for the foreseeable future.

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Writing Tactics – Find, Fix, Flank, Finish

My father served for many years in the British Army. Growing up, he taught me a lot of hard-won lessons. Some of it has been applicable to daily life and some of it, after a long second glance, has even helped me become a better writer.

Take the Four Fs, a military maxim designed as the layman’s guide to battlefield tactics. The Fs in question are find, fix, flank and finish. The idea is wonderfully simplistic. Find the enemy’s position, fix him in place by pinning him down with covering fire, then outflank said fixed position. Lastly, finish him off. Image

Now this universal piece of tactical doctrine has helped me more times than I care to count when I’m out paintballing, but yesterday it struck me that I take a similar approach to writing.

Everybody approaches differently, but speaking (very) broadly there are three ways to write a novel – in a linear fashion, from start to finish, working backwards from the finish to the start, or plunging in at a given scene and expanding out from that. Traditionally I preferred the linear “start at the start” method, if only because I mistakenly believe that it was the “right way to do it.” A few months ago however I realised that there was a much more efficient way to approach my writing.

Imagine briefly that a novel is a battlezone. The toughest scenes, the ones you don’t want to write because you’re worried you haven’t got what it takes to nail it (not the ones you don’t want to write because they’d too boring – those shouldn’t exist!) are your enemies. Approach them using the four Fs.

FIND your enemies, those hard-as-nails scenes that are really making you question whether you should be writing at all. Tough scenes can pop out of nowhere, your synopsis won’t always flag them up. I only unearth them when I come to them from having started with the linear approach. So, once you’ve identified the enemy,

FIX it in place with a watertight mini-synopsis. Even if you can’t bear to start writing the scene itself, establish a thorough blow-by-blow guide on how you want it to play out. This helps because you’re actually partially writing the scene, but you’re not worried about making every line publishable-perfect. That comes later. After you’ve set out how you’re going to play it, you do my favourite bit and

FLANK it! That’s right, skip on right past that nasty scene. Linear purists will be feeling decidedly queasy having read that line but trust me, it can work. If a scene is seriously making you want to stop writing, blast past it. Get straight onto something you really love later on. I do it during almost every writing session now. This approach can very easily let you down – I detail consequences below – but don’t imagine that just because you’re not writing Chapter 6 immediately after Chapter 5 that you’re somehow not a real novelist.

FINISH IT – do not neglect this F just because it’s the last one! This is actually the most important point. You’re not neglecting your enemy scenes just because they intimidate you. The idea of flanking them and moving on is to build your confidence and firm up your writing so that you can come back and do what this F says – finish them! You Fixed them with a mini-synopsis for a reason. Use it!

A word of caution – you can have too many enemy scenes. The Four Fs should only be applied to the very toughest, nastiest ones, those that make you want to stop writing altogether. We all have those days. But if you apply the Fs to every 2nd chapter, you’ll only have written half the book when you reach the end. The purpose of the Four Fs is to isolate the tough stuff into little tiny pockets you can come back and hammer later on.

Again, everyone writes differently. I just thought I’d share something I found personally effective. But the bottom line is this; do whatever it takes to get that novel finished!

Also, thanks dad. 


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