What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 1

Firstly, I must apologise for the groan-inducing title. Yes, this is a post about grammar. And, yes, there may be more to come. A post about grammar? Part 1? Yawn.

Don’t be like that. I don’t intend them to be dry, technical posts. Rather, I want to talk about the idiosyncrasies of grammar and, occasionally, of those who use it.

Caveat: I do not hold myself out in any way as being an authority on grammar and its usage. If you want authority, refer to one of the style guides, like the Chicago or Oxford manuals*. Alternatively, visit an online forum related to writing and post something like, ‘There’s nothing wrong with splitting an infinitive’—you’ll soon be swamped with authority or, at least, those who believe they speak with it. I am not claiming to speak with authority. I have, however, been around the block a few times and have published more than half a million words of fiction, so I ought to know a little about the subject.

I’m going to start with one of the most bemusingly controversial of topics: the Oxford comma. It’s also known as the Harvard comma or serial comma, which always puts me in mind of Jack the Ripper. (Or should that be Jack, the Ripper? You have my permission to call me rude names.)

Now, I doubt whether the average reader has even heard of this unassuming little fellow; I’m almost certain that he couldn’t care less about it. For those who aren’t sure what it is, take this example:

For dinner we’re having pie, chips, and peas.

The Oxford comma (OC) is the second one, the one that separates ‘chips’ and ‘and’. Here’s the sentence without it:

For dinner we’re having pie, chips and peas.

In case there are any grammar pedants looking in, I know that some will feel that the sentence should contain a comma after the word ‘dinner’, but I’m making the style choice not to include it. So sue me. (I don’t consider there’s anything wrong with pedantry, by the way. I have a strong pedantic streak in me, but find as I get older that I care less and less about what others choose to do. You should try it; it’s liberating.)

Back to the example. Neither sentence is grammatically incorrect, but I prefer the second one. The OC adds nothing in my eyes and the second example looks less cluttered.

So it comes down to which style a writer prefers, then? You’d think, but there are a surprising number of people out there who will argue vehemently that either the OC should always be used, or that it should never be used. It’s difficult to think of another example of grammar usage where writers (not all, it has to be said, but many) are so polarised, supporting one position to the exclusion of the other.

Whenever I’m visiting a writing-related forum and see a thread started about the OC, I can guess what’s going to happen. Before too long, someone will come along who will declare that the OC should always be used. It clears up ambiguity, they argue. To back up their argument, they’ll post some (often ridiculous) example, like this:

I’m going to dinner this evening with my brothers, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

See? they’ll say, without the OC the sentence reads like the narrator is saying his (or her, but for the sake of brevity I’m sticking with his) brothers are Laurel and Hardy. Therefore, they’ll say, the OC is always required to avoid such ambiguity, so that the example should read:

I’m going to dinner this evening with my brothers, Stan Laurel, and Oliver Hardy.

And they are right, up to a point. Unless the narrator wants to say that Laurel and Hardy are his brothers, the OC removes that ambiguity. But with most of the examples (possibly all; I haven’t tested) that get bandied about in support of this position, it only requires a little tinkering and the OC will produce the opposite result, i.e. it will create ambiguity. Take the Laurel and Hardy example. Now change ‘brothers’ from plural to singular:

I’m going to dinner this evening with my brother, Stan Laurel, and Oliver Hardy.

Now it sounds like the narrator is saying that Stan Laurel is his brother. If that’s not what he intends, the OC needs to go.

So why do (some) writers get so bent out of shape by this and insist that the OC is always, or never, required? Beats me. It also amuses me in a head-shaking-sadly sort of way. For me, the OC is simple, so simple that I’m going to state this in bold:

If the intended meaning of a sentence is improved by inclusion of the OC, use it. If the meaning is obfuscated (man, I love that word) by inclusion of the OC, omit it. If the meaning isn’t clear with or without it, rewrite the sentence.

And, as far as I’m concerned, that’s all there is to say on the matter.

That’s all for this week. I’m in the middle of trying to get a collection of dark Christmas-themed stories ready for publication in time to catch the festive market and I need to crack on. Till later…

* I mention the Oxford and Chicago manuals because they are the ones which seem to be most favoured by writers (I have a copy of The Oxford Manual of Style sitting on the bookshelf above my writing desk) and both of which happen to be in favour of the OC, but there are other guides which aren’t.

(P.S. I’m including this addendum because I realised after posting that I said at the outset that this is a post about grammar, then proceeded to talk about punctuation. I am hereby redefining ‘grammar’ for the purposes of this series of posts to include punctuation, spelling and anything else loosely related to the mechanics of writing. So there.)

Marketing for Muppets – Part 2

I posted Marketing for Muppets – Part 1 in July so thought it was about time for Part 2.

Quick recap: these posts are not, emphatically not, about me offering advice on how to market books. Why would I presume to offer anyone advice? I might have mentioned that I’m an absolute muppet when it comes to marketing. No, these posts are merely my observations, such as they are, on marketing and a chronicle of my attempts at becoming better at it. A little like a hen blogging about her efforts on learning to play the flute.

Since that first post I have been on a two-week cruise around the Med, and very nice it was, too, thanks for asking, and posted six times here. You can see them by scrolling down, but to save you the bother there were a couple about movie adaptations, one each on horror novels, science fiction novels and children’s books, and one about words that readers don’t know how to pronounce.

I said at the end of Part 1 that I’d report back on whether regular updating of my blog has any effect on sales. Well, nothing of note to report yet, but it’s still very early days to judge whether it’s an effective approach because, by its very nature of trying to slowly build an audience by providing (hopefully) interesting content, it’s a longer-term tactic. I shall keep at it and see what happens. If nothing else, I’m having a lot of fun writing the posts.

On, then, to other marketing tools writers can employ. More specifically, one tool in particular, regarded by many as the most important tool we have. High time for another principle:

Proposition 2: The received wisdom is that a mailing list is an indispensable marketing tool for authors.

When you buy advertising slots with marketing sites like BookBub, you are in effect paying to use their mailing list of thousands of readers to advertise your book. Not all those readers, even if they read in your genre, will necessarily be interested in your book. The idea of building your own list is that you have a way of reaching readers interested in your work without having to pay a premium or having to rely on third parties spreading the word about your latest release or promotion. In theory, it’s like having your own private BookBub without the expense.

I resisted setting up a mailing list for a long time, not because I didn’t think they are a good idea, but for a couple of other reasons. Firstly, I’m not a technophobe but find learning new applications vastly time consuming; I preferred to spend my limited spare time writing than sussing out Mailchimp and sorting out a PO box address. Secondly, with all the junk e-mail that keeps popping into everyone’s inboxes these days, I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to receive e-mails from me. I wasn’t far wrong about that. Anyway, long story short, I eventually set up a mailing list in October 2016, with sign-up forms on my Facebook page and website. I included a link in my most recent release. We’re approaching the list’s first anniversary and so far I have fewer than twenty subscribers. (See? I told you I was absolutely pants at marketing.)

The thing with a mailing list is this: it’s all well and good having one, but how do you encourage readers to sign up for the bloody thing?

And isn’t that the whole marketing issue in a nutshell—it’s all well and good having published a book, but how do you encourage readers to read it? So, for me, creating a mailing list has merely created another layer of something to be mildly fretful and feel vaguely helpless about.

There are various methods for increasing the subscribers to your mailing list. These seem to be the main two:

—giving away free short stories, novellas or even novels in return for the donee subscribing to the list. Kudos to those who succeed with this method, but I have my doubts as to how effective it can be. Before you start thinking it, I’m not too much of a skinflint to give work away—I’ve given away thousands of copies of The Cleansing as a way of giving readers a cost-free entry into the Earth Haven trilogy. It’s that I wonder how likely it is that readers who sign up only to take advantage of a free offer are going to buy the next release. No doubt there are many readers on these lists who are genuinely into the authors’ works, but there must be many who aren’t. Still, perhaps it’s nevertheless worth going down this route to find readers who may become converts to your work.

—taking part in cross-promotions with other authors, which involve e-mailing readers on other authors’ lists. Again, good luck to those who find success with this method, but it’s not for me. The thought of sending promotional e-mails to readers who haven’t subscribed to my list makes me, like any form of cold-calling, shudder. Besides, I promise on my sign-up page never to share subscribers’ e-mail addresses with anyone. I also promise not to contact subscribers unless it’s to share news of a new release or promotion.

To date, I have sent one e-mail to my list. Just one. But, then, I’ve only had one release since October and no promotions of note. That will change soon when I’ve finished my current works-in-progress—the final part of a trilogy where only the first part has yet been published, and a quartet of dark Christmas stories. I intend to make available all new releases to subscribers at a discounted price (or, occasionally, as a gift) to express gratitude to them for their interest in my work and to reward them for their loyalty. In today’s world, the value of loyalty should never be underestimated.

But I urgently need to do something to build up my list. Despite my doubts, I have come to suspect that giving away the first instalment of the new trilogy in return for subscribing may be the way to go. I’m taking it out of Kindle Unlimited—its last day in KU is 5th November—to give me that option. If I decide to try that, I’ll report back in a later instalment.

Here endeth Part 2. Part 3 isn’t likely to be written until the New Year and I have no idea what it will be about—hopefully my successful efforts at building my mailing list and using it to effectively launch the forthcoming sequels—but I’m not holding my breath. And if that sounds negative, a little doomy and gloomy, it’s because that’s generally how I feel about my feeble promotional efforts. But that’s okay. I’m a determined bugger and if I never manage to make a full-time living from my writing, wholly or partly because of my woeful attempts at marketing, at least I’ll know I didn’t fail from lack of trying.

Marketing for Muppets – Part 1

Before we go any further, I’d better explain the title. In the UK we use ‘muppet’ to describe someone who’s a little clueless about something. Here, I’m using it to describe someone who’s a little clueless about marketing, and that someone is me. (‘Numpty’ would do as well but, you know, alliteration.)

If you also consider yourself to be a little clueless about marketing, then well met, fellow muppet. Should, on the other hand, you feel you’re pretty clued in to marketing in all its multifarious forms, then you may quietly mock me. I won’t take offence.

As for ‘Part 1’, this leaves the door wide open for a sequel. It’s the blog equivalent of a cliffhanger, without the cliff or, er, the hanger, but you get the drift. I intend setting out what I know about marketing — shouldn’t take long — and following up later, or perhaps a few laters, with stuff I learn as I progress.

I’ve been an indie author — both self- and small press-published — for nearly five years. You’d think that by now I’d have developed at least some basic skills in marketing. You’d think. One of my excuses (yeah, I have more than one), and one that will be familiar to many, is that I’ve always had to fit writing around working a regular, full-time job. What with family commitments and the usual stuff life throws at us, I’ve never made time to try to get to grips with marketing, always preferring to make time for writing first.

But that’s about to change. As of last week I cut my hours in my day job in half, mainly to make more time to concentrate on writing but also to eliminate that ‘no time to learn’ excuse. Whilst most of my freed-up time will be spent writing, an hour or so each free afternoon will now be devoted to learning how to promote my books. I’m going to post about my experiences and what I find works for me as regularly as I can. And I have much to learn — this could turn into the blog equivalent of the Friday the Thirteenth movies.

Another thing I need to mention: now that I’ve cut my regular working hours, my income has also been halved. (I did suggest they carry on paying my full salary if I promised to work twice as hard when in the office, but they didn’t like the idea.) Money will therefore be tight and I am going to have to explore free or almost-free marketing techniques. No BookBub ads for me — no change there, then, but I won’t be applying any more.

I thought that as I go along, I’d state in bold any principles or theories that seem especially true based on my own observations and experience. This is an opportune time to mention the first:

Proposition 1: What works well for one author, won’t necessarily work well for another.

In case I haven’t already mentioned it, I’m rubbish at marketing. Utter pants. A complete muppet. I intend to change that, but I know that not every marketing method will suit the sort of person I am, the type of fiction I write or the time I have available to spend on promoting.

Some writers spend a lot of time engaging with readers and other writers on social media — these are the writing superheroes who can bend time to their will, making it stretch to enable them to write in addition to spending all that time on Goodreads or podcasting, or whatever; either that or they never sleep. Some do nothing but write, aiming to publish a book every month or so, coupled with a spurt of highly-targeted, paid adverts at launch time — these, too, possess superhuman powers: the ability to produce a 60,000-word novel every month. Most others, like me, fall somewhere along the broad spectrum in between.

I think that before we decide what marketing tactics might work for us, we need to decide what fits in with our lifestyles and character. For instance, being heavily active on social media neither appeals to me nor do I believe I’d be very good at it. I’m simply not someone who enjoys chatting at length to strangers; I firmly believe my time would be more profitably spent writing than attempting to portray myself as someone I’m not.

What, then, might work for me? Well, posting on my website (and on my Goodreads blog) is something I’ve only done sporadically, but is something I enjoy and would like to do more regularly. So, first up, this is what I’m going to do: post once a week a piece that’s, broadly-speaking at least, writing-related, although I won’t be able to begin properly until late August since we’re escaping another typical British summer (a scorching week in June, when the unaccustomed heat makes us wilt like unwatered house plants, followed by a couple of months of grey skies and rain so heavy it makes your head throb) for the sunshine of the Med.

I don’t expect results, in as much as I expect them at all, in weeks. This seems to me a longer-term tactic but I will report back on the effect, if any, this has on my sales. At least one sequel, then. Oh, and of course it’s all well and good writing regular blog posts; it’s another thing altogether to get people to read them. And there are other mysteries to delve into, such as how to organically build a mailing list (yep, I have one; nope, it doesn’t have many subscribers), how to effectively use social media if we’re on the introverted side of sociable, and (this, for me, is a biggie and one of my other excuses for being rubbish at marketing) how to make potential readers aware of our books without making them, or us, feel that we’re shoving them into their faces.

Friday the Thirteenth meets Rocky it could be.