Saturday, 18 May 2013

Ten things you can do with a Kindle (that you can’t do with a paper book!)

Spellfall Kindle edition
This post is intended to balance my History Girls post earlier this month Ten things you can’t do with a Kindle, and should help sort out the unicorn’s karma. (Most of the below will also apply to other e-readers, but the unicorn is not an expert so do let him know if any of these are Kindle-only.)

1. Carry your whole library in your handbag. Doesn’t matter how long all those books are… they'll all fit on your slim e-shelf, and they won't make your Kindle any heavier.

2. Change the text size and/or line spacing, when your eyes get tired and you’ve forgotten where you put your reading glasses. (Muse: Does not apply to younger readers of this blog, obviously!)

3. Ask it to read to you. If you turn on the “text-to-speech" feature, you can even choose a male or female voice and ask it to read faster or slower... with identifiable American accents!
4. Sample the first 10% of a book at your leisure without the bookseller scowling at you if you decide not to buy it.

5. Buy any ebook in the catalogue - anywhere in the world if you have 3G - and start reading it instantly (well, within a few seconds, anyway).

6. Change the font to make a book feel different while you're reading it.

7. Email your manuscript to your Kindle and make notes on it – great for the final proofreading stage! You can also make digital notes on any ebook you have bought, without permanently defacing it.

8. Read it in the dark (backlit models only - "e-ink" is better for bright sunlight).

9. Read communally by asking to see which passages other readers highlight and letting them see yours. (You can also read privately, of course, as you would a paper book, by turning this feature off.)

10. Read embarrassing stuff on the train (no need for a special adult edition of Harry Potter, or plain silver covers on Madonna's “adult” title… nobody can see the cover while you’re reading an ebook.)

So what do YOU like to do with your e-reader, that you can’t do with a paper book? (Muse: Keep it clean, please! Remember this is a family blog...)

Sunday, 12 May 2013

The Computer Recommends…

So what’s your book about? Will I enjoy it?

Authors often get asked this question. What you really want to know is if my book sounds interesting enough for you to read - or, more bluntly, why should you buy it? Naturally authors want to tell you it’s just your thing, you’ll love it and should rush out and buy it immediately. In fact some authors tell everyone they meet exactly this, which is a good way to lose friends and alienate people.

The truth is no book in the world is loved by every reader. Each reader has their own tastes, which vary over time and according to mood, and while some books might please several different types of readers, you really can’t please all of the readers all of the time. That's the reason you see one-star reviews on best-selling books, and the reason publishers still publish titles that are not obvious best sellers.

Really, readers shouldn’t ask authors this question. We’re so busy getting lost in the enchanted mists of our own stories, we’ve barely time to notice all the other books by other writers, and when we do it's often in a competitive light that makes recommending them over our own books feel a bit like shooting ourselves in the foot - although we still do, if we read something particularly impressive, it just might have to impress an author a bit more than your average reader.

In the pre-digital age, serious readers might have asked their local independent bookseller (who had a wide knowledge of books and knew their customers' tastes) to recommend a title. But these friendly, knowledgeable local booksellers are vanishing fast. More likely you’ll be confronted with a pile of best-sellers at the front of your local bookselling chain, a cashier who knows little about any other book and even less about you, and who leaves you to your own devices to find other titles that you might enjoy. These lesser promoted titles might be spine-out on a back shelf of the shop, or more likely – if you're a keen reader – not there at all.

So today I’m going to go all digital on you, and pretend I'm a computer. Since amazon is recognised to have the best book-selling algorithms around, I've found a good way of discovering interesting titles is to look at their “also bought” lists. I take note of these when they spring up beside my own books, since I'm naturally interested in the other books my readers enjoy so I know what to write for them next! But as I sometimes write for a younger age group, I find these lists most useful for my own reading when they spring up next to a book I’ve read for my own pleasure and enjoyed enough to want to read more like it.

If you haven't come across it yet, this list can be found on the book’s product page on amazon's website. It’s called “Customers who bought this also bought…” so should be used with a bit of caution, since it doesn’t say “Customers who enjoyed this also enjoyed” (so far even amazon's algorithms can’t measure our enjoyment, but one day I expect they will!). Also, if a book has been on a promotion you’ll probably see a list of other books that have also been on promotion, since that kind of reader obviously puts price ahead of other things when deciding what to buy. But on the whole, especially if a title has been out for some time, this list is the computer’s answer to “Will I enjoy your book?”

Discounting more obvious recommendations by the same publisher and/or the same author, here are three examples of my books for different age groups and their “also boughts”:

Arthurian Saga (4 books) – Mary Stewart
Fire Spell – Laura Amy Schlitz
Justice for the Damned (Medieval Mystery) – Priscilla Royal
A Quest of Heroes (Sorcerer’s Ring) – Morgan Rice
The Assassin’s Curse – Cassandra Rose Clarke
Seraphina – Rachel Hartman
Gods and Warriors – Michelle Paver
Legends of Muirwood trilogy – Jeff Wheeler

Dragonfly – Julia Golding
Fairest (An Unfortunate Fairytale) – Chanda Hahn
Burn (Celestra series) – Addison Moore
Treespeaker – Katie W Stewart
Robin: Lady of Legend – R M ArceJaeger
A Place Beyond the Map – Samuel Thews
I am the Wolf – Joann H Buchanan
Water Witch – Thea Atkinson
The Path of the Priestess (Star Warrior series) – Anne Woodpecker

Burnt Shadows – Kamila Shamsie
One Dollar Horse - Lauren St John 
Secrecy – Rupert Thomson
The Heretics of De’Ath (Chronicles of Brother Hermitage) – Howard of Warwick
The Pilgrimage – Brian Fitts
The Wandering King – Stephen Marte
The Executioner’s Apprentice – Edward Chilvers
The Sword Master – I J Parker

I can't find an easy way to search for my books appearing on other people’s “also bought” lists (which might be a useful tool for authors and publishers, Amazon, if you’re reading this!), but the same obviously applies in reverse – if you’ve enjoyed any of the “also boughts” on the lists above, then you might also enjoy the book that generated the list where it appears.

So did the computer get it right? Have you been tempted to try any of the “also boughts” on the lists above?

Friday, 3 May 2013

The Great Pyramid Robbery - FREE for the holiday weekend!

FREE 3rd - 7th May CLICK HERE

On a forum recently, someone asked for historical fiction recommendations for young readers. I had my Seven Fabulous Wonders series very much in mind after redesigning the e-covers, and was just about to spring in with a reminder about these books when I saw the slightly desperate "PS: NOT historical fantasy!”

It's true the fantasy genre has its own fans. Some historians dislike fiction authors who mess around with history, which is understandable. Historical fact should remain historical fact (as long as you can be sure it is fact…something I won’t go into here!) But it got me thinking about that “ps”, and what it might mean to those of us who write historical novels with a bit of magic in them too.

Although my Seven Fabulous Wonders books include things that might look like pure fantasy, I did a fair amount of historical research for this series – rather too much, according to the Americans, who at the time said my series contained too much history to make it marketable over there. A US publisher did offer to edit my books and cut their length by a third, which as far as I could see meant removing most of the historical background and leaving the fantasy. Looking back now, I almost wish I had let them do it... but at the time I said no, because it seemed too big a change from the original concept - I was still writing the later books in the series, and my agent was still confident of selling them at their full length with the history intact. (Muse: If YOU ever get an offer like that, grab it while it's still on the table... I've been eating mouldy apples ever since.)

But for these seven books, I did my research with a capital 'R'. I wanted to get the background right, even down to the interior of the Great Pyramid (which I have never been inside), so I spent several months tracking down obscure historical tomes in dusty secondhand bookshops to make the story settings as accurate as possible.

Here are some of the magical research books I discovered along the way:

For "The Great Pyramid Robbery", I had a lot of fun deciphering the hieroglyphic spells listed in the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. I even paid a small fee to the British Museum for permission to use some genuine spells in the chapter headings of the original HaperCollins paperback edition, and I’m pretty sure I sold a few copies of the "Book of the Dead" as well as my own books when I spoke about this series in schools (boys, in particular, seemed keen to get their hands on the obviously much scarier “straight history” text!)

My plot took the magic a lot further than the basic spells, but again only in the context of ancient Egyptian beliefs. People who lived in the "Two Lands" four thousand years ago were absolutely solid in their faith that if they built a vast pyramid with secret chambers for their Pharaoh, buried him according to the correct ceremonies, and surrounded him by the correct spells, he would ascend to heaven in his sky-boat to sail across the sky with the sun god Re. His “ka” (or double-soul) would survive the terrifying trials of the underworld, escape the horrific second death, and emerge to live forever in the fields of paradise with all his servants to do the hard work for him – their spirits being buried with him in the form of small dolls. It's obvious that around 2500BC, when the pyramids were being built, spells were as real to the Ancient Egyptians as chemical formulae are to us today (they called their book "The Book of Coming Forth By Day" – and it was not considered fiction). Even Egyptian medicine used spells, since they believed it was no good treating the body without also healing the spirit and banishing the demons inside it - something we would do well to remember today.

Moving on a few centuries, the Ancient Greeks believed in a whole pantheon of monsters, such as half-men half-horse centaurs, and the famous fire-breathing Chimaera. My research for the four Greek based books in my series therefore included two lovely illustrated titles that most people today would count as pure fantasy: Greek Myths by Robert Graves and Mythical Beasts by John Cherry.

The Ancient Greeks also fought a long-running cold war against a legendary race of warrior women called Amazons, who lived around the shores of the Black Sea. Recent evidence has since uncovered Amazon graves in Kazakhstan, so it would seem that this legend has roots in reality. In "The Amazon Temple Quest", I took the fantasy a step further by making the nymphs who haunt the caves and streams around the Black Sea into real (if ghostly) creatures, and made my heroines into the last two Amazons of their warrior race, providing a possible explanation of how they might have died out.

Digging into ancient Mesopotamian culture for "The Babylon Game" (which I found the hardest of all to research, because it is not so popular in the West), I discovered Babylonian Magic and Sorcery by Leonard W King - a collection of spells written in cuneiform on the walls of ancient Babylonian monuments. Its original title “The Prayers of the Lifting of the Hand” marks this as another religious text of its period, the prayers in this case being made to the ancient Babylonian god Marduk. For this book, I mixed Babylonian magic with stories from the Old Testament, since my story is set during the reign of the mad King Nabonaid and his son Prince Belshazzar, who ruled Babylon during the famous "Writing on the Wall" episode from the Book of Daniel. (Muse: I wonder if that story counts as fantasy or history?) I also resurrected one of the strange dragon-like creatures, which the Babyloanians called “sirrush”, from the famous blue-and-gold brick gate of their ancient city. These wingless dragons are considered a fantasy creature today but might well have existed back in 500BC and since become extinct. Aurochs, the second creature shown on the Ishtar gate, are now known to be an ancient type of cow.

Ishtar Gate of Babylon showing aurochs and dragons (reconstructed in the Berlin museum).
Shakespeare wrote: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." This is particularly true when we travel far enough back in time to enter the shady area where history meets legend. When the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were being built, I believe “straight” history was less obvious than it is today, which is my excuse for including magic in my books!

*** FREE EBOOK ***
If you need some reading material for this holiday weekend, the Kindle edition of The Great Pyramid Robbery is FREE from amazon for the next five days: 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th May (offer applies midnight to midnight Pacific time).

The complete collection of 7 titles is also available for Kindle as The Seven Fabulous Wonders omnibus edition.

And if you have a different type of e-reader, the good news is you will soon be able to find the Seven Fabulous Wonders books in the Nook, Kobo and Apple stores too... some of them are already there!

APPLE (go to the itunes store and search "Seven Fabulous Wonders")


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