Monday, 28 August 2017

Series or Standalone - pros and cons

The trend towards writing series of novels has become increasingly strong in recent years, and there are many authors who do not write anything outside series. More and more lately, I've seen what amounts to a fundamental assumption by some independent writers that everything they write will be part of a series, particularly in certain genres. 

There are arguments for and against writing a series, and today we'll take a look at what they are.


Persistent World
First of all, and this one's a biggie, whatever worldbuilding you do, of your setting and/or main characters, will stay done, and you can keep on using it, over and over again. This is particularly beneficial if you're writing the kind of thing that has a massive worldbuild or research component, such as fantasy, steampunk or historical fiction. 

Build a Following
Once you've firmly established a series, readers who enjoyed earlier books are very likely to keep buying later ones. They know what to expect, and if they liked the others, they know they'll like this one. And a lot of people are quite compulsive about series, even when each book is able to stand alone (as it must, if it's been properly written.) Even readers who first encounter one of the later books are quite likely to go back and buy the earlier ones. This is great for your sales.

Knowing What To Expect
Once you're up to about the third or fourth book in a series, you will have a pretty fair idea of what's going into it before you even start outlining. This can make the book quick and easy to write compared to a standalone novel.


Lack of Variety
If all you write is one series, you will never get to try anything new. This means that many, many avenues for growth as a writer are going unused, and also that you are missing out on trying different genres that you might have really loved. You don't know how you'll go in a genre until you try it. For years I was convinced I would never write children's lit - but when I came up with the outline for No Such Thing it was clear that it needed to be a middle-grade kids' book, and I enjoyed writing it no end and have another one in progress for the same age group. I would never have found this out if I hadn't been willing to give it a go.

This is the flip side of building a following. Writers, like actors, can be 'type cast'. If you've spent many years writing, say, chicklit, and suddenly decide you want to branch out into dystopian sci-fi, your established readership probably won't like your new work, and many potential readers who would have liked it may never see it because they think of you as exclusively a chicklit writer. Imagine if Stephen King suddenly started writing romantic comedies. How many people would buy the new book and throw it away unfinished in disgust? You never want to disappoint a reader.

Of course, branding doesn't only occur in the context of a series, but if you do have a long-running series and don't write other stuff as well, you may be sure it will happen to you.

Getting bored or stale
If you keep writing the same series, sooner or later you are likely to get bored with it. If it's making money for you, you may press on, but remember, you cannot do your best work if you are less than fully engaged yourself. Your quality will suffer.

Going Out of Style
Literature, like everything else, has trends and fashions. Vampires are very popular at the moment, and it's a fashion that has been surprisingly long-lived - but it is a fashion. If all you've ever written is a vampire series and suddenly the bottom falls out of the market, there goes your passive income stream, leaving you high and dry, with nothing to fall back on until you develop a whole new thing. This is what happened to Rudolph Valentino when the talkies came along.

Of course, these 'contra' arguments are not so much arguments against writing a series as against writing only a series. You can have the best of both worlds by writing both a series and other stuff too; of course, you are splitting your effort then, and you will not get your series books out as rapidly as you might otherwise have done. 


Series fall into two categories: the finite and the infinite.

The Finite Series
A finite series is one where you know ahead of time, at least roughly, how many books the series will contain. Trilogies fall into this category, as do longer series such as Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time. A longer series of this type will have an overall story arc, within which you position each book, while being sure that each book can stand alone, as a properly-written novel must do.

A modern variant of this is the 'episodic' series, such as Patti Roberts' popular Witchwood Estate series. These books are episodes in a larger story. They're very entertaining, and have enjoyed a good deal of success, but a great deal of care must be taken if you want to do this. You must ensure that every bit of marketing that is done underlines the nature of the series, lest you gravely disappoint readers who were expecting complete novels. Really, this type of series is more in the nature of a long book published by instalments, as was a lot of Dickens' work.

The Infinite Series
An infinite series, on the other hand, can last as long as the author is alive and willing to continue with it. Most detective series fall into this category, although if you've used a theme for your titles, like James Patterson with his nursery rhyme titles or Sue Grafton with her alphabet ones, it can be problematic when you come to the end of the list.

A Series Doesn't Have To Be Novels
A series need not be of novels. My own Operation Tomcat series are novellas, and you can also write short stories in a series, which can prepare the way for a themed collection down the track. This can happen if you've a character of whom you're particularly fond, like my own Sophie Green, whom I've used again and again.

The Nature of the Decision
Personally, I don't believe this is a career-level decision that needs to be made. Some books lend themselves to founding a series, and others don't. Operation Tomcat founded what I hope will be a long-running series (after a writer colleague persuaded me into it), but my historical novel, King's Ransom, could not, even if I wanted it to; it just is not suitable for the purpose, being based wholly around certain defined historical events. It's a decision that needs to be made at the story level, whether that story is a huge saga that will encompass fourteen long novels, or a single book with potential for sequelae.

My own Operation Tomcat series, which I was bullied into writing.
1. Operation Tomcat
2. Operation Camilla
3. Operation Badger

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Literary Activism - Racist Stereotypes

A while ago, I started working on a new story, a fantasy story of the fairy-tale type - beautiful princess locked in a tower, evil sorcerer seizing control of the kingdom, kind of thing. I wasn't planning on making any kind of political statement with this story; it was to be purely for entertainment.

The trouble came when I wanted to commission my cover. I'm keen enough on this story that I plan to publish it as a single, and I wanted to get my cover done early in the process, because this works well for me, as I talked about in Your Cover Designer and You, on 11 May this year.

My cover person likes to use stock images from a particular company where she has an account, and so I went there to find an image of a beautiful princess for her to use. So far so good - this company has thousands, tens of thousands of pictures of everything under the sun. Patti likes to use them because of the quality, and although I sometimes browbeat her into using pictures of my own animals, whenever it's about a human, I like to cut her a break.

So there I was, and I put in 'princess' or something, anyway up came thousands of pictures of girls and young women in full-on Disney princess kit. I paged and paged, so many of them were so lovely, and I was having trouble choosing one. Spoiled for choice, I know.

Something struck me, though, as I looked at page after page. There was a weird similarity to all the girls and women. I didn't twig at first, because I put it down to their outfits, but finally the penny dropped. They were all European types. Every single one. I don't know how many pages I went through, but I do know I was at it for a long time, and I did not find ONE traditional princess who didn't have pale skin. No brown people, no golden people, just page after page of what used to be called 'white people', but I don't like that terminology. And it reminded me of a sad little news item I'd seen, where a tiny little Aboriginal girl in a princess costume for some event was berated by an adult bigot because 'Princess Whatever isn't black', and told that a 'black' girl couldn't be a princess.

That got to me rather, and I decided that I would make my princess a brown girl. Just to stick it up the stereotype. There were some consequences for my story, because I wasn't able to source an image of a princess in what's regarded as typical princess gear. I found a beautiful young girl who also looked quite regal, but she was in a sleeveless dress and big hoop earrings. This meant that I needed to set my fairytale land in a hot climate. A good example of why I like to get my covers done early!

This is the cover I'm talking about.

Making the princess a brown girl actually worked really, really well for my plot. I'm not going to say exactly why, because that would be a spoiler, for a story I haven't even finished writing yet, but I love what that one change has done for it. So often in life when we go to do something good in a disinterested way, karma pays us back in unexpected ways. At least, that's been my experience.

So, to come back to my topic. Doing things like this is what's known as literary activism. Just as judicial activism in common-law countries changes the law to fit more civilised ideals, so can literary activism change the world, tiny drop by tiny drop.

Now I'm not talking here about people like Stephen King saying stuff in radio interviews, or anything like that. Valuable as this kind of thing may be, it is not literary activism; it is celebrity activism. When you do that, you are operating through your fame, not your writing. You have on your celebrity hat, not your writer hat. Literary activism is done by using our writing, and the good news is that it doesn't require any fame at all, although of course if you are a very well-known writer, your audience will be larger. 

How to do it

There are three ways of doing literary activism. 

1. Lecturing Your Reader.
The first, and most obvious, way, is to have one of your characters expound the point you wish to make. Robert Heinlein's work is full of examples of this technique, and if you like reading sleazy rubbish, so is that of John Norman. I have advised my readers in other posts not to keep stopping in your narrative to deliver a lecture, so I don't feel I need to say more about it here, other than to reiterate that it isn't a good idea, and that Heinlein and Norman have been successful in spite of, not because of, this nasty habit.

2. Showing Your Reader The Bad Thing.
In this technique, all we need to do is to portray the thing we are against; to hold it up to the reader in all its ugly stupidity. An example from my own work is Goebbels, in Dance of Chaos. I write him being a vicious bigot to his Aboriginal employee, and I don't make any comment on it at all.

3. Showing Your Reader a Better Way.
This is what I'm planning to do in the story I talked about above. I'll be showing the reader a classic fairytale princess, with brown skin and Africanesque features, and I will not be making any comment about it. I will actually be going a little farther than that, but 'spoilers,' as River Song says.

The thing about literary activism is that, as with all fiction writing, you are allowing your reader to supply, to fill in the blanks you have left. You're giving him something to think about. You're not telling him what to think. See, this is what I meant when I said 'tiny drop by tiny drop'. All you are doing is showing your reader something that implicitly invites him to think about it. And if you've done well, some reader may change his belief or attitude about something. Don't underestimate the power of that. It took only one experience to make me discard the racism I'd been taught in primary school. You change one person's mind about something, you do not know how far-reaching the consequences may be. For example, in my story The Real Winner, I used a combination of (2) and (3) to show the rights and wrongs of bringing up a puppy. One reader contacted me to tell me that as a result of reading it, he'd re-evaluated his situation with his problem dog, and would not be returning her to the shelter after all, but was hiring a training consultant to address the dog's problems. That dog is now a happy and well-behaved dog, bringing joy and comfort to a widowed man. And that is just the one I know about. Do you see? My story saved a life. A small thing in the context of the world, but a very big thing to that dog, and to her human, too. Because of this, I will always regard myself as a successful writer.

This is the story that saved a life.
You can get it at Amazon.

A good example of a popular writer using a combination of techniques (2) and (3) is the work of Sheri Tepper. Her activism was directed to the saving of the planet and our ecology, and it was very well done; she never spoiled the readability of her books by lecturing, and they are real page-turners. Sadly, Ms Tepper is now deceased, but her work lives on, and I'm sure it has educated many people. 

The point I'm trying to make here is that there need not be any overall cost to literary activism, when it's done well. The extra dimension can work for your story; it is not an extra load holding you back, but a power cell boosting you on. If it's done well.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

The Seven Deadly Sins of Writers' Groups

Writers' groups. Love them or hate them, nearly every independent writer belongs to at least one, and usually a lot more than one. And not just the indies, either - even Brandon Sanderson is in a writers' group, although I don't think his one is a Facebook group.

There's a lot to be said for joining a writers' group. A number of benefits can accrue from membership in these things. Just hanging out with other people who are going through the same things you're going through can be reassuring, and then there are often opportunities to learn new techniques, whether of writing or marketing, get some help with your query letter, and so on. And then there are the people you meet. I could write the whole post about that, but today I'm talking about sins, so I'll just say that I've made some wonderful friends in writers' groups, and also discovered some utterly brilliant writers whose work has given me many hours of reading pleasure.

So a writers' group can be very beneficial to you, providing it's a decent group, and you behave yourself properly. If you don't play nice, the other kids aren't going to want to play with you, and your posts and comments are likely to be ignored, and you may even be blocked by a lot of people. 

Here, therefore, I've listed the most annoying behaviours I see in writers' groups, so that you may, if you wish, avoid them. Just for fun, I've categorised them according to the real seven deadly sins, which as I'm sure you know are pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth.


Two behaviours of which I see a lot fall under the category of pride, and they're both irritating AF. Both are forms of bragging, hence the classification. Now a certain amount of bragging is perfectly acceptable in a group. Of course you want to tell everyone when Random House have picked up your book, or when you've sold a million copies, or even when you get your first short story accepted for a magazine or anthology. That's respectable bragging, and it has its benefits for others; these success stories give us all hope when we're despondent about our own careers.

There is, however, pointless bragging, and you will be guilty of this if you:

Carry on about how suspicious your browsing history is, and how ASIO/MI5/MOSSAD etc might investigate you. No, they won't. No one cares.

Post memes about how 'special' writers are. I've talked about this one before, so I don't think I need to say more than that it's childish and pathetic.


Greed is basically trying to get more than your fair share of anything. The big offender here is inappropriate promotion, such as:

Posting 'buy' links to your book, over and over, perhaps even multiple times a day. 
Commenting on other people's (unrelated) threads with a buy link to your book. This is appallingly rude. 
Not quite so egregious, but still very bad behaviour, is twisting conversations so that you can work in a mention of your own book.
And of course, promoting your book in groups that do not allow self-promotion, which would include most of the better groups.


There isn't a lot of scope in writers' groups for lust, but it's worth remembering that quite a few groups that do allow self-promotion still don't allow promotion or posting of so-called 'adult' material (i.e. porn). Usually, this is because the group's membership may include some children. It's extremely inconsiderate to post sleazy material in such a group. And no, Virginia, claiming it's 'erotica' doesn't make a shred of difference.


This is a big one. Over and over I see long, angry threads that are just a hatefest against high-profile writers such as Stephen King, James Patterson, E.L. James, Stephanie Meyer and J.K. Rowling. I say it is envy, because there is never any real attempt made to analyse any of the target's work, and also because one never, never sees this kind of mob attack on anyone except those lucky writers who have achieved major commercial success. 


Like lust, this sin has limited application to writers' groups, but postwhoring is, I think, rather analogous to it. We all know what a postwhore is, right? If you are posting more than a few times a day, or if you can scroll through the group and yours is the last comment on every single thread, you may be a postwhore. 


Wrath manifests itself in a writers' group in two main ways. The first is, of course, trolling. Picking fights, posts whose only purpose is to offend, and using personal insult in an argument are all forms of trolling. Enough said.

The other really awful behaviour I see in this category is posting an excerpt and asking for critique, and then whining, arguing, or worst of all, throwing a tantrum when the work is criticised. 

Especial caution needs to be exercised with this one, because it's not nearly as easy to avoid as are most of the behaviours we're looking at today. I discovered this myself last year, when under the influence of some advice from the great Mr Sanderson I experimented with posting pieces for critique in several groups. If you feel someone has missed the point of what you wrote, it can be awfully difficult to hold your tongue. But hold it you must, for that very fact is itself a silent criticism of your writing: it is up to you, the writer, to ensure that readers don't miss the point.


If you post in your writers' group asking people to think of a name for your character, to decide on his hair colour, or in any way to tell you what to write, you are being slothful. You are supposed to be the writer. You need to get on and write your own book. If you can't, then perhaps it's time to rethink whether you are really suited to the work.

Similarly, whining about so-called 'writers' block'. I have seen so many of these posts that I am completely devoid of sympathy. If you are guilty of this, try getting a job on a building site, or in a factory, for six months or so, to learn a decent work ethic.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Things No One Will Tell You About Showing Your Dog

If you got your dog from a reputable breeder intending to show him or her, you've probably been given a bit of instruction about how the whole thing works. You know not to speak to the judge unless spoken to, you know to give your dog a bath beforehand, and hopefully you have at least a basic understanding of the process. With any luck, you may have attended a few shows with your breeder or someone else from your breed club, and had your hand held through your first stumbling efforts.

What no one will tell you about, though, is the awful ways in which you can embarrass yourself in the ring, without even being aware of it. I am referring to your outfit. 

It's not my intention to shame anyone, so I will be mentioning no names here, and I won't be posting any candid snaps either. But there is a list of things to avoid, and one thing that you must have, so without further ado, I give you Tabitha's Guide to Ring Wardrobe.


You have a wide choice of clothing for dog shows.  Really, there are few things not allowed, although there is, of course, always the invisible constraint of 'done' vs 'not done'. But there are some garments so utterly toxic in the show situation that it's really best to be forewarned.

Short Skirts

Do not, under any circumstances, wear a miniskirt, or any skirt shorter than just above the knee, into the show ring. When you have finished running about, you will be called upon to stack your dog, and unless you're fantastically lucky, this is going to involve some adjustments to the placement of his feet. This means you are going to have to bend over. Not just once, but probably a number of times. You'll be stacking your dog for the judge, whose basic position is in the middle of the ring, so you wil be standing with your back to the crowd. 

Hipster Pants.

For a similar reason to that given above, low-rise trousers should be sedulously avoided. Especially if you have g-string underwear. At best, you'll treat onlookers to an expanse of knickers, and at worst, the dreaded 'Y' of a g-string, or even a Builder's Crack.  

Light-Coloured Trousers

Because, unlike the better skirts, trousers are generally not lined, white or very pale colours should be avoided too. There is something really sloppy about the view of a broad backside, with pale fabric stretched over it to reveal black knickers, or even worse, ones with a design that you thought was going to remain private. Remember that dog shows generally take place out of doors in the sunlight; it's an unforgiving light, and shows all this kind of thing up really well.

Low Necklines

Again, you'll be bending over. Enough said.

Now there are, of course, other criteria than personal embarrassment. Your outfit can work well or poorly for you in terms of how good you can make your dog look.



There is only one positive commandment (apart from sensible shoes, which ought to go without saying.) 

If you are larger than a 'B' cup, you MUST have a good support bra. Yes, they're expensive, and no, if you aren't accustomed to living in them they can be uncomfortable. But you can have no idea of how dreadful it looks when you are running around the ring if you don't have one.

Of course, if you are exhibiting one of the tiny breeds, you won't need to move faster than a brisk walk, but if your dog is medium sized or larger, you will have to run in the ring, and at a considerable speed.

If you only buy one article of apparel for dog shows, make this the one. Because otherwise, it's just horrible.


Footwear should be flat and comfortable, but there's more to it than that. It should also be firmly fastened to your feet. If you have slip-on shoes, or, God forbid, thongs, you run the risk of losing one as you run. Ideally, lace-up styles are the best.


The colour of your outfit should be such as to provide a good contrast with your dog's fur. This allows the judge to see a nice, crisp topline when you are standing behind your dog, as you will be nearly all the time from the judge's viewpoint. Depending on the height of your dog, the top and bottom parts of your outfit will be more or less important; if you're showing a miniature breed, it really doesn't matter what you wear on top, but if you're showing a male Deerhound or other giant breed, the colour of your jacket becomes paramount.

A bright red skirt is an excellent choice
for this dark grey hound.

Grey isn't a colour I'd normally choose for a Deerhound,
but this suit is pale enough to get away with it.
Note the double vents on the skirt, a better choice
for bending over than a single slit at the rear.


At least at the larger shows, it is polite to have a jacket. You won't be thrown out for not having one, but it's the done thing.

The more formal option is the suit.
Three-quarter sleeves and a sleeveless top under it
will help your comfort levels on a hot day.


Generally, full skirts, especially of a lightweight material that flies about, are not advisable when showing a large dog, where you have to run. Loose material flapping about next to your dog's face is distracting for him, and you want your dog to be focussed. This is especially important with a puppy or young dog, who is not as steady as a veteran of many shows.

If you don't care for the straight style of skirt, a pleated skirt or kilt is a good alternative.

A good choice for a country show.
The heavier fabric of the kilt allows a full range of movement
 without distracting fabric flying about.
A brighter colour would have been an even better choice for this hound.


It is not done to wear anything in the ring that identifies a breeder or kennel. Club T-shirts, hoodies with your kennel name or even logo on them, should be kept for afterwards.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

MUSIC REVIEW - WOODSTOCK 2019, Bernie Manning

Continuing in the new direction of tribute music that he took with his last album, Heroes, Manning now brings us Woodstock 2019, an intriguing pastiche of several prominent musicians of the 70s.

Unlike Heroes, though, this new collection is not just a celebration of the chosen artists. It's a wishful, whimsical venture into the land of might-have-been, the country of What If.

Taking as its starting point the sudden, early deaths of a number of pop icons in the 70s, Manning postulates what might have happened had it not been for those deaths. Taking as a starting point the influence these singers had on the youth of the day, he suggests that had those people lived, they might have been the catalyst needed to turn humanity, as it were, on its axis, to redirect us into a new era of civilisation, a world where there was universal peace, where countries shared instead of invading, and where climate change had been reversed.

This vision of an alternative future, of what might have been if humanity's eyes had been on the prize of civilisation rather than of prosperity, is heart-breaking in its distance from the world we know today, yet it is in the context of this vision that Manning's songs must be heard. 

There has always been an element of the protest song in Manning's work, so it was no surprise to find Bob Dylan among the lineup in this album, along with the Beatles, the Doors, David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix. At this point I must confess to a certain inadequacy as reviewer; my limited familiarity with the oevres of both Hendrix and The Doors made it hard for me to evaluate those songs in the context of the overall album. 

Be that as it may, the Hendrix songs did, to me, evoke the period wonderfully well - especially Sea of Tranquility, with its meditative hippie tone. The Bowie songs, in particular the sad, haunting Goodbye Earth, brought to mind the classic Major Tom. The soft voice of Bruce Haymes melded perfectly with the lyrics of the George Harrison tribute, What Might Have Been, and this one really had, for me, that authentic Beatles sound. The long guitar fugue in Behind That Door had a very Doors-like sound to me, although with these songs I rather missed the gritty voice of Jeff Burstin, who seems no longer to be part of the team. 

It was in the Dylan songs that I felt Manning gave us his best. In Freedom Air we see a return to the style that works so well for Manning, the spoken poem with musical backing, with its wry, but never bitter, social comment, and in Life Happens, my personal favourite, the author shines through with his kindly, humorous observations of Melbourne life and his fellow humans. This is more the old-style Bernie Manning work that we saw in his early albums.

Sadly, there are none of the comic monologues that Manning does so well; I noted their absence with sorrow, although I must admit they wouldn't have fitted the rather sombre theme of this album.

All around, a good listening experience, and a timely reflection on just how far humanity has walked down the Dark Path.