How I Wrote One Book And Ended Up With Five

The Series: Children of Zeus
‘Where Historical Fiction and Fantasy collide

After a decade or more writing for children and young adults, I pretty much know my way around a children’s book. A couple of years ago, deciding I need a new challenge, I turned my attention to writing magical realism for adults.
But what is magical realism and how does it differ from fantasy? I think of fantasy as being set in a mythological world in which there are rules but maybe not the rules we subscribe to in our humdrum human world. Magical realism takes place in our world and follows its rules, except occasionally those rules are skewed.
Which is so exciting.
I had already found a story, plotted it and written the introduction. And yes, I admit, I’m a plotter not a pantser, using tables and graphs, blurbs and a storyline.
The title was never in doubt: The Year the Swans Came (See my blog – why I wrote Swans) only the names of the characters. 

I had called my main character: Yöst. But when I completed the first draft, I realised the name was so wrong. It just didn’t fit. The character stalking his way through the story and dominating its action wasn’t Yöst – it was far too gentle a name. And so Xander was born except the spelling very soon mutated into Zande.
I had never planned to write for adults, considering adult relationships far too complicated, yet in my very first novel for this age group, I created Zande, who is divine but unbelievably complicated. I promise, I’m not the only one to have fallen in love with him.
But why is he like this? What has happened to tear this character apart?
As I explained in my earlier blog, in 2013 I sent The Year the Swans Came to the agent Felicity Bryan. Love the storyline and the style of writing but suggested I introduce the magical element earlier ... This created quite a problem. Not able to resolve it, I decided to write a prequel, which would explain all. On the way, I attended a lecture about ‘book titles’, when it was suggested that titles should come from the first page or pages of your novel – and so, The Click of a Pebble was born. This isthe blurb.

‘You must promise never to speak out about your heritage,’ his grandmother said, her old voice fearful and faint, ‘because people fear anything different.’
‘Fear us!’ Yöst laughed in protest. ‘We are too few to fear.’
‘It makes no difference. You are carinatae, descendants of Zeus, magical creatures …’

Naturally ... the writing of Click (as I call it) solved nothing. 100,000 words and three characters later, I had explained the magic but was no closer to ending Zande’s story than I had been at the beginning of the book. Instead, I had introduced a completely new story line with a raft of new characters, each one with a story to tell. This is one of the blurbs:

Persecuted throughout the centuries for their ability to shape-shift into swans and heavenly beings, three children, Yöst, Zande and a little girl, Tatania, are the sole survivors of the latest purge. Unaware of their real nature, Ramon, a gypsy farmer offers shelter on his farm in return for work. Striking up a close friendship with Rico, the only son in a house full of girls, it is Rico who helps Yöst through the first difficult year. As their relationship strengthens and deepens, Yöst begins to think of staying and making his life there as a farmer … forgetting that as carinatae, his date with destiny is approaching.

And so I began Book 2, An Ocean of White Wings, hoping to settle the matter once and for all.
Has it?
It has taken a third book, The Drumming of Heels to bring the series to an official close and explain what happens to all three characters: Yöst, Zande and Tatania.

One last problem to solve.
The original book, The Year the Swans Came was set in Holland in 1951, two years after the third book of the trilogy, Children of Zeus, ends. Logically that makes it Book4, except I’m not sure if you can apply logic to magical realism. In any case, it was published first because of the secret in it.
        I felt the words ticking away inside my head like an unexploded bomb, ‘One that involves you all.’
        Zande got to his feet in one graceful move. ‘Oh, that secret.’
        ‘You don’t play fair, Zande,’ I burst out.
        ‘Why would I possibly change the habit of a lifetime and play fair?’ I watched his face; grim, his eyes hooded.
        ‘Because we’re friends.’
        ‘So be satisfied with that.’

Right – that’s it.
Tomorrow, I really ought to start writing the opening chapter of Book 5, the sequel to The Year the Swans Came.

My book here on amazon

About Barbara Spencer:
In 1967, considering herself to be destined for a life of mediocrity, Barbara Spencer hi-tailed it to the West Indies to watch cricket, the precursor to a highly colourful career spanning three continents, in which she was caught up in riots, wars, and choosing Miss World. No stranger to schools and book-signings at Waterstones, after twelve years writing adventure stories for children and thrillers for young adults, Barbara began writing historical fantasy for an adult audience. Her first novel The Year the Swans Came was published in 2018.
Award Winning Author
Connect with me on:
Twitter: @BarbaraSpencerO
Blog spot:
The Year the Swans Came – Winner of  a Chill with a Book – Readers Award January 2019
Discovering Diamonds Review – March 2019

The real cost of publishing

The problems for new writers are many, and among them is the need to know something about the various methods of achieving publication, the costs involved if you go down the self-publishing route and the benefits of selling through Amazon versus a bookshop.

For a novic, just setting out, I would heartily recommend KDP Amazon. I used them for the first edition of Broken. The quality of the paperback was good, no problem with the ebook although in both you are limited as to design and layout. The one drawback - it won't get you into shops and libraries in the UK, unless you hawk it around each one and buy your own ISBN. Even then, unless you apply thumb-screws to the manager of an independent bookseller, it is unlikely they will take it because they prefer books they are 100% certain of selling.

A second method, if you have money, is to use a publisher, but in that case you are unlikely to get any change from £2,000 - £2,500 even if you have print on demand. Upfront fee, typesetting, professional editing and proofreading are offered, as are marketing services and if you accept any of these, £3,000 is a more likely figure. You are also unlikely to make a profit. You may well recoup some of your losses but to make a profit you need at least a second print run of say 300 – 500 books. 

Look at the costs in detail:
POD (print on demand) likely to be between £3.50 and £5.50 depending on length. No different from traditional printing if you only have 100 copies.
(£3 would most likely be charged for a book containing 40,000 - 70,000 words only.)

UK Wholesales (Bertrams/Garners) ask 55% of the RRP
Amazon 60%
+ The publisher 15%

If the RRP is £7.99 and you have to give away 75%, you are left with £1.99 - a substantial loss.

I do know of one writer who believing her book would take the world by storm re-mortgaged her house. I don't know whether she sold her books or her house!

To a small degree, you can apply the same logical to ebooks that are uploaded and controlled by a publisher. The actual cost of conversion from paperback is about £300. Then again the publisher takes 15%.
With some firms demanding a large percentage - Amazon vary - profit is difficult to find and maybe no more than pennies, especially if it's sold in the US and the £/$ ratio is poor.

You need to be prepared for this and only go ahead with a publisher if you can afford it, or you are determined to see your book in a bookshop or are able order a sizable print run because you know for definite you are going to sell lots and lots. 

In the past I have worked with having editions of 300 at a time to avoid storage charges. In that event, I have earned perhaps 50p a book.Not a lot but a profit nevertheless.

One author I know ordered a print run of 5,000. With those sorts of quantitites, the cost of printing drops to 30p-50p per copy. His book about the Jurassic coast and fossils went down a storm in schools and he sold every copy. 

You also need to encourage sales from shops rather than Amazon.
And this is where yet another difficulty arises. If you are a writer seeking to get your book into Waterstones, you need good upfront orders first and a reputable publisher.

However, the author of books about the Jurassic coast did not make his money through bookshop sales but through school sales. He happily confessed to me he wasn't a great writer but he hit on a subject of great interest and when visiting primary schools took with him a suitcase full of fossils, including the jawbone of a whale.  

The other critical element in book-publishing is the RRP. 
Even if the book costs you a packet to produce, you cannot upt the retail price to cover your losses. Book pricing is a highly sensitive area and there is a definite ceiling unless the book is a hardback, factual or totally out of this world. Why else have so many bookshops closed, because people won’t buy unless they can afford to do so. In markets, cheap editions sell for £3. So prices in bookshops have to be comparable - even with popular authors. Prices have to be set so as tempt customers into the shop. Waterstones: buy one get one half-price, it works a treat.

For children, prices have always ranged from £3.99 to £6.99. Young adults £7.99 is the most usual price but some, depending on word count and popularity, are now £8.99. (Harry Potter began life at £7.99; Hunger Game £8.99.) Other genres up to but not more than £10 unless you have millions of friends and cousins who will rush in and buy your book, the moment it is published.

I have been published in paperback for fourteen years and the pricing has never varied: £6.99 for younger children, £7.99 for the 8 - 12s and Young Adult. Age and the Antique Sideboard which is ‘humour’ for the older generation is my first experience of pricing higher – at £8.50. 

And I went dared to go one-higher with my new novel simply because it has 112,000 words and is a big read. (And it is very good) But so far sales of the paperback are slower than normal and I think this is down to the pricing: £9.99

Nevertheless, putting aside pounds shillings and pence for a moment, it is without doubt the greatest feeling in the world to walk past a bookshop and see your book on the shelf … but be warned it does come at a cost.

But it can work and it does work! That is what self-publishing via KDP Amazon can do, because then you do stand a chance of making money and if it sells ... then you know going to a publisher is going to work out well too.

In Pursuit of Fame

Why does an otherwise normal person decide to commit their life to writing a book?

The answer to that question would form a vast mound of paper because we all have different reasons for setting pen to paper. For Daphne du Maurier, a foremost writer of the last century, it was to escape the unhappiness of a loveless marriage. For me, it was being forced to replace a sparkling career with the more mundane aspects of domesticity – cooking, cleaning and ironing. Maybe it was the tedium of housework that led me to writing for children, for whom the joys of domesticity, housework to you and me, remain undiscovered, somewhat like the river Nile, until they are at least 21. 
     Nevertheless, regardless of what we give as the reason for days spent peering into a notebook, typewriter or pc, the pursuit of ‘fame’ although strenuously denied is the most obvious goal, even if the words ‘and fortune’ do not accompany it. If someone says to me, I write only for myself, my retort is likely to be: ‘I confess the lady protests too much,’ something Shakespeare used about Hamlet’s mum in Hamlet. I mean, if they genuinely do only write for themselves, the book can live on a shelf or in a drawer – like Fagin’s ‘guilty secret’. (Dickens) It does not need the Internet.
     I concede that the word ‘fame’ maybe too strong. Maybe recognition is more apt; the recognition of your peers who think it pretty damn good. That, for any would-be writer is the Everest of accolades.
     However, if in doubt as to your motives, apply the litmus test: why should someone buy my book? And does it matter if they don’t?
     If your answer is: Like hell it does. Then, like the rest of us, you are seeking at the very least recognition as a writer, plus a wish and desire for fame.
     Unfortunately, writing fame like snow leopards has become an endangered species, and far easier to achieve in, say, the last years of the nineteenth century than in these early years of the twenty-first. Maybe there were fewer aspiring novelists vying for the prize. For the vast majority, the idea of putting pen to paper was as bizarre as journeying to Mars is for me, especially for those for whom attendance at school happened only to others. Besides which, the word ‘leisure or spare time’, a basic requirement for any aspiring writer, had not yet formed part of their existence.
     As for leisure pursuits … nope! And what the hell are those?
People were either sleeping or working … no time for fancy embroidery or petite pointe unless it was an occupation to put bread on the table, in which case it was likely to occupy every waking hour. Candidates for writing fame grew from families who had a bob or two to spare, and who were able to educate their children and keep them at home without the family starving to death.
Although it is fair to say starving in a garret in Montmartre did become the in-thing for artists around this time. Never the most dependable of men, a good dose of cold and hunger went a long way in their search for fame and fortune, which brings up the point: how did they manage to live in squalor and never pay rent and yet spend all night in a bar drinking copious amount of brandy or wine? Be that as it may, once fame and fortune struck it was for many artists already too late to jettison the attic in favour of something warmer and more comfortable. Sadly, all too often the cold and damp, not to mention cheap liquor, resulted in TB which took them off at a very young age. (Look at La Bohême and La Traviata).
     Surprisingly, this garret business did not apply to writers, mainly, as stated in a previous paragraph because writers needed a smattering of education which had to be paid for. In this regard the Bronte sisters might well be considered cool. Their father’s income was, or would have been, sufficient to keep them all handsomely had not their brother run up huge debts. However, having been fortunate enough to belong to the gentry who actually believed in girls being educated, and living in a picturesque part of Yorkshire, they were able to decide on a writing career as a way of providing for themselves, even if they did have to pass themselves off as men.
     (What a long way we women have come!)
     Indeed, it is likely there are more writers currently starving in garrets or basement flats than there were in the 19th century, although modern writers are often cushioned by a modest handout from the government, which presumably keeps the proverbial wolf from the door.
     But I digress.
     Even twenty years ago, becoming a household name as a writer was more readily achievable than it is today. However, if you want someone to blame for this downturn, I suggest you turn your attention to successive laws that have limited our working week in order to give us some much needed leisure time, adequate pensions that allow us to sit at home and twiddle our thumbs at the young age of 60 or 65, and Tim Berners Lee who created the Internet some twenty-eight years ago.
     (The jury is still out as to whether in the long run this will be considered evolutionary progress or a step backwards.)
     As a result of this cataclysmic social change, a series of brilliant thinkers invented the play station, mobile phones, Facebook and virtual stores. Amazon sells its books in our sittingroom, children have become addicted to interactive games, independent bookshops have mostly disappeared, and the invention of Ereaders has given rise to free publishing on the web.
     Did you know a million books were published on Amazon last year alone?
     I mean, what sort of odds can you give fame against that: a million to one against?
I still prefer the old-fashioned way of publishing a paperback because that may have a chance of finding its way onto the shelves in a bookshop or library. I remember vividly doing book-signings in Waterstones for one of my children’s books against the background of The Hunger Games, and seeing teenagers dragging their parents to the relevant shelf and exhorting them to read it.
     (They probably still do this, but display the cover of the book to their parents on a mobile or computer screen.)
     Of course fame is still possible as a small percentage of writers on Amazon have proved. Lightning does have a habit of striking in strange places – look at Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey.

So … write your book and hold onto your dream of achieving recognition and fame. It’s a wonderful dream to have but the likelihood is it will remain just that, a dream, unless you do something about it.    
    And I mean something with a capital S.