Ask Luna #79

From: Nick Stephenson

Hello Luna
I must ask can Arachne make Alex a fate weaver, she is at least as strong as a council white Mage and she spends all her time making things. she must have the power to make one for Alex and he also knows how to stablize it from book one.

Short answer: no. First, I don’t think Arachne could make one – they’re super powerful, created by some weird formula that was lost centuries ago, using a magic type that isn’t hers. She can make a lot of stuff, but that doesn’t mean she can make anything.

Second, Alex doesn’t actually know how to stabilise one as far as I know. The one guy we know of who did manage to stabilise one did it through being a mind mage, and asking him for the details of how he did it is not exactly an option.

From: Bruce Donohue

Hello Luna,

Hope all is well with you. Can you tell us a little bit of what went on with you while Alex and Anne were world hopping to avoid being caught and killed? Have Alex and Anne sat down with you and Sonder to explain the consequences of having to work with Morden and Richard and the full ramifications of how they both ended being in their employment and what being the ‘Liaison’ and Alex being a full status member Keeper mean?

In regards to shifters, always viewed that as being like a natural born condition like part of the DNA makeup, does that mean that shifters can also be or possess other type of magic or they can only be shifters? Of all the types of magic type that one can possess which one has the most wide/broad range of skills and abilities? Has it ever happened that naturally a mage has more than one type of magic example fire/energy/air and access to draw on all of them equally? Is their such a thing as a generalist mage where they can draw on any sphere/type of magic, only limit is the capacity to learn it?

You got your money’s worth out of that email bandwidth, didn’t you?

Yes, I can say a bit about what happened while Alex and Anne were off country hopping; no, I don’t want to. Let’s just say it wasn’t fun. We’ve had a bunch of discussions since then, and things are a little better, but I did not have a good January that year.

Shapeshift magic is a specific type of magic – have no idea whether it’s genetic, but it’s not an ‘extra’ on top of other abilities. You can have hybrids, but from what I understand shifters are LESS likely to be hybrids than other mage types, because shapeshifting is so crazy difficult that you really need to focus on it to do it well. It’s not like air magic where if you mess up, you make a whirlwind or something. If you mess up a shapeshift, you can have some really really unpleasant things happen to you – think about what happens if you’re trying to transplant your mind into a different-sized creature’s brain and get it wrong.

There aren’t really any ‘generalist’ mages in the sense that you’re asking for similar reasons. Magic is hard. Trying to be a high-level fire mage and air mage and force mage at the same time would be like trying to be a world-class mountain climber and a Nobel-prize-winning professor and an internationally famous musician all at once. I guess it’s possible, but where are you going to find the time? It’s not like some kind of gift where you just get handed your abilities and that’s it, you’re superhuman now, go have fun. The master mages have been training up and practising their spells for decades.

From: Xexas

When u give your curse to someone else temporarily, have you tried reversing it so that they attract all kinds of bad luck

Uh, that’s literally what happens whenever I touch someone. I don’t need to try to give someone bad luck. The hard part is not giving them bad luck.

From: Willow

Hey, Luna,

I was thinking about Chance magic and how it all worked for you. The way I understand, you can use your curse to make random bad things happen to people, but could you, or can you, decide what exactly it is that is happening to them? Could a chance mage?

Now that’s an interesting one. The answer is yes . . . but it’s difficult, and you need really fine control. Practising on people is a bad idea for obvious reasons, but I’ve spent a lot of time trying it on objects . . . the idea is that you deliver the effect, but then you try to ‘nudge’ it so that it goes in a certain direction. The trouble is that it keeps trying to follow the path of least resistance, which isn’t always the path you want, so keeping it there can be a real struggle. It’s actually one of the main things Chalice has been trying to teach me, and I’m a lot further along than I used to be, but I still haven’t mastered it.

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Advice for Writers IV

Part four in this series.

Rule Four: Sell

The fourth and final step to becoming a successful author: you have to sell what you publish.

This step is the one where you’re most likely to run up against the limits of your own capabilities. Writing, improving your writing, and publishing your writing can all be done by anyone with sufficient motivation: if you hit problems, you can get around them with sufficient time and effort. Selling can’t. If your book doesn’t have sufficient appeal to a wide enough audience, well, that’s that. That’s a hard thing to accept, so before we get into that, we’ll look at what most people think of when they hear ‘selling’, namely, publicity.


Publicity and marketing is a big field, but the road for new authors is a well-trodden one and it’s not hard to find instructions on how to do it. The goal is to increase your recognition and visibility, so that people are more likely to be exposed to you in the first place and more likely to recognise your name when they do.

If you already have a good publisher, then you’ll get a certain amount of automatic exposure from their publication process: your book will be featured in their listings, pitched to booksellers and reviewers, etc. This will mostly happen behind the scenes with or without your help. You also may or may not get help from their marketing/digital media people for stuff like interviews, convention appearances, and so on. If you’re self-published, none of this applies and you’re on your own (good luck).

Next there’s personal publicity, which you’ll have to do yourself. This takes the form of having a website, social media accounts, personal advertising, and all of the other stuff that new authors do, which mostly takes the form of trying to get your name and book out there in the hope that someone will notice. There’s lots of advice out there for authors on this topic, usually along the lines of ‘you should do more publicity, here’s how’. I’m not going to give any advice of this kind, but I am going to talk a little about the types of publicity, specifically, the difference between additive and multiplicative. (These aren’t official names, just the terms I use for them, but that’s what I’ll stick with for this blog post).

Add or Multiply

Additive publicity adds to your readership, or at least to the category of people exposed to/familiar with you and your book. If you go to a convention and do a panel, that’s additive publicity. Everyone in the room listens to you talk and becomes that much more familiar with you and your writing. With additive publicity, you generally have a good idea from the start of the size of the audience. If you’re giving a talk to 200 people, that’s 200 people who might look you up afterwards. (In practice the number is far lower, but you get the idea.)

Multiplicative publicity multiplies your readership. If 20% of the people who buy your book recommend it to one other person each, then the number of people who might look you up afterwards is 1.2 times the number of people who bought the book in the first place. The main (and best) kind of multiplicative publicity for an author is word of mouth recommendation. One person reads your book and talks about it to someone else.

Basic arithmetic will tell you that additive boosts are better if your starting number is low, multiplicative ones better if your starting number is high. If you have 10 readers, adding 100 is great, multiplying by 1.2 not so much. If you have 10,000 readers, multiplying by 1.2 is amazing, adding 100 less so. Unsurprisingly, the two work best when used in sequence. First you build up a customer base, then you multiply it.

Comparing the Two

The main thing to understand here is that the majority of publicity work that most new authors do – and the kind that’s recommended for new authors to do – is additive publicity. And this is a problem, because additive publicity can easily become a trap.

The big problem with additive publicity is that it requires constant input: if your main way of getting new readers is to spend time on publicity, then to get more readers you have to keep spending more time. This can rapidly become overwhelming. The first interview or convention panel is exciting; the fifth is work; by the time you get up to the twentieth it’s starting to feel like a job. This is fine if your publicity work is producing results appropriate to that of a job, but in practice it’s usually very hard to tell whether this is true.

By contrast, word-of-mouth publicity has its own momentum. Once a book is out there with some legs and a sufficient starting base, it pretty much sells itself. In fact, given sufficient time, word-of-mouth will outperform almost any amount of additive publicity, just because of its viral nature. Yes, you get the odd edge case such as being on Oprah, but for the remaining ninety-nine point nine percent of authors out there, your best publicity tool is your book itself.

The Catch

So if word-of-mouth is so good, you should just rely on that, right? Well, that brings us back to your own capabilities. For word-of-mouth to work, readers have to enjoy and be enthusiastic about a book. Which means you have to make the book appeal to them. Which means this advice ultimately comes down to ‘write a good book’. Which isn’t very helpful, is it?

The answer to that is: no, it’s not. Unfortunately, it’s also true. Publicity can supply a boost, but ultimately, if your book can’t sell itself, then no amount of pushing will get it moving.

Which means that in the very long term, the best way to sell a book tends to be to go away and write a better book. Then repeat that process as many times as necessary. As I said at the beginning, simple things are usually hard.

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Fourth and last part of the Advice for Writers series is underway but running longer than expected.  Will have it up next Friday.  

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Advice for Writers III

Parts one and two of this series are here and here.  On to Part Three.  

Rule Three: Publish

If you want to become a published author, then at some point you need to get around to the publishing part. For most writers, this is not something they look forward to, and for good reason. While trying to get a book published should take you much less time than writing it (if not, something is very wrong) you now have to count on other people. This can be fairly painless or very painful, and the newer an author you are, the more it tends towards the painful end.

The first thing you have to do is choose a publishing route. Broadly speaking, there are two: using a publisher, or self-publishing. I’ll take a brief look at both.

The Traditional Approach: Using a Publisher

Once upon a time, unless you were rich or famous, going through a publisher was the only realistic way to get something published. That’s no longer true, but it’s still the route most authors choose. Here’s what it involves.

• Step 1: Get a good agent. Trying to approach a traditional publisher without one is an uphill struggle, since many publishers won’t look at unsolicited manuscripts at all and the ones who do will pay them far less attention. You can find lists of literary agencies online or in the Writer’s Handbook – submission process varies by agency.
• Step 2: Apply (preferably, have your agent apply) to publishers. Wait.
• Step 3: Wait some more.
• Step 4: Continue waiting. The publishers may get back to you. If they do, they’ll want to discuss rewrites and changes. More likely they’ll tell you no, or won’t contact you at all. Silence is the most common type of rejection here.

You may have noticed a theme here involving the word ‘wait’. Once you’ve sent off your submissions (be they to an agent or a publisher) things are pretty much out of your hands. You can chase them, but it’s very unlikely to help. You’re better off spending the time writing a new book instead.

The 21st Century Approach: Self-Publishing

Self-publishing means no submissions. You take your book and put it up for sale, and that’s it.

Of course, the catch to that is that you need a book, not a manuscript. What’s the difference? Well, editing, copy-editing, design, a cover, and proofreading, for starters. Self-publishing means you have to do every one of the jobs that a big publishing house does, and manage and co-ordinate them all yourself. In exchange for that you get to keep most of the profits . . . assuming there are any.

This is the option with the lowest barriers to entry. While turning a manuscript into a book and using a self-publishing service is a lot of work, it’s absolutely doable. You aren’t going to get turned away the way you can (and will) be with the traditional route: if you want your book self-published, you can get it self-published.

Which to Choose

So which one is best for you? There are lots of articles online that will debate the two, and most will look at it from a business perspective. I’m not going to do that, because I don’t have enough experience with self-publishing to make an informed comparison from the numbers point of view. However, I will make two points that I don’t often see discussed.

First, self-publishing removes gatekeepers from the equation. This is useful if you have a manuscript that would be publishable if it just got on the shelves but which the traditional publishers aren’t willing to run with, whether due to some kind of prejudice on their part or just being lost in the crowd. Unfortunately, if a publisher is telling you your book isn’t publishable, odds are they’re right, because the sad truth is that the vast majority of self-published stuff is terrible. So think carefully before you self-publish in response to rejection – there’s a good chance the publisher is actually doing you a favour.

Second, self-publishing involves many different jobs. A self-published author has to wear a lot of hats, most of which have little to do with actually writing a book. In a lot of ways being a self-published author is rather like being a small business owner, and the authors who make a go of it tend to be the ones who also have some talent as an entrepreneur – they know how to market, do their own admin, and deal with contractors. These skills and the qualities described in Part Two, while not mutually exclusive, don’t go together very often, which is probably the main reason that successful self-published authors are rare.

Of course, none of this is directly relevant if your main worry is becoming a successful published author, i.e. selling books. We’ll cover that part next week.

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Advice for Writers II

Back in the UK with Internet access again, so let’s get on with part two of this series.

Rule Two: Improve

Most writers don’t just want to be writers, they want to be good writers. While writing something is satisfying, writing something that you feel is good is much more so.

Unfortunately, while the first rule I could give you guys was an ‘anyone can do this’ rule, this second rule isn’t. The truth is that no-one has a magic formula for producing good writing. Lots of people will give you descriptions of what makes writing good – characters, plot, textual quality, etc – but it’s generally of the form ’this is what’s good’, not ‘this is how you do it’. Partly this is because, in most cases, people don’t know how to do it, but I also suspect it’s because the people giving the advice don’t want to come out and say that it requires things that the listener might not have.

Before I get into the steps you’ll need to improve, I’ll briefly touch on some abilities and traits that will help. Note that these are all things that will help: they’re not a substitute for actually doing the work. But they do make a difference.

Introversion: Writing is a solitary activity. You have to be comfortable with your own company; if you aren’t happy on your own, you’ll have trouble with the long stretches of solitude that the job requires.

A good memory: Writing a book is a lot like assembling a giant three-dimensional puzzle where you have to make the pieces as you go along. The better you can visualise the whole thing and remember what you’ve done and are planning to do, the easier it is.

Self-discipline: There’s a stereotype that artists are flighty drifters. While it doesn’t come from nowhere, professional artists generally combine that with a fair amount of strength of will. When you sit down to write, the only one who can make you do the work is you.

Motivation: Writing is hard. If there isn’t something pretty strong driving you, you’ll find it hard to ever get beyond a book’s first chapter, much less finish it. This is probably the most important of the four.

So assuming you’ve got at least some of those things, what should you be doing?

Read: If you don’t read, there’s not much point writing. Reading is how you learn sentence structure, new vocabulary, and how to plot and lay out a chapter, and it’s one of the main places you find ideas for new stories and new characters. It means you don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel.

Of all the bits of advice, this is probably the most unnecessary one. Most writers don’t need to be told to read: they do a vast amount of it on their own time, and it’s a big part of the reason they want to write in the first place.

Write: To get better you have to practice, and the best way to practice is to start a piece of writing and finish it. The finishing part is important. Lots of writers start novels and then abandon them, but you learn far more from finishing a story than you do from starting one; there are all kinds of little details that you only find out about when you’re halfway through.

Edit: This is a tricky one. Rewriting and editing a piece of writing that you’ve already finished will (the great majority of the time) make it better. However, in my personal experience, editing something you’ve already done won’t make you a better writer: the only way to do that is to start something new. In most cases I think editing and rewriting are only worthwhile if you’re going to publish (or try to publish) the piece afterwards. Editing is a necessary skill, but one you’ll get plenty of practice with.

You might have noticed that all the advice I’ve given so far is solitary. What about getting help from other people, in the form of writers’ groups, or editorial critiques, or creative writing courses? Are those worth doing?

The short answer is maybe. In my experience, if you’re trying to become a professional writer, advice or instruction from other people can be helpful but isn’t necessary. If you want to get a specific book published, then good editorial advice is very important. However, when it comes to improving as a writer, you’re largely on your own. You can try to get help, but you’ll probably learn just as much (if not more) from going off and starting another book.

Next week, we’ll get into the nuts and bolts of getting something published.

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Gone Away

Out of the country this week.  Second part of the writer’s advice series is done, but I’ll have to wait on posting it until I have better Internet access.

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Advice for Writers

One of the more common questions I get is whether I have any advice for aspiring writers. I’ve been asked the same question plenty of times over the years, both via email and in person, and I always have trouble figuring out how to answer, mostly because I don’t have a huge amount of confidence that I do know the answer. It’s true that I’m a reasonably successful author, and I know what I did to get to where I am now, but I don’t know whether that’s particularly applicable to other people. Or to put it another way: I know what works for me, but I don’t know whether it works for anyone else.

On the other hand, my approach did work for me, so the odds are decent that it’ll be at least somewhat applicable for at least some of the people who read it. And I figure that if even a minority of you guys find it useful, then it’s probably worth doing. So let’s get to it.

The advice I have comes in the form of four rules. Follow all four of them, and you’ll become a successful writer. If this sounds simple, it is. Unfortunately, simple things are usually hard. If they were easy and simple, everyone could do them.

Rule One: Write

Go write something. Congratulations, you’re now a writer. I did tell you this was going to be simple.

Some of you are probably objecting at this point on the grounds that writing any old crap doesn’t make you a writer. Yes it does. If you write stuff, then you’re a writer. You might not be a good writer, or a publishable writer, but those are subjective judgements. Whether you write things or not isn’t.

People who talk about writing tend to conflate being a professional writer (with the history and level of success that implies) with being an active writer (which is just a statement of what you do). But the only way you get to be the first is by doing the second. There are so many aspiring authors out there who will talk for ages about what they’d like to do, and the ideas they’ve had, and what other writers do wrong and should be doing better. The one thing they never do is the part where they actually sit down and write the damn book.

Following this rule will make you a writer, but it won’t (of course) make you a successful one. But then, do you need to be? The vast majority of people who learn to play an instrument will never become professional musicians, but does that make it pointless? Most musicians would say no: learning to play is worth it for its own sake. The same goes for writing.

But I did say that I was going to give you guys advice for becoming a successful writer, in which case following just Rule One isn’t enough. So for those of you who want to take it further, we’ll go on to the next step.

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New Year Update

And we’re into 2017.  Let’s hope it’s a good one!

The main event for the first half of this year is of course going to be the release of Bound in April 2017.  As usual, I’ll put the first chapter up a month or two in advance for you guys to have a look at.  I’m pretty happy with how this one turned out, and I’m curious to see how you guys react when you get hold of it!

In other news, Alex Verus #9 is still progressing – it’s moving slower than I’d like, but at least it’s moving.  On the plus side, I’m starting to figure out just why this one’s been so difficult to write – I’m having to make some major decisions about the plot of the series, and they were decisions I hadn’t realised I needed to make until now.  Still, I think the hardest part is now over, so the pace ought to pick up from now on.  

On the website front, I’m thinking of adding a FAQ section to this site.  One question I get asked often via email is for advice/suggestions on the writing front, so I’m thinking of writing a couple of blog posts on that subject.  Let me know in the comments if any of you would be interested in that, and if there are any other things you’d like to know about.

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. . . and Happy New Year!

Okay, technically I already said that last week, but hey, it’s the holidays.  New posts will resume in 2017!

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Merry Christmas!

And a Happy New Year.  Here’s hoping it’s a good one for you guys!

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