Seven Books on Writing…. by Women!

There I was, feeling all kinds of smug about my new blog post on seven books on writing, getting all kinds of lovely clickthrough action, when I woke up this morning to discover that I was called out on Twitter…

Gah! Typical bloke… In my defence, this wasn’t supposed to be a definitive list of the best books, but the ones that I had found to be the most helpful over the years and for some reason I find myself – a middle-aged, flabby man – reading books by other older (and dead) flabby men . But that’s no excuse (well, it’s the only one I have), and here in a craven attempt to redress the balance are some excellent books on writing, from my shelves, written by women…

Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss

This was on Julie’s Tweet above and I’m kicking myself for leaving this off, because I recall devouring this when it first came out. This book should be handed out to anyone who opens a social media account, with its clear and concise approach to punctuation there’s simply no excuse for getting anything wrong after this. With the exception of semi colons; no one knows what to do with those anymore. I also had the pleasure of driving Lynne from bookshop to bookshop to promote her book Going Loco and she’s completely delightful and not the grammar Nazi that people might think she is.

Dent’s Modern Tribes by Susie Dent

I bought this just a couple of days ago when I was lucky enough to meet Susie at the Whitstable Literary Festival. I’m reading it at the moment and it’s hugely entertaining. Susie – who folks will know from Countdown and Eight Out of Ten Cats do Countdown – has an encyclopaedic knowledge of words, but is no stick-in-the-mud. The English language evolves and twists and turns and that’s one of the reasons it has endured this long. With Modern Tribes she investigates the languages used by bankers, DJs, Hells Angels, Soldiers, Politicians and more. If you have a character that inhabits these worlds you will want this book to hand to add that extra snap of authenticity to your dialogue. Susie has written about a dozen other books on the English language and they’re all a feast.

The Pitch by Eileen Quinn & Judy Counihan

I definitely should have included this one because it has actually got me writing gigs (though sadly it appears to be out of print with no sign of an update). Eileen and Judy have decades of experience in film and TV production and this was the first book I found that dug deep into what producers and development executives are looking for when a writer pitches their work. Even if you’re not a screenwriter this will sharpen your pitching skills. I have a permanent bookmark on page 73 for the PFC: the Pitch Format Card, their essential ticklist for any pitch document.

How Not To Write A Novel by Sandra Newman & Howard Mittelmark

Yes, yes, Howard is a bloke, but this also should have been on my blog the first time round, because this is essential reading. It covers the perspective of both the author and editor when it comes to novel writing and the most common mistakes that authors make and it’s very, very funny and frank and for the first time I felt like I was reading a book by people who had sat in publishing meeting rooms and had heard the kind of despairing comments that publishers might make about some of the submissions they get. Don’t make it easy for a publisher to reject you. Buy this book.

A Feast of French and Saunders.

Barmy by Victoria Wood

I’m going to do these together as I bought these when I was in my late teens and was writing comedy sketches with friends after school. These books were some of the first sketch comedy books I ever got and I can’t begin to tell you how much learned about comedy dialogue, timing, pace and character from these. Both have moments of surrealist humour, but it’s the back and forth of dialogue that has filtered into my work. Like the Pythons, Victoria Wood and French & Saunders rarely had punchlines in their sketches, but unlike the Pythons their characters were recognisably human and incredibly funny for it.

Monkeys with Typewriters by Scarlett Thomas

Okay, I confess I haven’t read this one yet, because after this morning’s Tweets I figured I owed it to my sisters in words to go and bloody well buy a book on writing by a woman. There were a number to choose from, but I went for this because it covers everything from Plato and Aristotle to fairy tales and tragedies, and because the bookseller raved about her writing, and she lives up the road from me in Canterbury, so once I’ve read it I will do my darnedest to get Scarlett on the podcast to talk stories.

I hope that goes some little way to redressing the balance and I shall definitely look into the recommendations from Margaret and Julie as should your good selves!

If you need any help or advice with your writing, I provide writer services too. Drop me a line here for a free consultation.

Should Writers Avoid Getting Political?

Back to Reality, the novel I co-wrote with Mark Desvaux for the Bestseller Experiment podcast, has been having a good run with reviews since its publication in 2017. Folks have liked it a lot and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. To meet our rather ambitious self-imposed target of ten thousand copies sold by the end of the Glastonbury Festival (our book climaxes at Glastonbury) we’ve been dialling up the advertising and asking anyone who’s read the book to leave a review. That means I’ve been checking the Amazon customer reviews fairly regularly, and that’s when I noticed that we received our first ever one-star review for the book. At first, my heart sank a little, but then I clicked on the review and had a read and this is what I found…

For context, here’s the part of the book that the reviewer objected to. Our hero, Jo, has travelled back in time from contemporary England to ‘90s Hollywood. She finds herself on a late night chat show where she reveals that she’s a time traveller…

There are two things going on with this review. First is an inability to make a distinction between the protagonist and the authors.

This still manages to surprise some readers. To write crime thrillers, you don’t need to be a cop or a murderer, to write science fiction you don’t need to explore deep space, and you, dear writer, can write repulsive characters and not agree with their world view.

Although, for the sake of clarity, here’s where I stand on Donald Trump. The man is a misogynist, homophobic, racist, narcissistic fool and a failed businessman whose time would be better spent indulging in his sexual peccadilloes behind closed doors while the rest of try and save the planet from climate change.

In short, I’m not a fan.

But this is what writers do: we put ourselves in the shoes of these characters and try to imagine would those people might be like — and very often it can be based on personal experience — and we try to convey that in words.

As an aside, I think this is why there is such a liberal bias in the entertainment industry. Creators will try and see both sides of the argument in a story, character or situation and present them in a compelling way. That sense of fairness is very much a characteristic of liberals, especially in contrast to the meritocratic views of the right. 

The second aspect of the review is the disappointment in the reader that we’ve dragged the messy world of politics into their reading. This prompts the much bigger question: should writers get political? Sure, if you’re writing a political thriller it’s expected, but when you’re writing in an escapist genre like comedy, romance, science fiction or fantasy should the poor reader be inflicted with soap box politics? And is it worth it for the writer? Think back to The Dixie Chicks when they made disparaging comments about George W Bush and the effect that had on their sales. Isn’t it just safer to avoid any political content altogether?

Here’s the thing: all writing is political… if it’s any good.

Fiction isn’t like a family gathering where you avoid religion and politics. It should be a truthful reflection of what the creator believes, otherwise what is the point?

I’m not saying that our joke where Jo compares Trump to Hitler is some kind of profound insight into the human condition. Far from it. It’s simply the thing that stuck out for the reviewer. What that reviewer missed was the masses of other political content in the book. The themes of family, compassion, sexism, work, money and greed are threaded throughout the story, and if you don’t think those are political then you’ve not been paying attention to the world around you.

So, will we lose sales because we’ve upset some fans of Trump? Possibly. We’re hardly the Dixie Chicks, but to be honest if you’re a Trump supporter I don’t want your money. You’re going to need it when you realise you’re on the wrong side of history and need to pay for therapy.

In the meantime, I shall continue to write about the world through the eyes of characters that both attract and repulse me. It’s pretty much the only way I can make any sense of the chaos around me, especially that Trump fella… 

PS. To be clear, there are my opinions and not those of The Bestseller Experiment or my co-presenter -author Mark Desvaux…

It started nearly a year ago…

My crowdfunding campaign for The End of Magic started on 14th February (how romantic!) 2018and the first pledge was from my aunt Marion. I got ten pledges on the first day… no day after that was ever that easy again! Almost 90 days of crowdfunding to reach my target, then months in the edit, copy-edit, proofread, cover design and then signing off on it and a few sleepless nights where I was sure there would be some disaster like all the pages being printed upside down.
And then last week, this happened…

My best George McFly impression…

It’s one of those moments that writers dream of and for me it became a reality and I could not have done this without the amazing support of everyone who pledged and spread the word.

I’d become used to seeing the words on a screen and so to finally get a copy in my hands and see the ink on the grain of the page was really special. And then, my social media started going crazy… 

You lot are amazing…

I’m completely overwhelmed by the amazing support I’ve had from you all. I really mean it. There’s so much crap going on in the world, but you’ve proven again and again that there are communities of readers and writers and creators who help each other out and bang the drum for new and shiny ideas.

I thank you all again, and I really hope the book lives up to your expectations.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all my years in bookselling it’s that the launch day is just the beginning. I’m going to be on the sales, marketing and publicity warpath for the foreseeable future and anything you good people can do to help spread the word would be much appreciated: pop a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or social media… let your local library or bookshop know that it’s out… stop random strangers in the street and badger them until they– Actually, you can probably skip that last one…

Whatever you can do, thank you, thank you, thank you. You’re all blimming marvellous and I really hope you enjoy the book and I promise to stop banging on about it…

Till next time…

Mark

PS. Don’t forget, there’s a launch at Harbour Books on 15th Feb at 6:30– there will be cakes, wizards and I’ll be donating a pound for every copy signed and sold to Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy!

Spot UV triumph

I’m delighted to confirm that the paperback of The End of Magic will have lovely, shiny spot UV finishes that will really make it stand out on a display and look utterly gorgeous in your hot little hands. Compare these two images:

The black and white image shows where the spot UV will be…

So, just imagine this finished cover with all that spot UV shininess…

Cover art designed by Mark Ecob: http://mecob.co.uk

Hey, I’m excited! Gimme a break!

Not long now…

The End of Magic is available to pre-order now…

Cover art designed by Mark Ecob: http://mecob.co.uk

And the most amazing people have been saying very nice things about the book…

Cover Reveal for The End of Magic

Behold the cover art for The End of Magic as designed by the magnificent Mark Ecob

I’m a very happy author and this is everything I had hoped for. There’s still time to pre-order and get your name (or the name of a loved/pet/significant other) in the book and you can do that by clicking here!

Gift books for Geeks this Christmas

Geeks. We’re tricky buggers to buy for at Christmas. Yes, our loved ones might know that we like that thing with the spaceships/dragons/zombies, but where do they even start when it comes to selecting that special gift book…? Here! That’s where! Just forward this blog in the safe knowledge that whatever they get you, it’ll be awesome.

Below are some of my favourites for this Christmas*

Support your local bookshop! Order a copy of these books from them and help ensure that our High Streets thrive. However, all the links below are to Amazon UK for reasons of a) convenience, and b) I have an affiliates thing with them and I get 5% of each sale, and c) I have no shame.

Star Wars Icons – Han Solo

Just gorgeous. A chronicle of everyone’s favourite smuggler from conception to casting, through to movies, comics and novels with fold out pages, replica storyboards, little surprises tucked away in envelopes and more. This is the sort of book that’s nightmare to reprint so get in fast. Buy from Amazon.

Inside Black Mirror

Buy from Amazon

A terrific oral history and making-of book of the four series so far of Black Mirror. Compiled by Jason Arnopp, this takes you episode-by-episode with creator Charlie Brooker, Exec Producer Annabel Jones, and collaborators including Jodie Foster, Jodie Whittaker and other people not called Jodie. Essential for fans of the show.

The Incomplete History of Secret Organizations

Buy from Amazon

I’ve loved every minute of A Series of Unfortunate Events and this glorious behind the scenes book is ahead of the game with details and photos of the final series (coming in Jan 2019)… I must confess, I’ve had a glimpse and it looks as sumptuous as ever.

Star Wars Alien Archive

Buy from Amazon

Choc full of Cookies, wampas, Biths and banthas this is crammed full of proper geeky insider knowledge (Porgs have forward-facing eyes to help them catch fish, apparently) for Star Wars fans of any age and for fans of the movies, novels, cartoons and comics.

The Electric State

Buy from Amazon

Simon Stålenhag is probably best known for his crowdfunded book Tales from the Loop, which showed children playing among abandoned robots in the aftermath of a particle accelerator experiment gone wrong. The Electric State continues the post-apocalyptic theme on a journey across a ravaged America. This is sublime storytelling and a feast for the eyes (and the Russo brothers have snapped up the film rights!)

Stranger Things: Worlds Turned Upside Down

Buy from Amazon

Another incredible piece of production, this behind-the-scenes book is made to look like a well-thumbed library book, wrapped in plastic, stained and with a thorough breakdown of how the show was made and its ’80s inspirations. I saw a pre-publication copy of this at the MCM Comic Con and snapped it up there and then.

TV Geek: The Den of Geek Guide for the Netflix Generation

Buy from Amazon

I loved Simon Brew’s previous Movie Geek book, which was like my favourite nerdy movie conversations down the pub, and this is very much in the same format. Endlessly fascinating with chapter headings like Key questions raised by watching Peppa Pig, The symbolism of Peaky Blinders and Spoiler Culture and its effect on outdoor filming, and written in Den of Geek’s positive style, TV fans will lap this up.

The Books of Earthsea

Buy from Amazon

And I’ve saved the best till last. Ursula K Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea was the first fantasy I ever read. More than Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, this is what first fired my imagination when it came to magic and dragons. This complete illustrated collection, illustrated by Charles Vess, includes Le Guin’s last ever story Firelight, written when she knew she was dying. It reduced me to a sobbing wreck, and I can think of no better reason to recommend it. But just… look at it…

Buy from Amazon

*Full disclosure: some of these were donated by publishers, but only after I begged/cajoled/threatened them for copies because I really wanted them, and some I bought myself…

Proof Reading. It’s all about talking to yourself…

The proof pages for The End Of Magic arrived at the end of last week. Unbound sent them to me as a PDF, and the temptation was to read from the screen, but I was about to take a bit of advice first given to me by my friend and former audio director at Orion, Pandora White.

Pan said that, almost without fail, whenever she recorded an audiobook they would find typos and errors throughout the book. This was after the edit, the copyedit, the proof read and the final check by the author. Usually, by the time the audiobook is recorded the physical book has gone to print and it’s too late to do anything about it (until a reprint). Errors would always slip through. Except…

… when the author took the time to read the book out loud.

Page by page. Word by word.

So I figured what the hell and made a start last weekend. It’s taken me all week, muttering to myself during every lunch break at work, but it’s done the job. I’ve found 40+ errors in that time…

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Tools of the trade: mini Post-Its, highlighter pen, a regular pen, a bulldog clip, water for the vocals, and a strong rubber band…

They were mostly small typos and missing words, but also a few sentences that were just too long or made no bloody sense whatsoever. Had that version of the book been published I would have been kicking myself, but now my soft and plump derrière can rest safe in the knowledge that I’ve done all I can to keep it from further bruising.

And that’s it. I’ve sent the changes on a marked-up PDF and now Unbound will make those corrections before going to print.

Next – I’m hoping – will be the cover art. Much excitement and anticipation ahoy!

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I got some ARCs printed…

Now that the copy edits are done on The End of Magic, the proof read will be next and after that comes the print deadline* when no further changes can be made. Before we go to print I would love to get at least one quote from an author saying how wonderful the book is. Something that we can put on the cover and on the feed that goes out to all retailers.

These really help position and legitimise your book in the mind of any potential reader and can help with sales. Unbound don’t have any budget for proofs or ARCs (Advanced Reading Copies), so I had ten printed from scratch for the princely sum of £51.** These are basic… very basic…

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… but they’ve come out beautifully.

I created the print version from my copy edit file and tinkered with it in Vellum, creating ePub, Mobi (Kindle) and print versions.  Vellum is a fairly pricey piece of software, Mac only, and it’s options are limited, but it really does create a professional-looking book.

I drew up a list of authors I thought might be up for reading it (their names will remain secret, just in case they hate it!), but they’re all writers that I know and whose opinions I respect, so a quote from any one of them would mean the world to me. And, knowing they’ll all be drowning in ARCs and quote requests, I politely approached them first and asked if they were up for reading my book. Most came back and said yes – a couple politely declined, which is fine as I prefer a straight no to a never-maybe – and gave me their preferred format. I then either sent them digital files or added them to the print list. I’ve kept all this on a grid to keep track of when they go out and who to…

And now it’s out there, people I respect and admire might just be reading it, and if you need me I’ll be over here in the corner quietly rocking back and forth and trying not to think about it…

 

*Oh, and I can now confirm that we have an official publication date!

7th February 2019.

Pre-order now if you want your name in the book!

 

**UPDATE – a few people have asked where I got these printed. I work at Hachette in the UK and they have an amazing print room in the basement, and this was the fastest and easiest way to get them printed. If that wasn’t an option I would probably go to Ingram Spark or Lulu.

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Writing Retreat – day 3 – Taking out the trash…

Another early start with a little bit of light podcasting for next week’s episode, and a good morning’s writing. I’m realising that a big problem with this book is I’m setting too much up too soon, and a lot of what I’m setting up doesn’t even need to be there in the first place (retrospect is a fine thing and this is why we have rewrites). So my first four or five chapters might only need to be three chapters with clearer intent so that the reader’s expectations aren’t muddled and I have a greater chance of getting them engaged with the story.

It’s all about focusing on what’s important and taking out the trash… Speaking of which, Marcus asked if we fancied helping him take the trash up the road to where it’s collected, because when you get there, this is the view…

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Mont Blanc… which, on the hour, every hour, rumbles and ejaculates a new overpriced fountain pen from its summit.

 

I mean… blimey… that puts our local recycling centre into perspective. I couldn’t stop staring at it, and these photos don’t do it any justice whatsoever. It’s magnificent and gets something ticking over in my excitable little brain.

Fired-up once more, I returned to the chalet and worked harder than ever. This is the nook that I’ve been writing in. A little mezzanine level in the chalet with a not-remotely distracting view of the trees gently swaying outside…

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After a walk and an incredible dinner, we gathered for this evening’s session with Marcus, which was on endings, twists and readers’ expectations. This all came from conversations we’d each had with Marcus during the day, which is such a nice way of tailoring the group sessions to our own needs. I also got to interview one of my fellow retreaters Dawn Kurtagich who has been to a number of retreats and now even runs her own (subscribe to the podcast to make sure you don’t miss out on that!).

Once again, this retreat has defied all expectations and I can heartily recommend it. Check out more details of the May retreat here, and if that doesn’t convince you then this is the sort of food we’re getting…

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I mean, come on…

For day 4 click here.

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