How long did The Crow Folk take to develop? A lot longer than you might think. In this second part of the highlights of the Bestseller Experiment podcast, I talk about false starts, rewrites, junking old versions, nearly self-publishing, and how some notes from my agent changed my mind.
Hello, folks, welcome to the second part of the highlights from the episode of the Bestseller experiment, we talked about all about this thing.
And in this one, we talk about the development of the book, how long it’s been swishing around in my mind, versions that I got rid of, how it was nearly self published. And we feature notes from my editor. All of this in about eight, nine minutes. It’s jam packed. So do please enjoy…
That’s really what I wanted to ask as well. Mark, a bit about this come up a lot, actually. And people are very curious about how the book was developed. And and Mike Revell, thanks for your question. Mike, he said, I’d love to know more about your writing process for the book. Now, if I’m if I’m not mistaken, this book was written with the two hundred word a day challenge, wasn’t it?
No, that’s book two.
That’s book two.
Yes, yes. Way ahead.
Yeah. But this this was well, the thing is, I had as I said, I had entire drafts of scripts and novels dating back over 10 years and I just got sick of rewriting the same thing over and over again.
So I got rid of it all.
You just what you just chucked it all away?
You just said, well, it’s filed away.
Yeah, very little of those… The village is the same, the name of the village, some of the magical background, but essentially most of it’s gone. Did you actually go through a process as you as you were archiving those notes of saying, what am I going to keep from this? Or was it just..
Yes, yeah. But you kind of think, OK, what’s evergreen? What’s what’s going to… What’s the good stuff? And there wasn’t a lot of it, although one of…The story might come back for book four or five if I get there, you know, because that there’s something about that story that I do want to come back to. But it will be told from Faye’s point of view, not the creature’s point of view. So because I was going for kind of a Swamp Thing vibe with with the original and it just didn’t work. And anyway, so so I had I had all these old drafts and pretty much all of it was jettisoned.
So interesting. And so how did you how did you kind of go through the process from initial notes to outline and draft? Mike asks.
Well, it was because it’s the first in a series, I kind of saw it as a bit of a superhero origin story. Faye finds magic, learns how to use it against a terrible foe, her first real test as a character. And I spent a little time making sure I had the main characters right. I kind of discovered where I wanted her to be by the end of the book, and I did pretty much jump into it. So it wasn’t… I didn’t outline very much. I’d outlined The End of Magic heavily, as you know, Back to Reality. We outlined heavily because we were working together. This was this was much lighter. Now, I was… I’ve been prepping this all afternoon, so I did try and find notes and it’s been quite hard to find where I made the switch. I basically started this in December 2018. That was the point where I think I jettisoned all the other stuff, looking at the different old Scrivener files, you know, so and that draft, that, that first draft I found is pretty similar to what’s been published. And also the other thing is I had planned to self publish, inspired by our own Ian W Sainsbury, friend of the podcast, award winning author. I was going to do a quick release, three novellas, Boom, boom, boom, because and I think what helped was mentally, I was thinking, okay, these are going to be short about forty five, fifty thousand words, so just jump in and have fun. And I did. I had loads of fun.
So that was, that was the thinking behind that one.
It’s just. Yeah.
Go for it.
And how many words in the book One? you remember how it turned out.
There’s a little story behind that. And Rhoda asks a question later on about how… Because I got to about forty five in the end it ended up at about sixty five. So still quite short.
But actually Rhoda asks she says, I heard the book started out as a novella and ended up being a full book. Is that right.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
So how did you go about extending it.
Good question. And I did dig out my notes. I’ve got my email from Ed. So let me let me read you…
Ed being your agent, correct?
Ed Wilson, the lovely Ed Wilson. And this is great. So I and I said to him up front, I want to self publish this, but have a look at it and see what you think. And I got his email. He said nothing too major, but all ties into my big point. Why is this book only forty five thousand words? Woodville is completely effing brilliant. And he has, bless him, starred out out the “uck” there. He says tonally, tonally spot on.
Just in case it ever got read out on a podcast.
He’s always thinking ahead.
Yes, he’s a smart man, is Ed.
Yeah, he says tonally spot on, perfectly realised, structured and paced, deliciously readable. This is cozy fantasy. The genre mash up we didn’t know we needed the characters zing off the page. You develop a real emotional connection in such a short space of time. I was in pieces at the end, you bastard, which is great.
He’s just written the blurb right there.
And we’ve talked about the praise sandwich on here before. You know how you give criticism. You start with this is good. You know, there’s a but coming thundering over the horizon. OK, so he says but there is sooooooo… I think there’s seven O’s in that so and it’s all in caps. So that’s more you can do because you’ve limited the work and you don’t have time to properly establish the setting before you get stuck into the plot. We need to see more normal village life, more Dad’s Army war preparations, more vicars and oversized veg and tongue in cheek Archer’s style village politics before the talking pumpkins appear, or rather before the villagers see the talking pumpkins. The way you’ve written it, we have the big reveal and the fantastical events go above ground within the first third of the book. And in a book this length that’s too soon, you’re giving up too easy and losing the fundamental tension of what is and isn’t real. Who is and isn’t barmy. When you have more twists and turns, more tension around who and what Faye, Charlotte and Mrs Teach … Those are the witches… Are. You can keep structure and tone the same. Fundamentally, that doesn’t have to change. Just add more tension, intrigue, spooky goings on. Sow seeds for future books. And then once you’ve established the series, you can do pretty much what you want. This first book is vital to establish the series. You’ve got to properly establish it. Book one is too important to have it dismissed as just a novella. So this was great. And I had a manuscript from him marked up all the way through with notes all the way through. So that was my jumping off point to answer Rhoda’s question. It was, you know, the the tension, the questions. I was kind of giving it all away too quickly and just dig a little deeper as a result.
So I’ve got a I’ve got to say, you know, that is the reason why you try and get an agent, because so many people think so many think agents are just, you know, you give given the book and then they go and flog it. You know, they go off and they have a beer or a glass of wine with with their connections. And then they try and sell the book over lunch. But people don’t realize that good agents are your best friends and your best, you know, constructive critics as well. And it sounds like, Ed, at that point in the journey really gave you the crossroads to say, look, these are all the things you can do without. I mean, if somebody is self publishing without an agent, for example they wouldn’t have known where to go at that point. They may have just put it out as a forty five thousand word self published and missed out on what potentially could have been the most incredible ride of their life. So that’s absolutely fantastic. And what a great insight as well to hear that stage of the journey at that point. Absolutely brilliant.
Thank you, folks. Really hope you enjoyed that. All sorts of fun stuff coming up in future episodes, including how I worked with historical language. Writing a book without any swear words. That’s a first for me. I’m comparing my different publishing experiences. So that’s know working in crowd funding and self publishing and traditional publishing, looking at how those all work and all sorts of other good fun stuff. So do please subscribe and I’ll see you next time.
What are the odds, eh? I answer our wonderful listener questions on choosing and developing ideas, working with agents and editors, writing non-sweary period dialogue, and I compare my experiences in traditional publishing, indie publishing, crowdfunding and now with Simon & Schuster… Have a listen here: https://bestsellerexperiment.com/ep303-mark-stay-and-the-crow-folk/
And here’s a quick look behind the scenes before we started recording…
It’s not much of a spoiler to say that we didn’t make it. However, if failure is a teacher then we learned an awful lot. Here were the big lessons for me…
Write a series – It’s much more difficult to sell a standalone book using advertising tools (Amazon Merchandising Services, Facebook Ads, Bookbub, Publisher Rocket) that are best designed to sell more than one product. So guess what I’m writing next…?
Not being able to use AMS in the UK hurt our chances of success. Yes, I know some authors have managed to use loopholes to run ads in the UK, but that wasn’t available when we signed up. I did ask Kindle’s Darren Hardy at the London Book Fair when it might be available and he said it was coming soon, but couldn’t give a fixed date. I’m not holding my breath. Back to Reality is very British in its humour and tone — and it’s been great to get such a wonderful reaction from readers all over the world — but it would have been great to sell more effectively to our Amazon readers in the UK.
It might just be that I’m bad at marketing. This is very likely my biggest issue… I did the Mark Dawson course, I read the David Gaughran books, I did everything I was supposed to… but marketing is a skillset you have to develop over years, and I was hardly going to master it in a few months.
Genre and readers are key. Back to Reality is a little bit of humour, a little bit contemporary fiction, a little bit science fiction, and a little bit rock n roll, so pinning down one genre was nigh-on impossible. And it’s tricky trying to identify just who your readers are, especially when your “also boughts” on Amazon are mostly for non-fiction “How to write” books (a byproduct of the podcast: our first readers were our listeners who are all writers). Compared to straight-down-the-line thrillers or romance, our novel wasn’t quite as straightforward.
But I’m not complaining!
It is said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results (I guess that makes every author insane). With that in mind, I’m going to repeat this experiment with The End of Magic, but I intend to make ALL NEW MISTAKES!
We’ve long banged on about writers making public declarations on the podcast. They put a fire under your bum and, combined with a firm deadline, can spur you on to great things.
I can only do this in the USA… Unbound have the UK rights and I have no visibility on sales other than the twice yearly statements.
I’m going to stick with Kindle and Kindle Unlimited.
I’ll be counting both Kindle and Paperback sales.
Wish me luck! I’ll chronicle my progress here on the blog and in my newsletter. I’ve already started with a couple of AMS ads and Bookbub newsletter ads. I’ll let you know how they get on. Current sales are zero. The only way is up…
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.
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…
We’ve had two cracking – a very different – episodes of the Bestseller Experiment recently. First up is a report from The Romantic Novelists’ Association conference in Leeds where I spoke to Rhoda Baxter, Nicola Cornick and Sheila Crighton (aka Annie O’Neil) about all sorts of love including instalust, passionate blur and the scale of hotness. And it was great to finally meet Rhoda Baxter (aka Jeevani Charika), who also proved the Lego image above! Listen to the podcast here.
This week’s podcast features John McGhie, an investigative journalist who has worked for the BBC, Channel 4 News and the Observer. John and I met on Whitstable beach at the peak of the football world cup at what felt like a brief moment of optimism in an otherwise politically depressing 2018. We cheer ourselves up by talking about the historical atrocities chronicled in John’s excellent new book White Highlands! No, really, it’s a fascinating episode and we cover writing historical fiction in some detail. Listen here.
And if you want to know more, the documentary that inspired John’s book can be seen here…
And third is this interview with Tim Clare on the Death of 1000 Cuts podcast. This is especially fun as Tim laughs at most of my jokes, I drop some truth bombs about marketing and publishing, and then a fire alarm goes off during the interview and Tim keeps it in. You can listen on iTunes here, or the thingy below…
I’m now fully rested after a week or so off from the usual routine of commute/write/day job/commute/write/fall asleep in front of the TV. The family and I explored Kent, the county we moved to a little over a year ago. We found castles, wind farms, sea forts, crypts, a submarine, a shell grotto, and an ossuary with skulls lining the walls:
The Red Sands Maunsell Forts
Margate looking all epic
Rochester castle big. Kids, small.
I’ve had all the Garth Marenghi jokes, thank you
Claire in the shell grotto in Margate
The Foxtrot Class Russian sub currently rusting in the Medway in Rochester
I’ve blogged about my favourite podcasts for writers before, but today I wanted to bang the drum for the other stuff I let into my earholes to on a weekly basis, and how it inspires me as a writer…
Ancient History Fangirl is a gleeful run through the ancient world’s most gory bits. Every fortnight Genn and Jenn regale us with tales of sieges, cannibalism, war elephants and flaming pigs used as munitions. Almost every episode I find myself taking notes for some future story. The presenters’ enthusiasm is infectious and they’re already developing a nice line in running gags and in-jokes.
I probably look forward to my weekly dose of Smershpod more than any other, simply because of the number of times it has had me weeping with laughter when I’m supposed to be doing something constructive. Each week the wonderfully dry John Rain and a guest discuss either a Bond movie, or a movie with a tenuous connection to the Bond world. They’ve almost run out of Bond films (just Spectre to go), but my favourites have been the side episodes, with Meteor and Highlander being among my favourites, and I would not have discovered the classic horror flick Death Line (aka Raw Meat) were it not for Smershpod. Even if you hate Bond films (and a fair few of the guests do!) I would heartily recommend this weekly pleasure.
If your memories of ’80s movies are all Goonies and Ghostbusters, then you’re in for a shock. In ‘80s All Over, presenters and esteemed film nerds Drew McWeeny and Scott Weinberg trawl through every US release in the 1980s month-by-month, a boy there was a ton of crap released back then. Each episode is thoroughly researched and full of surprises and forgotten gems that you’ll want to watch (only to find that it’s only available in the bloody States). Their knowledge is second-to-none and though they’re currently suffering through the hell that is 1983, they have the joys of 1985 still to come.
If you love movie soundtracks as much as I do, then we still have some way to go to meet the passion of Edith Bowman. Edith can sometimes be heard as a stand-in presenter on the Kermode and Mayo Film Review (another great podcast, but one that hardly needs introduction, surely?), but with Soundtracking she talks to actors, directors and, crucially, composers about their work and their favourite film scores. One of my favourite recent episodes featured the lovely Garth Jennings, and Edith also compiles a Spotify playlist for each episode. Every week, something new gets downloaded to my iPod.
Film Stories with Den of Geek‘s Simon Brew is the newest podcast – only two episodes released at the time of writing and I already love it. Simon is a delightful and enthusiastic presenter, and the podcasts are like gossipy chats with an old friend. He’s covered the tumultuous productions of The Addams Family, Tomb Raider, Patriot Games and Dirty Dancing and they’re choc full of great movie stories. I hope this one runs and runs.