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…

Five Things I’ve Learned In The First Month Of Freelancing…

How the hell is it February already? As you may know, I left my day job just before Christmas and am now unemployed/a freelance writer, depending on your definition… I mean, technically I’m unemployed as I haven’t actually earned any money this month, but I have been working my buns off putting stuff in place that should payoff further down the line. Here are five things I’ve learned about the freelance life in the last few weeks…

Get Up, Get Dressed

The temptation to stay in bed, especially at this most miserable time of the year, is overwhelming. But I have a son that needs to get to school and we live in the middle of nowhere, so I’m usually up at six am to get him to his bus stop and I’m home, showered, breakfasted and ready to work by seven thirty. A lot of people joked about me working in sweatshirts and jogging bottoms before I left Orion, but while I don’t go as far as wearing a suit and tie I make sure I’m fairly presentable just in case the postman arrives early. I wouldn’t want him seeing me in my nightie and curlers.

The routine I’ve fallen into is writing all morning with social media turned off (except for tea breaks where I have a sneaky peek at Twitter and FB) and then other admin stuff in the afternoon. It works pretty well so far and has proven to be fairly productive. I thought I would have plenty of spare time, but the days are very, very full.

To Do Or Not To Do

I’ve always been good with “to do” lists and planning my day, and this is a skill that’s served me well working from home. I have a daily list, which I hardly ever get through (and that’s fine, anything not done just gets carried over) and I have a big whiteboard with what I want to achieve during the month. Again, I missed the target on a couple of those, but I was being a tad overambitious anyway. But you can’t beat the satisfaction of drawing a line through them when you’re done. NEXT!

Get Off Your Butt

I was fairly sedentary at Orion, but I did have to walk from the station to the office and I would take an hour-long walk around London on my lunch break. I have an app on my phone that tells me how many steps I’ve taken and how far I’ve walked during the day and if I’m at home writing I can walk less than a mile! Not good.

Luckily for me there is an excellent coffee place a couple of miles away with a walk that takes me across some beautiful farmland, so I try and walk there after lunch each day to save my expanding backside. I think I’ve actually lost a bit of weight, but that might have more to do with the fact that I’m no longer sitting next to where everyone used to leave the snacks in the Orion office.

Hustle

This is the bit I need to get better at. I’m currently following an online course on digital marketing, I’m writing and prepping stuff for the podcast and that is taking up a ton of my time. What I’m not doing is looking for work opportunities. I’ve never had to do that before and it’s becoming very clear that the world will not beat a path to my door. What is pleasing is that when I’ve carved out the time to do shake the tree for work, it’s always been a positive experience. More on this next time…

Know When To Stop

There is an anxiety when you don’t achieve everything you set out to do during a working day and the temptation is to keep working until it’s done. I had a little moment last night when a couple of emails pinged in and I knew I could get these things done in about twenty minutes… but it was the evening, I was with my family and one of the joys of working from home is that we all eat dinner together and have a lot more time with each other. I marked the emails as “to do” and left them till this morning. Got them done first thing and no one died. Knowing when to stop is the biggest lesson I’ve learned this month.

Oh, and I’ve got a book out…

The other thing that’s taking up my time is the imminent release of The End of Magic! I’m planning a launch, I’m hustling for publicity and reviews and I’m driving to book stores, handing out samples and posting reviews copies… It’s all go. Which reminds me – a huge thank you to everyone who supported the book by pledging at Unbound and then posted their photos online. It’s been quite overwhelming…

Till next time!

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 5 – Climb Every Mountain…

Bet you expected a photo of a mountain, didn’t you…? Well, there’s been a few of those this week already, and I heard somewhere that cats are popular on the interwebs, so I’m heading this blog with a pic of Napoleon the cat* in a craven attempt to be down with the kidz.

Today was the final full day of this writing retreat at Le Chant de la Cascade and there’s a bit of an end of term feel to proceedings. I was up at around 6am, and by 10am I had done all I set out to achieve. The first five chapters of my middle grade book have been thoroughly rewritten and I have a road map of how to finish the rest of the book. Just having the head space to ruminate on this story has been invaluable. Note that I said ruminate and not concentrate. Concentrating is what I do during my regular working week; grabbing an hour here and there and focussing intently on the story. Here I’ve been allowed to let it drift in and out of my head as it pleases and we’ve been getting along better than ever as a result.

After my session, I went for a walk and found myself clambering up a very steep path, stopping every twenty minutes or so to avoid a coronary. I was eventually treated to this…

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Yes, another bloody photo of Mont Blanc… but look at it!

This has been an extraordinary week. A leap forward for a writing project, great company with my fellow writers, and wonderful hosts in Marcus and Maureen. If you have a project that needs some rumination and you like an environment that’s tranquil and inspiring, then check out the next retreat in May. I can’t recommend it enough.

 

*Not his real name. He asked for anonymity.

 

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Writing Retreat – day 4 – mind groove

The best thing about this retreat is the space it gives you to think. Work emails are off on all my devices, I’m not worrying about catching trains, or getting to meetings on time. I’ve been given the luxury of time to let this story float around in my head and take shape.

I’m still working on streamlining the opening, which has meant chunky rewrites, but I’m really happy with how they’re coming out and I now feel like I have a roadmap to finish the next draft of this book before the end of the year, if not sooner.

It also helps that my fellow retreaters are night owls and I’m up first thing in the morning, which gives me the run of the place all morning.

After the morning session, we became tourists and visited the market in Les Gets and Morzine and I think I’ve bought chocolate, cheese and beer than will actually fit in my luggage. Our host, Maureen also took on a diversion to Lac de Montriond (pictured above) which is depleted after a drought. Everywhere you look here, there is epic scenery and I know I’ve banged about this already, but it really does get the synapses sparking.

We’ve been discussing author intent all week, so tonight we watched Room 237, a wonderfully bonkers documentary where various writers/conspiracy theorists outline their thoughts on Kubrick’s intent for The Shining.

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Most of them start with intriguing hypotheses, and then eventually go off the deep end because they just don’t know when to stop. My theory about The Shining is it’s just about a poor writer who wants to finish his book, but his wife and kid keep interrupting him… maybe he should go on a retreat?

All work and no play… something… something…

For more details about the retreat click here.

To read about the final day click here

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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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Writing Retreat – day 2 – hot tub writing machine…

I was up pretty early this morning and got straight into my rewrites, working solid for an hour or so before I hit a crossroad. One of those writing moments where your choices can end up taking you down all sorts of blind alleys. 

Last night, our host Marcus Sedgwick talked us through a mapping method that he uses to sketch out his outlines on a large sheet of paper. I gave this a go, but my bum had been stuck in the same spot for too long, so I decided to take a walk to get the oxygen flowing through my beleaguered noggin. Marcus thought this was a good idea, pointing out that the Romans had a phrase for this: Solvitur Ambulando! (Yes, say it out loud and make a Harry Potter wand action, good, yes, now sit down, well done). It means, ‘It is solved by walking.’ Well, I’m all for that, especially when the views are like this…

These photos do this place no justice whatsoever. It’s incredible. Sheer cliffs, mossy boulders the size of a house, the distant clonk-clonk of cow bells, deep, impenetrable woods echoing with the sound of mysterious creatures… if you’re not inspired by this stuff, then there’s no hope for you.

After a couple of hours going up-diddly-up, I came down-diddly-down, staying close to the stream to ensure that I didn’t get completely lost. Returning to the chalet I was fired up and ready to write and had a very productive afternoon completely and utterly rewriting the second chapter of my middle grade book.

Part of my suspicion of writing retreats is the thought of having to read out my stuff to a bunch of other writers who will then rip it to shreds. I embrace a bit of healthy criticism, but I’ve ever thought that’s the best way to go about it. However, our session with Marcus this afternoon was partly inspired by my switching from third person past tense, to first person present, and so it made sense to read a bit of both versions out to make the comparison, and I’m glad to say it went down very well. We also discussed character, opening pages and how shifting the perspective of your narrator’s voice can make a dramatic difference to the tone of your writing. This was an easygoing hour or so with a small group and it was inspiring stuff.

I can’t recommend this retreat enough and there’s another one next May if you fancy it. Click here to check it out.

Oh, and tonight I got to interview Marcus while we were both in the hot tub. Another first for the Bestseller Experiment. Please subscribe on iTunes or your pod catcher of choice to ensure that you don’t miss out!

Click here for day 3.

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Writing retreat – day 1 – Good news, bad news…

I’ve always had a healthy, working class suspicion of writing retreats: do you really need to go to a nice country house in Dorset to work on your novel…? Really?! Really??! Oh, get over yourself…

But then I stumbled across Le Chant de la Cascade over on Instagram. A retreat run by Marcus Sedgwick, an award-winning children’s author whose books I used to sell when he was published at Orion Children’s and someone whose writing I like very much, and he’s a very decent chap… and as I’ve said before, in these trying times I try to only work with nice people.

I dropped Marcus a line and he explained that the retreat is a small affair, just a handful of writers, and it’s all very relaxed and easygoing. No enforced jolliment or systematic abuse or ritual humiliation (you might think I’m confusing prison with writing retreats, but I have heard horror stories…).

After an incredible drive from Geneva through some truly stunning countryside we arrived in approximately the middle of nowhere, and it’s perfect. The only sound is the gentle hiss of the wind through the trees and the occasional cock-a-doodle-doo from a laid back cockerel.

I’m here to crack a middle grade children’s novel that I’ve been working on. I sent a draft to Karen Ball over at Speckled Pen and she gave me some excellent notes, which I plan to tackle while I’m here. The main note was about the authorial voice of the book. It’s currently in the third person past tense, and she noted that it just sounded too much like me (a bloke in his forties) and not the protagonist (a child), which can really hobble a children’s book. Karen advised that I read Joanna Nadin’s Joe All Alone – an excellent example of a first person present tense children’s novel – to see if it appealed… and it does. My first task today was to experiment with my book and see if that worked for me… and it does. That’s the good news. The bad news is I now have to rewrite the whole book in the first person present tense, which is a bit of an undertaking, but y’know what? What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, and that applies to rewrites.

Tonight, Marcus, myself and the other writers here discussed plotting, outlining, story, and we had fun sorting lyrics from ballads and synopses from films into order. This has put us all in an excellent frame of mind for the rest of the week… More tomorrow!

Click here for day 2

To find out more about the retreat click here.

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Put these in your ears…

Safer than Q-tips and a lot more educational and edifying, you can hear me waffle on not one, not two, but three podcasts this week!

First up, of course, is the Bestseller Experiment where I speak to the wonderful Pernille Hughes about her road to publication, why she shared a photocopier with La-La the Teletubby, and we play a game called ‘Getting to know you’ where there are no right answers. You can listen here.

Secondly, comes the second part of an epic three-part trilogy on The Hero’s Journey that I’m recording with the wise and learned Julian Barr. We look at tricky middle acts, inmost caves, and that sort of stuff with examples from The Godfather, Jaws, Star Wars and The Notebook. But the best part of these is the thoughtful, polite noise Julian makes when I say something stupid… These are for our Patreon supporters, but if you’re not one of them (and if not, why not??), then you can listen to a sneaky peek 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…