A Public Declaration

We had a pivotal episode of the Bestseller Experiment podcast this week. We finally revealed if we made our target of ten thousand copies sold of Back To Reality by the end of Glastonbury weekend. You can listen here…

EP208: Glastonbury Or Bust – Did We Make It?

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.

So here goes with my NEW PUBLIC DECLARATION:

I will sell 1000 copies of The End of Magic by Christmas 2019

A few caveats…

  • 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…

If you want to help, why not buy a copy right now? It’s right here.

A few words on writing endings… with MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES

The following blog post has MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES

Have I mentioned the MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR GAME OF THRONES?

Still here? Good. You’ve been warned…

Endings are a bugger. There’s no getting around it. Often, writers are advised to start with the ending and work back from there. Though the problem with that is as you get to know your characters you’ll start changing their story trajectories. And that’s where things can start to get muddled and how endings can end up making no sense whatsoever or just fizzle out into nothing.

I’ve just watched the finale to Game of Thrones for the second time and, for all its flaws, I found it immensely satisfying and for me it illustrates a great principal of storytelling:

Characters will get what they need (or deserve) and not what they wanted…

Dany gets to defeat Cersei and at least touch the iron throne (though she doesn’t actually get to park her bottom on it), nor does she get the satisfaction of seeing Cersei die, which may be why she still thirsts to bring the rest of the world under her heel, triggering Jon to (eventually) grow a pair and stop her.

Jon’s ethos of honour and duty at all costs sees him banished to the Night’s Watch, which is where he was off to in the pilot episode anyway. He could’ve saved himself an awful lot of trouble and stayed there in the first place. Bless him, he tried. Though he did stop Dany from turning other cities into dragon-flamed barbecues, so we should all be thankful for that.

Arya doesn’t get to tick Cersei off her list, but on seeing the bodies of children in the streets of King’s Landing she’s realised that her childhood has been spent pursuing empty vengeance, and so she’s off on the Westerosian equivalent of a gap year exploring the unknown.

Sansa wanted nothing more than to be a princess to a handsome king, though Joffrey the Bellend, first of his name, was enough to put her off that ambition and now she’s Queen in the North with a neat line in costume jewellery and she’s taking crap from no one (see how she tells Edmure Tully to sit down).

Bran was just a little boy who wanted to climb and have adventures and now he’s the fricking king with second sight. Betcha never saw that coming in the pilot. Oh, wait, you all did? Okay…

And Tyrion has the most satisfying arc of all. He has come a long way from his whoring and drinking, and his final scene opens with him arranging chairs in order to make a good first impression. He’s gone from an irresponsible smart arse with zero responsibility to someone who, as Bran says, will spend the rest of his life atoning for his sins.

These, along with dozens of little callbacks to the opening episodes, close the circle of the Game of Thrones story, as well as giving all our surviving characters new beginnings.

So, if you’re stuck on your ending or it doesn’t hit you in the feels hard enough then think about your characters’ wants, needs, new beginnings and… er… uhm… y’know what? I don’t have a proper ending to this blog. I… oh, this is embarrassing. Er… BUY MY BOOK!

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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!

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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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