Lou Abercrombie on the Bestseller Experiment

I was rubbish at Maths at school, so it would have been wonderful to have to something like Lou Abercrombie‘s book AMAZING MATHS when I was a wee lad. Lou tells me about this new book and her fab children’s novels, FIG SWIMS THE WORLD and COMING UP FOR AIR and how she’s inspired by water.

And if that wasn’t enough, listeners/viewers also get a sneak peek at a special Deep Dive I recorded a very long time ago when director Jon Wright and I answered listener questions on the making of our film UNWELCOME. That Deep Dive goes live on Friday, which is the same day as the film’s release in the UK! Which are you more excited about…???

Cole Haddon on the Bestseller Experiment

It’s common for authors to experience failure and rejection, but if you really want to know what it’s like to be constantly knocked back, then be a screenwriter! So many of the scripts I’ve written will never see the light of day, but that’s all part of the fun of screenwriting. I was delighted to discover that even a writer as successful as Cole Haddon has had the same bumps in the road, but he’s embraced failure as the best way to learn and move forward. Enjoy…

Christian Cameron on the Bestseller Experiment

A rare thing these days: an in-person interview for the podcast! I got to meet the delightful Christian Cameron in the bowels of Hachette’s big publishing castle near Blackfriars Bridge. We discuss worldbuilding, research, and learning to write without doubting yourself (something I’m not sure I’ll ever get the hang of). Also, before the interview, Me and Mr D discuss AI and how it might impact authors over the coming years…

SPECIAL CHRISTMAS EPISODE OF THE BESTSELLER EXPERIMENT!

We don our terrible Christmas sweaters and hats to celebrate the festive season and look forward to 2023. I test Mr D with a super-duper mega quiz, we discover that Americans don’t have Christmas crackers, we reveal where Santa comes from, tell terrible jokes, and we discuss taking stock and setting goals for 2023… and much more! Available on all the usual podcast providers or you can watch it on Youtube on the link below for the full Technicolor Christmas experience…

Margaret Weis on the Bestseller Experiment

Every now and then on the podcast we ask our listeners who they would love have on as a guest, and Margaret Weis was one of those names, so I was delighted when she took the time to speak to me about her extraordinary career. We dispelled a few myths about the origins of Dragonlance, we talked about her collaboration with Tract Hickman, and how she continues to be inspired by the likes of Dickens and Austen. She also answers our listener question

Please note: My interview with Margaret took place on the phone, so our conversation on the Youtube version of this episode is audio only.

Oh and stay right to the end for a few outtakes from me and Mr D (it had been a long week)…

I should also add that the Bestseller Academy is about to open its doors again. Pop along to https://academy.bestsellerexperiment.com to discover more, or take a moment to listen to some of the writers who have achieved their writing goals with the academy here…

Elizabeth Noble on the Bestseller Experiment

I had a great time chatting to Elizabeth Noble on this week’s podcast and she talks about writing novels with huge casts and big families and lots of moving parts etc. And before that, me and Mr D talk about the recent ALCS report that showed that UK’s authors earn only an average of £7,000 a year from their writing, and a bit in Private Eye that noted that so many of our big brand male authors (and their characters) are all getting quite long in the tooth… so where are the new big brands coming from?

Harriet Tyce on the Bestseller Experiment

Great to chat with Harriet Tyce on the podcast, especially about “going too far” as an author. How far is too far for you?

We also pay tribute to Marcus Sedgwick who recently passed away far too young at the age of 54.

You can listen on all the usual podcast providers, and here’s the Youtube version…

How Long Can You Write For? And When Should You Stop?

How much writing can you get done in a day before your brain starts to melt? I’ve picked up a few tips over the years that might help…

TRANSCRIPT:

Hello folks. We writers talk a lot about writing habits, writing every day or writing regularly. But let’s have a think about when to stop writing. Now, to be clear.

I don’t mean stopping altogether and jacking it in. I’m talking about how do you know when you’re done for the day? First drafts I could write all day and collapse in a heap. But I’ve discovered that my daily limit is about 2 hours. After that my poor little brain turns to soft fudge and it starts to leak out of my ears.

Either that or I’ve got an ear infection. Anyway, because my brain goes soft, the writing suffers. It’s just not as good as those first 2 hours. For edits, I find that it’s even more important to set myself limitations. Now I was really in the zone this morning, knocked out a little over a thousand words, which might not sound like much, but I’m editing and this was a whole new chunk that I was grafting on to the beginning of a chapter and it was my allotted task for that morning’s writing session.

I’ve left myself a note, you know, fix this by doing X, Y and Z… And I did it.

I was happy with it and I was so buoyed up that I just wanted to keep writing. But I stopped. Well, the truth is, I didn’t have much of a plan beyond my alotted task. I could have carried on, but I would have been blundering about with no idea what to do. And as I said, if this was a first draft I might have sat down and made some notes or maybe carried on writing blind. And that’s okay with the first draft, but when editing I like to stick to that plan. I’ve been through the book, I’ve made tons of notes, done my edit triage, figured out what needs fixing and I’m tackling those tasks one at a time. Have a look at some of my earlier videos on how I prepare for an edit in more detail. So for the next few days I’m focused on one particular character.

After that I’ll switch to the next problem on the list because when editing, the temptation is to try and fix everything at once and then you end up making a right old mess, and there’s a chance you can do more harm than good. So when editing, make a plan and stick to it. One fix at a time. The other thing I do at the end of a edit session is make a few notes for tomorrow’s session. So here… Just 50 words.

I’ve told myself I need to change the POV in the next chapter, and I’ve reminded myself of the changes I’ve made and what consequences they will have. Better to do that when it’s fresh rather than tomorrow morning where I might sit at my desk — and it’s 7:30 in the morning, don’t forget — and wonder just what the blimmin’ heck I’m supposed to do. On weeks like this, it’s also important to set limitations because I’m working on two projects simultaneously. Not ideal. But it happens.

One is the next Woodville books edit. The other is the second draft of a screenplay. They are sufficiently different for me to separate them in my mind, but also having alotted time and tasks really helps, as does having a bit of time between them. I’m lucky enough to work from home. So it’s those between times that I get bits of housework done, which also gets me off my bottom.

Very important for a writer. So that’s just what works for me. Have you discovered your writing session limits yet? Pop something in the comments below. Of course, you might be like Chet Cunningham.

I was reading about this legend the other day, from the publication of his first book in 1968 to his passing in 2017 at the age of 88, Chester Cunningham had something like 350 books published. Westerns, adventure novels, military thrillers. He also cowrote the “Penetrator” books under the pseudonym Lionel Derrick. This is what sent me down this rabbit hole. I saw the covers on the Pulp Librarian Twitter feed, and they are extraordinary. Chet comes from that pulp tradition where a writer was expected to knock out a thrilling adventure weeks, if not days.

I think at one point he was doing one Western per month. Why the hell not? And here’s the thing. Chet never stopped. Here’s a quote from the FAQs on his website when asked about Writer’s Block, he says, “I came from a newspaper background. When the editor assigns you a story, you write it now. No ifs, buts, or I-don’t-feel-like-writing-today. I usually write from eight to 10 hours a day when I’m a roll on a book. Researching is another thing.”

And then he was asked about Writer’s Block. Do you ever get Writer’s block? He said, “I never use the term. I don’t believe it exists. Ever heard of a Carpenter not going to work because he has Carpenters Block?

If a writer can’t write it’s because he doesn’t really want to, he isn’t ready to get it on paper. Or he’s just plain lazy. There’s no such thing as writer’s block only writer-dumb-dumb-dumb.” Well, Chet, we may disagree on that, but I salute you. Me.

I’m going to have a cup of tea. Until the next time, folks. Happy writing.

How Many Characters is Too Many?

How many point-of-view characters is too many for your story? I was watching the Indiana Jones movies and it got me thinking… and helped me with the next draft of my novel.

TRANSCRIPT

Hello, folks. I’ve been rewatching these beauties. Three brilliant films and a fourth one… Actually, to be fair, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull isn’t as bad as you might remember. Certainly when I was rewatching it today, I really enjoyed the first half and began to wonder if I’d been too harsh on it when it came out. Then in the second half it all started to unravel and the ending really was just not satisfying. And of course, with my writer hat on — not a Fedora — I started to wonder why. Now, first of all, let me make it clear: this is not going to be a hatchet job on screenwriter David Koepp. A man I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing for the Bestseller Experiment Podcast. I’ll put a link to that episode in the description below (here’s the link). He is a genuinely delightful chap whose skill as a storyteller is beyond dispute.

Also, film production can be a crazy time, especially with a big franchise movie with colossal expectations. I don’t envy anyone having to work under those kind of time constraints and those levels of expectations and scrutiny. And we simply cannot know what was asked of a writer while in production. Screenwriters are not the authors of a the movie. There are only one voice among many trying to tell a story, and with so many cooks it’s no wonder that sometimes the soup ends up with the sheep’s eyeballs in it. Also, also… I’m rereading the first draft of my next novel and guess what? I’m making exactly the same mistake. Only I have the luxury of time to recognise it and fix it. So what’s the problem with this and many other stories? Before we go on: just a warning that there will be spoilers not only for Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but all the Indiana Jones movies so far. And if you’re watching this in the future and wondering why I’m not talking about the fifth movie, that’s because it’s still in production.

So what exactly is the problem of Crystal Skull? People have pointed the finger at the Nuking the Fridge sequence, the monkeys in the Amazon, indeed that whole chase sequence has a CG gloss to it that when contrasted with truck chase in the first film lacks any sense of verisimilitude or stakes. But the Indy sequels have always had visual effects and SFX that look iffy. I mean, think of the airship/biplane sequence in The Last Crusade, or the action sequences that are a bit silly like the flying inflatable life raft in Temple of Doom. And I don’t have a problem with inter-dimensional aliens.

They’re no more outlandish than the other maguffins in the series, so I don’t think it’s anything to do with those things.

There came a moment at the end of the film when there’s all sort of stuff whizzing around and things are collapsing and John Williams is bringing everything to a resounding crescendo.

And I know I should be thrilled. But… I’m bored. And our heroes are standing there watching things whizz around them and not really doing very much. And then they run. We have a succession of resolution story beats that are meant to have some kind of emotional resonance. So Oxley coming to his sense, Mutt accepting Indy as his father, Mac’s death, Spalko getting the knowledge she craves and paying the price for it.

And Marion and Indy tying the knot. So, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 threads there. That’s a lot even for a two hour movie. The previous three films all had fairly simple story arcs. In Raiders, Indy had to learn to understand the power of the Ark. At the beginning, he’s dismissing it as superstitious nonsense. By the end he’s screaming at Marion to keep her eyes shut, and that saves both their lives. By the way, ignore all that Big Bang Theory nonsense about Indy not having any influence on the outcome of the story.

It completely misses the point. The film isn’t about finding the Ark, it’s about a grave robber rediscovering his faith.

So, in Temple of Doom, Indy has to learn that the artefacts he obtains have a greater value than being stuck in a Museum. “Fortune and glory kid.” And in the Last Crusade, it’s a story of father/son reconciliation. Simple. In Crystal Skull… You get the father/son thing again. Indy and Marion again. Oxley, the old mentor. Mac, the friend who turns traitor, something about cherishing knowledge at the end…

There’s so much being thrown at the viewer, that they don’t know what to latch on to and so disengaged with the story. There are so many threads to wrap up, but none of them are done satisfactorily. So the problem with Crystal Skull is too many characters… Okay, that’s reductive. They’re have been many stories that have oodles of characters and do just fine. Look at the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but that’s why it needed a 15 endings to wrap everything up as satisfactory– satifact– satisfactorally… I can’t even say it! People make jokes about it, but if any of those endings had been missing, the very same armchair critics would be complaining about that. Also, that epic trilogy had plenty of room for those characters to develop. Imagine cramming all of that into 2 hours. As an aside, I’ve been reading Joe Abercormbie’s new trilogy. And I’m halfway through and this series has about six point of view characters, but already I can tell that Joe is giving himself, and them, the room he needs to tell their stories properly. The more point of view characters you have, the bigger your story is going to be.

But you know, with some stories you just need to take one character on a journey of change. There’s no shame in keeping it simple. Done well, it can be the best thing ever. And as I said, I’ve made the same mistake on the first draft of my next Woodville book. I’ve been so seduced by the excitement of bringing in new characters that I’ve been ignoring my regulars.

It’s a really easy trap to fall into. A new character brings energy to a story. It’s great story fuel, and you can keep the reader and viewer engaged. But if that character isn’t given the room to grow in the story, then it becomes noise and fury amounting to not very much, actually. So, one of my next jobs on the next draft is to focus in on the most compelling threads. Two or three at most and make sure they have the most satisfying arcs and resolutions. A doddle. What could possibly go wrong? Stay tuned for more updates as I plunge into this edit. During the meanwhilst, happy writing!

Ten Questions

I was asked ten questions by the author JS Clerk on writing, agents, perspective, voice, the Bestseller Experiment podcast, and all that good stuff. And here are my answers…

You can see more of JS Clerk’s interviews here.

TRANSCRIPT:

  1. Did you always want to be an author? What were your favourite books from your childhood? 

I always wanted to make things up. Play-acting. I think that’s what a lot of creativity is. Make believe. We didn’t have many books in the home, but we went every week to the library. The Star Wars novelisation was a gateway drug to science fiction. And then it was Harry Harrison’s Stainless Steel Rat, and then Douglas Adams, and then Terry Pratchett and Robert Rankin.

I was probably also the only kid who regularly checked out books on what to do in a nuclear war. It was the early 80s and it was disturbing. 

2) Do you have an agent? What was your route into the publishing industry?

I have had many agents. I currently have two: Ed Wilson for books, Matt Dench for scripts. My road into the industry was a temporary Christmas job at Waterstones in Dorking. That was when Tim Waterstone ran the company and insisted that everyone who worked there had a degree. I didn’t. Shh. Don’t tell anyone. 

3) Do you write full time? If so, what was your lifebefore turning to writing? 

I do write full time, very lucky to be able to do that.

I worked in bookselling publishing for over twenty five years, as a bookseller at Waterstones, then a sales rep for a couple of publishers, and then looking after Amazon for Orion. 

4) Which perspective/character voice is your favourite to read? 

Not sure I have one, so long as the voice feels honest and true and suits the story. I’m not someone who gets their knickers in a twist if I see something in first person, present tense, or second person. “You open the door, you see a dragon.” Just tell me your story in your voice. That’s the most important thing. 

5) Which perspective/character voice is your favourite to write? 

I like writing in a fairly close third person. I love the present tense dynamism of screenplays, too, which is two very different ways of telling a story. I did write a children’s book, still unpublished, in third person, and then completely rewrote it all in first person, which was fun. Still hasn’t been published, though. 

6) How do you judge a book? Is it by the cover, or the authors writing style? 

That’s two things there, really. I mean, the cover is what draws you in and makes you want to pick the thing up, and I am a sucker for a great cover, which is why I’m blessed with the covers I’ve got from the wonderful Harry Goldhawk.

The author’s writing style will ultimately be what you judge a story by, I guess. I mean, I don’t like to get too judgey, as long as it’s written truthfully and you don’t bore the reader. I think it’s healthy for an author to live in fear of boring the reader. 

7) For the unpublished author, do you have any advice on querying agents for publication? How does an author know when their manuscript is ready? 

Agents ask two questions: Do I love it? Can I sell it? And if you can answer both those, you’re fine. Finding the right agent is like dating. Only the odds are more stacked against you.

Just persist and remind yourself of how many times people have been rejected before finding success. Persistence is so important in this business and I really, really, really mean that. In my case we’re talking decades of persistence. You really have to want this. As for querying, keep it short, sweet and honest and be patient. Especially now. Agents are still playing catch up after lockdown and there’s no magic combination of words that will get you repped in a covering letter.

It’s all about your writing. And when is it ready? It’s ready when you feel you could give it to anyone to read. Your worst enemy. Truthfully, that day may never come. So don’t go chasing perfection because it doesn’t exist. Get it as good as you can possibly make it. I know my stuff is ready when I go word blind. I can’t tell good from bad anymore. Then I send it to beta readers and get some feedback and perspective.

8) How did the concept for the Bestseller Experiment come about? How did you develop the concept?

The Bestseller Experiment came about… I’d written a movie called Robot Overlords and did the tie-in novelisation as well, and a guy I knew… We didn’t go to the same school, but we went to schools in the same area, had lots of mutual friends… a guy called Mark Desvaux got in touch. And he said, this is amazing, you’ve written a book, you’ve written a film. He said he’d always tried to write a novel, but he never got beyond 20,000 words. And we got talking.

One thing led to another. We both both have very similar interests, both like podcasts. So we challenged ourselves to co-write write a novel and get it self-published and top some Amazon charts within 12 months. But the important thing was that we asked our listeners to beat us to it. We said to people, if you’ve got a half-written book in a drawer or you’ve got something that’s been sitting in your trunk for years… Get it out, dust it off, polish it.  Listen to the guests that we have on the podcast.

And we’ve had people like Sarah Pinborough, Joe Hill, Joanne Harris, major best selling authors, Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin giving fantastic, fantastic writing advice… And beat us to it. And the great thing is loads of them did. I can show you. I’ll show you now. Hang on. See the shelf here. These are all the people that have listened to the podcast and, because of some advice they heard on the podcast, they got published. And that’s the best thing we… that ever could have come … Just the fact that all these people have managed to get their books out there because of something they heard on the podcast is… It’s just amazing to me.

And it’s why we keep going. We’re nearly five years old now. Five years old in October of 2021. 

8) On the podcast, how do you plan your interview approaches?

For interviews, I usually have five or so bullet points, which is good for 20 minutes, we have a really good idea of what our listeners want. So they like writing habits, writing tips, that sort of thing. I try not to get too hung up on sticking to the list. It’s important to listen. Your guest will take you to places you never imagined if you let them.

10) I find that specific pieces of music help me to engage with my characters. Do you listen to music when you write? Do you have a favourite band or artist that you enjoy? 

I used to listen to music a lot, I used to have specific playlists. I’m too old now. I need silence. I wrote Back to Reality with Disney Pixar scores and the score to La La Land. The End of Magic I wrote mostly with Jeremy Soule’s score for Skyrim, which was handy. Robot Overlords, I wrote largely to Daft Punk’s Tron soundtrack. And when I hear those now, they make me think of those books, which is a lovely thing. But yeah, at my age I need the sound of silence.