Solo Faces

I read about James Salter through other reviews of Bill Finnegan’s Barbarian Days, the subject of my last blog. Salter was a highly regarded stylist of his era, but seems to have never achieved quite the same general recognition of some his peers – John Updike, Richard Ford, Jack Kerouac or Norman Mailer.

What interested me is that Salter wrote books about action. He started out as a fighter pilot, flying more than a hundred combat missions over Korea in the early 1950s. His first novel was about these experiences and was subsequently made into a film, The Hunters starring Robert Michum and Robert Wagner.

He resigned from the Air Force to pursue a career as a writer, and much of his subsequent work deals with sport, adventure and physical endeavour. These are themes of much of my own work, and I’m always interested to see such action portrayed.

Salter would appear to have been influenced by the grand old man of literary action, Ernest Hemingway, with short sentences and very little dialogue attribution (sometimes too little to read clearly and easily). It’s not my thing, but it’s very effective when done well.

Solo Faces follows the fate of an American climber, Verne Rand as he departs hippy LA in the sixties for the much less forgiving snow and ice of the Alps. There he drifts, finally attempting a succession of notable climbs in pursuit of…. In pursuit of what?

This seems to be the question that Salter wants to answer – why do men do these things, take these risks? And – while I had issues with the arbitrary and spell-breaking shifts in viewpoint, the occasional racism and the role of women in this tale – Salter does get close to an answer worth reading.

Possibly the best surfing book ever?

I didn’t expect to find a surfing memoir via a podcast about American politics, but amongst all the gloom of the Slate Political Gabfest’s coverage of the last Presidential election cycle there was a recommendation to read Barbarian Days by Bill Finnegan. Soon afterwards, I heard that the book had won the 2016 William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award in the UK, having already picked up a Pulitzer for Biography. A surfing book? A Pulitzer? Really? The rebel alliance has clearly been sucked into the mainstream - this one obviously had to be read.

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Bill Finnegan is a New Yorker staffer with a background in political and conflict reportage, so he knows his writing chops and has the contacts and reputation for this to come to the attention of the literary establishment in a way that most surfing books probably don’t. Having said that, this is the best book on the topic that I’ve read since Andy Martin’s Walking on Water, another minor masterpiece.

He never says as much, but Finnegan is a minor hellman, a big-wave surfer. Not the truly giant stuff taken on by household names like Laird Hamilton (ok, showing my age now) but still, this is a guy who has taken on most of the world’s best waves, including some of the heaviest. A man who has consistently surfed sessions in 10-15ft, often at breaks where reefs and rocks require complete commitment.

Very few of the people that can do this can also write as well as Finnegan, and the descriptions he brings back from the wave face and ‘out the back’ in big swells ring with a sonorous truth.

Bill Finnegan also captures the moment and the people beautifully, growing up in the 60s in LA and Hawaii, travelling cheap and light looking for waves in the 70s and 80s. I found myself constantly drawn back to this book, and to the water. The recent arrival of two children mean that it’s been a long while since I bothered to check the surf at the local breaks. I’m thinking that needs to change.

Pointless rants

Every now and again we all need to let off a bit of steam, and the only real question when you're in the mood for a modern-life-sucks rant is... who gets to be the target?

Could be the idiot motorcyclist who gave me the finger this morning for no other reason than my lane choice may have slowed up his arrival at his destination by about 15s.

But no, I get the fundamental stress of driving in south coast traffic.

So today it's all about kettles with useless spouts. Actually, not just useless spouts, but downright dangerous ones. Spouts and kettles that splash boiling hot water all over anything that happens to be within a foot of them. 

What is it about kettle design? I mean, really, how hard is it to design a kettle with a spout that doesn't flood water all over the counter top every time you try to make a cup of tea?

There are only two components to good spout design, and it didn't take a three day consultancy with the computational fluid dynamics guys here at work to figure it out either:

1. A sharp edge at the point where the water breaks off from the spout and heads for the cup.

2. A concave shape to the exit ramp that the water flows down before it hits the aforementioned sharp edge.

That's it - and given modern plastic and metal moulding and pressing techniques you would think it would be just as easy to make a kettle with a good spout as a bad one... but apparently not. 

So to all you kettle spout designers out there, and for that matter, teapot, milk and measuring jug designers too -- do the basics first, just make it pour well before you worry about what it looks like.

Ok, that's it. Nothing more to see here, move along quietly please.

 

Like being in the movie...

Losing your memory used to be something that happened in movies. Then it became something that happened to my mother, slowly, painfully slowly over two decades. Six weeks ago it became something that happened to my wife. 

Six weeks ago I'd never heard of encephalitis. Six weeks ago I didn't know that flu-like symptoms followed by confusion were a dial 999 emergency. Six weeks ago my wife could remember who had given our children every single item of gifted toys and clothes. And then suddenly, after a few days of sickness, headaches and a horrifyingly frightening 48 hours of desperate confusion, she woke up and didn't even know or remember who I was. 

I don't know if I will ever be able to bring myself to write about those six weeks. We talked about a book when she first started to pull out of it. What had happened and was happening to her seemed so far fetched and improbable it was surely a story that had to be told.

"This is like a first date," I said, as I explained that I was a writer. "No," she replied, "this is the flirting before the first date." 

But now she's really getting better all that I want to do is to put it behind us and get back to normal.

An entry from the notebook - Point of View

These thoughts started out as notes to clarify my own thinking on the fundamentals of writing fiction. They developed a bit more of a structure when I taught a creative writing class at the local art gallery - it was a fun thing to do, but when the gallery closed the class did too and so I thought it was about time these notes found another outlet....

The Point of View (PoV) is the eye (or eyes) that the reader sees the story through - deciding on the viewpoint is one of the fundamental choices that you will make about your story.


The Different Points of View

Omniscient Narration - the writer tells the story, and can tell the reader whatever they want about the thoughts, actions and feelings of any character at any time.
•    Advantages: flexibility, you will never get stuck unable to explain something, and you can show the reader how characters misunderstand each other - this can be really useful for comedy. It also allows the story to be told much more quickly - so if it's a saga or epic story, this is a good choice.
•    Disadvantages: it can distance the reader and make it difficult to engage with any particular character. It's much more obvious to the reader that they are being told a story, and harder for them to feel within the story, that they are right there, experiencing it with the character.

A Single PoV - this is the opposite of Omniscient Narration. The story is told from the point of view of a single character. The reader only has access to the thoughts and feelings of one person.
•    Advantages: it's very easy to engage with and feel empathy for the viewpoint character. If you want to provoke emotion in the reader (and you should) this is the best way to do it. The reader really experiences the story through this character.
•    Disadvantage: the whole story must be visible through their eyes, and this can make plotting much more difficult.

Multiple PoV - the middle route between Omniscient Narration and Single PoV, where the story is told from the viewpoint of two or more characters. 
•    Advantages: plotting problems can always be solved by switching viewpoint, and it's still easy to engage with and feel empathy for the viewpoint characters, so long as you don't use too many.
•    Disadvantages: it's harder to find a distinctive interior voice for several characters, and to control the writing so that they remain distinctive. It's also possible to confuse the reader, if they have to follow the experiences of too many characters. If you solve a plotting problem with a new viewpoint, then you will have to use that viewpoint elsewhere, it can't be there just for one scene.

A Rule
Use the absolute minimum number of viewpoints that you need to tell the story. There was a scene that I loved in Powder Burn that I had to cut, because it was the only scene from that characters point of view (another rule, kill your darlings). Funnily enough, it ended up in this blog too...

 

Moving house...

So here we are in these wonderful new premises at Squarespace. I realised that the old website design was looking pretty dated a while back, but initially the options for moving to something better, brighter and definitely more modern looked expensive and - worse - time consuming. I'd rather be writing than spending time with web designers... 

I'd heard Squarespace advertise in countless podcasts - Culture Gabfest, Freakonomics, Radio Lab all rescue me from the commute to Portsmouth - and finally thought I should give them a look. About three hours later I pretty much had a new website. All right, I already had the text and images to slot in from the old design, but still, it's a pretty cool service.

I have to confess I wasn't at all sure about adding the blog again though, even with the impressive facility for importing everything from the old blogger blog, my recent lack of activity did make me wonder if I should just drop it - no blog, no more guilt! But then, when you have got something to say, where do you say it? For all the immediacy of a facebook post or tweet, sometimes a movie, book or political event just demands a bit more. 

So here I am, back on the blog - albeit briefly - and hoping to have something to say and the time to say it again soon...

 

Chinese Burn - the Return of Sam Blackett

I can't promise that this will still be the opening to Chinese Burn when I finish the book, but in the meantime, it's something to be going on with...

Sam Blackett looked up from the People's Pilsner that sat in front of her, beads of perspiration now rolling down the glass. Not a drop had passed her lips. It was a shame that she couldn't claim as much for the four or five that had come and gone before it. And she had started the evening with the very best of intentions... a cheap meal, then back to the hotel for an early night.
So what the hell was she now doing in the lush, white, art deco interior of the top floor restaurant of Shanghai's Peninsula Hotel? She had needed cheering up. And that would explain the first drink. The rest she could blame on Roger -- at least, she thought that his name was Roger. He'd approached her at the bar with a straight-forward, 'hello, can I buy you a drink?' After spending the last few days wandering around the city with only her own company, she had said yes without even thinking. And here they were, an eighty dollar steak and several bottles of People's Pilsner later.
He was staring out across the Huangpu River at the glowing swelter of light from the Bund. The temperature on the restaurant's terrace had dropped to no more than a couple of degrees below the sweat-sodden heat of the day. He turned back to her suddenly. "So, do you wanna go up to my room?" he said, his Midwest accent slightly burred with drink.
"Not particularly," she replied, and smiled.
Roger's shoulders twitched in a snort of laughter that died before it got to his throat.
"Well, I guess that's straight-forward," he said, and rose unsteadily to his feet. A moment later a flicker of alarm crossed his face and he lurched towards the railing.
"Whoa, steady," said Sam as she moved to grab him. They both peered down from the fourteenth floor. "Don't want to fall from here," she added, watching his face as she did so.
Roger harrumphed in a dangerously non-committal way, something dark momentarily crossing his face.
"Let me give you a hand, I think that last Mai-tai might have been too much," she said, a little crease between her eyebrows.
"Not sure it was that one in particular..." said Roger, his words starting to openly slur.
Typical, thought Sam; as soon as sex was off-the-table he let the alcohol steamroller him. The usual disappointment. He'd been such a good listener while she had explained how she came to be alone in a five star restaurant in Shanghai. An explanation that had somehow involved a fairly detailed description of the relationship-crash she had suffered in India with the man she had -- briefly, admittedly -- thought that she might spend the rest of her life with. And then the Esquire article's advice on which questions to ask had run out; or a natural need to talk had resurfaced. Either way, she had then listened to him slurp his way through half a dozen very expensive cocktails while moaning about the money problems his business was suffering back in Detroit.
Roger stumbled the first couple of steps towards the terrace doors, and then lurched to a halt by the next table. She stepped beside him and took a firm grip of his forearm. It looked like she was going to his room after all.
"Which floor are you on?" she asked.
"Four, oh, three. Rooooom four oh, threeee..." he replied. "Shhorryesh..." he added. "It hit when... stood up..." he blinked, very slowly, swaying slightly.
I bet it did, she thought, as she guided him unsteadily around the tables. He bumped into several of them, but there was only one other couple left in the terrace bar, and they were very self-absorbed, away in the far corner. She got Roger into the restaurant, more careful to steer him away from contact now, as all the tables had been cleared and freshly laid. She checked her watch. It was almost three am.
They made it to the elevators. Roger sank against the wall as she pressed the call button.  A moment later, the elevator doors slid silently open and with a huge sigh, he pushed himself back off the wall. They stepped inside, Sam pressed the button for the fourth floor, and again in silence, they began the short descent.
Sam just had time to wonder how easy it would be to find a cab to get back to her hotel at this time of night, when they stopped and the doors slid open. The notice on the wall opposite told her which way they needed to go, and she levered Roger out into the corridor. He was now struggling to stand, and she had to get his arm over her shoulders to help support him the fifty yards to his room.
She propped him back against the wall beside the door, and helped him find his keycard, tucked conveniently into the top pocket of his suit jacket. She opened the door and got him up off the wall. He lurched around the corner into the room. Sam felt that she had done her duty and, anxious not to give him the wrong message, she let him go and stayed on the threshold. He stopped a few paces into the room when he realised that she was no longer with him, and turned.  He was standing there looking at her, very drunk and faintly disappointed, when the man came at him from behind the still open door. There was no time for any reaction to reach Roger's face before the assailant was on him.

Sorry, I’ve Got a Book to Write...


The monthly diary reminder just popped up to tell me that the next time I get a few spare minutes, I really should write a blog. The trouble is that I’ve just about reached a stage in the new novel (Chinese Burn) where it’s got some momentum and a life of its own. I can see the end. So, much as I’d like to give you my thoughts on the first ever Jack Reacher novel (which I'm about half way through)… it’ll have to wait till I’ve finished my own.

Homeland – Season Four Finale

It’s been a couple of weeks since Season Four of Homeland finished, and I posted on Facebook at the time that I thought this Guardian review was generous.

I posted that the final episode was botched together after they learned that they had got the money for Season 5… and perhaps I should explain that a little more with some wild and completely unsubstantiated speculation...

So let’s imagine it’s early in the first US transmission, and the writing team are meeting to agree the trajectory of the final episodes of Season Four which still have to be shot. The ratings aren’t going particularly well, and it looks like they won’t get the money for Season Five. So they say to hell with it, let’s finish it with a bang…

Let’s kill Saul off before he can get out of Pakistan. Then Quinn kills Haqqani with a pipe bomb attack, and goes down in a hail of bullets. Carrie watches him die helplessly, goes home to mourn him and her father both, but takes on the role of mother to her child after leaving the CIA.

Brilliant! Action packed to the finale, all tied up in a tragic-but-happy ending that makes complete sense with what’s gone before, with Carrie finally out of the self-destructive job. The End.

Then they start showing the episodes with the attack on the embassy, and suddenly there’s a huge surge in ratings. The cash tills ring and the studio execs demand more… suddenly the money is on the table for Season Five. Uh-oh, but everybody dies, or retires! Quick! Rewrite! Reshoot!

So they fudge the last episode and the final couple of minutes of the penultimate one with completely new material. Saul doesn’t die. Quinn is persuaded by Carrie not to blow up Haqqani (really?), and lo and behold – deux ex machina grinding audibly in the background – it’s all ok, the CIA have it covered after all! Dar Adal is in the car with Haqqani!

Implausible. Unlikely. Improbable… and lots of other synonyms.

Then they have to shoot a new final episode, back in the US with none of the locations they have used for the rest of the season. So they come up with the ridiculous mechanic of the mother turning up.

“Good drama tends to let characterisation guide the plot, so to have such a significant figure turn up merely to help Carrie learn a couple of life lessons was very weak indeed,” said the Guardian. No s##t.

I rest my case. And on to the Game of Thrones, which I got for Christmas…



Never Go Back

One of those questions that you get asked pretty regularly as a writer is... what do you read? The short answer is not as much as I’d like these days, while the slightly longer answer is the same stuff that I write. I’ve always been a big thriller reader, ever since I discovered that there were James Bond books as well as movies...

I’ve just finished Never Go Back, the latest but one of the Jack Reacher series from Lee Child, one of the top thriller writers of this generation. There are now 19 of these books, one a year from when he started. While Child maintains a very even level of quality in the books that I have read, I have to say that this wasn’t the strongest ending I’ve ever seen.

In fact, it was pretty feeble – I’m not going to spoil it for you, but it led me to start thinking… what is it about writers that people keep going back to them even when they have just delivered a bad book? Not that Never Go Back is a bad book, it’s just a poor ending – but I’m already cue-ing up the new one, regardless of my disappointment. Never Go Back is prophetic, I will, even if I shouldn't...

It’s simply not true to say that you are only as good as your last book.

I think the willingness to stay with an author has something to do with the amount of time we invest in a book. If a movie’s rubbish, it’s a couple of hours you aren’t going to get back. If a book’s rubbish, or has a disappointing ending, it’s the best part of a day that we’ve wasted.

Now – if we take into account that the vast majority of readers only read a couple of books a year – we start to see why they are so conservative. If you were only going to have two cups of coffee in 2015, you’d make damn sure that they were good ones.


It’s not surprising that breaking down this conservativeness in book selection is nigh on impossible. The only chink is to appeal to the much smaller proportion of people who read a lot – they are the only ones who will take a risk on the new. And to do that, I’m starting to think that you really have to write for a niche. And then market hard to that niche. Everyone else just wants to read the same stuff as everyone else. Bad endings or not.

Back on the Blog

I just checked the date of the last post on this blog and it’s the 28th March 2014. It’s just over six months ago, and it happens to be the day when my wife and I moved with our eight month old son to our new house.

It wasn’t far. The new house is in the same village as the old house. It’s probably no more than a hundred metres as the crow flies. That didn’t make it any less stressful. It was pouring with rain. The sellers were late moving out. The boy was tired and grumpy.

Then we got the keys, walked inside, and had one of those oh my god moments. We  had a lot of work to do. In comparison to replacing the leaking conservatory and the ancient boiler, fixing dodgy taps and dripping cisterns, changing carpets, painting outside and inside… In comparison to this, blogging didn’t seem that important. Nor did writing books. Or even reading them. Even my beloved twitter account lay dormant for a long, long while…


Sometimes life just gets in the way, but I’m pleased to say that this particular slice of life is now over. The house is cosy and functional and ready for the winter storms that already seem to be whistling around my new office in the attic. I got the new novel out again today, dusted it off, and started writing. I’m half-way through reading a cracking Jack Reacher and I might even have restarted twittering... and next month, I’m going to blog about writing again.

Last Lines…

I blogged about opening lines of novels a while back, but the endings are just as interesting, if not more so. The Huffington Post recently gathered together some of their favourites, and it’s an article worth a look. There are some fantastic last lines, I think my favourites from this list would have to be either from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." Or from George Orwell’s Big Brother; "He loved Big Brother". The latter is so wonderfully bleak – something that contemporary film studios could learn from – whatever happened to the brutal, unhappy endings?

Another that pushes those two close is this one; “The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky – seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.” Where else could that come from but The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad?

What about you, any favourite last lines?

This is also a good moment to fess up to a guilty secret. I lifted the last line of my first novel, The Defector, from my favourite book. It fitted perfectly - ‘Sometimes you just know these things’ - and it seemed like a suitable tribute to pay to a book that kinda changed the path of my life. So can anyone out there guess which book it comes from, and does anyone have a copy on their real or virtual shelf?

Cool Gus and the Existential Crisis

They say that having children changes your life and they are right – but the bald statement does nothing to prepare you for the moment when that gurgling, crying bundle is in your arms for the first time. It would take a book to communicate just what that means and how your life changes over the ensuing weeks and months, and I’m sure there are lots of good ones... but don’t hold your breath waiting for mine.

Some of the consequences of Aiden’s arrival became clear very quickly; the regular trips to the gym, the surfing and paddle-boarding, movie nights and bike rides all went immediately. Eating out with my wonderful wife survived a bit longer, at least until regular child bedtimes became a necessity. Reading and watching tv struggle on in the gaps in the household routine, at least when I don’t just keel over with the sheer overwhelming exhaustion of it all.

Babies absorb the time and energy of their parents like black holes absorb light. Get over it. All of the above were luxuries and I know that one day those things will be back in my life. Meanwhile, I have the joy of the smiles, laughter and astonishing growth and development of my little boy to weigh against what’s gone.

Other consequences have been slower to emerge. For a while now I’ve pursued a career as a novelist around the edges of a career as a journalist and non-fiction writer. Followers of this blog will have watched my thrillers transition from big trade publishing houses to independent- or self-publication. I’ve charted the process of commissioning covers and editors, of formatting, finding translators, booking adverts and writing blurbs.

It’s been a blast and before Aiden, I had time to do all this and to write the books. But suddenly time has become a lot more precious and I now find myself making choices that I don’t want to make. Should I reformat the backlist to include links to the newly published book, or write another 500 words on the work-in-progress? Should I book an advert and run a price promotion, or write another 500 words on the work-in-progress?

I’ve been choosing the  former (and the short-term gain) far too often. The consequence has been that the work-in-progress just isn’t progressing. I’m a lot less philosophical about that than I am about the surfing and movies; writing fiction isn’t so much a luxury as a fundamental part of who I think I am… cue a minor existential crisis.

All this was in my mind when I was flicking through my blogroll over the Xmas holidays, and I found Bob Mayer talking about expanding his Cool Gus publishing list in 2014. I’ve been a regular follower of the work of Bob and his partner Jen Talty for a couple of years now, and I very much like what they do, how they operate and their strategic view of the fast-changing publishing world.

So I emailed them the same day, we chatted a bit on email and then on Skype, and to cut a long story short, I’m very pleased to say that Cool Gus will be taking over the publication of all my novels, old and new, starting right now. Jen is already working on new covers (the first of which you can see here, a stunning new cover for Powder Burn), and you will soon start to see the changes roll out on Amazon, in the iBookstore and on the Nook.

There will be so many advantages to this that I barely know where to start - editorial support and help, new energy and ideas for marketing, great production facilities... and of course - although we still have a lot of work to do to get the new editions out - it will soon leave me much more time to write new fiction. I can’t wait to get back to it... :-)

Traveller Tim

I never had any intention of being a teacher. My father was a maths teacher and so was my wife. I’ve seen more than enough of the modern British state education system to know that I wanted no part of it – too much red tape, and not enough time with the kids – but state schools aren’t the only place you can teach. I was a sailing instructor on Sydney Harbour for a while, but that hardly counts. And I did a fair bit of coaching when I was a professional sailor. Again, it doesn’t really count. I certainly never had any intention of teaching writing.

So it was a bit of a surprise when Sandy, the owner of Sea Sky Art, the local art gallery, suggested that I might like to run some creative writing classes in her studio – just a short course of five weeks. It ended up being three short courses of five weeks each, held during last winter and spring, and it also ended up being a lot of fun. This week I held in my hands the first fruits of those labours.


I joined Roy Young and his wife Carol in a local pub for a quick drink and was handed a pristine copy of The Adventures of Traveller Tim – a children’s book. Roy was working on the manuscript last winter and we spent a lot of time workshop-ing the opening chapter. Just over a year later he’s finished the book, had it edited, and then published via Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing and CreateSpace programs. He’s understandably proud of it, and so am I. It’s now on the TBR pile on the bedside table. Just where your copy should be J.

The Fickle Finger of Fate

Every now and again I get an email from Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) team. Usually these are bringing my attention to some discrepancy or other in one of the 11 books I have published with KDP, often requiring swift remedial action. A recent one required me to check the HTML coding that I had used on my book description pages, and to do it in less than 24 hours. They were about to change the way the website presented the HTML, and if I didn’t get it sorted… well, quite frankly, my book pages would look crap… or words to that effect.

So when I see these emails pop into my inbox I open them with some trepidation. Whatever I was expecting from the one that arrived a couple of days before the end of October, it wasn’t this…

We are considering including your book: Il disertore in an upcoming promotion in the Amazon.it Kindle Book Store.”

Promotion? In the Amazon.it store? I read on with a churning stomach. I’ve written previously on the joys of Indie-pub translation, and the Italian edition of The Defector is one of the results of that part of my not-so-master-plan. The lovely Ina Uzzanu approached me after I blogged on the topic and offered to translate one of my books. We talked, chose The Defector, did a royalty-based deal, and it’s been selling steadily in quantities that often have it hovering around the top 1,000 books – but this was an opportunity to hit a whole new level.

Il disertore was to be part of the ‘Offer of the Month’ promotion along with a number of other thrillers. A swift reply was required, and I said yes without any further thought. The fickle finger of fate had chosen me – I had no idea why, but I wasn’t about to blink. I went for the maximum discount for maximum sales and chart exposure, got the thumbs up from the KDP team and sat back to wait.

On the 1st November Il disertore appeared for sale at 99c on the Offer of the Month page and I stopped breathing.... how would I do against some impressive opposition in the promotion?


I’m writing this just short of three weeks later, after Il disertore has been in the promotion for 19 days, and in the Top 100 on the Amazon.it chart for two weeks.


I think it’s fair to say that it’s been a success, although I guess the real test will be to see how well the book does once the promotion is over – but with 15 reviews and 4.3 stars I’m hoping it will hang around in the charts for a little bit longer.

The next question is... how do I get into the same promotion at Amazon.de, Amazon.co.uk and lordy help us... the motherlode at Amazon.com??

If I ever find out, I’ll let you know...

The Non-Promo Launch

It was back in April that I wrote a blog post for Author’s Electric on the process of promotion that I undertook ahead of the publication of my new thriller Powder Burn. By September I had a short story on the blocks and ready to go; called The Sniper, it’s a prequel about the antagonist in my Janac’s Games thrillers. I had a cover, blurb, and an edited and formatted manuscript. What I did not have was time to do any promotion. Since I could not see how things were going to improve any time soon, I was left with a choice of holding back the book indefinitely, or going ahead and publishing with essentially no promotion or marketing.

I chose the latter for three reasons:
1. I’m impatient.
2. I thought it would be interesting to see what happens when you just push a book out on the major ebook websites without any marketing support.
3. My eventual plan for the book is to drop the price to zero and run it as a loss-leader for the Janac’s Games series, and so I knew I would have a second chance at the marketing when the price goes to zero.

So by way of an experiment, I hit publish on the 25th September, sent out a few tweets announcing the book’s arrival, posted links to the various sales pages on Facebook and that was about it. I sat back and waited to see what happened. And now I can report the results of the experiment. 

Nada. Nothing. Zippo. Zero and Zilch. 

I think I have sold about ten copies in total across Amazon, and I doubt it's done much better at B&N, iBooks and all the rest, although I won't know for a while as their sales reporting is much slower. And this is for a series book whose other members have been downloaded or sold in the hundreds of thousands. It appears from this one example that I either play the promotion game, or remain unread. So I will be working much harder at the marketing when the price goes to zero in a few weeks time... 

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A Midlist Career or Immortality?

My wife, Tina has just started a portrait photography business and while she was working to get it all set up I posed her a question – would you rather: take pictures that live on forever, but never make a living as a photographer; or, leave nothing artistic behind you, but live a good life, working daily as a photographer? At the time I couched it in these terms – who would you rather be; Vivian Maier or Jasmine Star?

If you’re not a photography fan-boy or –girl, then Vivian Maier is the American nanny whose street photography was only discovered by accident years after her death, and then published to great critical acclaim. Jasmine Star is the marketing wunderkind who single-handedly made wedding photography fashionable (along with a great deal of money) by a spectacularly effective talent for social media. I don’t think anyone expects her wedding pictures to be in the NY Met in fifty years time. 

Tina – who is very practical – answered Jasmine Star without missing a beat. And then told me that the question would make a good topic for a blog... so here I am. In fact, I was reminded of the conversation and the prospects for a blog earlier this month when I read a post from one of my favourite writers on the business of writing – Kathryn Rusch. She was concerned with the distinction between the one-book-writer and the career-writer. The one-book-writer doesn’t care if they never make any money, or never get to leave the day job. They simply want the satisfaction of seeing their words in print, their name on the bookshelves, and preferably lauded in the review columns of the national press. The career-writer cares little for good reviews except where they help bring in the readers (1,500 5* reviews on Amazon for instance) and pay the bills. The career-writer is just that – in it for the career, making it work as a day job.

In her article, Rusch wanted to make the distinction between the career-writer and the one-book writer because the choice leads to fundamentally different decisions about the many opportunities and challenges that now confront the writer. She points out many of the ways in some detail, but essentially the career-writer will likely embrace the entrepreneurial possibilities of the eBook revolution and self-publishing. The one-book-writer will turn up their nose and keep submitting to agents and publishers. It’s all about validation for the one-book-writer, it’s all about being able to keeping the cheques coming in for the career-writer.

If you’ve read many of my posts here on Author’s Electric you won’t be long in realising that my wife and I are temperamentally suited as life-partners – I’m very much a career-writer. I’m all about novel-writing as a business, about paying the bills, about giving up the day job (which happens to be journalism and non-fiction writing). I’d pick Jasmine Star every time and I’ve fully embraced the entrepreneurial spirit of the eBook revolution. I’d always pick the freedom to do what I love every day for the rest of my life over success beyond the grave... but that’s me, what about you? Think carefully, because it’s an important choice to make before you go any further with your writing....

Violence for Writers

If nothing else it’s an eye-catchingly counter-intuitive title... and after all that baby-talk last month, I probably needed something gritty and thriller-ish to get back on message. It’s always a popular question when I tell people that I write thrillers; how do you know about the fighting and violence? I’ve had a stock reply for many years; the mostly middle-class reading audience only experiences violence through books, films and video games anyway, so as long as a story sticks to the conventions of the genre, no one is going to have much of a problem.

Most people seemed happy with the answer, but I was never entirely happy with that as the end of the research process. So I used to email questions to a friend who’s an ex-Royal Marine – what kind of weapons and strategy would you use to attack the bridge of a container ship? It turns out that that’s just the kind of simple question that gets you flagged on NSA and GCHQ watchlists...

Still, my friend’s answers were always helpful. I hope they gave the action-set pieces in my books a reasonable amount of authenticity – and the replies often came with entertaining holiday snaps of my friend; the one of him driving around Baghdad in a beaten-up sedan with an inflatable shark on the roof, and a semi-automatic dangling out of the window was particularly memorable...

I’m always on the look-out for ways to improve my writing though, and as the research is the best part of the job, I don’t need much of an incentive to read a book that might help. So when I saw this recommendation from Barry Eisler – a thriller-writer whose work I admire for its authenticity – I went straight out and bought it; ‘Violence: A Writer's Guide’ by Rory Miller.

Rory Miller is the author of several books on the impact and reality of violence, and speaks from lots of personal experience as a prisoner officer and martial artist – this is his blog. I wouldn’t be writing about the book if I wasn’t about to endorse and pass on the recommendation.

Miller starts his book by taking apart many of the assumptions that we writers, readers and movie-watches make about violence. We’ve all seen and know about the magazines that never run out - magically refilling with bullets every time the hero gets into trouble - but even movies heralded for their realism get it wrong somewhere. Everyone, says Miller, dies screaming for their mother. No exceptions. Well, maybe just Tom Hanks at the end of Saving Private Ryan (unlike the rest of the cast).


Did you know that ‘a man with a knife could consistently close a distance of seven yards and stab or slash faster than an officer could draw his firearm. This means that within seven yards, a knife is an immediate deadly threat.’ No, neither did I, but I have a feeling that it’s going to have an impact on an action-set piece that I write one day. I was finishing up my latest story (a short called The Sniper) when I came across Miller’s book, and so I went back through it to test its assumptions against my new knowledge. I didn’t do too badly, it’s a Vietnam War story and I had researched that conflict quite heavily before I started writing. Nevertheless, I still added and changed a few details, but I’m going to leave you to find them...

The Best Excuse

I had intended to write a blog this month about Rory A Miller's excellent book, 'Violence: A Writer's Guide'. I particularly wanted to look at its impact on my new 'Janac's Games' short story, 'The Sniper'... but all my good intentions went out of the window at 8.58 on the morning of 16th July, when my wife Tina and I welcomed our baby boy Aiden to the world, a month ahead of schedule.

To say that we weren't quite ready would be a small understatement, and in the last week we've been scrambling to finish preparing for Aiden's arrival (Buggy - tick; Cot - tick; Prepare Nursery - definitely not yet ticked; Nappies - fast running out) all the while learning how to look after our little one in his first few days in the world.

So instead of a short treatise on writing, research and violence, you'll have to settle for this rather gorgeous picture of my lovely wife and baby son. And I promise I'll be back with something more writerly next month...

The New Gatekeepers

In October last year I wrote a post called ‘Gatekeepers and Validators’ which was subsequently chosen for 'Sparks, A Year In E-Publishing - An Authors Electric Anthology2011-2012. The gist of it was that there had been a power-shift in publishing. Twenty years ago, just a couple of handfuls of people in London and New York decided what the English-speaking public got to read. They were the editors, marketers and accountants of the ‘Big Six’ publishing houses, and the book buyers for the centralised bookselling chains.

If these people didn’t like a book, then there was precious little chance that anybody would ever read it. They controlled the gates to the front tables of Waterstones, WH Smiths, Borders, and Barnes and Noble. Without their approval and validation - and without a place on those tables - the number of books that an author would likely sell would be counted in dozens, rather than tens of thousands.

This situation has changed completely; Borders has gone, Barnes and Noble looks sickly, Random House and Penguin have merged and any writer that can’t get their work accepted by the big London and New York publishers can go to a fabulous range of new independent houses. Or they can simply do it themselves, via the direct sales channel to the reader that’s now been opened by Amazon, B&N, Kobo, Apple and other online sellers, using a myriad of ePublishing and Print on Demand services.

The central argument of that previous blog is summed up by this passage; ‘The gatekeepers are gone and the doors have been blown wide open - the slush-pile has moved from the in-tray of editors and agents, got itself a cover and a blurb and is now available online for the princely sum of 99p a pop. Or it’s free. Unfortunately, even if the notion of validation by the traditional gatekeepers was just smart business by big corporations, it still leaves us with the original problem. How do we decide what’s worth reading?’

My answer - just over six months ago - was simple; ‘The new validators are the people who should have had the job in the first place – the readers. Perhaps that’s why we are all fast ceasing to care about books getting the imprimatur of a publisher’s imprint. An endorsement of quality no longer needs to come from an editor in New York or London; it can come from five stars on Amazon. It can come when a complete stranger living several thousand miles away takes the trouble to write and post a four paragraph analysis and review of your book on B&N.com.’ 

If a week is a long time in politics, then six months is an eon in the current publishing industry. I think that my earlier conclusion is now starting to appear a little naive... some new gatekeepers are emerging. I mentioned on the comments to another previous post for Author's Electric that I might try advertising on Bookbub, as I had heard good things about it. I continued to hear good things about it, and ran a 99c sale promotion for The Defector with Bookbub at the beginning of May - as I mentioned on the blog at the time. The results on Amazon.com were good, hitting the top #400 on the paid chart. Much more interesting though was the result on B&N.com – a sales channel I’ve never got anywhere near cracking. Bookbub got The Defector into the top #100 overall, and eventually the book topped out at #58 - even briefly outselling '50 Shades...'

How do they do it? Bookbub is a very simple idea, whose commercial beauty comes from its huge scale. If you go to the website you will be given the chance to sign up for a daily email that will provide five or six suggestions for discounted books. It’s possible to tailor the email to specific genres. An author can sign up to be one of the promotional books in this email for any given genre.

So far, so what, I hear you say... There are probably dozens of websites doing this sort of thing. What makes Bookbub special? Two things; firstly, I mentioned the scale: 1 million subscribers. And the second is that they put some real editorial effort into the books that they promote. If they don’t think it’ll sell, they won’t run the advert.

It's spectacularly effective, but Bookbub aren’t the only game in town. The top end of the ‘Free’ Charts on Amazon are usually dominated by whatever books Pixel of Ink and Ereader NewsToday happen to be promoting that day. Both of these websites are also picky about the books they list, and are also effective at pushing a book up the paid list. BookBub is just the first that I’ve seen that has some leverage at B&N. I suspect that this will soon extend - or maybe it already does - to the iBookstore and Kobo.

A handful of websites are now sufficiently powerful that they can push a book into the sales charts. So maybe these are the new gatekeepers? Fortunately, happy readers are still the only thing that will keep it there...