Tuesday, 29 November 2016

More fun with numbers

Everybody loves a sequel, right? Terminator 2, Airplane 2, Dogma 2  (just in case Kevin Smith is out there reading this...). Back in 2015 I wrote a blog post that generated a bit of a debate with fellow writers - but no comments! - and it's time for a follow-up.

Since June 2015 two books has become four / five and I have a bit more experience of the other side of writing - namely, the marketing and promotions that accompanies publication. 

Perhaps it's no surprise that many writers and other creatives embrace the idea of magical thinking. Once you've faced a blank canvas or page and subsequently produced a piece of work that you only half recognise as your own, it's small wonder that you become open to alternative ways to viewing reality. It can manifest as superstitions, such as the lucky notebook or pen. Those with experience of NLP might consider this a form of anchor. I'll declare here that I have a special pen for contracts, but not one for getting them! Anyway, my point here is that I'm not against magical thinking if it serves as a motivation to do something. 

When it comes to reaching readers, which naturally encompasses sales as well, magical thinking can quickly dissipate in the harsh glare of numbers. The idea that 'if you build it they will come' is just that: an idea. The question is, what do you do if they fail to show up?

Most writers are looking for a magical formula that promises certainty and success, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Ah hah, they say, but I have a plan! And it's true, some writers will buck the trend and catch the wave at the perfect moment. After all, some has to win the draw for the lottery. Sean Platt, Johnny B Truant and David Wright have a more pragmatic approach: Write. Publish. Repeat.

I decided to experiment with my back catalogue. First up was Covenant, a magical fantasy that earned a clutch of good reviews but had never found a wider audience. Which is to say, it has never made any money! I found a Book Tweeting service online, which sends out 30 tweets a month from each of four accounts, with a reach of over 195,000 follows on Twitter. I confirmed they had covered fantasy novels before and, naturally, accepted that there were no guarantees. The tweets used quotes from the blurb I provided or key words, along with the all important title and sales link.

I opted for a trial month and then I'd look at the numbers for the following couple of months. Total sales for the month and tweets and the two months that followed? Zero. Nada. Zip. Ouch!

Next up in my back catalogue adventure was the collection of mini ebooks - themed collections of 100 or so gags. They're already priced as low as you can go (apart from free), so I thought I'd try something different. I would offer them for free, use TweetDeck to run my own short Twitter campaign, and pitch them as review copies to get some online feedback. 

The good news: 84 free downloads across the set.
The not so good news, and I have a feeling you're ahead of me here: zero reviews.

Here's what I take away from this:

1. Organic promotions are only effective if you already have - or are part of - an active community. Treat your readers with respect though and never forget that they are giving you their valuable time and some cash too.

2. If you decide to pay for marketing / promotions research thoroughly and invest in quality.
My experiences suggest that you do indeed get what you paid for.

3. Experiment. It's all a game of trial and review and adjustment. 

4. None of the above should interfere with the writing. After all, that's what writers do.

Thanks for your time.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Shadow State - using the force

Even if you don't believe in destiny you probably accept the word of Sir Isaac Newton. His 'three laws', unlike Isaac Asimov's (now that's what I call a literary reference), underpin not only our understanding of physics, but also of daily life and writing.

The First Law states that:
a) An object at rest remains at rest unless a force acts upon it.
b) An object in motion stays that way - same direction and speed - unless a force acts upon it.

Simply put, in fiction something has to happen in order for something to change, whether the outcome is progressive or regressive. You could argue that every twist and turn in a novel is really a Newtonian force zinging into the protagonist from an unanticipated angle.

I'm more of a plotter than a pantser when it comes to putting together a story, but I welcome an unexpected inspiration that careers towards me and knocks a character out of the picture or into it. Shadow State, the fourth book in the Thomas Bladen 'Spy Chaser' series owes a debt to Newton. I thought I had the plot figured out and my characters were moving purposefully towards the checkpoints on my writing roadmap. (I know, it makes writing sounds really romantic, huh?) 

And then...out the corner of my mind's eye, this speck of light, this flicker of 'what if' from the muse slammed into my carefully constructed plot. Okay, carefully might be overstating it a bit. But the result was surprising. A character did something unexpected and I had a choice of whether to run with it and see where it led, or to rein them in and remind them that it was my ball and therefore my rules. I went with Plan A, trusting the character I thought I'd created - we can debate that one on a chair and couch some other time - and ended up somewhere else. It was different to my original vision and I liked it. Writers like to be surprised. It keeps us on our toes and it's a great reminder that we are engaging with a fluid and mimetic imagination. 

You could say that Shadow State is something of an experiment in places. It features many characters from the series and a couple of new ones. It redraws the map in places, as far as loyalties go, and it peels back the layers a little more of the characters we think we know. It plays with some of the conventions and, I hope, it adds something special to the canon.

If you're drawn to British spy thrillers that give a nod to Len Deighton, John le Carre, Raymond Chandler, and Harlan Coben, Shadow State might be just your cup of coffee. Intrigue, action, sardonic humour and swearing - what's not to like?

Thomas Bladen thinks he is in control. He's wrong. When Thomas is confronted by a Shadow State operative, he is given a stark choice - expose a defector or face the consequences. But who is the real enemy? A stake out becomes a rescue, an intervention leads to murder and loyalties are stretched to breaking point. Soon Thomas is forced into a dangerous game, turning the Shadow State against itself. 

"Good spy thriller with a appealing flawed hero in Bladen. Liked the London life evoked!"

Shadow State is published by Joffe Books. Come and meet Thomas Bladen.

UK https://www.amazon.co.uk/Derek-Thompson/e/B0034ORY08

US https://www.amazon.com/Derek-Thompson/e/B0034ORY08

Saturday, 5 November 2016

The Information Game

Even before I became an emerging author (that middle ground between no longer debut and nowhere near established!) I thought it sensible to turn a well-worn adage, 'write about what you know', on its head. Far better, in my opinion, to say: 'know what you're writing about'.

That usually means one of two things:

1.     Direct research.
2.     Indirect research by plundering your own experience, and sometimes other people's.

While the novelist Leigh Russell made a trip to the Seychelles for her novel, Journey to Death, my research tales are of a more bargain basement variety!

For my debut espionage thriller, Standpoint, I wanted to know about Harwich International Port. Unfortunately, I went at it with some gusto and my enthusiastic request to see detailed maps and to know about the locations and practices of Customs staff probably had me pegged as an inept smuggler. Perhaps I should be grateful that I never received a reply, especially one that involved the removal of my front door. I did, however, pick up a useful police contact.

When it came to writing the sequel, Line of Sight, I found useful information on www.arrse.co.uk and www.ukpoliceonline.co.uk for matters relating to mob and job. I also drew upon memories and anecdotes from brief stints working in Belfast, and those of a friend who'd served in the Armed Forces out there.

By book three, Cause & Effect, I must have got better at asking questions. Plus, I now had a little credibility from the previous two novels. In my explorations I inadvertently found out something about baggage scanners that I'm not allowed to reveal, a bank provided information about bankcard fraud - on the condition that I don't name them, and someone from the Ministry of Justice referred me to the excellent http://www.insidetime.org for a question about prison procedures in 2004. Sadly, my query involving aerosol spray paints drew a blank so I fell back on my imagination. It seems there are some things that even the Internet can't tell us.

In almost all of the above cases the information I acquired (or failed to) was largely for my own benefit. Very little of it made the cut and I've yet to have a review that picks me up on my research (not so with the British slang, swearing, sex, violence, etc.). One thing I did learn, which still surprises me, is that I already knew several people with firearms experience.

A sprinkling of facts, at the right time and in the right manner, adds to the realism of a fictional world and encourages that suspension of disbelief we're always hearing about. Readers want characters and books that live on in their head after the final page, and we want them to want to return to the worlds we create.

Next time I might take a gander at international politics and US intelligence policy in post-war Europe.

About me
I have written three Thomas Bladen espionage thrillers, published by Joffe Books in one volume as Spy Chaser and also available separately - Standpoint, Line of Sight, and Cause & Effect. Shadow State, the fourth book in the series, is due out later this year. You can find details of all my books here.

13/11/2016 - Shadow State is now available on Amazon!
Amazon US https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01N3N2BJM

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Stand by Your Plan

A lightbulb moment without the bulb.
Recently, a flurry of LinkedIn messages (thanks, all, by the way) reminded me that this is the anniversary month for daring to stick my head above the parapet and call myself a writer - for pay. 

I did things a little out of sequence, having previously reached two writing milestones:
a) The Little Book of Cynics, which I co-wrote with David French, was published by Crombie Jardine - it's now available here
b) I had a feature published in a national newspaper - here's an online version.

However, to all intents and purposes I became a professional writer after leaving my long-term employer through redundancy. 

Did I have a plan? Not exactly.

I had a wish list, sorta. It went something like this:
1. Write the two novels I never had time for.
2. Get books published.
3. Earn a living as a freelance writer.

LESSON 1: The only things that generally grow well organically are vegetables.

It has been a meandering and sometimes bumpy road, with a few interesting detours. I've written features and blogs, ghostwritten three series of content for different clients, penned a few greetings cards, been a magazine columnist four times and I'm currently awaiting the publication of my fourth thriller. (I can hear the party poppers from here.) 

However, at the risk of mixing my travelling metaphors it has not all been plain sailing. Along the way I've also temped and worked part-time in an office to cover the bills (which has been great for keeping touch with the outer world).

And the plan? Well, it's more defined now and still, I'm pleased to say, a work in progress.

LESSON 2: A plan is not a guarantee of success. Working to a plan is a guarantee of focus though.

Planning is about setting direction, setting boundaries and setting priorities. As a former project manager I'd say it is very much about monitoring and controlling. We may not be able to control the income at the start of a business, but we can control how our time and effort are spent. Mridu Khullar Relph, for example, advocates 30 pitches in 30 days, while other actively encourage a timetable to allocate time meaningfully and to create space. 

From the discussions I've had, some writers fear space - they consider it idle time, or that they're not working hard enough. I don't think writing is like that; not for me anyway. The most successful work I ever did with greetings cards came from half an hour I deliberately set aside just to think about and play with words. While my rational brain screamed that it wasn't real work my irrational, subconscious got on with the business of creating. The result? £500 of material. Reader, that was a very good day. 

LESSON 3: A plan needs to be reviewed regularly.

When I first started out I checked all the usual suspects for freelance writing work. I was the grist of content mills on many an occasion, and even tried to 'build up my following' on free content sites (free for the writers, anyway) in an effort to follow a supposedly surefire revenue model. To be fair, it probably was for the sites' owners (yes, more than once...) who earned advertising revenue from our endeavours. By checking back with the plan and by monitoring progress I could see what was working and what wasn't. Most of it wasn't. When we embrace the space we are more willing to let go of any actions or strategies that are ineffective (that simply fill our time and make us feel like we're doing something useful).

I was both industrious and fortunate - a great combination. I wrote my books, found a publisher who was looking for a thriller series (still working on that one for the standalone novel) and built a solid foundation as a freelancer. Now my plan is all about what happens next. News to follow in due course!

Thanks for stopping by and do get in touch if you need a writer.


Friday, 30 September 2016

Nothing to fear from fear

So there I was, reflecting on the editor's edits (and agreeing with 99% of them), and I felt it again. The creeping dread that maybe this book, fundamentally, doesn't work. That all the research and clever constructs - that word clever is a clue in itself - have been a waste of time. Who the hell wants to learn about the early Middle Ages in a contemporary British spy novel?

I smile at the inner critic, imagining him or her (I have two, each one a shadow of my muses) in front of me, flip them the finger and breathe in that heady vapour of fear. It tastes of stale tobacco and misty rain, with a hint of metallic tang. It's familiar and strangely comforting. Because if it bothers me that much then it must matter. And if it matters then I need to give it my attention.

Fears are informative. (A great title for a children's book, wouldn't you agree?!) True, some are irrational, but there's always a reason lurking at the back of it. Some fear spiders - in which case don't dwell on the image below this post, from our kitchen wall. For others it's snakes or heights or yellow jumpers. 

Me? I have a fear of heights, probably someone once lifted me out over a balcony (either 2nd or 4th floor, unless it gets higher as my memory fades) - and yet I love flying. Go figure.

As a writer I may not be able to defuse a bomb against the clock, or wrestle an elephant, or evade nighttime security staff, but I understand what it is to be scared. To feel the world closing in, mouth dry, hands chilled, and my eyes swallowing the horizon. 

Sometimes an experience translates directly to the page. As an incidental victim of gun crime, long ago, I know what it feels like to have a gun barrel pushing against your spine. 

Perhaps it's time write about what you know was updated to write about what you've felt.

Some fears only seem to lurk in the dark recesses of a writer's mind.
- Readers will think everything I write about is based upon personal experience.
- My friends and family will be appalled by what passes for my imagination.
- I won't have any readers.
- I'll have readers but they'll hate my work.
- I'll have readers, they'll hate my work and they'll leave negative reviews online.
- Even if I achieve some success with a book I'll never be able to equal it or surpass it.
- I'll run out of things to write about.
- It turns out I'm a terrible writer and at some point people will find me out.
- I'll never be appreciated in my own lifetime.

Here's the thing. All of the above fears may, in fact, be fear of the actual. I chose the list, in no particular order, because each and every one of them has crossed my mind at some point and taken up temporary residence. There are two metaphorical silver bullets for these fears. The first is avoidance; the second is understanding. And when it comes to fears about writing, the only lasting solution is to write yourself out of it, through it and beyond it.

Don't have nightmares!

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Am I selling books or cornflakes? - Lynn Michell

I first heard about Lynn Michell and Linen Press when artist, writer and friend Susie Nott-Bower's debut novel, The Making of Her, was published in 2012. Lynn and I recently found ourselves part of the same virtual conversation and, happily, she accepted my offer to write a personal post about the world of publishing from an independent perspective. I think this thoughtful piece adds to the great publishing debate and I invite you to both add your opinion in a comment and to check out the Linen Press, whether you're a writer or a reader. 

Am I selling books or cornflakes? Lynn Michell

As the director of Linen Press I’ve seen the book trade change over the last ten years from an open space for experienced, emergent and experimental writers to a closed shop in which only the famous, the celebs, the major award winners and writers with a golden gift for self-marketing can be confident of ending up on the shelves of Waterstones, W H Smith and Tesco.

The language of publishing reflects those changes. I’m hearing online presence, marketing, niche, social media platforms and branding. Reporting from a recent writers’ conference in Brighton, Sally-Shakti Willow of the Contemporary Small Press writes: ‘branding’ was definitely the buzzword of the day with every speaker stressing ‘the importance of marketing yourself like a packet of cornflakes.’ Writers were told ‘your novel is a piece of fruit’ so make sure publishers know to place you with bananas or kiwis.’ Sally concluded: ’what I saw through that shop-window was not bananas or kumquats or cornflakes but something rotten, and potentially toxic.’ (https://thecontemporarysmallpress.com/2016/03/15/small-presses-worth-much-more-than-money/).

So authors need to market themselves like cornflakes. They must build websites, set up Twitter accounts, give talks in libraries to three people sheltering from the rain, and push a copy of their book into the few remaining indie book shops. I hate to force this on Linen Press authors, not because for many it goes against the grain to chase the limelight but because I’m not convinced that their efforts will bring them recognition or sales. All the evidence from six years of Linen Press’s strong social media presence suggests that there is no correlation between activity on our social media sites and sales. Here’s the reality check. UK publishers released 184,000 titles in 2013. Jonny Geller at Curtis Brown described the figure as “either a sign of cultural vitality or publishing suicide. Of course, it is utter madness to publish so many books when the average person reads between one and five books a year.’ Jamie Byng at Canongate agreed: ‘I think we publish too many books, Canongate included, and I think this impacts negatively on how well we publish books as an industry. It is very easy to acquire a book. Much harder to publish it successfully. (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/22/uk-publishes-more-books-per-capita-million-report). So it’s from inside this avalanche of yearly publications that an author must carve out a niche for herself. How many niches remain?

And published authors have to shout over the sales pitches from the self-published book mountain. It’s hard to find recent, accurate figures but between 2014 and 2015 self-published titles rose from 16% to 22% of the digital market. http://www.thebookseller.com/news/self-published-titles-22-e-book-market-325152 

In 2009, 76% of all books released were self-published although the average financial return was only £500. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-publishing). As Derek Thompson says in an email to me: ‘Much as self-publishing has democratised the route to seeing work in print, it has opened the flood gates without a quality filter.’

It may be that the sheer volume of published and self-published books sends readers to the security of the Top Ten in Waterstones and the other chains. They can sit on public transport reading the same novel as the person next to them. Call it Girl on a Train syndrome.

My authors ask why their books aren’t in Waterstones. The Big Five can throw £100,000 of marketing budget at a few chosen titles leaving the rest to fall by the wayside. Waterstones takes a minimum of 60% of the RRP which makes it prohibitive for small presses who work with costly small runs. We’d be paying Waterstones to sell our books.

As a small indie publisher, it’s a growing challenge to sell the books on our list. Ten years ago Childhood’s Hill by Marjorie Wilson, Linen Press’s first publication, was accepted by Blackwells in Edinburgh and sold so well that for one week it beat Ian Rankin in their Top Ten. Later books also managed a toe in the door because managers, not central sales offices, still decided whether or not to take a risk on a book. 

Jump to 2016. Sometimes A River Song, one of the best books on our list, received a dozen rave reviews and its Costa prize-winning author, Avril Joy, attended three book fairs shortly after the launch, yet still we struggle to sell copies and Waterstones won’t look at it. I sense a further seismic shift towards a limited diet of mainstream-published crowd pleasers.

The three routes to publishing have split and gone their separate ways. Think cornflakes, brand yourself, find a vacant niche and you may hook a mainstream publisher. Go down the self-publishing route if you know how to stand head and shoulders above the self-marketing crowd. Or go with an indie press which occupies the space between the other two. This year three out of six books on the Booker short list come from indies, one a tiny Scottish press. Success is possible. And, as Sally-Shakti Willow says, even without the rainbow end of best seller status, small presses are ‘committed to freedom of expression, artistic risk, literary innovation, and championing new and exciting writers.’

Excuse this final bit of branding. Linen Press, the only indie women’s press in the UK, does read unsolicited manuscripts and we are looking for beautifully written books. Send us your manuscript. www.linen-press.com

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Only writers know it feels...

Only writers know how it feels...

- To submit a piece to a magazine, have it summarily rejected and then find that said magazine has added you to its email list. And then proceeds to email you every week about its other content.

- To get feedback from an editor, pointing out all the plot holes and errors in your book. And rather than feel peed off with them you're actually grateful they showed such diligence and peed off with yourself for not doing a better job in the first place.

- To get to the end of a manuscript and then realise you've left some really important loose ends untied.

- To toil for years over an idea that won't go away, only to find - somewhere near your book's completion - that someone else has just been published with a similar idea.

- To spend a day or more in mental torture over the fate of an imaginary person that you made up, when either you can't understand how they get out of the situation or they don't like what you've written for them.

- To have only two pages remaining in a notebook. Too few to write a lengthy piece and too many to discard in favour of another notebook.

- To move through the world like a thief, collecting memories and stories from those who may appreciate their true value.

Shadow State, the fourth Thomas Bladen novel in the Spy Chaser series, is available later this year through Joffe Books. You might find something here to read while you're waiting.

UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Derek-Thompson/e/B0034ORY08

US: https://www.amazon.com/Derek-Thompson/e/B0034ORY08

Saturday, 13 August 2016

bird by bird - Anne Lamott

Many writers know the tyranny of the blank page - and not just at the start of a piece of writing. It's a strange and magical trick to conjure up something seemingly from nothing, and then believe (that's one of the most important parts) in its reality so much that you stick with it and eventually it will become real to other people too. Small wonder then that writers are always on the hunt for inspiration, both in terms of ideas for writing and ideas about writing. 

Every writer worth their salt knows of Stephen King's book On Writing, but recently a poet, Penny Shutt, introduced me to Anne Lamott's bird by bird: Instructions on Writing and Life. 

You can - and will! - find oodles of reviews on life. I'll sum up what I feel are Anne's key messages in a few bite-sized pieces:
1. Write what's true for you. Bleed it on the page if necessary.
2. Writing is not a cerebral process, not entirely. It involves sweat, angst, effort and those master tricksters, joy and sorrow.
3. Writing won't give you whatever you feel life has denied you. Its purpose is to give you a means of discovering what's true for you, finding it within and out there in what passes for 'the real world' and then making magic with it on the page. 

What seduced me about this book was the very material that some critics loathed.* All that 'life' and 'God' and 'emotional' stuff that are universal themes and also intimately personal ones for the author. If you don't like her truth? Tough. That's the point. We can only write our own words our way and then see where they take us. Anne Lamott is both an author and a teacher / lecturer, and both come through the text. She may have earned the right to tell it her way, but that right is bestowed by all of us upon ourselves.

She writes about death and loss and elation and jealousy and all that good stuff that makes us truly human. (Show me a giraffe who's jealous of another one and I'll concede the point.)

It's a book about the process of stringing together words and not only what brings you to the writing desk in the first place, but also how what happens next can affect you.

Here's a link for bird by bird.

* When we start out as writers it can be tempting to look ahead to the validation of publication bidding war, or all those approaches from the film industry. However, writing isn't a substitute for life and nor is it a passport to a different self. That may happen, over time, if we work at our craft, and even then my personal opinion is that our potential is capped by a number of things (life experience, character, time, education, opportunity, connections - yes, for most of us that is a major factor, etc.) that are less malleable to our will than we are comfortable with. But...writing and reading will give depth to ours lives and deepen our understanding of the world around us and the people who inhabit it. When every stranger is a possible character or inspiration, if we're paying attention, how could it be otherwise.

If you are a writer who's stuck, who maybe feels robbed of their dues, or who wonders what the heck they'll do if their latest book gets no further than a hard drive, bird by bird may be the book to seduce you with writing all over again.

Monday, 1 August 2016

Daylight - finishing a new novel

Light at the end of a celestial tunnel.
I know; why a 'new' novel and not simply a novel? Well...it's different. Not better or worse, just a changed experience - like my parents must have felt with a second child. You feel you know the ropes a bit more and you swear that you won't make the same mistakes again. No, you'll make different ones.

This time around I've just completed Shadow State, the fourth novel in the Spy Chaser series. Author Susie Nott-Bower said to me recently, "You must be very fond of Thomas and Karl by now." It's true, and that brings its own challenges. 

Shadow State answers some thorny questions about Karl McNeill's past and Thomas Bladen's choices, and plays with that old chestnut: the same but different. While I'd like to think my thrillers can be read individually there are certain threads that run through them and I started the series with the clear intent that the actions of one novel could have consequences in the next. In the previous three books I've referred to the Shadow State and its goals; this time we get to see some of its inner workings and how it recruits. I have also played with some of the staples from previous books (no, not those kinds, silly). Expect the odd role reversal and false start. Some things remain - the humour, the espionage and the swearing. If you enjoyed Standpoint, Line of Sight or Cause & Effect - and preferably all three - I venture to suggest you'll appreciate Shadow State.  

As I type this Warren is wearing a beta reader hat and Sarah is waiting to find out what happens to the character she named: Theo Pritchard (she can explain that herself). 

Things I plan to do in this window of opportunity between beta feedback, teeth-gnashing edits and submission to Joffe Books:

1. Submit my standalone novel, Scars & Stripes to three agents and three publishers.

2. Reformat the PDF version of superhero club.

3. Look at podcasting.

4. Plan my next newsletter.

5. Smell the roses.