ISP TalkTalk travels backwards in time

I had hoped to bring you a Skype interview with author Nathan Van Coops this weekend, author of new time-travel adventure The Chronothon. Less than a month after launch and he’s garnered fourteen five-star reviews. We had penciled in an interview for yesterday, but a test of my internet proved that it simply wasn’t going to work.

Here’s the rant. I pay for 34Mbps fibre broadband, and I’ve been stuck at 1.88Mbps download and 0.7Mbps upload for the last month. I’ve been given the runaround by call-centres and read scripts which are so far from reality that they’re comical. Eventually an engineer came around and confirmed that the problem isn’t in my home. Another call to my uncooperative and unforthcoming ISP some days later and I was given the story that “Fibre upgrade work is being carried out in your area and should be finished by the end of February”. Oh, really? How come they didn’t know this a month ago? Why isn’t it listed as a known issue on their website, like all the others? Why hadn’t the engineer been told? Surely his visit cost real money? And here we are at the end of February with the same low speed.

I know what you’re thinking: that was a decent speed a decade ago. Yes, but websites didn’t do as much back then. And I forgot to tell you that it took an entire hour just to get into Hotmail yesterday. I wasn’t going to name my ISP, but as February draws its last breath and they’ve not even bothered to update me, I’ll tell you: TalkTalk. This is real time-travel: right back to the days of truly dreadful customer service. If this is the future, I think we’ve seen it before.

Apologies for the rant, but with the launch of Doctor How and the Deadly Anemones in a week’s time you can understand my frustration.

Doctor How – book two publication date announced!

Doctor How and the Deadly Anemones

Doctor How and the Deadly Anemones

I’ve finally got a launch date for Doctor How and the Deadly Anemones. It will be launched on March 9th on Amazon. It’s now available for pre-order.

I finished the first draft back in September but found it really difficult to think of a title. I delayed the launch further for a couple of reasons, which centred around the launch of The Chronothon, which is the brilliant second novel by my friend Nathan Van Coops. First off, I didn’t want to clash with his launch. Second, I wanted to get doctorhow.tv right for a free promotion of Doctor How and the Illegal Aliens, which is happening on January 31st to February 2nd.

Nathan’s novel launches Monday 2nd February, and he’s holding a Facebook event. Register here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1554500964790630/ There will be loads of famous authors dropping by and giving away free copies of their novels – so be sure to attend!

Meantime, if you want a free copy of the short story Doctor How and the Rings of Uranus, head over to http://doctorhow.tv/free and sign up for my email list.

My year in writing and publishing

2014 was a very active year, and one in which I made some interesting discoveries about marketing and publishing as I launched my Doctor How series.

Doctor How Series

I’d launched Doctor How and the Kennedy Assassination Conspiracy on 28th December 2013 after taking the advice of a Kindle marketing ‘guru’. His idea was to publish two short stories and give them away for free in the two months leading up to the launch of a novel. I knew nothing about Kindle marketing at the start of the year, and I have to say that the strategy didn’t work at all – at least not the way I did it. However, it was great to get such positive feedback from readers. (Kennedy Assassination Conspiracy has been unpublished because it forms a key part of book two: Doctor How and the Deadly Anemones.)

The short story Doctor How and the Rings of Uranus followed on 24th January. Great title, and some more wonderful feedback. As previously, I really had no idea about Kindle giveaways, so it didn’t succeed in its objective of priming the market for the launch of…

Doctor How and the Illegal Aliens, which was published on March 9th. It’s the first full novel in the Doctor How series. I spent $400 on a top-of-the-range book tour. Unfortunately, Romance books are what sell. Despite my genres being comedy and sci-fi, I ended up in the miasma of author blogs that have become dumping grounds for Romance launches. Since I’d also invested in a Rafflecopter giveaway, it was mostly the same people entering every day – and they were well outside my target market. Book tours take a lot of time to organise – I’d written ten thoughtful articles that were, IMHO, just wasted. I did get one review out of it, but the thing was a waste of time and money. Would I do a blog tour again? Yes, but only of well-targeted sites.

Nevertheless, I’m fairly happy with how things stand for Doctor How and the Illegal Aliens. At the time of writing it has 19 reviews on Amazon.com, the worst of which actually praises the dialogue.

On May 23rd I republished Apocalypse Later on CreateSpace and Kindle. It was originally published in August 2012 as a traditionally printed book. Boy, was that a mistake! The problem was that I’d just not understood the economics and capabilities of modern publishing. I should have gone with CreateSpace, and I’d believed a random comment from someone that ebooks couldn’t handle footnotes (of which Apocalypse Later has an abundance). If I’d followed the CreateSpace and Kindle route back in 2012 I’d have had a hit back then – I didn’t achieve retail distribution, and Amazon couldn’t keep up with orders. Apocalypse Later will get some attention in 2015 because a lot of people who’ve read it believe it has a lot to give the world.

In the meantime, I cracked on with writing Doctor How and the Deadly Anemones, which is the second book in the Doctor How series, and will be published in March of 2015. I finished it back in September, but this time I’m taking the time to things a little differently. For example, a couple of months ago I ran a giveaway for Illegal Aliens, and did it properly. Rather than hundreds of downloads, I got thousands. On the back of it, I’ve received some great reviews, too. And what I’ve learned is that it’s reviews that really count. Personally, it brings me a lot of joy to know that I’ve entertained a stranger. As a performer the feedback was personal but gone in an instant, but with writing it’s a longer-last satisfaction. Plus, when a show’s done, generally speaking the feedback is done too. Novel reviews come randomly and will continue to light up my days for years.

PR

Peter Capaldi Doctor Who and Doctor How

Doctor Who meets Doctor How – Peter Capaldi at BFI premiere

My biggest PR hit of the year was when I photo-bombed the London premiere of series 8 of Doctor Who. If you want something doing, do it yourself: I managed to get a nice spot in City A.M. The new Doctor, Peter Capaldi, is lovely guy and even signed a copy of Illegal Aliens for me!

 

 

Social Media

I spent a lot of time learning Twitter, and it delivered nothing except connections with other authors, rather than readers. What serious reader spends time on Twitter?

Facebook was supposedly a great place to build a presence, and I spent valuable time and money. I built a good following of over 330 fans, but I have to say that advertising on Facebook isn’t the way to go. It’s nice to connect with fans there, rather than as a means of reaching new readers.

New author friends

It’s been a great pleasure to work with a couple of other authors. I helped the lovely and talented London-based Safeena Chaudhry with a bit of editing after meeting her at a London Writers Café seminar. Her novel Companions of Clay was one of my top reads of the year. I’d love to help her market it more effectively in 2015 because I think it’s a wonderful novel with a lot to say. Here’s my Goodreads review.

Nathan Van Coops is a hugely gifted and original story-teller, writing in the time-travel genre. I came across his debut novel In Times Like These in a Goodreads reading group. My Goodreads review is here. I was very flattered to be asked to beta-read the sequel, The Chronothon. Wow! It’s a brilliant novel, and I’ve reviewed it on Goodreads here. Pre-order now because it’s launching on February 2nd. Some sharp-eyed Hollywood scout needs to pick up the movie options for these two novels!

Goodreads

And let’s not forget Goodreads itself. I finished the year with reviews of over 370 books on my profile, some of which I had to add manually, and a few where I was the first to review them. I hope I’ve added value to readers by doing that, and also participating in group discussions. Illegal Aliens and Apocalypse Later both had successful giveaways on the platform.

Lessons learned

In all, a varied and successful year. I’ve learnt a lot of valuable lessons about what works and what doesn’t – which means I can move into 2015 with much more focus. My advice to other authors would be to forget the Kindle marketing gurus – their main objective is to sell you yet more advice. Just connect with your readers in the way that you’d like your favourite author to connect with you.

Star Wars 7 – is Disney the dark side, or a force to be reckoned with?

This week we had a first look at the trailer for Star Wars 7, which received over ten million views in a matter of hours. Due for release in December 2015, is it going to be worth waiting for?

A lot of fans were not best pleased when Disney bought the rights to the Star Wars franchise back in October 2012. I have to admit that I rolled my eyes because I’m one of the original cohort who saw it 1977. The original trilogy was my generation’s Harry Potter, so when the next trilogy came along with its prequel plot it was already an affront to my teenage self. Jar Jar Binks ruined all three, but the stories were thinly stretched in places as it was. The storyline had to follow a known narrative or the original trilogy wouldn’t have made sense, but even then there was some very dead wood. Special effects can do a lot for a movie, but you can put all the makeup in the world on a pig and….

Meantime, George Lucas has been happy to lease venerated characters like Yoda to mobile phone companies for some advertising dollars. The guy’s getting old (I mean Lucas, not Yoda), so he’s presumably looking to pad out that pension fund.

To me, Disney – or rather the prospect of Disneyfication – was the final nail in the coffin on the Star Wars franchise. We could surely expect more in the way of sickening child-friendly characters like Jar Jar Binks. There was no way on Earth I was going to pay good money to see yet another insult to the boy within.

I’ve changed my mind. I think Disney is with the light side of the force. Why my change of mind?

The original Star Wars was an old-fashioned tale of good against evil, of a damsel being rescued by the rebellious underdogs, and trusting in one’s inner self rather than technology. It was pure mythology. Indeed, I remember the critics panning it at the time for that very reason – “errant knight in space” was the critique.

If there’s one studio in the world that’s an expert in mythology, it’s Disney. Their movies follow classic mythical narratives, and they’re amazingly expert at giving them universal appeal – and I do mean universal: they play equally as well to audiences in Europe as they do in the Middle East or Asia. Few studios produce movies with such consistent cross-cultural appeal.

Having seen the trailer I can see that R2-D2’s beach ball replacement looks a little too cute. But then the original little guy was cute in his time. And I’ll excuse the beach ball, because in my warped sci-fi mind he looks a little like the hilariously troublesome alien pet in Dark Star.

It may be too early to say, but I think Disney is the knight in shining armour we have been waiting for. A new hope

Why the Force is with Doctor Who

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? The force stops, and the object moves.

Despite its enviable literary pedigree (HG Wells, Jules Verne), Sci-fi was always a poor cousin of other genres of literature. I won’t go into the reasons here, but probably it was because there was (and still is) a tremendous amount of terrible sci-fi, just as there always seems to be a glut of bodice-rippers and undead (be they zombie or vampire) novels.

Television had some sci-fi successes – think The Twilight Zone (1959-64) and Outer Limits (’63-’65) – but until 1977 the schedules were dominated by cowboy dramas, such as The Virginian and Alias Smith and Jones. A promising show called The Oregon Trail had debuted in 1976, but was canned after the second series aired in 1977. Why?

The alien menace

Star Wars. It changed the territory. As a 12-year-old sci-fi fan I remember reading with glee that within a matter of a couple of years the TV schedules would change from cowboy dramas to sci-fi. To my dismay, the quality was generally low: this was mostly junk TV produced in a knee-jerk reaction to demands from schedulers – writers, producers and commissioners were wide of the mark because they applied their cookie-cutter methods to a genre they didn’t understand. It was like watching one of those specialist Chinese artists reproducing the same van Gough or a Rembrandt on a daily basis – looks like great art, but in no way groundbreaking or original, and certainly never destined to be loved as a priceless classic.

There were two notable exceptions. One was Star Trek and the other was Doctor Who. The Doctor made his first appearance on November 23rd 1963 in the UK (beating Star Trek by three years). And he stayed until 1989, when he was axed by the BBC. He did make a couple of special returns, but it wasn’t until 2005 that he came back for good, under writer-producer Steven Moffat. In his previous run he was appreciated in the US by Whovians, who tended to be older sci-fi fans, but he remained largely unknown. For his latest incarnation, the BBC did a 12-day worldwide tour across four continents, such is his popularity. His old fanbase hasn’t been alienated, and yet there is some hostility towards Moffat amongst fans. Why is that?

Timeless classic or cash cow?

Let’s compare and contrast with Star Wars. Not really an original plot when you pare it back – beautiful princess in trouble, good versus evil, etc. – but the special effects broke new ground. The next two episodes took us in an enjoyable narrative arc towards a satisfying resolution. When George Lucas came back to milk the sacred (cash) cow for the last (or first, depending on your point of view) three episodes, there was a lot of disquiet. He did alienate fans, despite the improvements in special effects. There are any number of reasons, but very poor scripts had to be a big part of it (as well as pandering to ‘the kids’ with the dreadful Jar-Jar Binks).

By contrast, Doctor Who has expanded the franchise – old and new fans love him more than ever. So why the anti-Moffat sentiment?

Moffat’s a contemporary scriptwriter. He cut his teeth on BAFTA-winning Press Gang, then moved into comedy, with the excellent Coupling deserving a mention. He’s a writer who writes in the modern style – difficult relationship issues, larger story arcs; things that are a little bit soapy in nature. Pretty much all TV drama has moved this way in the last few decades – even police and crime dramas. Where you once had a fairly cardboard detective like Dixon of Dock Green or Columbo, who is a foil for the plot, you have more complex characters such as Inspector Morse. Our tastes have matured, and our expectations are higher. So it is that Moffat has brought contemporary writing to what was a solid sci-fi plot. Clara, struggles with the jealousy of her boyfriend over her relationship with the Doctor. The Doctor himself is now given to existential angst.

Just add soap

My guess is that it’s this saponification that has the older fans a little riled, because the focus isn’t just on sci-fi – it’s on human relationships. But there’s the interesting thing: whilst Star Wars alienated some of the older fans, Whovians still love the Doctor. My guess would be because the hero has remained constant: a lone eccentric in a universe of change.

(At this point I should also credit Star Trek for having come quite close to breaking the mould earlier. Plato’s Stepchildren [1968 – season 3, episode 10] saw the first white and black interracial kiss on US television, which was between Kirk and Uhura. This was only episodic soap: no further relationship development took place that I’m aware of.)

So the changes that took place in drama in the last 3-4 decades were twofold. Sci-fi went mainstream, and Star Wars became just another franchise which left its original audience behind – they’d grown into Terminator fans, for example, as the genre had morphed and divided into sub-genres. Meantime, scriptwriting had moved on – stories weren’t just about the plot, but the characters drove it too. The unstoppable force of sci-fi met the immovable object of human drama. The force stopped, and the object moved – sci-fi became a mainstream genre as it loaded up with credible characters.

The Doctor Who influenced my life, and saved a nation

This article was part-published in The Sun on August 23rd 2014

I remember hiding behind the sofa as a two-year-old in Glasgow in 1967. This kind of Dalek-dodging as toddlers is a shared childhood experience that binds the British together, and it’s funny to think that Peter Capaldi and Steven Moffat were just a few miles away. Two years later I watched Neil Armstrong step onto the moon. Little wonder I ended up a sci-fi geek.

Other kids had footballing heroes, and I’m sure the signature tune of Match of the Day or Grandstand touched a nerve in them the way the Doctor Who theme did. But the Doctor has never lost a fight since 1963, and never disgraced the nation on the world stage.

The Americans have their superheroes, but you can keep Superman and Batman because they both lead double-lives. Doctor Who is an in-your-face sci-fi geek who never hides behind another persona because he’s a great British eccentric, and proud. It’s a hugely empowering message for any teenager: accept me as I am, with all my weirdness.

I read so much sci-fi at school I got the nickname Asimov, and at 15 I taught myself Astronomy O-Level. It was easy to mock the geek, but I had the last laugh because I was the comic genius who could mention the rings of Uranus in class without getting detention.

A generation of us fell a little out of love when Tom Baker passed the mantle to Peter Davison but, like all childhood passions, you never completely lose interest. Part of me died when the BBC pulled the plug in ’89.

In 1993 the whole country was in fever-pitch for the two-part Doctor Who EastEnders crossover in 3D. I was living with my Greek girlfriend, and when she didn’t get it I knew she’d never understand me, or this country. Her next boyfriend was a German. Possibly football was more her thing, but it lasted just months.

As I hit 40, the Doctor was back, and he meant business: a bigger budget, and ratings-busting Christmas specials. Now that I’m approaching 50, at long last it’s cool to be a geek and I’ve returned to writing sci-fi. I’ve just finished the second novel in the Doctor How series. It was great fun to photobomb Peter Capaldi on 7th August as he enter the British Film Institute for the London premiere of the new series. He even signed a copy of Doctor How and the Illegal Aliens.

Peter Capaldi Doctor Who and Doctor How

Doctor Who meets Doctor How – Peter Capaldi at BFI premiere

Scotland voted against Independence on September 18th 2014. It’s worth noting that Peter Capaldi is the second Scottish Doctor since 2005. The Santaran-like Alex Salmond remained strangely silent on that fact, and that Doctor Who is written and produced by a Scotsman. I think Doctor Who saved the United Kingdom. He’s our greatest British export: a world-class eccentric with a quick wit and an ingenious way to beat the bad guys.

Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2014

4Time for my annual report on the Edinburgh Fringe – the world’s largest arts festival. Read last year’s report here.

This is my second year attending as audience-only. I’m now concentrating hard on my novels, and am in the closing chapters of the sequel to Doctor How and the Illegal Aliens. I really do miss being up in front of a crowd. Getting wonderful fan-mail via Goodreads is some compensation, but doesn’t have quite the adrenalin rush.

By a bizarre quirk of circumstance, first up this year for me again was Gary Colman at Whistlebinkies, who was in the same slot as last year. As with last year, few in the audience had heard of him before. It was almost all new material, but the same old Gary. He’s been at it at least a decade now, and is one of the hardest-working comics on the circuit. He now boasts some endorsements from the likes of Frank Skinner on his publicity material As Woody Allen said: “80% of success is turning up”. Gary turns up a lot: QED – the answer to his lack of success isn’t in the turning up. The missing 20% must be Gary and his material. I’ve thought about this a lot over the last few days, and discussed my thoughts with other people. Is it his material (partly), his audience interaction (partly), or Gary himself (partly)?

He does make a connection with the audience, but never asks for names. It’s always “You, Sir,” or “Yes, Madam”. You could argue that his life in the Army, or his Civvy Street job as a GP might have a bearing on this, but I doubt it. It’s a distancing thing. There’s no warmth. It’s an act. I mean, obviously it’s an act. But it is so obviously an act – it looks very contrived. Others succeed in contriving to be spontaneous, but Gary doesn’t. There’s no bonding. Although much of his material relates to his family, he’s not letting you in. I’ve met Gary. I nearly worked with Gary. I like Gary. But his public persona is so obviously forced. He did promise us three gags in the show, and I think that’s all there were. I do recall giving him a two-liner to use to open a new venue once. He ballsed it up by reordering it so that the words lost their humour: he’d ironed it out Maybe that’s it: maybe Gary’s trying to force something that’s just not there.

I was joined by my longest-suffering friend the next day. I’d chosen Pippa Evans for our first show, but it was her day off. An earnest young man with an American accent promised us improvised comedy based on a movie pitch with the audience as producers, if we came back in a few minutes. We promised we would. “Run!” hissed my friend as soon as we cleared the door.

So we ended up at Luke Graves’s show (Hastings Comedian of the Year 2013, no less). He’s around thirty years old, had warmth and wasn’t afraid to be a little spontaneous. A smaller and more intimate venue than Gary’s, so probably easier. He asked the audience questions and genuinely engaged with members, coming back to them periodically. A reasonably amusing set, but it was a ‘work in progress’ and only lasted half an hour. I’d much rather a comic were honest about it and didn’t try and stretch the same thing out to an hour. Better than the dreadful bearded young award-winning bore I saw last year – who did just that with similar material (minus any humour).

Next up was with The Story of Medieval England from 1066 to 1485 at Roughly Nine Years and Two Jokes per Minute Incorporating the Hundred Years War as a Football Match and of course Scottish Independence Performed by Paul B. Edwards.

Edwards was dressed in a Norman helmet and mock-chainmail, using a ring-binder with notes to take us through this history at speed from a pulpit. There’s a bit of this stuff about, and you know you’ll at least learn something even if it’s not funny. Edwards is funny, and so is his material. He’s learnt to play with the audience and get them onside. He’s clearly also relaxed doing it, which relaxes the audience. The show lived up to its promise, and we were definitely entertained. And educated.

Finally we went to see the marvellous Jacky Wood with Five Characters in Search of a Guitar. Disclaimer: I used to improvise a bit with Jacky. She’s a very accomplished actor and comedienne, but this was the first time I’d seen her perform music (guitar and ukulele). Both of us were delighted by her performance. Here’s a professionally trained actor who can deliver the goods, every time. The characters and their songs were well-thought-out and funny on a number of levels. She kept the audience occupied with pre-recorded material whilst she did quick changes (which can’t have been easy, given that she’s pregnant). This wasn’t an act that had been cobbled together from a few random thoughts by someone forcing their funny. Full marks.

Day three saw me venturing out to see the Maydays with Jacky. They were doing an improvised show based on Nineties sci-fi series Quantum Leap. Each day they would have a guest improviser. The guest that day had no show to plug. Was it a coincidence that the show didn’t quite work? Maybe, but I think the problem might have been with the ‘offer’ in a second strand of the story which didn’t involve the guest. Just sayin‘. The format was good, and I’m guessing I saw a bomb that didn’t detonate as planned. That’s improvisation. Jen Rowe was good as Al, and you could argue that she doesn’t have to work quite as hard as the others, since her character is static. Liz Peters stood out, giving her smouldering vixen act.

Do I review BBC Writersroom? As you’d expect from Auntie Beeb it was well-organised. A good, honest Q&A with two top-flight script experts. There’s no shortage of aspiring writers out there, but the questions showed that expectations and preconceptions are often very out of kilter. The experts were patient, understanding and eager to help. The BBC is one of the greatest institutions this country has, and it tries very hard to fulfil its public-service remit.

I took a random dip next and ended up watching Andrew O’Neill’s Mindspiders at Whistlebinkies. Younger than Gary Colman (remember him?), and has been featured on TV. And he is a TV, in fact – complete with tights and makeup, long hair, covered in tattoos and referring constantly to his wife, and occasionally his veganism (as a result of which he’s never had a Kit Kat Chunky – so he must be fairly strict).

O’Neill is definitely a discovery for me. He takes Harry Hill-style tangential asides but pushes them a bit further up the absurdity curve. In case you hadn’t guessed from his physical description, he’s very in-your-face, but not in a rude or abrasive way. Some genuinely good laughs. He got to know a couple of people by name, and had a bit of banter and then progressed to full audience participation for the finale. He was relaxed and in control when he spilled a pint of beer (presumably vegan beer – or does alcohol make things with animal ingredients okay? I have no idea.) over hand-written notes he was due to read out – very professional and competent. His material was bright, imaginative, original and funny – and his confidence made all the difference in its delivery. Great stuff, and I look forward to seeing more of him.

Last gig of the day was Jim Eoin in Edinburgh’s most comfortable venue (150), which is a conference centre. Not really a Fringe show, and not really a Fringe audience either. (It was the first time I’d smelled alcohol fumes from the audience, and I don’t think it was because it wasn’t taking place in licenced premises. Most licenced premises in Edinburgh reek of piss and disinfectant.) Gary (yep – still trying to fix him. It’s because I care.) could learn a lot from Jim. He’s a seasoned comic who does a lot of fairly physical stuff – pulling faces and acting silently. Again, his confidence shines through. His humour is of the very relaxed kind, and the audience is invited to see the world through his eyes – to join his cosy little club. There wasn’t an endless stream of gags, but the laughs were good. He gave me my only truly explosive belly-laugh of the entire Fringe, for which I’m grateful. It was pretty good, but didn’t quite live up to the expectations I’d built up from TV.

My last show of the whole Fringe was Wil Hodgson: You Will be Taken from This Place. What an extraordinarily captivating performance this was. Wil Hodgson and a microphone. No notes. He just told us a history of hanging in the United Kingdom from conception to abolition. He told us about the lives of the hangmen and the development of the art (if you can call it that) of hanging. One huge comic-relief laugh. This is a man who knows how to hold an audience and tell a story. Absolutely brilliant. If there was one show that made me want to get back up and perform again next year, this was it.

What flower is your novel like? (Mine’s a Venus flytrap)

Venus fly trap

My Venus fly trap

At a writing workshop recently I was asked what my novel would be if it were a flower.

The answer was a Venus fly-trap. I mean, obviously. In part, that’s because the one I own was flowering at the time (see pic).

What I think is so funny about my Venus flytrap is that there it is busy making a living by (and let’s be honest here) murdering insects… and yet it’s a flowering plant and therefore completely dependent on them for pollination and procreation!

So what it does is really clever – it puts it flowers a clear twelve inches above the ground, which is about 10-11 inches above its deadly leaves in the hope that it won’t kill and eat the insects it needs in order to survive as a species.

And then I got to thinking that my latest novel really is like a Venus flytrap:

  • it’s fascinating and quirky
  • there’s stuff going on at a number of different levels to keep you guessing
  • it has fast and deadly action
  • there are beautiful bits (places, characters, emotions)
  • there are scary insects involved
  • …and you really want one so that you look cool!

It’s getting a lot of five-star reviews right, now: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0957320450

Do your research, but spare us the detail

Research is critical – there’s always going to be an expert out there who trips you up as a writer if you don’t get it right. I once modelled for a photo-shoot where I starred as Mozart. The sub-editor overseeing it (an art historian) explained that even the inkwell I used had to be of the precise era, or they’d get complaints from pedantic readers. Luckily he knew someone at Sotheby’s and was able to procure one. But I digress.

When writing about a specific period in time you have to be able to write like an authority in order to be able to convince the reader and keep the disbelief suspended. (If you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi, you still have to ‘research’ or imagine the entire universe the story is set in – same thing.) I’ve just read a couple of time-travel novels and would like to talk a little about their period research – where it went right and wrong.

Time and Again, Jack Finney

Time and Again by Jack Finney, was published in 1970. Finney is probably most famous for his novel The Bodysnatchers, which was filmed as Invasion of the Bodysnatchers – though Time and Again is described as his greatest success. The protagonist, living in New York in 1970, takes part in a government time-travel experiment and has an adventure in the NYC of 1882. The novel was hailed as an instant classic. However, all of us in the Goodreads group I read it with found the descriptions excessively long. None of us could wait to finish the novel and just get it over with.

The author had clearly invested a huge amount of time (pun not intended) in research. He’d picked a specific period of time (stop it) and tied real period events into it, including a fire in a building that actually happened (contemporary newspaper clippings are included in the novel). The problem seems to have been that, having invested all that time in research, the author felt he had to use it and spew it out over the page.

You could argue that the protagonist – the story’s narrator – is being paid to be a professional observer by the government, and that this is therefore within his character’s behaviour. You could argue that, but if you read the novel you’ll find that it’s just badly overwritten. An editor should have chopped this. The length of the descriptions could have been cut quite comfortably after the character’s trait had been established. I suspect author and editor were aiming for an artistic legacy work.

Touched by an Angel, Jonathan Morris

Compare and contrast with Touched by an Angel by Jonathan Morris. This is what you’d probably call a ‘pulp fiction’ novel, written about the Eleventh Doctor Who (Matt Smith). The time-travel here is restricted to a couple of decades, so it’s within living memory for much of the readership, and the remainder will be familiar with the era from their exposure to media from it during their own lives.

There are actually three critical pieces of research here: character, plot and period. The author has watched enough episodes to depict the central characters (the Doctor, Amy and Rory) and their behaviour convincingly. The plot is as expected for the type of plot dealt with by the eleventh Doctor. Finally, the period detail is correct. It is over-egged a little in places, though. Instead of being slid in gently as a backdrop, we get very deliberate references to songs, and in particular the protagonist our trio deal with reads a newspaper called The European (d.1998). This latter choice rankles just a little bit, since the protagonist’s character probably would have been an Financial Times reader and – here’s the kicker: no one actually read The European, which is why it folded.

Details, details…

So if you’re writing a story that requires period accuracy, do take great care to research the period in terms of its language, mannerisms, technology, etc. But let the reader’s imagination fill in the blanks once you’ve given them enough to go on. Don’t continue to hit them over the head with the details.

Leave it out…

You don’t need to incorporate all that research you carried out. Ask yourself if it’s relevant to the story. If in doubt, leave it out. If you’re that bothered, write a postscript at the end, or one of these new-fangled ‘questions for book clubs’ sections. If you still find yourself itching to use all that research then maybe you really have become an expert in your field, and you should consider specialising in this area? After I wrote and performed The End of the World Show I was left with masses of material, which I turned into Apocalypse Later and was able to share with a whole new audience.

Apocalypse Later… again

Thanks to terrific reader feedback, I’ve republished Apocalypse Later: A guide to the end of the world by Nice Mr Death as an ebook. It’s now available on Kindle, and from Amazon Createspace as a paperback.

Second edition cover

Second edition cover. Nice, eh? Designed for better interwebs viewing

I published Apocalypse Later as a traditional paperback in August 2012, as I was performing my cult solo comedy The End of the World Show at the Edinburgh Fringe. I’d done a half-run the year before, and audience members kept suggesting that I write a book. There was so much material left over, and (the late) Harold Camping was making headlines around the world with his doomsday predictions. The book sold like hot cakes after my show.

In December 2012 I was interviewed live on UK TV, and was featured in the newspapers, but sales of Apocalypse Later suffered because – being new to the publishing game – I didn’t have distribution. Despite heavy back-orders, the Amazon sales algorithm would only order a few copies at a time. Much of the humour is in the footnotes, and I didn’t believe that e-readers could handle them. I was wrong: badly wrong. I know, I know: I coulda shoulda woulda had a bestseller on my hands – they all say that! :-)

Fast-forward to 2014 and I did a Goodreads Giveaway for Doctor How and the Illegal Aliens. When doing the fulfilment I discovered it would cost me no more to send a copy of Apocalypse Later to the winners in addition. Roll forward a couple of months and I received fan mail and a five-star review from a lady in California. She and her husband were raving about Apocalypse Later to all their friends, but she couldn’t get a copy from Amazon, and could I oblige her with a signed one?

I realised I had to republish. I made a couple of tiny updates for the second edition and designed a new cover. The original uses silver foil block lettering, and was designed to stand out in a retail environment. The new edition has a cover that lifts it off the page in web searches.

So there’s life after Armageddon. Apocalypse Later is available from Amazon as an ebook or a Createspace paperback. If you want a signed copy of the original first edition with silver foil lettering, please order one from the link on the side bar on my website.

Key takeaway – it ain’t over ‘til it’s over!

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