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!

Public reading at London Book Fair

Public reading of Doctor How and the Illegal Aliens

Public reading of Doctor How and the Illegal Aliens

The London Book Fair took place earlier this month. I was invited to perform a public reading of Doctor How and the Illegal Aliens: Doctor How, book one
at an event organised by The Alliance of Independent Authors, and funded by Amazon and Createspace.

The pub was packed, the sponsors were picking up the bar tab, and I was on late in the evening. Unfortunately the video camera picked up the noise of the glasses being washed rather than my reading. I recorded the piece to camera for you to enjoy. See below.


Doctor How and the Mad March Launch

The second week of March can only mean one thing: Doctor How and the Illegal Aliens is due for publication in four days.

The word count is now 65,000. It’s been professionally proofed and reviewed by a couple of beta-readers. The cover artwork has been done and redone. The CreateSpace version has been laid out, and it has lost two pages in the last 24 hours. Not a reduction in words – just an increase in the quality of layout. The cover was the last thing to be approved: a higher resolution image. The Goodreads giveaway finishes on Thursday 13th, which is the official day of publication. The press release is written and ready for release first thing on Thursday 13th. A video trailer will be released formally on the first stop on the blog tour that Goddess Fish Promotions have arranged for me. I have sneakily published the novel before its formal launch just to make sure I’m not missing any potential sales – and also so that I can order a few copies to fulfill that Goodreads giveaway.

Other things I’ve done are publish and arrange Kindle free days for:

Doctor How and the Kennedy Assassination Conspiracy

Doctor How and the Rings of Uranus

Is there anything more I need to do? Yes, absolutely. I feel I’ve failed to engage with my potential readership in Goodreads. I’ve been made to feel very welcome in the Time Travel group on the site, but have been held back by the unwillingness to seem at all ‘pushy’ about my work. That’s obviously something I have to work on. All I can do now is keep writing book two (as yet untitled) and keep plugging away at the publicity as best I can without it becoming too much of a distraction for me.

Right now feels exactly like the moment before exams – months of preparation; and if it’s not done now, it’s not going to happen before the exam. The results will be out soon enough.

Doctor How and the Frustrating February

F is for the F in Frustrating February I’ve just had (geddit?).

January had the big learning-curve associated with my first Kindle giveaway, which was for Doctor How and the Kennedy Assassination Conspiracy. Not a catchy title, but I was hoping it would hit some keywords in searches. The indications were that I was right, because the ‘also bought’ section in Amazon displays a load of titles completely unrelated to my genre. Keywords work – what a fantastic own-goal by yours truly!

It didn’t achieve anything like the download numbers I’d been led to anticipate from online marketing courses and the experience of others. Clearly I’d done something wrong, and there was something I was missing. I pulled all the stops out for Doctor How and the Rings of Uranus. A great title, no? Certainly one of the wonderful moderators of the Time Travel section of Goodreads thought so when I contacted her in desperation and despair as the title got as much interest as its predecessor. She kindly directed me to where, exactly, I should be posting. The fact that it was a little too late was my own fault. The other problem I have is that I’m British. That means I’m reluctant to be too pushy in forums, so I miss out on the more obvious self-promotion that some others do. I will have to gird my loins and get used to it.

I did experiment with boosted Facebook posts. They were extraordinary. I gained thousands of ‘views’ but, unfortunately, very little ‘engagement’. Partly the problem is that one cannot use an image with more than 25% text. The average book cover is way over the limit set by Facebook. People do respond to images, and it’s a great image. Trouble is that clicking on an image wasn’t the action I wanted. I wanted people to click on the Kindle link and download it for free. I tested a couple of boosted posts, but no dice.

Other things in February were to continue to write a book review a day, which saw me getting to #18 in the UK’s top reviewers at the start of the month. I also finished a promotional video for the Doctor How series, which is now waiting in the wings. It was a labour of love; involving a lot of animation, sourcing and editing of sound files, as well as buggering around with settings in PowerPoint and MovieMaker to get the whole thing to work. I could never have done it without the lessons I learnt putting together The End of the World Show in 2011 and 2012. I’ve also spent endless hours learning how to do a Goodreads giveaway for the first time, converting sample chapters to epub format, and setting up an AWeber account. All very wearing, but the hope is that this is time invested that will pay off at some point.

Book marketing wears me down because it’s full of emotional highs and lows, and also because it’s not something I’m wholly comfortable with. There’s also this terrible fear of breaking the rules on posting in groups. Give me a blank page and I will happily sit alone and fill it with entertaining prose. Interaction with other people is what wears introverts down, whereas solitary activity energises us. Even writing the lows in a story fills me with positive energy because it’s still an act of creation.

Two days ago (Friday 21st) I suddenly found myself writing the opening of book two. I’d hoped to be well into it by now, but the marketing of book one, Doctor How and the Illegal Aliens has delayed me. Boy, the sun came out in my life – I can’t tell you how joyous it was suddenly to be writing fiction again! The following day I wrote a less obvious opening and had a very pleasurable two hours of sitting and letting my mind wander through books two, three, four and five, giggling to myself as I added new layers of stupidity and mayhem to the storyline.

Chapter one completed, and chapter two underway, I must now return to the marketing. I need to converse with more people on Goodreads. Once I get into these things, I love it, and the people on Goodreads are absolutely wonderful – but it’s just getting over that initial getting-to-know-you awkwardness and not feeling like I’m pushing stuff at people. This coming Friday (28th) I have the London Author Fair. Sod’s Law dictates that I have a clash right when the most interesting speaker will be talking. Next weekend I have to prepare the CreateSpace cover for book one: Doctor How and the Illegal Aliens. On Monday 10th of March I start a four-week blog tour for the launch of Illegal Aliens. Four weeks! It took three solid days of writing just to come up with the content for that tour. As a big surprise, I do have that video to release.

I’ve read very widely on Kindle marketing in the last couple of months and I recognise that marketing overwhelm is a serious problem. I have to find out not just what works for my novels, but what works for me personally. There’s no use wearing myself out by utilising every marketing tool at my disposal. In the next couple of months I should be able to find some kind of happy medium, and get back to doing what I love above anything else: writing novels.

Is Content King?

It’s almost a month since I published [book:Doctor How and the Kennedy Assassination Conspiracy|20335596], which is a promotional taster for the whole Doctor How series. Last weekend I ran a four-day Kindle freebie promotion for it. I set myself a ludicrous target for downloads, which I came nowhere near achieving.

Am I disheartened? Not a bit of it. I’ve failed before in marketing novels, but I’m failing just that little bit better this time. You can buy any number of courses on Kindle marketing, and read any number of books on social media. In the end, just two things matter. Here’s the big reveal [SFX: drum roll]:

  • Learning what works for you
  • Applying that over a reasonable period of time

Ta-da! This means that marketing books is exactly like any other business. Or, indeed, pretty much any other human activity – from getting fit to getting a degree. It’s what the management gurus call an iterative process. In other words, you have to keep trying and slowly but surely narrow your activities down until they are time-effective and cost-effective for you.

Time is my biggest constraint, despite the fact that I have a four-day workweek. I’m able to get my marketing and social media stuff done because I work to a strict timetable. I have a critical path in a spreadsheet to remind myself of what needs to happen at what point in order to meet my deadline of publication on March 13th for [book:Doctor How and the Illegal Aliens|20600191].

I have a daily task list mainly composed of smaller tasks on social media. The big things – website redesigns, artwork, etc., I need to tackle at the weekends. And that’s my main problem: I’m a content person. No, no – a content person: a person who likes producing content; not someone who’s happy no matter what his circumstances. I love writing and creating. And I’m an introvert. So weighing in on social media really is hard work for me. Yesterday was tough. I read through [book:Doctor How and the Rings of Uranus|20627055] for one final edit before publishing, and I practically wept because I missed writing fiction so much.

However, things do get easier with time. This week I listed my first Goodreads Giveaway. Yesterday I found a really fantastic free service to convert files into epub format so that I could get free downloads up onto Goodreads. These were one-off learning experiences, and were time well-invested. On the plus side, a couple of hundred people are already interested in that giveaway, and for some reason seven people decided to follow me on Twitter yesterday. And if you’re wondering what the odd [book:NUMBER] thing is, it’s my little experiment to see whether the content of this post links properly when automatically posted in Goodreads via RSS. It’s a one- off experiment which will either make my post look awful, or might just make an incremental difference. (Linking my blog to Goodreads was last Sunday’s experiment.)

I know there are things that I have to do in the next few weeks which will put me squarely outside my comfort zone in terms of finding a readership for the Doctor How series – for example, approaching blog-owners about guest-posting. I’m gritting my teeth at this stage and going through the process. This is because I really am beginning to find out what works for me and my writing, and what I can reasonably manage. And, after only two months (five weeks if I’m really honest) of properly trying to engage, I’m beginning to see results – however small. I know that, once I’ve got the launch of Doctor How and the Illegal Aliens out of the way I’ll be able to spend a much bigger chunk of my time being content creating content. Content may be King, but marketing is the master.

Doctor How plot in Private Eye cartoon

Doctor Who 50th and Kennedy Assassination connected

Doctor Who 50th and Kennedy Assassination connected

British satirical magazine Private Eye spotted exactly what I did, publishing this cartoon about the connection between the Doctor Who 50th anniversary and the Kennedy Assassination.

You can read all about it in Doctor How and the Kennedy Assassination, which is available free on Kindle from 17th to 20th January 2014.

Doctor How and the Frustrating Christmas

Yesterday I managed, finally, to publish Doctor How and the Kennedy Assassination Conspiracy on Kindle. This is the first of two promotional short stories in advance of the publication of the first book in the five-volume Doctor How series, Doctor How: Who are the Illegal Aliens? due out on March 13th. It doesn’t matter how many times you publish something, it’s a finnicky business. The cover image is just one of the elements that never goes right first time. Up to 50% of the sales of a book are dependent on its cover, so it’s a critical element.

Doctor How Kennedy cover

Previous version

Doctor How book cover

Final version

The image on the left is the initial draft. (When I say, ‘initial draft’, it’s the product of days of image research, throwing ideas around, playing with layouts and testing them on readers.)

Great idea, but a few things don’t work.

First, the publisher’s logo isn’t needed (even though it’s a great publisher it means nothing to readers). The title already has the word Kennedy in it, and we have an iconic picture of the man himself, so we don’t need the JFK on the gravestone. Getting rid of the JFK allows the font size of the dates to be increased. The chalk scoring-out and the 7 have also been increased proportionately. This is important because this image will be viewed as a thumbnail on Amazon, and it’s the crossing out of the 3 and its replacement with a 7 that conveys the idea of the story, and piques the reader’s interest. It’s now more obvious to the casual viewer in a smaller image.

The gold of the gravestone lettering has been lost behind the embossing effect, so the opacity of the embossing layer was decreased to 30% to make the characters stand out better from the granite.

Last of all, the author’s name has been put in bold. Not an ego thing: just straightforward marketing; the author is a brand as much as Doctor How is.

And then there’s the content. This morning I uploaded the story for the third time. I wasn’t happy with the blurb or the keyword tags the first time. Then I decided to move the title and the title verso page content to the back so that the reader can get straight into the story. It also allows people to read more of it for free using the ‘Look inside’ feature, and I’m fairly confident that the more they read of the story the likelier they will be to buy it.

The modern writer’s life is not about writing: it’s about content management, packaging, keyword tags and meta data. I’ve not even begun the marketing.

You can Like Doctor How here:

Doctor How and the Kennedy Assassination Conspiracy forms part of book two, and will only be available for a limited time.

Centrepoint Sleepout – not a rough deal

On Thursday 7th November seven of us from work joined the Sleepout in Exchange Square, London, to raise funds for Centrepoint, the charity which helps young homeless people across the UK. They do so by not only providing shelter, but by teaching them a trade so that they can get off the streets for good.

We pitched up just after seven o’clock, and my colleagues headed straight for the BBQ tent/bar next to the ice rink. The four other men tucked into food, whilst my two female colleagues had a drink. I held out because I wanted a degree of authenticity to the experience. I told my colleagues that the RAF canteen’s food would be excellent, but they didn’t believe me. I have to say that 3 Squadron Mobile Catering changed their minds – the food was excellent.

The Evaluate Sleepout team

The Evaluate Sleepout team

Centrepoint had laid on entertainment – singers and some ice-skating. They were giving away cups of free warm sake. Presumably this was from a sponsor wanting to target the well-salaried participants, but they literally couldn’t give it away because so many people seemed to prefer to stay in the BBQ tent/bar or the posh outside wine bar overlooking Liverpool Street Station. Given the associations between alcohol problems and homelessness, as well as the fact that alcohol can contribute to exposure in cold weather, I thought it was questionable. When veteran soi disant entertainer Christopher Biggins took to the ice to tell a bedtime story, that signalled a definite end to the fun.

The Sleepout area was a pedestrian underpass between Exchange Square and Appold Street – ironically, under part of a bank where I’d given training sessions. The concrete surface was covered with cardboard, and we each had a giant Jiffy bag to sleep in. I’d been expecting thick corrugated cardboard, which I remember from childhood as being warm and comfortable, and have seen ‘real’ homeless people using. Ours was rather thin. The Jiffy bags were essentially the kind of industrial paper bags used for dry powdered goods. Mine was large enough for me to lie down in comfortably, with my head on the flap, and I’m 6’0”. I’m thankful for that paper bag because the wind did get up a bit, and it provided excellent protection. I only had a very thin sleeping bag, and wore just a hoodie and a padded jacket on top of that, as well as a Thinsulate hat. I was perfectly warm. I’d also brought earplugs and a sleep visor, as had most of our party. My colleagues had very thick sleeping bags – the four season variety, and one had the good sense to have brought an inflatable camping mattress. We were guarded by both Centrepoint and the security guards who normally patrol that area. (I’d explained earlier to my colleagues that the reason you don’t see rough sleepers in the City because it’s mostly private land, patrolled by security firms.)

It was the noise that got to me. I’m a very light sleeper, and I’ve worn earplugs for several years now in my relatively quiet London suburb. However, the noise of maintenance workers on the tracks at the station was quite loud, as was the traffic on Appold Street – taxis, delivery lorries, cleaning vehicles. Worse than that was the constant talking by other participants making their way to bed. In our area there were 200-300 people, with around 1,000 in total. Sure, the eleven o’clock bedtime was only an option, and there was a ‘wake’ area for people who preferred not to sleep (which seems a bit of a contradiction on Sleepout). Right up until 05.00 people were rolling in drunk in groups and talking loudly, apparently without any self-awareness or regard for the rest of us. I sat up at 03.00 and watched one drunk in an event T-shirt stagger his way between the sleepers. He then lost his balance and stood on a few before falling across two. His own space turned out to be the other side of where he’d been searching.

I got up at four o’clock – once you get the idea in your head that you need a pee, you can’t shake it, even if you don’t. There were still groups sitting drinking and eating takeaways. The organisers had asked people specifically not to bring alcohol. But, then, wasn’t I after a bit of authenticity? And don’t homeless people have to put up with drunken assholes? I took a short walk around to rescue my sore knees – how often do you get to see London at that time in the morning? I’m sorry to report that it’s not as interesting as the reality TV shows make it out to be. People hurrying to board the first Stansted Express of the day look no different to any other passengers.

I got to sleep sometime after 05.30 and then got up at 05.55. The RAF caterers were doling out a delicious cooked breakfast – a large bun filled with sausages, egg and bacon. I’d seen them preparing it on my earlier walk. Then it was onto the gloriously warm Tube system (standing-room only on the Central Line at 06.15, but only a few Eastern Europeans on the Northern Line going south.)

The Evaluate Sleepout team at 05.55

The Evaluate Sleepout team at 05.55

I was lucky enough to be able to get back home to a warm house by 07.00 and re-energise myself with a run a couple of hours later. And that was the main reason it wasn’t authentic: we all knew this was just one night. We would go back to our warm offices or homes. We could have warm showers and comfortable beds in quiet houses on Friday night. We wouldn’t be trodden on by drunks, moved on by security guards, or wonder where the next meal was coming from.

And when I heard the news bulletin on Radio 4 at 07.00 I realised that a million people or more in the Philippines had lost the roofs over their heads. Think about that. Millions of people without any shelter, sleeping rough under the stars, with no hope of a home for days or weeks. Think about that and realise how lucky you are when you complain about your domestic energy bill, which is amongst the lowest in the developed world. Wow – is that really the biggest thing on our political agenda right now?

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Casino Royale, by Ian Fleming

Last month I was given a copy of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale by my younger brother, who had received it as part of World Book Night 2013. The first and last Bond novel I read was Dr No, when I was about twelve. I didn’t much like it because it seemed pretty tame by modern standards, and I didn’t like the style. I was interested to see how I’d get on with this novel.

Casino Royale was the first of Fleming’s Bond novels, and he wrote it in February 1952 as a way of distracting himself as he waited for his wife to give birth. He called it his “dreadful oafish opus”. In its final draft stages , Fleming allowed his novelist friend William Plomer to see a copy. Plomer remarked “so far as I can see the element of suspense is completely absent”. An ex-girlfriend advised him to publish it under a pseudonym. It was his travel-writer brother Peter who managed to persuade his own publisher, Jonathan Cape, to publish it after an initial reluctance.

So those are the frank remarks about the novel from author and friends. What did I make of it? I can only say that the style of English must have been going out of fashion even at that time – it’s very much of Fleming’s birth-year and class (Edwardian and upper-class). Language does change over time, but one can’t help laugh at That night she made a special effort to be gay and “I do so want to be gay. And I am gay.”  It’s terribly unfair of me to get cheap laughs from what were then standard lines (my father once told me my grandmother used to buy racy romance novels with titles such as The Vicar Goes Gay with Mrs Smith. The term ‘go gay’, meant ‘to have an affair’ in this context.) but that’s me. I can even refer you to this graph to show you that the word was in decline at the time:

However, even allowing for the standards of the time, this is either a badly-written novel, or one that has been edited sloppily. Words are repeated unnecessarily within paragraphs, and in the space of 20 pages the word ‘ironical’ sticks its ugly mug into sentences where it simply had no business to be in an English novel of that era.

This is also Fleming fleshing out Bond’s character and exploring his internal state as he experiences the world. He was meant to be much more of an anti-hero than his depiction in films. I wonder whether the following sentence is of its time, or whether it is intended to portray Bond as the ‘brief, unromantic Anglo-Saxon’ of Fleming’s imagination:

And now he knew that she was profoundly, excitingly sensual, but that the conquest of her body, because of the central privacy in her, would have the sweet tang of rape.

I suspect a bit of both.

I’d agree with Plomer’s opinion that there’s no suspense at all. It’s often been mentioned that the Bond idea owed its success to the fact that it was an escape for a population living in an era of post-war austerity. The descriptions of sumptuous meals, high-rolling lifestyle and tropical locations were as much of the appeal as the sex and adventure. The key test for any work is whether, once the historical context has been stripped away, it stands up as a good story. I don’t think Casino Royale does, but like millions of other movie-goers, I’m grateful for the entertainment franchise Fleming created.

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