Writing a Trilogy

[First posted August 2015]

In May 2013, I sat at the computer and wrote the description of the symptoms of a deadly virus. It was a scene from an apocalyptic story I’d had kicking around in my head for years and transferring it to paper (at least, to a hard drive) opened the floodgates. Nine feverish weeks later, I had written the first draft of a 90,000-word novel.

The story was nowhere near finished. It would need at least another novel to complete, probably two. Although I would have finished the story no matter what – once a tale is in my mind, the only way to dislodge it is to write it – here’s one advantage of a trilogy from the writer’s point of view: I could see how well the first was received before committing to the second.

The Cleansing was published in December 2013. I sat back and waited with bated breath for the first reviews to come in. Thankfully, they were positive and so I sat down to write the second book.

Before writing The Cleansing, I had completed two novels, both of which are standalones. This would be the first time I had attempted to write a sequel.

Here’s the thing with writing a sequel: the writer owes it to the story, to himself and, most of all, to the readers who enjoyed the first book, to make the second as good as or better than the first. He’s also not working with a blank canvas; at least, that’s how I felt. Although I introduced new characters into the second book, I was still working with those who had appeared in the first and they needed to continue being the characters the readers of the first had come to know, while continuing their arcs and developing as good characters must.

While I worked on the sequel, reviews for The Cleansing continued to come in. Still mainly positive – phew! – but increasing the pressure for the second novel to build upon those good vibes.

The Beacon was released in January 2015. This time, the wait for early reviews was more nail-bitingly angst-filled. Unlike with the first book, readers would be parting with their hard-earned cash this time around in reasonable expectation of reading a story that matched or improved upon the standard of The Cleansing.

I had already begun work on the final instalment in the trilogy when The Beacon was published, but it had been slow going. I found it difficult to build momentum without knowing how the second book would be received. (Also, life or, more accurately, death – of a good friend – interrupted progress.)

Then reviews of The Beacon started coming in; another huge sigh of relief when they were, in the main, positive. Now I could press on full steam ahead with the final instalment.

This proved to be the most difficult one to write. Not only did I need to make this one as good as or better than the first two, I also needed to ensure I tied up all loose ends. With the first two books totalling around two hundred thousand words, there were a lot of loose ends. And the biggest pressure of all? Ending it in a way with which readers will hopefully be satisfied and that fits the overall tone of the story.

There are writers out there who pen many series and serials. They must all be familiar with these issues, but this was the first time I had experienced them. Whether I managed to overcome them, well, that remains to be seen. I have sent the completed and edited manuscript of The Reckoning to my publishers and await hearing whether it will be accepted for publication.

If it is, by the time the first reviews come in, I shall have no nails left.

[Update July 2018: The Reckoning was accepted and published in December 2015. The Cleansing is by some distance my bestselling novel to date and, thankfully, the sell-through rate to the sequels is pretty high. ]

Why We Write

[This article first appeared on a friend’s blog in September 2014. She asked me to talk about why I write, citing books that influenced me growing up. I took this to be an invitation to talk about books that I’ve loved over the years, although I remembered to tag a paragraph on the end that mentions writing.

It might seem faintly ridiculous that a man then a few months shy of 50 with a tendency towards the Dark Side in both his reading and writing tastes was talking about Enid Blyton, but her books are the ones I devoured as a young child. So shoot me.]

From the moment I learned how to read, I read. We’re talking more than forty years ago so my recollections are a little hazy, but the first books I can remember reading were by Enid Blyton. I guess I was around the age of five when I started to read The Adventures of the Wishing-Chair. When the wings first sprouted on the chair’s legs, thus opening a world of adventure for the children who owned it (who probably had names like Fanny and Polly and Dick and James), something sparked inside me, something that still burns all these years later.

The flames were fanned by The Enchanted Wood and The Magic Faraway Tree. I moved on to her books for older children and discovered a taste for adventures. A series of books (that I read over and over) about four children and a parrot that started with The Island of Adventure and ended with The River of Adventure. There was even one (The Mountain of Adventure) set in my homeland of Wales.

And The Famous Five. I remember the first day of the summer holidays when I must have been six or seven, my parents taking me to Smith’s to buy the next book in the series. I recall it cost me £0.25, but that probably represented a month’s pocket money. I took it home, read it the same day, pined for the next one. I got them all – all twenty-one – and read each of them more than once. ‘Lashings of ginger beer.’ Did they really say that?

I discovered other authors. Run For Your Life by David Line. Wonderful; I read it until it was falling apart. Some classics: The Three Musketeers, Coral Island, Robinson Crusoe. There were more, but my attention was diverted.

A new teacher started in our class. One afternoon, she gathered us around and began to read a book to us. A book about a land of snow and magic that could be reached through the back of a wardrobe. I was instantly captivated. The sense of wonder that began with Enid Blyton, the sense that anything is possible within the pages of a book, was firmly entrenched by The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I soon acquired the book and the six others in the series, and read them over and over. I read them to my daughters when they were growing up as an excuse to read them again.

On entering my teens, I discovered shock horror authors like Guy N. Smith. James Herbert struck all the right notes with books like The Rats and The Fog.

Then I bought a book by a writer I hadn’t heard of that sounded promising: Carrie by Stephen King. It was good, but it was Salem’s Lot which cemented my love affair with Mr King’s books that continues to this day.

And there was Tolkien. My parents had a hardbook copy of The Lord of the Rings, complete with wonderful illustrations upon which Peter Jackson based many of the sets for his films. I now have my own copy and return to it every few years.

In my twenties, a friend lent me a book by someone called Terry Pratchett: The Colour of Magic. Instant addiction. Every now and then I give in to the urge to reread every Discworld book and fall in love with that world all over again.

And there are others, many others, way too many to mention them all. Here’s a few: Imajica by Clive Barker, anything by Bill Bryson and Iain Banks (and Iain M. Banks), Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantell, Shadowland by Peter Straub, Christie’s Poirot novels and short stories. And there’s John Irving, Kurt Vonnegut, Laurie Lee, Robert Heinlein, Gerald Durrell, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Frederick Forsyth, Philip K. Dick…

Reading has played such a big part in my life, it was almost inevitable that I would turn to writing fiction. My favourite books provide a means of escape from the trials and tribulations of real life. Writing serves a similar purpose, a sort of pressure-relief valve that also helps unclutter the jumble of my mind. And those authors and their books have had a profound effect on me, prompting awe, fear, sorrow, amazement, or simply entertaining me. I wanted to provoke the same emotions in others, though I’d settle for merely entertaining them. Sometimes mere entertainment is enough.

Pen-name – help or hindrance?

[First posted on Goodreads January 2014]

Sam Kates is a pseudonym. When I first decided to self-publish a collection of short stories almost a year and a half ago, it wasn’t a question of whether to use a pen-name; only which pen-name to choose.

Life is full of unexpected contradictions. Here’s one that some writers may recognise. I deeply desire making a living from writing fiction – to be paid to do what I most enjoy, thus freeing me to do it more… It must be like the starry-eyed schoolboy who signs a professional football contract and suddenly finds himself sharing a changing room with his heroes. Yet that dream can become reality for a writer at almost any stage of his or her life. I’m way past the age where Liverpool would be interested in me (even – in my dreams – were I good enough), but at 49 I’m not too old to become successful as a writer. And yet, I have no desire to seek the limelight, to become even moderately famous – not as me, the real me anyway.

So here’s that contradiction (no, I hadn’t forgotten): I want to be a successful author of fiction, yet I don’t seek fame. Hmm… becoming successful in most fields of the arts requires the artist to become well-known. In the field of literature, this means the author’s name has to become familiar to readers. There are way too many indie authors out there – the more well-known a writer’s name becomes, the more visible he or she will be among the milling masses. To use a more business-like expression: it’s about building a brand. So, success without a modicum of fame? Ain’t going to happen.

Going with a pseudonym was, therefore, a non-brainer. There were other reasons, such as being the sort of reserved person hopeless at blowing his own trumpet (it’s a lot easier to promote Sam Kates than it would to be to promote me), but the overriding one was to impose a degree of separation between writing and my private life.

By and large, then, having a pen-name has been a help. Today, for the first time, it became a hindrance. The local newspaper had agreed to run a feature about my new apocalyptic novel, The Cleansing. The reporter who interviewed me e-mailed this afternoon to say that his senior editors would only publish the piece on condition that they used my real name. After a little soul-searching, I told him that I didn’t want to proceed under that condition. Some of you might be thinking, “Fool! You’ve just given up some free advertising!” and you’d be right. My publishers, when they find out, may be displeased, though I think (hope) they’ll understand. But I’m certain I’ve made the correct call.

Not that my real name is a great secret. Anyone who knows me knows I write under the name Sam Kates. Anyone with a little computer savvy who can be bothered could probably find my real name online within minutes. But given what I said above about why I used a pen-name in the first place, to start announcing my real name to the world (or at least this small part of it on the edge of the South Wales valleys) seems self-defeating and more than a little hypocritical. If that means I’m going to miss out on promotional opportunities, (with apologies to my publishers) so be it. I’ll just have to work harder at other methods of promotion and, more importantly, writing books that readers find entertaining.

Hindrance or not, Sam Kates is rolling up his sleeves…

Baring the Soul

[An unusually introspective piece, first posted around January 2015]

I posted this on Facebook last night:

“Putting something that you’ve written out there for anyone to love or ridicule makes for some anxious moments. It feels a little like baring a piece of your soul for public inspection. An uncomfortable, vulnerable, naked sensation.

There are many moments of self-doubt, moments when you wonder why the heck you’re putting yourself through it. Then a reader will tell you that he or she loved your book and all the hard work, all the angst, will have been worthwhile.”

Sounds a touch melodramatic; in my defence, I had consumed a beer or two. But throughout today, sober as a teetotal judge, I’ve been thinking about the ‘baring your soul’ bit.

I write the stories I write because they’re what I enjoy reading. They tend towards darkness and the fantastic and the wondrous, though not exclusively. What my stories usually have in common is that they are written to entertain.

What I don’t write are true-life tales of courage about survivors of cancer or war or domestic violence or any one of hundreds of worthy subjects that give people hope for a brighter future. I don’t attempt to write stories with deep meaning that shed new light on the human condition. I don’t write self-help books that change lives.

Nope. I write fiction that isn’t highbrow, that sets out to do nothing more than satisfy a need to tell a good story well and entertain. Who, then, am I to be talking about baring a piece of my soul? Pretentious, moi?

I write a story. Publish it. Sounds simple; nothing so weighty as to merit mention of the soul.

But…

That story has been rattling around in my head for perhaps fifteen years or more. Until published, it’s a private, secret fantasy, known only to me. It’s driven by characters that materialise from my experiences and aspirations. Plot, dialogue, motivations, all come from my ever-ticking-over imagination, shaped by my emotions and ambitions and the hopes (sometimes already dashed; disappointments, then) I hold for the human race.

Imagination, experience, emotions… without getting all philisophical, isn’t this the stuff of which the soul is made?

It’s as nothing compared to a soldier marching into battle or an abused partner trying to survive another controlled day or a patient facing yet more nausea-inducing chemotherapy – I’m not trying to elevate this to a status it doesn’t deserve – but nevertheless, relatively speaking, writers who publish their works reveal fundamental bits of themselves that most others keep firmly hidden away.

So, yeah, when I send a story out into that wide, bad world, I’m exposing a piece of my soul for all to see. Every published writer, irrespective of the level of their intellectualism, from the highest-brow to the lowest, does the same.

Melodramatic? Maybe.

True nonetheless? I think so.

When I Was Three, I Ate Mud

There’s a meme doing the rounds on social media that goes something like this: the average three-year-old can switch on an i-pad and stream videos; when I was three, I ate mud.

Makes me chuckle every time. Not that I can recall eating mud as a toddler, but I might have. I can certainly recall, at about that age, munching on dog biscuits. Never did me any harm. Rowf-rowf. Whatever ways I found to entertain myself when three, I was soon to discover a new form of delight that has never left me since. I refer not to eating chocolate, but to reading.

There are so many books I loved as a child, they deserve a post of their own. These are the books I grew up reading. There were plenty more, but these are the ones I still recall clearly all these years later and which must, therefore, have made a profound impression on me back then.

Let’s begin, as it began then, with Enid. A few years ago, I wrote an article for Mass Movement magazine, which I called Enid Bloody Blyton*. In the article I called her books for younger children ‘insufferably quaint’ and wondered what she had been stirring into her tea while she wrote them. Although it might sound like I was having a dig at her, in fact it was quite the opposite—I felt then as I do now: I owe her a great deal of gratitude for opening my eyes to the unboundless possibilities of the imagination and to the delights that can be found within the pages of a book. That sense of wonder has never left me and is as strong now as it was forty-five and more years ago.

As soon as I learned to read—I’m guessing at the age of four or five—I began to devour her books. The Enchanted Wood, The Magic Faraway Tree, The Folk of the Faraway Tree and Adventures of the Wishing Chair. Read them over and over until they began to fall apart. Bought new copies for my first-born and read them to her.


The Adventures of the Wishing-Chair (Wishing Chair 1)

I graduated to her books for older children. She wrote tons of books aimed at children between the ages of six and ten, but there were two particular series that I adored: The Famous Five books and the Adventure stories.

Five on a Treasure Island is the first of twenty-one books recounting the adventures of Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy. In case you didn’t know, George was a tom-boy whose full name was Georgina and Timmy was her dog. (One of the books involved George being captured by baddies who made her write a note to the others whom they also wanted to capture. George alerted them to their peril by signing the note ‘Georgina’, something she’d ordinarily never do. That so struck the six-year-old me as a clever ruse, I remember it still.) At the start of each school holidays I’d nag my parents to take me to W.H. Smith, where I would spend my pocket money on the next book in the series. Some of those books cost as little as £0.30. Inflation, inflation. I’d take the book home and devour it. I collected the entire series and, again, read them time after time.


Five On A Treasure Island: Book 1 (Famous Five)

The Island of Adventure is the first of eight books in my other favourite Blyton series. (Yes, I can have two favourites—it’s my website.) These stories were about four children—Jack, Lucy-Ann, Philip and Dinah, the obligatory pet sidekick coming in the form of Jack’s parrot, Kiki. I had all eight books and, you’ve guessed it, read each of them umpteen times.


The Island of Adventure (The Adventure Series)

Looking back with the cynicism of adulthood, the plots of these books were outlandish, involving unlikely spy rings and treasure maps and, memorably, anti-gravitational wings being secretly manufactured in the depths of a hollow Welsh mountain—you know, I’ve lived in Wales for most of my life and haven’t once heard anyone add the words ‘look you’ to the end of a sentence like the Welsh characters did in The Mountain of Adventure. But never mind the ludicrousness of the storylines or the stereotypical supporting characters, I was seven and lapped it all up.

Not, I should add, that I was a boy for spending all my time indoors reading. I played outside with my friends at every opportunity. We played football, went hunting for slow-worms, scrumped apples, built dams. But this is the UK; we can have weeks of continuous rain, even in summer, so there were ample opportunities for reading. And even during sunny weather, there was always bed time. I was the sort of kid who was more than happy to go to bed half an hour earlier in order to read.

That’s enough about Enid. There are too many others to mention. Books like The Wind in the Willows and Watership Down, wonderful stories about car-driving toads and talking rabbits. The works of Roald Dahl—amongst my favourites were Danny, the Champion of the World and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The heartwrenching time-travel tale Tom’s Midnight Garden and a story about two boys, a yacht and the rescue of stranded soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, The Dolphin Crossing.


Watership Down (A Puffin Book)

I enjoyed the Twain adventures starring the eponymous heroes Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and the Jennings series by Anthony Buckeridge about a boy’s adventures in preparatory school in the 1950s and 60s. I also dipped into the Just William books, but didn’t take to them as well. Then there were The Three Investigators – The Secret of Terror Castle gave me sleepless nights.


The Secret of Terror Castle (Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators)

Run For Your Life by David Line is about an unlikely friendship between two boys. When they witness a murder, they are forced to flee across the wintry Norfolk countryside with the murderers hard at their heels. No matter how many times I read it—needless to say, re-readings occurred frequently—the tale never failed to grip. I checked on Amazon and it appears possible to pick up second-hand copies. Whilst there, I checked out the reviews: the reviewers mostly seem to be of the same mind as me—a fantastic read for boys of around the age of ten. I wish I knew what has happened to my well-thumbed copy because writing this is making me want to read it again. Nothing like a bit of nostalgia.

When I was nine, one afternoon in school our teacher gathered the class around, took out a book and began to read it to us. It was about four children who are sent away to the countryside as evacuees in World War II to stay with an eccentric uncle in a rambling old mansion. I was instantly captivated. The book was, of course, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and so began my lifelong love affair with C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. I couldn’t wait for the teacher to finish the story in class; I had to get my hands on my own copy. When I discovered there were another six books in the series, I probably went into raptures. I’ll never forget the teacher who introduced me to them: thank you, Mrs Davies.


The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (The Chronicles of Narnia)

Quick aside: I often stayed with my grandparents as a boy. Their spare room contained an old wooden wardrobe. Yep, I used to step into it, remembering to leave the door ajar behind me since sensible children never shut themselves inside wardrobes. (Crikey, it must be fifteen or more years since I last read The Lion… to my younger daughter, yet that line popped into my head as though I’d read it yesterday.) I’d push through the clothes hanging there—never fur coats; my grandparents weren’t rich—and tap forlornly at the wooden back, hoping it would give way beneath my fingers and become a chilly passageway leading to fir trees and snow and fauns and white witches who handed out Turkish Delight. It happened every time in my imagination.

When I was three, I ate mud. Maybe, but when I was five and upwards, I devoured books. I only hope that despite all the modern distractions that I didn’t have, there are children today deriving as much joy from books as I did as a child.

* For anyone who’s interested, that article is here. Be warned: there’s a disconcertingly large headshot of me accompanying it. Incidentally, Larry Niven of Lucifer’s Hammer and Ringworld fame was also featured in that edition, which I think is kind of cool.

(The covers are clickable links to the books on Amazon. The text links are for the benefit of anyone reading on a mobile device.)

 

 

 

Marketing for Muppets – Part 1

[First posted 28th July 2017]

Before we go any further, I’d better explain the title. In the UK we use ‘muppet’ to describe someone who’s a little clueless about something. Here, I’m using it to describe someone who’s a little clueless about marketing, and that someone is me. (‘Numpty’ would do as well but, you know, alliteration.)

If you also consider yourself to be a little clueless about marketing, then well met, fellow muppet. Should, on the other hand, you feel you’re pretty clued in to marketing in all its multifarious forms, then you may quietly mock me. I won’t take offence.

As for ‘Part 1’, this leaves the door wide open for a sequel. It’s the blog equivalent of a cliffhanger, without the cliff or, er, the hanger, but you get the drift. I intend setting out what I know about marketing—shouldn’t take long—and following up later, or perhaps a few laters, with stuff I learn as I progress.

I’ve been an indie author—both self- and small press-published—for nearly five years. You’d think that by now I’d have developed at least some basic skills in marketing. You’d think. One of my excuses (yeah, I have more than one), and one that will be familiar to many, is that I’ve always had to fit writing around working a regular, full-time job. What with family commitments and the usual stuff life throws at us, I’ve never made time to try to get to grips with marketing, always preferring to make time for writing first.

But that’s about to change. As of last week I cut my hours in my day job in half, mainly to make more time to concentrate on writing but also to eliminate that ‘no time to learn’ excuse. Whilst most of my freed-up time will be spent writing, an hour or so each free afternoon will now be devoted to learning how to promote my books. I’m going to post about my experiences and what I find works for me as regularly as I can. And I have much to learn—this could turn into the blog equivalent of the Friday the Thirteenth movies.

Another thing I need to mention: now that I’ve cut my regular working hours, my income has also been halved. (I did suggest they carry on paying my full salary if I promised to work twice as hard when in the office, but they didn’t like the idea.) Money will therefore be tight and I am going to have to explore free or almost-free marketing techniques. No BookBub ads for me—no change there, then, but I won’t be applying any more.

I thought that as I go along, I’d state in bold any principles or theories that seem especially true based on my own observations and experience. This is an opportune time to mention the first:

Proposition 1: What works well for one author, won’t necessarily work well for another.

In case I haven’t already mentioned it, I’m rubbish at marketing. Utter pants. A complete muppet. I intend to change that, but I know that not every marketing method will suit the sort of person I am, the type of fiction I write or the time I have available to spend on promoting.

Some writers spend a lot of time engaging with readers and other writers on social media—these are the writing superheroes who can bend time to their will, making it stretch to enable them to write in addition to spending all that time on Goodreads or podcasting, or whatever; either that or they never sleep. Some do nothing but write, aiming to publish a book every month or so, coupled with a spurt of highly-targeted, paid adverts at launch time—these, too, possess superhuman powers: the ability to produce a 60,000-word novel every month. Most others, like me, fall somewhere along the broad spectrum in between.

I think that before we decide what marketing tactics might work for us, we need to decide what fits in with our lifestyles and character. For instance, being heavily active on social media neither appeals to me nor do I believe I’d be very good at it. I’m simply not someone who enjoys chatting at length to strangers; I firmly believe my time would be more profitably spent writing than attempting to portray myself as someone I’m not.

What, then, might work for me? Well, posting regularly on my website (and on my Goodreads blog) is something I’ve only done sporadically, but is something I enjoy and would like to do more regularly. So, first up, this is what I’m going to do: post once a week a piece that’s, broadly-speaking at least, writing-related, although I won’t be able to begin properly until late August since we’re escaping another typical British summer (a scorching week in June, when the unaccustomed heat makes us wilt like unwatered house plants, followed by a couple of months of grey skies and rain so heavy it makes your head throb) for the sunshine of the Med.

I don’t expect results, in as much as I expect them at all, in weeks. This seems to me a longer-term tactic but I will report back on the effect, if any, this has on my sales. At least one sequel, then. Oh, and of course it’s all well and good writing regular blog posts; it’s another thing altogether to get people to read them. And there are other mysteries to delve into, such as how to organically build a mailing list (yep, I have one; nope, it doesn’t have many subscribers), how to effectively use social media if we’re on the introverted side of sociable, and (this, for me, is a biggie and one of my other excuses for being rubbish at marketing) how to make potential readers aware of our books without making them, or us, feel that we’re shoving them into their faces.

Friday the Thirteenth meets Rocky it could be.

That Elusive Title

[First posted 23rd June 2017]

While my first novel, The Village of Lost Souls, accumulated a steady supply of rejection slips from publishers and London agents, I began writing the second. This was during 1999, when the doom merchants had us all worrying about the so-called Millennium Bug which would, we were told, result in stock market crashes, drought, famine and aeroplanes falling from the sky. In short, Armageddon.

It was also a time when I was going through a mid-life crisis. Many of us have been there. That yearning for something better. That unscratchable itch saying there has to be more to life, that it has to be about something other than slogging away at a job you detest. Those longings heavily influenced the direction the second novel would take.

I finished the first draft the following year, in the new millennium, long after it was clear none of those apocalyptic events would materialise. At least, none as a result of computing peculiarities.

So the world as we know it didn’t end and I had a second novel, but no title. Sometimes the title of a story is obvious from the outset, before a word is written. More often it suggests itself as the work progresses. In this case I drew a blank until my wife suggested, based on some references in the story to Laurel and Hardy, calling it Another Fine Mess. Not perfect, but I had nothing better and it was under this title that the novel accumulated its own pile of rejections.

Fast forward seventeen years. I’d decided to self-publish the novel, having ummed and ahhed whether I should since it’s a lot different to my other published works, not involving the supernatural or the science-fictional or the fantastic. Having made the decision to take the plunge and get it out there, thoughts turned to the title and cover.

Another Fine Mess suggests a cover with a Laurel and Hardy theme – perhaps two bowler hats at a cocky angle. I spent hours looking, but could find no premade covers remotely suitable and I lack the budget to have one tailor-made. In any event, such a cover would be suggestive of a novel about Laurel and Hardy, which mine isn’t. Then I double-checked the famous line, only to find that it’s often quoted incorrectly as ‘another fine mess’, when in fact they said ‘another nice mess’ in their films. Not that this made much difference. Most readers would recognise either version of the quote, but the novel still wasn’t about Laurel and Hardy.

And something else about it bothered me: the word ‘another’ suggests that this is a sequel, that there has been a previous mess. There hasn’t, at least of the prequel sort.

Clearly a new title was necessary. I’d struggled to come up with one seventeen years previously so doubted anything would be different now. To take my mind off it, I wrote the blurb. And there it was – the title staring me right in the face.

The relevant phrase in the blurb was, “That indefinable, elusive something.” Too much of a mouthful for a snappy title, but drop one word and That Elusive Something was born. Still not the snappiest, perhaps, but it sums up what the novel is essentially about – one man’s yearning to escape the rat race.

It also made the hunt for a suitable cover much easier. No longer tied to a Laurel and Hardy motif, the choice of good premade covers grew dramatically. Bewilderingly, even. I’m happy with the one I eventually settled on – it would not be particularly apt for a book called Another Fine Mess, but is a good fit for That Elusive Something, and the general tone and mood of the story.

Whether readers will agree, I guess I’ll find out soon enough. It’s that anxious time writers experience when they send their babies out into the world hoping that everyone will coo over them, while steeling themselves to having them roundly ridiculed or, worse, having them subjected to displays of supreme indifference. I find the best way to deal with this uncertainty is to shrug, mutter ‘what will be, will be’ under my breath, and crack on with the next novel.

That Elusive Something becomes available in e-book format on Friday 23rd June.

[Update, July 2018: it’s also now available in paperback – see links on the book’s page]

Taking the Plunge

[First posted 21st July 2017]

I’ve long harboured a dream to make a living from writing fiction. That dream was placed on hold for a good number of years while I changed career, but was dusted down five years ago when I came to realise the possibilities made available by the revolution in e-publishing. No more having to submit sample manuscripts and stamped-addressed-envelopes (remember those?) to London agents. No more being in limbo waiting for the latest rejection. No more wondering whether the despondency was worth it.

I rediscovered my urge to write. It had never really gone away, but had lain dormant and now awoke with a vengeance. I began wrting in evenings, at weekends, during leave from work. I completed a trilogy of apocalyptic science fiction novels, which sold well enough that I could consider going part-time in my regular job. I dabbled in marketing, not especially successfully, but sufficiently that sales continued to tick over.

Then things went a little pear-shaped when life—or, more accurately, death—intervened. My uncle died in June last year, having appointed me to be the executor of his will. I used to do such work for a living so it was a smart move on his part as it would save the family many thousands of pounds in legal fees. I didn’t mind in the slightest, but it was a fairly complex estate with a house to be sold and tax to be paid so involved a lot of time-consuming work, which I’ve had to fit in to the spaces previously occupied by writing and marketing.

Something had to give. Much of my writing time disappeared along with all the time I used to spend marketing. My book sales have suffered, especially in the States. But I’ve now almost completed administration of the estate. Most of the time-heavy work has been done and I’ll be ready to finalise everything as soon as I receive final confirmation of the estate’s tax affairs.

At last, I can return to writing and this week I’ve cut the hours in my regular job by half. In truth, it’s more of a risk now than it would have been twelve months ago, but if I don’t do this now, I may never.

Yesterday was my first ‘writing day’ and the first time I’ve been able to write in a block of four hours without feeling guilty about the jobs around the house or family stuff I should have been doing instead. Afternoons of writing days are to be devoted to things like editing, research, business administration and, of course, marketing. Perhaps I will at last get to learn a little about how to effectively promote my books, which to me means making readers aware of them without feeling I’m shoving them in their faces.

Here’s a snapshot of what is now my office for two or three days of each week. At least until I can write full-time. Or, God forbid, until I have to go back to my regular employer, cap in hand, and beg for my full-time hours back. Shudder…

[Update, July 2018: I finalised my uncle’s estate a couple of months later. And apart from a few more books lying about, that writing space hasn’t changed much.

Since becoming a part-time writer a year ago, my output hasn’t been as great as I’d anticipated. It went well at first – I finished the novel I was working on, Jack’s Tale, wrote a collection of dark, Christmas-themed short stories in time for a late October release, began and finished the final novel in The Elevator trilogy, The Lord of the Dance. I began a new novel, a dark tale set in post-war Britain that hasn’t yet made up its mind if it’s going to be horror or science fiction. In addition, I posted regularly to my blog.

However, in March came a couple of events that somewhat derailed progress. My wife underwent a double knee replacement and I parted company with my publishers. For a while, I found myself playing the part (willingly, I should add) of carer for a temporarily disabled spouse – she’s now almost fully recovered and far more mobile than she was before the op. More significantly, I found that I needed to revise and revamp my entire catalogue – more of that in later posts.

The upshot was that my writing and marketing time once more disappeared, along with my website which had gone poof! in February. In effect, I’m around five months behind where I’d planned to be. But now that my catalogue has been revised and self-published, and my website’s back, I can turn once more to the horror/sci-fi novel and hopefully publish it before Christmas.]

Adventures in Self-Publishing

Long before I had my own website, I posted a couple of articles about self-publishing to a friend’s blog, under the pseudonym Johnny Luv – don’t ask. Since I’m starting this blog from scratch, thought I might as well reproduce those articles here – if you can’t engage in a spot of self-indulgence on your own website, then where can you?

Here’s the first, originally posted around October 2012:

Walking on Eggshells – Adventures in Self-Publishing

So, I wrote a bundle of short stories and a couple of novels. Some of the short stories were published in small press magazines. Many more were rejected. I accumulated a file of rejections for the novels from agents and publishers. They say that a writer needs a thick skin; well, mine wasn’t thick enough. I gave up.

Then the Kindle and the e-book self-publishing revolution came along. I didn’t even notice. Until I received a Kindle last Christmas. Even then, it took me months to appreciate the opportunities that were now open to a writer with a collection of scribblings sitting on the hard drive of his computer.

In August, I bundled ten short stories together into a collection that I named after one of the stories: Pond Life. Taking a deep breath, I published the collection for the Kindle on Amazon under a pseudonym. Once I’d worked out how to format the book, it was a doddle. It even has a professional cover designed by a kindly artist in return for a credit on the inside and a link to her website on my Facebook page.

Okay. My book was there, but then what was I supposed to do? I’ve read that there are in excess of a million self-published books on Amazon alone. There are numerous other self-publishing sites. How does an unknown become noticed in that sort of crowd?

I visited the Amazon discussion forums (or fora, if you’d prefer). There are a bewildering number, containing a bewildering number of threads, many of which contain tens of thousands of comments (posts). Daunting does not do it justice. I spent hour upon hour reading through threads, skimming thousands of posts, seeking advice on how to promote my book.

There’s a heck of a lot of advice out there. Not all of it good. But I managed to extract what I felt to be the worthy advice: join in discussions on the forums, have your own website, publish more books, join the Amazon programme that allows limited free book promotions.

Well, I joined the programme and have held one free promotional day thus far. Around sixty free copies of my book were downloaded, most in the States. That’s not many, but I learned a lot and should do better next time. I don’t yet have my own website, but have registered a domain name; it’s a start. And I’m rewriting the first novel (it was written over ten years ago and a rewrite is much needed) with the aim of publishing it in December. So that just leaves the forums. And that’s where the allusion to walking on eggshells comes in.

The Amazon Discussion Forums are essentially divided into two parts: those where writers can promote their work and those where they can’t. And woe betide a writer who self-promotes in the wrong forum. The outcome can be carnage. Some readers keep NRA lists (Never Read Authors). It has been known for authors to have their books subjected to scathing reviews from reviewers disgruntled at what an author has posted on the forums. Even mentioning that you are a writer in the wrong place can lead to withering attacks.

Not that all authors behave professionally. There are threads devoted to the antics of what are labelled BBA (Badly Behaving Authors). Sometimes this label is deserved.

So do I regret jumping headlong into the shark-infested self-publishing sea? Not for one moment. It’s been fun and exciting and I’ve ‘met’ some friendly and talented people in cyberspace. I’ve had a short story featured on another author’s website. I’ve had the same story published in an anthology that, as I write this, is in the top 100 Science-fiction Anthologies. Someone even wants to interview me for her blog. It may not be much, but it’s a start and I’m hungry for more.

Now to get that first novel published…

[Update, July 2018: The Amazon Discussion Forums bit the dust in October 2017. I miss them – not the ones inhabited by frothing-at-the-mouth, self-appointed custodians of the internet, ready to pounce upon anyone who – gasp! – admits they’re a writer, but the ones where like-minded people, readers and writers, could come together and discuss books and anything else that took their fancy.

The breathless reference to over a million self-published books on Amazon gives me a wry smile – last I looked, there were in excess of five million Kindle books available; not all of them self-published, of course, but I’m willing to bet the proportion is significantly high, in excess of three-quarters. And I wondered how to gain visibility back then…]

Here’s the second article, originally posted around April 2013:

Adventures in Self-Publishing: Second and Final Part

So I did it: went against the accepted wisdom that goes something like, “Whatever you do, never publish the first novel you write. Ever.” Not that I think I know better – I sometimes think I know less than very little – but I revisited that first novel after a ten-year break and found that there was something there that readers might like. Sure, it has its shortcomings, but I felt I had nothing to lose.

It was fortunate that I was able to lay my hands on a copy. After accumulating all those rejection slips from London agents and publishers, I had deleted the novel from my computer in a fit of pique. I’d printed a copy, but we moved house five years ago and things have gone missing. But, luckily for me, not the novel. The long process of retyping it onto the computer gave me the opportunity to revise and tighten the prose, and I ended up with a 64,000-word story. Quite short for a novel, but about the right length, I felt, for a debut. At least readers wouldn’t have much time to become bored. I gave it a title: The Village of Lost Souls.

Christmas was approaching by the time I finished the rewrite and final proofreads. Deciding that life is too short to read it through again – there has to come a point when you say, ‘Enough’s enough; publish and be damned!’ – I took another deep breath and pressed the ‘publish’ button. Then I sat back and waited. (Actually, that’s not quite true. I had to do all the usual self-promoting stuff discussed in my earlier post on this topic. Then I sat back and waited.)

I had to wait almost three weeks for the first feedback. I expected reviews that were middle-of-the-road, neither loving nor hating; if I could average a three-star rating, I would be happy. The first review stunned me; the reviewer said, “I absolutely loved this book. Loved it!” More reviews in a similar vein followed. The lowest rating so far is three stars. I still can’t quite believe the strength of emotion the story evokes. I set out to write a ghost story; I seem to have ended up with something more.

But for all its positive reviews, the book is floundering under the sheer volume of competition. It barely sells. My efforts at self-promotion are, frankly, feeble. I’m not very good at it and never will be. I have no idea how to reach the readership that I have to believe is out there waiting to discover my books.

Maybe now I won’t have to find out how. Something amazing happened totally out of the blue about two weeks ago: I was contacted by a publisher. A small, independent publisher based in Florida, that had read both my books, felt they deserved to sell a lot more than they currently are selling and offered to publish and market them. My excitement was tempered by wariness. I’ve read so many sorry tales of aspiring authors being taken to the cleaners by unscrupulous, so-called publishers who make money by charging the writer exorbitant fees for editing, cover-design and marketing, then price the books at such ridiculously-high prices that nobody buys them, forcing the writer to pay through the nose to buy back the book’s rights.

I awaited the contract with a knot in my stomach – if it contained such terms, I would be compelled to reject it: my big chance, perhaps my only chance, gone. To my astonishment, it didn’t. For a complete unknown like me, it seemed perfectly reasonable (apart from one clause that the publisher readily agreed to amend to something I was happy with). So I signed.

Hence the reason I’ve called this the “…Final Part.” I can drop the ‘self’ from ‘self-published author’. Still pinching myself…

[Update, July 2018: I clearly recall the excitement I felt at being approached by a publisher, like a child first learning about Christmas. Sadly, it didn’t work out quite as either of us had planned and we parted company in March this year. Thus, my titling this piece ‘Final Part’ turned out to be premature – I’m self-publishing again and all the happier for it.

The last few months have seen me negotiating learning curves so steep they’re vertical, with overhangs, and given me enough material for umpteen posts about the publishing process. If self-publishing concerns you, pop back from time to time – there will be the occasional article you might find of interest. And don’t be afraid to leave a comment. It’ll be good to see you.]

 

Normal Service is Resumed

Long story short: I have been unable to post to my website, or indeed access it, since late February 2018 due to issues caused by an update followed immediately by issues caused by my hosting company.

At around the same time, I parted company with my publishers and found myself up to my eyes in learning how to produce my own paperbacks. Fair to say, I doubt I’d have found the time to post regularly even had the site been working.

But that’s all behind me now. (See the forthcoming posts about publishing paperbacks for more details, if that sort of thing interests you.) I have a new website host and, fingers crossed, everything seems to be back to normal.

I have, however, had to rebuild this site from scratch. That’s why there are no blog posts. Fortunately, I have copies of most of the posts that appeared on my old site and so can begin to repost them, with dates they originally appeared where relevant.

Posts will be loosely categorised according to their main theme(s) – writing, reading, publishing, marketing, etc. If you’re only interested in, say, posts about reading, you should be able to click on the reading category and only find the posts categorised thus. At least, I think that’s how it will work. We shall see…