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70,000 words and counting

quill pen in inkwell on antique paper

A few days ago I broke through the 70,000 word mark on the follow-up to Fallen on Good Times. It’s really opened my eyes to what you can achieve when you chip away at something a little bit at a time. What always held me back was the sheer size of the task ahead of me. Every time I would sit down at my computer, or think about working on the book, I would simply realise just how many tens of thousands of words were required from me and give up, overwhelmed by the scale of it all.

But since Christmas I’ve been reinvigorated. I started 2016 with a very old draft of the book that was about 30,000 words long. Simply by adopting the philosophy that writing even 100 words was better than writing nothing, I find myself now having averaged 10,000 words a month and well past the halfway point. I’m currently in the middle of writing one of the key scenes in the book – a scene which I’ve been visualising for over three years now.

It reminds me of that Lao Tzu proverb – overused, but incredibly accurate (as cliches often are) – ‘a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step’.

I’ve begun building up momentum now, driven by the fact that not only am I approaching the finish line, but also the realisation that the finish line has moved closer towards me.

If you read this post on the fact that book II is going to be a very long one, you’ll know that I estimated the final word count at around 135,000 words. I arrived at that number by dividing the amount of words I had done so far by the number of plot points I had completed writing, then multiplied that by the total number of plot points in my synopsis.

Well, as I progressed through the synopsis, I realised that in shuffling scenes around I’d accidentally duplicated five of the plot points. This takes the synopsis down to 40 key developments, which has had the effect of shaving about 15,000 words off the projected total.

All of a sudden, I’m excited again. I’m no longer just trudging along, reminding myself of the big picture (that one day I’ll turn around and give myself a damn good kicking over the fact it’s taken me four years to write another book, all the while lamenting the other volumes I could have written if I just had the discipline and the motivation). Now, I’ve begun to think about the finished book: about how exciting it will be to market another volume; to hold the finished novel in my hands; to put on the shelf with my other work. I’ve started dreaming up ideas for book trailers and other such promotion.

But it’s not that I’m getting ahead of myself: there’s still a long way to go before I’ve even finished draft one, let alone the extensive edits and reader feedback that are going to come before this book is ready to go. This foresight is not jumping the gun, it’s simply the by-product of enthusiasm. It’s similar to the way in which you speed up the pace of your reading as you reach the most tense part of a novel; you aren’t wishing it away, you’re simply eager to see how it unfolds.

Plus there are lots of things that I didn’t get to do when marketing Fallen on Good Times, which I’m excited to try out for book II. I’m also interested to see if the simple act of having two published novels will improve my sales (it couldn’t make them any worse).

There is still quite a way to go yet. Which reminds me: 80,000 words beckons. If you’ll excuse me…

What to do with a really long book

Books in the DarkA question for all of the readers out there. I’ve just broken through the 60,000-word barrier on the follow-up to Fallen on Good Times. It’s been a long, incredibly drawn-out process so far, of which I’ll probably talk about soon. I’m heartened by the fact I’ve got so far.

The thing that finally helped me break through the barrier of actually attempting to write the book was to simply focus on the idea of ‘making progress’, rather than eyeing up an end goal. Even if I only managed to write hundred words; that’s still productive, and it’s still useful. It is infinitely better than not bothering to write anything because I know I won’t be able to make a huge dent in the total word count.

I’m not intending to abandon that attitude anytime soon. Considering the restrictions on my time, it’s the only attitude that is going to allow me to make any progress at all. If I only write when I have the time or inclination to make significant progress, or if I set myself a target for when I want the book finished, I’ll go back to being overwhelmed by the scale of the task in front of me and give up again entirely.

However, having made such significant progress on the novel so far, my thoughts have started to drift ahead to what will happen when it is finished. I’m excited to get another book out there. It’s been far too long since Fallen on Good Times was released, and I can’t wait to see it side-by-side with its ancestor.

There is, however, a slight problem, which will lead me onto asking the question I alluded to in the intro.

BOOK TWO IS GOING TO BE KIND OF BIG

I’ve arrived at the 60,000-word mark while halfway through plot point 21. The total number of scenes/developments in my synopsis is 49. If you do a quick average of the number of words per plot point, this means I am looking at a final word count of around 137,000 for book two. If I were writing Fallen on Good Times, I would be only 7,000 words away from finishing the first draft at this point, but as it stands with book two, I’m not even halfway through.

We can of course assume that I can cut down on the word count significantly with a few rounds of decent editing and some reader feedback. However, there are aspects to the novel that I know I’m going to want to expand upon. In several instances I have simply glossed over a development or description because I was more interested in getting the first draft done than making sure everything was in place. So I think it’s probably fair to assume that the additional material I plan to add will counterbalance any edits I make. Also worth noting is the fact that I did the same sums when the hit the 50,000-word mark and calculated the finished novel would be around 125,000 words.

Which leaves me with a bit of a problem. In the grand scheme of things, 137,000 words isn’t massively long in terms of a novel. If you assume a reasonably large font and 250 words per page, you’re looking at 548 pages. That’s still pretty slim compared to the average Robin Hobb, George R. R. Martin, or Alastair Reynolds book. Decrease the font a bit, or make the margins a bit narrower, so that you can put 300 words on the page and you cut out a hundred pages. 450 pages is approaching something like the average length for a traditionally published novel.

But in terms of my work, it’s very long. It’s twice as long as Fallen on Good Times. I’m not sure if that’s an issue or not. On one hand, it’s a lot more book, which is surely a good thing for people who enjoyed Fallen on Good Times, as they get to spend twice as much time in the company of the characters and inhabiting the world that they enjoyed the first time around. On the other, it is quite a drastic change of pace, and I don’t want people thinking that book two is simply the product of overstuffing description or poor editing. Obviously that’s a judgement from my beta readers, when I finally get around to sending them a copy, but I’m confident this isn’t the case.

Book two is so long because there is more plot, more characters, more nuance to the story than the first book. I believe it is going to be an improvement in every way, building on what (judging by the reviews of book one so far) is a solid foundation.

THE MANY PROBLEMS OF HAVING MANY PAGES

University Library, Basel, SwitzerlandSo that’s the first issue: one of perception. Will people be happy with a longer second book, or will it put them off? And as self-published novels go, I expect 137,000 words is actually quite long.

The second issue was one of practicality. Fallen on Good Times is available in both eBook and paperback formats. This is the way I want all of my future work to be. Not very many people buy the paperback (or the Kindle version, for that matter), but it is an important part of the publishing process for me. I wouldn’t feel the same way about my books if there wasn’t a physical copy of them available. Growing up, before self-publishing or eBooks really became a thing, I’d naturally pictured my books in paperback, piled on the table for book signings and lining the shelves of bookstores. It is therefore an intrinsic part of convincing myself that I have achieved my dreams for me to have a physical copy.

However, the costs would be prohibitive. I make very little from each sale of the paperback version Fallen on Good Times, despite the standard £7.50 retail price. I actually make more money if you buy a Kindle version. The issue here is that Amazon is offering a print-on-demand service. Normal publishers print thousands of copies of their books in one go, reducing the cost per unit to the point where they can pay for materials, production, author royalties, delivery fees, and still make a decent profit (well, the last part is arguable these days). Because Amazon prints each book as it is ordered, they are much more expensive. There is a flat fee per book and another charge based upon the number of pages, then Amazon’s royalties to think about, and finally I get whatever is left.

A quick look on Createspace’s royalty calculator page tells me that if I were to opt for the small font 450-page version of the paperback, I would have to set the retail price at £9 in order to make any sort of profit, of which there would be 20p. If I wanted to make what I think we can all agree is a not-extortionate profit of £1 per paperback copy sold, I would need to set the retail price at £10.33. In the grand scheme of things that’s not exactly expensive, but for a book, in the wider market, it is a bit. I wouldn’t even expect my friends and family to pay the extra three odd pounds over the going rate for a book for my work, let alone readers in general.

It seems there are three options available to me, which I’d like to walk you through:

  1. Publish the book on Kindle only
  2. Publish a ‘collected edition’ on Kindle and split the book into two volumes in paperback
  3. Split the book into two volumes on both Kindle and paperback.

Each has its own advantages and disadvantages in terms of practicality, value to the reader, and profitability.

OPTION ONE: PUBLISH ON KINDLE ONLY

Reading Kindle OutdoorsAs I’ve already said, having a paperback copy is quite important to me. I suppose I could still publish it on paperback, at the high retail price just to make sure that I broke even with every copy sold – buying copies through Createspace’s trade price option for authors would work out and about the average price per paperback novel anyway, including postage, so I’d still be able to get copies for myself and my family without making a real loss.

The real advantage in publishing solely on Kindle is that it cuts out the impracticalities of a large paperback. People don’t really buy paperback versions of self-published novels anyway, if statistics are to be believed. Therefore, I’m not exactly losing anything, and it’s practical for the reader to have a large book on a Kindle.

There is still a monetary issue. Fallen on Good Times is £1.99 or $2.77 on Kindle. I feel like it’s a fair enough request to ask for a bit more if you’re paying for double the book, but I don’t know if readers would agree. Some might interpret it as me getting greedy, although sales of Fallen on Good Times would really have to take off before that argument becomes in anyway realistic. Although the idea that I might have ‘hooked’ people with the first book, only to be charging them more for the follow-up, might be a little more believable to someone who doesn’t know my actual motivations.

With all the other self-published novels out there, £1.99 is already expensive compared to all the 99p deals (and that’s already a reduced price from the original of £2.50), so while I’m still an unknown, un-reviewed, unproven author, is anybody going to want to spend £3 or £4 on my second book?

OPTION TWO: PUBLISH A ‘COLLECTED EDITION’ ON KINDLE AND TWO VOLUMES IN PAPERBACK

I could split book to into two individual volumes, each one as long as Fallen on Good Times. From a consistency point of view at least, that’s a winner. It would also give Laslo Kane a trilogy of stories. Three is the magic number, after all. I was intending to introduce a new character as the protagonist of the fourth novel (I intend to follow the patterns of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, in which over time he established several pockets of different characters, each with their own plots and troubles to deal with, many of whom occasionally interlinked) and for some reason I feel as though Laslo having three books is neater before moving on to focus on someone else, at least for the time being. And most trilogies do seem to follow the pattern of having one stand-alone book to begin with, followed by two novels which work more as two installments of the same story.

On paperback, it allows me to do two things. Firstly, it allows me to make my personal bookshelf look a bit nicer, as I’ll have three volumes in the Pilgrim’s Wane collection. Secondly, it means I can actually sell paperback novels of the books at a reasonable price, for those who want to buy them. I’ll also be able to purchase paperback copies at an affordable rate to give away as competition prizes.

Of course the big picture here is that in actual fact buying these two paperbacks would add up to more than the cost of buying the one larger volume, but from a psychological point of view I think people would actually prefer that. Each volume would be treated as a book in its own right anyway, with separate release dates and marketing, so this would certainly not be a ‘profit-making’ exercise. If anything it would lose me a hell of a lot of money, as I have to pay for two separate cover designs and two lots of formatting, the cost of which I am unlikely to recover in sales for a long time.

On Kindle I could solve the problem of getting people to pay twice by offering the two volumes together as a ‘collected edition’. I’d also be able to instantly create a third product, a trilogy ‘box set’, which will include Fallen on Good Times. I’ve heard that these tend to sell quite well, and it will be a good way to introduce somebody to my work. People aren’t necessarily going to become fans after reading one book, but if they get hold of three, whether as a free giveaway, when they’re on sale, or because they liked the value that the three book edition offered, they are more likely to take an interest in me as a writer.

OPTION THREE: PUBLISH TWO VOLUMES ON KINDLE AND TWO VOLUMES IN PAPERBACK

The paperback situation would remain the same as above. Another benefit of doing this is that it would help me to create some more momentum in my marketing, something I’ve struggled to do in recent times, especially considering I’ve always known that book two would be a long way off. If I scheduled what would become book three to be released a few months after book two, I would have a goal to work towards as I (hopefully) began writing book four. It could help bridge the gap between the next Pilgrim’s Wane novel, giving me a way of keeping people interested in the interim.

Publishing two volumes on Kindle would simply be for continuity’s sake. I could still create the ‘box set’ versions mentioned above, it would just mean that volumes two and three were also available separately. Prosaically, paying £1.99 for two 300-page instalments of the same story is no different to paying £3.98 for the 600-page version. However, again, it would be easy for someone to accuse me of ‘moneymaking‘.

THE THORNY ISSUE OF CLIFF-HANGERS

Lady on Cliff EdgeThe elephant in the room is what would happen to the story itself. Because it is a complex, flowing narrative, there is no point at which I could cut it in half and neatly round it off into two entirely self-contained volumes. The only way to do it would be to leave volume 2 with a cliff-hanger ending. Now, as long as you build a satisfactory story throughout the novel, and give readers some form of resolution, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with doing this. I’ve also identified point in the story at which it could potentially happen.

But I know that a lot of people don’t like cliff-hanger endings, especially in novels, where they can often feel cheated without a proper resolution. And again, it can instantly raise accusations of profiteering, as though I’m deliberately withholding the rest of the story until they pay me more money. This can sort of be circumnavigated on Kindle at least by making both volume 2 and volume 3 £0.99, so that buying them together only costs the same as buying the first book. Of course, in paperback, this is a different problem. Although considering no one buys paperbacks, perhaps the issue is moot.

I’m not entirely sure I’d be comfortable, or feel particularly fulfilled, if I left volume 2 with a cliff-hanger ending. However, the prospect of having three Laslo Kane books and a host of different Kindle products does excite me.

It all comes down to reader tastes.

BACK TO THE QUESTION AT HAND

Which, a couple of thousand words later than planned, leads to my questions:

Firstly, which of the options above do you prefer? Which is best for you as a reader, and which would you be most happy with?

Secondly, what you think of books with cliff-hanger endings? Do you avoid them, or love the suspense? Have you come across a lot of books that do this, or is it a rare occurrence?

Do leave your comments below. This post is simply a brain dump, rather than any concrete planning and I still have half the book left to write just to finish draft one, after all – so your thoughts can shape the way in which I finish, market, and release this book.  Or books.


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Could the people running our country please behave like grown-ups?

Big Ben and Houses of Parliament

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, delivered his latest budget speech to Parliament today. It went largely as you would expect, in that the Conservative party did a lot of cheering and the Labour Party did a lot of and jeering.

My ability to watch things such as Prime Minister’s Questions or other Parliamentary debates disappeared a long time ago. The reason? I can’t stand watching the people who are meant to be in charge of our country sneer at each other like two rival gangs of schoolchildren gathered in a circle around two of their members who look like they’re about to start fighting.

Frankly I find the whole thing embarrassing. Our government is made up of highly educated, well paid, intelligent people with experience and critical judgement and supposedly all the sound mental faculties necessary to run a country. But put them in the House of Commons and they fall so far out of the evolutionary tree that they end up a couple of stages below the primates who have just discovered how to crack walnuts open with rocks.

I don’t know if it’s just the atmosphere of the House, peer pressure (unintentional politics pun), or if MPs genuinely think that’s what ‘representing their constituents’ looks like. But jeering at each other does nothing to solve the problems of this country. It doesn’t boost inflation, it won’t create new jobs, it doesn’t fund the NHS, and it doesn’t help millennial’s like me whose only hope of saving enough money to get on the property ladder is if they live so far into the future that 3001: The Final Odyssey is classed as ‘historical fiction’.

Personally I’m tired of the whole charade. I don’t need a member of the opposition to criticise every single policy, sentence, or word uttered by their political rivals. I don’t need a house full of people who supposedly have the best interests of my country at heart fighting like seagulls over a spilt tray of chips.

I want them to do the unimaginable. I want them to sit down, shut up, and listen to each other. I’m not interested in cheap shots, low blows, insults, sarcasm, scapegoating, or assigning blame.

Politicians have always had an image problem, and is it any wonder? They behave in a way that would get the rest of us thrown out of public places, or disciplined by our employers. It is made even more embarrassing by the fact that the Speaker is there to keep the mob under control, but apparently what we see on a regular basis is considered perfectly acceptable.

Braying, guffawing, and condescending doesn’t win votes, and it doesn’t help the country. So how about the people in charge spend less time acting like children, and more time trying to make this country a better place for the next generation?

The ‘scam’ email that turned out to be a $150,000 writing prize

Fountain pen and letter on wooden background

First of all, no, this hasn’t happened to me. Second of all, damnit.

It’s a fact of modern life that we will come across attempted scams scarily often. So it’s no wonder that Helen Garner, an Australian writer, initially ignored an email attempting to contact her about a ‘prize’ that she had supposedly won. Most of us get dodgy emails with alarming frequency. I get five or six a day thanks to the fact that my email provider has an open prison with Japanese Shoji walls.

An email supposedly claiming to be from someone at Yale University, who needed a phone number to contact with the ‘good news’, seemed to Helen to possess all the hallmarks of a classic spam message. Especially considering some of the attempted fraud these days is incredibly sophisticated, although mostly it does seem that criminals still rely upon error-ridden messages purportedly showing you the key to making £1 million in a year working from home, or medication promising to make bits of you work like they used to, or better than they currently do.

Luckily for Helen, she double-checked with both Yale University and her publisher. It’s a good thing she did, as it turned out that the ‘scam’ message was in fact from Yale prize director Michael Kelleher, attempting to inform her of the $150,000 (£107,000) literary prize she had scooped.

On top of Helen Garner, eight other writers won the Windham-Campbell prize, a literary accolade setup using a monetary gift from late writer Douglas Windham, to celebrate the memory of his wife, Sandy M Campbell.

“I thought it was ‘Congratulations, you’ve won a cruise to Florida if you pay $200’,” Hannah Moscovitch explained.

At least two of the other writers, Abbie Spallen, an Irish playwright, and Hannah Moscovitch, a playwright from Canada, were initially dubious about the validity of their congratulatory emails as well. Had Abbie deleted the voicemail without listening to it in its entirety, or Moscovitch ignored her message, they too might have missed out on $150,000.

The Windham-Campbell prize differs somewhat from a lot of other literary accolades in that there is no entry process and it is judged anonymously. I personally like this, as I think I would find it a bit hollow to win an award for which I’d have to nominate myself in the first place (although I’m bound to put myself forward for some in the future – you got to spread the word somehow).

Because writers don’t have to enter the competition, those who win have no idea that they have even been shortlisted. With so many literary prizes out there, it is unsurprising that many of the winners have never heard of the Windham-Campbell prize.

I’m glad these writers made the right judgement call (and naturally quite jealous). For many of them, the prize-money gives them the chance to write full-time, giving them a great – and obviously well-deserved – opportunity to take a part-time job and turn it into a career and their life’s focus.

On that note, I better go check my spam folder again. There’s a man claiming I won the Nigerian lottery, a prince who wants to send me £2 million because he’s got too much money lying around, and a woman who wants to… Well, never mind.

Meet the 5D glass chip that makes your Kindle look like a floppy disk

Planet earth from the space at night
All the written work of this planet contained on a biscuit-sized disc of glass.

One of the many benefits of a Kindle is the fact that it allows you to carry thousands of books around in your pocket. But the next step in data storage makes the Kindle look far more old school than eReaders ever did the paperback.

Scientists based in the UK, in collaboration with colleagues from the Netherlands, have been working on new technology dubbed the ‘Superman memory crystals’ which currently blow every other method of data storage we have out of the water.

Science Fiction data storage is finally here

Compared to the vellum that UK laws are written on, I suppose a USB stick does seem rather nifty. But it never had that proper ‘Science Fiction’ vibe. While automatic doors have a ring of Star Trek to them, and pretty much everything that goes up into space was dreamt up first by Arthur C Clarke, flash drives and SD cards never felt particularly space age to me.

You can’t see the Death Star plans being delivered to the rebel spies on a novelty USB stick shaped like a wedge of cheese, for instance.

But these 5D glass chips are properly futuristic. Using a femtosecond laser (which sounds like a hair removal treatment for women), a team of scientists led by Jingyu Zhang were able to imprint tiny dots onto a piece of fused quartz glass. The process still uses the binary data system, where a dot is representative of ‘1’, while an empty space is representative of ‘0’.

After that, it all gets a bit complicated. But to paraphrase Matt Damon in The Martian, it sounds like they scienced the **** out of it.

The entirety of human history in palm of your hand

This new method is more than a little efficient compared to your average hard drive. One of these glass chips has the capacity to hold 360 TB of data (1 TB is 1024 GB). This means that on a glass disc roughly the circumference of an Oreo could hold the contents of 75,000 DVDs, which means you’d only need a few if you wanted to collect all of the episodes of The Simpsons.

Here’s the good news the Kindle lovers, or lovers of human history, or people who’d like our data to be preserved for a very, very long time; 360 TB is the equivalent of 180 million books. In the entire of human history, we have produced 130 million books, meaning one of these chips could store the entire published work of mankind (even including Robert Jordan’s the Wheel of Time series) and still be only two thirds full.

The disc that could outlast us all

One of these glass chips could very well outlive the human race. The crystals remain stable up to temperatures of 1000°C – the same temperature as the inside of the pitta bread after a minute in a toaster – and the scientists responsible believe it could endure for a million years. That would certainly make protecting your data a lot more convenient without Norton popping up to remind you that you haven’t backed up for a week.

It’s good to know that our data could live longer than we do. Legacy is important to me. The human race won’t live forever; the vast size and scale of the universe makes it impossible for us to see it through to the end. So it’s nice to know that when we have had our time, our artefacts will live on.

Like in Indiana Jones (But with Lizards)

It would be nice to flip the tables and reverse the roles in the classic science fiction stories. Instead of humans landing on a strange planet and finding mysterious temples, it could be 10-foot lizard beings that touched down on the Earth’s surface millions of years from now. They may learn some strange things about the once-inhabitants of this green and fertile land. One of them might trip over an old selfie stick.

And in the dusty ruins of an old, yet futuristic, library, they may come across a small box of glass discs. They find a device nearby which seems to have a perfectly shaped chamber for these discs. They insert one and – to their immense surprise – discover that it works perfectly. The projector flickers into life, painting pictures on a dusty wall of the time long past.

And at that moment, thousands of millennia after humankind last strode across the Earth’s surface, those lizard beings will be able to take a humble piece of glass and read the entire of Garfield.


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Fallen On Good Times Isn’t Selling: Here’s Why I’m OK With That

libro antico aperto

If you’ve been here before you might know that almost three years ago I released my first ever novel, Fallen on Good Times. The story, a comic paranormal noir set in 1920s America, follows soft-boiled detective Laslo Kane as he gets embroiled deeper and deeper into a strange case of blackmail while desperately trying to escape his chosen career path.

I had big plans for it. Unsurprisingly they’ve all fallen flat.

It does, on many levels, pain me to say that Fallen on Good Times hasn’t sold many copies. Obviously three years later I’d rather be sitting here celebrating a sales milestone, perhaps the 1000 copies mark, or the 5000, or the 10,000. I can’t tell you how many it has actually sold, because I honestly don’t know. I haven’t even checked my Amazon dashboard in about a year.

But that’s not to say I have given up. On many levels I’m actually okay with the fact that the book hasn’t sold. Here’s why.

WRITING IT WAS THE IMPORTANT PART

Books are hard to write. That’s not an industry secret. They get harder as you get older, because adulthood grabs you from behind, rifle through your pockets, and runs away with the majority of your spare time. Jobs, and children, and bills all take precedent. I know that starting writing so young was an advantage, as I’ve been able to develop a talent for it, but in some ways it has been a curse, in that I’ve seen my availability to write decline as I get older and more barriers pop up between me and my dreams of authorhood.

The fact that life makes writing books hard is evidenced by the fact that, nearly three years after I first started thinking about it, I am still only about 35,000 words into Book II, which is just over a third if my estimates over its completed length are accurate. Although a good chunk of progress has been made in the last couple weeks, but if you look at it from a purely mathematical point of view, it could take me in till 2022 just to finish the first draft.

The harder it is to get that second book out there, the more I realise how advantageous it is that Fallen on Good Times has been written, edited, branded and published. It wasn’t a waste of time, or energy. It’s always going to be there, waiting for a follow-up, and for me to have the time, energy, and discipline to do it justice.

A SOLID FOUNDATION OF QUALITY

It may be that not enough people have read Fallen on Good Times for me to get an accurate statistical picture, but as it stands at the moment those who have read the book have loved it. It may not have many reviews, but the ones it does have say some pretty complimentary things about it.

It might not be selling, but the fact is I think I gathered enough evidence to help soften my own doubts and accept that I’ve written a good book, with good characters and a good premise. Those are all things that will serve me going forward. Luckily for me, books don’t diminish in quality the older they get. And being set in the 1920s means it’s hardly likely to slip out of relevance – it’s not the biography of the latest TV talent show winner whose celebrity status will flicker and die within a few months, making the book obsolete.

I’d rather have a quality book that nobody has bought yet, than one that has sold several thousand copies and collected an overwhelming majority of negative feedback. It’s a lot easier to generate more sales than it is to make a book less crap.

I KNOW WHY IT’S NOT SELLING

The thing that softens the blow of poor sales the most is the fact that I understand the reason why sales are poor. My time as a freelance writer running my own business and my research during the run up to publication has given me a good understanding of the basics of marketing, and more. So I know that the reason Fallen on Good Times isn’t selling is not necessarily because people don’t want to buy it, but because they have no idea that it exists.

I have not been able to do the things that I know I need to do in order to get the book in front of readers. Before publication I compiled a 10,000-word marketing plan, and I know that if I had stuck to that religiously, I probably would be here writing a post celebrating at least 1000 copies sold, but likely a lot more. But for a large and complex cocktail of reasons which I don’t need to go into here, I haven’t been able to do much marketing.

Basically, I haven’t finished this endurance race because I never filled my car up with petrol. That is a far more preferable handicap to have than being a terrible driver or having a crap vehicle. There’s always more I can do to help promote my book, and getting the second one finished is one of those things. And then the third, then the fourth, and so on. Writing this blog post is one of those things, even if it is only the merest drop in the ocean compared to what I have to do.

WATCHING MY CURRENT STEPS, NOT DREAMING OF FUTURE ONES

I spent too long thinking about the end goal. Too long convincing myself that it wasn’t worth doing anything because the dream was so far away that to take a few steps wasn’t going to bring the horizon any closer. But now, for the moment (and I’m choosing not to blow it by convincing myself that it is permanent, or placing expectations of it being so upon myself) I discovered a new attitude. And that attitude is that I would rather give the faintest whisper about my book in a quiet corner of a dark building than continue to stand in silence in the middle of a crowded street.

Fallen on Good Times hasn’t sold many copies. But it will: not today, not tomorrow, maybe not for a few years. But I know I have the potential inside me to keep writing great stories, and the right combination of knowledge and skills to eventually get those stories in front of people who want to read them, and will enjoy doing so. And I’m okay with that.


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Doctor Who – Back on Form at Last?

Peter Capaldi as The Doctor. I don't know who is playing the explosion. Photo Credit: BBC America.
Peter Capaldi as The Doctor. I don’t know who is playing the explosion. Photo Credit: BBC America.

The only ‘it’s complicated’ reality-television style on-off relationship I’ve ever had has been with Doctor Who. Calm down fan-fic writers, I’m talking platonically. I like it because it has aliens and time travel and clever science and explosions and all the great science fiction elements. Yet as both myself and the series got older (I was only 15 when it came back), I began to realise I wasn’t enjoying it as much as I thought I ‘should’.

Warning: This post contains spoilers to the Doctor Who episodes Cold War, Under the Lake, and Before the Flood.

The problem was that many of the episodes missed the mark in so many ways. Russell T. Davies – who must be credited at least for bringing the show back in the first place – laid the foundations for a number of errors that still haunt the show to this day.

The problems I had were:

The Doctor often did very little

In many episodes he often served as little more than a glorified bus driver or tour guide, getting the assistant into scrapes so that…

His companions usually saved the day

In a lot of episodes the Doctor is either trapped, conflicted, or paralysed by guilt or fear, and as a result it is the companion who actually resolves the story. This usually happens because they are human and bring compassion out of everyone which plays right into error number three…

The villains often suddenly become nice

In the episode Cold War a crew of seamen trapped in a submarine with a fearsome Ice Warrior. At the end of the episode the Ice Warrior attempts to overload the submarine’s nuclear reactor, killing all the humans. Luckily, the Doctor ‘has a word’ with him and makes this ancient killing machine – who is so badass he has the name ‘warrior’ in the description of his species – change his mind.

He leaves peacefully, because he’s suddenly become really nice. This happens so often in Doctor Who. It even happens a couple of times to the Daleks, which is utterly ridiculous considering the whole point of them is that they are genetically engineered to remove their emotions and only feel hatred. It’s like a toaster that makes bread colder. It just doesn’t work.

Am I looking for Ninja Who? No, but…

I’m not always looking for a big fight. I don’t go in for senseless killing. At the same time, I hate it when people talk about the kind of ‘average’ violence in films as being a very bad thing. Yes, James Bond has killed a lot of people, but they were on the ‘bad’ side. While very few situations in real life are that clear-cut: this is cinema.

I’m intelligent enough to be able to enjoy a film – or a book, or play a game – in which the hero has to kill people to save the day, and understand that the victims are in many ways symbolic of the barriers they must face in order to gain victory. These kinds of things cater to our innate need to survive, to be challenged and come out on top. An action film is no different to a sporting event – they are both about creating a challenge for humanity to overcome in order to recapture that primal experience of surviving.

Which is why, although I don’t want the Doctor to become a serial killer, I don’t like it when he shies away from violence to the extent where the story just doesn’t work. It’s not realistic for a super-engineered killing machine like a Dalek to suddenly decide to be nice, and the whole point is that they are completely and utterly evil.

What’s great about the Doctor is that he always gives people a choice. Once they choose to continue in their evil ways, he puts a stop to it. That’s mercy, lenience, and clemency: all qualities to be admired, even when he has to resort to extreme measures to bring about justice.

That’s basically a huge part of his character and of the show – he does the difficult things that other people won’t, because someone has to, and because he’s a hero.

Everyone makes the Doctor look rubbish

This is basically a summary of the above three points. The Doctor is not meant to be an action hero akin to Rambo or Ethan Hunt, granted. His first line of defence should always be to run, his first weapon negotiation. But the Doctor who returned to our screens was crippled by an overwhelming mixture of guilt, fear, and a love of happy endings that he hardly ever did anything. He was basically a cameo character in his own show.

However…

I missed a few episodes of the last series, because I had finally given up. I realised that Doctor Who was always going to be – in my mind, at least – a concept that could never be brought to screen correctly. The plots were always going to be wishy-washy, the monsters ineffective, the companions too dominant and important, and the resolutions strained. I’m not saying I want the Doctor to go storming into a room with a machine gun and mow down everything in his path, but in past episodes he has often been so adverse to do anything remotely ‘naughty’ you can almost hear the show’s internal logic screeching as the plot bends it out of shape.

I think it’s worth addressing the point that DW is, technically (I guess), a kid’s show. So much of what is ‘wrong’ with it is that people think you can’t put anything remotely violent on television because all our children will grow up to be psychopaths. However, for hundreds of years our stories have followed a simple moral – bad people fail, and good people triumph. That, in itself, is enough of a message for kids. Even Disney, for crying out loud, kills off its villains. Are we really saying Doctor Who – which used to terrify the crap out of kids – needs to be tamer than The Lion King?

The trailer for the new series compelled me to try a couple of episodes. And I’m so glad I did. The first two were great, but the following two-parter by Toby Whithouse was brilliant. This episode (I’ll refer to both as one episode, seeing as they are two halves of the same story) was, in my opinion, everything Doctor Who should be.

For starters, it was bloody creepy

It had some actual monsters in it (ghosts, in fact, with big black eyes) who killed people. The Doctor and Clara are trapped in an underwater research facility with a science crew being attacked by ghostly apparitions that turn the crew they killed into others just like them. So it was ‘scary’, and it was tense.

Secondly, the Doctor did a lot of stuff

He was in charge. Clara had a big role to play – the assistant should have a big role, and I have no problem with them taking charge and leading parts of the story – but it was the Doctor everyone turned to. Because why have such an amazing, charismatic, funny, intelligent, eccentric, mad, unpredictable hero if you aren’t going to use him?

Thirdly, there was a big scary monster

And it was evil. It stayed evil right until the end, when…

Fourth, the Doctor kills the Fisher King (the main villain)

He doesn’t do it on a whim, and he thinks long and hard about it. But in the end, he decides that the Fisher King hijacking people’s souls to turn them into beacons, transmitting his location to his armada and killing more people to boost the signal, is robbing people of their deaths, and bending the rules of life.

The Fisher King has done something heinous and won’t relent – the Doctor has no choice. Had this been an earlier series of DW, the Fisher King would have suddenly realised the error of his ways, apologised, and left. Basically he would have become a different character and we’d all be left trying to work out how we’re supposed to believe that, and why he doesn’t get brought to justice for killing all those people before the Doctor had a heart-to-heart with him.

Fifth, the Doctor does lots of badass things

1) He shreds Beethoven on the guitar, 2) he does some clever trickery with a hologram ghost-version of himself, 3) he confronts the main villain without apologising, grovelling, or trying to find the good in him, 4) he does some cool timey-wimey stuff where it turns out it was him in the suspended animation pod the whole time and so he comes back in time to save the day, and 5) he kills the Fisher King by blowing up a damn and bringing millions of tonnes of water down upon him. Take that soppy, born-again Daleks.

Great television, not just great Doctor Who

One of the most impressive things about these two episodes was that they featured a deaf character and her interpreter. It was cleverly built into the story so that she played a vital role – the ghosts couldn’t make a noise, but they were mouthing a cryptic message that was broadcast across the galaxy. Who do you need to decode that? Someone who can lip-read.

There were lots of ways it was woven into the narrative, including an absolutely brilliant scene: she’s searching the corridors of the base on her own, being pursued by a ghost dragging an axe (they can hold onto metal objects). Eventually she feels the vibrations of the axe scraping across the metal floor and escapes harm. It’s a fantastic sequence, made especially creepy by the initial soundless shot of her walking while an armed ghost comes staggering up behind her.

Her character shows that disabled characters can not only be ‘accommodated’ into television shows; their ‘disabilities’ can become abilities. Her being deaf was almost a superpower in the episode. I’d love to see more of this in future episodes of DW. Writers everywhere (including myself) should take note.

A momentary blip or a return to form?

I’ve had too many instances of hoping Doctor Who was on track, only for those hopes to be derailed in the next episode. The first two episodes of this season were great as well, so maybe at the very least series 9 will have enough good episodes to keep me committed to watching for the foreseeable future.

Will this good form continue? Well, the trailer for the next episode depicts Vikings fighting huge killer robots, so here’s hoping…

Having a child – like character development, but more so

As a writer I spend a lot of time making people. They are all fictional, and it is my job to make you think otherwise. I have to make them feel real, bestowing flaws and talents, wants and desires, fears, shortcomings, relationships, and perspectives upon them to do so.

I have created many fictional people, some published, some not.

But recently things have been a bit different. There’s a new person in my life: I didn’t make them up, but I am partly responsible for their existence. A few weeks ago my fiancée gave birth to our first child, a baby boy. Logan.

Logan at two days old. He looks pretty inquisitive already, doesn't he?
Logan at two days old. He looks pretty inquisitive already, doesn’t he?

From idle chatter around campfires as a young boy, through teenage speculation at sleepovers, to the nine months of pregnancy, I have had plenty of time to ponder what it means to be a parent. I thought I had a pretty strong grasp of it. You see people doing it all the time, after all.

I’d considered all the nappy changes, the getting up late at night, the calming him when he cries. What I never really understood before he was born is that Logan, right now, is pure potential.

The day-to-day reality of his life may mean nappy changes and feeds and taking him in the pram to make our way through an assault course of grannies, but his existence – which is a much bigger thing – is full of ‘What if?’ Because my true role as a parent is to help him become the person he is meant to be; gently leading, but never pushing, guiding without forcing, enabling, not constricting.

Logan can be anything he wants to be. That’s not an empty sentiment, similar to what you might find in the average ‘motivational’ Facebook meme. It’s pure fact. His life can go anywhere.

When I look at Logan, I am constantly astounded by the experience and growth he is facing on a daily basis. Currently his eyes can’t focus, he hasn’t got the strength to hold up his own head, and he doesn’t even know that his arms and legs are part of his own body. He is a person, but such a tiny one, a seed ready to grow into something we can’t possibly imagine (but, not in an evil overlord kind of way. Probably).

Without stimulation, Logan's brain won't build the bridges it needs to discover a world of amazing possibilities. That's right, I did a metaphor.
Without stimulation, Logan’s brain won’t build the bridges it needs to discover a world of amazing possibilities. That’s right, I did a metaphor.

In the first few years of his life, Logan will create 700 to 1,000 neural connections every second. It is up to us to stimulate him into forging those connections, to create bridges between cells that give him access to greater function, new experience, and different ways of being. Each connection made is like lighting a candle in the dark, shining a light on a small part of a new future.

The more we work for him, the greater his future will be. For all my efforts in fiction, I will never create a character as complex, nor as beautiful, as him.


 

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Stories that took over the world

It all started here. And it's not over yet. Image Source: Forbes.
It all started here. And it’s not over yet. Image Source: Forbes.

I was listening to the Star Wars theme the other day, courtesy of Amazon’s new free music service for Prime Members (the fact that they seem to be trying to gain a monopoly over entertaining me is a topic for another post).

As the iconic music soared through the air, I began marvelling at the vast scale of Star Wars as an idea. I don’t mean in terms of plot and the environments in the narrative, but the huge impression it has left on modern popular culture.

I wonder what George Lucas would have made of it, had he known when writing Episode IV (the first Star Wars film, in case you weren’t already aware that George Lucas shares a numerical system similar to that of Microsoft and Windows) just what it would become. It’s fair to say the sheer scope of Star Wars as an entity is impressive, regardless of whether or not you liked the movies.

Films, television series, games, cartoons, books, stickers, toys, collectables, fancy dress, spin-offs, spoofs, soundtracks, stationary, clothing; the opportunities that have grown from this one concept stand as testimony to the power of a single idea. Let’s put all anti-capitalistic notions aside for the time being. What we have here is something that has become ubiquitous and relevant to millions of people, and it all started as just the right firing of neurons in the brain of a beardy man in flares.

That one idea has created industry. It’s created jobs and companies, and spawned countless attempts to copy it (some successfully, others not so). Its growth is exponential. When George Lucas first held the finished script for A New Hope in his hands, he was holding something akin to an Atom Bomb – a vast potential, an objective of such enormous energy. Or, more positively, he held the seeds to an entire forest, one that would grow and spread and thrive and dominate.

They say each of us has one good book in them. (A quick look on Amazon suggests that’s not true). Imagine if, going further, each of us has one phenomenal idea in them. Imagine if, right now, the structure of your brain is just right to one day birth a story, concept, observation, or world, that could one day grow to be as influential and popular as Star Wars.

The thought gives me goose bumps.

Connections through time

I had one of those ‘small world’ moments today. A lady came to visit us to tell us all about what will be happening after we’ve had our baby. There was a big list of appointments that will happen after it’s been born*, and plenty of leaflets with really useful advice in them such as ‘Never smack a baby’.

*We decided not to find out whether we are having a girl or a boy so that it would be a surprise. It feels kind of weird having to refer to our child as ‘it’ for the time being though. Still, it’s better than ‘the spawn’, I guess.

I thought she looked familiar when I answered the door, and indeed she was. Turns out she is the mother of one of my old school friends. We came into contact quite a few times when I was younger, and then as friends drift away from each other, I haven’t seen her for years.

I wonder what my 15 year old self would make of that. What would I have done had I known back then that the next time I saw her, she’d be taking care of my fiancée and our first child?

It’s amazing how our lives intersect with others. People we don’t see for years pop up again without warning, and those who were in the background of our existence suddenly become central players in our own stories.

Just goes to show – you should always be nice to people. One day they might have the role of looking after the most precious things in your life.