Saturday 28 June 2014

Copper Jack

Just settling down to add a little more to my new manuscript. Still not sure about it, but the characters are slowly starting to take form and they are pulling me along. A couple of them I already feel as clearly as I did Georgie or Joe.

There's a level at which characters speak loudly enough in your mind that they're capable of writing themselves. Sometimes it happens from the off (Georgie), sometimes it takes a little while (Ollie). If it isn't there - for me - by 20k, it ain't comin'. The only way to know is to keep writing.

One of the characters that arrived on the page a little unexpectedly, and who I am strongly warming to, is a guy called Copper Jack. Here's his entrance a few days ago. Goes without saying it's rough and unedited inspiration.

He didn’t go immediately. It wasn’t that he didn’t feel her urgency, but he didn’t want to get on the wrong side of Thomazin. She was worth her weight in gold for the number of seafarers that washed up at his bar asking for a fondle. Added to that, the woman had a tongue as sharp as a razor. She could probably shut him down with gossip alone.

No, there were never any winners when it came to a quarrel with Her Majesty.

Still, he couldn’t very well ignore the look on Carrieoliner’s face. Not if he expected to sleep at night. There was something about that girl which was missing in Thomazin. Not beauty or bravado, maybe just heart. She had this way about her, like she had never really grown up. The way she looked at you sometimes, it was as though you could break her with one harsh word, or a single careless deed.

“Bring it back,” the Harbourmaster said from beneath the hood of his black woollen cloak. 

“I’ll bring it back when I’m good and ready,” Jack growled. “This is your job anyway.”

“Aye, I know. But there’s a storm comin’.”

Jack glared at him and stuffed the iron key deep into his pocket. The wind was already starting to make the palm trees sway, and the waves along the coast were smashing ever higher against the rocks. He’d have to hurry if he was going to make shelter in time.

The path up to Hookfish Point was treacherous at the best of times. Slippery mud and crumbling rock turned your feet against you. Every footfall was a throw of the dice. That’s why people rarely bothered to light the storm beacon. It was meant to warn ships that there was a storm coming, and guide those home who were lost. The Harbourmaster was supposed to attend to it as part of his duties, but old Jedediah could hardly climb a set of steps, yet alone the hill to Hookfish Point. Besides, privateers were a hardy bunch. They could usually smell a storm coming a month away, and most of them saw the beacon as a dangerous advertisement to undesirables, such as the English Navy.

He swore under his breath until a gust of wind took it away.

Pausing for a moment to collect himself, he glanced out to sea. The clouds were gathering fast. They had that tar-black look about them which told you it was more than just a passing shower. God help anyone who found himself stuck out in that weather.

Sheltering his lamp in the inside of his coat, Copper Jack continued to climb. His feet slipped beneath him, yet each time he hauled himself up and checked that the flame was still alight.

Just as the air began to moisten with the first rain, he reached Hookfish Point. It was the furthermost point of the bay: a towering rocky outcrop, grown more forlorn year after year as the headland eroded into the sea. There, at the very top, stood a crude brick structure that looked like a well reversed. Instead of sinking down into the earth, the cylindrical structure rose upwards, to about chest height. On top of that, a large glass jar sat protecting a wick as thick as a man’s wrist. The wick connected to a reservoir of lamp oil inside the structure, and narrow vents around the top of the bricks allowed air to circulate without the wind getting in to blow out the flame.

Removing the key from his pocket, jack undid the padlock that chained the jar to the bricks. He lifted it carefully aside, then put his own lamp to the wick. Instantly, the oil caught fire. The heat of the blaze caused him to step back for a moment before lifting the jar back into place. 

He chained it down and clicked the lock.

There, Carrieoliner. That was all he could do.

He touched his forehead by way of doffing an imaginary cap in the direction of the open ocean.

“Y├║cahu Bagua,” he whispered, “sail them home safe.”


It's uncertain yet whether he will go on to play a part in a swashbuckling epic adventure, or whether he, and the rest of them, will sink down to the Davy Jones' Locker of my mind.

Either way, I can now name all of the masts and sails on a fully rigged ship.

Wednesday 25 June 2014

Wiki Worship

With Rosy Hours due out with Ghostwoods later this year, I'm poking about with ideas for my next one. I've decided to depart from heavy literary fiction for the time being and pursue something 'fun'.

Whereas it's not going to be Historical Fiction per se, it is set in a time of privateers and parliamentarians. I started out playing with pirate ships, then realised:

  1. I have no idea how to sail a ship
  2. I didn't even realise Oliver Cromwell ran the Navy (but didn't have any Admirals)

It just hadn't occurred to me that the conquest of the Caribbean overlapped with the English Civil War(s).

See, even 'fun' can be taxing.

I'm only about 7,000 words into the story, so I haven't passed my golden number for 'does it have potential,' yet alone the one for 'it's going to be a novel.' In order to add to the word count I need to do a bit of reading to find out:

  • Does the subject matter interest me enough (do I want to know about sailing terminology and the English Civil War?)
  • Can I make it interesting for someone else?
  • Are there any interesting characters or events I could weave into my plot?

So far it's looking good, but I have a major problem with Wiki.

Every time I go there to read about something like the English Civil War, I find something else of interest. Before I know it, one open browser tab miraculously becomes twenty.

Sometimes my eyes get tired and I try to find a summary on YouTube.

To be honest, despite coming from a village right next door to Naseby, the English Civil War has never been a period in history that has particularly interested me. Yet, all of that has changed. Thank you, Horrible Histories, for explaining things to me in a language that I understand.

Monday 23 June 2014

Novel Idea: Submissions

It's been a while since I gave an update on my forthcoming novel. I've been documenting it from inception to publication via the Novel Idea tab. The reason I went a little quiet was that I wanted to clear the submissions process before writing about it. When sending submissions, you often include your website and social media. It's one of those sensitive areas you don't really want to accidentally influence in the wrong direction.

That said, it's over now, with a really good result, so it's only fair to continue the insider's perspective on writing a novel by talking about what happens once you've finished typing.

Unless you're writing purely for your own pleasure, there's a fair chance that you're looking to get your work published. Rosy Hours is the fifth novel I've written and the fourth to be published.

Heck, every writer has one manuscript in their bottom drawer that will never see the light of day.

Even though I have been previously published, I still had to broach submissions. Here are my personal nuggets of knowledge.

Your MS (Manuscript)

My top tip with fiction is to finish writing your novel before you start submissions. There are a lot of writers out there, and everybody has an idea or twenty. Publishers are interested in the finished product, not the novel you might get around to writing in a year or two.

In fact, don't just finish it. 

Finish it, sit on it for a few months, re-read it, edit it, hire someone else to edit it if needs be, proofread it meticulously (definitely get at least one other - qualified - person to do that), sit on it a bit longer, read and re-read.

If anybody turns around and says 'yes' to reading your manuscript, you want it to glow.

No manuscript is perfect. I don't think I've ever read a novel, even a professionally published one, that didn't have at least one typo in it, but the more typos a publisher sees, the more work they know it's going to take to get your MS print-ready. 

There are plenty of reasons your manuscript will end up on the slush pile, don't let simple mistakes be one of them.

Who to Submit To

There's an international database called FirstWriter, which is what I use. It's a subscription service, but I've found all three of my publishers through it. They list both agents and publishers.

It's up to you which of those you submit to. There's really no harm in trying for an agent. Yes, they take a percentage, but that's a strong incentive for them to get you a good publishing deal. Better they take a percentage and you both make money than you go direct to a publisher and get to keep 100% of nothing.

Your chances of finding an agent off the back of your first novel are small. They have to be absolutely convinced it'll sell.

Small publishers, on the other hand, are more likely to take a risk. I'm proof of this. Both of my publishers, Green Sunset Books and Netherworld Books, are small publishers. Thousands of people write novels each year. Of those, very few will find their first novel published by one of the Big Six. To get in with them, you usually need an agent, and an agent prefers to see a track record - or something quite exceptional in a popular genre.

My best advice is to take a shot at the agents first. After all, you have nothing to lose. Then move on to the publishers. Always go for publishers in your own country - it makes tax and contract enforcement much easier. Plus, if you're a UK author publishing in the US, the exchange rather isn't going to work in your favour.

I strongly recommend reading Sex, Lies & Book Publishing by the Rupert Heath Literary Agency for an insider's guide to getting published.

How to Submit

Every agent and publisher will have a different submission process. Rule number one - find out what they want, and stick to it.

You will almost always find the submission process on the agent/publisher's website. Once you've found them on the FirstWirter listing, check out that website. Go there. Find the tab that says Submissions. If they're open to unsolicited approaches, follow the style guide to the letter.

If you're not familiar with the terms: 

  • Not accepting unsolicited submissions, means that they won't accept submissions unless they come from an agent or third party.
  • Accepting unsolicited queries, means that they will accept a sample and synopsis from anybody, but don't send them the full manuscript unless they ask for it.
  • Accepting unsolicited MSS, means that they will accept entire manuscripts from anybody.

Sending your entire manuscript to someone who isn't accepting unsolicited submissions will get you nowhere fast. Don't waste your time or your printer ink.

When using the FirstWriter database, you can narrow down your search by country, genre of book, and those currently open to submissions. The listing is by no means foolproof, so I'll say it again: check the publisher's website yourself.

Whichever way you do it, give your query letter the same attention you gave your manuscript. Watch out for typos, make it look presentable, use a standard font and format (avoid purple Brush Script - it ain't cute, and it ain't clever), make sure your contact details are on there.

When I first started out, I used to spend quite a bit of time writing lengthy submission letters detailing my experience, my hopes for the book, my interests... Nowadays, I'll be honest, I keep the cover letters short and sweet. Publishing is a business, they're interested in the synopsis and the sample. If they like them, they'll find out about you as an author soon enough. Keeping things short and succinct also gives the impression you know how this business works, and  that you'd be and easy person to work with.

Smart Strategy

Heads up - submissions can quickly become expensive if you go for the ones who only accept submissions by snail-mail. Even if you're sending samples, the first three chapters (or 50,000 words) can take up a lot of ink and paper, not to mention postage costs.

Although there's one school of business that says 'you need to spend money to make money,' I'd suggest a better rule of thumb, especially for artists, is 'don't spend money you ain't making.' 

Start your FirstWriter approach with the publishers and agents who accept queries via e-mail. It's a heck of a lot cheaper. It's also starting to become more common, as offices seek to cut back on waste and put their best carbon-neutral foot forward.

Sure, fire off some A4 envelopes if you happen to see a publisher you think is worth it, but push the rest to the back of the pile.

Keep a List

Most publishers no longer bother to ask whether you've submitted your work anywhere else. It's an unrealistic expectation to ask an author to wait three months for a rejection (if they get a response at all), before moving on to the next submission. Most of us would be collecting our pensions before we saw our work in print.

We've all got limited time and patience, authors and publishers alike. The submissions process is exactly that - a process - and we want to get it over with as fast as possible. There's no shame in sending out your MS to multiple publishers. In an afternoon you can make half-a-dozen submissions by e-mail.

What you don't want to do is forget who you've already submitted to, or when.

Whenever I start this process on a new book, the first thing I do is open an Excel spreadsheet. I list:

  • Name of publisher
  • Website (for contact details)
  • Date of submission
  • What I submitted (i.e. brief/full synopsis, first three chapters)
  • Name of contact (if it was sent to someone specific)

I then use a traffic light system. If I'm still waiting to hear, it's in amber, if it's a 'no', it's in red, and if it's a 'yes', it goes green. I also keep notes down the side. Sometimes you get a rejection with a 'try again in a few months' or 'try these guys instead'. 

If you don't keep a list, you'll get confused. You'll end up submitting the same work to the same publisher, which may annoy them, and you won't be able to keep an eye on the publishers who don't bother to respond. If they can't cope with their own administration, are they really the type of people you want to submit to again in the future? Not usually a good sign.

Watch out for The Clause

In my first publishing contract I was so excited that I agreed to sign a First Refusal clause. I questioned it, but not strongly enough to have it removed.

The Clause(tm) gives the publisher first right of refusal on anything else you go on to write.

Unless you've won a golden ticket with a big publisher, this is a major turn-off as an author. You can see why big publishers would do it, because they invest a lot in you and they want to protect their assets. But you really don't want to be signing away your future work to a small publisher. It's a no-brainier. The point of small publishers is to work towards bigger ones. 

That's not unfair logic, either. You publish a book or two with a small publisher. You get a bigger publisher. You get better sales. People start buying your previous titles - from the small publisher. Whereas if you stick with the same small publisher for life, and that publisher doesn't have a marketing budget or any connections, nothing you go on to publish is likely to sell.

There are ways around The Clause, but it can make things a little awkward. Rosy Hours was picked up by Ghostwoods via the submission process, but The Clause meant that my current publisher still had first refusal. I expected them to turn it down because of the genre, but they wanted it. We came to a very amicable agreement, because we have a good working relationship, but it was still one of those discussions you'd rather not have.

Realistic Expectations

Novels don't get published and appear in Waterstones. 

Not for 99% of new authors. There are thousands of books published each year, and only about two-and-a-half feet of shelving in your genre. It's an unrealistic expectation.

The only time my books appeared in Waterstones was when I did a signing there. The reason I was doing a signing there was because I was a guest at a literature festival. The reason I was a guest at a literature festival is because I knew somebody who knew somebody (through a writing forum) who wanted someone like me.

You get the idea here? You have to work at it.

If you have written one novel, and it's the only novel you ever intend to write, then I suggest you go all-out and completely exhaust every agent and publisher in the listing, in every country, in the hopes of getting the very best deal you can - or a very large pile of rejection slips.

If, however, you're playing the long game because you're a writer and that's what you do, then relax a little. You're likely to go through a few publishers in your career. Some might be good, some bad, some very small, some more impressive. Each experience moves you one space along the board, grows your social media following a little, sells a few more books, takes you to a few new events, inspires what you're going to write next. You may never hit Faber&Faber, but you can still build a respectable reputation and have some fun along the way.

Personally, I haven't found getting published to be particularly difficult.

Selling books, on the other hand, requires Sisyphean effort.

The Society of Authors suggests 300 sales of a single work in a year is good going. Even big names sell far fewer books than you'd expect, with most of them getting pulped.

The reason it's so hard for new authors is because small publishers very rarely have a marketing budget, and marketing is what sells books (unless you have an impressively extended and affluent family). The quality of the cover, online marketing, websites, advertisements, review sites - most of it costs money. 

A lot can be achieved on a small budget, but that requires a highly pro-active marketing strategy, and many small press don't have one of those either.

The reason I've accepted my current contract is because I believe Ghostwoods does have a strong marketing strategy and a very pro-active approach. I was impressed. They're also offering a 50/50 fair trade split on profits, which is completely unheard of (you're lucky if you get 12% net). 

Don't let the excitement of a contract eclipse what's written there. At the same time, we all have to start somewhere. If you're a committed writer, your first contract is unlikely to be your last.

I hope some of that is helpful. Provided you're happy with your MS and it's well presented, it's best not to think about it too much. Roll up your sleeves, open Excel, and dive in. The sooner you get your submissions in, the sooner you can start collecting rejection slips and - with any luck - that illusive 'yes'.

On average, I've had around 15 rejections for each yes so far. Opportunities are out there, and publishers are looking for new material.

Wednesday 18 June 2014


Relaxing with an iced coffee and a good book, waiting for friends at Via Veneto, Kigali, yesterday. It truly is a blessed life.

Tuesday 17 June 2014

Blue Card

Wrap your eyes around this. I contributed to a friend's KickStarter project and they done good.

It's about a homeless guy who gets roped into being a hitman. If you get a red card, you beat them to a pulp. If you get a blue card... lights out.

It's their first major production and the fight scene at the end of episode one is impressive. Great idea for a story, really nicely (pardon the pun) executed.

You can download Blue Card from their website, and contribute to their project. All five episodes for $6/£3.50. Bargain. Episode three is available free online.

UPDATE: The entire series is now available free online as a film.

Monday 16 June 2014

Second Hand Income

ALCS and Bookbarn International are trialing a system to pay authors for the resale of their work on the second hand market.

“It didn’t feel right that the creators of the goods my business deals in,” says William Pryor [Managing Director of BBI] “should receive no part of the money their books generate when second-hand. The internet has had a significantly positive effect on the second-hand book business and I’m glad if we can share this at a time of significant uncertainty for writers.”

It's an interesting concept. I mean, car manufacturers don't automatically benefit directly from the re-sale of second hand cars, nor do musicians from the sale of second-hand CDs. I'm not entirely sure the system will be easy administratively - I doubt you could roll it out to car boot sales - and many second hand books have fallen into obscurity, belong to defunct publishers, or to authors who have since passed over.

However, I don't reckon there are too many living authors who would complain.

So, as well as Public Lending Right, authors will also have Book Authors Resale Right. It will be interesting to see whether this pushes up the price of a second hand book or lowers the profit for second hand book dealers?

Friday 13 June 2014

Most Borrowed Books

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

The PLR (Public Lending Right) have issued their annual warning:

Online applications must be submitted by midnight on Monday 30 June 2014 to be included in the year end calculations. Postal applications must also be received by no later than 30 June. You can apply to register your published titles online or via an application form. Alternatively you can request a form to be posted to you.

Amongst this year's newsletter links was a very entertaining report by the British Library listing the most borrowed books in libraries throughout 2014.

For the seventh year running, James Patterson retains his crown as the Most Borrowed Author in UK libraries. No fewer than fifteen books by US thriller writer Patterson also appear in the UK’s Top 100 Most Borrowed Titles list, according to data released today by Public Lending Right. 

Erotic bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James shoots straight in at No 3 in the Top 10 Most Borrowed Titles list, along with two Wimpy Kid titles by hugely popular US children’s writer, Jeff Kinney.  
The Most Borrowed Titles list also features two rare Top 10 appearances by literary novels, with Hilary Mantel’s 2012 Man Booker winner, Bring Up the Bodies at No 8, and The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling at No 10.  
Interesting regional variations are also revealed by the PLR data. Whereas Fifty Shades of Grey was the most borrowed book in both Essex and Suffolk libraries, borrowers in London, Northamptonshire and Telford & Wrekin preferred Diary of a Wimpy Kid, whilst those in Yorkshire championed Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel.  
No fewer than six children’s writers feature in the Top 10 Most Borrowed Authors list. Big risers on the Top 500 list include children’s author and illustrator, Jeanne Willis (up to 20th from 31st); children’s author and comedian, David Walliams (up to 157th from 430th); and two-time Man Booker winner, Hilary Mantel (up to 177th from 404th).  
It was a less successful year for US romance writer Danielle Steel who drops out of the Top 10 Most Borrowed Adult Fiction Authors list for the first time since comprehensive PLR records began in 1988/89.

If you're wondering what to write that will get library-goers reading, that's your answer.

Thursday 12 June 2014

Nathan Bransford

I haven't actually read his How to Write a Novel guide. I think, for me, that moment may have passed, but if his blog is anything to go by, it's well worth getting your mitts on.

My publisher, Ghostwoods, put me onto his blog via the entry on blurbs. Since then I've been browsing through, constantly impressed by the helpful and informative tone. 

Whether you're interested in writing your first novel, or whether you're an old hand with some specific questions you need answering, Nathan Bransford is a great resource to peruse.

Saturday 7 June 2014

Thought for the Day

My friend Harri mentioned this quote on Facebook yesterday. Thought it was worth sharing:

On being asked by The Guardian to come up with a list of texts that she would set for GCSE English, Hilary Mantel responded thusly:
Should we play the Gove game, by setting up opposing lists? Or should we ask, which Gradgrind thought up the idea of set texts in the first place? Why should students be condemned to thrash to death a novel or a corpus of poetry, week after week, month after month? No novel was ever penned to puzzle and punish the young. Plays are meant to be played at. Poetry is not written for Paxmanites. Literature is a creative discipline, not just for writer but for reader. Is the exam hall its correct context? We educate our children not as if we love them but as if we need to control and coerce them, bullying them over obstacles and drilling them like squaddies; and even the most inspired and loving teachers have to serve the system. We have laws against physical abuse. We can try to legislate against emotional abuse. So why do we think it's fine to abuse the imagination, and on an industrial scale? What would serve children is a love of reading, and the habit of it. I wonder if the present system creates either.

Friday 6 June 2014

Art Abandonment

Remember my extremely talented friend Palma, who makes angels from old books?

Well, she's just been featured in a new book called The Art Abandonment Project: Create and Share Random Acts of Art. Delicious eye candy, grab your copy and feast!

Tuesday 3 June 2014

Kigali Library

Popped into Kigali library today in Rwanda, hoping perhaps I could write my next novel there. It certainly looks very nice, but there's a few issues that need ironing out before it's entirely bibliophile (or technophile) friendly.

[See my 2015 update on how things have been revamped - so much nicer now.]