Tuesday, 26 November 2013

I've looked at life from both sides (of the Atlantic) now

I looked at my Amazon.com and .co.uk author profiles yesterday specifically to see if they differ and they do, in one respect.

Over in the US, people who buy things I've written also tend to buy books by these good folk:

From my US Amazon author profile

Blimey! Stephen King, Joe Hill, Clive Barker and Dean Koontz! I'll take that, any day of the week.

In the UK, things are a little different.

From my UK Amazon author profile

Now maybe I need to get out more, because I don't think I've heard of anyone on this list. But there are two names that appear on both: Scott Nicholson and J. Thorn. I think I might investigate these guys further (though I'm really not sure about the latter's author pic...)

Thursday, 7 November 2013

What do you call a non-fiction short story?

Because to me, "story" implies fiction. But calling it an "essay" seems too formal, too academic.

I only ask because I thought I should probably do something with my one-time attempt to be Dave Gorman, the non-fiction short story (or essay if you'd prefer) about what happened when I tried to live for a month without using any supermarkets chains.

Yes, Tesc-No - Living without supermarkets is now available for your Kindling pleasure, and joins the growing number of non-fiction titles in my back-catalogue. And when I say "joins", I mean "doubles".

I live in hope that Tesco's lawyers will ask me to change the cover
I may have appropriated a logo there...

Narrative. Maybe a non-fiction short story is just a narrative.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

The anatomy of a writing residential

I've just come back from a writing residential weekend. You know, the sort of "get away from distractions" trip to get some serious writing done that so many aspiring authors dream of.

I haven't been on such a weekend since December 2008, and that was organised by the university at which I was taking a diploma in creative writing. This was a little different, in that I organised it, not just for myself but for the ten-strong critique group I attend.

A few other writerly types have asked me whether it was a worthwhile exercise (in summary: yes) and what sort of things we did. So, in the absence of anything better to blog about, I thought I'd describe what we got up to. Maybe you're planning a similar writing retreat, in which case maybe this will be helpful.

Enough waffle then; here's what we did.

1.30pm Convene at a nearby country pub for lunch. The pub was very busy, so we had a bit of a wait for food, but it was worth it. Alcohol was resisted by all present.
2.45pm Openings exercise. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene has a famously excellent opening. The task of this exercise, aside from being a "warm-up", was to attempt to write an opening of one's own in the style of Brighton Rock's. And when I say style I don't just mean tone but also word count, sentence structure, paragraph length, the whole shebang. It's hard, let me tell you, but most people seemed to get something out of it
3.45pm Adjourn to residential venue for check-in. The venue is very important. Peace and quiet is essential. A few distractions to break up the writing are good (not too many though, you don't want to be too distracted). A catered venue is great - you don't want to be spending precious writing time preparing meals and washing up. Our venue was a blissfully quiet rural conference centre adjoining a convent, hence mostly used for ecclesiastic and other genteel pursuits. You open the window and there is only silence. Perfect.
4.00pm Free time. I wrote 1,058 words. Others read or had a nap. No-one braved the tennis courts (too cold).
6.15pm Logistics and health & safety briefing from the site manager.
6.30pm Dinner. Chicken curry followed by peach crumble and custard for me. See? I told you getting a catered venue's worth it...
8.00pm Having adjourned to the bar lounge, the last real exercise of the day was to read from, and eulogise about, a piece of writing that we love. Everyone goes away from this with a list of recommended reading. I read from, and heartily endorsed, Let's Kill Love by Mark Kilner. Alcohol flowed merrily, lubricating the evening's discourse.
10.45pm Art and literature pub quiz (I'd nicked this from the Telegraph website - it's here it you want to try). I even provided a prize: a nice hardback edition of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. We all scrawled messages inside for the eventual winner (who scored 52½ out of 60, by the way), and joked that when we were famous writers it would be worth a fortune. Like I said, we were all quite lubricated by this point.
1 - 3am One batch retired at 1, another at 2 and the last men standing (myself included) at 3.

8.30am Breaky. Croissants, fresh fruit, a boiled egg, orange juice. Lots and lots of tea, of course.
9.30am Free time. I read a little (The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson), and proof-read a few pages of my novel-length work in progress.
10.45am Morning tea and biscuits.
11.00am Workshopping, part 1. Those that wanted to have a piece reviewed, myself included, had circulated it for reading before the residential. This was where we fed back our comments and discussed the pieces.
1.00pm Lunch. Roast beef, yorkie pud and all the trimmings, followed by a sticky toffee date pudding and custard. I may have gained pounds as well as word-count at this residential.
2.00pm Workshopping, part 2.
3.45pm Afternoon tea and cake.
4.00pm Wrap-up, agree to do it all again next year (possibly for two nights) and depart.

So, questions.

  • Was it worth it? Yes.
  • Did I achieve anything? Yes (1,058 new words, 1,900 words workshopped and six narrow-lined sides of A4 proof-read and edited for a start, plus a list of books I want to read as long as your arm).
  • Was it a lot of fuss to organise? Not much, and when you're as selfishly self-motivated as I was, not really at all.
  • Would I do it again? Yes - haven't I already mentioned "same time next year"?
  • Would I do it on my own, i.e. if I wasn't part of this wonderful critique group? Probably not. Where's the fun in that?

Monday, 2 September 2013

Don't get any big ideas - they're not going to happen

Regular readers might know that I recently hatched a scheme (for which, read desperate attempt) to crack the Amazon.com Top 100 Free list with one or both of the titles I currently offer under KDP Select. The theory goes that if you can crack that Top 100 list, even if only for a short while, a significant sales "bump" follows.

So I notified every "list your KDP Select promotion here" website I could find (and I found plenty). I blogged my plan wherever I could. I tried to build some Twitter momentum. I called in favours. Hell, I even posted to Facebook, something I am usually loath to do.

But I didn't spend any money.

A couple of Kindle author forums seemed to both suggest placing ad's with BookBub as a sure-fire way of cracking the list... but those ad's start at $70, and I had a promotional budget of precisely zero.

So, the promotion ran last weekend. What happened, I hear you ask?

Turn Around Where Possible got to #748 briefly on Saturday. Cold didn't even crack the top 2,000.

Aside from new levels of circumspection, what have I learnt from this? Firstly, that unless some of the big boys (ENT, Pixel Of Ink, and so on) actually run your promotion, it doesn't matter how many free "list your KDP Select promotion here" websites you notify. Most of the rest are small-fry, by comparison. Secondly, if you're running a two-day promotion you need to achieve in excess of 2,000 downloads to get close to the fabled Top 100 list. I managed a shade under 400 in the US.

There were some positives. I logged my first downloads in India which is great, as Amazon.in is surely a massive potential marketplace. I made the US Top 10 Free Short Stories list (indeed, I sat at #9 on that for much of the weekend). Oh, and Turn Around got as high as #652 on the Canadian Free list on the strength of just nine downloads. Yes, nine. The rewards from cracking their Top 100 might be a lot smaller, but equally making their chart without spending any money might actually be achievable.

Before I close, can I just quickly take this opportunity to publicly thank all friends and acquaintances you helped, retweeted, liked, posted, forwarded and, ultimately, downloaded? Thank you all. And if anybody has $70 to spare, I'll place a BookBub advert next time, save myself going to all this trouble...

Footnote: the title of this post comes from here. But then you knew that already...

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Elmore Leonard... your ten rules live on

Given his recent passing, it seems as good a time as any to reiterate dialogue-master Elmore Leonard's ten rules for writing, after which I will stop blogging other people's writing advice for a while, I promise. Anyway, the late Mr Leonard - here goes.
  1. Never open a book with weather. If it's only to create atmosphere, and not a charac­ter's reaction to the weather, you don't want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead look­ing for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways than an Eskimo to describe ice and snow in his book Arctic Dreams, you can do all the weather reporting you want.
  2. Avoid prologues: they can be ­annoying, especially a prologue ­following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in non-fiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want. There is a prologue in John Steinbeck's Sweet Thursday, but it's OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: "I like a lot of talk in a book and I don't like to have nobody tell me what the guy that's talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks."
  3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But "said" is far less intrusive than "grumbled", "gasped", "cautioned", "lied". I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with "she asseverated" and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said" ... he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances "full of rape and adverbs".
  5. Keep your exclamation points ­under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.
  6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose". This rule doesn't require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use "suddenly" tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apos­trophes, you won't be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavour of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters, which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants", what do the "Ameri­can and the girl with him" look like? "She had taken off her hat and put it on the table." That's the only reference to a physical description in the story.
  9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things, unless you're Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language. You don't want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.
My most important rule is one that sums up the 10: if it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

The first rule of Writing Club is...

I've blogged about other rules for writing before (here and especially here), so I'm loath to repeat myself, but when a whole wad of writing advice comes from Chuck Palahniuk, I have to pass it on. Here it is, verbatim.
In six seconds, you’ll hate me. But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.

From this point forward—at least for the next half year—you may not use “thought” verbs. These include: Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.

The list should also include: Loves and Hates. And it should include: Is and Has, but we’ll get to those later.

Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write: Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”

Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like: “The mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave. Never his.”

Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them. Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.

Instead of saying: “Adam knew Gwen liked him.” You’ll have to say: “Between classes, Gwen had always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it. She’s roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume. The combination lock would still be warm from her butt. And the next break, Gwen would be leaned there, again.”

In short, no more short-cuts. Only specific sensory detail: action, smell, taste, sound, and feeling.

Typically, writers use these “thought” verbs at the beginning of a paragraph (In this form, you can call them “Thesis Statements” and I’ll rail against those, later). In a way, they state the intention of the paragraph. And what follows, illustrates them.

For example:
“Brenda knew she’d never make the deadline. was backed up from the bridge, past the first eight or nine exits. Her cell phone battery was dead. At home, the dogs would need to go out, or there would be a mess to clean up. Plus, she’d promised to water the plants for her neighbor…”

Do you see how the opening “thesis statement” steals the thunder of what follows? Don’t do it.

If nothing else, cut the opening sentence and place it after all the others. Better yet, transplant it and change it to: Brenda would never make the deadline.

Thinking is abstract. Knowing and believing are intangible. Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing. And loving and hating.

Don’t tell your reader: “Lisa hated Tom.”

Instead, make your case like a lawyer in court, detail by detail.

Present each piece of evidence. For example: “During roll call, in the breath after the teacher said Tom’s name, in that moment before he could answer, right then, Lisa would whisper-shout ‘Butt Wipe,’ just as Tom was saying, ‘Here’.”

One of the most-common mistakes that beginning writers make is leaving their characters alone. Writing, you may be alone. Reading, your audience may be alone. But your character should spend very, very little time alone. Because a solitary character starts thinking or worrying or wondering.

For example: Waiting for the bus, Mark started to worry about how long the trip would take…”

A better break-down might be: “The schedule said the bus would come by at noon, but Mark’s watch said it was already 11:57. You could see all the way down the road, as far as the Mall, and not see a bus. No doubt, the driver was parked at the turn-around, the far end of the line, taking a nap. The driver was kicked back, asleep, and Mark was going to be late. Or worse, the driver was drinking, and he’d pull up drunk and charge Mark seventy-five cents for death in a fiery traffic accident…”

A character alone must lapse into fantasy or memory, but even then you can’t use “thought” verbs or any of their abstract relatives.

Oh, and you can just forget about using the verbs forget and remember.

No more transitions such as: “Wanda remembered how Nelson used to brush her hair.”

Instead: “Back in their sophomore year, Nelson used to brush her hair with smooth, long strokes of his hand.”

Again, Un-pack. Don’t take short-cuts.

Better yet, get your character with another character, fast.
Get them together and get the action started. Let their actions and words show their thoughts. You—stay out of their heads.

And while you’re avoiding “thought” verbs, be very wary about using the bland verbs “is” and “have.”

For example:
“Ann’s eyes are blue.”

“Ann has blue eyes.”


“Ann coughed and waved one hand past her face, clearing the cigarette smoke from her eyes, blue eyes, before she smiled…”

Instead of bland “is” and “has” statements, try burying your details of what a character has or is, in actions or gestures. At its most basic, this is showing your story instead of telling it.

And forever after, once you’ve learned to Un-pack your characters, you’ll hate the lazy writer who settles for: “Jim sat beside the telephone, wondering why Amanda didn’t call.”

Please. For now, hate me all you want, but don’t use thought verbs. After Christmas, go crazy, but I’d bet money you won’t.


For this month’s homework, pick through your writing and circle every “thought” verb. Then, find some way to eliminate it. Kill it by Un-packing it.

Then, pick through some published fiction and do the same thing. Be ruthless.

“Marty imagined fish, jumping in the moonlight…”

“Nancy recalled the way the wine tasted…”

“Larry knew he was a dead man…”

Find them. After that, find a way to re-write them. Make them stronger.
Good advice, no?

Monday, 5 August 2013

The Last Crusade...

... in which I pursue the Holy Grail (geddit?)

Getting onto Amazon.com's Top 100 list is a big deal, I reckon. A lot of Kindle owner's check that on a regular basis. I'm not talking about genre-specific lists, I'm talking about the big guns: Amazon's top 100 paid-for Kindle books and the top 100 free.

It's a big deal because once you're on there, lots of downloads follow and, presumably, book sales of other titles too. That's the theory anyway.

I run two titles under Amazon's exclusivity programme KDP Select, namely Turn Around Where Possible and Cold. Periodically, I give these away free. The nearest either has ever got to the top 100 list was when Turn Around... peaked, for a few short hours, at #113. To get that high, more than 2,200 free copies were downloaded.

What's all this building to? Well, I'm going to have one more crack at the Holy Grail, the top 100. I've scheduled for both titles to be free on Amazon, simultaneously and worldwide, on the 31st of August and 1st of September. I've submitted my promotion's details just about everywhere I can think of. I've given plenty of notice to untold Twitter book promotion accounts. I've scheduled a number of promotional tweets myself on a (hopefully not too annoying) regular basis. And now I'm blogging about it.

So I need your help. If you have a Kindle, Kindle app or Kindle for PC, you can download either or both of these short stories. I hope you do. I think you might like them. But also please tell your friends. Maybe flatter me with a retweet when you see me plugging the big push. And if you run or write for a book review website or blog, please let me know and maybe we can do something.

Think of this as an experiment. Can a little known indie author crack the top 100 free list with a self-published short story or two? Let's find out...

EDIT: I should add that I have no promotional budget for this: zero, zilch, zip, and other words beginning with zed. So to those that have suggested I place an ad with Bookbub (starting price $70), well, it's a nice idea and everything so thank you, but no...)

Monday, 10 June 2013

If they're good enough for Pixar...

You may have seen these before, as they've been doing the rounds for a while, but these 22 rules of story-telling from Pixar short artist Emma Coats seem to me to be transferable to just about all forms of fiction writing. Have a look, see what you think...

  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  2. You gotta keep in mind what's interesting to you as an audience, not what's fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.
  3. Trying for theme is important, but you won't see what the story is actually about 'til you're at the end of it. Now rewrite.
  4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
  5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You'll feel like you're losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  8. Finish your story, let go even if it's not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN'T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you've got to recognize it before you can use it.
  11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you'll never share it with anyone.
  12. Discount the first thing that comes to mind. And the second, third, fourth, fifth – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likeable to you as you write, but it's poison to the audience.
  14. Why must you tell THIS story? What's the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That's the heart of it.
  15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don't succeed? Stack the odds against.
  17. No work is ever wasted. If it's not working, let go and move on – it'll come back around to be useful later.
  18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best and fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
  20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How do you rearrange them into what you DO like?
  21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can't just write "cool". What would make YOU act that way?
  22. What's the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Okay, so some may seem trite, glib even. But for the most part, good sense, yes?

The Credit Where It's Due Department: I first read about these rules on the Aerogramme Writers' Studio website.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

First impressions...

...are so important, aren't they? Which is why, even though I haven't actually finished writing the book yet, I've already begun work on the cover art for Drawn To The Deep End. Here's what I've got:

Preview copy artwork for Drawn To The Deep End
You'll have to imagine it without the "preview copy" watermarks...
If you've read any of the first draft excerpts, you'll know that The Tree is an important and recurrent motif, symbolising the narrator's struggle to move on from the death of his fiancĂ©e, Emma. You'll also know that there are lots of bad things going on in the narrator's life. So, lots of bad things, a tree... and this is what I came up with.

What do you think?

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

To have chapters, or not to have chapters... that is the question

I'm getting near the end of a novel-length work... well, the end of the first draft, at least. And it's just one long block of prose, continuous save for the odd "*" to break things up. In other words, there are no chapters... and I don't know if that is a good thing or not. Are people happy to read 85,000 words without them being broken up into chapters? I feel a quick survey coming on...