The benefits of enforced slow motion

In the middle of Monday night, half asleep and in my own home after several nights away, I mistook my route to the bathroom and fell backwards down a flight of fourteen steep stairs. I recall the sensation of falling, pain, and the struggle first to kneel, and then to crawl back up the stairs to the bathroom. Mostly I remember my determination to get help.

Help came quickly from a wonderful neighbour, and from the incomparable NHS. 204816I was back home three hours later, checked, X-rayed, diagnosed with snapped clavicular ligaments, strapped up tight and an appointment with a specialist for today. Pulled ligaments in my right knee are painful and I have bruises and carpet friction burns in various places.

I am right-handed. My right arm is out of commission for weeks and I have a novel to write. But it could have been worse, far worse. Last week’s blog post could have been my last and I have so much living still to do.

As it is, I’m realising already that I can manage most things, but much more slowly. Typing with one left finger, for example, means that I have to slow down both my ideas and the words to express them. For someone who’s done everything too quickly for the past sixty plus years, this is no bad thing, so long as I can accept it without fretting. I’ve moved in with a friend for a while to help me with the basics, and I’ve brought all my book writing stuff with me, determined to use my enforced rest to keep my mind and my left forefinger busy. I shall write, much more slowly than usual, and turn physical idleness into mental activity.

How important is ‘the horse’s mouth’

 

straight-from-the-horses-mouth-idiom

 

‘The horse’s mouth’…where did that phrase come from? And how did it come to mean ‘authentic first-hand information’? However that happened, I’m learning yet again just how powerful such information is when writing a story set in the recent past.

The first novel I wrote was set in 1937, too far back for me to find real people to talk to about how they lived their lives, and I had to be content with first hand accounts in print. The next one, set in 1947, lent itself to listening to people who were around at the time and had stories to tell. I also found the transcript of the National Coal Board’s enquiry into the pit accident in Whitehaven in August 1947 which provided first hand testimony in the witnesses’ own words. By the time I reached the third novel, set in and around the Windscale nuclear power plant in 1957, I was able to find loads of people who remembered the reactor fire there in rich detail, as well as Youtube footage and other contemporary accounts.

The first two crime novels, ‘Cruel Tide’ and ‘Fatal Reckoning’ were set locally but dealt with the issue of institutional child abuse, of which they were no cases from my chosen area that I could draw upon. I relied instead on the report of the enquiry into events at the Kincora boys’ home in Belfast, and the news items that are painfully frequent as historic cases are uncovered.

The novel I’m working on now is set during the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak in Cumbria. There are two sets of factual details I have to get right. One is about the disease itself and its impact on the area. The other is about methods of policing at that time, so that I can ensure that the ‘crime detection’ aspects of the novel are accurate. Family dramas are as old as the hills, but the contexts in which they play out change with the times.

The historian in me loves digging around to find the the best information, and although books and online research are useful there’s really nothing as rich or satisfying as listening to people who lived through the events I’m describing. So far I’ve talked in depth to two CID people who were serving officers in Cumbria at that time, a local vet who played a significant role right through the FMD outbreak, and a man whose job it was to value the farm animals before they were killed. Incidentally, some of the animals were actually free of the disease but were victims of the need to prevent its spread. The memories of my interviewees are raw: it was both cathartic and painful to share them with me. Next I’ll be talking to another person, who liaised with the army and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (as it was in 2001), and to a forensics expert who was professionally active at that time.

The end product of all this activity will be a novel which will also hopefully be a chronicle of a particular time and place, and a community in crisis. This is the community I will live in for the rest of my life and it’s very close to my heart. I owe it to the people here to get it right, and to weave the fictional story and the factual background together in a way that does justice to both. It’s the people, – their memories, their insights and the words they use – that bring life and authenticity to the writing. It’s also one the most fascinating part of my various writing projects, and I’m really grateful to those who are willing to talk to me.

And I still don’t know how and why it came to be known as ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’.

Do you?horse-289x300

 

Beware of publishing rip-offs

4038219-1867078991-1ca07A year or so ago I ran a self-publishing workshop at a northern book festival, explaining the various choices and challenges we authors encounter when trying to get our books first into print and then into readers’ hands. One of the the twenty or so people there told us a horror story about her failed attempt to get her book published: she had found a company online who promised to help and appeared to be ‘kosher’. They explained that she would have to send the money upfront to cover the expense of printing and that after that they would use their global resources to professionally handle her book, print, and find buyers. She duly sent off an amount that represented a sizeable chunk of her savings, and waited. And waited. And waited. The company disappeared, taking with them her money and her manuscript.

Recently I came across another example of someone who’d been asked for a four figure amount to get their book printed. A contract was provided but was either inadequate, or misleading, or not carefully enough scrutinised. Whatever the reason, the writer received the original money back, but nothing more, despite the 1000 print run selling out almost immediately. The author was not involved in the decisions about the book, including the curious choice of unnecessary heavy glossy paper for a book with no illustrations, a price double that of a ‘normal’ paperback, and a fairly amateur cover design. Some profit must have been made, given the basic calculations of printing costs, price and sales, including the retailers’ discounts – but the author saw none of it. When the publisher then asked for even more money to reprint and meet the obvious demand, it was declined.

What was going on there? As a self-publishing author I expect to invest my own money in the publishing project, but I also enjoy exercising choice over the paper quality, font, page layout and chapter headings, cover design and price. When the book is sold all the profits come back to me. It takes time and promotional effort to make a small profit, but at least the profit ends up in my account, not someone else’s.

SOA_col_rgbSo, fellow-writers, please think twice before paying out your own money to someone that to publish your book, however much they may reassure you and promise great things. If you’re in the Society of Authors, use their excellent contractual advice service and act accordingly. ALLi_Complete_300x150_WEBJoin the Alliance of Independent Authors, another really helpful organisation, or look for free self-publishing advice on the internet. What you do with your money is your business, but beware of being ripped off by the many unscrupulous people out there who make their money by stealing yours.

Do sex and money make the world go round?

Sex and money are powerful human motivators. Almost all the great stories involve one or the other, or both. What can I learn from this?sex

My new book is taking shape, in chapter outlines not a first draft as yet, and it’s at this stage that I begin to look at the movement in the story, how it rattles along, what makes the reader want to turn the pages. At the root of it all is the energy generated by the characters themselves, faced with the circumstances that I have created for them. What makes them act they way they do? Are sex and money critical in this story too?money-logo

Having left myself more space this time to think about the story rather than ploughing on quickly to meet the self-imposed target of ‘one book each year’, I’m interested to see how the characters are developing in my head. Straight-forward ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ are too easy: there need to be layers, nuances and contradictions that push the reader one way and then another as the story unfolds. I’m asking the ‘what if?’ questions about my story, and it seems to be working. At some point, when all thirty or so chapters are sketched out, I’ll start the first draft. Even then, details and complications will come to me and have to be incorporated, but hopefully without too many ramifications for earlier parts of the plot.

Another useful effect of spending longer thinking before I write is that I forget great chunks of the research. The things that remain are the precious bits that stay lodged in the memory when the rest has gone – the ‘nuggets’. Nothing bogs a story down as fast as too much extraneous detail which the writer has dredged up through painstaking research and is consequently determined to use. The trick is to identify the ‘nuggets’ and use them sparingly, adding colour to the story without slowing it down.

Sex and money aren’t the only things that drive action: love, fear, survival – they all play a part. Theymay manifest themselves differently in different eras and societies, but they never lose their relevance and their potency.

 

Unbinding from ‘Unbound’, without regret

If you’ve read last week’s post you might not be surprised by my decision to ‘unbind’ from ‘Unbound’. This is not a criticism of them: all the people encountered there were friendly, supportive and helpful. But it does raise a question about the suitability of the ‘crowd-funding’ notion for some writing projects.crowdfunidng-piggie-bank

It was a new notion for me, first encountered at a Society of Authors conference last year and put aside as interesting but too ‘trendy’ for someone as internet-wary as I still am. I didn’t pursue it, but then Unbound came to me with an offer and I was flattered enough to think it was worth a try. So I got involved, made the promo video, went to the crowd-funding workshop, read it up, made a plan and followed it through, although it all felt rather surreal. I couldn’t understand why anyone who didn’t already know my writing would feel sufficiently enthralled by my earnest talking head video and sketchy outline to commit to pre-ordering a hefty hardback book over a year ahead of its appearance.

I wasn’t hopeful about attracting ‘cold’ sponsors, but thought I would get support from people who know my work and were already looking forward to the next book. Three months later, reflecting on the decision to withdraw from the project, I’m beginning to get the process in perspective. What went wrong?

Well, I was right to be sceptical about attracting ‘new’ sponsors, of whom there were very few forthcoming. What surprised me more was the deafening silence from most of my existing readers, very few of whom made those necessary ‘pledges’. I asked some of them about their reluctance. They said, variously, that they don’t like buying via the internet; that hardback books are too heavy big-book-featureand cost double what they would normally pay; that they’d rather wait until the book is out and buy ‘the usual way’. I couldn’t say to them, ‘If you don’t pay upfront the new book won’t happen’ because we both knew that wasn’t true. The new book will happen, in the same way as all the previous ones, without the fanfares, trade edition, big launch and other bells and whistles. It might find a small and more local ‘commercial’ publisher, or I’ll commission a team to help me and publish myself, as I’ve done before.

What else have I asked myself? Does non-fiction draw a larger ‘crowd’ than my relatively ‘quaint’ and page-turning Cumbrian fiction? Does it help if your potential supporters are younger and more internet-savvy? Is the day of the ‘special edition hardback’ dead and gone? Would Penguin Random House – the publishers of the Unbound paperback version six months after the hardback – expect high volume sales and ‘remainder’ the book too quickly? My books sell slowly and keep on selling, year after year, as new people discover them and follow the series through. This business model, such as it is, goes against the grain for contemporary publishing. We were always going to be uneasy bedfellows, and for the time being at least we’ve agreed on an amicable separation.

 

A writer’s dilemma: what’s the priority?

Social_media_fear writing-cycle

After my last novel ‘Fatal Reckoning’ came out in 2016, I promised myself a break. Five books published in five years, and I needed some time out. So six months later I’m looking back and reflecting on what the break has taught me, so far.

Firstly, it’s clear that I was right to step off the conveyor belt for a while. I needed time to get my head up and look around without worrying every day about the next target and the immediate tasks. Secondly, with less intensity to occupy my head, I began to dawdle more over social media and realised how much of it is trivial ‘noise’. Thirdly, and connected to the other two, I resented the pressure I felt under as a self-published author to spend more time marketing, promoting, blogging, tweeting, just to keep sales of my books ticking over. If I stopped for a while, no one else would help: it was down to me alone. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, to have someone else to share that load, to care about my sales and push the books onto shelves on my behalf.

After the second search for an agent, and the same negative outcome as before, I’ve given up any expectation that my books are attractive to someone looking only for the next best seller. I’ve sold thousands, and they’re all still selling, but it’s a trickle, not a flood. London-based publishing seems distant and uninterested in what I’m doing out here in the sticks (or is it ‘Styx’?). So forget about an agent. If I need to, I could go straight for a small publisher, preferably not in London, who doesn’t rely on ‘agented submissions’ and is prepared to read my backlist to see what I can do. There aren’t many of those, but it only takes one to change my life.

 

The next stage in reflection on this unpromising scenario came recently while I was away in Canada and offline for a week or two in the far reaches of Vancouver Island and the Alaskan Inner Passage. What a relief it was not to have to check my KDP sales reports and the ‘pledges’ for the crowd-funding that was supposed to finance my next book – more of that next week. In my clearer head, the images of the new book were turning. I wasn’t writing anything, but I was thinking about the story for once, not the sales, and noticing how much more satisfying that felt.

Maybe I’ll change my mind, but right now the story is my priority. Yes I’ll need an editor at some point, and when the story is as good as I can make it I’ll have to think about how people will find and read it. But not now. For the next few months I want to be a writer, not a self-publicist.