The positive power of feedback

feedbackAll my plans for meeting readers at the Lake District shows this summer went west the moment I fell down the stairs in mid-August and emerged with a ruptured Achilles tendon and damaged shoulder ligaments. Couldn’t walk for a while, couldn’t drive, couldn’t lift or carry books, couldn’t even use a keyboard without pain and handwriting was no better. What a mess!

Of course I was lucky, I could have died or sustained what are euphemistically called ‘life-changing’ injuries. As it was I was deprived of my precious independence for a while, but gradually I’ve got back to a semblance of normality and am well into the first draft of the new novel now, with every chance of getting the book to my editor by the agreed date of the end of January.

But during the past few months the lack of contact with readers has taken its toll.

I guess all writers doubt themselves, unless and until they’re clearly successful and maybe even then. However good your original idea, and however happy you may be with the plan in your head or on paper, there comes a point somewhere in the middle of the first draft when you wonder why on earth you’re doing devoting all your spare time to this project, and whether it’ll be worth it.

At that stage, it’s really helpful to have a way of refreshing your self-confidence, – especially that part of your self-esteem particularly linked to your writing. And that’s what’s been missing, because I simply couldn’t reach readers in person for quite a while.

Today was a chance to put this right. It meant a three hour return drive, and not long to talk with quite a small group, but I did so enjoy it. And when some of them began to talk about reading my books, I realised yet again how much I need that feedback.

One of the people asked me, ‘Do readers write to you, or let you know their reaction to your books?’ And the answer to that was ‘No, not much, and I wish they would!’ It’s hard to know how many people out there have read my stuff. Once the books have gone to the distributors and the shops they are beyond my view. I know that books get handed around : sometimes readers tell me with pride how many people they’ve lent my books to! I don’t know how many people get copies from the library. Simone-Forti-1024x576Nor do I know whether readers are more forthcoming with feedback for other writer’s books. I’m not myself, I realise. I may love a book, talk about it, delay finishing it because I’m enjoying it so much. But I never think of telling Claire Tomalin, or Hilary Mantel, or Ann Cleeves, or Andrea Levy how much I love their work, and why.

And there is another problem, of the relative isolation of many self-published authors like me. We rarely get reviews, or awards, or mention in the conversations of the regular book world. I could do something about this, I know. I could read and respond to more blogs and hope that the effort is reciprocated. I could actively seek more reviews on Amazon, although very few of my sales come through that route. I could be more active in the various writers’ networks. But time spent on all that seems like time off-task. My priority as a writer is to write.

As my life returns to normal I’ll probably get out more, and meet more of the people who read my stuff. Those direct conversations are obviously important to me, and I’ve been missing them.

 

 

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Endings are really difficult, aren’t they?

I came to crime fiction really late. I didn’t publish my first novel until I was 64, and then spent three years on a character driven trilogy before I decided to try crime writing. I read crime stories and I have some idea how they’re constructed and what makes them work. So why not have a go? How hard can it be?

Oh, the misplaced confidence of the (relatively) old!The-Three-Act-Structure

Online crime writing course: tick. Found and studied my notes on the ‘Three Act Structure’: tick, although I worried that genre protocols might make the writing formulaic. Then I plunged into ‘Cruel Tide’, a story about institutional child abuse, and ignored most of the genre protocols I’d identified. I refused to make it too graphic and violent; I  avoided the expected romance between my two main characters, and – mercy! – I left the ending ambivalent, with the goodies thwarted and the baddies apparently getting away with murder, literally.

I thought it was a good first attempt, but some of my readers were fretful. They wanted a ‘cosier’ theme, more romance, and the wicked to be punished. When I wrote the sequel ‘Fatal Reckoning’ I bent towards these expectations a little more, but that’s the end of the plot spoilers. My ebook and Print on Demand publisher, Fahrenheit Press, dubbed the two crime novels ‘Cumbrian noir’ and I was actually quite chuffed about that. ‘Noir’ has great resonance: it conjures up unresolved wickedness, dark landscapes, claustrophobic interiors, moral ambivalence. Double IndemnityIf you love ‘Double Indemnity’ you’re a noir fan, and I do. So if I have a crime fiction sub-genre it’s definitely not cosy crime, nor classic police procedural, and there’s no ‘great detective’ who reveals all in the penultimate chapter.

So Cumbrian noir it is, and I decided to have another go, setting the story in one of the darkest times in recent Cumbrian history, the catastrophic foot and mouth disease outbreak of 2001. I’ve reached the point where I’m reasonably happy with Act 1, and Act 3 looked clear, important and achievable. But here’s the hard part, Act 2. Tension has to mount, complications are necessary, a few blind allies and red herrings come in handy. If it all sounds a bit meandering, that’s the problem. You have to pull the reader along into the breathless tension and twists of Act 3 and then leave things feeling reasonably well resolved by the end. Trouble with Act 2 is a common problem, apparently.

When Act 2 isn’t working, you’ve got some choices. A new character? A new sub-plot? An unexpected twist that raises the danger level? Or there’s something more radical, that might take more time to sort out: you can change the ending you’d planned.

Many writers recommend starting with the denouement and planning backwards from there, and it’s tempting. But sometimes as the characters develop they just don’t fit into the dramatic ending that seemed so attractive in your earlier plans. Or you realise that the underpinning theme that’s emerging from the story doesn’t chime with the original ending. You need to take a deep breath, go back to your outline, and start again, at least from the half way point to the end. It feels drastic, and you need to think hard about the next outline before continuing with the first draft, or you could be wasting even more time than you’ve lost already.

That’s my way out: my ending has to change, and I can see Act 2 taking a better shape already. Phew. Hope it works!

Showing off in the ‘summer’

Millom show

Millom and Broughton Show, Cumbria, August 26th 2017. 

On Saturday August 26th, all being well, I’ll be in one of the big tents at this agricultural show in the gorgeous show field behind Broughton village. With any luck it’ll be dry and sunny and plenty of people will be there, some of whom will make their way to the crafts tent. That’s where I’ll be, at a table with my books on display and a banner and posters explaining who I am and what my books are about.

I’ll sell and sign some books at a ‘special show discount’, hand out some bookmarks, and take names and contact information from people wanting the new book when it comes out next year. But the main purpose of the day, and the most enjoyable part, is meeting people. Some of them will seek me out, to continue conversations begun last year: others will have read some of the books but not met me before, which is great fun. Others again won’t know either me or the books and with any luck I’ll start them at book 1 – A Good Liar’ – and they’ll follow the series through. I know some writers find meeting readers to be a bit of a drag, but I love it.

The Cumbria summer shows are really about farming and all aspects of our farming communities. from tractors to poultry, flowers to jam. And there I am in the middle of it all. talking about local history and stories rather than the esoteric mysteries of novel writing. People love reading books set where they live, and I love talking about what my research uncovers and how I weave the characters and the setting together.

There’s a show somewhere around Cumbria almost every weekend day from June to September and I could have a ‘table’ at all of them if I had enough stamina and was sufficiently well-organised. Writing and selling my Cumbrian novels is a creative enjoyable hobby that just about pays for itself. I enjoy almost every aspect of it – apart from proof-reading which has to be farmed out to someone with the right kind of brain. Going to a few of the ‘summer’ shows is part of the enjoyment, but too many might be a chore. So I’ll be at Millom and Broughton on Saturday, possibly Grasmere on Sunday if my accident-related injuries allow for a second day, and then Eskdale and Wasdale in a few weeks. Financially the profit may be small, but the social rewards will be great.

You’ll have noticed the ambivalence about ‘summer’. As I write, it’s cold and windy outside with heavy showers rattling through every few minutes, much the same as most of this month so far. And the month is August! Any resemblance to real summer might happen – as it often does – in September as the kids head back to school. But that’s why England is so green, and Cumbrian lakes and waterfalls so beautiful. The Lake District mountains are glorious too, when you can see them. They say when the air is clear enough to see the view it’s about to rain, and when you can’t see the view it’s already raining. Hey ho.

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.

 

Do readers need a ‘friend’ if the context is complicated?

Three years ago I was in the final stages of writing my third novel Fallout, which had as its backdrop the nuclear reactor accident at Windscale in Cumbria in October 1957.windscale-disaster-6-638

Deciding on that context for a story about finding love in later life was a gamble. For a start, the background might end up being much more interesting than the main story line. And dealing with a real event was always going to be tricky. It’s a touchy subject here in Cumbria even after sixty years: the final report on the incident used a phrase about ‘local errors of judgement’ that still rankles. (Actually the phrase was inserted into the report by the Macmillan government as a way of explaining the incident to the Americans without blaming the government’s own rushed reactor building programme.) And of course, because it was a ‘real’ incident within living memory it was essential for me – a local ‘offcomer’ – to get the facts right.

The inside story of the reactor fire was a complicated technical issue. How was I going to help the non-scientific reader to understand what was really going on, and why the key the decisions were made? The plan was to place a character on the inside of the Windscale whose job was to ask questions about the operation of the reactor. This character would act as the reader’s ‘friend’, gathering information in an intelligible way. in ‘Fallout’ this character was Lawrence Finer, seconded to Windscale from Harwell, the nuclear research facility near Oxford.

In my next book  ‘Burning Secret’ I face the same issue – explaining farming to a non-farming readership, and then clarifying the complications of a catastrophic infection that decimated our farm animals in 2001. I need a character that acts as the ‘guide’ to a specialist subject for a non-specialist audience. Talking to a local dairy farmer last week it occurred to me how to handle this. dairy_farmerLarge dairy farms often employ people to help with milking and the care of the herd, but during the outbreak restrictions were introduced that made it impossible for dairy farm workers to work normally, going home after work and coming back the next day. This particular farm asked a family friend from Liverpool to come and stay on the farm for the duration to help them, and the young man had no experience of farming life. He reacted to the everyday routines of the farm as you or I might, noticing things that the farmers took for granted, asking naive questions, making mistakes through lack of experience. In literary terms, this character’s function is somewhere between the Greek chorus and the gravediggers in Hamlet, and more emotionally detached than the farmers themselves as the outbreak spread ever closer. In a crime story, as this will be, the ‘stranger’ can also be a useful source of tension and mystery. Let’s see how it all turns out.

What’s the best ‘crowd’ for ‘crowd-funding’?

Having done my deal with Unbound.com to publish my next book ‘Burning Secret‘ – a crime story set during the Cumbria foot and mouth disease crisis in 2001- there’s now a link unbound.com/books/burning-secret to the page where the project is explained, illustrated and presented in a video. Alongside all this information is a list of possible pledges that interested people can make, ranging from the simplest – the ebook of ‘Burning Secret’ – to the more elaborate, a customised tour of West Cumbria with the author (me) to find the key sites and settings of my novels. The project needs hundreds of these pledges, small and larger, to reach the target fund and get the book published.

2013-11-14-crowdfundingIt’s called ‘crowd-funding’ – a term only vaguely familiar to me before I started down this road. I wonder how it really works: do people actually pay money up front for something that may not appear for months, and if so what motivates them to do so?

Apparently Unbound are interested in this too, and the research they’ve commissioned seems to be saying that people like to feel part of the project: their willingness to join this ‘crowd’ is about being a member of a shared enterprise, an insider, a patron not just a reader.

I have to admit that as a pre-internet adult, growing up before ‘social media’ were even dreamt of, all this has been something of a mystery to me. More importantly, I guess it must be something of a mystery to many of my readers too. Book buyers of my generation expect the book to be finished and ready to buy before we pay our money for it. We might buy online, but this ‘pre-order and be part of the supporters’ club‘ notion may feel odd.

If that’s true, if the baby-boomer generation doesn’t ‘get’ crowd-funding, then I need to think again about finding those pledges. ‘You have to nag people,’ is the advice I get about this, but nagging goes against the grain. I feel I have a relationship with many of the people I’m asking for pledges, and that this relationship could be jeopardised by pushing them to behave in a way that feels unfamiliar. ‘Do this for me, please’ sounds whiney and manipulative.

Clearly I have some thinking to do, or perhaps I’m just reacting too quickly and the crowd-funding process just takes longer than I expected. In the meantime the necessary link  https://unbound.com/books/burning-secret is being widely shared, but the numbers of visits to the link far outweigh the number of actual pledges. Is this what happens?

Here’s the question, does the crowd ‘pond’ from which pledges are drawn need to be wide and shallow, or small and deep?  Maybe I should focus on getting a smaller number of high-level ‘donations’ and sponsorship, rather than chasing individual pre-orders. Any suggestions?

‘Viral marketing’and local success

Last night at a local Women’s Institute meeting I heard a young man talk about how he and his wife have developed a plant nursery over the past seven years or so. Dull? It was rivetting, a saga of enthusiasm, aspiration, challenge, set-backs, perseverance, commitment, hard work, adverse weather and current growth – both commercial and horticultural. What kind of promotion and marketing has worked for you, he was asked. ‘Word of mouth’ he said. ‘If two people find us, a mile off the main highway and on the road to nowhere, and if those two people have a good time and each tell two, or three or ten people about it, then the business grows, and it costs us nothing that we wouldn’t be doing anyway, ie giving our customers a good experience.’My words, perhaps, not his, but that was the inference.

These people are BUSY, running a seven day a week outfit, developing the site, growing and selling their own plants and raising two young children. They won’t have time for sitting at the laptop, doing all the internet-based social media marketing stuff that we are told is the only way forward for a new business. And they are successful, doing what they love and are good at.

So what did I gather from all this, as someone trying to write and publish one novel a year, which is also pretty time-consuming? Tom Attwood’s story about the Halecat Nursery confirmed what I’ve been learning myself about the relative ‘efficiency’ of different forms of ‘promotion and marketing. We’ve learned that meeting people matters, and that nothing spreads sales faster than word of mouth. The most successful bookshop for sales of my book is the one where the person who owns and runs it tells each customer how popular my books are, that they are set in places they know, and that I live just minutes away and bring in the books myself. The single largest income stream in my book sales is the thousands of pounds I make every year through direct sales. I’ll do a talk somewhere, explain about how I write my books, the research, the stories, the challenges, and then I sell copies to people who are interested in them. It’s ‘book signing plus’, and it works.

In rural areas like ours there are many opportunities for people to come together and listen to a speaker, and an author like myself can gain an audience by simply making yourself available, and being prepared to plan as far ahead as these organisations do. Numbers may not be great, but there were forty or so people listening to Tom last night and he did a really good job. He brought lots of plants with him, made a fair amount of money from sales, garnered a small fee, and – more importantly – encouraged everyone there to come and visit the nursery, tell their friends, check the website. I’ve no doubt that the impact of his personal presence was far more effective than seeing a Tweet or an advertisement somewhere. People love plants grown locally for local conditions. People love books written locally with local stories and locations. If that’s the niche in this crowded market, then it pays both of us to address it.

That’s not to say that a writer like me can ignore all the internet-driven routes to market, but it’s clear to me that ‘viral marketing’ inspired by personal contact works really well, and it’s much more enjoyable than sitting at a keyboard.