Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The thief of time

Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it is not the work one is supposed to be doing.

Three times this morning I have been out to clear snow from the drive and the car. If I didn’t work from home I wouldn’t be distracted from my deadlines in this way. Except of course I would not at the moment be at any office further than walking distance because the snow has us trapped in. So, you ask, why bother with all this snow-clearing if you can’t use the car anyway? Because I look out my window at the poetic blanket, and my response is an unpoetic Agh, get out of here and the snow is saying, oh yeah, you gonna make me? Also my neighbours are already out, digging in unison as if they were on a rescue mission or a chain gang, and I can’t be seen to let the side down. How can I get into a state of exploratory solitude to the sound of scraping shovels?

Later I know Paula is going to ask me to walk down the hill to the shops with her so I can act as a pack mule for the essentials. (Milk, potatoes – how come we’re only out of the heavy stuff?)  “Ah, but no, I see you’re busy – I’ll do it myself.” She sort of means it too, but she knows I’ll be going with her, just as soon as I’ve finished this.

And why am I doing this right now? This is isn’t work. (When Paula says, “I see you’re busy” she doesn’t mean this. This doesn’t come under her definition of busy. She imagines I’m writing a story for the new collection.) Yes, I know this is writing too, but not work writing; it’s... I don’t know what it is, reaching out, I guess.

Perhaps that’s my problem – too much reaching out, not enough reaching in. For example, I ‘wasted’ the best part of last Friday by going to the northern heat of the Kids’ Lit Quiz, not because I was being paid (I wasn’t) but because the organizers invited me to join an authors’ team that they hoped would add to the buzz of the event. I don’t know whether it did or not, but we authors certainly got a buzz out of licking the opposition (not the kids, the librarians’ team), and out of the infectious enthusiasm of the young people who came from all over the region to join in despite the difficult road conditions.

I enjoyed chatting with the founder and quiz master Wayne Mills, a New Zealander who takes unpaid leave of absence from his senior lecturing job at the University of Auckland  to compere his competition in the UK, Canada, China, South Africa and New Zealand at all the regional and national heats as well as at the World Final. He’s been doing it for twenty years, inspired by clear evidence that his simple, engaging idea has refreshed the motivation to read among the thousands of children who take part. I didn’t ask him if he ever regrets not devoting more attention to his ‘proper job’.

I don’t exactly regret my own distractions, but I sometimes feel guilty about pursuing the more pleasurable diversions, and more often frustrated about letting the mundane or trivial suck at the time I had intended for sustained creative writing. I do recognize that all experience is part of a creative writer’s constant research, that something will be retained osmotically which could well emerge again, suppose it be years later, as a dramatic incident or character, part of a story, an article, even a novel; but I do get bothered by a sense of hours ebbing away without visible production: worthwhile words on a page.

I feel I should try to adopt the approach of science fiction writer Isaac Asimov who said, “If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.”

Meanwhile I can hear subtle sounds of errand-preparation and contained impatience from downstairs. Outside, the snow has started to fall again, burying the shovel I left lying out in the garden.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Me and Mr Chekhov and his gun

Writing in my last post about MacGuffins reminded me of another plot principle, known as Chekhov’s Gun. I also remembered at least one occasion when I failed to follow that principle. In that case I didn’t realise what I had done (or hadn’t done) until someone pointed it out at a reading.

The law of Chekhov’s Gun states that if you introduce some object or element into a story that you don’t make use of at the time, then you must make use of it later, or there is no point in it being there at all.

You won’t be surprised to hear that it was the writer Anton Chekhov himself who first stated the principle. In a letter to a friend he said of writing drama:

If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there.

Chekhov follows his own advice in Uncle Vanya where a pistol is introduced early as an apparently irrelevant prop; toward the end of the play Vanya grabs it and tries to use it as a murder weapon.

Chekhov’s Gun is a pithy reminder that everything in a story should have a purpose, and points up the usefulness of slipping in elements that may not become significant until the audience or reader amost forgets they are there.

My example of failing to follow the principle is not classic Chekhov’s Gun in that the element introduced is a piece of information rather than an object, and it is introduced in the middle of the story not near the start; but it needed to be dealt with, and I didn’t quite do so.

The information comes into Head Down, the final story in my collection We Never Had It So Good, which is about growing up in northern England in the late 1950s. In this story my central character, an eleven-year-old boy, is about to discover whether he has passed his eleven-plus examination to enter the local Grammar School. Mr Carrick the headmaster sweeps into class and proudly announces, “Only three boys in the whole of 4A have failed the test. Only three.”

As the result slips are placed face down on everyone’s desk, the boy looks anxiously around his classmates, afraid to learn his fate. He knows already that Willie Mordue, the boy with the glass eye, will be one of the three failures – he is only in 4A to protect him from bullies in the lower stream. Who are the other two?

I do nothing for a few seconds, too weak to move. At last I manage to gulp some air into my lungs and reach out, then hesitate, caught by the sight of Grant Stevens in Row B. He’s further forward than me and I can just see the right side of his face and his head down towards the paper that’s turned print side up on his desk. Grant Stevens is crying. From now on every person in this class will remember Grant Stevens as the lad that cried when he found out he’d failed his eleven-plus.

So now he knows, and we know, that there is just one more failure to come to light. Everywhere around him the boy can see only signs of jubilation. He turns his paper over to find... that he has passed. Sorry to give you that spoiler, but the boy passing  his exam is not really the key point of the story, so I persuade myself I haven’t really spoiled it for you.

I read Head Down as part of a series of talks I did at Woodhorn Colliery Museum not long after the book launch. The reading went very well, and I was delighted by the audience reaction. Immediately afterwards, one woman came rushing up the front to meet me, and I smiled, expecting at least a compliment and with luck another book sale. Instead, she said to me in real earnest, “Who was the other boy?”


“The other boy who failed. I was waiting all the way through to find out. I was sure it must be his friend Chiz, but then you said he’d passed as well. So who was the third boy that failed?”

In that moment, I realised that there were three bullets in Chekhov’s Gun, and I’d fired only two. By any other measure the name of the third failure was irrelevant – it made no difference whatsoever to the story. But I had set up an expectation, at least in this woman’s mind (to be fair, no-one else has ever asked me that question), and I had failed to deliver.

Roy Peter Clark (he of the Writing Tools I mentioned in a recent post) has a slightly different take on it from Chekhov, but his point is apposite also. His prescription, which comes from advice given to reporters at the St Petersburg Times is: “Get the name of the dog.”

I hope I haven’t confused you by mixing metaphors here. If anyone picks up Chekhov’s Gun and shoots that dog, I’ll know I have.    

Monday, 22 November 2010

My MacGuffins

Until I heard the word used on the radio the other day, I’d forgotten about Alfred Hitchcock’s MacGuffin. When I started thinking about it, I realised that I have been using MacGuffins of my own without putting a name to them.

I don’t think Hitchcock invented the term, but he certainly popularised it and, in his typical mischievous style, stirred some confusion when he was asked to clarify what a MacGuffin was. The story he told went like this:

It might be a Scotttish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man asks, "What's that package up there in the baggage rack?" and the other answers, "Oh that's a McGuffin." The first one asks, "What's a McGuffin?" "Well", the other man says, "It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.” The first man says, "But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands," and the other one answers, "Well, then that's no McGuffin!" So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.

That ‘explanation’ was made in 1966, but about thirty years earlier Hitch had offered a slightly more straightforward definition:

"[We] have a name in the studio, and we call it the 'MacGuffin'. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers".

You could call it the object of interest, or the object of desire, except it isn’t always an object at all. Here’s a simple quiz. What are the MacGuffins in the following films and books? (For the answers, hit the Show/hide button at the end of the list.)

1. Pulp Fiction
2. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
3. The Usual Suspects
4. Rebecca
5. Citizen Kane

An important point that Hitchcock makes gnomically in his story of the parcel in the baggage rack is that the MacGuffin may turn out to be ‘nothing at all’. In the simplest case it could be a red herring, put there to distract from something that will emerge as important later; alternatively, it could appear for a long time to be something that it is not, as in the wonderfully macabre Don’t Look Now where the MacGuffin seems to be a little girl in a red duffel coat; and sometimes the MacGuffin, which seems so important at first, fades away, for its purpose of giving the characters a reason to be, or a reason to be there, has been served, and the story/characters/relationships take their own flight.

In my novel 11:59 the MacGuffin is a character called Hassan Malik, whom we hear but do not see in the first few pages, and who may or may not be dead. The mystery of Hassan and his corporeal status are what drives the central plot of the novel, provides the starting-point for much of the character interaction, and helps to twist the strands of the sub-plots too. But is Hassan ‘nothing at all’? You will have to read the book to find out.

The MacGuffin may be relatively easy to identify in a thriller, but what about in a historical novel? I would say that the MacGuffin in my (not yet published) Mr Stephenson’s Regret is the title. I want the reader to be asking, which Mr Stephenson and what is his regret? There are two candidates for the first answer, George and his son Robert; and there are a fair few regrets to choose from in both cases. I do hope, however, that before the end you will have worked out what precisely the title is referring to. Just to give a little hint: apart from the title I use the word regret only once among 117,000 others in the book. I wouldn’t want you to miss my MacGuffin.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Words out of time

Browsing through the letters page of next week’s Radio Times I see that some correspondents are objecting to the anachronistic language in the recent series of the period drama Downton Abbey. Examples quoted include ‘allergy’, ‘hung parliament’ and colloquial expressions such as ‘Papa will hit the roof’, ‘The suspense is killing me’ and ‘just so I know’.

I guess these are accidental, unlike the deliberately modern style affected by youth-oriented period stuff like Robin Hood and Merlin. Should we get worked about it? I ask, having spent over two years on the ms of Mr Stephenson’s Regret, my novel about the Northumbrian railway pioneers. Leaving the research aside, I took longer on the actual writing process than I have ever done on previous work, not least because of my constant etymological checking; I wanted to avoid being faux-Georgian or faux-Victorian, but at the same time I challenged myself to use only vocabulary that would have been available at the time.

There is, of course, no sense in being a stickler for linguistic accuracy if by doing so you put your narrative in a strait-jacket or make your dialogue seem stilted even allowing for the restrained conventions of the time. Perhaps the risk is greater in these days when the classics are generally accessed through the modernising medium of television rather than through the words of the original novelists. The nineteenth century seems and perhaps sounds a long way away for many of today’s audience. For the contemporary author writing in a historical context, there is a delicate balance to be found between past and present, and it’s hard not to fall between the cracks.

I have reproduced the first few pages of my draft Stephenson novel below (just push the Show/hide button to reveal it). I would welcome any feedback on the sample.

Extract from Mr Stephenson's Regret

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Roy's writing tools

I was commenting on a writer's sample yestrday, and I referred him to some advice from a book I have found extremely useful, so I thought I would mention it here.

The book is called Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark, and I would recommend it as much for the established writer as the novice.

I came to this book via Roy's audio programmes on iTunes U (which are also excellent, and free to download). I had never heard of him before, but was so impressed by the extracts that I bought the book - which is even better. Very accessible, yet not at all superficial, each tool is illustrated by hit-the-mark examples. This is a practical guide that will improve any writer's work, at any level or genre - I know it has improved mine.

If you want to know more about Roy, his book and his podcasts, your best bet is to start with Roy's site at the Poynter Institute.

Friday, 12 November 2010

There’s no magic key, but don’t neglect the keyboard

I appeared at the Books on Tyne Festival in Newcastle last weekend – congratulations to Anna Flowers and the rest of the team for organizing this excellent event.

As well as my own spot I was part of a panel of authors and publishers asked to conduct an advisory session for aspiring writers looking for a publisher. I was struck by how much interest there was – the room was packed out. Is it the recession, or have there always been so many people desperate to see their book in print? We tried to be helpful but honest about the current situation, and I’m sure we must have disappointed some of those hoping we would show them how to unlock the entry to the world of publishing.

In truth, not only is there no magic key, the doors are fewer every year, and the entries to those that remain seem narrower. The posh places have closed their tradesman’s entrance, and the concierge at the front is trained to scan for well-known names. Only celebrities have an automatic right of entry, not just for their ghost-written autobiographies now, but for their ‘novels’ and their lifestyle… stuff. Meanwhile libraries close, bookshops go to the wall, and those that survive do so on, well, the celebrity flim-flam, mostly.

At this point, we should stand up and applaud the small independent publisher struggling against the odds to produce real books. I honestly believe (and said so at the festival) they are helping to preserve literature in our age, and without them regional writing would no longer be seen in bound format. Their job is getting even harder now as writers spurned by the big publishers add to the mountain of manuscripts dropping through their letter box, and the bookshops struggle to find space for their titles among the tables and shelves laid out with 3-for-2 promotions. How long can these overworked independents keep going on zero profits?

If there is one light of optimism to hold out in the gloom, it is coming from our computer screens. While I acknowledge that the on-line-retailing revolution has played a large part in the decline of the high street bookshop, and in driving down prices to the detriment of author and publisher, for the aspiring writer there is more to cheer than fear from what is now available to them at fingertip reach on the internet. They can get constructive feedback, good advice, and a chance to move away from the closed doors of the traditional publishers to a new window of opportunity.

Many new writers are buoyed by the reaction of family and friends to their efforts. ‘This is really good – you should try and get it published.’ But what is the objective value of an appraisal by someone bound to us by love and loyalty? And how far can we trust their critical judgement? By joining a writer’s forum on the internet (there are several, easily found) a writer gains access to a network of new ‘friends’ with a mutual interest in sharing feedback. They will not be held back by considerations of love and loyalty from expressing a genuine opinion, often better-informed than those close to us because they usually are or have been in a similar position to the writer. There is a lot of experience and wisdom out there. A word of warning to the thin-skinned: objective criticism can be painful, though forum etiquette will normally keep conversations civil. Feedback from these quarters is usually very constructive, there is also a good deal of general advice on these sites, and they can act as signposts to opportunity.

One site which is garnering favourable reviews (though I have no direct experience of it) is authonomy, which I believe is sponsored by Harper Collins. Here, writers are encouraged to post up drafts of their complete or incomplete manuscripts for others to review. The most popular are listed as top-rated. There are writing tips and other advice to be found on the site. authonomy is visited not only by would-be authors but (allegedly) by agents and publishers too. Certainly there have been instances of authors being published as a consequence of their work appearing first at this site.

Finally, it is worth mentioning the e-book revolution, and specifically publishing in the Kindle format courtesy of Amazon’s digital text platform. For some writers, self-publishing is their preferred route, or the only one left available to them after rejection by the publishers. Always risky, this has proved very costly in the past; but what if all the costs of setting and printing are taken away by the chance of self-publishing an e-book? This is exactly what the Amazon digital text platform does. That completed novel of yours could be available and on sale world-wide within days at no expense but a little time and attention spent converting the manuscript to Kindle format. Amazon does the final conversion, but the careful writer will read the technical guidelines diligently first, and get advice from yet another forum connected to the site.

So there are reasons to be cheerful even in these pressed times. Good luck with your efforts, whether you are going to take your chances down the traditional route, showcase yourself on authonomy, or try self-publishing to Kindle. Remember, though, especially if you are self-publishing, making your book available to buy is only half of it; just when you’re thinking you have unlocked the door at last, you find yourself in a long, dark tunnel. You know your readers are in there somewhere, but how can you find them? More importantly, how can they find you? We have already discovered there is no magic key. Is there a magic lamp labelled ‘sales and marketing’? Er, no. Or if there is, it takes an awful lot of rubbing to make it work.

Friday, 5 November 2010

The writer's voice

Every fiction writer has to find a particular ‘voice’ for his or her story. There may be several ‘voices’ in the book (most often carried in the dialogue) but there is usually one prevailing voice that carries the narrative.

(An exception that proves the rule: I have just written a short story that alternates between two prevailing voices, but that is fairly unusual.)

More often than not, the ‘voice’ comes from the central character or protagonist of the story. That is especially true (or especially noticeable) if the novel is written in the first person; usually narrated by the central character. Not only do we understand the story is to be told by that character, but is also to be seen through their eyes. (Which can make it awkward when it comes to key scenes where they may not be around, or if it strains credulity that they are around – read Wuthering Heights for some particularly awkward examples.)

But a story that is written in the third person will also usually have a prevailing voice, either one of the characters or a consistent ‘authorial’ voice.

I give myself a challenge with the material I write, because I like to experiment with different genres and different ways of telling stories. So my ‘writer’s voice’ is always changing.

I want to illustrate this by extracts from three very different books of mine. Including the extracts could make this post excessively long, so I have used a show/hide button for each one. If you would like to read or even glance at the extract just click the button and it will appear - click again to hide it. Or you can skip altogether if you prefer.


These stories are written from the point of view of a junior school boy growing up in a northern mining town in the late 1950s. Here's a further ‘voice’ complication: the stories actually come from the narrative voice of a grown man remembering his childhood emotions and experiences. As I'm writing this post on November 5th I have chosen an appropriately seasonal extract.

Extract from Uncle Barney’s Box

Here are some points to note about the 'voice' I use for this extract: it is written in the first person (the same voice is used for all the stories in this collection}; the past tense is used for what we might term 'the set-up' and switches to present tense for describing the action, which should provide more immediacy for the reader; the vocabulary generally avoids dialect terms, except for the use of the odd word, phrase, filler or shortened form (that say ‘North East’ and ‘child’) to colour the ‘voice’ in the narrative as well as the dialogue; all these complexities of voice are designed to work naturally on the audience's inner ear even in silent reading. On this last point, I do a lot of public readings of my work, and this helps to assure me that the 'voice' is coming through, as do the read-alouds I sometimes offer to myself as part of the writing process.

(finished, but not yet published)

This is a historical novel about the railway pioneers George and Robert Stephenson. It is written in the past tense and in the third person, but the prevailing ‘voice’ throughout the novel is Robert (very occasionally and in specific circumstances the 'voice' shifts, along with the point of view, to one of the other characters). A challenge I gave myself in this book, in trying to provide a sense of the times, was to use only vocabulary that was available at the time, though I have tried not to be faux-Georgian or faux-Victorian.

Briefly the context of this extract is: Robert Stephenson, George’s son, is only 19 here. He is in London, shortly before he leaves to go to South America (early 1820s). He has met a fairly well-off and well-educated but decidedly rakish chap called Travis, who is about to introduce him to the delights of an opium den run by a Mr Chung. (It’s a historical fact that Robert smoked opium for most of his adulthood.)

Extract from Mr Stephenson’s Regret

Here are some points to note about the 'voice' I use for this extract: the writing is in the third person, but the reader experiences the scene through the mind and eyes of Robert; past tense is used throughout, but here it might be described as active past tense as the action seems to unfold more or less in real time (no historical summary in this extract); in contrast to the first extract, here we have sentence structure which is much more formal and standardised, even in dialogue; the long, flowing descriptive sentences near the end of the extract are there to aid the sense of Robert's dreaminess.


Another contrast in style, this is my newly-published novel, a contemporary thriller set in an unnamed city in the North East of England. It is written in the first person and mostly in the present tense. The 'voice’ of 11:59 is the central protagonist, Marc Niven, an educated Northerner who is a late night phone-in host on a local commercial radio station.

My challenge in this book was to find a style and language that not only fitted the character, but was appropriate for a story that reaches at times into the city’s underworld. Elsewhere in the novel there are some fairly graphic sex scenes, there are some pretty nasty characters, and (without being gratuitous) the language and attitudes had to fit. (Perhaps appropriately this posting is written in the month that sees the 50th anniversary of the landmark trial of Penguin Books for publishing the allegedly obscene Lady Chatterley's Lover, but relax, there is nothing shocking in the extracts I've chosen.

I am going to provide two extracts from 11:59. First, the opening couple of pages, set in the studio just before midnight. The ‘inciting incident’ occurs here; watch out for it. We also begin to get the measure of the type of character Marc is, or at least we think we do.

Extract I from 11:59: The Opening Scene

Here are some points to note about the 'voice' I use for this extract: we are firmly in the mind of central character Marc, first person present tense; the vocabulary is casual, informal, a tiny bit of technical language to establish the radio studio context and his familiarity with it, some DJ-speak; incomplete sentences; very importantly, lots of internal monologue - we live a lot in Marc's head in this novel, and it's not always an attractive place to be - emphasing his egoism, his sexual preoccupations, underlying sexism, slight coarseness. Did you get the 'inciting incident’? Have I managed to make it credible that Marc missed it while he is distracted with Marni? We later find that his former studio assistant Sam was his former partner, who has left him for a reason left unexplained until much later.

Here is some brief context to the second extract from 11:59: as a consequence of his failure to react to what Hassan says, and because he subsequently tries to cover it up, Marc is suspended, and the story gets into the local paper. Totally disillusioned, he seeks solace in drink in a city centre dive of a pub called The George. In this extract we should recognise he is getting steadily drunker – the language also deteriorates.

Extract 2 from 11:59: Marc gets drunk in The George

The main challenge here was to put across a sense of Marc’s drunknness, not only in his direct speech, but increasingly as the scene unfolds in his descriptions, and his perceptions of what is happening – at the same time, I am tipping the wink to the reader that Marc’s interpretation is (I hope comically) at odds with reality.

It has been my intention, with the help of these extracts from three very different products of my wandering muse, to try and make some sense of what I mean 'the writer's voice'. Let me know if I have succeeded in any degree.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

A sense of place

I have defined myself in this blog as 'a writer in the North' partly because the North East of England is where I set most of my work, and partly because I want to draw more attention to a region which I feel, even in the global economy of the 21st Century, gets less than its fair share of the cake in terms of commercial attention and media exposure.

It used to be worse. When I started writing, although there was a strong BBC drama production presence in both Leeds and Manchester, and of course Granada TV in Manchester, virtually all the publishers and agents were located in London. If you wanted to see them personally you had to take an expensive 600-mile round trip to the capital. Otherwise you were limited to letters and the occasional telephone call - no emails then. The inevitable consequence was that writers who worked in or near London were preferred because they were more accessible and because they enjoyed the networking opportunities which we Northern writers were denied by distance and the concentration of the media and publishing industries in London.

That disadvantage is somewhat relieved these days by the global reach and immediacy of email and the web, though I would argue that the bias still exists. Certainly it remains difficult to meet the movers and shakers personally. For example, I am a member of the Society of Authors, but have been to very few of the Society's events as most of them are held in London.

It's interesting that Northern writers who have become well-known names over the last few decades have almost all used the North as a strong element in their work - I'm thinking Alan Bennett, Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow, Barry Hines, Alan Plater, Dick Clements and Ian La Frenais, Alan Bleasdale, Willy Russell. (These are the names that immediately occur to me, and I'm conscious that there are no women in the list - Victoria Wood is the only one I can think of who fits the bill in quite this way.) It strikes me, even as I write this list, how influential for me all of those writers have been. They are the reason I started writing, and I guess that's another factor in my wanting to define myself as 'Northern' in my own work.

Last night my interview with Wendy Robertson was broadcast on Bishop FM on Wendy's programme The Writing Game, which was all about the importance of location to Northern writers (If you'd like to hear a podcast of the programme you can catch it on Wendy's blog, Life Twice Tasted.) My sense of place finds its way on my work in location (even fictional locations are at least loosely based on these places I know), character and speech. As I explained to Wendy, I never write dialect; rather I suggest dialect by the occasional use of words that are easily understood by the context, and by the characteristic syntax and truncations of the North East voice.

But if my characters are largely from my home region, I would hope that my readership was not. I like to think that the work travels well, is easily understood by all English speakers and that the themes, if not universal, are at least universally recognized.

And if they are not, I'd be grateful if you'd tell me.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Helping the sale

When I started writing (mainly for the schools market) thirty-odd years ago, I was asked to do very little to help the sales along. In fact, once a book was published the one real contact I had with it was the six-monthly or annual royalty statement. If an editor got in touch it was always to talk about the next project, not the ones we'd already 'put to bed'.

How different it is now. It seems to me that at least half the author's time is spent not in writing but in promotion, either directly or in response to something the publisher may have asked for, or sometimes the retailer or a representative from the community. And the range of promotional possibilities is much wider, covering a variety of media, on-line promotion, and personal appearances of one kind and another. The author needs to be much more available to the public, both in person and in writing - this blog, for example.

As a case study, let's take my new novel 11:59 , published this summer by the small independent publisher Wild Wolf. I've set out below just some of the things I have been involved with so far to help promote the book:

* The publicity process starts before the book is published - I have to write a 'blurb' for the back of the book, and am involved with briefing the designer for an appropriate front cover (great job by Peter Fussey). I provide the PR man with my personal media and retail contacts, garnered from previous work.

* Also before publication, I have an opportunity to tell an on-line forum about the imminent arrival of the book, because I have been lucky enough to get through to the semi-final of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award for 2010. There is a lively on-line commmunity that discuss the awards and entries (which get up to 10,000 worldwide) so even when I've dropped out of the running, I can let people know that the book will be published by Wild Wolf.

* A week or so before the launch I am interviewed and photographed for The Journal in Newcastle. Good, supportive feature.

* I know BBC Radio Newcastle's late-night DJ Paddy MacDee pretty well. A live interview is right on the money for the novel, whose central character Marc Niven is a late-night DJ on a radio phone-in show, which is where the novel opens. Paddy loves the book, mentions my appearance several times as I'm driving in for the interview, and gives me a generous half hour punctuated only by a couple of songs. Thanks, Paddy. (If you'd like to hear the interview, click on the clip at the foot of this post.)

* Unfortunately our attempts to interest commercial radio in doing something similar fall on stony ground, probably because the BBC got there first.

* Meanwhile my publisher is ensuring book details get into the right databases for the suppliers and libraries, and makes some suggestions about on-line sites I should explore. One of these is librarything.com. I join as a LibraryThing author and they set up an interesting Meet the Author chat. One of the things that come out of this is how difficult it can be to differentiate me from the 40-odd other authors called David Williams listed on the site. Tip for budding authors: call yourself Zebediah Snifferpump or something, not David Williams.

* I have a couple of good library contacts in the region, mainly through promoting my earlier book of stories We Never Had It So Good. This works out well: not only do both Northumberland and Newcastle Libraries order copies of the book, Newcastle also ask me to appear at their forthcoming Books on the Tyne event on 6 November. The publisher will take a stand at the event to sell books, and the advance publicity is good, including a well-designed colour brochure featuring the authors. I have a couple of other library events to do later in the year.

* I am used to doing talks and readings to various groups in the region (WIs, Rotary Clubs, arts groups etc) and there's quite a bit of interest in the new book from that quarter, but I have to be a little careful as the novel is quite graphic in places (one of its themes is human trafficking for sexual purposes) so I'm a little wary about what I'm reading where - don't want to shock delicate sensibilities.

* Actually that whole issue of writing about sex and feeling a little embarrassed by it leads to another slightly unexpected promotional opportunity. Worrying about the reaction of people I know makes me write an article entitled 'Not in Front of the Family' about my experience of showing the ms to loved ones. I offer this article to The New Writer magazine and they accept it for publication for their Winter issue.

* My publisher has arranged a reading and signing in a bohemian Newcastle cafe for three North-East based Wild Wolf authors. A good idea in principle, and we enjoy meeting each other, but we don't meet many readers.

* Quite a few review copies have gone out, like messages in the castaway's bottle, never to be seen again, but I am heartened by an excellent review in The Bookbag.

* My local paper The Hexham Courant has had a review copy too, and I've been interviewed and photographed for a feature, but nothing has appeared after several weeks, which is a bit embarrassing because my publisher persuaded the local bookshops to stock up in anticipation of some local publicity. It's left to me to chase up the journos, and at last it proves fruitful. More positive coverage. Thanks Helen Compson and Brian Tilley.

* Wild Wolf makes 11:59 available as a Kindle edition, which hopefully will increase our chances of overseas sales. I know some authors worry about the impact of the ebook revolution on their future sales, but in general I'm in favour. (How about you - please respond to my short survey at the foot of this blog.)

* Wild Wolf have a Facebook page as well as a website. Paul Anderson, whose job I think it is to keep both updated, does a really good job. For a while, I put up my own Facebook page, but I get irritated by the trivia that passes through the Facebook community, and take it down again. I am, though, thinking of trying again.

* Which brings me bang up to date with something happening tonight - an interview with Wendy Robertson that she will be broadcasting on Bishop FM starting at 7pm. Well, she reckons my bit will be about 7.30pm. Wendy and I spoke at her home about three months ago as she was planning her series on writing, and this is part of the result. Well, I've probably exhausted your patience by now - I hadn't realised when I started this that there would be quite so much to say about the promotional work that goes into the book, at least for the first few weeks. I'd better stop and do some creative writing now - there's a story I've been putting off for three days now.

Monday, 1 November 2010

North of where?

For me, the North is the North East of England, the area that sits in between the Scottish Borders and North Yorkshire, with the North Sea crashing in on the east coast, and the M6 snaking by on the west. I was born here and, apart from two or three years in Scotland, have lived here all my life. It's also the place which is the setting for most of my creative work, so that's why I have called my blog Writer in the North.

What I intend to do with this blog, mostly, is write about the writing, also about the business of publishing and other opportunites that come along for writers. I guess I'll also be making observations about things that have happened or that I've come across that might be interesting to someone other than just me. And I'll write about Northern things, not least about the North-South divide and the continued prejudice about the North, which never fails to turn me into Victor Meldrew.

Let me tell you quickly what I'm up to writing-wise. If you would like to see what books I have available please visit my Amazon author page.

So right now I'm:

1. Promoting my most recent book, a first novel entitled 11:59 published by Wild Wolf. This is a thriller set in the North of England.

There is a print edition and a Kindle edition. In a day or so I'll create a post on some of the things the publisher and I are doing to promote the novel.

2. Aiming to sell my recently-completed historical novel Mr Stephenson's Regret to a publisher (not Wild Wolf, as they specialise in fiction on the dark side of life). I'll tell you more about that book soon, and keep you up to date with its progress.

3. Completing the process of publishing a Kindle edition of my book of short stories We Never Had It So Good. This was published by Zymurgy in 2007, reprinted last year.

The book has sold well, but mainly in the North East. With the Kindle edition I'm hoping to widen its reach, not least in the States, and we've priced it very cheaply as part of the promotional ploy.

4. Preparing a Kindle version for trainers of a book of ice-breakers and inclusion activities. This might seem a departure from my recent work, but it's basically a reworking in a new format of a couple of products I produced in interactive CD format back in the day when I was running my own management development business.

5. In the spaces between all this, writing a new batch of short stories based in the North East which will eventually be collected under the title The Smell of the Tyne.