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Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Killing Hitler

It is not possible to research a time travel novel without coming across the trope of going back in time to kill Hitler. You can listen to brilliant John Finnemore's sketch about it here, at about 26.30 minutes in.

But everything has unintended consequences. I've been thinking about one aspect of this lately, what with Plebgate, Emily Thornberry's snide Twitter photograph, and David Mellor, whose tirade at a taxi driver included the words:

"I’ve been in the Cabinet, I’m an award-winning broadcaster, I'm a Queen’s Counsel - you think that your experiences are anything compared to mine? And if you think you’re going to be sarky with me, get a better education before you try being sarcastic with me."

And I thought that though there is a lot wrong with our civilization, how nice it is that a de haut en bas attitude is deeply unfashionable these days. Bragging that you are superior because you are rich, successful, well born, white, male, or well-connected is likely to raise a chorus of boos, where not so long ago it was accepted. Perhaps this is connected to the world's horror at where Hitler's concept of German superiority led.

Hitler tapped into the secret belief most of us have that we are better than other people, a belief we should be aware of and treat with suspicion. 

FULL DISCLOSURE: I have to admit, I harbour a deep inner conviction that I am better than people who get apostrophes wrong.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Time travel via Google

The current work in progress is to do with time travel, and in the course of the novel my characters will visit the same places at different eras. As usual, the setting is my part of London; even so, I sometimes check out a location virtually on Google Street View. 

Yesterday I discovered a curious anomaly; most of Street View round Hoxton dates from July 2014. But there is one spot, just one, on the map where you can see my workshop in August 2008. And it's like going back in time.





















So many changes - Hoxton Boutique has gone, the black door is now yellow, next door is a building site covered in scaffolding. Even the lamppost, which used to hover outside my window like a levitating Dalek, has been replaced. (I often used to wonder whether, in dire emergency, I would be brave enough to sling a ladder from my window ledge to the top of the lamppost, climb across and slither down to safety. The answer was probably not.)

London changes all the time, much faster than most places. And we are time travelling all the time. We just don't notice it.

EDIT: the offspring and my friend Joo have now told me time travel is a feature of the latest Google Street View, unknown to me. I've upgraded and it's brilliant. Love it.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

We are all heroes in our own stories

I haven't posted a video for a while. I came across this one after watching another via a Seth Godin email. It's apposite for any writer inventing characters, and reminds me of the saying that every villain thinks he's the hero. Come to that, I guess every character thinks he's the hero...


Friday, 31 October 2014

Getting to keep 10% of everything you earn

This is a brief snippet from an old BBC sitcom, Hancock's Half Hour:

Sid James: “You’ve forgotten something, mate. I’m your agent, remember? I got a contract with you.”

Hancock: “Contract? You’ve been holding that thing over my head for five years now, allowing me to keep 10% of everything that I earn.” 

Audience laughter at the rapacity of Sid James and Hancock’s gullibility.

Now imagine Sid as a publisher, and Hancock as a writer, and suddenly it's normal and accepted and nobody laughs. (And his literary agent would take 15% 0f the 10%...)

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Present tense again

I've grumbled before about writers using present tense for no good reason in fiction. 

I'm not unreasonable. I'm prepared to admit that sometimes it's okay. I've just reread Mortal Engines, and though most of the novel uses past tense, occasional passages are in present. Unexpectedly, this works. I first read the book before I began to write, and didn't even notice. 

I've used present tense myself. In my short story, Mr Conway's Heaven, the protagonist narrates, and the whole point of the story is that he doesn't know what is coming to him.

But what's rattling my cage right now is trendy historians on radio and television using present tense to describe historical events, when historical events by definition happened in the past. This invariably has me gritting the teeth and muttering, "Henry VIII is not marrying Anne Boleyn now. It happened nearly 500 years ago! If that doesn't merit the past tense, what on earth does?" 

Where will it all end? Do we face a depressing future when any tense bar the present is quaintly old-fashioned and used only by pedants?

Researching the topic, I see I am not alone. The modish Melvyn Bragg was criticised for abuse of the present tense this summer, and quite right too. Grrr.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Truth in fiction - dos and don'ts for authors

A biography can only tell you what the biographer thinks happened. (Imagine your biographer after you've died earnestly interviewing family, friends and enemies. How close would he get to the truth about you?) Whereas fiction deals in what the author knows to be true. One recognizes one's own experience in a good novel, as well as learning about human nature.

It's always a mistake for writers to bend the truth; readers will instantly notice. It's also obvious when they let their views interfere when depicting character. A writer may disapprove of swearing, smoking, and certain political views, but if all the 'good' characters behave in ways he approves of he'll find it terribly limiting. 

Having a character do something nobody ever would in order to advance the plot is a seriously bad idea. Follow the character, change the plot. Unless one's name is Agatha Christie, that is. It worked for her. Last week I listened to Murder in Mesopotamia, and the plot had me yelling at the radio, "What? What? WHAT?" It hinges on a woman who has been married to her husband for two years not realizing he is the same man she was married to fifteen years before. Now I'm not good at remembering faces myself, but even I might be relied upon to spot that husband #2 was husband #1, lightly disguised by a change of name and a Swedish accent.

Though truth is good, writers need to be careful when adding undigested chunks of their lives to a novel. For some curious reason, that's always the bit readers pick on as being implausible, and it's no good protesting that it really happened to you. I remember on YouWriteOn criticizing a thriller because of the gorgeous personality-free female who seemed like just another bit of the hero's kit. The writer emailed me to say she was based on a real person he'd known. Problem is, even if he put a footnote in the finished book to that effect, it still wouldn't make the character believable.

So to sum up: we must tell the truth, but transform it into fiction first; never foist our prejudices on our characters; show life as we see it. No cheating.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

REMIX the audiobook - free copies

Remix the audiobook is now for sale on Audible and Amazon. Yay! 

But hang on ... as a new release, it has no listener reviews yet, and I need those to persuade buyers to try the sample. 

Time for an offer to my trusty blog readers.

If you listen to audiobooks and would like to listen to Remix free in exchange for a review on Audible, email me at lexi14@hotmail.com and I'll choose a few of you to gift the audiobook to - I can send to the US and the UK. (Amazon price currently £12.50, $19.95, or free when you join Audible for a month's trial.)

You can listen to the sample here, and see what you think of Ric Kealey with an Irish accent.

A free audiobook. Form a tidy line.

Honestly, I spoil you.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Tired Tropes in fiction

There's an interesting thread on Kboards on the topic of over-used storylines, and here's a selection of my favourites:

1. The thriller hero with a mysterious past who used to do nasty things for the government, but now he lives near a body of water with no visible means of support. All he wants to do is live in peace, but the government/damsel in distress/national emergency that he just happens to be in the middle of keeps pulling him back in. 

He hesitates at first, but once he starts killing again, the old skills resurface because everyone knows that once you learn gymkata (or whatever mysterious martial art he practices) your skills never rust from disuse. Even though he hasn't done dirty work in years, all his old contacts are still in the same locations under the same names, as though they were waiting for him to return just so they can sell (or give) him weapons or vehicles, and that one piece of information he needs to put the big picture together. 

And no matter how many dead bodies he leaves in his wake, he's never branded a serial killer and the woman (there's always a woman) can't help but fall in love with him, but they don't stay together for long (the speech is given or implied, "You don't wanna get mixed up with a guy like me. I'm a loner, Dottie. A rebel").

2. The love triangle. The one that involves the heroine, her childhood best friend who has secretly loved her for years, and the hunky, mysterious bad boy she finds irresistible. (Lexi: I've written this one myself...)

3. The liberal arts serial killers.  You know, the ones who kill for the beauty...and the art.

4. Stories with a woman on the run from serial killers who, through some miracle of focus or oestrogen, find time to fall in love while everyone around her dies. (Lexi: worse to my mind is the mother whose child has been abducted, who embarks on an affair while the search is going on. Yes, that's so what you'd do when out of your mind with dread.)

5. Teenage girl discovers she has some mental power and that there is a dark family secret. 

6. The billionaire who falls inexplicably for an ordinary fairly dull and talentless heroine, is obsessed with possessing her, is hopeless at communicating with her despite his genius at everything else, showers her with gifts and wows her with everything about his lifestyle, but then one little misunderstanding makes her run screaming and pouting and sulking to some inane friend or other before she realizes he and his bank account were destined to be hers forever more.

7. The ubiquitous Big Misunderstanding in romantic fiction.  The hero and heroine don't speak, avoid each other etc., for chapters at a time.  And yet if they'd only be in the same room for five minutes it would have all been cleared right up. 

8. I have a particular aversion to characters who are too stupid to live. 
  • "No, we can't call the police to report a crime. Well, no we have no good reason for this stance, but we're still not going to call." 
  • "I know a serial killer is stalking me, but I'm still going to go for a pointless walk all by myself. What could go wrong?"
  • "I'm going to go to the empty house after midnight on my own to meet the writer of this anonymous note, because that's what he specified and he says he has information for me."
Any you'd like to add?

Thursday, 28 August 2014

REMIX the audiobook

Soon the audio version of Remix will be available to buy on Audible - an exciting moment for me.

I've always wanted to have audio versions of my novels, but for indie authors ACX offers the only simple way of achieving this, and until this year ACX only dealt with the US. As soon as they opened their doors to the UK, I dived in.

The author posts details of his book, and decides whether to offer payment between $50 and $400 per finished hour, or a royalty share. With a royalty share, the narrator (known as the producer since she also edits and produces the master file) takes half of the profits from books sold but does not charge an upfront fee.

I was lucky - ACX chose Remix for the soon-to-be-defunct stipend program, meaning they offered $100 per finished hour to the producer, and we share the 40% royalty. I believe the stipend was very popular with producers. Although I needed an English accent for my protagonist, Caz, and most of the narrators are American, I got many auditions emailed to me. I chose Anne Day-Jones, who has a lovely clear voice and is really good at dialogue. You can listen to the sample here.

Anne suggested doing Ric Kealey, my rock star hero, with a light Irish accent, and once I'd got my head round the idea, I liked it. That was the most difficult part for me - in fact the only difficult part, as Anne did all the work - adjusting to hearing another version from the one in my head. But it's good, and I hope listeners will like it.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Amazon emails authors re Hachette dispute

I woke up to a surprising email from Amazon, which you can read in full here. It's a long and interesting read, but in brief, Amazon asks readers and authors to show support by emailing Hachette's CEO, Michael Pietsch, and consider including these points:
  • We have noted your illegal collusion. Please stop working so hard to overcharge for ebooks. They can and should be less expensive.
  • Lowering e-book prices will help — not hurt — the reading culture, just like paperbacks did.
  • Stop using your authors as leverage and accept one of Amazon's offers to take them out of the middle.
  • Especially if you're an author yourself: Remind them that authors are not united on this issue.
I've sent my email. If Amazon ask for my help, though I am but the tiniest cog in their vast machine, they will have it. Amazon enabled me to sell 68,000+ books when all trad pub did was waste my time. I owe them.

Also, Hachette has been whingeing in the media for months, pretending to be a poor little publisher who cares about authors' well-being and the future of literature, beset by a big bullying corporation only interested in money, when nothing could be further from the truth. Hachette is owned by Lagardere, a huge French media group. And there's nothing sentimental about the way it pays its authors.

But I'm torn between respecting Amazon for kicking the ball out into the open, and thinking that maybe this is an occasion where a dignified silence would be a better policy. Be the big dog who lets the little ones yap. 

Amazon kept quiet for months; perhaps with this latest sally it has finally reached the end of its patience with Hachette's lies, posturing and delaying tactics. I can understand that.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Harper Lee and the difficulties of writing

Harper Lee has been in the news lately regarding her opposition to Marja Mills' biography of her, recently published by Penguin. As we all know, Harper Lee only wrote one novel, To Kill a Mocking Bird; a modern classic, a book so excellent and popular that if any author is entitled to rest on her laurels and never write another word, that author is Harper Lee.

But there was a terrible downside to the fame, plaudits and riches the novel (and film version with Gregory Peck) brought her. How she must have been plagued by crass well-meaning enquiries as to what she was writing now, and why didn't she write another book, and hey, this is a good idea, why not write a sequel about what Scout did next? No wonder she spent the next fifty years as a recluse, refusing even to mention The Book.

Kill Zone had a recent post quoting J. T. Ellison: "It's the whole getting started thing for me. I forget how to write a book. The first ten thousand words are like digging fossils from rocks." I agree - I don't even want to talk about the WIP until it's at least two thirds finished.

One of my favourite quotes is from Lynne Truss: 

People are only being nice, when they ask. To the enquirer, 'How's the novel?' is like saying 'How's your Mum?' - friendly, concerned, non-judgemental. But unfortunately this simple question, when filtered through the cornered-animal mentality of the weary novelist, is transformed into the sort of sneering insinuation that makes homicide justifiable. 

'It was peculiar,' friends say to one another, when I pop out of the room. 'All I said was "How's the novel?" and look, she bit my hand.'

Thursday, 17 July 2014

I get to shoot guns for real


Guns appear in three of my novels so far, so when I was offered a place on the Goldsmiths' Company team on the 7 Rifles Livery Range Day I leapt at the opportunity to fire pistols and rifles with live ammunition. I knew I wouldn't be much of an asset to the team, never having fired a gun - but then most of the other liverymen had little or no experience either.

The event took place at Sandhurst. It's huge - roads run between various buildings and ranges, set in beautiful woodland with flitting butterflies and pine cones underfoot. All the soldiers were charming and helpful and seriously fit. On the range we wore ear defenders, protective glasses, helmets and body armour, presumably in case one of us turned out to be a really, really bad shot and randomly hit a fellow liveryman.

Glocks are heavier and larger than the die cast toy gun I sprayed black for the cover of Wolf by the Ears, and with a much heftier kick when fired than I'd imagined. The rounds are beautiful, like jewellery, and so are the empty cartridge cases, shiny brass glittering in the grass. No wonder it occurred to my grandfather to make a bell from cartridges during WW1, which I still have.

It is trickier to hit a target than you might think; the hardest part is holding the weapon steady while you line up the sights or cross hairs and squeeze the trigger. Did you know rifle sights are adjusted to suit the individual, so a sniper will be less accurate if not using his own weapon? I did my best shots with a rifle, lying prone, all five holes within a few centimetres of a target the size of a postage stamp (admittedly from close range). I regret not taking a photo before the nice soldier teaching me pasted paper over the holes ready for my next attempt while kneeling. 

My team came second, making us terribly proud of ourselves.

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Print edition of Wolf by the Ears


I've got the first copies of Wolf the paperback, and I'm rather proud. For the first time, I've mastered the gutter (woop woop) and so it's the best print version I've done. I've improved so much since doing Remix, I've now redone that book too, with drop caps, chapter headings, page headers and proper italics, not italics done in Word (this has been niggling me. I'm a jeweller, and jewellers are manic over detail). The new version of Remix should be available in a few weeks, and at a cheaper price.

Wolf by the Ears, print version, 274 pages, can be yours for £6.99.

Thursday, 3 July 2014

The trouble with time...

...well, there are several problems with it really.
  • We aren't given enough of it, and as Basil Fawlty pointed out, this is it, you don't get another go.

  • It only works one way, so you can't nip back in time and warn yourself not to buy a pension with Equitable Life* but invest the money in a cheap-at-the-time flat in Hackney instead.

  • And my current grouse - if you are working on one thing, by definition you are not working on something else.
As a single mother running a small business, whatever I was doing, I felt I should be doing something else. And that hasn't changed. There always seems to be a bit too much work, and I never quite get to the bottom of my list. So when I'm at the workshop I'm fretting that I'm not getting on with my current project redecorating my flat. While wielding sander and filler, I think I should be writing. While writing, it suddenly occurs to me I haven't done a blog post for ages...

Maybe I'm lacking in time management skills, though I'd prefer to think I'm attempting too much. What about you?

*This is not written from experience. Luckily I couldn't afford to give Equitable Life more than a trifle - or for that matter buy a spare flat.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

London cabs and why they are like Big Publishing

Today London's black cab drivers headed for Trafalgar Square in protest at the threat to their livelihood from Uber. You can summon an Uber cab from your smartphone, and it will collect you and take you to your destination for less than a black cab would cost. 

Though the official objection is to the unlicensed use of meter apps, that's not really the issue. Cabbies who have spent years acquiring The Knowledge and hold the whole network of London streets in their heads resent this newcomer using apps and satnavs muscling in on their territory and undercutting their prices.

It seems to me that the issue has a lot in common with Big Publishing's problems with Amazon. Like the Big Five, London's cabbies have enjoyed a virtual monopoly, and their prices have risen to the point where I don't take cabs any more - I can't afford the fares. Now Uber offers a digital alternative - cheaper and more convenient - no more waiting to hail a cab, just tap into your phone. 

Cabbies want Uber to go away so things can go on the way they always have. But the new technology won't go away. Unless the cabbies can persuade the government to block Uber, they will have to adapt in order to survive, even if that means being more competitive on price, accepting internet bookings and abandoning The Knowledge.

The internet has radically changed the way people do business. If you don't want to change, then you will find an outsider changing things for you. Publishing's outsider was Jeff Bezos.

Replica's screenplay

My brief foray into screenplay writing is over. (No, don't worry about me, I'll be fine, honestly.)

Many readers have commented that Replica would make a good film. So eventually I decided to write the screenplay. It was really hard reducing the book to 114 pages - so much had to go, including a character or two - but I finished a few months ago, and d'you know, I thought it was quite good. I was aware I was probably wrong - noobs are generally filled with false confidence regarding their first efforts. I knew I'd formatted it right, as formatting is easy if you just take pains enough.

A professional scriptwriter, Oli Jeffery, had kindly offered to read it for me. While waiting for his opinion, I put it in to the BBC's Scriptroom, which considers film scripts once a year. I'd told Oli not to pull his punches, and in a long and thoughtful critique he told me my screenplay, though the formatting and descriptions were good, was structurally out of whack and the pacing was off. Among other flaws. Quite a lot of them.

I'm sure he's right. Now I could spend more time learning to write scripts and I think if I did, I'd get there in the end. The process must be similar to learning to write a novel. But it occurred to me, once I'd written a brilliant screenplay it would need to pass the gatekeepers in order to be made into a film, and I just can't face that. Been there, got the tee shirt, didn't like it. My time would be better spent writing the next novel.

And Scriptroom 5? The BBC emailed me: We received over 1300 TV & Film Drama scripts, and our team of readers have been working intensively to sift through all submissions.

After reading the first 10 pages your script was put forward to the next sift where the first 20-30 pages of scripts were then read by another reader – which was the case with 13% of submissions we received. Unfortunately your script did not progress beyond this stage, so will not be considered further and will not receive any other feedback

I'm quite pleased my script was in the top 13% of submissions. (Mark you, the formatting was really good.)

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Indie to trad and happy?

An olden times writer exchanging his book for a contract
Joe Konrath said something on his blog a few weeks ago which has been kicking around at the back of my mind ever since:

"Publishers keep looking at indie success as a slush pile where they can scoop up the best. They'll keep doing that until indies learn better. But very few indies who sign with a legacy publisher and hate the experience will speak publicly about it, because their books are being held hostage and playing nice with their new corporate masters is essential if they want to continue to make money.

So you won't see many authors bashing their publishers. But how many who signed indie deals sing their publishers' praises? Isn't it odd we don't see a lot of that?"

Of course, when a successful indie is wooed and won by one of the Big Five*, he is initially thrilled. The advance will be substantial - it has to be, to match the money he's been making on his own - and it's always a boost to the ego to be pursued. Probably he's secretly gratified to think he'll finally fulfil his fledgling writer aspirations; piles of hardbacks in shop windows, book signings, 'proper' reviews in the media, even 'validation' by the gatekeepers. It'll save him from doing his own (or commissioning) editing, covers, formatting and marketing. For a few weeks, he'll be blogging and tweeting and telling everyone he knows.

Then what? I've poked about the internet a bit, and in most cases, the author goes curiously quiet. Blog posts become muted, mostly just about release dates and cover art. Have I picked up the wrong impression, or do most ex-indie authors conclude they've signed a pact with the devil?

*I'm not including Amazon publishing here, which offers much more to an author than trad pub does. I'd sign with Amazon with enthusiasm. Nor do I include print-only deals like Hugh Howey's.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

ABNA: Ice Diaries' Publishers Weekly review

As an ABNA quarter finalist, my novel Ice Diaries was entitled to a review from Publishers Weekly. The reviews are brief, mostly plot summary, and not necessarily flattering, though there is the odd truly enthusiastic one that makes you think the novel is a dead cert for the semi-finals. 

For those who are interested, some entrants have posted their reviews on US Amazon forums. Here's mine, not a rave but not bad either:

ABNA Publishers Weekly Review of Ice Diaries:

In this post-apocalyptic novel set in the year 2018, London and most of the world's northern climes have been buried beneath hundreds of feet of snow. Survivors of the SIRCS pandemic and climate change band together for safety. Main character Tori lives in a small community that works together democratically to raid local stores for supplies. She is happy with her small band of friends until a mysterious stranger appears in their midst. The once peaceful, autonomous community begins to crumble as first Dominic Morgan, a former mixed martial arts fighter recovering from a knife wound, questions their methods of survival, and then more fighters, hunting for Morgan, arrive. Tension mounts and Tori begins to seriously consider her long-term survival and whether her path might be linked with Morgan's future.

The author creates realistic and varied characters that blend convincingly into this post-apocalyptic world, showcasing both Tori and Morgan's emotional growth as the story progresses. The snowy London landscape feels well thought out, creating a setting that evokes a palpable layer of danger throughout the novel, giving readers a distinct and immediate reason to root for Tori's escape to warmer climes. Engaging and solidly written, readers will be hoping for more of Tori in the future.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

To be good, you first have to be bad...

...and not only that, while you are still quite bad you need to believe that you are good so that your enthusiasm and pleasure in your achievement will carry you through the necessary work to become good in reality.

This is why it's absolutely fatal for some well-meaning person to come by and tell you that your first efforts are rubbish. Believe this person, and you will give up. Beginners, like children, thrive on encouragement. Disparagement and brutal criticism make the creative urge wither and die.

I've found this to be true in every area of endeavour I've had a go at. I was pleased as Punch with my earliest attempts at making jewellery. I've still got some of those pieces, and no one could have guessed their maker would go on to have a career as a designer jeweller (I'd find it tricky to know what to say if a student showed something similar to me with quiet pride). The same is true of my first novel and my first book covers - but luckily the joy of creation spurred me on to better results.

Do the best you can, and don't let other people put you off. And never blight anyone's first tentative green shoots. You don't know what they might grow into if let alone, and it might be something amazing.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Quarter Finals of ABNA

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

I like to start any discussion of contests with this excellent quote from Ecclesiastes. I've been a contestant and on occasion I've been a judge, so I know just how subjective any selection process is. But I'm still pleased that Ice Diaries has reached the Quarter Finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards. 500 novels have made it this far, out of an initial 10,000. Each had its first 3,000-5,000 words assessed by two Amazon Vine reviewers. This is my favourite:


The next stage, which takes two months, is for Publishers Weekly reviewers to read the 500 novels in full, write a review on each and choose 25 to move on to the semi-finals. 25 is 5% of the current 5%, so a hard mark to hit. But I'll have my PW review...

You can see Ice Diaries' ABNA page here - and how odd it looks without its cover.