Saturday, 21 October 2017

The October Competition!


Every month, in the lead-up to the January 2018 release of A Murder To Die For, I'm running a competition.

They're only open to my subscribers - those people who, by pre-paying for the book, have helped it to get published (of course, if you're not already a subscriber, you still can be) but you might like to have a go anyway. Just don't publicly share your answers until after the closing date of 31st October please!

This month there's a series of visual clues to solve, all leading to the name of a fictional detective.

Full details here on my publishers' website! Or click on the picture above.

Good luck!

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Pull quotes from Pullman

A couple of months ago, I posted up Neil Gaiman's rules for writing here. The reason I did so is that Neil - athough we write very different material - has a strikingly similar attitude to writing to me. Or me to him. Therefore, his rules resonated with me much more than other 'rules' I've read by other authors.


Today I read a nice little interview with His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman in which he describes his writing process, and I found myself nodding happily in agreement with some of the things he said. It's always a lovely feeling when you discover that the way you do things is shared by a hugely successful author:

'When I'm writing, I'm more conscious of the sound, actually, than the meaning. I know what the rhythm of the sentence is going to be before I know what the words are going to be in it. That's a very important factor in the way I write. That's why I can't write with music playing. Some writers do, but I couldn't begin to do that. Silence? Yes. Pneumatic drills? Fine. Traffic noise? No problem. But music is an absolute killer. So I have to have silence, so I can hear the rhythm.'

I too cannot write to music (a) because of the distraction and (b) because, as Pullman says, it interrupts the rhymn of the sentences. I can tune out most random noise. And I can work in silence. But what works best for me is low ambient noise that doesn't distract. Consequently I often use coffitivity.com, a website that streams the constant hubbub of a coffeeshop. Stephen Fry introduced me to it and, for that, I am eternally grateful as it helps me to be very productive. And there is science to support this: a number of peer-reviewed university studies suggest that a moderate level of ambient noise is conducive to creative cognition. In a nutshell, this means being a tiny bit distracted helps you be more creative, which is why those Eureka! moments happen when we're brushing our teeth, taking a shower, or mowing the lawn (in my case it's on the daily countryside dog walks). But if the murmur of coffee shops is still too distracting, you could try a virtual visit to Oxford's Bodleian Library. Sounds of the Bodleian is a webite featuring live audio streams from the ancient building's various rooms.


'I sort of know where things are going - but I don't know the way to get there. Structure is sometimes seen as being a fundamental thing. It isn't. Structure is a superficial thing. What is fundamental in a book is tone, the tone of voice, and to change that is to change every single sentence. But you can change the structure at the last minute. You can say: "I'll start in the middle", or whatever. The structure is there, but it comes later.'

This, for me, was an interesting insight. I'm more of a 'pantser' than a 'planner'. Like Pullman, I always have an ending for my book, a target to aim towards, but I don't always know how I'm going to get there. I write by the seat of my pants, letting the story take me where it needs to take me. I find excessive planning is restrictive and time-consuming; if I'm planning, I'm not writing. As Neil Gaiman said, 'Finish what you're writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.' You can always tweak it and hone it and restructure it later. What matters is that you've nailed the story to the page and that it reflects who you are as the writer. It's your art on the canvas that matters, not what shape the frame is.

And finally: 'When you're writing, you have to please yourself because there's no-one else there initially. But the book doesn't fully exist until it's been read. The reader is a very important part of the transaction - and people have to read things they want to read. I'm writing for me - I write for all the "mes" that have been. From the first me I can remember, the me who first got interested in stories and loved listening to them; to the me who was here at Oxford 50 years ago; to the me who was a school teacher, telling stories to the class. All of these. I'm writing for me.'

This, for me, defines what a writer is. A writer writes. They are driven to write. And they write for themselves. I write for me, for my pleasure and satisfaction. I don't write to fit the zeitgeist or in the style of other authors, no matter how successful they are or how much more commercial my books might be if I did. My books are for me. If other people like them, that's a bonus and validation. There is no better feeling than hearing someone say that they liked your work. If people want to pay you for it, even better! But publication, lovely though it is, should never be the primary reason for writing. I'm always meeting people who say, 'I'd like to write a book one day.' They almost never will. If they were driven to write they'd already be writing. Invariably they have a fantasy view of an author's life; that you write one book and get rich. In a recent poll 'writer' came out as people's dream job.

For me it is my dream job. And I do it. But I do it because I love it (it's certainly not for the money!) and that's what matters most in the long run.

Pullman's full interview is here.



Thursday, 12 October 2017

Ex Libris - Live!

The Ex Libris - Live! podcast is tremendously good fun. Recorded in front of a live audience, the players have to bluff their way through faking the first and last lines of famous books, or guess the real lines among the duds written by their opponents.


I appeared on Episode 5 and had some pretty stiff competition consisting of award-winning literary historian Prof Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, science editor for The Times newspaper Tom Whipple, and the genius that is producer, writer and presenter John Lloyd, the man who gave us Not The Nine O'Clock News, Spitting Image, QI, Blackadder and so many more.


I reckon I acquited myself pretty well. But you be the judge! Click on the logo above or this link to listen.

And do listen to other episodes. They feature a galaxy of literary illuminati including Robert Llewellyn, Alex Preston, Jenny Colgan, Helen Lederer, Paul Mayhew-Archer, Jasper fforde, Will Gompertz, Helen Zaltzman and the creator of the Ex Libris game (and Jenga), Leslie Scott.



Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Competition #2 Winners

Huge congratulations to Julie Warren and Lawence Pretty who were the winners of my September competition. They both win signed books by Sandi Toksvig and Jonathan Coe.

I'm running a series of monthly competitions leading up to publication day in January. At the moment, the competitions are only open to people who have subscribed to my book. Let me explain what a 'subscriber' is.

A Murder To Die For is being published by the award-winning and innovative publisher Unbound. The way that they work is very clever. In every way but one, it operates just like any other publisher:
  • You, or your agent, submits a manuscript; 
  • If Unbound like it, they will offer you a contract. If they don't think it's for them, they'll wish you good luck placing it elsewhere;
  • You'll be offered a choice of contracts from e-book only to beautifully produced hardback. 


The book is then championed on their website and potential readers are invited to pledge on the book. This is where Unbound differs from traditional publishing. Pledging is essentially pre-ordering the book but, naturally, it can't be called that just in case the book fails to meet its funding target. However, once the target is reached - and more than 60% of Unbound projects do - it's back to traditional publishing again. That means:
  • You're assigned an editor to work on a structural edit who will advise if changes are needed;
  • You're assigned a designer and discussions begin about the book's overall look and cover art;
  • Following the structural edit, you'll have a copy editor who will check the book for factual errors, inconsistencies, plot holes etc.;
  • Once that edit is done, it will go to a proofreader;
  • Artwork is commissioned and completed; 
  • Finally, the book will be typeset and you get the galleys/proofs through for final checking;
  • Then it's off to the printers.


Subscribers - the people who paid up front to help to bring the book into existence - are rewarded with special editions that don't go on general sale (Mine, for example, will have colour throughout and bronze metallic foils on the cover lettering, plus a couple of other special treats). A plainer trade edition will then be distributed via the usual outlets online and in bookshops. However, every copy of every edition of the book will carry a list of the people who made the book happen by subscribing.

In effect, it's crowdfunded publishing but it's very different from self-publishing or raising the money through sites like Kickstarter. Firstly, there's a gatekeeper; Unbound decides which books they would like to see published. Many fail at this first hurdle. Secondly, an army of industry professionals will guide your book to publication - you don't have to do it alone. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, with publishers becoming ever more risk-averse about the types of books they take on, Unbound has the freedom to publish any book they like. It's the readers who are paying for the book to be published and not some accountant in an office somewhere who spends their days assessing whether a book is 'worth the risk' of publishing. That's hugely liberating. And it's not a new idea; the model that Unbound uses is not dissimilar to that used by Dr Johnson for his dictionary and by Dickens who published his work by subscription to the so-called 'Penny Dreadfuls' and other such publications.

Unbound has had a book nominated for the Man Booker Prize long list (The Wake), has won the Book Of The Year (The Good Immigrant) and other awards. The system obviously works. And you can be a part of it.

Being a subscriber means that you become a patron of the arts; you help bring a book into the world. That's a brilliant thing to do and so much more rewarding than just buying one off Amazon or in Waterstones, surely? So go and have a look at their site, buy an existing special edition or subscribe on a brand new book, not yet published. Pledges range from just a few quid up to more expensive rewards and some of those are amazing.

You can still be a subscriber to A Murder To Die For and get a copy of the special edition (although you won't get your name listed now as the book has gone to print). Just click here.

If you do, you'll also be eligible to enter the competitions of course. Next one in two weeks!

Will you be a winner?