Monday, 22 February 2010

How to make a magazine - Part 3


A good writing partnership is like a marriage; and so is a bad one. By Issue 8, a new possibility had arisen which neatly illustrated the difference in our approach. I saw an ad in Private Eye and through that, David and I started writing topical comedy for the Treason Show.

David is an artist when he writes. He will polish and perfect a sketch, or a song, or a piece for the magazine that will more often than not be recognised for its true worth. I, on the other hand, enjoy a full-force flood of ideas rushing by as I stand there like a salmon catcher on one leg. If I'm lucky, I'll capture some semblance on those ideas on paper and there'll usually be a lot of them. I will work on them but I'm less inclined to perfect them (I take a slightly different approach to novel writing) and firmly believe that the deadline is king. Better to get something down than have something lose its topicality and therefore its reason for being written.As it's our own magazine, we can dictate the deadlines, which can be a double-edged sword.

I would say, in issues 8 to 11, that we had a better idea of what the mag was - and wasn't. We were more prepared to carry work from other people and looked into paid advertising and sponsorship for the first time. Neither really worked for us; we just weren't commercial enough for ads, plus it might be difficult to separate them from our own spoof content. We did free gifts again, partly as a thank-you to our loyal band of readers.

The design continued to evolve and I continued to try and get us reviews and coverage. Two magazines - Pentacle and Pagan Dawn carried (and still do) lineage ads for us and we got the occasional UK and international reader off the back of it. They rarely came back for a second copy though! I think we realised round about now that the magazine had a limited commercial future - unless we wanted to churn more issues and as a consequence diminish the content. We opted for art over commerce and David decided to step aside from the gag, sketch and song writing.

But a series of magazines is a valuable source of material and a credible track record to use elsewhere. Some of that content was recycled and expanded to create The Little Book of Cynics. And I still use the magazine as a calling card to showcase gags, articles and cartoons to potential editors and employers.

TO BE CONTINUED.

Friday, 19 February 2010

brought to book - part 2

Where were we? Oh yes, I was talking about drawing the line somewhere.

I did get one rapid response from a MAN UP submission, from a Chief Editor no less. She said her publishing house could see the market potential and liked my work but, in the current economic climate, they would need a financial contribution from me. Thankfully, Brian had already instilled a good dose of common sense into me so all that remained was to receive their no-obligations sample contract and, in the words of the great Jim Bowen (of Bullseye fame): 'Come and see what you would have won.'

They wanted a contribution of £1275. I'll wait for a moment while you all sit down or grab the furniture.
This is for a 'little book' of 110 quotes / pages and measuring 8 cm x 10.5 cm.

Okay, here's the science bit:
1. They offer a 20% royalty. Based on the similarly sized Little Book of Cynics and its cover price of £3.00, that represents £0.60 per book. £3000 for the first 5000 copies sold.
2. 1000 copies per year is a realistic projection for this kind of book in the humour / gift market - I've done some research.
3. This means that (£600 x 2 = less than £1275) it will take over two years before I break even.
4. A 20% royalty sounds very attractive but, if we subtract my £1275 contribution from a five-year projection of the total royalty (when I fantasise, I do it long-term), we get a figure of £1725 (£600 x 5 and then minus £1275).
5. Now, this £1725 equates to a royalty of approximately 8.69%, broadly in line with the industry. But remember, I'm risking £1275 and for the first two years I don't break even.

Someone somewhere said that money should flow to the writer. Kind of like our own prime directive. So I've written back to the publisher to thank them and tell them that I won't be taking up their opportunity. Maybe I'll give Jim Bowen a ring and ask him if he's got any unwanted speedboats available going cheap.

Oh, I nearly forgot, and it doesn't bode well when the contract you're sent has the title of your book mis-spelt!

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

brought to book - part 1


Someone recently asked me about my membership of the Society of Authors. 'How come,' they said with an arched eyebrow, 'You're a member of the society but you've yet to have any of your novels published?'

Well, seeing as you asked ...

For years, on the quiet, David French and I have been producing our own magazine: As Above So Below. It's an eclectic mixture of spoof articles, features, adverts, de-classifieds and cartoons. Our subject matter is equally diverse - religion, philosophy, natural medicine, environmentalism conspiracies, politics, consumerism - you name it and if we can find an angle, we'll have a go.

The plan had always been to use the magazine as a springboard to greater things - scriptwriting, books and all manner of media experiments. So in 2004, I collated a collection of our pithiest sayings and sent them off to various Little Book publishers. Crombie Jardine said they were interested but their acquisitions budget was spent for the year, and invited us to resubmit in the future. As no one else (Michael O'Mara, Summersdale, Pocket Books, etc) wanted to take us up, we bided our time.

In 2006, having rewritten the 100 quotes and quips then organised them thematically, we went back to CJ. Success! They liked the book and offered us a contract for 2007. It was a standard buyout contract, a one-off payment in lieu of royalties. I joined the Society of Authors to get the contract looked over, considered their advice and went back to CJ with a suggested revision (upwards).

To be fair to CJ, they were absolutely straight with us and explained their model and why they were offering what they had. And, naturally, we were free to take our book elsewhere if we thought we could get a better offer. Cue: a large plate of humble pie to two hungry writers. We took the deal and in Sep 2007, The Little Book of Cynics (no longer The Little Book of Croydon but still referred to affectionally as LBOC) graced the shelves of Waterstones and others.

The interesting thing, some three years later, is that we did better out of the buyout deal than we would have under a standard royalty arrangement. Realistically, we were never going to get rich from LBOC, but I believe it has opened the occasional door when touting for comedy writing. It also taught me a lot about the business of books, and why it is vital that writers understand how the business works so they can play their part effectively.

I have put together another four Little Books since then, all currently on circulation to other publishers (CJ advised that they've shifted their publishing focus in the last couple of years) and all available to good homes. I would say 'no reasonable offers refused' but, as you'll see in a future post, I do draw the line somewhere.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Keeping it real


I was in the Co-op today and I got the munchies. Luckily, a packet of chilli crisps caught my eye, primarily because of its proud boast: made with real ingredients. I'm sure we can all remember the bad old days of counterfeit ingredients in our savoury snacks. Once I'd emptied the packet - and scanned it in for posterity - I thought about how it could apply to writing.

As a writer, I strive for a sense of realism in my fiction. Whether it's Thomas Bladen working out who he can trust in Standpoint, or Syriem Taulpiris negotiating his way through higher realms of consciousness in Covenant, there's always a set of conventions and a consistent logic that applies. My readers may have agreed to the suspension of disbelief by turning the pages but, as Samuel Taylor Coleridge inferred, it's the writer's job to keep it that way until the last page. Or preferably, afterwards - because if they're still thinking about 'What Syriem did next' then they'll probably want to read more of my work..

Plot, point-of-view, characterisation, dialogue and pace must all work harmoniously to create a reality so enticing that they'll prefer it to the world they know, for a time. A key element of that is the authenticity of the emotions. Even if we haven't faced a bullet, known personal disaster or seen death up close, we have all known fear and loss. We may not have experienced an epic love that took us across continents or worlds but we all know what love feels like to have or to be denied. Childhood alone will teach you most of that!

Generally, the only things that I find dilutes that authenticity of the emotions, are intellectualising what I think a character is feeling or not allowing myself to go deeply enough into a scene. Either way, it's holding out on the reader and that's a big no-no. It might seem like it's all been done before but each time we feel something - really feel it - it is as fresh or as raw as the first time. Sometimes, even more so because it reconnects us with ther past.

And just as there are only so many ingredients in a snack (it was the first time I'd seen Calcium Chloride listed as a firming agent), so there is a finite number of ingredients to a book. The trick is to create a unique recipe,resulting in a distinctive flavour, that will satisfy your customers again and again.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Project Management for Beginners

Back before I was released into the wild - at the edges of a forest called Freelancing - I was a project manager for one of the corporates. This is a sample piece I wrote for a professional article / essay company.


A successful Project Manager may be likened to a juggler. Aside from the obvious metaphor of keeping all the balls in the air, he or she can only achieve their objective because they know exactly where everything is at any given time.

While best practice is for a Project Manager to have professional training and qualifications, such as APMP or Prince2, there are some key principles which can be applied at any level.

The first of these is to understand the principal functions of the project management role, namely to monitor and control a project – through its life cycle – so as to achieve a successful delivery in terms of defined time, cost and quality parameters. In practice, the role may also demand the professional closure of a project prior to delivery, if those same parameters have been exceeded beyond stated tolerances, on the direction of the client or principal authority.

The relevant organisational structure for the lifecycle of the project, along with defined roles and a clear understanding of the processes required to achieve the project objectives are essential. In this way, everyone understands the scope of their individual role and the relationship between project roles, including the hierarchy for reporting and decision making. A failure to instigate such a plan at the outset of the project – and to secure concurrence from the entire project team – can be compared with building a house without the proper foundations.

The overall project plan will incorporate those elements above, as well as other component plans covering: Risk Management, Communication, Change Control as well as breakdown structures for Work, Cost and Product. A number of other plans may also be required

Ultimately, however, the project will stand or fall on the strength of - and alignment with - the Business Case. This document has many functions, setting out the purpose of the project, how its success will be measured and what benefits will be achieved. The Business Case is used to secure project funding but it is also a living document and will be referred to throughout the project's lifecycle. It may be subject to change because of financial, technological or political influences, any of which can have a profound impact on the project itself.

Friday, 5 February 2010

spare a thought ...


... for those oft unsung heroes and heroines of the book world - agents and editors.

I had a rejection back from Piatkus today. It was your average, bog standard, unsigned rejection. And I started to wonder what it must be like on the other side of the glass.

Imagine coming into work everyday, to a colossal pile of letters and submissions - the enticing, the intriguing and the just plain wrong. After sifting out the wrong genre, the badly presented and the frankly unsuitable, you are still left with a large pile of maybes. And the only way to find out for sure is to delve deeper into each and every one of them.

'How many times?' They must ask themselves, searching through for that magical manuscript. A submission that is not only well written but is also commercially viable (remember, there will be other industry people to convince, along the way), from an author who has some mileage in them and who shows signs of being marketable.

It's a tall order; so small wonder we writers find ourselves crunched up against the glass door from time to time. And remember, although we've committed time and dedication to our work, they're committing their reputation and in the case of publishers, their money too.

So seriously, spare a thought for agents and editors - they're only as good as their last success so forgive them if they're a little cautious with your work of genius. And before anyone familiar with Scotland yells 'Sook', that doesn't mean they don't make mistakes. But time spent complaining about it could be time spent writing.

Monday, 1 February 2010

paper chase

There's nothing quite like misplacing an important document for encouraging you to clear out old paperwork. After you've searched through it unsuccessfully, of course.

Rejections from 2006 sat cheek by jowl with reader reports from 2007. And, by the time I'd gone through them all, the shelves weren't the only thing groaning. Did I actually insist that my fantasy novel Covenant be called The Promise of a Rainbow? What was I thinking? And how many times did I need to be told that before I made the change. I'll spare you - and me - the finer details on the content. Suffice it to say, the novel and I have come a long way.

Looking back has its place of course, as long as you're learning from it. But, once you've got the message - unless you really are planning to paper the walls with rejections - it's best to hit the shredder and move on.

Then there were the 'ideas folders'. The one for As Above So Below magazine (next Issue coming soon, by the way), which contains the worst hand-drawn - is there any other way? - cartoons in Christendom. And the terrible puns that shall not speak their name.

The other folder holds all the newspaper clippings which I thought would inspire me. Well, that was the plan but the contents told a different story. Unless I intended to write about a cheap suit from Hong Kong, a package deal in Egypt and why a stately home is haunted.

Somewhere along the line, I lost my focus. There was useful information in there too but plenty of distractions.

And that's the thing about writing. Whether in the work or about the work - if it doesn't move things forward, it will hold them back and send you in the wrong direction. So don't just murder your darlings if they're getting in the way, put them in the shredder.

Naturally, I found the document where Anne (the brains of the relationship) told me it would be - nowhere near where I'd been searching for two hours. But my, how spacious the shelves are looking today.