Observation Post

Well, it's that time of the year again - a cross between the End Times and that moment when you're waiting for your train / plane to be announced for a trip you've been looking forward to. Or else it's another day before you have to remember to change the year when you date anything.

I find the days between Christmas and New Year a great opportunity to do the writing equivalent of gardening: tending the ground, pruning back, removing the debris and clearing away the cat poop.

In practice this means I:
1. Unsubscribe from those lists I stopped reading because I found they didn't fit my circumstances or aspirations.
2. Check for any unbilled invoices or incorrect payments (it happens from time to time).
3. Plan ahead for future column pieces and articles with perhaps a headline and some bullets.
4. Review my activities and progress via my trusty spreadsheet. (I could say I excel at that, but I think we're past the time for Christmas cracker puns).

A quick glance at the start of this year's blogdom is also on the cards:

Books of note I read or re-read this year: The Art of Letting Go, The Maltese Falcon, Shakedown, On Writing, and Narrow Dog to Carcassonne. I also read one of my own - Shadow State - but that was mainly for editing purposes.

I stuck to my guns in offering a free hour every week to writers. Sometimes I offered it pro-actively and occasionally people sought me out. Mostly, they left me alone! I worked on a couple of synopses, discussed promotional ideas, posted blog interviews, wrote anonymous content for low budget projects and, on one occasion, was invited to be a news conduit for a global conspiracy. I think it's easy to help others at a grassroots level, but as you move up the slopes the help that people want is more specific, more time consuming and more reliant on having contacts and influence. 

I also made my first foray into paid advertising, having tried a giveaway or two to see if it resulted in later sales or reviews (reader, it didn't!). My Book Tweet campaign delivered zero sales and my minimal outlay Facebook ad produced sub-minimal results. Undeterred, I shall be looking for a more targeted service in 2017, like other businesses.

2016 saw the launch of the Spy Chaser trilogy and Shadow Shadow, the fourth Thomas Bladen thriller, bringing my total Joffe Books' titles to five.

I've had a great year as a writer and I'd like to thank everyone who had a hand in it. You know who you are and I don't want to risk leaving anyone out. A special mention to Anne though, without whom this writing adventure would not be possible.

In 2017, the plan is to...
- Write the fifth Thomas Bladen book, No Defence.
- Find an agent / publisher for Scars & Stripes. 
- Start pitching to see the Thomas Bladen series developed for other media.
- Fail faster, be more daring and generally enjoy the ride more. 

Have a good one and thanks for sticking around. Feel free to leave a comment about your creative plans for 2017 and your reflections on 2016.



Two Magic Words

Sometimes we have to draw a line in the sand - with a pen.
When people learn - because I'm not exactly shy about it now - that I'm a writer the conversation usually goes one of two ways. 

1. They ask, directly or obliquely, how much money I make from books and freelancing.
2. They look for tips about how to start, how to continue, and how to get to the point where they can answer question one about themselves.

I still find it odd that people need to know about the money, in a way that doesn't apply to any other profession. "So, tell me, how much does a plumber / club singer / courier / midwife / potter make these days?" I think it's driven by a mixture of curiosity and hope. We, all of us, apparently have a book in us. Small wonder that we might want to know its probable value before we commit ourselves to the task. Similarly, for those who are already writers, whether published or not, there's a yearning to know that we will - like the good characters in the stories we grew up with - get our just reward in the end. The truth is much more fluid than that, depending upon the writing, timing, luck, the market, and other factors. 

As to the second question, I could point you towards several leading lights in fiction and non-fiction who may help you on the path. Sinclair Macleod, Sue Louineau, Villayat Sunkmanitu  and Rebsie Fairholm all gave me valuable insights about self-publishing. Some of the many agents (especially Andrew Lownie) and publishers who rejected my submissions also gave the odd hint about how to do it better the next time. Jane Pollard taught me a great deal about structure and depth. When it comes to non-fiction I am indebted, latterly, to Jon Morrow, Sophie Lizard, Mridu Khullar Relph and Carol Tice. None of this is news to anyone who reads this blog regularly.

However, I have picked up one tip along the way that makes a HUGE difference to every writer. It's not foolproof but, statistically speaking, it makes the greatest impact to improving your chances as a writer. Best of all, it's only two words (initially...). Ready?

Do something.

Start the page. End the paragraph. Finish the paragraph. Complete the novel. Endure the first edit (and all the others). Submit the work. Pitch. Adapt. Improve. Promote. Hustle, if that's your thing. Run a promotional campaign. Plan a strategy. Act on impulse. Write to other writers. Contact the TV folk. Sell yourself on radio. 

Or...do nothing. It might be safer, less disappointing, cheaper on stamps, and easier to bear. You can tell yourself that you could have written a brilliant book, or that just so far is far enough. That could be true for you, in which case best move along here because I can only offer you one promise: If you do something that means something will have changed. And who knows where that might lead?!

It might be fame, it might be fortune, it might be a four-figure tax bill, it might be the realisation that your novel is too far ahead of its time (in which case why not write something different while you're waiting for the world to catch up?). 

If you want to write you could turn out to be a journalist, blogger, poet, playwright, short storyist (yep, made that one up!), diarist, novelist, songwriter or penner of greetings cards. Give yourself over to the words and they will, at the very least, give you greater personal insight and may very well provide you with an adventure on and off the page. 

At this time of year we generally promise ourselves to step up a gear come January 1st. Gym membership, new journal, new project. Why wait? Do something.

Books as Children - Line of Sight's turn to shine

It's time for Thomas Bladen to go through the looking glass.
A well-known author (Richard Bach, I'm fairly confident) once referred to his books as his literary children. When it comes to my Thomas Bladen Spy Chaser novels, I have tried to do something subtle different with each one. Consequently, I love all my literary children equally while recognising their differences.

Standpoint introduces Thomas Bladen and his work in the Surveillance Support Unit. It sets the tone, the alliances and the conflicts. Ideally, it also sets readers' expectations as they enter Thomas's world. It's the eldest child, who carries some responsibility for the children that follow - whether it likes it or not!

Line of Sight follows in the aftermath of the events in Standpoint. It delves deeper into Thomas's working relationship with Karl and the SSU, but also has Thomas taking more of a lead role. We see Karl vulnerable for the first time and we learn more about his backstory. Line of Sight, as the second child, has a touch of pathos about it.

Cause & Effect opens dramatically - twice! - before showing how Thomas's and Karl's lives are now so interwoven that one false move could ensnare them both. Crucially, this book shows both of them sometimes getting it wrong and the consequences. This third child is more independent than its older siblings, and perhaps a little more reckless too.

Shadow State puts Thomas Bladen centre stage, whether he likes it nor not. This time he calls the shots, and with good reason. The past catches up with him and Karl, leading to revelations, confrontations and hard choices. The fourth child benefits from the burdens and experiences of those who came before it. It is more wilful and less inclined to listen to its parents (the author!).


If you're not already completely frazzled by Christmas shopping, and even if you are, 
why not curl up with a good ebook, courtesy of me and Joffe Books?

Life of Sight is free to download between now and December 24th

Find out why Amy Johanson died, why Karl McNeill hasn't set foot in Northern Ireland since he was a teenager, why Miranda Wright might not be the best person to deliver a eulogy but she'll cover your back, and why Thomas Bladen has to turn detective when no one else can.

Are You Guilty of the Seven Deadly Sins of Novel Writing?

Are You Guilty of the Seven Deadly Sins of Novel Writing?

When I was a teen I went through a philosophical phase. One gem that has stayed with me ever since, associated with bushido and the code of the samurai is: Virtues are no less contagious than vices. Well, I enjoy a virtue as much as the next person, but I seem to learn more from my shadow side. And as confession is said to be good for the soul, I've made a list...

Sometimes it's called vanity and, in a sense, you might also call it naivety. Writing is a solitary process and one needs a certain humility to submit your work to other people's scrutiny. I don't think it's always necessarily linked to arrogance about one's own ability. No, I think it's sometimes recognising that showing other people your work meaning opening up the fault lines and laying bare all the work that still needs to be done.
Warning phrases:
"No one else ever could understand or appreciate my work."
"I can do all the editing myself, thank you very much." 

Most writers seem to look up the ladder rather than down. We yearn to be JK Rowling, or to get our book reviewed in national newspapers. Or our first thought, on hearing about someone else's literary (or financial) success, could serve as the plot of a murder mystery: The case of the lucky bugger who wasn't so lucky in the end. We forget that there are far more people behind us than ahead of us.
Warning phrases:
"It's alright for them."
"Well, of course, when you know the right people anything is possible."

Greed & Lust
This manifests as a desire to be a writer primarily for the pleasures and opportunities it brings. Fame and fortune are the common aspirations, although other literary fictions are available! It's a destination rather than a journey, which sees writing as a means to an imagined end where unmet needs are fulfilled. Rejections, negative reviews and publisher's edits all help brings authors back to earth.
Warning phrases:
"I want to work for three hours a day and create an instant bestseller."

"First I'll write the book and then get a film deal, and then the next year I'll do the same thing again. And then I'm set for life."
"Just another 20 reviews and then I'll be happy."

For writers this one manifests in very specific ways. The person in a writer's group who only comes to life when discussing their own work. The author who asks for blog posts and shares and votes yet rarely returns the favour. They want it all - even when they may seem to others to have it all - and they'd like your share too!
Warning phrases:
"As you helped me before with my other books..."

"Sadly, my busy writing schedule means I couldn't possibly spare the time to reciprocate."

A writer's wrath will usually feel justified - to them, anyway. It can be triggered by various situations, including: someone else's success, your own characters answering back, a realisation that your first 10,000 words on this book will also the last because it's not working, a painful review, or any other aspect of being a writer that is beyond your control. (Which is actually most of it, beyond writing and editing.)
Warning phrases:
"How dare they!"

"I deserve better than this."

Writing can be a painful business, filled with doubt and uncertainty. When you start page one you have no idea whether the story is sustainable and let's not even get into whether it will be published or be well received. In the beginning there's just you and those blank pages. There is never a perfect time to write!
Warning phrases:
"I'll start my book when I feel truly inspired."
"If it's meant to be it will happen effortlessly."