Free books, and other tantalizing sweetmeats

Art forgery, free books, KDP Select, Kindle, Uncategorized

I finished writing my fifth novel – the Art Forgery Novel (working title) – just before going on vacation to Scotland. The book came to about 72k words, which is about average for one of my books – or at least has been so far. It was a relief to get it written after so many years. The manuscript has been hanging around in the background since 2005. What remains now is my going over it and editing it into shape. This might involve some rewriting but, on the whole, I am very pleased with the way it has turned out.

I also enrolled my other books in Kindle Digital Publishing’s Select scheme which allows me to run promotions on them by making them free for up to five days. At time of writing, about 150 readers from the US and 25 from the UK had downloaded “Muscle for Hire” from Amazon for free. The idea, of course, is to stimulate interest in the novels, so that customers who read the free book will then go on to read my other books. There is also the vain hope that more people will write reviews of the thing. Actually there are two reviews of Muscle for Hire online at Amazon, both of which are great, so there is room for hope of others.

Both of the above activities – the marketing and the writing – are just a couple of the things that make the whole enterprise of being a writer interesting. One of the main advantages of publishing independently is that you have more control over the process, from the writing of the book to its eventual sale. One of the other big advantages is that royalties for independently published works are always higher that you would get publishing through the more traditional route.

According to reliable sources, the chief elements in whether or not a book will sell once its published come down to these four:
The cover – it has to look professional. I’ve been experimenting with different covers to see whether sales are affected.
The description – it’s one of the things that potential buyers will most look at.
The price – too high and nobody will buy it; too low and earnings will be too paltry to make any difference.
The quality – this comes down to not just how well the book is written but how well it is edited and formatted.
Strangely, marketing is not listed by these reliable sources since there are copious examples of writers who became bestsellers with zero effort put into marketing. That said, could a case be made for “luck” being a factor? I don’t know. There are very few if any reliable statistics show decisively what are the main factors in selling books. Similarly, the number of books you have published will obviously be an element in how much cash you can hope to glean from sales.

For now, I’ll continue to experiment with various factors to see if any of them seem to affect sales. I’ll keep you posted… eventually.


Art, forgery, heist, Mike Faricy, Milan, novel, planning, Uncategorized

I am in the middle of writing a novel I started ten years ago. I started it, then left it to pursue other projects. Then I started it again, and drifted away to other books. Now I’m back. The book is about an art heist that takes place in Milan, Italy and it is fun writing it and I hope it will be fun reading it. A lot of the local color I gleaned from working over there for a bank. I have memories of fancy restaurants, ancient architecture and working my butt off 12-14 hours a day! So I have an almost magisterial amount of authority when it comes to the rigors of surviving Milan!

For the book, I had to do a lot of research into quite a number of different areas: art pricing, art forgery, art history, safecracking, weapons, state-of-the-art security and a whole host of other background detail.

This is not the sort of novel you can just begin and go with the flow, wondering where it will take you and so far it’s taken meticulous planning (just as, I expect, a real heist would!). When I looked at the synopsis, I found that it was around 7,000 words in length – mostly because I included a whole bunch of reminders on background detail for myself as I went along. However, I’ve tried to write it in such a way that it I’m not hide-bound by the planning but instead make it sound at least believable and compelling.

I was talking with my friend Mike Faricy recently. He too is a novelist and he has taken the opposite approach with his novels. He sits down and begins to write and is constantly pleasantly surprised by plot turns and character development, which, of course, makes it fun to write. His novels are also fun to read, so it’s obviously a perfectly valid way of approaching novel writing – in fact I’ve used that approach with other novels I’ve written.

So the question is: when do you do meticulous planning and when do you go with the flow?

Hey there!

Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.

So rather than blog for blogging’s sake, I’ll blog for no reason at all.
What have I been working on recently? Well I published a book of poems recently through CreateSpace. It was a collection of poems covering the last eight years or so. Some of them were written when I was working for Barclays Bank headquarters in London, England as a computer auditor. London was an exciting city to work in and one of the things that made it doubly interesting was that I worked in the heart of the city – the part of London that has been there since Roman times. So there was a lot to see throughout the course of a working day. Some of that leaks into the poetry. Some of the desperate “busyness” of the financial district also creeps in and I have a somewhat cynical take on it.

When I was in London I traveled regularly to Milan, Italy on business and a batch of the poems are set there, again in the financial district of the city but totally different in nature from London. Milan is like London in one respect, though: being there is like stepping back in time several centuries. Ancient buildings and ruins, monuments, historic sites are all around, but treated by the workers as just part of the scenery.

Others of the poems were written – by remarkable contrast – in Drummore, a tiny fishing village on the west coast of Scotland. We lived there for four years and the poems tend to be more pastoral in nature. It’s amazing how much mileage you can get out of a cow’s udder for example – writing about, it that is. But part of the joy of living in the back of beyond was the agricultural cycle: the harvest, lambing season in spring, plowing, sowing and so on. All grist to the poet’s mill. The one challenge was to say something new about it that hadn’t been said before – or at least say something old in a new way.

And lastly, there are poems from the last four years, which we have spent in St. Paul, Minnesota. Some of these deal with the inevitable culture shock of living in a strange culture – although, much of it tends to be generic ‘western’ culture now. In particular, a batch of the poems were written during last winter which was unusually cold and snowy. It was the first year that I had to actually get out there and shovel snow myself. So I know what I’m talking about at least when I mention snow. They say that eskimos have scores of words for snow depending on what type it is. After spending the winter in Minnesota, I only had one word for it – but, hey, this is a family show.

The book can be found here.

Sticks and stones may break my bones…


Have you ever been reading a novel and got confused as to which character was which? It’s happened to me several times. One of the main reasons, I found, was that if two characters names began with the same initial letter I get confused. I’m sure not everyone suffers from this disability but I do. I also get confused if two characters have only one syllable to their name even if their initial letters are different. Sad, I know.
Anyway, just in case any of my readers suffer from the same handicap I took to trying to make my characters’ names a different as possible. So I would just work my way through the alphabet using a different initial letter for each character. I also tried to vary the number of syllables. Another thing I found helpful was using foreign names.

Of course that doesn’t stop readers from forgetting who your characters are for different reasons – for example if they are too similar in other ways; or too boring. But then, if they’re too boring you may as well save yourself the trouble of writing anything down anyway, no matter what you call your characters.

How I hate that drawing board…


I haven’t blogged for a few weeks because a severe thunderstorm fried my digital modem and wireless router. Consequently, Internet access was down for a couple of weeks. It was like having a limb amputated but was no doubt good for me in a vague ascetical way that I haven’t quite managed to figure out yet. So I’m back in the land of Web now and strangely everything is just the same as it was.

A while ago I started writing a novel that involved railroads, construction workers and kidnapping, among other things. Well, I got about halfway through and then realized that the plot didn’t quite seem to work. For one thing, I had a bunch of construction workers rob a train repeatedly, but strangely no one seemed to take any action, least of all the police. Not very credible. I also had a guy throw himself off a building only to catch his overalls on a crane hook. Well the guy stayed that way, swinging from the crane, for several days before someone noticed he was unaccountably missing and decided to do something about it. What the hell was I thinking!

There were several other plot points that just weren’t working. So I asked my wife, Liz, to read over the story and she confirmed my worst fears. The whole thing was too far fetched and, worse, unsalvageable. She assured me that there were a number scenes of brilliance at various points (aw, shucks) but not enough to sustain belief in the reader (aw, rats). I could always cannibalize them for use in another story.

Hm… So back to the drawing board. I decided – tentatively this time – to do a sequel to “Muscle for Hire”. That book seemed to go down well with readers and critics and why pass up an opportunity to give them more of the same? I’ll start the new book probably in late August after the schools go back and I have a relatively free space to concentrate. 

However, I think I’ll stop some way into the plot to do a reality check before continuing this time. I don’t want to end up writing another 40k words before I realize that the whole thing is complete bilge.

A salutary lesson and a timely reminder. A platitude for every occasion.

Website or Facebook


I came across an article recently that asked the question whether a website or a Facebook page was the best vehicle for an author to spread the word about his/her books. Here’s an interesting comparison:

1998. You’re a new writer and you want to establish a permanent residency online. Which would be wiser: Having your own site at your own domain, or putting up a site at GeoCities?
It’s 2001, same drill: Which is wiser: Having your own domain, or creating a site on AOL servers?
2003: Your own domain, or a Friendster page?
2007: Your own domain, or a MySpace page?
And now it’s 2011 and the choice is one’s own domain or a page on Facebook.

The point is that social media are transient and fall in and out of favor whereas a website is for ever. 

I only partially agree with this. To my mind many websites become outdated because their owners fail to update them. However websites are also a good place to display information that is relatively static such as the author’s name, background etc. So having long intervals between updates is not so much of an issue. 

Social media, on the other hand, perform a different purpose – that of keeping followers and fans updated with what is happening right now, like new books coming out, what the author is working on and so on. So it’s not a straight comparison.

Normally if you want to know more about a person you would look for their website. It stands to reason that any author worth his salt should have one. So why haven’t I got one yet? Em, I’m working on that…

Indie Author sells one million!


Interesting article in various newspapers about John Locke an independent author from Kentucky who has sold a million copies of his ebooks without the aid of a safety-net agent or publisher. One of the interesting ploys he used to garner sales was reducing the price of his books to 99c each. That’s way less than other authors who have signed with traditional publishers. He published through Amazon’s Kindle Direct self-publishing service. Kindle Direct’s pricing structure looks like this:

< $2.99 = royalty of 35% goes to the author.
$2.99+ = royalty of 70% goes to the author.

If my calculations are correct – and they may not be since I am crap at math – he would need to sell six times as many ebooks at 99c for every one copy at $2.99 to make roughly $2 in royalty.

I suppose it all depends what you want: copies sold v. royalties earned. Of course, if you sell at 99c that’s a big incentive to customers to buy your book. In fact, for all I know, most customers browse only the 99c titles looking for a bargain. But is the price six times as attractive as a title at $2.99. I’d be very interested in finding out the answer to that question, because I’ve been mulling over whether to drop the prices of my own books to 99c – as a kind of experiment.

What do you think?

Should writing be fun for the author too?

Mike Faricy, plot, revising, rewriting, synopsis, Uncategorized

I used to write in a kind of haphazard way – just kind of threw words down in draft form – and relied on the revision process to make everything right. After a while I found that that strategy didn’t work quite as well as I’d hoped. The reason was that when I came to revise I always regretted not having done a better job first time around. I also found that when revising something I’d already written in draft format there was a huge reluctance to make anything other than minor changes to the text. It was even worse if something needed to be rewritten. I would tamper with it, tweak it or delete parts of it; anything to avoid doing what was obviously needing to be done.
Eventually I hit on the solution and made the decision that I would write the best I could first time round in order to avoid all the tedious rewriting and tinkering later. Kind of no-brainer, really. It worked. The only thing I found was that I had to be on form every time I sat down to write – or at least I had to force myself to be on form, to make what I wrote decent enough not to need the usual open heart surgery down the line. I’m sure that one decision has halved my writing workload over the years.
On the other hand, one area of revision that I have found indispensible is revising the plot. I usually write to a synopsis, which in this case is a condensed outline of the plot, chapter by chapter, stating roughly how the story moves along towards its conclusion. At some point, hopefully near the start, of writing a novel I come up with a full working synopsis to guide me through the book. However, I have also found that I have to keep making adjustments to it in order to get it to work properly. The last thing you need is to have written 40k-50k words, only to discover you’ve painted yourself into a corner and need to go back and rewrite chunks of the action or dialog, or worse, whole chapters. Don’t get me wrong; I still go back and rewrite from time to time, but writing a good synopsis, I have found, is one way of ensuring that it’s kept to a minimum.
There is more than one way of skinning a cat – if you happen to be of a particularly gruesome and revolting frame of mind – and there is more than one way of writing a novel. Mike Faricy, another indie novelist, doesn’t take that approach. He says that the plot unfolds as he is writing and that plot turns comes as just as much of a surprise to him as it does to the reader. I used to do that too, but it usually involved considerable rewriting and back-story insertion for me. Mike seems to have mastered it pretty well, because his plots hang together nicely as if he had planned the whole thing from the start. I like the idea of entertaining yourself as well as the reader. Maybe it’s something a lot of authors could learn from. Writing has to be fun; otherwise why do it?

In the mail this afternoon, I got the first proof of the book of light verse I had been working on. It looks great so far. I need to make several adjustments. The resolution of illustrations is too low, because I reduced the file size to try and save space. However, CreateSpace (the service I’m using to publish and distribute the book) allows 40mb for uploading the book contents so I have plenty of space after all. Also, as you can see from the front cover, the illustration bleeds into the book title and the the guy on the far left at the back seems to have had half his fingers amputated. These I can easily fix using Photoshop.
If anyone is interested, after trying out various methods, including using a graphics tablet and several painting and drawing applications, in the end I decided to do the illustrations using a rather unassuming fountain pen on cartridge paper. I found it gave me the best line quality. I then scanned each illustration and converted to jpeg using mostly 50% compression (which is where quality suffered).
I have to say, it is a great feeling holding your own book in your hands, even if it’s only a proof. This is the sort of thing that publishing ebooks can’t even come close to. Ebooks are very good – or at least moderately good – at publishing text-only books, like novels. What ebooks can’t do is publish books where the page format is important, like illustrated books (eg. mine) and many non-fiction books. A lot of people are predicting the demise of traditional publishing because more and more people are buying ebook readers like Kindles. Given that the vast majority of books are non-fiction, and that a huge number of them have illustrations, charts, diagrams and other fancy format-dependent content, I don’t see traditional publishing being under any serious threat until ebooks get a lot more sophisticated in the kind of content they can display. Of course, no matter what kind of content ebook readers can display, there are some people who simply can’t give up the sensory pleasure of holding a physical book in their hands.
I’d be interested if anyone has any ideas about where they see publishing going in the future. Am I the only one who is slightly skeptical about the alleged takeover of publishing by ebooks?


non-fiction, novel, planning, scenes, spreadsheet, synopsis, Uncategorized, writing


To my mind there are no hard and fast rules about how to plan a work of literature. But what I have found is that my method changes depending on genre. I’ve written two non-fiction books and the method I used was to get a pile of research material and read through it and while reading take notes. The notes were my reflections on the source material and were fairly detailed. Once I had finished with research I would go through my notes and categories them according to theme. Then I would rearrange the notes into section, each section representing a theme. After reviewing the themes I found that some of theme seemed to go together. So I grouped the themes into chapters and hey presto! I had the first draft of a book along with footnotes stating the sources.
But for novels I have a different method. First of all I try out a few opening scenes to see if any of them have legs. Once I’ve written a couple of chapters and I can see where the story is beginning to go I write a synopsis.
It puzzled me for years what the difference was between a working synopsis and a synopsis meant for submission to a publisher. It was only after trial and error that it dawned on me. A working synopsis tends to be more of a description of what I hope to achieve in each chapter rather than a description of what’s actually there. This makes sense if you think about it. When you’re writing a book nothing IS there to begin with because you haven’t written it yet. So when you write a synopsis you’re really giving a description of what a chapter, or part of a chapter, should achieve in terms of the overall plot.
What works for me is to create a table in MS Word with two columns: column 1 for the chapter numbers and column 2 for the synopsis of each chapter.
Each novel I’ve written has been between 28 and 32 chapters, with each chapter being somewhere between 2,400 and 2,600 words.
Another thing I do is to take a note of the number of words I write each day and keep this in a spreadsheet. It’s heartening to glance at it now and then in the course of writing to see how much I’ve written already and how far there is to go.
For one novel, “The Blood Menagerie” I even drew up a flowchart of when each character appeared and what they did. The flowchart had the characters’ names along the top and the chapter numbers down the left hand side.
The only reason I do all this is not because I’m ultra-organized. It’s just that I like fiddling about with calculations and spreadsheets and things. There’s always the danger that I spend time fiddling instead of writing. I’m still waiting ruefully for the day when I put the finishing touches to a pristine and highly complex spreadsheet and suddenly realize that I haven’t actually written anything yet…