The last blog post was all about slowing down, taking things easy, enjoying the unusually lovely weather, and yet here I am, only a few days later, reflecting on my default attitude to life which seems to be ‘Life is short, don’t hang around, make decisions, get things done, move on.’
I’m pretty sure I know why this is so: most of my immediate family members have died prematurely. Father went out to work one day when he was 45, died at work and never came home. Mother declined into Alzheimers in her mid-60s and died four years later. One of my older sisters died at 37 and another at 65. I think it was Dad’s sudden disappearance when I was nine that had the most profound effect. Suddenly my certainty about the future was fractured. If he could go without warning and with such effect, anything could happen, and the future could not be relied upon. If there was something I wanted to do, or to become, don’t wait. Just go for it. It may not be planned to perfection, but that’s OK.
Sometimes you need to ‘Ready, fire, aim’. If you think and dither around for too long it becomes ‘Ready, ready, ready.’
I was listening this morning to Michael Ondaatje, author of ‘The English Patient’, talking about his writing approach which involves twenty edits before he commits to print. The first draft is just a sketch, and it goes from there. What patience, I thought to myself. How does he slow down enough to let such snail’s pace iteration happen? Could I ever work like that?
Probably not! I’m 70 now, and enjoying every aspect of my life. I have many things to do and to learn, not just my writing. Worse, as soon as I start thinking about writing another book I start planning deadlines and put time pressure on myself. The urge to write too quickly is so strong that my first response now is to avoid that pressure altogether by not writing at all. There must be another way, surely, somewhere between Ondatjee’s caution and my usual recklessness.
The next step could be, consciously and deliberately, to dawdle. Just mess around for a while. I have some characters I’d like to play with, and I have a setting – it has to be Cumbria, nowhere else provides the same inspiration. Now what I need is a story, a real character-driven story, not just a series of twists and turns choreographed by some formulaic notion of ‘tension’. The story needs to intrigue me, and move me. The central character might be a police person but it’s not going to be a ‘police procedural’ or a forensic puzzle, both of which in the modern era require tedious technical research.
Maybe I should abandon even the pretence of ‘crime fiction’ and just tell a story about a person and a crisis. Above all, I need to drift and learn to use the first draft as a mere sketch. Only then will I know whether I’ve got something worth spending time on. ‘Ready, fire, aim.’
After my post last week about the ludicrously low prices that are being charged for ebooks, I decided to try something. I put one of my novels – the first one, ‘A Good Liar’ – onto a four day free offer, starting on April 23rd, which happened to be my birthday. (Considering my qualms about this method of book promotion, you might call it an ‘unhappy birthday to me’. ) Ever open-minded, I wanted to see what would happen in both the short-term and as a possible more lasting consequence.
I’ve just checked the figures on my KDP dashboard and 97 free ebook copies of ‘A Good Liar’ have been downloaded in the past two days, 72 on day 1 and 25 yesterday. Will the downward trend will continue over the next two days? Apart from listing the offer, I did nothing more to publicise it. I assume that Kindle have a list of freebies that tight-fisted readers trawl through. It only takes seconds to click and costs them nothing, but then what? Do they actually read the book, or check the first page or two and discard those that don’t appeal?
By the weekend I’ll know the total number of downloads. What I will not know is how many, if any, of these free books were read. I could check the Amazon reviews, but very few readers actually bother to submit anything. I could check hits on the website, or sales of the other books in the series – all of which are still listed at the ‘normal’ price of around £4 – £5. I’d be surprised if a freeloader was prepared to pay that for a book, unless they were so enamoured of the story that they simply had to read on, and that would be great.
My curiosity is piqued. Maybe I should try another experiment, temporarily reducing the cost of one of my books to 99p, to see if that makes the same difference. I could use it as part of the promotion campaign for the new book, which is due in early June. That book will handled by Fahrenheit Press, who have the ebook rights to my crime novels. I’ll be interested to see what their fairly idiosyncratic approach to promotion does to raise reader awareness.
I’ve done ‘loss leaders’ before: in my previous life as an international education consultant I did work ‘pro bono’ sometimes, just to introduce myself to a new client, confident that ‘work generates work’ and that more jobs would follow, and they always did. With book sales I’m less confident that a free offer will produce a lasting effect. That could be because my books are not as good as the contribution I made as a consultant, although I do get a gratifying amount of positive feedback. Or maybe as a relative novice, I just don’t understand how book selling really works.
Fortunately, I don’t expect or need to make a living from writing and publishing my own books, in paperback as well as ebook formats. But I don’t expect to make a loss either. I work hard at my writing and want readers to enjoy the result. I find and pay good people with expertise to edit, typeset, proofread, design the covers and print my books. All those paperback production costs need to be covered, and that depends on the delicate balance of sales and pricing. Conversion to ebook is relatively cheap, but I still don’t want to undervalue the work that goes into my novel, in what ever format. There’s the dilemma.
Remember the sense of anti-climax at the end of the first draft that I complained about last week? Well, instinctive dissatisfaction was well founded. Even before the long and perceptive email arrived from my editor I had reluctantly admitted to myself that the story took too long to get going, the middle sagged, and the final chapters were either too detailed or melodramatic, or – worse – both. Oh dear.
Just goes to show that you need plenty of time for second thoughts. Fortunately, because of the fierce final effort to finish the damn thing I still have some time to play with before copy-editing is due and the production juggernaut starts to roll. Some decisions were easy: the opening scene that I crafted with such care had to go, and the first ‘darling’ disappeared. With that gone, of course, other passages now didn’t work, and they had to go too. Cut, cut, cut.
The hardest part of the whole exercise is keeping track of the various versions and not mixing them up. Every now and then on Twitter you encounter an author bemoaning the fact that they’ve just spent several hours correcting the wrong draft. I know how it feels and how easy it is to make that mistake when you’re tired or panicking or fed up with the whole business.
I cannibalise the original draft, moving text around, deleting and adding, before cutting and pasting the new version into the 4th draft, carefully labelled as such, and saving it. Two days into the corrections I’m doing OK so far, despite a head cold. Actually, concentrating on the work, however hard that might be, helps to dissipate the effects of the cold, and at least I feel as if I’m still achieving more than just a mounting pile of used hankies.
There are some technical details I’ve had to check to make the necessary plot tweaks. Here’s an intriguing example : ‘How to evade a tracker dog?’ I think I’ve got away with that one. When you’re splicing new bits into an existing draft there are continuity issues too, which are tedious both to pick up and to deal with.
But hey. If you’re going to do it, do it right. The book could still be out there when I’m too old to remember it, and I want it to work as well as it can. What’s a few murdered darlings in the great scheme of things?
Yesterday morning a strange feeling came over me, a sense of loss and uncertainty, a long way from the delight and celebration I’d anticipated at ‘The End’, the final words of the new novel. In the final week, for six days straight from first thing in the morning until it was dark I’d tapped away furiously, stopping only to gaze at the wall while I found a way through a barrier. The concentration was intense: it spilled over into those times when I wasn’t sitting at the laptop, and unfortunately haunted the night too. I would sleep for a couple of hours and then wake with dialogue or a plot twist in my head.The only way to break its hold on my mind was to play Solitaire on the ipad, which meant more screens, more eye strain and was probably not conducive to getting back to sleep. When I’m writing, the usual habit of reading before sleep doesn’t seem to work.
When ”The End’ finally came it took me by surprise, and more surprising was that I felt so flat. Maybe it had happened before, but if it did I’d forgotten. Living alone, there was no one to turn to in triumph. Friends are very patient, but listening to someone banging on about the details of a fictional conversation or the way out of a plot puzzle is enough to make your eyes roll back.
I was ahead of schedule, but worried that I’d been too driven by the deadline and should have taken more time. I’d resolved a big plotting problem, but it still felt too cerebral, too subtle, not enough action. I’m working with a new editor and chose her for her experience and ‘hard-nosed’ straight-forwardness, but I don’t know how she’ll react to the first draft of mine she’s ever seen. Worry, worry, worry.
And of course, the ever-present question: why do I put myself through this? I’ve retired from ‘work’ and should be pleasing myself, sauntering through the days, going on little jaunts, planning big jaunts, seeing people, having fun. And instead of that I’m spending most of time on research, planning, writing, re-writing, and worrying.
I tell myself that the rewards are worth the painful gestation and birth. It’s undoubtedly true that you have to keep writing if you want to maintain people’s interest in your work and the sales that go with it. Every new books boosts sales of the previous ones. If you want press interest or access to speaking at book events and festivals you have to have a new book to showcase.
If all goes well, the new book should be out in June, and then what? I have a choice: pack it in and have an easy life, or keep going and endure the lows as well as the highs, all over again.
Preparing to produce the audio book of ‘A Good Liar’ is turning out to be an interesting experience. The first task, before any other planning or costings can be undertaken, has been to re-read and abridge the original text. Actually, even further back, the very first question was whether I wanted to abridge at all, and the answer is I would prefer not to. ‘Murdering your darlings’ they call it – killing off slices of the story that meant a great deal to you at the time. That process is usually part of editing the final draft, but abridging is even harder. The final text of my first book was truly a labour of love. Writing ‘A Good Liar’ took me nearly four years and involved some very steep learning, stumbles, frustration, almost chucking it on the fire and then dogged determination to see it through. Maybe there’s always a special attachment to the ‘firstborn’. Whatever the reason, abridging it is proving painful, but unavoidable. An unabridged version would run to too may CDs, twice the time and at least twice the cost. Every extra 1000 words of text means more studio time, more CDs to duplicate, more packaging – and each of those means more outlay for me and a higher price for the buyer. Just not practical. So abridging it is. Woe is me.
Rather than using the paperback for this process, I’ve chosen to work from the mobi file, highlighting on screen where the cuts are to be made. That way I can read off the screen rather than the page, and avoid the inevitable sound of turning pages, which the sensitive mike at the recording studio picked up when I made my demo disc.
I’m glad it’s me doing the abridging: the decision about what to leave out is dependent on thorough knowledge of the text and the significance of details. It’s made me realise how keen I was on the authenticity of the setting in this first book, both place and time. That’s why many local readers enjoy it so, but for an audio book there may be too much detail, and some of it has had to go. Some of the dialogue has been cut too: on the page it reflects the complexity of conversation, the interruptions and dialects, but that’s hard to relay in a narrated text with only one voice. It is possible to cut some of the text and still leave the story moving on, with enough detail to help the reader understand the where the characters are, and why they do what they do. I’ve found myself drawn in to their stories yet again, which has been reassuring. It’s a good tale, if I say it myself.
Apart from the necessity of abridging, I’m also clear now about the need to read it myself. I’ve seen some critical comments about audio books and poor narration by authors. I simply couldn’t afford the extra cost of a professional actor, and the demo disc sounded OK. Really! The abridging of ‘A Good Liar’ should be finished this week. Then I have to read it all through and check the timing. The goal is to get it down to 240 minutes, but I’m not confident yet that I’ll achieve that at the first attempt. When the required length is achieved, then it’s off to the studio. Hard work, but enjoyable on the whole, and I’d rather be busy than bored..
It’s amazing what a relief it is to have decided already that I won’t have a new book out until mid-2018. For the first time in five years I feel I can step back a little and not be plunged immediately into the research and planning of a new book, while simultaneously up to my ears in promotion of the last one. This time I can do the usual round of WI meetings and library groups and still let my mind roam freely around ideas for the next project.
The new book will be a project, of course, but before I get deep into it I’m thinking in greater detail about a new way of presenting at least some of the books on my growing backlist. I’ve done the paperback and the ebook for each book in my original trilogy – Between the Mountains and the Sea – and now I want to do them as audiobooks. It’s been on my mind for a while, but hitherto discounted as too difficult, or too expensive and risky. Now I have the time to break down the audiobook challenge into its component parts and see if I could actually manage it.
The first step came from a casual conversation at our weekly coffee catchup about some very popular local slide shows and where the voiceovers are recorded. A phone call and a few emails later I visited the studio just twenty minutes from my home, to meet the man who owns and runs it. It was a really impressive set-up, and I had the chance to discuss the detailed practicalities of abridging and reading the books myself, to make each one – if possible – fall within the number of minutes on a disc. And would CDs be the best option, given the recent advances in the technology? I have to be careful that in going for the latest technology I don’t put the product beyond the reach of many of my potential audience.
If I take the CD route, each disc has a maximum running time of 80 minutes: how many discs would I need for each book? If it’s more than three, it gets cumbersome and more expensive, but could I abridge sufficiently to manage a running time of 240 minutes without sacrificing the integrity of the story? I’ve already tried abridging the first book ‘A Good Liar’ and the first cut is relatively easy: there are some sentences and even the odd paragraph that can be cut with too much damage to the story, but after that it gets really tricky. On the first attempt I managed to cut a fair chunk of the text, mainly descriptive details of setting and some extended dialogue, but would that be enough to achieve the time limit overall? Very hard to judge: the only thing to do is to ‘edit/abridge’ the whole book, check how many and what proportion of the words have been removed relative to the whole word count, do some basic sums and see whether it would fit in the 3 CD target. Abridging is always a wrench, and could be annoying for the reader, but at least if my text is abridged it will be done by the author, who is in the best position to know how it should work.
The next decision I needed to make was about whether I could read it myself, and here again the only answer is to try it and see. So I went into the studio, put on the headphones, took my cue from the man at the console and read for five minutes from the abridged copy of ‘A Good Liar’ that I’d already worked on. I managed the reading – although the wonderful microphone picked the rustle of turning pages – and enjoyed it, and was given the demo disc to take home. There are many more practical hurdles to be considered: costs, time, how many to produce, where and how, packaging, promotion, distribution. It’s all pretty outfacing. It would help for a start that I could find the courage to listen critically to the demo disc, but I haven’t found the courage to do that yet! When I finally take that plunge, I hope I feel I can do this job, because I really want to. If I can sort out all the decisions and embrace the adventure of the audiobooks, it could be so much fun!