The Birth of a Bookshop

Written for the ever-active Palmers Green Community blog…

The All Good Bookshop has opened in funky Blue House Yard, a couple of minutes walk from Wood Green Station.

In a few short months, the community rallied round to create this new bookshop for the area. It will be a cooperative, employing Tim West, one of the two men behind the famous Big Green Bookshop. They are seeking people to join the co-op, support, ideas, and customers. And they have ambitious plans.

A great bookshop is more than somewhere that sells books. A great bookshop adds to its community…

https://www.palmersgreencommunity.org.uk/pgc/newsmobile/2291-celebrating-the-all-good-bookshop

 

 

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Our Child of the Stars in New Zealand

A lovely group of people called the Bookfairies have been leaving wrapped copies of the book in various places in New Zealand.

This one is from Hamilton and I think must be one of the furthest sightings of the book…

 

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Why do I have to wait for the paperback?

 

A friend doesn’t understand the logic behind issuing the hardback, e-book, and paperback in the way publishers do.  She points to all the successful reviews and publicity at the start of the year, then says – will people remember that when the paperback comes out, say eight months later?

Here’s my thoughts.

The book trade is dealing with the effects of various changes

  • Discounting – supermarkets, Amazon, and discount specialists sell books at very low prices
  • The growth of the e-book (sales may have slowed a bit depending on who you believe – still massive)
  • Audiobooks are growing fast
  • Bookshops on the high street suffer the same pressures everyone else does – high rents and combating online retailers (who sometimes dodge taxes)
  • Book piracy, which is stealing.
  • And there is just more interesting content viewable at home than there was

A big publisher must try to juggle different markets.  For some genres, hardbacks are still more likely to be reviewed in print media, and there is a market for big beautiful object books. And the hardback is to some extent the flagship product physical bookshops try to sell. Yet, those who read e-books are likely to read early and to review online.

I’ve seen pundits argue we need to make people see buying physical books is ‘best’.  (Financially for authors, that’s a moot point.)  Most authors of physical books need buy-in from local shops to get visibility.

I’ve seen other pundits argue we should publish the paperback soon after the hardback, riding on its coattails to build a larger market in size for authors.  They argue a bigger push on paperbacks would allow middling authors to reach more readers and more sustainable income.

(Fun fact: With professional authors, on average their writing is only 20% of their household income- ALCS 2019)

I don’t have a simple answer for what strategy publishers should follow.  What I do propose is to let fans of the book know how they can help in the run-up to paperback publication.  Sub to my newsletter or follow me on Twitter etc!!

(Pix annie spratt, Unsplash)

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Talk at Quaker Book Centre

There is a long unedited video of me talking to a friendly crew at Friends House in the Euston Rd.   Part one here  It is on Facebook (search for @quakercentre.)   Good event, but we could have covered so much more!

 

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Second helpings: the marvel of sequels

Many great books have great sequels, some even surpassing the first book. Yet the debut author faced with a sequel faces some special issues.

The first book may have taken five years to write and a year to edit. The publisher will want to see the sequel within a year. Building on the audience is key – the book must build on what made fans of The First One like it, but not be a mere reheating. Certainly, it needs to be bigger, bolder… Widening it to reach new fans may annoy the existing ones. Fewer people will review the second, and they may have less compunction about being critical.

Sequels can be close or distant. Close sequels flow easily one to another. The Lord of the Rings was written as one book, divided into three by the publisher. Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun follows the same protagonist through his quest with little gaps between books.  Or, sequels can be more distant.  Ursula Le Guin’s second Earthsea book, the Tombs of Atuan, starts in a different country with a different protagonist.  Ged, hero of the first book, turns up half-way through as a foreign prisoner.  In an extreme case, Adrian Selby asked to write another book in his Snakewood world chose to write one set two hundred years before, explaining the origins of a legendary figure in the first one.

Admiring Selby’s gall, there was never much choice for me.  People who wanted to read a sequel universally want to know what happens to Gene, Molly and Cory, in the very different situation facing them after the first book.  And I knew what that was, so I’m happily writing that.

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Reading 16 April, Friends House, Euston Rd, London

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The rules of Write Club; or you want to write a novel

So you want to write a novel? I’ve been asked how several times in recent weeks, often from people who haven’t written more than a report since school. I’d written fiction but only stared defeated at the idea of writing a novel until 2012.  Here’s some thoughts.

Write to see if you can do it, and like doing it.

The curse of writing advice is how dogmatic and simplistic some of it is. Read around, and be cautious of This Is The Only Way.

Start writing. Write a dialogue between two people you know. Try short stories. Write description. Look at what things you write work and what don’t. Compare them to good authors you know well. Lots of authors keep a journal. Get a routine, whether every day, whenever you have a free hour, all Saturday. Don’t worry on day one what this writing is ‘for’.

Novels, short stories, plays, film scripts are different art-forms. They have some similarities and some differences. Writing twenty 5000 word short stories is not inherently ‘easier’ than writing one 100,000 word book. Writing well for children is no ‘easier’ than writing for adults. Write to find out what is the form for your story.

Read a lot. Read the sort of thing you like, the sort of thing you want to write, sometimes other things people praise which are not your thing, and non-fiction too. Occasionally you find a good writer who doesn’t read lots. But very rarely.

Some people try fan-fiction, which is taking a story you like and setting stories in that world. It is said to be a good exercise. Maybe try it but two firm DON’Ts. Don’t sell fanfic, and don’t submit it to agents (because copyright: most likely you do not have the right to use the characters). Use it for practice.

A NOVEL? Not surprisingly, if you want to write a novel, it’s a big job and takes a lot of time. I worked on Our Child of the Stars on and off for five years.

GENRE. Genre is a loose description, a set of promises to the reader. It helps people to market the book and to shelve it in the bookstore properly, so it has the best chance to reach its audience. Genre has conventions, and it is important to understand what they are now. For example, if you read a lot of science fiction published fifty years ago, the field has moved on. If you haven’t read Young Adult novels, you’re unlikely to write a good one.

The industry is very wary of cross-genre books because they can alienate both audiences and satisfy neither. But the conventions have plenty of stretch in them.

IDEAS. A good book is not ‘an idea’. ‘An idea’ can be a starting place, but for example, ‘orphan goes to wizard school’ is the idea for both A Wizard of Earthsea and Harry Potter – radically different books in character, world, story-line, philosophy, writing style and ending.

PLOT. Plot is the events you arrange in order to tell your story well. Lots of other story happens, you just don’t have to write it.

Even good ideas or worlds or research are most entertaining when used as a background to people. Interesting people that we care about, part of their world, driven by things they want, and who face obstacles and the limits of their abilities.

Hamlet is four hours long, yet it asks a few snappy questions. Claudius has murdered Hamlet’s father and usurped the throne. Will Hamlet do the right thing, and what is the cost? Hamlet would be a totally different play if Hamlet was a different person.

Writing gurus can be enormously dogmatic about how to structure a plot; also a Hollywood blockbuster, a literary novel and an art house film have different needs. But they are right that usually plot is about choices made by characters, a series of events following logically one from the other. They need to provoke emotional responses. There needs to be a beginning, a middle and an end – a setup, the struggles to resolve the issues, the climax. (That was the original writing guru, Aristotle by the way. He liked admirable people being brought down by their flaws. You don’t have to write that.)

Writing advice. Good advice explains the arguments. For example, ‘all adverbs are bad’ is terrible advice. ‘Adverbs are often a sign of weak or lazy writing, often they can and should be replaced with better dialogue, or stronger verbs in action. Just sometimes they are an option worth considering.’ is better advice.

Yes, there are books on writing, and some of them are useful. I recommend a few below. Some courses are useful and some writing groups. There is absolutely no way around writing, a lot; receiving criticism, some of which you won’t like; and rewriting. Turning your critical skills on other peoples’ work is also valuable. There are services which you can pay to evaluate your work.  (This is a service I am developing.)

No, your first draft is not as good as you can get it. Sorry. Yes, some feedback you get is wrong. Sorry.

PLAN OR NOT? Do you plan every stage of your book before you start writing (a plotter) or do you just start with a situation and free-write (a pantser as in writes by the seat of your pants). Many people shift between the two. For example, I start with strong ideas about the characters, setting, themes, their dilemmas, and where they might end up. I develop the characters and theme as I write, then do some hard re-plotting in the first redraft. A hard-line plotter probably ends up deviating from their plan. I like the discipline created by a firm narrative question (will Hamlet do the right thing?)

Don’t try writing a novel for the hope of fame and fortune. The statistics are blunt, whether you self-publish or traditionally publish. Do it to see if you enjoy it. Do it to see if you can.

On Writing, Stephen King
How to become a writer, Dorothea Brande (very old, very interesting)
How not to write a novel, Howard Mittlemark, Sandra Newman
Get Started in Writing Young Adult Fiction: Juliet Mushens. She is a well known agent. Ignore the title, 85% of this book applies to any novel and it explains modern publishing well too.

 

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Our Child of the Stars well and truly launched

I have been officially launched for three and a half weeks, or three and a half months if you count the e-book.

The most important things about your debut book being launched are

  • It’s truly great.
  • Except it isn’t every minute. It can be a real roller-coaster. Literally, a set-back can send you down, a good review soaring up, in the time it takes to cook a casserole.
  • You did it! Yay!
  • So you can finish the second one! Aaargh!  Tricky Second Album.
  • Be proud but also, stay humble. Just one of the paradoxes.
  • Try to enjoy its absurdities and unexpected felicities. Old friends getting in touch. Marvellous reviews in odd places.
  • Keep focused and working on the next project.
  • RATION SOCIAL MEDIA.
Hanglider against blue sku
Hang glider against blue sky

Some other thoughts

It has social cachet. People vaguely know it’s a good thing to have published a book.

People do say the weird things you are told they do.  Some are just awkwardness.  ‘You must have done a lot of research’ for example.

It’s worth remembering how individual responses to a book are.  Some people won’t like it, some will buy it but not read it for three months, some won’t finish it, and some who promised to review it won’t.  Everyone else’s life does not rotate around your book.

Nice surprise, publishing is full of people who like books and like talking about them.  It’s very concerned about the bottom line, but they do like books.

Covers really matter. You see booksellers decide to stock on a two sentence description and the cover.

Self-publishing still has a poor reputation out there.  Some people know some self-published books are good, but traditional publishing still has cachet.

I wouldn’t say ‘Nobody in publishing knows anything’ but they cannot predict clearly which books will soar and which won’t. In fact, the current traditional publishing model is to do lots of books that do OK or badly; lots of debuts which may not lead to solid book a year careers; and the cluster of high performers and surprising new hits which keep the show on the road.

There is a great glowing galaxy of book bloggers, and your publicist lines them up to write about the book, a great flood of reviews for about two weeks.  In my case, I got tons of splendid blog reviews and a couple that were a bit off, but people are entitled to their opinions.

I got positive reviews in the Guardian, Daily Mail, Weekend Sport, Grazia, Mature Times, Candis,My Weekly, and the Irish Independent.  In the SFF world, Interzone and SciFiNow were great.  Pleased to see the coverage in Financial Times and SFX.  So this is magnificent work by the term.

The good thing about my reviews is that the negatives largely cancel out. A few people don’t like Cory.  Many fall passionately in love with him.  All those people who found it gripping need to talk to the people who found it slow. Etc.

Then you run into distribution.  Truth is, bookshops can’t stock every new novel. Many, if you are lucky, have a single copy, placed spine out on a low shelf.  Being surname Co… puts you on the floor level in Waterstones New Fiction. You endlessly tell your friends, “order it – usually comes next day or so…  Don’t wander around town looking for a bookshop with thousands in a pile.”

The author thanks you for your support.  Honest. They’re just trying to remember why they agreed to write that article for publicity to that deadline.  And figuring out the next book.

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Students grill a new author about Creative Writing

I was delighted to be invited to speak to Woodhouse College’s Creative Writing Class.  This is an optional activity, and this particular meeting had 3-4 students who’d come specially.  Woodhouse combines a college-y feel and strong academic ambitions with a lot of societies and activities.  It’s diverse, smart, and I would have loved that option when I was 16.

I read, then talked through how I came to write it, genre, how publishing works, etc.  The students asked plenty of sensible questions, although the questions tended to need quite long answers.  Then we did a creative writing exercise around plot.

What did they think? Well, here’s one report.

…Stephen Cox visited the Woodhouse Plus Creative Writing class to give a talk. He read an excerpt from his book Our Child Of The Stars and spoke about writing and publishing the book, giving the aspiring writers in the room valuable insight and advice into the process. He answered our questions on a range of subjects, from finding your voice to how much do authors need to plan and world build in advance? He led a creative writing activity that he uses, that aims to help writers figure out a starting point for a story. It involves creating 2 characters who can be summarised interestingly in 1 sentence each, who have some sort of dynamic between them, in a setting, where one (or both) want something, and something that’s standing in their way. This exercise led to interesting starts of stories that we shared with one another. Stephen’s talk was interesting and insightful, it helped us understand the writing world to a greater extent and his advice and writing tips were useful. I for one will be using them in the future.

Will any of them get a book published?  They have plenty of time, and I hope I both encouraged them to work hard at the craft of writing, and gave a not too discouraging discussion about how long the path might be.

It was interesting that all of the plots generated that were shared, were genre or might well have been.

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Write what you know – Our Child of the Stars

This article appeared in the Jan 2019 Enfield Dispatch under the headline Written in the stars.  My thanks to the editor.

***

How did I write Our Child of the Stars?  Did I stick to the old saying ‘Write what you know’?

I wrote a short story for Halloween.  A couple, Gene and Molly, and their strange but lovable son Cory.  It took me a day or two, and I was intrigued.  Obsessed.  There was tragedy in Molly’s past and violence in the family’s future. What an oddly likeable little boy he was.  Whole strands of the book come from single sentences in the story, like how Cory came into their dreams…

And it was clear the setting was rural New York and the timing was that great mythical decade, the Sixties.

‘Write what you know.’ I was brought up in Bristol.  It would have been easier to move the book to the urban England of my childhood and set it a little later.  The book would have been surprisingly different.

Yet the characters were very clear where they came from.

What I know, I hope, is people.  I have always been surrounded by strong, interesting women, which helped to write Molly, the main voice.  I know families, and bereavements, and arguments, and what it is to be a child, a sibling and a parent. I know what I care about, what I think of the world then and now, (war and peace, truth and lies), and what type of books I like.  I’m a kind of recovering science fiction and fantasy fan, I like some of it a lot, but always because of the people.

America fascinates me, because I was born there.  Research was talking to people, remembering stories from my parents, the books and films of the era, and of course, the internet.  And the wonderful soundtrack made music a character in the book.

I knew who to ask, intelligent readers of different ages, genders, tastes and nationalities who would give me robust feedback.  I learned what feedback is useful.

I wanted to try for an agent. A previous novel got nowhere but encouraged me.  It’s never been so easy to find what agents want.  This book interested three agents and one offered to represent me.  We didn’t know each other, he just liked the book.

‘It’s wonderful,’ he said, ‘but it needs more work…’

He sold it, and now it is in the world, and complete strangers love it.

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