Short – but not so sweet

fountain-pen-447575_1280I’ve been thinking lately about writing a little fiction again. Those who knew my blog before it went all healthy, diety and weight-lossy back in January, will know that its roots lie in my passion for writing.  I began the blog (which was originally titled A Writer’s Notepad) whilst I was in the process of penning my first (and so far only) novel, Singled Out.

With Singled Out published and selling on Amazon, I fully expected my attention to turn to Novel Number Two.  I went away on a writing retreat and came home with a plot, characters and a full story outline.  I began writing, and made it all the way to… Chapter 5. They’re very short chapters, so that’s about nowhere, in terms of the overall story.

I ran out of steam for one reason: I had a growing feeling – not possible to ignore – that I should be spending less time at my desk, and more time getting active. I’ve made getting healthy and fit and losing my excess weight the absolute priority for 2016, and this mission-critical objective does not sit well (no pun intended) with spending evenings and weekends sat on my bum writing my novel – that being in addition to the five days a week that I spend sat on my bum writing scintillating copy for my clients.  So m’lud, the writing has been taking a back… umm.. seat.

But someone reminded me the other day of something I’d all but forgotten.  Before I took the arguably insane decision to attempt to write a whole actual novel, I’d written a few short stories.  They were for practise, to flex my writerly muscles after attending a couple of How To Write courses.  I’m not sure they’re all that good, but I posted them to the blog and they garnered a little feedback. Once I tore into my novel, it took over, and I never looked back to those short stories.

Now I’m wondering if I might try out one or two ideas, just to have a little fun with fiction again, but in small bites.  I know short stories aren’t just novels, shortened; they’re a different kind of animal altogether. But I’m wondering whether it might simply be fun to dip into my Ideas notepad and just… well… you know… write something… short.

2016-02-19 09.51.08 copyI’ll probably try and do it standing up though – now that I’ve figured out how to create a moderately stable apology for a standing desk (using my printer paper drawers, Singled Out marketing material, old files and an empty box, since you ask). It will at least keep the blood circulating through my lower limbs.

Whilst I dither about what to write, I thought I’d point newer readers to one or two of those original short stories, buried deep within the last 3 years’ blog posts. Enjoy, if you will.

Having trawled back through these three pieces, I’m struck that they seem to share a mood – and a theme: the disillusioned single woman.  Ouch.

But whilst fiction is – wholly and totally – fiction, I can admit to having become something of an expert on that particular theme over the years. I’m firmly in write what you know territory there.  So  I might try something else along the same lines.

Or would that be just too cynical?

Fava Beans and a Nice Chianti

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Halloween is perhaps a fitting opportunity to take a look at a certain type of character who often finds a home within psychological suspense fiction; the sociopath…

* * * * *

When we hear the word psychopath we tend to think of infamous mass murderers, names like Ted Bundy, Dennis Nilsen and Fred West evoking memories of some of the most horrific crimes of the last few decades. Fiction has many compelling psychopaths – Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs of course, Misery’s Annie Wilkes and American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman; and there’s Max Cady, Robert De Niro’s terrifying vengeful psychopath in the film Cape Fear.

Yet most people who score solidly within the Hare Psychopathy Checklist aren’t killers, and the word we associate with the less murderous on this spectrum today is… sociopath.

You won’t find most sociopaths stashing bodies under the floorboards or consuming a victim’s liver with fava beans and a nice chianti.  They’re part of the community.  They are your boss or your next-door neighbour, or the guy who smiles at you at the bus stop. 

They’re sharp-witted and can be fiercely intelligent; they hold down jobs, often with considerable power and influence; they enter relationships, they marry and have children; at work, you might call them shrewd or ruthless, single-minded or controlling; in social situations they’re the life-and-soul.

For most people encountering such a person, the word sociopath doesn’t immediately spring to mind. If you label them at all, you might say they were a con-artist, cheat or bastard.

But words like this sell these destructive individuals short.

Motivated only by their own needs and drives and without conscience or empathy, sociopaths have the capacity to wreak havoc.  They are narcissistic, manipulative and deceitful, shallow and self-serving. They’ll tell you what you need to hear, to get what they want. And when they’re done, they’ll depart without a backward glance, leaving any amount of disruption in their wake.

Most people can’t understand the way a sociopath thinks. Most people are able to empathise with others, share their pain or distress and offer comfort because they care about how others feel. Most people will think through the possible outcomes of their actions and avoid doing things which cause harm to others. Most people have values, standards and morals, and appreciate how these underpin society.

Most people strive to be good, kind, understanding and loving; but not the sociopath.  To the sociopath, these traits are weaknesses to be exploited.

Speaking as a writer, I think sociopaths are fascinating. They’re terrific antagonists, shocking in their ability conceal their true nature, hiding in plain sight, and capable of the sort of behaviours that are beyond normal people. They give the writer so much that is unsettling and potentially catastrophic to play with.

I was in thrall to a sociopath for just a few months, very many years ago. Now it turns out there is much about the psychology of the sociopath which is finding its way into my writing; like character traits, and wiles and ways with which I became too intimately acquainted.

They say ‘write what you know’, don’t they? And that’s interesting, because I think what I went through way back then, might be helping me to write better bastards today.

And that’s an unexpected payback, for sure.

Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

Autumn is already turning into a fruitful time for me.

2015-10-02 17.13.07Autumn is my favourite time of year. I love the turn of the season, the explosion of colours and smells; I love that transitional blend of chill mornings and still warm, sunny afternoons. I love to see banks of blackberries ripening in the park. I love it when #Strictly starts up again on the telly.

One month into a(nother) healthy eating/exercise campaign and already a notable few pounds less lumbersome, a simple commitment to an early morning walk (weather permitting – I’m not yet a friend of Parkas and Pakamacs) has begun to embed itself into my routine, sending oxygen to all the parts that need waking up as the day begins.

In the park this morning
In the park on Sunday morning

So it is that for the last few weeks I’ve been feeling increasingly fruitful where I have for months been feeling, well, a bit… stale.

2015-09-10 21.24.42My fruitful phase got off to a good start in early September when I retreated with the folks of Circle of Missé in France, spending six intensive days working on the structure for Novel Number Two. It took me a little over 4 days to nail it – that’s what happens when you push everything else aside and make the story your priority. Wayne and Aaron at Circle of Missé know just how to create the perfect environment for writerly focus. In a sublime setting, and with the opportunity to socialise with other writers and enjoy amazing meals every evening, it’s somehow easier to dedicate yourself to the writing – or the thinking and planning of the writing – throughout the day.

I came home with a roadmap and some very positive feedback on my ideas. Now I’m back on my horse, and back to that bare-minimum 500-words-a-week commitment – the one that should see me in perpetual motion (ideally a great deal faster than 500 words a week) through my first draft.

2015-10-04 14.13.45

On Saturday night, autumn brought yet more writerly stimulus – courtesy of my local library service, who have organised a month long festival of literature, arts and music in my borough, called Culture Bite. That’s already amazing, when so many other library services are in decline. Even more amazing, no less than three exceptional new authors came to talk about their debut psychological novels. Clare Mackintosh, with her Sunday Times/Richard & Judy triumph, I Let You Go, which begins with a tragic accident; Rebecca Whitney with The Liar’s Chair, a dark tale of a toxic marriage; and Renee Knight with Disclaimer, about a woman who finds her own darkest secret within the pages of of a novel. These are the kind of books I love to read, and the kind of books I aspire to write. All three writers were so generous of their time, their enthusiasm and – when they learned I had written and self-published my first – their warm encouragement and support. Thank you – all of you – for a fabulous evening, and for sharing your insights and experiences so openly.

Did you realise, you’re living my dream?

Facebook Advert – Trial Run #ammarketing

I ‘boosted’ a post on Facebook, essentially an advert for Singled Out. Here’s how I got on.

I haven’t done much advertising/promotion of Singled Out, outside this blog and a few Tweets.  I have neither the time, nor the dedication to go about this task with the sort of commitment one needs to apply if one wants sales in the thousands. Besides, as we hear everywhere, the best way to promote a first book… is to write a second. And that’s just what I’ve at last started to do.

But I was persuaded to try out a boosted post on Facebook, mainly on the basis that it didn’t involve any effort at all.  I was a few copies short of my first notable sales milestone – 100 copies – and I simply thought, ‘it’s worth a punt’. A friend (thank you, Suzanne) showed me how it worked, and it took about 10 minutes to set up the post and pick my target group. Facebook steps you through the process, nice and simple.

I didn’t have a suitable post on my blog, so I decided simply to link to the Amazon.co.uk page for Singled Out, here.

Here’s the post, as it appeared:

Screenshot 2015-08-20 09.49.05

As it’s a story set on a holiday, it seemed worthwhile to target people setting off on, or even already on, their holidays. A #nobrainer one might say.

I decided on a very modest budget, £10.00, and ran the ad over 6 days. This was my criteria:

  • Target group: Women in the UK aged between 35-60
  • Stated interests: fiction, suspense novels, single person, Turkey, travel
  • Placement: Desktop and Mobile news feed

Across the 6 days, this post was boosted to 2,297 women in the target group.  There were 63 engagements. That means 63 people either liked my page, commented on the advert, or – best of all – clicked through to the Amazon page.  My stats tell me that 51 people clicked through to the page.  That means my cost per result was £0.16.

During those 6 days, I made 6 sales, and a further sale the day after – a total of 7 sales attributed to this promotion. Yes, I know, It’s small potatoes, compared to some lucky/successful/hard-working authors, but together with a few sales earlier in the month, it served to make August my most successful month for sales since March, the month after Singled Out was launched.

So… the 7 sales I can directly attribute to the Facebook post more than covered that £10 investment.  Happy days. But the significant thing that post did, was to take me over 100 sales.  That doesn’t mean much in the big wide world, but it was important to me, and definitely worth the punt.

In the interests of full disclosure, I tried a second Facebook boost immediately the first ended. I used the same advert and selected different criteria. I ran for 6 days again, but I invested a budget of just £5.00 this time, half the original budget. My target group was male rather than female, and I was more restrictive with my stated interests. I know… I shouldn’t have adjusted two criteria at once, but I did.

  • Target group: Men in the UK aged between 35 and 60
  • Stated interests: suspense novels, psychological novel, single person, Turkey
  • Placement: Desktop and Mobile news feed

This time I was less successful. With a tighter focus, the available audience was smaller, a total of 858 people reached, from which there were 12 engagements – 3 likes and 9 website clicks. And one sale – which was very gratifying!  Facebook tells me my cost per result (ie, engagement) was £0.42.

So…

  • Of 2297 women, 51 clicked the website – that’s 1 in every 45, or just under 2% – that’s not bad for a ‘cold’ contact. What’s better though, is that of those 51 women, 13% made a purchase.
  • Of 863 men, 9 clicked the website – that’s one in every 95, or half as many as the women’s group. But that 1 sale is, technically speaking, 10% of the click-through traffic to the website.

I messed around with my keywords, but that was in an attempt to be more targeted with the men. It didn’t pay off.

I can’t say I’m surprised that women engaged more enthusiastically with my post than men. That would be for any number of reasons that I can guess at. But I can’t really speculate without generalising horribly, and I don’t want to do that.

This was just a trial. The numbers were all very small and my investment was tiny – but I didn’t feel that was inappropriate, given my relatively modest sales to date. I would try another Facebook advert in future – the results justify tweaking those keywords, investing again, trying a broader geographic spread, and so on. But I can’t exactly see Facebook shooting my sales into the stratosphere.

If you’re a self-published author who’s been thinking of trying Facebook adverts, I hope this has been useful.

And if you’re one of the lovely ladies who clicked on that link and have found your way to my blog… let me extend you a big, warm welcome. 🙂

Birth of a Book: Week 2 #amwriting

acorns-57305_1280To plan, or not to plan, this is the question

I’m more of a planner, than a pantser, which means I can’t get very far into a new novel without putting a bit of flesh on the bones of my scraps of story outline.  Those three or four pages need to evolve into a chapter-by-chapter summary before I begin to feel even a little bit comfortable about where things are going.

I’m not obsessive about it. I won’t end up with 10,000 words, perhaps 3,000 all told, in table format, so I can juggle the chapters around. (And no… so far, for those who are interested in this kind of thing – no Scrivener, just MSWord.) I write a few lines about what happens in each chapter, plus – and this is very important – a note of qualification; an answer to the question… what is this chapter doing in the story? That means either (i) how is the chapter moving the story forward, or (ii) what is it telling the reader about a key character. If it doesn’t do one or the other, it has no business being in the story.

So planning has taken up what time I allocated this week, and I’m satisfied that things are taking shape. I’m about half way through, and I’m pretty sure i know where the rest is going – that’s for next week. When I’m done, I can pick my way forward through the chapters, knowing what I need to write.

Do things change as I go along? You bet they do. Things I think will work, don’t. Things I’ve forgotten, emerge. Characters evolve in ways I hadn’t anticipated. New ideas arrive. So I’m certain I’ll be re-engineering my chapter-by-chapter as I go along. That’s a given. But wherever it goes, I have to begin with a plan.

Planning aside, I’m determined to keep up with my minimum 500-word commitment (I can’t allow myself fail after just 2 weeks). So Saturday saw me out in the garden with my laptop, bashing my way to 800 words.  Hardly a stellar performance, but the plan came first this week; that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

Oh… and one other thing – a happy motivational moment. Singled Out hit that magic 100 sold copies milestone this week.  It got there with the aid of a promoted post on Facebook of which, more later, once the promo is over and I know whether or not I broke even or got ahead by a few quid. Still… One. Hundred. Sold. Copies. Break even or not, it was worth it.

I’m a minnow in an ocean of self-publishing fish, but I confess, I feel chuffed. It’s a start. Onward and upward.

Namedrop Central: Me and Mickey Spillane

imageSeeing his famous quote on Chris #TSRA’s blog, brought to mind the time I went to tea with Mickey Spillane.

Many writers will be familiar with the quote, attributed to prolific author of bestselling gritty detective stories, Mickey Spillane:

The first chapter sells the book. The last chapter sells the next book.

Thanks to Chris The Story Reading Ape’s blog for sharing this pertinent quote yesterday.

It reminded me of something else too – that I once met Mickey Spillane. It was back in May 1992, and not just in a book-signing queue either.  I was invited to tea at his home in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina.

I was holidaying in the USA with an American friend. We were visiting with her parents, who lived at Pawleys Island, just a few miles up the coast from Murrels Inlet. It’s a small and close-knit community and they knew Mickey Spillane socially. Keen for their British guest to experience something beyond the undeniable beauty of the South Carolina coastline, they wondered if I’d be interested in meeting their local celebrity author, as he had extended an invitation for us to join him for afternoon tea.

Now, I wasn’t a writer at the time. I’ve always loved books and reading, but if I’d had the slightest inkling of where my passion would lie some 20 years later, it’s fair to say I would have made a great deal more of the encounter than I did.

My hosts had been kind enough to source a couple of his books for our visit, but there wasn’t time for me to read them. Nevertheless, whilst I betrayed a staggering ignorance of his considerable body of work, Mickey Spillane graciously signed them for me. I recall him writing something like, “To a real doll…” although I’m ashamed to admit both paperbacks have since vanished from my bookshelves, probably during one home move or another.   I expect he wrote that kind of thing on the inside covers of a lot of books, but it made me blush nonetheless.

Mickey Spillane, author of stories featuring more violence and sex and a higher body count than was typical of novels of the time (he wrote from 1947 until his death in 2006) could not have been more kind and generous towards us, his guests. We enjoyed tea on the lawn at his beautiful home and he showed us around his gardens. We talked of the impact that Hurricane Hugo had had on the region just two or three years earlier. He posed with us for photographs, but these too have dissolved away.

Looking him up on Google this afternoon, I particularly liked another of his quotes, answering those who criticised the high sex/violence content in his stories:

Those big-shot writers could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar… If the public likes you, you’re good.

In these modern, changed times, when most of us can only dream of making a living from our stories, we should celebrate authors like Mickey Spillane, who lived our dream, and lived it well.

Birth of a Book: Week One #amwriting

Hardly an auspicious start, but I broke through my first 1,000 words this week and named two characters.  I’m off the ground at least.

Here are three things which are already blindingly obvious to me:

  1. I may like to think I’ve learned from writing my first book, and that I can bring those learnings, newly acquired writerly abilities and Book One experience to bear; but at this point, I feel like a child who’s been given a pencil for the first time, and isn’t quite sure which is the business end.
  2. I need to re-read all those posts I’ve written on ‘show not tell’. Two pages in, and I’m already stating the bleedin’ obvious, line after line. A bit of self-flagellation is in order.
  3. Inciting incident… conflict… what?

This is going to be tough. But I promised short-and-sweet, so that’s it for tonight.