I recorded it myself, just to see if I could tap in to this huge market for audio books that people keep telling me about.
I wasn’t sure about doing this by myself, but I have a friend who is a voice artist and she said that it would be a useful way of spending time in lockdown. I followed her advice on what kit to use right down to the duvet – as recommended by the BBC. This recording was done in a recording studio under my desk. Here’s a photo.
And here it is in use with the duvet in place.
Does the camouflage work or can you spot me on the carpet?
If I do this again I think I’m going to try to do it sitting up in a windowless room. Lying on your stomach while you read a book from beginning to end – even a novella – turns out to be quite hard work. It’s warm, though, so an ideal job for a winter afternoon.
Is it any good? Well, initial responses were positive. I know I’m not a professional actor and it’s not an ideal studio space, but doing it myself means I’ve been able to keep it very cheap. I have a friend who did get a professional in to do it for a percentage of the royalty and he feels guilty that it never sold enough to justify the work the actor put in. If this one fails, at least the only person to lose out is me.
It’s taught me a lot. Learning how to do a professional edit has been fun, so I suppose I can count that as a skill learned in lockdown. It’s not mastering a new language or writing King Lear but it’s something and right now I think we all have to award ourselves prizes for any ‘somethings’ we manage.
What do you get for your money?
It’s the full text of Dark Magic, my contemporary novella. It was my first attempt at what I think they call ‘urban fantasy’. It’s a story of two magic shows: the Maestros of Magic touring the country, playing provincial theatres and the Carnival of Conjurors in the West End. When the Maestros learn that the Conjurors are using real magic – Black Magic – to do their tricks they decide that they must use their own, distinctly unmagical, stage skills to stop them. I was delighted that people found it both humorous and scary. (Check the reviews on Amazon.)
The audiobook is priced in dollars, but the idea was to make it about £5 in the UK, which seems pretty reasonable for three hours of recording. It’s the full text and I do try to get the voices. I had a lot of fun recording it, so I hope you enjoy listening.
Remember that the book is still available on Kindle for a staggeringly inexpensive £1.99 (free on Kindle Unlimited) or in paperback for £4.99. (You can buy it on amazon in North America as well.)
This is not a book blog. There are lots of book bloggers out there who review lots of books. I’m not one of them. I keep trying to cut down on the number of books I review here. Despite this, in 2020 I reviewed more than twenty.
How does this keep happening?
Firstly, I know a lot of writers. And they (like me) are desperate to see their books reviewed. If people don’t review them, how will anybody know about them? Many excellent books are overlooked by reviewers and readers, especially if they are not published by big publishers with significant marketing budgets. If I can help get some of these titles even a little bit more visibility, I think that will have been worthwhile.
Secondly, I get given books. Some I ask for (mainly through NetGalley), some are offered to me by publishers. Lots of writers complain on social media that no one will review their books but can I suggest they learn from some publishers? Publishers are often criticised for not doing a lot for their authors, but they do seem better at identifying potential bloggers and contacting them than are many writers.
Although people giving you books are not supposed to ask for reviews as a quid pro quo (Amazon, in particular, prohibits this), there is an implicit social contract that demands that you write a review. That can be embarrassing if you hated the book but fortunately that doesn’t happen often.
What do I review?
Basically, I review the books I get given to review. I may come across a book I’ve bought or seen in a library that I like so much I just have to review it, but books sent to me specifically for review get to the top of the pile. This makes my reviewing choices fairly eclectic.
I do try to prioritise books about history as my blog focuses on history. History stretches a fair way, though, from Jennifer Macaire’s prehistoric shenanigans (A Remedy in Time) to Alan Bardos’ excellent story set around the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 (The Assassins). There’s some non-fiction history as well, like Robert Griffiths’ authoritative guide to the Rifles in the Peninsular Campaign (Riflemen) and Jacqueline Reiter’s superb life of the Second Earl of Chatham, The Late Lord. (Both of those books, incidentally, were my own purchases – or more accurately gifts requested for Christmas – which gives some idea how good I thought they were.)
I also include quite a few thrillers (I really do like a good thriller) and even a romance. I’m not generally a romance fan, but I’ve made an exception for Gilli Allan’s excellent Buried Treasure.
How do I review?
I do try to find things to say about the books I review which go beyond: ‘This is a plot summary. I thought it was really good.’ Most of my reviews will be between 500 and 1,000 words, which gives time to get my teeth into how I think the book works.
There are books that I have enjoyed but where I think I really don’t have anything to say about them and these may be reviewed on Amazon but not on my blog.
What if I hate a book?
I generally try to avoid negative reviews but I’m happy to make an exception if the author is well-known and my review is not going to do them any harm. Plus there are famous authors who I think are trading on their reputation to foist terrible books on the public. (Jeremy Paxman’s Empireis a good example.) Once or twice I have felt duty-bound to review something underwhelming and then I just hide the review away and never speak of it on social media. It’s just my opinion and I doubt that people will seek my views out and shun the author. All my reviews are honest but they are always subjective. I hope they encourage you to read books by authors you might otherwise not have looked at.
Here, in no particular order, is complete list of all the books I reviewed in 2020. Click on the titles for a link to the original review.
I’ve loosely categorised them as historical (H), crime/thrillers (T) and non-fiction (NF). That leaves a few over but you can work those out for yourselves.
This is even more subjective than the reviews, but everyone else lists their best books of 2020, so why shouldn’t I?
There are only three non-fiction books reviewed. All three are excellent and you can improve your mind by reading any of them. Money is a quick gallop through the history of finance, brilliantly entertaining and very informative. Riflemen is a wonderful historical study, though possibly a little dense for the casual reader, while The Late Lord is a model of how to write a historical biography.
This is such a broad category that it’s difficult to single out individual titles. A Remedy in Time is gloriously silly and enormously fun but (though it does have real historical content) you can’t compare it with The Assassins, which is not such an easy read but which is packed with detail on the political intrigues that triggered World War I. I was particularly taken with A Murder of No Consequence which used a murder mystery set in the run-up to the Spanish Civil War to explore not only the history of the period but the moral questions that the collapse of civil society gives rise to. It’s a book that deserves to be read.
Having said that it’s difficult to single out an individual title, the historical fiction that was just head and shoulders above anything else I read in 2020 was This Blighted Expedition. Lynn Bryant’s story of the 1809 Walcheren Expedition blends historical fact with gripping fiction in a way that should be a model for writers of historical fiction. Lynn Bryant self-publishes her books. It’s true that there is an awful lot of self-published dross out there, but books like This Blighted Expedition show why it is a huge mistake to dismiss self-published authors as somehow not ‘proper’ writers. It’s my Book of the Year.
I’ve read a couple of books by Ragnar Jonasson before, so his publisher kindly offered to send me a NetGalley review copy of his latest, The Girl Who Died.
I’m very thrown by it. Nowadays writers are continually told to “show not tell”. It’s become a mantra that can be taken to ridiculous extremes. It is relatively modern writing rule. Many 19th-century authors “tell” all the time. It can seem a little odd to modern eyes, but it doesn’t stop them spinning a perfectly good yarn. I’ve often thought that we could make a great deal more use of straightforward telling, but this book seems to be told all the time. Let’s take a random sentence (the point at which I stopped reading and started to write this):
“Although he hadn’t said so in plain words, there was no doubt in her mind that he had been coming onto her. He had put his arm round her and angled for an invitation to go up to her bedroom. There was no way she could have misunderstood him, was there?”
There is no showing at all here. We are simply told what he has done and that the girl (the main character) had no doubt about his intent. It’s a simple statement of fact and I can see (indeed in the past I would have argued) that trying to look at the whole thing from “inside her head” can be overelaborate and unnecessary. But the story is almost all told in this tone, giving it a certain flatness.
Perhaps the author is trying to reflect the barrenness of the landscape in which our protagonist finds herself. She is in an isolated village on the very edge of Iceland with a population of just ten people. It’s not only a harsh and unforgiving landscape, but it is socially barren as well. Many of the characters seem to be social misfits. (I suppose they would have to be to live in such a place.) This style could, I suppose, have been deliberately chosen with this in mind.
The trouble is, it is, frankly, just boring to read: page after page of flat prose. And nothing really happens. The rather sad attempt at seduction I’ve just mentioned comes a third of the way into the book and is almost the most exciting thing so far.
There is something more exciting: a murder. Possibly a double murder. It appears, apparently arbitrarily, some way into the book and it’s returned to later. On both occasions it’s inserted in italics presumably to titillate us with the promise that eventually something will happen. But when? Is this something that has happened in the past? Or something that will happen in the future? And who is it who has been killed? We just don’t know. It seems a clumsy attempt to inject some interest where, so far, there is none.
The story is set in the Icelandic winter. So we have a rather dull character, her life so empty that she sees a job in this tiny village as an exciting opportunity, living in an almost deserted settlement in the middle of nowhere, when most of the time it is dark.
I’ve always thought that one of the greatest challenges that an author can faces to depict a spectacularly dull life in a way that is not itself dull. I can’t help feeling that Ragnar Jonasson has set himself this task and failed.
I get a lot of books off NetGalley and I feel that there is a social obligation to review them. It’s usually a pleasure. I’ve read many new authors and been exposed to some really interesting novels – including the first two I’ve read by Jonasson. Every so often, though, I come across something which I cannot, in good conscience, give a positive review to. I’ve only read a third of this book, so it may well get massively better, but I’m just finding it such hard work that I’m going to cut my losses at this point.
There is inevitably a lot of subjectivity in assessing any book. Some people may love this. For myself, though, this is going to get one of my very, very rare one star reviews.
Thiis is the time when traditionally we look back over the year just passed and ahead to the year to come.
I nearly didn’t bother this year. It has, most people would agree, been a terrible year. What is there to look back on with any pleasure?
Well, at a personal level, it did have its moments. Like many of us, I enjoyed the clean air and the stunning weather of Spring and Summer.
The local wildlife seemed to be more relaxed with fewer cars around – or maybe we just got out more often to see them.
It was still frustrating, unable to see our friends or take a holiday abroad. We were even prohibited from visiting Wales for most of the year.
On the work front, though, it was busier than I realised at the time. I finally managed to get back the North American rights to my James Burke books. I decided that I would re-launch them, this time publishing them myself, so the three existing Burke books came out with beautiful new covers by Dave Slaney.
In September, they were joined by a new book, Burke in the Peninsula, bringing Burke into Richard Sharpe territory with adventures in Spain.
Self-publishing turns out to be quite a lot of work, but the rewards are considerable. The books are finding new readers and, though you won’t find any of them in the charts, they now make solid, if unspectacular, sales. And getting royalty cheques that are worth cashing makes a nice change.
So it has been an exciting year that has laid the ground for more excitement in 2021.
I celebrated New Year by pressing the button to send my audiobook of Dark Magic off for publication. It should be available to buy later this month. I’ll certainly keep you up to date with that.
Dark Magic for any of you who don’t already know, is a dramatic break with my historical writing. It’s what I think they call a contemporary urban fantasy: a story of Black Magic and murder on the London stage. I’m following this up with another book in the same genre, this time featuring vampires and tango dancers, to be called Something Wicked. Somebody said it reminded them of Ben Aaronovitch‘s Rivers of London, which I’ve never read. I had a very quick look at the opening pages and I can see the resemblance. It’s strong enough to make me glad I haven’t read it so I can honestly say it’s not a rip-off, but if you like Ben Aaronovitch, it’s likely you’ll enjoy Something Wicked.
There is another Burke on the way, originally intended to come out in February but now likely to be put off until March, what with the audiobook and Something Wicked. It’s worth waiting for, though, as it is Burke’s first adventure as a spy and sees him infiltrating the Nationalist movement in late 18th century Ireland. It’s darker than the other books in the series, but a gripping read.
Setting up as my own publisher has absorbed most of my energy, but the plot for the sixth (!) James Burke book has been growing somewhere in the dark recesses of what passes for my mind and I may finally get to put fingers to keyboard soon.
Speaking of which, I need to get on. I hope that, on reflection, you can remember good things from 2020 and that 2021 will bring better days.
With Christmas and lockdowns and my promising that I’m going to spend less time blogging, I haven’t really written anything here for a bit. But today I saw somebody on Twitter talking about word count and targets and it reminded me that this is such a hardy perennial that I posted about it on my old blog back in 2013. So, for those who weren’t reading my blog in 2013, I thought I’d post it again as a sort of Christmas bonus. Enjoy!
There’s a writers group online where there’s been some discussion lately about the number of words that people should aim for in a day. (This was written seven years ago, but it will still be true. Some things exist outside of time.) In so far as there is a consensus, it seems to be around 1,000 words a day.
It seems a strange notion to me. Some people have argued that you have to know the number of words you will write in a day if you are writing commercially. There is some truth in this. For many years I was a hack writer – that is, I would write pretty well whatever I was asked to write for a commercial rate. This was non-fiction and it was usually written to a very tight deadline and sometimes on the basis of a competitive tender. There would usually be a contractual requirement to produce a certain number of words. Even if there wasn’t, the client had an idea of the sort of length of the document that he expected to get. Knowing roughly how much I could write in a day was essential if I was going to make a living out of it, which I did reasonably successfully. However, even in these particular circumstances, the idea that I had a general “average number of words written in a day” is misleading. In some cases, I was essentially rewriting material that was provided to me, or writing something based on information readily available online. Here I would write a lot of words in a day. In other cases, I was being paid not only to write, but to research. Typically, if I was writing a project that was going to take two months, about a month might be spent researching and the second month writing. In these cases, the “number of words written per day” in the first month could well be zero, while the second month would involve quite intensive typing.
Now I write fiction, I have a completely different approach to putting words on a page. With non-fiction, written to a deadline, the important thing is to get words down. You have to write fast, sometimes to a template and usually using a kind of business language that does not concern itself overmuch with the finer points of style. Even here, there are quite significant differences in the amount of attention that has to be given to the detail of the writing and, hence, the number of words you can produce. I had a friend who wrote documents presenting government policy. Much of her work involved putting forward ideas using language that would make people more favourable to them than they might otherwise have been. She wrote far more slowly than me but she was paid much more highly because her clients needed the level of craftsmanship she brought her work. In fact, only yesterday, another friend who writes policy for government described a long exchange of e-mails over the changing of a single word. She doesn’t write 1,000 words a day, and nor would anyone expect her to.
Writing fiction, I am trying to put over ideas in the most vivid way that I can. I will spend a while thinking about a situation and getting a clear idea in my own mind of what was happening and only then will I start to write it down. Sometimes, once the words start to flow, literally thousands of them will come out at once. More often, after a few hundred, things will stutter to a halt and it is only after a significant pause looking out of the window, doing the washing up and staring aimlessly into space that the next few hundred may emerge. It’s often even worse than that because I write historical fiction with a very firm basis in actual events. Before I even start writing, months may be spent reading about a period without anything more than a few scratched notes emerging in the way of solid output.
I do notice that the people who most enthusiastically espouse writing high word counts often express their views with a remarkable lack of punctuation and more than occasional typos. There is, for most people, a trade-off between speed and accuracy. One person in the discussion I’ve been reading dismisses anyone who does not set a high word count target and stick to it. He is even more abrupt at the suggestion that anyone should spend time editing and rewriting their work. This is a man who does not use capital letters. at all. he’s not that big on full stops either. If he is getting published, some editor is putting in the hours to correct this and, once we take account of that, his average is going to drop quite a bit.
If you’re writing fiction nowadays, you are also expected to spend quite a lot of time writing to promote your work. That, in the end, is what this blog is all about. If I included the words I write for this in my daily target, I would have already achieved almost 1,000 words. Does that mean I only have to scratch out a few more paragraphs and then I can put my feet up with somebody else’s good book? Alas, no.
In the end, writing is not a competition, won or lost on the number of words you produce. It’s a completely meaningless figure. For what it’s worth, the average novel nowadays probably has about 80,000 – 90,000 words in it. (Mine are a bit longer, but historical novels usually are.) My impression is that most well-known full-time authors produce, very roughly, a book a year. That’s around 230 words a day. Does this mean anything? No, it doesn’t. But if somebody asks how many words you should write a day, you can tell them that 230 is a reasonable sort of average. So I’ve written over four days’ worth now. See you next week.
A Word from Our Sponsor
Writing lots of words is pointless, of course, if no one reads them. Frankly, I do find I write faster if I know people are going to buy the stuff I write. I imagine most of you reading this know that I write historical novels – the Burke series about a spy in the age of Napoleon and the John Williamson stories which look at mid-19th century colonialism. And just to keep things interesting I’ve also writtenDark Magic a contemporary fantasy about a troupe of magicians who use black magic to achieve their impossible stage feats. You can find details of all of these (with buy links) here on my website.
If you want to see authors write faster, please buy their books.