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.)
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.
We’re just a week off the big day – or as big a day as people are going to allow themselves at the end of a quite extraordinary year.
I don’t want to dwell on a miserable past few months and an uncertain future. If I’m going to write a downbeat blog post, it’s going to be after Christmas. For now we’re just concentrating on a few days with our family trying to put Covid behind us. We’ve been careful, as I hope you all are, but I think, perhaps, the time has come to remember that human relationships and the ties that bind us are, in the end, vital to our health as individuals and as a society.
Anyway, whatever you’re doing for Christmas I hope you have a good one.
I promised a couple of months ago that I was going to cut back on blogging. For the next couple of weeks there will be no blog posts. I hope you are all far too busy with other things to miss them. If you really want to read stuff that I’ve written over the Christmas break, it’s not too late to buy one of my books! Or you could sign up for my newsletter (check the bottom of the page). As I blog less, I’m trying to send out newsletters more regularly.
So the last thing to do this year is to send you all Christmas greetings and a photo from happier times when we could spend our Christmases in Wales. Here’s hoping we’ll be able to visit there again soon.
Since I started limiting myself to blogging just once a week, a lot of my posts here have been book reviews. I really don’t want this to turn into a book blog, but there are a lot of good books out there and I like to help promote them.
This week I finished two very different historical novels. One was a serious book about the assassination that triggered World War I, while the second was a more tongue-in-cheek adventure set in the Palaeolithic. Both were, in very different ways, excellent reads. Here are my thoughts:
The Assassins – Alan Bardos
The Assassins is a novel based around the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914. It was the murder that precipitated World War I, but who was Franz Ferdinand, why was he killed, and how on earth did this start one of history’s greatest bloodbaths?
If, like me, you’ve got some vague awareness that it was all to do with the Balkan Problem and Great Power alliances at the beginning of the 20th century, but you really struggle with more detail than that, then Alan Bardos’s book will, if nothing else, leave you much better informed. In fact, the time spent reading could be well justified purely for its value as a work of historical pedagogy. But, although there is the odd page where there is a danger of being overwhelmed by “facts” about the political situation, the book reads well as a work of fiction. This is mainly because we see events unfold through the eyes of an entirely made-up (at least, I really hope he’s entirely made-up) young chancer in the diplomatic service, Johnny Swift. Swift’s mother had been a governess. He has made it into the diplomatic service despite being, dash it all, pretty much from the servant class. His response to the continual prejudice and unpleasantness that he is exposed to from his superiors is to behave ever more outrageously, seducing his boss’s wife and embezzling embassy funds to feed his gambling habit.
Rather than dismiss Swift in disgrace and risk an open scandal, the diplomatic service sends him to Vienna to report on the political situation in the Balkans. He is passed from arrogant caddish official to arrogant caddish official, all of whom deny that there is anything to worry about in Bosnia, until he finally ends up in Sarajevo where he quickly learns that there is a violent nationalist movement threatening terrorist outrages.
A series of unlikely, but not incredible, events ends up with him being infiltrated into the Bosnian nationalist movement, mainly thanks to the efforts of Breitner, a disgraced Austro-Hungarian intelligence officer who, like Johnny, doesn’t come from the right background and whose intelligence on the nationalist movement is therefore systematically ignored by the Habsburg administration.
The mechanics of putting these characters into a position which means that the reader will be able to follow in detail the machinations that led to the Archduke’s assassination could be plodding and unrealistic. Instead, Bardos’s mastery of characterisation and fluent writing style carries the reader along with it. In fact, as we move closer and closer to the assassination, I found myself turning the pages desperate to see how it would work out – ironic as we all know exactly what happened.
There is a definite pause in the narrative thrust of the book once poor Franz Ferdinand and his wife (portrayed as easily the most sympathetic character in the book) are duly bumped off. However, Johnny Swift is not just a site cipher created for purposes of plot and Bardos now has to conclude his story. Bardos manages to make us care as Johnny is bounced from meeting to meeting when nobody seems quite sure whether he should be given a medal or sent to prison. Again Bardos fact and fiction really well with Johnny’s Odyssey taking the reader through the key moments that finally lead to war. In fact Johnny is even in the room as Sir Edward Grey, the Foreign Secretary, delivers the famous line: “The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our time.”
Franz Ferdinand is dead; the world is about to be plunged into war; but what awaits Johnny? Johnny’s ultimate fate is a twist I did not see coming, but at least he’s still alive at the end of the book. I’m glad about that. Promiscuous, caddish, dishonest, and a thorough rascal he may well be, but he managed to make what could have been a boring history lesson into a most enjoyable read and it would be lovely to share his adventures again.
A Remedy in Time – Jennifer Macaire
Jennifer Macaire’s books combine wild action adventure plots against a meticulously researched background. Her latest thriller does not disappoint on either of these.
Although I am pretty sure the book was written before covid, the background is scarily contemporary: the world is being ravaged by a pandemic with no cure. The best possibility of a cure lies in the blood of sabre-tooth tigers (smilodons) which studies have shown carried the virus and from which you could make an antidote. Don’t spend too long worrying about this: it’s mainly an excuse for our feisty heroine (I really didn’t want to say that, but it’s that sort of book) to travel back to the Pleistocene (Macaire loves time-travel adventures), get a sample of sabre-tooth tiger blood and save the world.
What could possibly go wrong?
As if dire wolves, giant beavers, huge salmon with enormous teeth, and mammoths were not enough of a problem (not to mention the smilodons), the expedition is packed with Bad People, anxious to kill Robin and get the vital serum for themselves. Cue murder plots, terrible deaths and a great deal of running through the woods trying to avoid becoming something’s dinner.
Is this a good read? You betcha. Macaire’s writing is fluid and entertaining. I powered through the story. Is it an improving read? Well, oddly enough, it does have quite a lot of fascinating facts about the animals of the time, so you can claim an educational credit. Is it great literature? Of course not. It’s entertainment pure and simple and easy to disdain as commercial rubbish. But it’s huge fun and brightened my day at a time that we all need our days brightening. And, though it’s easy to dismiss this sort of thing as hack writing, it’s surprisingly difficult to get right. Macaire scores a bullseye on this style.
It can’t have escaped your notice that it’s December and we are very firmly in the run-up to Christmas.That means it’s the time of year when starving authors try to fill their Christmas stockings by persuading you to buy their books. So here, in case you are struggling to think of a last-minute Christmas present (or you are looking for some escapist reading yourself to take your mind off season) is a quick reminder of the books available from me.
Books about James Burke
I introduced James Burke, my Napoleonic era spy, inBurke in the Land of Silver. The story is set around the British invasion of Buenos Aires in 1806 and is fairly closely based on the adventures of the real-life James Burke who, when not seducing the Queen of Spain or the Crown Princess of Portugal, turns out to be a brave and resourceful spy.
The Burke books dodge about in chronological order. That, as readers of Cornwall’s Sharpe series will know, seems to be an occupational hazard of historical fiction writers. Fortunately, all of them are written as stand-alone stories so you don’t have to worry about trying to get them in the right order. There is a 12 year gap between the events in the first chapter of Burke in the Land of Silver and the rest of the book. Burke’s second adventure, Burke and the Bedouin, slots neatly into this. After all the solid history of the first book, this is an unashamed romp, with a beautiful damsel to be saved, midnight rides across the desert and duels of wits with French spies. And, in the middle of all this, real history intrudes with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. We even manage to get Burke witnessing the Battle of the Nile, one of Nelson’s greatest victories. (Personally I’m with the people who think it was even more impressive than Trafalgar.) Burke and the Bedouin has no politically aware sub-text or useful message for today, which may account for the fact that though it has very few reviews, it has satisfyingly steady, if unspectacular, sales.
The third book in the series,Burke at Waterloo, was published in 2015 because there’s a law that anybody writing about Napoleonic heroes had to write a book about Waterloo 200 years after the battle. If you are interested in Waterloo but struggle to keep track of what actually happened there (and why), this is a painless introduction. If you couldn’t care less about the battle, enjoy the spy story: assassination attempts, midnight meeting in graveyards, murder, mayhem and a night at one of history’s most famous balls.
This year saw the publication of a new book about Burke: Burke in the Peninsula. Our hero is with Wellington’s army in Spain. The story, (very) loosely based on some of the exploits of a real spy there, finds Burke ranging ahead of the troops, working with the guerrillas in a dirty war against the French. The story follows on directly from Burke in the Land of Silver. In fact you could read Land of Silver followed by Peninsula and have one very long historical novel – ideal for the sort of people who like to spend Christmas buried in a long historical novel. There was going to be another book published this year but Covid has disrupted the whole publishing industry so much that I put that off until early next year. Look out for Burke in Ireland then.
The John Williamson Papers
Before there was James Burke, there was John Williamson. (At least in the order I wrote them: John Williamson’s adventures are set in the mid-19th century, a very different world from Burke’s.) These are much more serious books than the Burke series, following the experiences of my eponymous narrator as he comes face-to-face with the reality of the British Empire. The first book, The White Rajah, finds him in Borneo with James Brooke who ruled the little country of Sarawak as his own private kingdom. He moves on to India, just in time to be caught up in the horrors of the Mutiny in Cawnpore. Broken by his experiences, he returns Back Home to England to find that the rich are exploiting the poor as ruthlessly in London as their Empire does across the world.
The whole issue of the British Empire and how we should feel about it has become much more contentious since I wrote these books, but I remain proud of them because I try not to take sides. James Brooke, for example, did a lot of good in Borneo, but he also presided over some horrific wartime atrocities. Poor John Williamson, with his working class origins, is always an outsider in the world of Empire, forever caught between his European upbringing and his sympathy for the natives of the countries he finds himself in. There are no (or few) happy endings and the books were never going to have the simple appeal of the Burke series, but if you are looking for something a bit more thoughtful, I’d love you to read them.
If you want a flavour of The White Rajah, there is a short story with the characters from that book, which you can read, alongside nine other stories by some well-known historical writers, in Victoriana, which was published during the summer.
Something Completely Different
Last year I decided to do something completely unlike the historical novels I generally write. I produced a comedy-horror novella, Dark Magic. Comedy horror is always a dangerous area. Many of books in the genre are neither funny nor scary, but my Amazon reviews suggest that this had actually worked. It’s very short and fun and the paperback is only £4.99, making it an ideal stocking filler.