Meeting other writers

Meeting other writers

I haven’t done a post about the writing life for a while and I know some people like that sort of thing. (Hey, I don’t judge: I just go with things that people respond to.)

So, for any would-be writers wondering how to meet other writers (or even if they want to bother) here are some thoughts.

Writers’ groups online or in real life

Even before I was published I was a member of the writers’ forum – Absolute Write. Absolute Write allows you to share your work and other writers in your genre will critique it. When I was active in it, the Historical writers were a lively bunch. Their critiques were often brutal but I learned a lot. Find a group like that and they will be a really valuable resource.

I know people who have joined ‘real life’ writing groups but listening to their experiences I’m not impressed. There seems a danger that groups can attract people who write occasionally as a hobby and the group can just become a place to pass a pleasantly social hour or two while telling each other how great your work is. If that’s what you want, then fine. On the other hand, if you want to improve your writing, the occasional brutality of the Internet can be your friend – it’s easier to tell somebody that their precious words aren’t really very good if you don’t have to look at them over tea and cake while you do it. And, of course, it’s easier to slip away and digest criticism in private. Real-life writing groups work for some people but I would look seriously at online support.

Online support for writers

Online support for writers goes well beyond critique groups. There are groups on Facebook for people writing in particular genres or for the more commercially minded who want to chat about cover design or marketing strategies.  (See, for example SPF Community or 20booksTo50K.)

Twitter fans might be more comfortable limited to 240 characters. There are thousands (I guess) of writers on Twitter and one advantage is that it’s very democratic. You could find yourself talking to Joanne Harris (@Joannechocolat), me (@TomCW99) or someone whose first novel is still an exciting gleam in their eye.

Twitter is a peculiar place and there are, indeed, many deeply unpleasant people on it but you really don’t have to see them. There is a ‘block’ function to remove horrible folk (you can use it to block horrible subjects too) and what’s left can be fun. If you’re like me it will be anonymous and pointless fun for a while and then gradually you will make friends there. I’ve even met one or two in real life. Stick at it. As when you first arrived at a new school, don’t expect to make great friends overnight.

Real-life genre specific groups

There are also real-life groups for various genres of writing. These will usually have an on-line presence as well, but once you feel you know them, you might want to venture out of your writing room/shepherd’s hut/cave and see them in the flesh. As I mainly write historical fiction I’m a member of the Historical Writers’ Association and I’ve found them amazingly friendly and supportive. The same is probably true of other genre-specific groups.

But what do I know?

It’s important to remember that all these thousands of writers will have hundreds of different opinions on how to write (and how to sell your books once you’ve written them). Inevitably (do the maths) most of them will be wrong – or, more accurately, wrong for you. Find other writers: use them for support; use them for critiques; use them to get you home when you’ve drunk yourself to a stupor. But don’t, whatever you do, let them tell you how to write. That one’s down to you.

John Williamson’s time to shine

John Williamson’s time to shine

Today, assuming you’re reading this the day it came out (Friday), is the last day you can buy The White Rajah at its offer price of 99p/99c.

I’ve put The White Rajah on offer to kick-start sales of ‘The John Williamson Papers’ ahead of the release of the second volume, Cawnpore, on Friday 10 September. (That’s on Kindle: a paperback will follow soon.)

Why am I republishing all three of the John Williamson Papers years after they first came out? Partly it’s that my experience with the James Burke stories shows that my books sell much better when I’m marketing them (albeit quite badly) than when I leave the job to a publisher. The White Rajah and Cawnpore were first published by a tiny US outfit (JMS Books) who did an astonishingly good job. The moved to substantially bigger publishers in the UK proved to be a mistake and sales of the trilogy never matched the positive reviews they got. I’m hoping to do better this time around.

More importantly, I think (hope) that these are books whose time has come. There has been a lot of talk in the media (mainstream media and social media) about how we need to look more critically at our colonial past or, alternatively, how we need to celebrate the days of Empire. What these books tried to do was to look at the moral ambiguity of ‘the Empire Project’, which was neither the selfless act of a beneficent Britain that it used to be presented as, nor the unalloyed evil that it is often regarded as today.

If you are interested in getting some idea of the realities of colonial rule, the John Williamson Papers are perhaps a good place to start. And if you just want adventure and battles and a different sort of love story, then you can just enjoy them for that.

The John Williamson Papers

I’ve now got a draft of the next Burke book in a fit condition for it to get its first beta read. That’s always my wife and she can be harsh, so if it survives that it will go out to a couple more beta readers and then we’ll start the move towards publication. One of the joys of being self-published is that I can move at my own pace rather than having my schedule dictated by publishers

While Burke marinates quietly, I can finally get on with republishing Cawnpore. People on social media often make quite a song and dance out of showing the covers of their new books but I really can’t work up that much artificial excitement: so, without more ado, here it is.

Cawnpore is the second book in the John Williamson trilogy. Unlike The White Rajah it has been little changed since it was published by the US small press, JMS Books, ten years ago. Why publish it again?

Well, ten years is a long time – long enough for me to have been through two UK publishers who took the book on but didn’t offer much in the way of marketing support. It did well on its first US publication and sold a few more when it moved to a UK publisher but sales in the past few years have been negligible. I have learned, though, since I took back control of the James Burke books that there is an untapped market for my writing and that people will buy the books if they are promoted. I’m better known, too, with five James Burke books already published. So I’m hopeful that there will be more interest in Cawnpore now than there was a few years ago.

The John Williamson Papers are a very different series from the James Burke books. They are set in the mid-19th century and are rather more serious in tone. They are first person accounts, written in the style of the period, so they demand a little more of the reader, but I think they offer more back. They do have adventure and battles but there is rather more politics and Burke’s doubts about the morality and worth of a lot of the killing he is involved in are much stronger with John Williamson.

Each of the books in the trilogy stands alone, but they are written as a cycle, starting with John Williamson in England signing on for a voyage to Borneo and ending in the third book with his return to England. If you want to start the trilogy at the beginning, The White Rajah will be on offer at just 99p from Saturday 28th of August to Friday 3 September. 99p is the Kindle version, of course. The White Rajah is alsoavailable in paperback for £6.99. Because I think The White Rajah is a serious book deserving serious presentation, it is also available in hardback for £14.99: it does look rather nice.

I won’t go on about why you should read The White Rajah – mainly because I’ve talked a lot about that in recent months. (If you’ve missed it, have a look HERE.) I hope you’ll give The White Rajah a go and enjoy reading it.

I’ll be talking about Cawnpore next week. Meanwhile, because I really don’t want to make a song and dance about cover reveals, here is a poster with the covers for the whole trilogy.

James Burke, His Majesty’s Confidential Agent

James Burke, His Majesty’s Confidential Agent

I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about today until I woke up to see a lovely review of Burke and the Bedouin by Berthold Gambrel. You can read it HERE.

The review contrasts it with the political intrigue of Burke in the Land of Silver and says Bedouin is “more like an old-fashioned desert adventure story” which, fortunately, is an approach he likes. He’s not the first person to say something like this about Burke and the Bedouin which delights me because ‘old fashioned adventure story’ is just what I was aiming for.

I’m just finishing the sixth of the James Burke books and it’s made me look back at the series and see how different they are. This may or may not be a good thing commercially, but I’ve deliberately tried to change the mood between books. After a lifetime of hack writing (non-fiction) I am writing now for my own pleasure and playing with different approaches is something I enjoy. I hope it also keeps the books fresh for readers.

So how has this worked out in practice?

Burke in the Land of Silver

The first book in the series is a straightforward historical novel which sticks quite closely to the facts of Burke’s involvement with British adventures in South America in the early 19th century. Even the implausible bits (like his brief affair with the Queen of Spain) are solidly historically based. It’s an amazing story and a lot of fun, although it does have something to say about how ‘wars of liberation’ can go quite badly wrong. (Britain was busy ‘liberating’ Iraq when I wrote it.)

Burke and the Bedouin

Burke was always intended to be the hero of a series of books and the second was always supposed to be an old fashioned bit of fun. It’s not something that garners reviews, but it does seem popular with readers.

Burke at Waterloo

Burke at Waterloo was first published in 2015 on the 200th anniversary of the battle (because that was practically a legal obligation if you wrote Napoleonic history stories). It offers, I like to think, quite a good account of Waterloo and of the very important, but often forgotten, battle at Quatre Bras that preceded it. Burke, though, isn’t Sharpe, so the battle is the climax of what is essentially a spy story based around an attempted assassination of the Duke of Wellington in Paris. There was such an attempt and I’m surprised that it seems to be overlooked by both historians and novelists. Burke is very much a Napoleonic James Bond and this story makes a definite nod in the direction of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

Burke in the Peninsula

Having once moved into Sharpe territory, it was almost inevitable that Burke would end up in Spain. Burke in the Peninsula is the most straightforwardly military of the Burke series. He even gets to wear the uniform of a soldier of the Crown, which delights him because he spends the whole series trying to get away from spying so he can become what he thinks of as an honest soldier. The story features the battle of Talavera, which is officially a great British victory. In reality it was nothing of the sort and the story does show some of the reality of Napoleonic warfare. It also gave me the chance to revisit one of the people from an earlier book, who was one of my favourite characters and who I was excited to see again.

Burke in Ireland

Burke in Ireland marks another change of gear in the series as we return to Burke’s earliest experiences as a spy. He’s just one of an army of British agents propping up English rule in Ireland. A friend suggested the plot (based around a famous prison escape at the time) and I started out cheerfully enough, but the more research I did, the more shocked I was by the details of what was effectively the British occupation of Ireland. The result is a much darker book than the others and one which goes a long way to explain Burke’s cynicism in many of the other stories. It’s a more serious story, but it has its share of fights and thrills and, inevitably, Burke finds himself in love. (This being his earliest adventure, it’s his first serious love interest and he’s surprisingly sweet.)

And finally …

So to the latest: I’m almost finished the first draft, but I think there’s still a lot to do. Like Burke and the Bedouin, this is a very old-fashioned adventure story. It’s so old-fashioned I’m referencing Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel in the title: Burke and the Pimpernel Affair. It’s a full-on spy story and very light-hearted as Burke has to free prisoners from a Paris gaol and escape with them across France. Expect the usual murder and mayhem and a guest appearance from the Empress Josephine.

Despite the research (even for Pimpernel which turns out to involve an awful lot more real history than I had expected), I do enjoy writing the Burke books, from the light-heartedly silly to the actually quite serious. The only things you can really be sure of are that there will be daring deeds, there will be a woman and Burke will in the end, however reluctantly, Do the Right Thing.

I hope you enjoy reading them.

Edging back to normal

Edging back to normal

I don’t have a whole lot to say about books or writing or history this week. I’m still revelling in the opportunity to do things that we once took for granted.

We’ve been allowed back into Wales for a few months now, so we took advantage of the heatwave to get out of London and enjoy somewhere cool.

And, yes, that little orange blur on the right-hand picture is a dragonfly! They grow big in this heat. (As with all the images, you can right click to open a larger version.)

Speaking of heat, water levels are again very low. It’s a concern in an area where most of the farms have no mains water and rely on natural springs. For now, though, it’s a time to enjoy the summer.

And get in the hay.

For us, though, it was mainly about staying in the shade.

Back from Wales, we discovered that the tango scene is returning to life.

Yes, there were fewer people than usual so we had more space, but clubs are already getting more like normal – or at least the “new normal”. Fingers crossed things can stay that way.

As life opens up, it’s a wonder I still find time to write, but the next Burke book is coming along nicely and a week away has given me ideas for a new Urban Fantasy novel.

Enjoy the summer. Remember to buy some books to read on the beach/in the caravan/hiding in a forest. Have fun.

Chat next week.

Thoughts from a week away

Thoughts from a week away

I’m sitting in Wales looking out the window at a landscape hazy in the heat of a July day. It’s a wonderful, lazy place where we walk and read and chat aimlessly about all sorts of things, usually pointless (Can analysis be worthwhile? Is the theatre really dead?) but sometimes a little more down-to-earth, like am I going to keep writing about James Burke and how am I going to persuade more people to buy the books?

I’m definitely writing one more, because I’m already well into it. Burke and the Pimpernel Affair is going to be an escapist bit of fun after the seriousness of Burke in Ireland, featuring the Empress Josephine, daring escapes from prison, secret agents and a very good tailor. But after that? I’m not sure. I’d like to write about the Lines of Torres Vedras because, back in the days when international travel was practicable, I visited Portugal and I’d love to feature the fortifications there in one of Burke’s adventures. But even here in Wales, with my very limited internet access, I’m getting Twitter messages suggesting that there is more to historical fiction than the Napoleonic Wars.

The Lines of Torres Vedras. So good I want to write a book about them.

The trouble is that people really enjoy reading about the Napoleonic Wars. I love all my books, but every parent has a secret favourite child and I think John Williamson (from my John Williamson Papers) is a more interesting fellow than James Burke. But Williamson – solid, reliable Williamson who agonises about the right thing to do and ends up trapped in one moral quagmire after another – he’s never going to sell like James Burke. Not only is the market for moral ambiguity more limited than the potential readership of books with gallant strapping heroes who slay the villain, win the girl and ride off into the sunset (though that’s a cruel over-simplification of Burke’s character because he has his demons too) but Williamson is having his adventures in the mid-19th century. The Williamson books are all about the age of Empire and as we re-evaluate what Empire meant, it’s become a period that people don’t seek out for easy reading. It’s a shame but (as the kids say) it is what it is.

There are three John Williamson books. I’ve just republished the first, The White Rajah with the other two to come. It’s a trilogy that starts in England, travels to Borneo (The White Rajah) and India (Cawnpore) before returning to England (Back Home). I am not planning any more, but I do hope to pick up new readers this year. (I really do recommend The White Rajah. I hope you read it.)

So where to next? Should I send Burke to America to fight the damn Yankees? Or start off with a completely different hero?

I am tempted to write more Urban Fantasy like Something Wicked. Urban Fantasy does not require weeks spent reading dusty volumes of history or visiting old forts in Portugal (however much fun that was) or checking fashion details in the V&A. And people read it. They read it enthusiastically and write about it and tell their friends. Urban Fantasy is, not to put too fine a point on it, just more profitable than historical fiction.

The sad truth is that the market does decide what people write. Even if, like me and most authors I know, you don’t write for money, it is dispiriting (utterly, hideously dispiriting) to write books that don’t get read. And the best measure of how many people are reading them is sales.

So if you like books of a certain type (by me or anyone else) do get onto Amazon (other booksellers are also available) and buy them. And tell your friends. Or, better yet, buy them for your friends. (Amazon now allows you to gift e-books.)

If you don’t, slowly but surely, writers will stop writing the books you enjoy.

It was Paul Simon who asked if the theatre was really dead. (Ten house points if you picked up the reference.) He didn’t ask if literature (or historical fiction, or space opera, or magical realism) was dead because he wrote the song before the publishing revolution that means the world has never had so many books and never had so many without sales. Books are now so cheap that many people see them as something they shouldn’t have to pay for at all. But authors need sales. They are the easiest way to show book love.

Support the arts. Buy a book.