Writing (or not) and coping (or not)

I’ve been working on the next book about James Burke and I have a scene where he is fighting his way out of the Conciegerie in Paris. (This one is a lot of fun and a bit of a relief after the rather heavy story in Burke in Ireland.) I was looking up some floor plans of the old Conciergerie building when I realised that some key elements are still standing and the building is open to the public. I got quite excited. I could make a trip to Paris and explore the building. It would be fun and it would get me into the zone for writing Burke’s adventures there.

Only, of course, I can’t. Paris really isn’t a good place to be right now and, besides, the Conciergerie is closed.

It’s thrown me rather. I’m only working on the first draft and, unusually for me, my first draft is fast and dirty. (Most people say you shouldn’t edit as you go, but I can’t leave a mistake on the page once I notice it.) So I should be able to just leave this bit open and carry on with the rest. But writing (even though I write spasmodically) has been one of the things that I have been able to keep going through the last year. There has been little or no chance to dance with tango friends, going abroad to ski is out of the question, we have, for months on end, been unable to visit our son and even the street skates have been cancelled. Now covid is coming for my writing!

It’s disconcerting.

I think this period, where we are finally supposed to be able to leave home but all the places we might go remain closed to us – this is, in many ways, harder to deal with than just being stuck in place. As we re-emerge, blinking, into what I think will be a very changed world, we will, like all animals coming out of a long hibernation, find the transition back to daylight quite difficult.

Stay well; remember your mental health is as important as your physical health. Look after yourselves.

Beating the Lockdown Blues

Beating the Lockdown Blues

Last Friday was publication day for Burke in Ireland which is the third new book I have published in lockdown. (They weren’t all written in lockdown, though Something Wicked mostly was. Plus I had a short story that was published in a collection last summer. There should have been parties. (The publisher was going to throw a proper launch party for the short stories.) Something Wicked should have been on sale at tango clubs (there’s quite a lot of tango in it). I should have been getting drunk and having fun with friends. And, instead … nothing. The sound of tumbleweed rolling across the desert of my social life. It’s affected sales – of course it has. There’s no excitement, there’s no buzz, there’s no word of mouth.

So, like everyone at some point over the past year, I’ve allowed myself a brief pity party, but then the sun came out and I was able to enjoy the good weather outside. I’m so lucky to live near Richmond Park.

And the river …

I even got to cycle as far as Hyde Park.

And then today I found this lovely review for Something Wicked.

See: life’s not so bad. And lockdown can’t fo on forever, can it?

Of course, you could always make things even better by buying one of my lockdown books (or read them on Kindle Unlimited). Click the images to be taken to the Amazon page.

How have you been spending lockdown? And what do you do when it’s all getting just too depressing?

Let me know in the Comments below.

Why star ratings can damage your reading health.

Why star ratings can damage your reading health.

One blog leads to another

I recently read a blog post from Kate Vane (@k8vane) about how, if you review books, worrying about star ratings messes with the way that you enjoy your reading.

I couldn’t agree more. Just knowing that you are going to have to write a review changes your whole approach to your reading, and not necessarily in a good way. And star ratings are the tool of the devil.

Why I review on my blog

I’ve already blogged about how I was planning to cut back on reviewing. Since I wrote that (just six weeks ago as I write this) I’ve done a couple of book reviews. They take time to write and are in addition to my regular blogs. So why on earth do I do it? In these two cases (and there are more on the way) I was asked to: not necessarily by the author. I get asked to review by authors, publishers and journals and I get books from NetGalley who expect a review in exchange for a regular supply of quality free books. And I like having my books reviewed, so it seems only fair to review books by other writers. Even so, I do often have my doubts. Then I get thanks from a reader who has enjoyed my review or from an author who is grateful for something I have said and then I seem to keep going.

So I write my review. My reviews are quite long and will probably mention things I felt didn’t quite work as well as the things that did. Some authors are less than thrilled at this approach, but the blog post is supposed to be a ‘proper’ review for critical readers. An edited (usually totally positive) version will make its way to Amazon in time. Which is where we meet the evil star system.

Star ratings

By the time it gets to Amazon, my 800 word nuanced blog post has already been reduced to 600 words or less explaining why it’s a good book. (If it isn’t a good book, I’ll generally try not to review it, though I’m happy to make an exception for people like Jacob Rees-Mogg.) But then my 600 words have to be reduced to one of five star ratings. It’s mad.

(The obvious answer is not to post on Amazon, but writers need those Amazon reviews to make sales, so in the end I’m going to post.)

What does it all mean?

Kate (Remember her? She wrote the blog that started this off) is one of those people who avoids 5* ratings.

I only give it 5* if it’s exceptional

A lot of my friends are like that, which is annoying if they are reviewing my books, because analysis of Amazon ratings shows that most people give 5* or (much less often) 1* ratings. Basically, they rate books as ‘Great’ (5*) or ‘Rubbish’ (1*). The middle rankings are less likely to feature.

There has been a lot of discussion on this on my Twitter feed so I’m adding this useful summary graph from rendors.com (as posted by them on Quora)

But whether you tend to 4* or 5*, there really aren’t that many options for reviewers like me and Kate. Both of us avoid ratings under 3. She avoids 5 and I avoid 3 (we’ll see why in a moment), so basically both of us end up usually choosing between 3* and 4* (Kate) or 4* and 5* (me). Basically, for most books, my 800 word review has come down to a binary choice.

Interpreting the ratings

Kate gives an explanation of her ratings. 3* is ‘good but flawed’, 4* means she enjoyed it and 5*, as we’ve seen, is ‘exceptional’.

I’ve always been nervous to explain the ratings I give, but here they are:

5* — I recommend this book to anyone reading my review

4* — I think this book is a good read for anyone who likes this genre (“It’s the sort of thing you’ll like if you like that sort of thing.”)

3* — It’s OK

2* — It’s not OK

1* — This book is a disaster.

The horror of the 3* rating

I have a friend who wrote a review of a book of mine, praising it to the skies and then giving it a 3* rating. When I pointed out that she had given it a negative review, she said that of course she hadn’t.

The thing is that if you are rating on Amazon, you are using the Amazon rating system and Amazon considers 3* a “critical” review. People are continually arguing with me about this, but Amazon are totally upfront about it. Click on ‘See all reviews’ for a book and this pops up:

Also remember that (as I said above) the commonest rating on Amazon is 5*. Most books will average somewhere around 4*. Giving them a 3* review will generally pull their rating down and, by and large, I don’t want to pull authors down. So I avoid 3* reviews. You may well feel differently, but just be aware what you are doing. A 3* review is not neutral.

Being nice – or not

This is the nub of the why I personally find the horror of the star rating hanging over me while I read.

I’m happy to say that I think a character is under-developed or that there are some unlikely coincidences holding a plot together. I know that I upset some writers by being critical, but I’m writing a review on my blog for people who are interested in writing. I doubt they will reject a book that I review (remember I generally only review books I like) because I said that I thought there was an unrealistic portrayal of women in the 19th century. It’s pretty well a given nowadays that 19th century women will be portrayed unrealistically: it’s only because I write about the 19th century myself that I either notice or care. But when the review gets onto Amazon people will reject a book because it has a 3* average rating. So what if I think that the portrayal of women as feisty lawyers is just too much to allow a 4* review? (I refused to review a book recently that centred on a woman planning a legal career before the law was changed to allow women lawyers in Britain.) If the book, apart from this one detail that hasn’t worried the publisher and won’t worry most readers, is quite a good read, do I post 3* or 4*? It’s clearly not really worth 4*, but most people aren’t going to be worried by its historical howler, so is it really just ’OK’ and getting the dreaded 3* rating? Or do I say it’s three and a bit and nudge up to four?

In the case of the book I mentioned, my decision was that, as it was likely 3* and I care about basic history, I would not read or review it at all. But there are other cases which are more marginal and there my rule of thumb is ‘always nudge up’. If the author is well-known with a big publisher behind them, then my rating doesn’t matter and I can unleash my inner critical Rottweiler, but self-published authors and writers at small presses rely on those Amazon ratings for their survival. Yes, if they are seriously bad books I will not rate them. If they deserve to be driven out of the writing community I will give them 2* or even 1*. But how many writers are so truly terrible that it is for me (or almost anyone else) to say that they just shouldn’t be writing? Because, as it gets harder and harder to get books seen in a crowded marketplace, a poor star rating can destroy any chance of serious sales. (And, in this context, ‘serious sales’ can mean hitting three figures.)

When I write a review, I can speak as I find. I have annoyed friends by being less than gushing about their work. But they have (mostly) forgiven me. But when I have to produce that wretched, meaningless, frankly obscene, Amazon star rating, I know that I can do real harm. Knowing that can suck some of the pleasure out of the book.

‘Something Wicked’ this way comes

‘Something Wicked’ this way comes

Today’s the day! Something Wicked is published today. You can buy it on Kindle at £2.99/$3.99 or in paperback at £5.99/$8.30.

What do you get for your money?

Something wicked is a vampire/police procedural crossover. It is firmly tongue-in-cheek and, according to one early review, it is “frequently funny and clever”, which is not to say that it does not have its share of blood and horror. But these vampires are not the traditional creatures of darkness, hunting through the night to drain the blood of virgins. Instead, like regular people (or ‘Mortals’ as they think of us), they come in all shapes and sizes, from the perpetual student (“Jacob’s at least 110 years old. Still, they say you’re never too old to learn”) to the senior partner in a top law firm. Urbane and sophisticated (at least for the most part) they just want to be left alone, taking the odd sip of blood where it can do no harm. When things go wrong and a peer of the realm turns up drained and dead, the vampires send their own investigator to work alongside the Metropolitan Police to close the case before things get out of hand.

Brompton Cemetery

I had huge fun writing this story, taking all the standard vampire tropes and tweaking them to make a credible London subculture. Brompton Cemetery features heavily because after a visit it is difficult not to believe that there are creatures inhabiting some of the amazing sepulchres there. Tango also figures prominently. Partly this is because authors are always encouraged to ‘write what you know’ and I am passionate about the dance, but also because I have always associated tango – its social rituals and nocturnal lifestyle – with the Undead. My vampires love tango and humans who join in their dances can consider themselves privileged.

“Tango is, I think, a point at which your world and ours converge. The music speaks of great beauty and unbearable sorrow; of love and of death.”

Because I usually write historical novels, I tried to provide some historical context for my vampires, so we have visits to the world of Anglo-Saxon Britain, an interview with Charles II and a final solution to what actually happened to Princess Anastasia during the Russian Revolution.

So there you are: police procedural, vampire fantasy, an essay on tango and some history thrown in. What more could you ask for?

Busy, busy, busy.

It’s a funny time to be living through, isn’t it? On the one hand, there is so little going on, while on the other I seem to be overwhelmed by things that need doing. So here is what’s happening in my world.

I’m publishing my second contemporary urban fantasy book next week. Something Wicked is out on the 19th and is on pre-order now. (There will be a paperback edition very soon.) What’s Urban Fantasy? Well this one is set around Brompton Cemetery and it has vampires in. Does that help? It’s got quite a lot of tango in too, because I really like tango. (And so do vampires.)

Something Wicked is my first full-length contemporary book. I dipped my toe in the water last year with a novella, Dark Magic. I’ve recently released an audio version of that. It will be available on Audible shortly but until then you can already get it through Google Play, Apple and others. To celebrate that (and as a sort of warm-up act for Something Wicked) I’ve had the Kindle edition of Dark Magic on offer this week at 99p/99c. The offer goes on until early Monday morning if you still want to catch it. (Do. I’m reliably informed that people laugh. And get scared.)

Anyway, what with promoting Dark Magic and making final pre-launch tweaks to Something Wicked, there hasn’t been that much time to work on the next James Burke book. Well, next but one, actually, because the next one is already written and Burke in Ireland will be published on 19 March. That’s a darker side of James Burke and I’ll be interested to see what people make of it.

I do have to get a move on with my next story, though, because I know that there are people waiting to see what happens after the retreat from Talavera that ended Burke in the Peninsula. I don’t want to make any promises as we’re in the very early stages of sketching out the story, but it should involve an undercover mission into France and, if I can manage it, at least a passing encounter with the Empress Josephine. I do hope I can work her in, because she was a really interesting character. Burke has already been intimately involved with a queen and a princess (in Burke in the Land of Silver), relationships that the real James Burke probably had. I doubt he’ll get to sleep with an Empress but at this stage of the plotting, who knows?

I’m not done with promoting existing titles, though, because I’m taking back control (to coin a phrase) of the John Williamson stories. The success of the relaunched Burke series has made me realise that my books do better when I’m able to keep a closer eye on them. The three books (The White Rajah, Cawnpore and Coming Home) are no longer available on Kindle for the moment, but all three will be republished over the summer. That will mean more cover designs, more adverts and yet more struggling with formatting and cover templates, but if it means more readers, it will all be worthwhile.

So: a short blog post this week. Now you know what I’m up to, I hope you’ll forgive me.

Blogged out

I’m pretty well all blogged out this week. Besides my own blog, I’ve been writing on those of several other generous authors who have given me space so that I can encourage people to buy Burke in the Peninsula.

Those of you who have been following me through the year will know that that I’ve been busy with the relaunch of the three existing Burke books before getting this one out. It’s been a new experience for me, this venture into self-publication. Emotionally, and in terms of my development as an author (if there is such a thing), it’s been worthwhile. The books that I have published under my own imprint (Big Red) are all doing better than the ones that were left with a traditional publisher.

It’s been hard work, though. Authors always complain that their publishers don’t give them promotional support. Now I’m my own publisher I’ve learned quickly that promotional support is expensive. I’ve read advice that you should start with trivial sums and see what happens and I can tell you that what happens is absolutely nothing. It may be that I interpreted “trivial” too literally, but I’m not about to put down more money with no evidence that ads on Facebook or Amazon are ever going to pay for themselves.

In the past I’ve given talks at bookshops, book clubs, book fairs, and even a Victorian event where most of the audience turned up in costume.

This year, though, talks are off (though if you work for a college that has an educational exemption, feel free to get in touch).

So if I can’t advertise my books and I can’t talk to people about them, what have I done?

I’ve blogged (on my own blogs and anyone else who’ll have me), I’ve tweaked my website, I’ve posted on Facebook and I’ve worked Twitter for all it’s worth. Does this have any effect? Well, as I’ve said, the books that I’m putting all this effort into are doing noticeably better than those left with a regular publisher. Sales, though, are disappointing – partly because, though you might think that the covid crisis would make people read more, it seems to be having the opposite effect. Many people find it hard to settle with a book. Netflix’s share price gives a fair indication of where people are turning for entertainment.

I’ve read suggestions that I need to make my blogs more focused on action points, which I guess means trying to get you to buy the books. Looking back, I’m delighted to see how many people read blog posts that are about my books and who might, I suppose, go on to buy them. (Given that hundreds of people read the blog posts every week and rather fewer buy the books, I’m not sure that that works, but perhaps you haven’t all got round to hitting Amazon yet.) I can’t help feeling, though, that people do like to read posts that are not primarily about selling my books – like the one on the dangers of using contemporary paintings in historical research or my instant summary of the British invasion of Buenos Aires in 1806.

I enjoy writing random essays on the history behind some of my novels and even more random discussions of totally off topic things like tango. The fact that I do enjoy it is one of the main reasons that I have kept going for several years now producing a blog post practically every week. In fact, many weeks I do a book review as well, so that’s well over 60 blog posts every year, sometimes with a couple of weeks off over Christmas and maybe a week away in the summer. I probably write well over 50,000 words a year this way – or much more than half of a book.

Experience has shown that blog posts only get read if you draw people’s attention to them through social media. In my case, my main social media effort is through Twitter. I used to hate Twitter but, over the years, I have made virtual friends there who I would really miss if I abandoned the platform.

So both blogging and tweeting give me some satisfaction, but what I have learned over the past few months is that self-publishing is time consuming and writing those blogs is time consuming too. Twitter shouldn’t be time consuming but I like to engage with people rather than just tweet and run and that means breaking off from what I am doing several times a day and that cuts into productive time quite a lot too. The result is that, looking back, I see that while I have published a new book and republished old ones, and contributed to a new short story collection, organised covers, checked on sales, responded to reader queries, blogged every week and chatted to folks on Twitter, what I haven’t done is written any books to publish in the future.

I feel that now is perhaps the time to take a small step back from all this promotional effort. I’ve noticed that when covid first struck readership of my blog dropped off. (Back to what I just said about reading and Netflix.) With people relaxing after the end of the initial lockdown, my readership recovered. Now, as we get more nervous, it’s beginning to drop again. So perhaps this would be a good time to recycle some old posts from my previous ‘Blogger’ blog. Most of you won’t have read them and I suspect that, even if you did, you have probably forgotten them by now.

I’ll be cutting back a bit on Twitter too. I’ll still post, but not quite as often.

I have some writing-related projects I’ll be able to put more time into and I can work on my tango. We haven’t made a video since May and I’d like to do another. I’ll be able to visit Wales without climbing to the top of a hill so I can update the website. It will be fun. And when I get bored, I’ll come back. (Not that I’ll ever really be away.)

And now, in the spirit of my more relaxed approach to the blog, here are some photos from a summer that, when all is said and done, had some lovely bits.


The Action Point

Do you like exciting stories set during the Napoleonic Wars? (Like Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe stories?)

Do you like stories about British spies confounding the country’s enemies? (Like Ian Fleming’s Bond?)

Do you like war stories?

Do you like Napoleonic history?

Do you like strong, sexy heroines?

If the answer to any of these questions is ‘Yes’, then why aren’t you already reading Burke in the Peninsula?

It’s real history – but not like you learned it at school.

Click HERE to buy.