A matter of perception

I read a rather good blog post recently by Anthony Neil Smith (who, if you haven’t read him before, should be bought and read more widely). In it he wrote about why he has felt like quitting writing recently (although he obviously gives the reasons why he hasn’t). Smith could probably be categorised as a small-level writer, but one who (with between 5-10,000 regular readers) seems to bumping his head on the ceiling that will take him up to the next level. What this means is that his books sell, but not quite well enough to make his living from it. But the real feeling I get from the piece seems to be his frustration that he keeps hitting his head on the ceiling without actually breaking through it, so that he can ply his trade amongst the big hitters, or at least among bigger hitters.

I understand these frustrations but at a much lower level. In fact, my frustration stems from the fact that my readership doesn’t seem to be growing but declining. Sales of The Hunters in its first year were less than The Gamblers (I had hoped it would be the other way around). Sales of The Greatest Show have been… spectacularly awful (I think aside from a very small cadre of regular readers, and a few newbies, nobody has bought it). I would kill for Smith’s sales, I would be ecstatic with his level of readership. Hell, I’d kill for ten per cent of his regular readers, if I’m completely honest. At least it would feel like I’m getting somewhere.

Then I realise it’s all about perception. Every writer perceives their plight differently. We all have our frustrations and we all think about quitting the writer’s life at some point, for reasons that seem entirely reasonable to us but might seem melodramatic or whiny to those who don’t write, or those who have it worse than us.

I think we writers are, by breed, a frustrated bunch. Frustrated about our sales, frustrated by how our latest writing endeavours are doing (my new habit of stockpiling projects is certainly annoying the hell out of me), frustrated upon re-reading the old ones, frustrated that the plans we’ve made end up somehow shittier than we had anticipated.

And then I think of a writer who wrote one of the finest, funniest novels of the last fifty years (a piece of brilliance that I will never have in me), and killed himself because he couldn’t get a home for it. When I think of John Kennedy Toole and Confederacy of Dunces I realise it could be a damn sight worse and I should stop feeling sorry for myself because… I’m being an arsehole.

It could be worse.

Perception, right?

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Dan Brown’s Inferno prologue – re-edited

Not quite sure why I have done this, but I have. After reading the beginning of Inferno a few days ago, with its strange language and weird mixture of fussy details and descriptive imprecision, I thought there was the kernel of something decent. The chase itself has potential, but Brown drowns it in crenellated towers and lampredotto and chthonic monsters and some nonsense about the Apennine Mountains. So I have given it an edit. I haven’t strictly rewritten it. Mostly added in bits of detail, where needed, and edited out unnecessary description, where it isn’t. I’ve tried to play up the chase aspect and tone down the language, without completely eradicating the effect.

I’ve cut out a lot of extraneous stuff: the whole section that reads – Beneath me, dizzyingly far beneath me, the red tile roofs spread out like a sea of fire on the countryside, illuminating the fair land upon which giants once roamed . . . Giotto, Donatello, Brunelleschi, Michelangelo, Botticelli. – has been hacked and a small part has been taken and placed elsewhere in the narrative.

Anyway, I could get into what I have cut and why, but as this is meant to be a bit of fun with an hour of my time, I’m not about to get all Dan Brown on you and drown you with details.

Let me know which version you prefer. And if you prefer Dan’s original, don’t worry I won’t take it personally. It’s just a bit of harmless fun with my lunch hour (so it is bound to have mistakes in it). Enjoy!

The original is linked as a PDF here: Inferno_Prologue_KDD

I am the Shade.

I scramble, breathless, through the city, along the banks of the river Arno. Suddenly I turn and make my way north, beneath shadows of the Uffizi.

And still they pursue me.

I hear their footsteps getting louder. For years they have chased me, drawing ever closer. Their persistence has kept me underground… forced me to live in purgatory… laboring in the shade.

Now, I am the Shade.

I pass behind the palazzo and snake my way through the early-morning vendors that clutter the path. Then I cut west toward the spire of the Badia and slam against the gate at the base of the stairs. Without hesitating, I turn the handle and step into the passage. There will be no return. This is my final destination.

Although my legs feel like lead, I force myself up the spiral staircase.

Voices come from below. Pleading. Closing in.

They do not understand what is coming… nor what I have done for them.

As I climb, the visions come. I see lustful bodies writhing in fiery rain, the souls of gluttons floating in excrement, the treacherous villains frozen in Satan’s icy grasp.

Arriving at the top, I stagger into the damp morning air and make my way to the high wall. Peering through the slits, I see the city where I have made my sanctuary. Red tile roofs spread out into the distance. From here they look like a sea of fire.

Voices call out behind me. “What you’ve done is madness!”

Madness breeds madness.

“For the love of God,” they shout, “tell us where you’ve hidden it!”

And for precisely that reason, I will not.

I turn and face them. They stare deep into my eyes, and their expressions darken.

“We can force you to tell us. You know we have our methods.”

And that is the reason I have climbed these stairs – to avoid their methods though they do not know it yet. Although I am cornered, with my back against the cold stone, there is another way out. Without warning, I turn, reach for the ledge and pull myself up, until I am standing unsteadily at the edge.

They rush forward, wanting to grab my feet, but fear they will upset my balance and knock me off. I hear them beg, their voices desperate, but I know what I must do.

I inch my toes to the edge.

“Come down!” they shout. “It’s not too late!”

Can’t they see the future? Don’t they grasp the splendor of my creation? The necessity?

I will gladly make this ultimate sacrifice… and with it I will extinguish their final hope of finding what they seek.

They will never locate it in time.

How I long for more time… but even with my vast fortune, time is one commodity I cannot afford.

In these final seconds, I gaze down at the piazza, hundreds of feet below, and behold a sight that startles me.

I see your face.

You gaze at me from the shadows. I sense that you are mournful, yet understand what I have accomplished. You understand I have no choice. For the love of Mankind, I must protect my masterpiece.

Even now it grows… it simmers… beneath the bloodred waters of the lagoon.

And so, I look away from your face and contemplate the horizon. Ready to make my final prayer.

Dearest God, I pray the world remembers my name not as a monstrous sinner, but as the glorious savior you know I truly am. I pray Mankind will understand the gift I leave behind.

My gift is the future.

My gift is salvation.

My gift is Inferno.

And with that, I whisper amen… and take my final step, into the abyss.

Review: The Magpies by Mark Edwards

When Jamie and Kirsty buy a dream flat together everything seems like it is going to be happy ever after, but when unwanted parcels, junk mail, and fast food they didn’t order start arriving they slowly come to realise that everything isn’t quite right. For a start their downstairs neighbours, the Newtons, seem like an odd couple, but despite this they try to form a friendly bond with them. However, after a very suspicious accident leaves Jamie’s best friend in a coma they realise that the Newtons aren’t just odd they are bad and dangerous with it. As their relationship with the neighbours from hell goes from bad to worse, and their own relationship starts to fall apart, Jamie and Kirsty come to understand that their dream flat is actually a nightmare.

As part of a writing partnership with Louise Voss, Mark Edwards has had considerable success: their novels Catch Your Death and Killing Cupid were both big bestsellers. The Magpies Edwards’ first novel without Voss, is already a huge hit, and seems certain to stay in the Amazon Kindle UK bestseller chart for some time (at time of writing it is No. 1). But is it any good, I hear you ask? Well, yes, I certainly enjoyed it.

A creepy prologue sets the reader on edge and pays off later in the tale. Edwards’ prose is smooth and reads well, and the characters of Jamie and Kirsty are well-rounded. Edwards’ handling of the narrative is equally as smooth and the escalations in the story are done nicely. I wasn’t all that happy with the transformation of Jamie’s friend, Paul, following the accident; he changes from a likeable character to an arsehole very quickly. Of course, some people do have complete personality changes after major accidents, but the way it was handled felt like a minor stumble. The ending also felt slightly rushed, to me at least, which is a shame because it seemed like the set-up was in place for something a bit more grand. Still, these are minor quibbles, because overall The Magpies is a good tale, well told.

Review: The Kelly Affair by Paul D Brazill

The Kelly Affair follows the continuing story of Luke Case. After the events of Death On A Hot Afternoon everybody’s favourite boozy hack, Luke Case, is sent out to Granada to possibly ghost write the autobiography of a con man. The problem is that the ghosts of Luke’s past have returned to haunt him.

TKA is written in that inimitable Brazill prose, a rich mixture of metaphor, poetic description, and hardboiled terseness, but it is a different beast to the previous Case tales. This one is less self-contained, and the violent prologue and subtle cliff-hanger points to a widening story which makes the readers see that Case is most definitely not what he seems. Personally, I can’t wait to see where Brazill takes this. Highly recommended.

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I did a freebie of The Gamblers recently and have decided to share a few thoughts:

a) I won’t be using a book publicity service again (I won’t say who they are). I paid $40 for them to notify a considerable number of free book websites about my upcoming freebie. I gave them a considerable amount of notice about this free period (almost three weeks), and yet they pretty much notified all the sites concerned at the last minute. Most of these free sites seem to require 48 – 72 hours notice. In most cases, the publicity service only gave them 24 hours notice, which means I know for a fact that many of the sites notified didn’t run details of my freebie as a result. If I pay money for a service, I expect that service to be undertaken properly.

b) There were more downloads of The Gamblers during this free period than there were last time. However, download figures were fairly poor until I started tweeting (and getting retweeted) early on Saturday evening, which is how I know that many of the free sites didn’t display my freebie at all. Many thanks to those who gave me a retweet.

c) The recent freebie has had zero impact (literally) on sales, which have been flat-lining in the UK for over a month. This means The Gamblers is probably not going to shift any more copies at full price, so I intend to make it a loss-leader when the KDP select exclusivity ends tomorrow. I will make it free on Smashwords and Kobo and hopefully Amazon will price-match it and make it available for free – permanently.

d) If I’m lucky I might get some new reviews from the latest promotion. The general consensus is that 10% of people who download a book for free will read it (though not necessarily straight away) and out of the 10% who read it maybe 10% of them will post a review. So if I’m lucky I might get two new reviews in the UK and maybe three in the US. I won’t hold my breath, though.

If nothing else, I have at least learned that my work is never going to make me a penny of profit. If I add the time I’ve spent on covers, formatting, tweets, blogging, Facebook posts, then I’m still making a loss on my work.

So be it.

Not everybody is going to be a success, not everybody is going to write commercial work. And as I’ve stated before, it’s not the money that keeps me writing (if it was I would have stopped long ago). All I can do is keep writing, hopefully keep improving, and at least keep my very small audience happy. And, on the subject of keeping my audience happy, Bone Breakers (a Stanton brothers novella set long before the events in The Hunters) is coming very soon, and The Glasgow Grin is still on target for a 2013 bow. Added to which, another Stanton brothers short I started recently, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to Billingham Forum, has since become a novella, and is also almost done-and-dusted.