Carry on up the Bosphorus!


Writer’s diary: 27.12.2013

They grant crucifix carrying Christians Christmas day off where I work. When I say grant, it is with the same level of compassion and tolerance one might expect on swimming into a famished great white shark expecting twins. So, on Christmas eve I stood in line with the other shameless foreigners (Amish, Protestants, Mormons, Jehovahs, Creationists and the like – desperate to humiliate ourselves and betray our belief systems for a day off – and presented my tin-foil crucifix – retrieved from the back of my desk drawer where it was discarded this time last year, bent back into shape and buffed up on my tie – and after ‘proving’ my faith, had my pass stamped. I’m glad I wasn’t after a Jewish holy day off. The way the rubber stamp was brought down on the desk would have brought tears to my eyes, at best, stitches at worst.

As the rest of the household in which I find myself trapped (surely living in marital bliss? Ed) were to be engaged in normal everyday activities – going to work, going to school, going to hell – I had promised myself a quiet day at home editing and working on one of the fourteen novels I currently have under construction (variety is the price a struggling author with a multiple personality complex must pay for his art). However, when I whispered my plans for the big day at the workplace urinals I was chastised for not doing something special with that thing which is locally judged worth more than its weight in unicorn semen – a day off.

And so it was that trudging home from work on Christmas eve in the seasonal dusk, stepping carefully over and around the islands of faeces left by the stray dog population of this fair city – like a blindfolded man might navigate his way through a field full off turnips and landmines; keeping my eyes peeled for the occasional motorcyclist who views the pavements as just another lane for traffic; averting my eyes from the arithmetically challenged blind woman selling home-knitted pullovers (one can have too many three-armed jumpers. The novelty does wear off, I can assure you) I decided to indeed treat myself to a day’s sightseeing. The editing, like fixing the broken toilet flush and doing the washing up, could wait another day. And it is, I understand, important for writers to get out and about: observe, soak up atmospheres, experience life so that we might write about it with some authenticity. In other words, any excuse for a bit of procrastination. Ahem.

The weather on the 25th of December in Istanbul was sunny and after the early morning chill dissipated a pleasant warmth pervaded in the metropolis.

For a Christmas treat I decided to take myself up the Bosphorus. When I say ‘take myself up the Bosphorus’ I mean go for a tour up that ancient waterway that cleaves in two the city once known as Constantinople. (It is a common euphemism in these parts that taking someone, or even oneself, up the Bosphorus refers to a rather sordid and depraved pastime punishable by public stoning. Something Sid James might be scripted to remark to Kenneth Williams as the latter contorted his features and camped it up accordingly.)


I had a truly splendid day out. It’s always just as pleasurable to experience Istanbul in all its challenging nakedness as it is wonderful to get away from everyone I know for a day. The cherry on top was my visit to the Kucuksu Palace. See here if you care.


For five lire (less than £2) I had the place to myself. It’s beautiful and stunning in its decadent opulence. It’s perched on the Asian shoreline of the Bosphorus amid peaceful surroundings  and with a stunning view of the water, the regular shipping, the second of the cities huge suspension bridges and the ancient fortifications on the opposite European bank.  As a scribbler of fiction, however, all I could think about was writing a story where it got burgled by a gang of international art thieves who used the Bosphorus as their getaway route. Alas, such is the curse of the writer, I guess.

But Istanbul is not a limitless bowl of cherries for all who call it home. I saw many sad sights on my travels. And they weren’t all staring blankly back at me from over-sized shop windows. Much deprivation and degradation, much suffering and want, much need and squalor, much disrepair and despondency. As I strolled the back streets of the shoreline enclaves being pursued by cold and hungry street dogs sensing an easy meal (that’ll teach me to wear shorts in a built up area in winter with legs that look like leftover chicken drumsticks from a Boxing day buffet) my day out put me in mind of a poem by that great man himself Mr Kipling – he of the manufacture and purveying of specialised tarts and fancies (he’d have had stiff competition from the fancy tarts in this city). As I sit and ponder next month’s opportunities for a religious holiday and wonder where I can get a turban and false beard at such short notice, I would like to share with my loyal readers that verse which so sums up the city of broken promises for me.


If you can keep your gaze averted from all the litter and filth
Neglect, disrepair and dog poo,
If you can brace yourself when child beggars appeal to you,
And remain unmoved by their pleas too;
If you can walk without seeing and not be tired by walking without seeing,
Or being beseeched, don’t deal with street vendors,
Or being hassled, don’t give way to giving in,
And yet don’t look too rich, nor talk too posh:

If you can sightsee—and not make sightseeing your master;
If you can gaze—and not make gazing your aim;
If you can meet with Need and Greed
And treat those two great evils just the same;
If you can bear to hear the calls for alms spoken
Twisted by the poor to make a trap for tourists,
Or watch the things you came to view, obscured,
By them and step aside and look again:

If you can make one heap of all your spending money
And risk it on one cheap touristy lunch,
And wish you hadn’t,
And never breathe a word about your dodgy kebab;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sphincter
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on to your bowels when there is nothing left in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on! For God’s sake, please, let me hold on ‘til I get home!”

If you can ignore crowds and keep your temper,
Or walk with other tourists—nor lose the will to kill,
If neither locals nor interlopers can hurt you,
If all men are nothing to you, but none too much of nothing;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of poking fun,
Yours is Shitstanbul and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’re welcome to it, my son!

Mr Kipling wrote exceedingly good verse.

(I love the place, really.)

How I write a novel – idea to self-publication.

Writer’s diary: stardate: 20.12.2013

It occurred to me this week that as this blog is essentially an online diary recounting my efforts as an author-publisher it might be worth recording for posterity the process I go through to write and publish a novel – start to finish. Who knows, The Paris Review might want to do a piece on me one day (probably when I’m dead. Typical that would be.) and so if I have the material available in the public domain they won’t have to make it up, will they?

I’m essentially talking about the physical process of churning out the finished article here not the generation of ideas. It’s obvious that every novel must start with an idea. I know that writers have different ways about growing their ideas and exploring them. Some plan meticulously with diagrams and post-its and notepads of jottings. That’s not me. Sometimes I write something down if I think I’m going to forget it. I did start carrying a mini digital voice recorder around with me to capture ideas quickly on the hoof, so to speak. This can work well for me because my walk to work and back is when I have most of my best ideas. (Annoying when the batteries run out though.) I get some conversational material this way that I can record as I walk along. And I don’t look mad because just about everyone else I pass is talking on their phones. I’m just talking to myself. Out loud. And recording it. Is that mad?

As for the development of a narrative I’m firmly in the same school as Ray Bradbury, though sadly not in the same class. I’m mostly a make it up as I go along kind of writer. But because I’m always thinking about the story I’m engaged in if something occurs to me when I’m away from the laptop, as I said,  I’ll try to make a note.

Take this new novel I’m working on. It’s the second in the Booker and Cash series. I’m not getting to sit down at the keyboard as much as I’d like to these days so I tried to save a bit of time by taking opportunities when I have some thinking time to plan what’s coming next. But it doesn’t work for me. I can’t work/write like that. I never get anywhere. However, as soon as I sit down at the keyboard it’s the characters who take the threads and run with them.

(Fantastic insight into Bradbury’s writing process and thinking and life here.

Well worth a look as are all of the interviews with other authors there. Great resource. The following quote from Bradbury struck a particularly resonant chord with me: I’ve always believed that you should do very little reading in your own field once you’re into it. That’s how I feel. Sadly, Ray doesn’t elaborate on this thinking. I’d like to have known more. (I have my own reasons.)

So, where was I?

1) With my general idea, settle at my laptop. Open three new word documents. One for the book, one for brief chapter summaries and one for character names.

2) Start typing. I always try to leave my writing with something left to do that I’ve already thought of. I mull this over when I’m away from the computer and when I next sit down I can pick up the thread and get straight into it rather than sit and stare at the screen wondering what’s going to happen next.

3) I usually start my writing sessions off by reading the previous chapter. I always make alterations. It helps get my mind into the narrative.

4) When the novel is finished (What? Finished? What happens between the start and the end? Answer: life, thinking about the story, writing, being part of a family, thinking about the story, writing, working, thinking about the story, writing, thinking about the story, eating, writing, thinking about the story, sleeping, writing, thinking about the story, ablutions, writing, thinking about the story, time passes but I’m always thinking about the story and adding to it.)

I write everything on my laptop. At home I write either at the dining room table or sitting on a chair in the bedroom with the laptop on a tray – depends who’s at home and how noisy they are. I carry my laptop to work with me every day and, subject to work commitments, I write at my desk in the staffroom before school starts, during break-times, dinner times, during free periods and after school.

When it’s ‘finished’ I read it through on the computer at least twice. I do a lot of alterations and editing in this phase. The further I get into the books the harder it gets to keep it all in mind, different threads and developments. It can end up a real jigsaw, a puzzle that needs bits moving around for the best effect. A mystery that needs solving.

5) When I’m fairly happy that I have a good draft, I then print it off with a cover page, take it to the shop round the corner and have spiral spine and plastic covers fitted. This makes me feel good. It makes me feel like I have written a book. I usually then go for coffee and cake and walk around with the physical manuscript under my arm and a smile on my face for the day pretending that I’m a successful writer who’s carrying a best-selling book in manuscript form under his arm.

6) Leave it alone for a few weeks.

7) Read manuscript with coloured highlighter pen. Then update word document.

8) Reread manuscript with different coloured highlighter pen. Then update word document.

9) Reread manuscript with different coloured highlighter pen. Then update word document.

10) If I’m happy at this stage I’ll go to (11). If not I’ll repeat the process in 7,8&9 as many times as feels right.

11) Send edited and formatted word document to my Amazon Kindle account. The document comes straight back as something I can read on my Kindle.

12) Read the Kindle version with the original hard-copy within reach. Use a different coloured pen to make further alterations. (That’s three mediums I’ve used to read the book. I find viewing the text in different physical ways brings a new perspective to the experience. I see different things and things differently.)

13) Feel pleased with myself.

14) Send word document to Martin.

15) Martin works on what needs doing regarding proofreading and editing suggestions.

16) Martin sends me two files back. One that is the ‘clean’ revision he’s done and one that is the original I sent him with a markup reading pane at the side showing all annotated changes and suggestions. The text can end up looking like my hard-copy with all the highlighter over it.

16) I read through the clean copy to see how it grabs me. Then I read through the annotated copy to see what Martin’s changed.

17) We might exchange comments, insults and further suggestions.

18) When I’m as happy as I can be with the final copy I submit it to Amazon.

19) Celebrate.

20) Wake up in a ditch or a cold and smelly bus shelter three days later, quite a bit poorer, covered in the evidence of my over-doing it and often semi-naked (a bit like a crime scene from a R&M File) and wishing I hadn’t celebrated.

Somewhere in the process I get to thinking about the cover art and the title. That can happen at any time. I’ll often go through a few titles until I find one that I’m really happy with.

Regarding cover art, I work with Kit Foster. He’s done them all and I’m still very happy with them all. I usually have some strong ideas of what I want to see on the cover and Kit always manages to combine them and come up with something that really does it for me.

So there we have it. Whole process for me to write an 80,000 – 100,000 word novel typically takes between three and four months with work and life in the mix. If I didn’t have to work I reckon I could knock out four books a year. This year I’ve managed two (but I did do a lot of work on the Acer Sansoms and got them out there). All my R&Ms are 80,000 – 85,000 words. The Acers are 100,000 words each. The new novel – Bad Sons – is 85,000 words.

Time Files.

Rope Enough Final JPEG 1205

Writer’s diary: Stardate: 13.12 2013

It’s now been a year since the self-publication of Rope Enough (The First Romney and Marsh File). How time flies. Rope Enough is the first book I self-published and as such was the start of something rather important to me. I feel I should really mark the occasion with a blog-post. So guess what?

When I wrote the book I had no plans to write a series of police procedural novels. I actually got the basic idea from Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train. I find it quite incredible that in over four hundred and fifty comments on Amazon for this title only one reader has mentioned that they saw a connection to the film.

Until I figured out how to get Amazon to list the book for free I had it priced at 75p. This was the lowest price I could list it at. (Something to do with the dollar. Isn’t it always?) In the first month of publication I shifted six copies and felt chuffed. In January I sold eleven copies and felt disappointed. In February, eight and felt miserable. In March, eighty four and felt encouraged. In April, over twenty four thousand and felt several contending emotions: gutted that they were all free downloads, awfully excited that so many people might end up reading me, staggered at the figures.

It was at the beginning of April that Amazon price matched the book to zero because someone had told them it was free with B&N and Sony and ibooks. Better late than never. Ever since then it’s been mostly free and it’s been downloaded over eighty thousand times. As a freebie it got into the top twenty of the Amazon free books chart. That was amazing. Since it went back to having a price (77p) it’s always been in the police procedural for sale chart. At the time of writing it’s number fifty-seven. I don’t feel that I really cracked Amazon with it yet. But one day when I get my self-promotion into gear I hope for better things. There must still be millions of Kindles with room on them for Romney and Marsh.

Rope Enough has not made me rich but it’s got me read. It’s encouraged people to go onto to the others. And the knock on from all those downloads is that I’ve had some fairly healthy sales for the other two books in the series. I’ve also had some great communication with people. Generally the comments I’ve received by email, through Amazon and on the blog have been very encouraging.

I’m involved with doing an edit of the book at the moment. That effort has stuttered because I had an idea for another book and I’d always rather be writing something new than raking over old ground, even if it is important. Reading the book again for the first time in a year I don’t hate it. I actually quite like it. A few things have made me wince. Probably the greatest sin I committed was to have a minor character with two different first names. That was bad. Worse than the homophone mistakes and the ‘could of’ error.

I say the book went back to having a price. That’s because I made a mistake elsewhere and then had to withdraw the book from Smashwords and so it was no longer free around the web and so Amazon no longer felt obliged to price match it to zero. On the eighteenth of this month my KDP Select contract expires and so I will look again at relisting it on Smashwords so that I can once again have it price matched for free by Amazon. Having a free book is the best publicity for an unknown.

All in all a good year for Rope Enough. I’m happy with the way it’s gone. And it certainly has gone quickly.

PS Time Files is deliberate. I just know someone is going to call me on it.

Interfering with my offspring.

Writer’s diary: stardate: 06.12.2013

Last week I got a bit sticky over completing a decent draft of the fourth Romney and Marsh File. I got it printed off at a ‘friend’s’ and now have it in hard-copy form awaiting all that lovely highlighting of stage 2. But I need a week or two away from it. Bring a refreshed perspective to the reading of it. Bad Sons is with Martin. I could crack on with another book but I’ve got something else to do. It’s something that’s been hanging over me for months. Literally. A year, actually. Literally. I have got to produce new editions of the three Romney and Marsh Files that are already out there. Literally.

I self-published the three R&M Files last December and January. I invited readers who felt so inclined to point out mistakes regarding spelling, punctuation and grammar and (heaven forbid) plot. I invited that on Amazon and on my blog and at the back of each ebook. Many readers took the time and trouble to get in touch and let me know about errors they had found in the books. (That sounds worse than the reality). I am eternally grateful to each and every one who did that. It’s been a great help. Honestly. And now, with the first year’s anniversary of my self-publication of Rope Enough looming on the horizon, I feel it is a good time to do something about it all. I imagine that all the mistakes have now been pointed out to me (I haven’t received any new suggestions for some time) and I’m sort of between books. Also, because I have the fourth R&M coming along nicely, I’m determined to have the first three updated with corrections before I self-publish this one.

I started this task last weekend. I wasn’t looking forward to it. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been putting it off. I knew it would depress me. I knew I’d writhe and cringe and lament all the copies that are out there with silly mistakes in and what readers would think of my ‘professionalism’ for them. I remember that when I waved bye, bye to them I was confident there weren’t any errors. I’d read each title at least ten times.

One of the starkest lessons I’ve learned with self-publishing is that you cannot do your own proof-reading. You just can’t. After a while you stop seeing things. You read what you want to read not what’s there. Give me an English test and I’m confident I’d get most if not all of these mistakes right. I think I’d have got them right last year. I know them but I just didn’t see them because I developed a form of text blindness.

Another lesson learned is that I should have noted each and every correction and suggestion as they came into me, but I didn’t. Consequently, I had to spend most of my weekend writing time going through my email inboxes and blog pages seeking out all the changes I need to make. It wasn’t actually as painful as I expected it to be. I got my lists out of it and with the spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors I was able to quickly make the necessary alterations in all three books. I find it hard to communicate exactly how wonderful it was to correct the grammatical error of ‘would of’ and ‘he’d of’ which are among the most oft remarked upon.

So that was the easy part. Now I’m reading through them again and seeing if a year away has done anything to give me a new perspective on my writing style. I’m only part way through Rope Enough but I’m seeing things I missed all the times I read it before. I’m also changing a few sentences around that don’t read as well as I now think they might. I’m not going to drastically rewrite any of the books or do a hatchet job on any of them. That would be silly because generally readers who have expressed an opinion for the books have liked them as they are. And these books are part of my publishing history, something of my journey that I don’t want to disturb too much – think sympathetic renovation work of a listed building. They represent the ‘green’ me, the ‘naive’ me and I find a certain appeal in them as they are. Is that weird? If I hadn’t published them already, I’m sure I really would go to town on them. But I have. With the books largely unmolested, readers are also able to get a sense of progress (hopefully) in my writing style and expression. They have a sort of rough diamond unpolished charm. Or am I just being stupidly sentimental? Another good thing about self-publishing – ultimately all that is my decision. And the fact that I can do all this so easily is another bonus of self-publishing and its dynamics that I appreciate.