Thursday, 5 February 2009

How do I write a book?

I hear a lot of people asking how they should approach writing their book. Most people believe they have a book inside them, and they are almost certainly right. Furthermore, I wish that they would write it. Wouldn't it be fascinating if everybody wrote about what it was like to be them?

However, I have a preliminary question - do you want to make money from writing a book, or do you want to spend money writing a book?

This is not a a both/and question. It is one or the other. If you primarily want to make money, don't write a word. It is not what you do best. You are a business person. Find somebody else to write your book for you. There are lots of superbly skilled artists around who will write for the pleasure of writing, for the honour of eating your peanuts. Feed them peanuts to write for you. Then you will both feel fulfilled.

Question - would you rather be the guy who delivers your UPS parcel, proud that it has arrived at the right address in an unblemished condition, or would you rather be the boss of UPS, living like a god on more money a minute than the little guy receives in a year? If you are with the boss of UPS - don't write a word!

Good, that is settled. For those few left, you really want to be a writer. Good on you! You have chosen a path of pain and suffering, and ultimately of incomparable personal reward (but no money).

My best advice is "Ignore all advice. Do your own thing." True writers are the other types of entrepreneur - those want to change the world, not to exploit it.

Failing that, I have two ideas:

1. write as you talk

Unless you have an overwhelming urge to write differently, then write the way that you talk. If you think that great writers adopt special voices, ditch them. Do your real thing. If, on the other hand, you feel inwardly compelled to write in a different style, then do that.

2. get diverted

All great story tellers head down a path and get diverted. If you have ever seen "The Two Ronnies", Ronnie Corbert nailed it sitting in his chair. Audiences crave closure, so find a story that the audience is minded to want to close, then tease the hell out of the cliff-bound suckers. Get side-tracked. Get side-tracked on your side-tracks. Ensure that the audience believes that you will provide closure to every plot line in the end, but never make it yet. Audiences crave the promise of closure, not its achievement. When you finally close, they go "Is that it?" Before you close, they are speculating. All the best soaps have a whole pile of sub-plots running wild, all with the promise of closure in about 3 series' time. Soap writers know exactly what they are doing. Follow their lead. Imagine playing 'strings' with your cat. The cat has to win sometimes, but only sometimes.

So there you are. If you still want to do it, pitch in and don't ask another question until you have most of the answers already. Writing is not about when you should start; it is about feeling compulsively guilty that you haven't started already. Writing is for alcoholics, not for social drinkers.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Why I did them

I don't know if I have ever been asked why I write my books, but I keep telling people anyway. Probably what they say is "Why, oh why, do you write your books?".

Whatever. For anybody who cares, this is why I have embarked on each episode in this compulsive habit of mine, as I best remember it (never trust what a fiction writer says - we make things up, you know):

"The House of Saint & Martyrs" (published in bin)

Actually, I cannot remember what this book was called because I wrote it a long time ago, and then trashed it before embarking on a 30 year spell of writer's block.

The story was of a guy who gets on a train, and when he arrives at his destination realises that it is not his usual stop at all - in fact, he is dead. What he finds in the afterlife is very different from what he had expected. God is a constitutional monarch. His Prime Minister is Stalin, and his deputy is Hitler. The lower chamber of the celestial parliament is stuffed full of apparatchiks, and therefore utterly subservient, but the upper chamber - "The House of Saints & Martyrs" - is extremely challenging and feisty. Hitler was once heard to mutter "Damn these martyrs. They fight to the death, you know."

I submitted some early sections to Private Eye, and received an immediate response - "Not funny. Try Punch."

30 years later I may even re-write this as a short story to be included in my upcoming magical-realist effort "The Blue Food Revolution", to be published late 2009 (I think).

"Blood & Marriage" (2007)

My mother recounted and celebrated family tales throughout her life, many of which I greatly enjoyed. While she did join a writers' group in her eighties, she hardly wrote any of these stories down.

When it was obvious that she was both dying and becoming increasingly 'confused', I thought I had better get them down myself while there was still time to check them. Unfortunately, even though I wrote the book within 3 months (from April to July 2004), mostly 35,000 feet up in the air, although also partly at the Chateau d'Agay which Antoine Saint-Exupery used to visit regularly during the 1930s, by the time I gave it to my mother she was past contributing either corrections or additional details.

The book is sub-titled "From Kingston-upon-Hull to the first genocide of the 20th century" because my mother contended that her great-grandfather was the Governor General of German South-West Afrika during the Herero massacre.

"Little Fingers" (2007)

This was my first novel and took a year to write, between July 2004 and August 2005. The thought behind it was that everyday dictators can cause almost as much damage as political ones.

The specific behind the book was someone I knew (he has since died) who was a paedophile and a rampant womaniser for many years of his life. The label of 'paedophile' is perhaps rather harsh. As a 40 year plus man he was attracted to 14/15 year old girls. However, as at least three of these girls were his daughters and step-daughters, he was probably not beyond criticism either. Equally, I know of at least two people who died as a result of his womanising. A cuckolded husband, with his seven year old son at his side, drove his car straight into the headlights of an oncoming truck.

"Little Fingers" is therefore an enquiry into the nature and morality of sexual attraction - an exploration which makes many people uncomfortable, including me.

I chose to write it as an English village green murder mystery because I always find such books so anodyne, even those by Ruth Rendall. Time to inject a bit of real-life ugliness into the world of murder (and, indeed, chick lit).

"Girl on a Bar Stool" (2007)

This book was written:

a) because my friend Max asked me to write a strategy & brand marketing textbook based on our free Mud Valley materials

b) I suddenly got the plot while lolling in a swimming pool near Granada, Spain

I had no intention of writing a text book, but writing a fictional thriller about brand marketing at the levels of the individual, corporations, politics and religion, all attached to a tale about the Second Coming was much more enticing. Consequently, it only took 2-3 months to write.

"Shade+Shadows" (2008)

In 1999, my wife Ralette was told she had cancer of the liver. Her immediate response to this news was to change her diet, to track down the best homeopath she could find (Dr. Jean Boon) , and then to return home to South Africa for an extended period, taking our son Rouxan with her.

When, three months after her first tests, she visited one of the best-known homeopaths in Cape Town - Dr. Patrick Fieuw - he ran further tests on her and told her he had very bad news: the tests showed that she was on the borderline of having liver cancer. She instantly hugged him and expressed her relief, which startled him until she explained that his tests suggested that she was headed in the right direction for recovery.

She says that the turning point came when she realised that she faced a life or death decision - could she leave our one year old son, Rouxan? The answer was "no", not least perhaps because he too had been desperately ill for the first year of his life.

My family, to this day, do not believe that Ralette was ill at all, and more or less ban us from discussing alternative medicine with them.

So, this is a book about the weirder end of alternative medicine, based in part on the work of Jack Temple who was the alternative healers' healer - the healer of last resort. It is also about human right abuses, specifically in Saudi Arabia, but anywhere really.

It has been the hardest book for me to write. I supposedly finished it in the summer of 2007, loved the first 100 pages, but felt very uneasy about the rest. So I put it aside for 6 months, and then embarked on a series of major re-writes which were only completed in the autumn of 2008. I have often thought that this will turn out to be either my best book or my worst, and I am still not sure which it is.

"Fishing, for Christians" (2008)

Somewhere before I started "Girl on a Bar Stool" I decided that I was going to write a sextet of six books called "The End of the World Sextet".

"Fishing, for Christians" is one of the two pivotal novels of the sextet. I hadn't a clue what it was going to be about, so I let it simmer for 6 months while I read "A Course in Miracles", and all that.

One of the fundamental issues was how to sound like an angel, or at least how not to sound too unlike an angel.

The central question of the book is "Why do people suffer?"

Rather accidentally, the core structure I adopted is that of Gnostic Christianity, although I did not know too much about it at the time (still don't). I made up, I thought, a whole bunch of theology, only to find that my ideas nearly all belonged to one of the major world religions.

Having sat on it for about six months before I started it, I completed the book in four months between January and April 2008.

"The Dance of the Pheasodile" (2008)

This book is not part of the sextet. I had finished "Fishing, for Christians" the night before, sending a friend to sleep explaining what it was all about, and woke up on the morning of my niece's memorial service with the first chapter of this book in my head.

I was recently told that this also happened to Coleridge when he wrote "Kubla Khan". He woke up with the whole poem in his head and was scribbling it down frantically when someone came to deliver the post, at which point he lost concentration and never managed to recover the rest of it.

I really liked the image of this guy hanging from a helicopter, naked, outside his wife's 18th storey office, looking completely different from the man everyone else thought she had married. I didn't know what the book was about, but I thought I would write it anyway. In the end, I made about three conscious plot decisions in the entire book, the first one being halfway through.

It was written between April and July 2008.

"The Ghoul Who Once" (to be published July 2009)

This is the last (or first) volume of "The End of the World Sextet", being about how some of the main characters in the other books got to meet each other. It is also a ghost story - I try to write each book in a different genre.

The fun of the book for me has been to describe Paul Lambert, as the narrator, from the inside. In "Blood & Marriage" and "Fishing, for Christians" he is only seen from the outside. Conversely, I describe Alan Harding from the outside, whereas he has been a narrator in both "Shade+Shadows" and "Fishing, for Christians".

There was no real purpose to the book other than to complete the sextet, and I held off writing it until October 2008 while I played with two other books which I will now be addressing under the titles of "The Blue Food Revolution" and "The Fish That Knew No Scale".

I finally finished editing "The Ghoul Who Once" today.

Free and cheap self-promotion

Unless you are one of the world's most recognised writers or artists, promotion is always an issue.

Here are some methods I have come across for self-promoting which are either free or relatively cheap, should they be of any use to you:


  • Word-of-mouth (WOM): the biggest-selling self-published authors I know simply know lots of people and never stop talking. You can even sell 10,000 books this way

  • Set up a blog. Google gives you this blog for free, or you can even be paid if you ad Google Adsense ads

  • Set up a free Squidoo page

  • Advertise for free on Expatica – I got between 150 and 175 hits for each of my books in 45 days, e.g. "Blood & Marriage". I paid €39 for an enhanced business ad and got 85 hits within a week

  • develop YouTube promos – Windows Movie Maker is free and is relatively intuitive. Each video takes me about 4-5 hours – e.g.: “The Dance of the Pheasodile” and "Fishing, for Christians"

  • Set up free Facebook / MySpace etc. profile pages and set about systematically collecting friends

  • Surreptitiously promote yourself in Facebook groups which can often number 10,000+ members

  • Do signings in bookstores – most will allow you to pull up a chair for free

  • Contact local readers’ clubs

  • Record a PodCast - free software is available for the distribution of PodCasts, e.g. Poderator


  • Advertise on Facebook – it will cost about $US0.35 a hit, generating 10-50 hits a day

  • Advertising on Google – it costs more – approx. $US1.30 per hit – but you can get more hits

  • Do a PR release for around $US75, via or e.g. for "Fishing, for Christians"

  • Set up your own full website for approx. $US150 a year

  • Get coverage in local media for an event, e.g.:

  • Place bookmarks in other writers’ books. Some bookshops allowed me to do this, so in one shop I posted about 200 bookmarks in bestsellers by people like Nick Hornby, Ian McEwan etc.

  • Do door-to-door leafleting – cost of printing leaflets (even off your own desktop printer) + shoe leather

  • Print up some t-shirts and walk around advertising yourself and/or persuade friends to do it for you

If you are really going out to make money, there is one obvious lesson: “Don’t write the book you want to write; write the book which an easily accessible audience wants to read”. For instance, a book promoting the merits of alternative medicine is a likely winner – there are 44,000 alternative healers in the UK, all trying to justify what they do. Plug into them via associations, etc. and you have a huge market potential if you can persuade them to talk about it to their clients.