Good with words, hopeless with numbers

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I am a very organised person.  I have the equivalent of a B at maths “A” level (I did the International Baccalaureate instead, albeit in the pre-computer dark ages).  These two parts of my character have united in the Sam Plank series, in that I (a) plotted all remaining six books in the series as soon as I had finished the first one and realised I couldn’t live without Sam, and (b) decided that the books would be set in consecutive years (“Fatal Forgery” in 1824, “The Man in the Canary Waistcoat” in 1825 and so on).  Simples, as they used to say.

And so I find myself beavering away on “Plank 6”.  I’ve been researching inheritance law and body-snatching (the former more confusing, the latter more gruesome).  And I’ve been setting it all against the background of events in 1828.  Yesterday I was putting together my supplies for the Shelford Feast (I’m speaking at their Literary Evening tomorrow – we’re up against England in the semi-final…) and printing little price-lists for the books.  Against each book price I wrote a little description of the book – and realised that “Faith, Hope and Trickery” (book five, and published in March 2018) took place in 1828.  You see my error.

It’s not hard, is it?  I have ten fingers for the complex calculations.  If book one is set in 1824, of course book six will be set in 1829.  Back to the drawing board.

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Plan it of the Chimps

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A new era of updates has started today, in my latest marketing initiative for the Sam Plank novels.  A while ago I explained that I was focusing on assembling an opt-in MailChimp mailing list of people who were actively interested in hearing more about Sam, and the books, and the history behind the books.  It’s been a fairly slow start, but then I think that’s the nature of the beast: word of mouth (or rather, word of inbox) takes time to spread.

In my mind the theme of these regular updates (they will be coming out monthly) is now clear: they will deal with extra detail pertaining to the novels themselves.  (As opposed to these blog posts, which talk about writing and plotting and self-publishing and book design and marketing and anything else that is preoccupying me as an author.)  And the first one, which I sent out this very morning, looks at the history of the Berners Street Hotel, which took over the buildings where Henry Fauntleroy – the banker in “Fatal Forgery” – both worked (number 6 Berners Street) and lived (number 7 Berners Street).  If you’re now thinking, darn, I wish I knew more about that, well, why not head over to my subscriber page and sign up so that you don’t miss any more monthly gems.

As anyone who knows me will testify, I am a fantastically organised person.  There are few things I love more than a plan, except maybe a timetable.  And I have indulged myself by creating a mash-up of the two with regard to these updates: I have spent the past hour putting together an outline of the updates that I plan to issue – and the giveaways that I plan to feature – from now until the end of 2019.  It’s the level of organisation of which Sam’s Quaker banker friend Mr Freame would have wholeheartedly approved.

Getting to know you

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As I have said countless times before, one of the hardest things about being an author today is getting your books noticed in a very crowded, very busy, very diverse marketplace.  In the old days, an author handed their manuscript over to a publisher, who distributed it to bookshops which sold it to readers.  Nowadays, with e-books and self-publishing, books sold in supermarkets and via Amazon, it is all but impossible for the individual author to know where to direct her marketing time – for yes, reader, that befuddled author is me.

Thankfully I am not alone in my befuddlement.  MK Tod is another writer of historical fiction, and for the fourth time she has put together a survey into readers.  It takes about ten minutes to complete, and will help authors like me to better understand what sort of books modern readers like to read and in what format, and how readers want to hear about books, communicate with authors, get updates, etc.  So if you could spare the time to take part, that would be marvellous.  Here’s the link.

Armed with the results, I will be able to decide whether it’s worth continuing with Twitter, and/or this blog, and/or the proposed monthly Sam updates (which only a dozen people have signed up for, including my own husband because he values a quiet life).  I’m very keen to avoid the approach of several authors and publishers, which is to put “BUY THIS BOOK!” on Twitter every sixty seconds – I’m much happier with the idea of building interest in Sam and the Regency period.  But how to do that?  I’m hoping the results to this survey will help, so please do take part and distribute it as widely as you can.

Don’t quote me

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We’re back!  Switzerland worked its usual magic and I have returned with several pages of my notebook filled with ideas for “Plank 6” and even “Plank 7” (writing that makes me a bit sad, as it reminds me that there are only two Planks to go…).

As it was a holiday I was catching up on my reading as well as my plotting – although, as I am now officially writing “Plank 6” I did keep away from anything set within a century of Sam, to avoid confusing myself.  And as I read four books in the fortnight, I spotted something.  Quotation marks.  At school I was taught – along with how to sharpen my quill pen and hide my ankles from prying eyes – that speech should be indicated by double quotation marks, as in this example:

  • “I’m not sure that the last word in this argument should be Conant’s,” I said to Martha.

I stick religiously to this standard in the Sam books.  But in every book I read on holiday – and in all the others I pulled feverishly from the shelves to check my discovery – speech was indicated by single quotation marks.  Now it can’t be that terrible if I’ve only just noticed it, but I do think it could cause confusion, with the same single mark being used for contractions and possessives.  In the example I gave above, if we change the doubles for singles, we get this:

  • ‘I’m not sure that the last word in this argument should be Conant’s,’ I said to Martha.

You see what happens to the initial I and the s after Conant?  The native English-speaking brain can probably make sense of it, but it could cause you to pause in your reading just to make sure – so why not use the perfectly-designed double marks to avoid any interruption to the reading experience?  What do you think?  Do you write with doubles?  Do you prefer to read with doubles or singles?  Or are you outside enjoying the sunshine and couldn’t care less?

Covered in glory

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I know I said that I would shut up for a fortnight, but this is just too exciting to wait!  As regular readers will know, the one area in which I splash the cash in self-publishing is my covers.  Well, not mine: the covers of my books.  Although I know you shouldn’t judge a book, etc., I also know that a cover that screams “homemade on my daughter’s drawing program” or “bought cheap because it sort of matches my story” does you no favours at all.  Potential readers need to know that they are in safe and professional hands, and a quality cover image is their first indication of that.  Sadly I am blessed with the artistic capabilities of a cross-eyed walrus – I would no more design or draw my own book cover than I would rewire my own house.

Thankfully, back in the mists of time when I was working on what would become my very first self-published book, I was pointed in the direction of an outfit called Design for Writers.  Now that’s a name I can understand – they sound like experts to me.  That first book was nothing to do with Sam – it’s a non-fiction book about the prevention of money laundering, which is my day job – but Andrew at DfW immediately knew what I was on about and produced the first of many “piggy” covers.  (Here’s one of them.)  And when it came to my first foray into fiction with “Fatal Forgery” (try saying that in a hurry!) there was only one place to go.

Since then, Andrew and his wife Rebecca have been wonderful.  Each time a new Plank comes out, they take my rambling description (“well, it’s a bit darker than the last one, with a preacher, but not a Wesleyan preacher, and I need a sermon in the background – one from London if you can – and someone said that purple might look good, and no, I don’t have a title yet, until the vote closes next month”) and create a marvel from it.  And so this is really their success rather than mine, but the fantastic purple cover of “Faith, Hope and Trickery”, with the overwrought yet devilishly dishy young man emoting like billy-o, has been given an Honourable Mention rosette in the May 2018 “Cover of the Month” awards on the Discovering Diamonds book review blog.  And now I really will be quiet.  But only for a fortnight.

Clarity at last

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Sam would be very disappointed in me.  As a man with a deep love of concision and order, he would despair at the confusion I have created in recent days.  As you know, I am always trying to learn more about the marketing of self-published books, and the received wisdom is that a sign-up emailing list is the way to go.  Quite what I can do with the email addresses I gather – apart from send my own updates – is not yet clear, but it’s a learning curve, and frankly I am such a Sam-obsessive that I like the idea of another channel through which I can spread the love.  But by encouraging you to sign up, I have created confusion – not least in my own mind.  So here’s what’s on offer.

Anyone can read this blog.  It’s public: type in the URL and this page will appear.  Some of you have kindly decided that you never want to miss a single word of it, and so you have “followed” the blog.  How you have done this depends entirely on your computer system – your search engine, your email program and its server, and so on.  And – this is the crucial bit – I have no control over that.  I have no access to the “master list” of who is following the blog, which means that I know only that there are 236 of you (it says that in the left-hand column of this blog, when it encourages new followers), and not who you are, where you are, or what email addresses you use.  So you are, as far as I am concerned, anonymous.

The “occasional updates” that I am now proposing are different.  These are administered through a mailing system called MailChimp, which takes me by the hand and helps me to create mailing “campaigns”.  And for anyone to be party to these campaigns, you have to tell MailChimp that you want to do that (via this sign-up form), and – here’s the thing – I know who you are.  I am provided with a list of the names and email addresses of people who subscribe.  As I say, I’m not quite sure how that will be better, but I am assured that people are more loyal to, and more interested in, updates to which they have actively subscribed, so we shall see.

Of course, I need to differentiate between the two – between the content of the blog posts and that of the occasional updates.

  • The blog posts will continue to appear on an ad hoc basis, as and when I feel I have something useful to share, and will remain focused on the writing and self-publishing process.
  • The occasional updates will go out once a month, and will be more aimed at the Sam fan – looking in detail at some of the issues raised in the books (e.g. more history concerning the locations, as I always learn much more than I ever put in the books).  And subscribers to the occasional updates will regularly be offered freebie downloads (e.g. a cut-out-and-keep glossary of Regency slang used in the books).

I think it comes down to whether you’re more interested in writing and self-publishing (the blog’s the place for you), or Sam and the stories (occasional updates will feed your fancy), or indeed both.

I am off on my hols soon, and this blog will go quiet for the first two weeks of June.  Rest assured that Sam is coming with me; I’m off to Switzerland and he always seems to flourish in the clear mountain air.

Sam and the Chimp

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Set up a mailing list, they say glibly – those experts on book marketing.  Your contacts are your best sales-force, they say.  Amazon will fulfil demand, they say, but it will not create demand – that is the job of your mailing list.  And, they say, the simplest tool for marketing novices is MailChimp – which has the added benefit, given my recent tax calculation, of being free.

Some of you who have been around for a while will be wondering, didn’t we try this before?  And yes, we did: back in November 2013 I enrolled with MailChimp and implored blog readers to sign up for updates.  They did not, apart from one reader in Suffolk who supports every effort I make – you know who you are.  And with only two of us ready to read updates (of course I signed up myself: how else could I test the MailChimp system?), I let it die a quiet death.

But now, with the experts insisting that I would be a fool not to, I am giving it another go.  I’m putting more effort into it this time, principally by offering a bribe.  In short, if you sign up by the end of June 2018 to receive my occasional updates via MailChimp, I will put your name into a hat (metaphorical – more likely to be a bowl or bin of some kind) and pick out three lucky people to receive a blank notebook.  I have laid in stocks of suitable notebooks, of designs that might have pleased Sam, and if you’re a winner I’ll send your notebook to you wherever in the world you might be.  (You don’t provide your mailing address as part of the sign-up; I’ll ask for it only if I need it.)

Notebooks

I have encouraged Facebook friends to spread the word.  And I am telling all of you about it.  I now have three subscribers: the two original ones, and me using another email address (how else could I test, etc.).  Although it’s a 50% increase on that time round, it’s not much to write home (or indeed, occasional updates) about.  So please, do sign up by clicking on the notebooks picture at the top of the column to the left: after all, the experts recommend it.

Rolling in it

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One of the great mysteries of life is the self-assessment tax return.  I have had to do these for years, ever since I left the ranks of the employed in about 1989 and became self-employed, and then my own employee, and now a freelance writer as well.  I’m terrifically organised and gather the required paperwork through the year, so completing the return holds few fears for me – but it is always a complete surprise when I find out (a) what I have earned, and therefore (b) what I owe the taxman.

A couple of years ago I confessed to you that being the author of the Sam Plank novels had cost me £44.87 over the year.  Frankly, that’s a bargain hobby compared to my husband’s spending on cycling and golf, but still, I will admit to a slight disappointment on realising that full-time profitable authorship was so far beyond my grasp.  But the picture is much better this year.

Taking into account my earnings from the novels in all their formats, and the outlay I have made on such fripperies as cover design and celebratory stickers, in the period April 2017 to March 2018 I made – made! – £1,338 from being an author.  I’m in the black!  Granted, it’s only £25.73 a week, which would hardly keep me in Jaffa Cakes and trashy magazines, but it’s something.  And on the bright side, by using the National Archives’ nifty historical calculator of spending power, I see that £25 in Sam’s day would have bought me four cows.  Martha would not have been best pleased.

Puzzling over Plank

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The other day I was listening to playwright Abi Morgan on “Desert Island Discs”, and she compared writing a play with solving a mathematical puzzle.  And Abi is right: there is a great deal of maths-style logic in writing: you have to keep an eye on the word count, and the structure, and the distribution of lines, and the chronology of events.  (In the first draft of one of the Sam books, I remember that I had John Wontner taking his hat off three times in one scene.  He looked like a music hall act.)  This weekend I was plotting “Plank 6”.  As I mentioned last time, I now have the overview of both plots – main and subsidiary.  But it’s the mechanics of getting it all to work within the constraints of the structure of the Sam series that is now exercising me.

The Sam books are written in the first person.  This has many, many advantages – not least, I get to spend lots of time in my head with Sam, and you all know that I am in love with him, so this is no hardship.  But the main disadvantage is that it means that I can write only about things that Sam sees, hears or is told.  And the first two are much better than the third.  So – for instance – in “Plank 6” I want a character to have some adventures in the Cayman Islands.  There is no way that Martha is going to let Sam sail that far from home, so it will have to be a third party report, but pages and pages of that can be very tedious.  So I will have to be imaginative – perhaps he finds a diary or some letters, or maybe he attends a trial where some details come out, or…  This is precisely why Sam is such an active constable, and why he is always keen to put on a disguise and get stuck in – I’m always looking for ways to get him into odd places as a direct witness to events!

Where there’s no will…

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Wasn’t that a terrific bank holiday weekend?  In fact, it was so hot here in Cambridge that I had the perfect excuse to stop tidying the garden and head indoors to spend time with Sam and Martha.  As regular readers will know, I have now plunged back into research and preparation as I turn my mind to the writing of “Plank 6”.  To encourage without scaring myself witless, I have even settled on a publication date and have reset the countdown clock on the left.  Taa-dah!

As I may have confessed some time ago, “Plank 6” is actually a little more advanced than usual.  When I first decided to write a series of seven Sam books, I plotted them all in general terms – which crime would happen in which year, and which significant character milestones would occur in which book.  But when it came to “Plank 5” – now published as “Faith, Hope and Trickery” – I just wasn’t feeling it.  I tried: I did lots of research, and I even wrote the first chapter – but in the end I had to admit defeat and swap it with the plot for “Plank 6”.  And so now I find that a fair amount of preparatory work has been done, and you’ll be glad to hear that the time has indeed come for this particular plot – now I’m really feeling it!

One of the key plot points I need to clarify concerns intestacy – what happens to your assets if you die without a will.  (Not really a concern for me, as I plan to spend it all before I go, on shoes, chocolate and books, but for rich folk it’s quite an issue.)  And, as you can imagine, it’s something of a legal minefield – particularly when it comes to researching historical legislation.  I did some reading around the subject, tying myself in knots with new vocabulary like “cousin-german” and the crucial difference between heirs and next-of-kin.  But in the end I decided – for the first time – to take advantage of the huge amount of knowledge out there in the historical writing community.  For quite a while I have been a follower of a Facebook group called English Historical Fiction Authors, and have enjoyed reading all the posts they feature.  But yesterday I put up a question about my particular intestacy issue and wham! within about an hour I had four very learned and helpful explanations.  How very generous people are with their time and expertise.  I have previously answered a query myself – about Georgian insults, if I remember – but will make sure to contribute more when I can, to repay my debt.