Close reading and cover design

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After the frenzied writing and word-counting of my writing retreat, it probably seems as though I have gone a bit quiet now – but that is the nature of the editing beast.  I have so far read the whole of “Heir Apparent” three times myself (including once when my printer went moody and missed out two whole chapters and I couldn’t work out why the plot made less sense than usual…) and now it is being read for typos, spelling, etc. by my husband.  He is a very precise person – engineer by training, bike mechanic by passion – and therefore good at looking closely at things.  Plus it gives him such pleasure to be able to point out spelling mistakes to me, an English graduate – the things we do for love.

While all of that is going on, an author’s mind turns to thoughts of publication.  And to that end I have been:

  • Writing the “front matter” for the book – which (for me) means:
    • gathering extracts from reviews of the other books in the series – these go on the very first pages of the book
    • deciding on a classical quotation to start the book – I can’t remember why I first did this in “Fatal Forgery”, but it’s part of the process now, and quite good fun for someone who had no classical education
    • writing the dedication
  • Co-operating with the cover designer – by which I mean I give him some rambling drivel about how I think the cover could look, and he creates something amazing out of it (we’re nearly there now – I’ll show it to you soon)
  • Planning the launch – I’ve emailed one bookshop which (perhaps in a moment of madness after a reading) offered to hold my “next” launch party (they didn’t know I’ve never had one before).

After “The Man in the Canary Waistcoat” (book two), I did write myself a list of pre-publication tasks, which had been invaluable: when you’re preparing a paperback and several e-versions, there’s a lot to remember.  And at the end of the list, I have written: Don’t worry about a specific publication date – Amazon will publish when it wants to.  Good advice.

On a related note, you know that I have my free guide to the Sam Plank series?  When I published it, I managed – through publishing on another site and putting that price to zero and then asking Amazon to price-match that zero price – to get the guide listed for free on Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.  I assumed – fool! – that this meant that it would be free on all Amazons, but apparently not: a friend in Belgium emailed to say that Amazon.fr was trying to charge her 99¢ for it.  What to do, I wondered?  Thankfully, my friends at the Alliance of Independent Authors came up trumps; I put a query out to them and they suggested contacting Amazon directly and asking to have the publication price-matched across all Amazons – and it worked.  Live and learn, live and learn.

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Putting Sam’s house in order

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I bet you’re all wondering how I’m getting on with “Heir Apparent”.  Well I don’t mind telling you that’s its going to be a close-run thing.  It’s Wednesday morning and that means I have today and tomorrow to finish my first draft – with two chapters to go.  My husband reminded me that with “Portraits of Pretence”, I finished early and spent the last day of my retreat swanning around on the paddle-steamers on Lake Léman.  This time, I’ll be packing with one hand and typing with the other.

On the plus side, I am pleased to report that the story works, which is a huge relief.  Until I get pretty much to the end, it’s not a done deal: it could still fall apart.  My great fear is that twenty chapters in I’ll realise that something I wrote in the second chapter makes a nonsense of it all.  And indeed I had a difficult day on Monday when I decided that I just had to rearrange the order of various events in the book – so when I print out the draft I’ll have to read it really, really carefully [beta readers, that’s a heads-up for you too!] to make sure that I don’t talk in the past tense about something that now happens later in the story.

And thank you for your thoughts and comments on the back cover blurb.  I’ve made a few adjustments as a result – great improvements, all of them – and now that’s off to the cover designer.

The next time you hear from me, Sam and I will be back in Blighty – and, just to put you out of your misery, it’s Suffolk.

Honing the sales pitch

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Today is something of a red letter day for me: after months of writing (and a fortnight of my writing retreat) I finally know how “Heir Apparent” will end.  To be clearer, I always knew how it was going to end, but now I know how it is going to get there.  It’s a mighty relief, I can tell you.  And to celebrate, I am allowing myself to think about life after writing, i.e. publication.  And the task that is occupying me now is preparation of the text for the cover.

The Sam covers – entirely deliberately – conform to a template.  Each has a background image of a document (usually a bit blurry), then a foreground line drawing of a person.  The title goes across the middle of the cover, with my name beneath it.  Across the top of the front cover is a banner identifying the book as “A Sam Plank Mystery”, and across the bottom of the front cover is a complimentary quotation from a reviewer.  And on the back cover is the dreaded blurb – that some authors say is harder to write than the book itself.  I have written a draft blurb and would very much value your views: would it make you want to buy the book?  What can I do to make it more “grabby”?  And please bear in mind that, for continuity and consistency, I use the back cover blurb elsewhere too: it’s the text that appears on Amazon as the “product description”.  So here goes:

In the final weeks of 1828, a young man returns from the family plantation in the Cayman Islands after an absence of six years to be at his father’s deathbed – and to inherit his estate.  But is the new arrival who he says he is, or an impostor?  Anyone who doubts his identity seems to meet an untimely end, but his sister swears that he is her beloved brother.

With their investigations leading them into the complicated world of inheritance law and due process after death, Constable Sam Plank and his loyal lieutenant William Wilson come face to face with the death trade and those who profit from it – legally or otherwise.  Among them is an old enemy who has used his brains and ruthlessness to rise through the ranks of London’s criminal world.  And as plans progress for a new police force for the capital, Sam and his wife Martha look to the future.

Taking the Alpine heir

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Now I know we’re all rather wary of polls, elections and referenda these days, but I’d like to thank the thirty-four of you who overcame your understandable scepticism about democracy to take part in the process to select the title for “Plank 6”.  And the people have spoken and issued a clear mandate: fully 50% of the votes were cast for “Heir Apparent”.  Coming second, with nine votes, was “Dividend of Death”.  I’m delighted – I think it’s an excellent choice.

Meanwhile, I’ve been working on what’s going to go behind that title: the book itself.  And (in the spirit of full honesty about the self-published writing life, which is the purpose of this blog) I will confess that I have found this writing retreat harder than the previous ones.  Thanks to a busier working life than usual and some unexpected family illness (all fine now, thank goodness), I came away with less of the book written than I had intended.  To make sure that I head home with a complete first draft, I worked out that I needed to write about 3,000 words each day – with no days off during the seventeen days of the retreat.  And it turns out that that is really tiring.  Who knew that sitting on your bottom all day could be exhausting, but it’s more the mental effort of concentrating and being inventive for hours on end.  So far I have had to take two days off – turns out that the standard weekend pattern (five days on, two days off) is there for a reason!  It’s been a handy lesson for when I – one day – become a full-time author.  Planning to write imaginatively every day is unrealistic; I’ll make sure to create a balance of writing, promotional activities and administrative tasks, and factor in some rest time too.

That said, I am pleased with progress on the days I have been writing.  Gaps in the story are filling themselves in nicely, and today Sam and Wilson are off on a trip to Kent Surrey Suffolk (I keep changing my mind).  Barring unforeseen disasters, “Heir Apparent” will be hitting the shelves in mid October as planned.

Scorching Sam

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One of the decisions I have to make for each Sam book – and, surprisingly, I make this decision near the end of the process – is when in the year to set the story.  I already know the year, of course (“Plank 6” is set in 1829) but not the season.  The plot of each book usually spreads over three or four months, and of course the time of year forms part of the background.  “Fatal Forgery” was autumnal, “The Man in the Canary Waistcoat” was summery, and “Worm in the Blossom” and “Portraits of Pretence” were both set in the spring, while “Faith, Hope and Trickery” encompassed the whole second half of 1828.  I am now mulling the season for “Plank 6” – and this decision is difficult because I am sitting here at the top of a mountain in sweltering heat.  And as with all extreme weather conditions, I cannot remember what it felt like to be at the other end of the thermometer.  So if Martha ends up ripping off her stays and jumping into a tin bath of cold water, you’ll know why.

One benefit of the heat here is that I have not been tempted to go out wandering in the countryside – and so I have hit the ground running in terms of word count.  On day one (yesterday) I managed a respectable 2,829 words, while today I bashed out a very pleasing 3,515.  Of course word count is not the ultimate aim – this is only the first draft – but I use it as a handy measure of how productive I have been.  And in those two days I have brought back two characters from earlier Sam books, created a whole new character I was not expecting, and given him a dog called Sloane.  Or maybe Hans – I can’t decide.

And don’t forget: the title poll for “Plank 6” finishes at the end of July, so there’s only a few days left to cast your vote.

Sounding the retreat

Well, folks, it’s nearly here: Writing Retreat 2019 starts on Monday.  Here’s an extract from my packing list:

  • Macbook
  • laptop (in case Macbook gives up the ghost, as it did on Writing Retreat 2016)
  • USB stick on which to back up work every day
  • back-up USB stick on which to back up work every day, just in case
  • external keyboard and mouse
  • spare batteries for external keyboard
  • red pen for making corrections
  • spare red pen

Can you see a theme?  I think I’m worrying too much, but it’s been that sort of summer so far: everything that can go wrong (technologically speaking) has gone wrong.  I cannot tell you how much I am looking forward to hiding away up that mountain.

I will admit that I am not as far advanced with “Plank 6” as I had hoped, but I seem to remember that I always feel that way.  It’s amazing how much writing I can get done once there is nothing to distract me.  At the moment we’re at about 49,000 words.  I have seventeen clear days on retreat – discounting the day at each end for travelling – and if I aim for 2,000 words a day that’s an additional 34,000, which takes me near my comfortable zone for publication.  And 2,000 a day is quite modest, once I get my groove on.

I’ll try to keep you posted but – in some ways – no news will be good news.  And don’t forget: if you haven’t already had your say, please do cast your vote for the title of “Plank 6” before the end of July.

Please send cake

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It’s time for the annual totting-up, as I prepare my self-assessment tax return and work out whether being an author makes me any money at all, or whether I am in fact paying for the privilege.  (Incidentally, my top tip for filling in tax returns – and indeed any complex form – is this: if you don’t understand the question, the answer is no.)

First, some stats for you:

  • I have self-published 21 non-fiction books (all about anti-money laundering, all in paperback only), five Sam Plank novels (all in paperback and various e-formats, and the first two as audiobooks as well), one collection of articles that I wrote for the local newspaper (paperback only) and one box-set of the first three Sam Plank novels (e-format only)
  • I have also self-published a guide to the Sam Plank series, with the first chapter of each novel and a glossary of Regency terms, but that’s free and so it brings in no royalties
  • In June 2015 my tax return revealed that I had made just under £1,500 from the writing side of my professional life
  • In 2016 that disappeared into a net loss of £44.87
  • In 2017 I increased my net loss to £288.71 – obviously too much spending and not enough writing
  • In 2018 I bucked the trend and went into the black, making a net profit of £1,338

So what can I report this year – up or down?  Profit or loss?  In the period 6 April 2018 to 5 April 2019 (that’s the crazy English tax year for you), I made a net profit from my authorliness of £1,294.31.  In essence, that’s royalties and sales minus cover designs, promo materials and membership of the Society of Authors.  It works out at £24.89 per week.  At this rate, I’ll be lucky to afford even a modest garret.

Don’t forget to vote for the title of “Plank 6” – for £24.89 a week, I’m certainly not choosing my own titles.

(And in case you’re wondering, the blog title is from a letter my father sent to his mum from university in the 1950s, which we still have in the family archive and which reads, in its entirety: “Dear mum, Washing enclosed.  Please send cake. Pete.”)

Ask and ye shall receive

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I’ve written before about how helpful and inclusive is the self-publishing community.  If you have any self-publishing questions or concerns or requests, there are numerous fora on which you can post (including my own first port of call, the ALLi website) and you’ll be overwhelmed by answers, suggestions and encouragement.  But I think it’s only right that I should point out that the giving freely of expertise and advice is not limited to self-published authors.

If you’ve ever read a Sam Plank book, you might remember that at the start of each of them is a quotation from a classical author – Virgil in “Fatal Forgery”, Sophocles in “The Man in the Canary Waistcoat” and so on.  The last time I studied Latin was when I was twelve (and that was when Jim Callaghan, Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev were in charge) and I’ve never attempted Greek, and so every time I have to rely on the kindness of Classics academics to check that I am using the most favoured translation.  All it takes is a few emails, and people are so happy to help.

All of the Sam books involve a great deal of research – no, don’t feel sorry for me, as I love it.  But sometimes the material is contradictory or just too technical for me to understand, and here too I turn to the experts.  I hope I won’t be giving too much away if I say that for the plot of “Plank 6” I needed some guidance on botany in the 1820s – which plants had been identified, what were their formal and common names, and whether people in England would have heard of them.  Kew Gardens was the obvious place to go with my enquiries, and the response was just wonderful: I was given exactly the answers I needed, along dedicated links to extra information (some of which gave me an excellent plot development) and a standing invitation to the Gardens to meet the experts and have a look at the plants I was asking about.  When Trump derides and rejects expertise, he is – as usual – talking out of his hat.  And experts who are willing to share their knowledge with random authors who contact them out of the blue add immeasurably to human wealth and happiness.  Thank Kew!

Choosing the title of “Plank 6” – have your say!

Yes, it’s that time again.  Work on “Plank 6” is now advanced enough for me to turn to you, my dear readers, to choose the title under which it will be launched on the world in October.  For those of you new to our Sam Plank family, I should explain.  I decided on the title of the first book (that was “Fatal Forgery”) all by myself but then realised that I could outsource this difficult choice.  So from the second book onward, I have compiled a shortlist of five possible titles and turned the final decision over to you.

Before you can make an informed decision, of course, you need to know a little about the story of “Plank 6”.  In 1829, a young man returns from the family plantation in the Cayman Islands after an absence of five years to be at his father’s deathbed – and to inherit his estate.  But is the son who he says he is?  Anyone with any doubts about his identity seems to meet an untimely end, but his sister swears that he is her beloved brother.  With their investigations leading them into the world of inheritance law and due process after death, Sam and Wilson learn about the “death trade” and those who profit from it – legally, or by fraud.  In short, it’s death and money.

Here are the five possible titles.  I have checked them all on Amazon and elsewhere and am happy that, even if another book exists with a similar title, there would be no confusion.  Votes please – I’ll close the poll at the end of July.

Changing up a gear

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I know I’ve been quiet recently; my excuse is that I was on holiday cycling along the Rhine (which I can recommend for both scenery and ice-cream – the Germans are mad for both).  But I am now home again and work on “Plank 6” is at the forefront of my mind.  There are two key deadlines: on 22 July I am off to Switzerland for my writing retreat (seventeen days on my own, just for writing), and then on 18 October I am hoping to publish the book.  For the writing retreat to be of most value, I need to make sure that I have all but finished the first draft by the time I go – which is only 28 days away.  I’m nowhere near that at the moment, so it’s full steam ahead, carving out writing time whenever and wherever I can.  And the writing retreat should – must – result in a draft that I can send out to my lovely beta readers, and then I need to allow time to incorporate their suggested changes, which could be extensive.  I’m getting the vapours just thinking about it.

And of course the inside of the book is only part of it: before publication I need to decide on a title and a cover and a cover blurb, and organise a launch event.  So no pressure, then.  Over the weekend I put together a list of about fifteen possible titles – some are rather dull, others could work.  I’ll narrow that down to five and then put it to the public vote, as usual, in July.  I’ve started looking for possible cover images and documents, but thankfully can leave colour choice to the cover designer – I’ll be interested to see what they add to our current suite of blue, gold, red, green and purple.

One small update: you remember the book-signing that I did at WHSmith in April?  I’ve been trying to extract from them the vast sum I made from the day (read all about it here) and it’s taken nearly as long as writing “Plank 6”.  They’ve apparently designed a new payments system and I’ve had to submit my details to be approved as a new supplier, along with my invoice.  I’ll let you know when the money arrives and I can treat myself to an extra box of Jaffa Cakes.