Friday, 30 March 2012

Cooking With Poo And Book Titles In General

By Richard Jay Parker

They say that one of the keys to a book's success is its cover but the title is equally important.

A Century Of Sand Dredging In The Bristol Channel is enjoying a surge of popularity at the moment because it's just made it into The Bookseller's Diagram Prize Oddest Title Of The Year award.

Joining it are The Great Singapore Penis Panic And The Future Of American Mass Hysteria, The Mushroom In Christian Art, Estonian Sock Patterns All Around The World and, number one, Cooking With Poo - a Thai cookbook written by Saiyuud Diwong.  Poo is Thai for 'crab' and her nickname.

These are extreme examples but it illustrates how much buzz can be generated by what you elect to name your work.

Even with the advent of ebooks the title and thumbnail are still the bait to catch the reader before you hopefully knock their socks off with the content.

Worth considering carefully before you publish although Mr Andoh's Pennine Diary: Memoirs Of A Japanese Chicken Sexer In 1935 Hebden Bridge (number two in the chart) is a book you'd probably feel like you'd written yourself if you ever typed the title into a search.

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Monday, 26 March 2012

How Much Violence?

Posted by Leigh Russell
There are fashions in crime fiction. Tastes change and trends are influenced by individual success stories, hit television series and popular films. A few years ago Lynda La Plante became very popular, with sales of her books boosted by Helen Mirren’s brilliant performance of Jane Tennison on television. Publishers were suddenly looking for police procedural novels. Then psychological thrillers became popular, with a movement away from ‘cosies’. Publishers wanted manuscripts to be ‘gritty’ and ‘edgy’. The depiction of violence in crime fiction became increasingly graphic, bordering on horror. As PD James wrote, “The physical act of killing a human being has an awesome and horrible fascination. All that flesh to dispose of, all that blood to be washed away.”

At one time crime authors seemed to be vying with one another to produce the most dramatic impact with scenes of violence. Reading a crime novel about severed body parts being discovered, I felt that one particular author had abandoned plausibility for the sake of shock tactics. This ruined the book for me. The very next week there was a case in the news of severed body parts found strewn over the countryside. Truth is often more extreme than fiction can dare to be. Readers of crime novels are looking for thrilling stories and love dramatic shocks, but the balance must be right. Too much violence can compromise the credibility of a book, and descriptions that are too extreme can be off putting.

Of course different readers like different degrees of violence. Within reason, how palatable it is depends entirely on personal taste. You might reasonably expect readers of the genre to anticipate some violence in a crime novel. Yet some readers are quite squeamish, steering away from violence. There’s no denying that cosies are enduringly popular. Look at the shelf space given to Agatha Christie in bookshops and libraries. At the same time, many crime readers relish guts and gore in their crime novels. “I do like a bit of blood,” readers frequently tell me, often adding words to the effect of, “aren’t I awful?” And many of the most successful crime writers give precise details about their victims’ injuries. Medically trained, Tess Gerritsen writes clinical descriptions of blood and guts which can be very graphic. Patricia Cornwell is another bestselling author who writes dispassionately about gore, having worked for a medical examiner before writing crime novels.

Violence can be an important technique for raising the stakes for readers. Think about Shakespeare’s dark tragedy Macbeth with its murders, treason, infanticide and genocide. Despite the killing of a king, and the reports of violent battles and bloody murders elsewhere, the most memorable and shocking moments in the play are the few scenes when characters are murdered on stage, in full view of the audience. Showing violence creates far more impact than reporting it. Creating violent characters does not mean authors are violent people. PD James says that people have expressed surprise that she writes about violent murders, she is such a nice lady. (No one has ever said that to me!) In fact, authors of crime fiction are notoriously nice. All the crime writers I have met have been generous and gentle people, from Lee Child, Ian Rankin, Mark Billingham, Val McDermid and Jeffery Deaver, to aspiring writers struggling to complete their first crime novel.

There is no right or wrong answer to the question of how much violence should be included in a novel. Everyone draws their own line of what is acceptable, from Agatha Christie’s inoffensive intricate plots, to the bloody bodies in Tess Gerritsen.

Suspension Of Disbelief

By Richard Jay Parker

Is there an average suspension of disbelief measurement for adult readers?

If you examine book charts it apears that a large percentage of human beings will happily entertain notions of serial killers commiting hideous gory crimes.  However, if that character were a vampire it probably wouldn't get anywhere near a chart.  Teen vampire books aside, of course.

There is a substantial appetitte for wizards and zombies of late.  Horror and fantasy will always have a readership but it doesn't very often impact on the mainstream.  Is this because it's not entertained by publishers and booksellers or does the average reader want their stories to have a firm footing in reality?

Perhaps, for some readers, the scares are more thrilling when they are feasible in the world they inhabit.  And perhaps they can empathise with characters who inhabit that same world. 

It's probably why crime and thrillers are being constantly snapped up.  There's no doubt that books that examine the darker side of the human psyche are immensely popular but is that an indication of how much slack they are prepared to cut the author's imagination?

I personally enjoy books that are gritty and fantastical but, in terms of being a thriller writer, the challenge is always to present a story that is engaging without asking for too much rope from the reader.

We all know what you can do with a length of that.

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Friday, 16 March 2012

Four-letter words and ebooks

By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker, Tom Kasey and Jack Steel)

Let’s get the advert out of the way first. The Titanic Secret was published yesterday, with the American version to follow on 27 March in the States. I’m now on Twitter (@JackSteelAuthor) and I recorded a podcast to coincide with publication. This is about conspiracy theories and other stuff, and is available through Simon & Schuster at:

It’s very probably a sign of the times, but my blog entry this week is another one about the darker side of publishing – the seemingly inexorable rise of the electronic book.
            In the April edition of Writing Magazine there was an interesting article about e-publishing, and the way that this new method of getting your work into print was undermining the traditional author – agent – publisher route. The article focused on an American housewife and mother of four named Ruth Ann Nordin, a lady whose writing ambitions centred around the production of romantic fiction which incorporated Christian values and a limited amount of tasteful marital sex.
            What’s perhaps slightly unusual is that, unlike most budding authors, she didn’t write a book and then try and get an agent or publisher to take her on. Instead, when she’d written her first novel in 2002 she decided to make use of the newly available POD – Print On Demand – technology to produce the book herself, which she then tried to sell to friends, acquaintances and anyone else who expressed an interest in it. She didn’t sell that many copies, but between 2002 and 2008 she wrote and had printed sixteen books, copies of which graced her bookshelves and which she said gave her a tremendous sense of personal satisfaction.
            In 2008, Ruth realized that to be taken seriously as a writer she really needed to find a traditional publisher to take her on, and began sending out the usual enquiries. The majority, as any author would anticipate, fell on deaf ears, and no agent was prepared to accept her as a client. She then tried publishers, sending out sample chapters, but again got nowhere. Those who bothered to reply at all insisted on having major changes made to the books, and that didn’t fit in at all with Ruth’s ideas about what she wanted to write.
            By this stage, she had some twenty novels completed, which made her by any definition a very experienced – albeit traditionally unpublished – author. And she was clearly a lady who knew her own mind. So she switched her attention to self-publishing her various books on the Internet, as ebooks.
            At first, her work made little impact. The first year that her books were available – 2009 – they generated no income at all until December, when she received her first cheque for a fairly modest $1,400. But she was putting in the background work, the marketing, communicating with readers, and anything else she could think of that might help to drum up sales. The following year, she sold some 110,000 copies, which generated an income of almost $19,000. And last year, 2011, she earned more money than her husband, who had been in the American military for twenty years. 2012 now looks pretty rosy from where she’s standing.
            If you’re interested in finding out what marketing methods she employed to achieve this success, you can download an ebook – obviously – which she’s written and which is available free on The title is: Where’s the money?
            This is an interesting, instructive, and actually quite inspiring tale, almost a rags to riches story, showing what can be done if you are prepared to make the effort. And Ruth Ann Nordin certainly makes the effort: this year she intends to publish a further eight books.
            And that essentially is the real secret of her success because, despite her Christian beliefs, she’s very fond of two common four-letter words which a lot of people never seem to associate with the process of writing. In her case, these two words are ‘HARD’ and ‘WORK’.
            Which reminds me. I’ve got a book to write.

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Writer's Commentary - This Book Stinks!

By Richard Jay Parker

There is still a lot of talk about how to sex up fiction ebooks and make the experience more interactive.  I can see how text books can be brought to life in this way but a work of fiction is, by its very deliberate nature, a private experience.  It's a tableau for the writer's and reader's imagination to meld.  A book offers an experience unique to everyone who reads it and, even though it's the same story, we'll visualise the characters and events in completely different ways.

I can understand why publishers want to get away from just text.  Text can easily be digitised and therefore easily copied.  An ebook with whistles and bells is more of a problem.  The pirates will find a way round copying it in, oh, a couple of weeks though.  However, by then we'll all own these entities with the sort of extras that make us feel like we're missing out if we don't use them.

I don't know many people who have the time to view the extras on a DVD.  But I do know that a lot of them feel they might not be getting their money's worth if they don't watch the making of or listen to at least one of the sixteen commentary tracks or watch one of the alternate endings or some of the scenes that didn't make it into the final cut.

So I'm sure, for a while, we'll all have a go at reading the book while its soundtrack is playing and the Kindle pumps out appropriate smells for the chapter we're reading (a cue for some obvious jokes) and we simultaneously listen to the writer commentary - 'at this point in the novel I walked out into the kitchen and made my third cup of coffee.'

Then we'll probably turn them off and quietly read again.

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Friday, 9 March 2012

He can’t be any good – he comes from Bolton

By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker, Tom Kasey and Jack Steel)

In fact, I’ve got nothing against Bolton though that might, I suppose, be because I’ve never actually been there. What I’m doing is picking up on the earlier blog entry by Richard Jay Parker about a writer’s location somehow conveying a kind of extra credibility if that location is currently the flavour of the month.
            And he’s quite right. At the moment, Scandinavia appears to be the place from which all the best thrillers are coming. Quite apart from the Steig Larsson books – a trilogy which I have to confess I found quite underwhelming and actually rather dull – the work of Jo Nesbo is riding high. The paperback version of his latest novel – Phantom – is currently at number 351 in the Amazon charts, and it won’t even be published until next September.
            It’s not just books, either. The first episode of Those Who Kill, a Scandinavian police procedural, for want of a better description, was shown on TV a couple weeks ago and, despite the fact that I speak not a word of Danish (apart from tak and I’m not absolutely sure what that means) and was relying entirely on the subtitles, I thought it was pretty good.
            It’s Scandinavia now, but in the past a number of different countries seemed to produce writers who garnered critical acclaim at least in part because they were from that particular territory. For a long time, you simply had to read Nabokov and Solzhenitzyn, and by extension every other Russian writer with an unpronounceable surname. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not knocking these people, just wondering how much attention some of the minor Russian authors would have attracted if they’d been born in, say, Bradford.
            Then there was the vogue for French authors, though the most prolific of these, Georges Simenon, was easily dismissed by the British literary establishment because he was able to write enjoyable commercial fiction – an appalling crime – at a rate that more literary authors couldn’t hope to compete with in even their wildest and most optimistic dreams.
            And talking of literary fiction, there also seems to be a kind of assumption in this rarefied and exclusive atmosphere, that work by any author from what might be termed ‘foreign parts’ is more likely to be worthy of consideration than anything knocked together by British writer.
            None of which, of course, makes the slightest bit of sense.
            It’ll be interesting to see just how long the Viking invasion, as it were, lasts.
            Another article caught my eye earlier this week. A talking head from one of the newspapers – a broadsheet, obviously – was metaphorically wringing his hands in abject misery, and in fact not a little anger, because he claimed it was obvious that the judges for the Man Booker Prize had completely lost the plot. They had clearly not the slightest idea what they were doing, he said, because the books they had selected for the shortlist had been chosen for absolutely the wrong reasons.
            So what was the ‘crime’ that these judges were in the act of perpetrating? Had they chosen picture books? Or romances? Or perhaps the most unlikely category of book currently available to them: crime fiction? No, it was none of these. But it was neither more nor less than a potentially fatal body blow to the world of literary fiction: the judges had selected books based upon their readability – books that people might actually enjoy reading – instead of their obscurity and difficulty.
            Which does, I suppose, beg the obvious question: why shouldn’t a book be selected because it’s readable and therefore accessible? Why should a reader have to study a sentence or a paragraph two or three times before he can work out what the hell the author is talking about, or sit with a dictionary beside him to look up all the words that he’s never seen before? Why does that make the reading experience more significant? It certainly doesn’t make it any more pleasurable.
            It’ll be interesting to see what book actually wins: could it be possible that for the first time ever the prize will be scooped by a novel that people actually want to read, rather than one that they feel they should read?

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Wish You Were (Writing) Here?

By Richard Jay Parker

It seems bizarre that writers assume more importance and relevance because they come from the same territory as somebody good.  I wonder if Steig Larsson knew just what a service he was doing his country as well as his fellow writers when he wrote his trilogy.

That there are some excellent writers from Scandinavia isn't in doubt but what's puzzling is reading tastes being dictated by territory.  I saw an article recently that wondered where the next literary geographical hotspot would be.

I can understand that a backdrop that has hitherto gone unnoticed would be worthy of further exploration via other authors but when the globe is used as a benchmark for what I should be reading rather than the story or quality of writing it seems a little exclusive.

It's obviously a way of selling books - marketability by association - but it's not something that particularly makes any sense.

If someone reads a Stephen King novel and enjoys it is their first thought: 'I wonder if there are any other writers that live in and write about Maine?'  OK, maybe if you were a reader who lived in Maine...

I certainly don't blame any of the authors who are having their work exposed in this way for maximising any association.  It must be great to be told that your work falls within a literary catchment area.  I'd still question the sanity of it though because, for me, the next hotspot will be on the pages of a great new book wherever it was written.

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Friday, 2 March 2012

Back to the grindstone

By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker, Tom Kasey and Jack Steel)

The lull in the workload didn’t last quite as long as I was hoping.
            As well as the various lectures I had to prepare for the forthcoming cruise on the Saga Sapphire, I was sent, almost simultaneously, the editorial notes for my second novel for Simon & Schuster, which I’d written as ‘Jack Steel’, and the copyedited manuscript for the fifth ‘James Becker’ book for Transworld. All of which of course, have to be sent back in time to meet the deadlines set by the publishers.
            And there was another odd little job to do as well. My agent, who I have frequently explained comes up with good ideas on an astonishingly regular basis, managed to sell a cameo appearance in my next Transworld novel for charity, and this meant writing a brand-new chapter featuring the winner of the auction. And it also of course meant making a number of minor changes both before and after the insertion of the new chapter to accommodate the additional character.
            The writing was made somewhat more difficult because the new character had to have a larger part in the book than simply a walk-on role where he merely appeared and then vanished from sight almost immediately. The character had to actually do something within the story, but equally clearly would not be able to play a pivotal role in the book, simply because the roles of the good guys were already established, and the bad guys were really quite, well, bad, and it didn’t seem appropriate to blacken the character of the winner of the auction, because if I did he might well ask for his money back.
            I was lucky in that the winner was a fairly young man who would fit neatly into the story, and I’d already decided that his role would be as a fluent German speaker and expert on the Second World War. The bonus was that he actually had a German surname, so that made his insertion into the manuscript even smoother than it would otherwise have been. My agent and I had exchanged a number of emails trying to decide what we’d do if the winner turned out to be a 90 year old grandmother from Hong Kong, because working her into the story would have been really quite difficult.
            Anyway, I finished that chapter today and it’s gone off to my agent for onward transmission to the winner for him to look it over before I send it, as a part of the completed copy-edited manuscript, to Transworld. So as long as he doesn’t object to the way I’ve described him, that should all be finished by the early part of next week.
            Then I can get on with the changes needed to the Simon & Schuster manuscript, which need to be completed by the end of the month.
            And pretty much as soon as that’s finished, I’ll have to start work on the next book for Transworld, once I know what my editor there is looking for. I’ve sent him a handful of synopses for possible books, so he can either select one of these or – if past performance is anything to go by – I may well end up writing a book the idea for which has come from the publisher, rather than from me as an author.
            The last two books for Transworld were both suggested by my editor there, but she has now moved on to pastures new, and I’ll have to wait to see if my new editor works in the same way.
            It’s going to be an interesting few months.

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Polishing The Bitch

By Richard Jay Parker

I see that Jackie Collins is about to re-release a digital, restored edition of The Bitch.  I wonder if we'll see this happen with other 'classics?'

Perhaps Watership Down can be updated to include the current plans to build on the real life Sandleford warren that Richard Adams is currently contesting or maybe 1984 could be 2084 to make it prophetic again.  What about The Lion, The Witch and the Ikea Wardrobe anyone?

Some would say that works are a product of their time and should remain as such but in our new era of publishing maybe there's nothing wrong with taking a book that may have been long forgotten, polishing and updating it and then making it available to a whole new readership.

There will obviously be accusations of writers making a fast buck and I'm sure it will be a process that becomes abused.  It also means there are even more books being uploaded and vying for people's attention but can there be too much choice?

I suppose it should ultimately be down to the writer and, like with any remake, the new version should offer something significantly different rather than being just another bite of the same cherry.

If the story doesn't benefit from a makeover why not just put it out there again in its original form and have faith in what people liked about it in the first place.

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