Review: Moon Over Soho

Now that A Room Full of Elephants is out, I’m planning to read more. Top of the pile: Moon Over Soho, the second book in the Peter Grant/Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch. If you remember, I enjoyed the first tremendously.

Although not a sequel, Moon dovetails nicely with the end of the first book. Rivers had consequences, and they’re not funnelled into the Thames to dilute to nothing. Rather, they form an underlying thread at which Aaronovitch occasionally tugs, with the promise of more in subsequent books. I’m glad he didn’t wave the big red magical-realism reset wand: I’m now two books into a series, and I’m certainly here for the duration. (The third book’s already lower down the pile.)

Where Moon isn’t quite as successful, for me, is in the main plot. It feels a little disjointed, less coherent, than Rivers. Some of the plot developments aren’t as surprising as it appears they’re supposed to be. Without spoiling anything, our protagonist displays a certain… lack of due diligence in one particular area. I know from experience that it’s tricky to keep revelations revelatory: as the author, you know whose fingers are in which pies and it’s often hard to judge the correct balance between sprinkling a few crumbs and chucking buckets of pastry at the reader. Here it doesn’t distract greatly from the fun of the book, merely triggering the occasional arctic eye-roll. (I’m sorry.)

One criticism I’ve heard – entirely fairly – about my own Till Undeath Do Us Part regards its detailed geographical references: the “he turned left onto King’s Parade and waved at Charlie the bin-busker” sort of thing. Moon has these too. Not everyone likes them but I think they’re fine here: London’s a minor character, and the details help ground the reader in reality as a counterpoint to the magic. Knowing the locations – through personal experience or by reputation – heightens the fantastical elements.

I do like how Moon ends: both the end of the plot, and the winding up that takes place in the closing pages. Full of bittery sweetness, regrets and promise. The spark of magic glinting at the edges of the grey hardness of police life.

Overall: not quite as enjoyable as Rivers, but a solid, fun read that sets things up nicely for book three.

Elephants for everyone

arfoe-post-releasedA Room Full of Elephants is released today. I’m so glad that after a year of effort my deranged wittering is finally in people’s hands, and the feedback so far is tremendously pleasing.

Release day is an odd one for an author. The excitement of sales, the checking of charts. Most of all, the feeling that it’s done, at last. I can’t tweak that paragraph any more. I can’t punch up that dialogue.

There’s plenty left for me to do, of course: marketing, for instance. Giveaways. Shouting into the wind, hoping for reviews. That’s the business side of the book business.

The book itself is no longer mine: it’s yours.

My head is still full of the quantum blur of superimposed drafts and dangling, discarded threads. Every line surrounded by ghosts. You, instead, get the focused view: the paved path from start to finish, a view I’ll never have.

I envy you that.

And yet every one of us, me included, experiences the book in our heads unlike everyone else. You see Keith one way, I see him another. And everyone is right. If it’s not stated explicitly in the words (and even if it is), the interpretation is entirely up to you. So you, collectively, see a cloud far fuzzier than the one I see.

The difference is that for me, the hallucinations triggered the words, and for you it’s the other way around.

Writing is weird.

How not to advertise on Facebook

For the launch of A Room Full of Elephants I’ve been considering running a short Facebook ad campaign: a couple of days before and after the release date, to drum up some eyeballs.

The release date is next Wednesday. Yesterday, I thought it was about time I made the ad. I should have started sooner, but, you know, I’ve had a book to finish. Priorities!

Facebook’s ad guidelines helpfully supplied image dimensions: 1200 x 628 pixels. They also stated “Your image may not include more than 20% text,” to stop people using text-filled spam ads. Reasonable, I suppose. I didn’t follow the link to “see how much text is on your image” because I didn’t have an image yet. 20% is 20%, I thought to myself, I’ll make something that doesn’t exceed that limit. I’ve been counting pixels since before Zuckerberg was born, you know. I can draw bounding boxes. I can multiply*. I can divide*.

(* I can tell machines to multiply and divide.)

I created an image: not the best ad in the world, but it matched the graphics I’ve been using elsewhere, based on the book cover, and it followed the 20% rule. Here it is, for posterity:

arfoe-facebook-ad-2016-03

Then it was time to double-check using that “see how much text is on your image” link, and…

Oh.

In their tool, you don’t draw bounding boxes for your text. The image is divided into a grid, and you click to colour in each grid rectangle, each cell, in your image that contains text. If you colour in more than 20% of cells, you have too much text. It’s not as accurate as drawing a bounding box, but it’s a much simpler user interface (both to use and to write).

The accuracy of the grid method depends entirely on the size of each cell. Imagine each cell was a single pixel: here, you’d colour in all the pixels enclosed by your hypothetical bounding box, and the answer would be the same. The coarser the grid, the less accurate the answer: imagine a two-by-two grid, where each cell corresponds to a quarter of the image. One piece of text in a single rectangle, and the system would think your image was 25% text.

Would you like to know the size of Facebook’s grid? 20×20? 10×10?

It’s 5×5.

Five by five.

Have it in roman numerals too: V by V. There are only XXV cells, and I’m only allowed to colour in up to V, because V / XXV = XX%. (I’ll stop this now, it’s confusing me.)

Here’s what my ad looks like, with the cells coloured in strictly according to the rules:

arfoe-ad-text

Facebook thinks my ad contains 52% text. Not something I imagine any reasonable punter would guess, and out by a factor of three or so.

How do I fix this? Oh, that’s easy: move text so it overlaps fewer gridlines. Shrink text to fit. Or to put it another way: change my design. Make my ad look worse. (For big brands, this can mean: break your branding rules. Good luck, ad agencies, explaining to your client why Facebook won’t accept your ad. That’s assuming pros have the same term as the rest of us, by no means certain.)

The true question, though, is: does Facebook use this same 5×5 grid when approving ads, or is it just a handy tool for ad creators to see if they’ve gone massively over the top?

In other words, what’s the real rule: “Your image may not include more than 20% text”, or “Your image may not include text in more than five cells when divided into a 5×5 grid”

And the answer is: who knows? Facebook, you would hope, but the evidence suggests they’re not sure either. I’ve seen reports of ads being rejected for failing the grid, and then reinstated on appeal. More than one of those ad-yourself-to-success listicles recommends obeying the grid rule. My guess is there’s a front line of grunts who apply the grid rule mechanically, and a second line who deal with the complaints and spend most of their time eye-rolling.

As to whether any of this truly matters: yes, I think so, at least in part. Such a coarse grid encourages you to use short, shouty text to make “best use” of your five cells, or to cram text together, breaching design principles. The ads are worse as a result: bad for the advertiser, bad for the consumer, bad for Facebook.

This rule also makes it very hard to include important text such as disclaimers required by law. Not an issue with A Room Full of Elephants, admittedly, assuming we don’t get Trumped.

Anyway: I’m not placing this ad right now. I’ll think of another approach. I’m allowed to include an image of the product I’m selling, and text on the product doesn’t count towards the 20% (unless you zoom in to try to cheat the rules, and the extent of the allowable zoom is, of course, subjective). So I’ll do a photo of the book in a relevant setting, and I have an idea. All I need is a copy of the paperback: and for that, I’m still waiting.

Thanks, Facebook.

Elephants!

A Room Full of Elephants

As you might have noticed, my website has sprouted a new book. A Room Full of Elephants is now available for preorder on Kindle and in the iBooks Store, and will be released on March 16th. The paperback version will appear on or around the same date: possibly earlier, should it please the gods.

You can follow links here, there and everywhere to read the blurb and, I hope, to order a copy. In this post I want to describe some of the background to the book, and the writing process. There won’t be any spoilers.

I’ve noodled with the core concepts in the book for a few years. Not long after The Pink and the Grey was released I started scribbling with no more than an opening scene in mind, planning to follow the plot wherever it might lead. It led to a brick wall in that case, about 15K words in, but the process spewed a number of ideas that I squirrelled away. After Disunited and The Pauline Conversion, looking through my notes for inspiration, I decided this was the story I wanted to tell next.

I deliberately didn’t reread the abandoned draft. I didn’t want to be lured into copy-pasting words and scenes and finding myself stuck in the same mire as before. I took the concepts, wrote page after page of bullet points including random ideas, quotes and character notes, roughed out something not fit to shine an outline’s steel toecaps, and started writing again from a blank sheet of pixels.

Now, I’m not a pantser, as those who write without an outline are sometimes called. I prefer a fractal approach: start with broad swathes of plot, a rough coastline, and add progressively more detail until I can see the fiddly bits of Slartibartfast’s fjords. But this time I wanted to try a little light pantsing to see how it went: much as with the original version of the story, but with a different focus.

Yeah, I shouldn’t do that.

I can’t remember who said it (Stephen King?) but it’s at least partially true: writer’s block is nature’s way of telling you your plot’s taken a wrong turning and the satnav is currently directing it to a dead end. And when that happens all you can do is tell your muse (Siri) to shut his gob, then wrench the gearstick into reverse and try not to run over the sheep.

The good news with these new-fangled computers is that nothing ever gets deleted: it just gets moved to a folder marked OLD, to be cherry-picked for the bits that haven’t turned to mush.

arfoe-old-oldAnd when it happens again, you rename OLD to OLD OLD and make a new OLD.

I wouldn’t like to guess how many words I actually wrote for ARFOE to produce the 100K of the final book.

By comparison, with The Pauline Conversion I had a detailed outline and wrote the first draft from zero to 120K words in under 100 days. A Room Full of Elephants took at least twice as long, for fewer words. That includes two blocks of time when I wasn’t writing: I stepped away to rethink aspects of the story and to give Siri and his slapdash directions a stern talking to. I also went to the Lake District for a week, which helped put some distance between brain and draft. Once a new route was plotted (or a new plot routed), avoiding low bridges and deep fords, I pushed on. This time the drystone walls survived my meanderings, and I reached my destination relatively intact.

I completed the first draft on my parents’ 51st wedding anniversary. (The book’s dedicated to them.)

A month of incubation a Christmas, and several drafts later, here we are. A Room Full of Elephants is done, and despite all the frustration I love it.

Writing is a slog, and a chore, and a delight. The hours can rush past, and time can stop. You can struggle to find one word, any word, to fit, and you can bash out a thousand without blinking. And nothing, nothing at all, beats the surprises. The revelations your subconscious hides from you until just the right moment: and you think yes, but now I’ve got to revise everything I’ve already written, and you look back, and you don’t have to change a word.

I know, I know, it sounds unlikely. Twee nonsense, the ravings of a poor, ruddy-cheeked auteur perspiring into his aubergine ruff. It happens, though, I promise you. (Although my ruff is turquoise.)

And now the cycle begins again. A pile of books to read, a large number of coffee shop windows to stare out of, and a notebook to fill with nonsense. Right now I have no idea what the next book will be.

All I know is I’ll be writing an outline first.

ARFOE versus a DeLorean

I’m in a reflective mood. Perhaps it’s down to Back to the Future day, which I’ve spent marvelling at the thousands of hoverboards nobody has. More likely it’s because I finally finished the first draft of ARFOE not so long ago. Finishing a first draft is like riding a non-hovering skateboard into a kerb: it stops, and you keep going. I’m typing, I’m typing, I’m typing, and then I’m not, I’m just being carried along by momentum with my typing fingers flapping at the air. And soon (in three weeks?) the hard work begins, of battering that draft into shape. So I’ve been wandering, and doodling.

I’m writing this in the bar of my old college, Downing. A curious experience, not least because I rarely crossed its threshold when I was an undergraduate at the turn of the 1990s. The bar itself now opens to the public as a Costa franchise during the day, because money. And of course everyone looks twelve apart from the rugby players, who could pass for fourteen.

Someone mugging for what I am apparently obliged to call a selfie made me think about how photography has changed since my non-bald days. Today’s undergraduates can likely trace themselves visually almost daily from birth through college — and barring a collapse of civilisation, until death. Today’s technology will only improve and become more widespread, with an ever-shrinking ability to opt out. Anonymity, privacy and secrecy will retreat to ever-smaller niches available only to those with ever-deeper pockets.

And some of today’s undergraduates will one day want to become politicians. Society — by which I mean the newspapers — will have to grow up a little to allow that. (Confidential to self: maybe a St Paul’s College student?)

In contrast, barely any visual record of my time at college exists, to my knowledge. The more distant those days become the more I regret this. I have my matriculation photo: I’m a small blob in a suit and gown amongst other small blobs in suits and gowns. There’s one of me at my college May Ball, again in a suit, a few days before I graduated. I have a few graduation photos. I’m squinting in the sun, and I’m still in a suit.

Somewhere there’s a photo of a small group of us taken in my student room a few hours after our final exam. We’re cheersing the camera with something fizzy. I’m wearing a chunky-knit white jumper. I don’t know why: it was June. I wore it for the three hours of the exam. I wore it for the rest of the day. I never wore it again.

Would I want a photo of me on stage at the Cambridge Union, in late 1988, having been pulled out of the audience by a hypnotist? Perhaps. I was given some plastic specs and told they let me see everyone naked. They didn’t, but I went along with it.

Would I want a photo of me playing korfball for the university? Absolutely. I scored a terrific goal at an away game at UEA in Norwich twenty-five years ago next week, NOT THAT I’M COUNTING. (I believe that was the trip during which (a) I managed to lose some authentic non-cheap Cambridge University branded tracksuit bottoms and (b) someone noticed me staring at an underdressed attractive gentleman in the changing room and I brazened it out and for the avoidance of doubt these two facts are not linked.)

You know, just a few more photos of me as an undergrad in college, and not in a suit or a jumper I’d never wear again, would be nice.

I worry that without a photographic record, I’ll forget these things. Time scuffs and rubs at each day’s mental pencil jottings, leaving only the deep emotional scratches of utter clarity. The final seconds of melancholy sitting on my desk in my third-year room, newly graduated, about to leave for the last time. The ludicrous, irrational bitterness at not being selected for the Varsity korfball match. Watching TV as the first Gulf war kicked off, unable to work from the adrenaline shakes. Learning Margaret Thatcher had resigned and wanting to run and tell everyone, and instead queuing mutely to pay my poll tax. Plucking a porter’s note from my pigeonhole asking me to phone home, and knowing it meant my grandmother had died. The first minutes alone in my first-year room, trying not to panic.

Maybe I shouldn’t visit college again for a while. Or maybe I should.