Trying not to map paving slabs

A few days ago, as a friend and I were chatting about The Pauline Conversion, he said he’d bet any money I’d researched it to within an inch of its life. He believed I wouldn’t be happy until I’d followed every research thread to its end, mapping every paving slab and shop front of Cambridge in February 1972 to be sure the story played out in a historically accurate setting.

I laughed. He’s not right, but neither can I say he’s entirely wrong. The truth is, research is the best way to keep my flat clean. When I need to research something – say, the miners’ strike in progress at the time of the story – I approach it as I would a rattlesnake doing its little dance. I run away screaming.

It’s not that I don’t want to know what happened, or don’t want to do the research. I enjoy knowing. I enjoy learning more about things that interest me. The problem is, I’m a details person and I can be a bit of an obsessive. Research has an inertia for me: hard to start, hard to stop.

And I know I’m like this: hence the procrastination.

Research lays a number of traps for the unwary.

First: I researched it and you’re damn well going to know it. You know the sort of book. The author vomits every factoid in his research notebook into the manuscript to justify the time spent discovering it. The precise shade of blusher under a talcum face and wig. The twirl of brass on a pistol. The manufacturing history of a pair of contemporary bloomers. The author’s trying to paint a picture with too many megapixels. I don’t think I suffer from this: I try to make details serve the story as much as possible, or add a smattering of colour, or at least be an excuse for a joke.

Similarly, the past is a foreign country, endlessly fascinating, and it’s easy to dwell upon the differences – “only 7 1/2p for a bag of chips!” – and the multitude of hats, and forget that to the characters this is the now, the normal. Although a book might be written almost as the memoir of a participant, it’s best to avoid the literary equivalent of pointing and sniggering. There are always exceptions – for stories that flit back and forth in time, for example. But comparing then to now brings the certainty that, before long, now becomes then and the book exists in two time periods: when it was set and when it was written.

To put it another way: all books, even novels set in the present day, are historical. (Some day Disunited will be a curiosity in a world where out gay professional male footballers are normal and common. I hope it happens soon.)

Another risk is the possibility the research becomes more interesting than the book. I was worried I’d be knocking on the library doors at 7am desperate for my fix of 1972 local newspapers, fast becoming the world’s foremost authority on postwar Sidney Street roadworks. An honourable title, to be sure, but unlikely to power a page-turner.

And there’s the risk that sometimes becomes a gift: the wondrous, terrifying prospect of the author finding a piece of information that upends the entire story. Is it crisis or opportunity? That’s part of the fun of research. And by fun, I mean nightmare. The author never knows if, lurking over the page, is a photo that burns the plot to vapour. This worry can spur research far beyond what’s required to write the book.

Related to those last two: a discovery that real life events make a better story than the one the author had in mind. Truth really can be stranger than fiction – coincidences abound that would be laughed out of a novel. (Good fiction can get away with one coincidence at the start, to set the plot rolling, and that’s it.)

A pragmatic approach is best.

With The Pauline Conversion the vast majority of readers, most likely, didn’t experience February 1972 in Cambridge, or perhaps anywhere south of an ovary. But I had to assume a reasonable level of knowledge of that time, gleaned from popular culture and so on. Nationally and globally, I wanted to be as accurate as I could. I’d never have dropped a smartphone into 1972, but not everything is so clear-cut. TV remote controls? In the US, yes. They were rare to non-existent in the UK. Our house didn’t have a TV with a remote control until the late 1970s, and we were probably early adopters. So, no remote controls.

But did it matter that characters in a scene didn’t mention the rather large Tesco along the street at that time, even though it would’ve altered their behaviour? Absolutely not, since the store had no relevance to the story. (It would’ve mattered had characters later visited it for some reason: consistency is vital. As it happens I learned about this Tesco shortly before publication.) Local contemporary norms can be subverted, I suppose I’m saying.

Partially this is to allow the story to happen. St Paul’s is a fictional college superimposed upon a real geographical area, after all. And partially it’s because local knowledge can be tremendously hard to get right: the information just isn’t readily available at that level, if it exists at all. There are always people who know more than the author about the topic – local geography, terminology, technology, etc. That’s a fact of life. But a writer can’t read everything, can’t interview everyone, otherwise we’re back to mapping paving slabs. Immersing is great: drowning is bad.

Sometimes I’ll get things wrong by accident, and sometimes it’s better to fudge things to simplify matters. My goal is “factually correct” (aside from the obvious fiction of the story), but I’ll accept “not obviously wrong to the layman”.

Perfect is the enemy of good. Serving the story is the key. The author needs just enough research to get from beginning to end. Breadth, not depth.

For the mildly obsessive like me, that can feel like cheating. Like setting foot in a foreign country for the first time claiming to know the language, when you’ve no more than skimmed the “Useful phrases” section in the Lonely Planet guide and can order up to, but no more than, six beers. You want to know only enough to get by, to bluff your way through, because beyond a certain level of knowledge the time spent in research feels wasted.

I say “feels” because I do need to know more than appears in the finished book. A tourist in a foreign land who takes the effort to learn just that little bit more of the language gains a buffer of confidence (“seven beers” is so much more impressive than “six beers and one beer”, if an additional drinker appears unexpectedly). A similar buffer in my research lets me add nuance, a little depth, as long as I don’t start vomiting out my notebook.

There is a balance, somewhere, which I hope to find as I grope around in the dark.

My friend knows me well, of course: it’s true I learned a lot more about Cambridge in February 1972 than I actually needed to know. To return to his original point, I don’t think I researched The Pauline Conversion to within an inch of its life: but maybe to within a yard. About the length of a paving slab.

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Recovering

Coinciding with the release of The Pauline Conversion, I’ve given my other three books new covers. In two cases tweaks rather than wholesale changes: in one, something entirely new. I want to delve a little into the process.

ATTENTION: INCOMING SUBHEADINGS.

Background

To state the bleeding obvious, covers are the first part of a book encountered by potential readers. They’re the first muddy hillock you need to urge them over on the obstacle course that ends with page one. If you can’t get them over that first hurdle, it doesn’t matter how perfect the words are. There are plenty of other books out there upon the miles of shelving, real and virtual, to choose from.

(None of this applies to those authors whose names take up half the cover: they could publish a collection of shopping lists called Nnnnggngg and it’d shoot to the top of the bestseller list. I don’t have that luxury, or a collection of shopping lists.)

The only objective metric I have is sales. This measures a lot more than cover quality, but it’s all I have. In an ideal world I’d test two covers (leaving everything else identical) and see which sells more — and then swap the poorer design for a new one, and repeat until Nnnnggngg. Marketing types and those that hang around them call this A/B testing.

It’s tricky to perform an A/B test with print books, but what’s stopping me doing it for ebooks? Amazon, I suppose. They could make it easy: let me have multiple variants of a book in the Kindle store, and use their big black box of twiddly knobs to show different variants to different people. But they don’t let me do that. It’s a shame. It’s a way for authors — and themselves — to make more money. No other ebook vendor has the feature either, as far as I know.

In the absence of A/B testing, all I can do is change the cover of a book every now and then and see if, long term, the graph creeps up. But you never know if that’s due to a better cover, or more books, or a media appearance, or any other variation between the two time periods. When you’re A/B testing you want the only difference to be between A and B: the two covers. You can’t test cover A in country X and cover B in country Y, or any other artificial variation, because you never know if that’s the cause of the difference in sales, not the covers.

I’m left with hunches and feelings and rolls of the dice, and I can’t make spreadsheets out of those, dammit.

For a while I’ve had a strong hunch the old cover for The Pink and the Grey wasn’t doing a great job: I wanted to change that. The hunch wasn’t so strong for Till Undeath Do Us Part or Disunited, but I was willing to explore alternatives.

Accompanying the various hunches were a couple of practical reasons for changing the covers. The aspect ratio (1:1.6) seemed a little off – too tall. More books seem to use the slightly fatter 1:1.5 ratio. More importantly, today there are more devices with high-density “retina” displays, and Amazon’s recommended pixel dimensions for covers had increased. The old images weren’t detailed enough: they’re now 3200×4800, which is a step up from the 256×192 of my ZX Spectrum days.

Changing the “brand”

The previous covers shared certain elements, defining – if you like – the “brand”. Changing all covers at once brought the possibility of updating these shared elements.

All three of the old covers used the same font for both the book title and author name (one of the thousands of variations of Univers), and included a diagonal design element top to bottom. I loved the concept of the diagonal, but it imposes what I shall politely call a “creative burden” on the designer (the “yeah, but how the hell can I shoehorn the diagonal into this one?” problem). Using the same font for all titles linked the covers well: but left no room for genre.

The new covers take a different approach. There’s still a common font (now Avenir Next) but it’s only used for the author name and media quotes (and printed book internals such as chapter titles). The book titles have unique fonts that better fit the story, I hope. There’s no requirement for a diagonal element now (though I’ve kept it for two books, as it works for those independently of branding). Instead there’s a loose theme of rich, solid colours.

Each book now has a tagline too, digging fractionally deeper into plot.

Enough common ground to link the covers when they’re placed together. Enough flexibility to design for the genre and the story.

Disunited

covers-before-after-disunited

This cover has changed least.

The player is shifted left to accommodate the great press quote. The title font is much stronger, with a hint of newspaper headline about it.

The tagline tries to communicate the momentousness of the story: the huge change Danny and the sport go through. I’m also using “Out – and outnumbered” with this book. (Perhaps I should have called the book Outnumbered, but there’s a sitcom in the UK with that title, which put me off it. Anyway, it’s not changing now.)

Till Undeath Do Us Part

covers-before-after-tudup

The new cover reduces the background distraction at top right and presents the faces a little starker. The font is more dramatic and urgent, more typical in books in the horror genre, and the angle emphasises the urgency.

The tagline hints at the two paths of the story. It’s ominous – and also faintly biblical, matching the title. I considered mentioning zombies explicitly, but felt the Undeath of the title served that purpose.

I considered a very different cover, showing King’s College Chapel in a dramatic silhouette. It matches the other three new covers more closely, but tells you nothing about the story. People shown both covers preferred the existing cover: it links the title to two people, the main characters in the story, and hints strongly at plot.

These faces, incidentally, are part of the incredible, beautiful detail in the chapel’s west window. If you get a chance to visit the chapel, do. It’s a tremendous building.

The Pink and the Grey

covers-before-after-tpatg

Now the real change!

I love the old cover. Two quarters of the shield hint at the story, and it’s full of fun if you look at the detail. But nobody sees any of that. People see a cover with a shield on it – and that’s about it. Nobody sees the central circle as a camera lens. The title, of course, gives little away.

The new cover focuses heavily on the surveillance cameras in St Paul’s College (they’re not the whole story, but it’s a mistake to cram too much into a cover). You can now tell at a glance the plot involves cameras, probably a lot of them, with hints of disagreements (cameras looking at cameras). This cover makes the book look humorous, too. It’s a much better fit for the story than the last one.

The taglines for The Pink and the Grey and The Pauline Conversion have the same feel, reinforcing their shared universe (let’s hope I can keep the pattern going for future books). Using four one-word sentences, with the last word slightly off-the-wall, helps convey the humour as well as the plot.

I have a notebook full of sketched ideas for this cover: despite the simplicity of the final idea it took a long time to get here.

Summary

The new covers are now published everywhere (the old covers persist only on sites like Goodreads that track each edition separately). I hope they’ll convince more readers to get as far as page one, where the writing can take over. The truth is I have no idea: I’m far too close to the covers to be objective about them. We’ll see. Come back in a year to see if my new book’s called Nnnnggngg.

The Pauline Conversion: coming soon

Subscribers to my newsletter learned all about my new book, The Pauline Conversion, last weekend. It’s time I passed the news on to the laggards…

After a detour to the world of football with Disunited, The Pauline Conversion brings me back home to Cambridge — the Cambridge of The Pink and the Grey, and St Paul’s College.

I love this universe. In my head St Paul’s lives and breathes: the university terms ever-cycling, like the undergraduates. And I think modern society — more open and accepting than ever — presents new challenges for the college. Is it relevant today? What is it for? Somewhere in college, over a dry sherry and a wet biscuit, those in charge are struggling to ensure it evolves to maintain its unique place in the university and the city.

This isn’t new. The challenges of modernity are constant: only the details twiddle at the edges. Dip a time-travelling toe anywhere into the two centuries of college and you’ll find its leadership wrestling with society’s shifting moral sands. How did James Drybutter found the college? How did it cope in the late Victorian period, with Oscar Wilde on trial? What happened during and between the world wars? (Two, at time of writing.)

I have some ideas about those — for other books, perhaps.

The Pauline Conversion is set in a more modern era: the early 1970s, at the dawning of the twin ages of aquarius and colour television. This was a period of unrest across Britain, with strikes and power cuts and “women’s lib” and student sit-ins and hippies. (In those days you had to ask the state-run General Post Office politely if they might consent to install a telephone in your house – and then wait several weeks until they wired, directly into your wall, something you didn’t own and couldn’t unplug.)

A different Britain, and yet not so different. In the news: the economy, immigration, war, terrorism, equality, rights, democracy.

The story takes place in February 1972. The miners are on strike for more pay. Chunks of the centre of Cambridge are being bulldozed and redeveloped. Students around the city have found their voices. Change is in the air.

And in the midst of all this is Dennis Sauvage. Readers of The Pink and the Grey will remember Dennis as a man of calculatedly indeterminate vintage with an impish sense of humour and a tendency to repeat himself, repeat himself. In The Pauline Conversion we see him in his pomp, already a quarter-century under his St Paul’s belt — and with a nagging frustration his career has stalled.

The book opens in mid-air as Dennis tumbles from his bike. He’s helped up by a homeless boy called Red who deserves better, and soon the academic has a cause to champion that might — might — earn him the chapter in college history he craves. (It’s either that or a dismal footnote and a retirement lobbying former students for guest appearances in their autobiographies.) But Red has secrets, and even Dennis has enemies. His cause becomes a fight for his future — and the future of college itself.

Dennis isn’t the only character from The Pink and the Grey to appear in youthful form — also present is Arthur, the porter. And many new characters, who you can discover for yourselves.

In case you’re wondering, The Pauline Conversion isn’t a prequel to The Pink and the Grey in any real sense, despite the overlaps. You can read the books in either order.

When will it be out?

Currently I’m mulling over the feedback from my beta readers before embarking on what should be the final draft. My goal is to publish the book at the end of October. That’s only a few weeks away, which is exciting for all of us and terrifying for me, as it leaves me barely any time to procrastinate.

Meanwhile, here’s an exclusive preview of the cover design:

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The other covers are being changed or tweaked too, because this month clearly isn’t busy enough already. Look for a blog post soon about that exercise.

I know it’s been a long time since Disunited came out. The Pauline Conversion has been in gestation a while — I wrote the first words over a year ago. I hope you’ll find the wait worth it. It’s been so much fun colouring in some of the history of St Paul’s, and even more so spending time with Dennis, a character I love.

To receive this a week ago, why not subscribe to my newsletter today? I know a man with a time machine. Well, I will.

Disunited: HALF PRICE this week

The nice people at Stonewall UK, in conjunction with bookmakers Paddy Power, have launched a campaign to challenge footballers to support gay players. They’ve sent out rainbow laces to every footballer in 134 clubs across the UK, and want them all to wear the laces in next weekend’s matches. The campaign slogan is “Right Behind Gay Footballers” (see #RBGF on Twitter) and the campaign has the vocal support of current QPR footballer Joey Barton.

This is a fascinating and potentially cunning campaign. I can’t wait to see the results: will anyone wear the laces? And if they do, what will the reaction be from their teammates, and opponents, and the people in the stands?

And also, will mainstream media talk about any of this?

Homophobia in football — and especially the prospect of an out gay footballer playing at the top level in the UK — are issues close to my heart: see numerous blog posts and of course my comic novel, Disunited. My prediction that a player would come out over the summer break didn’t come true, but maybe this campaign could be the trigger for someone. I hope so.

You might wonder, since I wrote Disunited, whether I knew about the campaign in advance. I didn’t, but I certainly support it. (Interestingly, rainbow laces was an idea considered for the Disunited cover.)

Anyway, in a gibbering fit of excitement as a result of this campaign I’ve decided, for this week only, to halve the price for Disunited for Kindle owners.

New Kindle prices:

Tell all your friends! Share! Tweet!

And with one bound, he was free

Robbie Rogers is playing football again, for LA Galaxy. He’s the first openly gay player in the MLS — the North American equivalent of the Premier League. And he wants to make the US team for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

I simply could not be happier about this.

The story of Robbie Rogers renders the core of Disunited almost a historical curiosity, given the book’s about a young player coming out — and I knew that would happen, and I hoped it would happen. But until a British player comes out and carries on playing over here, the book won’t become entirely irrelevant. Even so, I’m glad I followed my instincts and published early: by now I suspect I’d have binned the manuscript, or rewritten great chunks in a blue funk.

Today sees the last match of the domestic season: the Championship play-off final, considered the richest game in football. The winners — this time, either Crystal Palace or Watford — join the big boys and the rivers of gold in the Premier League. Since I started on Disunited I’ve been convinced a British player would come out in the close season that follows today’s match. Now Rogers is playing again, I think it’s even more likely.

Start the clock: 82 days and counting.

By the way: I dropped the prices of Disunited and The Pink and the Grey in ebook format recently. They’re now £1/€1/$2 cheaper: ideal summer holiday reading, if you ask me.

Jason Collins, the coming gold rush, and an interview

Since Disunited came out at the end of January we’ve now seen two male sports stars do the same — and a few female sports stars too, let’s not forget.

Jason Collins is the first NBA player to come out and continue playing. The second might be newsworthy too. The third? Meh. No longer a story — which is exactly how it should be. The first few male sportsmen to come out will have the pick of the sponsors. Those that follow will just feel secure in the knowledge that they’re doing nothing special — and nothing lucrative.

The gold rush starts now.

By a remarkable coincidence, just a day or so before Collins’ announcement I was interviewed about Disunited by the editor of Stonewall Times, the community magazine for LGBT players of Star Trek Online. A few of my lines now seem a little prescient:

Statistically it’s highly unlikely there are no gay players in the Premier League – or in the NFL, or NHL, or NBA, or any major sport.

And:

I’m still betting on a top player coming out this year, probably over the summer, and carrying on in the sport.

In the latter quote I was talking specifically about football, and post-Collins I’m even more convinced: in football and in other team sports, the time is right. Who will be next?

Read the full interview (reproduced with kind permission of the editor).

Appearing in print since 1976

captain-britain-meMy first appearance in print was in a Captain Britain comic in 1976. A less exciting debut than it sounds: I’d been to a event in London, met Stan Lee (praise be upon him) and got his autograph — plus Spider-Man’s — and was photographed holding up my copy of the recently published collection of origin stories, Bring on the Bad Guys. A few weeks later a black-and-white photo of my innocent young face appeared in Captain Britain issue ten.

I have several copies.

Almost ten years elapsed before I next graced the pages of a publication. This was Your Spectrum, one of the many computer magazines that flourished in the home computer boom of the mid-eighties. Proto-hacker that I was, I’d submitted an article about the recently released game Jet Set Willy II in which I’d worked out how to gain infinite lives and other exciting cheats. I also included a full map. As the game had only been out for a week or two at the time, I felt this was a mighty achievement worthy of celebration and payment.

An article duly appeared a few months later — curse magazine lead times — and my name appeared proudly against the piece surrounded by chirpy eighties italics. Sadly, it was the third of three credits: a couple of other writers had obviously been struck by the same idea. Very few of my words remained, but if you squinted you could see the article was derived from the text I’d given them. The head of the axe had been replaced, and so had the handle, but the strapping between them was unchanged, and it was all mine. And there I was, in print again.

I have several copies.

Fast-forward to today. I stand in WH Smith (other newsagents are available) leafing through the April 2013 issue of FourFourTwo magazine (other footballing magazines are available). I reach page twenty-five (other page numbers are available). And there, at the lower right, is a print review of Disunited.

It’s a very short piece, merely a brief precis and one sentence of commentary. It’s a shame there wasn’t space for a more in-depth review — and, selfishly, a cracking line I could lift for promotional purposes — but as an unknown author I’ll take what I can get in the magical world of mainstream media. It’s a decent review in print that 90,000 readers will see, and that’s no bad thing.

I didn’t buy a copy. I don’t want to make a habit out of it.