Review: Ready Player One

Next on my book pile: 2011’s debut novel from Ernest Cline, Ready Player One. It’s a few decades into the future, and as real life is far from ideal most of humanity prefers to spend its time in a haptically enhanced virtual universe created by a now-dead reclusive videogame genius billionaire. Somewhere in this virtual universe is an egg, hidden by the genius, and whoever finds it – by following clues and solving puzzles – inherits the billions.

A pixellated quest story, then, with the usual heroes and assorted villainy. The virtual setting lifts what might otherwise be a standard boy-meets-sword, boy-faces-impossible-odds fantasy tale into something new: where magic and technology coexist (or not, according to the rules of that part of the game), where trudging and poetry are abandoned in favour of teleports and 80s cultural references, and where danger exists in both virtual and real forms.

The lurking menace in a story of this kind is the deus ex machina – with in this case the machine an actual computer, and the god its programmer. They give the story world an easy malleability making it trivial for heroes in apparently inescapable peril to survive thanks to a magical artefact they happen to carry in their infinite virtual backpacks. Always a problem in any fantasy tale – Chekhov’s spell, if you like, taught in act one to be cast in act three – but enhanced here in a world whose rules could change at any moment or location according to the whim of our deceased coder to get Cline out of a plot pickle. The author just about gets away with it, I’d say. One scene springs to mind which klaxons “I am important later” in a way I found rather too unsubtle.

A few scenes also suffer from backstoryitis: the suspension of plot progress to allow for a couple of paragraphs or a page of exposition. Perhaps these infodumps would have been better woven into the ongoing text – or deleted entirely. It’s tricky, I know. (I deleted several paragraphs of backstory from The Pauline Conversion. Ultimately it was there for me to better understand the characters: it was irrelevant for the reader.)

But these are nitpicks: minor bugs in the Ready Player One meta-universe, I suppose, if I’m being poncy. It’s an enjoyable book. In particular the 80s references are delightful and, even better, accurate. I’m sure someday someone will create the virtual universe in this book, and I’d love to visit. Meanwhile a movie is in development hell, and may or may not eventually emerge from the Hollywood sausage machine. But given the rights issues (there are a lot of cultural references key to the plot, such as videogames, TV shows, songs and movies) it’s open to question whether the movie will resemble the book. My advice: don’t wait for the movie. The virtual universe inside your head is much more realistic anyway.

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The Perils of Pauline

The Pauline Conversion

No plan survives contact with the enemy. As I wrote in my last blog about researching The Pauline Conversion, as you dig around in the archives you have to be prepared to unearth something that stops your neat idea in its tracks. If you’re unlucky it sends you reversing back to the start line. If you’re lucky it diverts you onto a shinier, more interesting path. The Pauline Conversion is very much an example of the latter.

The journey to The Pauline Conversion started over a year ago after Russia passed an anti-gay law just months before hosting the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi. You might remember the fuss, which resulted ultimately in mass hand-wringing and general inaction. This law angered me, naturally. It was a hugely retrograde step for the country, and the global community fluffed its response.

It set me thinking. Could I write a book satirising this situation in some way? It felt a natural fit for St Paul’s College in an earlier, less equal time than the contemporary Britain of The Pink and the Grey. I’d also been itching to write a story about a younger version of Dennis. One calculation later, I settled on 1972 as a first approximation. In those days the summer and winter games occurred in the same year. Munich, in the summer, suffered from terrorism: not a great backdrop for a St Paul’s story. Sapporo’s winter games were a better fit, mirroring Sochi in 2014.

That took me back to February 1972, when the Sapporo games took place. I noodled with the idea of St Paul’s or the university staging its own games, but nothing grabbed me – and it wouldn’t be Dennis’s thing at all, unless there was a gold medal in tea preparation. In search of inspiration I looked into that time in more detail: what was going on, globally and locally?

A lot of change. A lot of unrest.

Change is constant, of course, and someone’s always up in arms about something. But Cambridge was experiencing a greater turbulence than usual. Miners were on strike across the country, and the energy shortage was about to bring power cuts and disruption. Students took part in a sit-in at a university building, arguing for a greater say in university affairs and changes to exams. Not far from St Paul’s a large rectangle of old Cambridge was being demolished and redeveloped: a multi-storey car park, a modern shopping centre.

All this on the back of the great social changes of the 1960s. For gay men the decade brought, eventually, decriminalisation – though there’s a difference between legal and socially acceptable. Even five years after decriminalisation, attitudes towards LGBT people (not that this term was in use) had barely shifted from much darker, more violent times, even in a semi-enlightened Cambridge that would have tolerated St Paul’s for a couple of centuries. And discrimination was rife not just against gay people. Women were poorly treated (they still are, of course), and beginning to fight back: stereotypically, burning bras in the cause of women’s liberation.

In Dennis I saw a man who would be uneasy and suspicious of too much change too rapidly. But he would also be a moderniser, understanding the worst way to manage change is to build a dam and hide beneath it. He would also be a man of multifarious routines, as we all are, with that nagging middle-aged sense of a life slipping away unfulfilled.

Change, then: a rich seam to mine, at many levels. Environmental, social, personal, with Dennis at the core pushing and coping and not coping and blundering.

An idea bloomed and I started to write, but the story lacked fizz. I persevered for a while hoping a light bulb would blaze above my head, but I felt I was writing words to throw away. Changing tack, instead I hugged cups of tea and stared through plate glass at winter crowds, letting my mind wander, waiting for something, something…

Inspiration hit me, eventually, in the shower. (Without tea, plate glass, or winter crowds.) It was the character of Red. Red, I knew, would set the sparks flying.

A complete scene-by-scene outline followed at its own dozy pace, and then when I could procrastinate no more, with research in hand, I started on my second first draft: ninety-four glorious, frustrating days of writing. And after several further months and a few more drafts, with feedback from trusted compadres and the attention of my bluest editing pencil, I decided it was ready. (You can edit a manuscript forever. It’s never finished, it’s just time to stop fiddling and let go.)

There are things I’d like to have covered in the book. I barely touched on racial discrimination. A bolder author would have included a black character and the terrible racism common at the time. But that might have appeared tick-box tokenism and diluted other aspects of the story. You can’t do everything. You’re painting a picture not taking a photograph, and readers aren’t daft.

So it’s done, and it’s out, and I think the paperback looks tremendous. The plan now is to promote the book, and in particular attract reviewers – from “normal” readers and from pro or semi-pro reviewers. On Amazon, reviews are king. Reviews drive sales, and sales drive reviews. That’s the plan, anyway. And as we know, no plan survives contact with the enemy…

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.

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

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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: out now on Kindle

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A day ahead of my self-imposed deadline, The Pauline Conversion is now available for Kindle owners worldwide at the low, low price of £2.99/€3.49/$3.99.

Here is a fragrant smorgasbord of links:

UK | USA | Canada | Australia | India | Germany | France | Spain | Italy | Japan | Brazil | Mexico

The book should appear in the iBookstore and the Kobo store in the next few days. The paperback version should appear on Amazon at roughly the same time. (I’ll add links to the book’s page when I have them.)

Now, this is the bit where I beg: if you read The Pauline Conversion — and especially if you like it — please leave a review to help other readers discover the book. Thanks!

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.