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…

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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.

What I’m up to

I’m working on a new book. In fact I’m working on two. Before you get too excited I’m not entirely sure what these books are yet, and I’m still very much in the procrastination stages — which involve a great deal of staring into the middle distance with tea, and occasionally writing blog posts about, for example, how I’m working on a new book. All I do know about the stories is that they’re very different from one another, and they might never appear.

One of the two stories has been fermenting for about three months. I have a mix of characters with fleshed-out back stories, and an overall timeline. I’ve started writing it… and I’ve stopped. Although I “like” (don’t viscerally hate) what I’ve written so far, I’ve decided I’m committing the cardinal sin of starting the book too early in the timeline, before the storyline has kicked off. It’s a great way for me to write my way into the characters — but it’s not so great for readers, who these days tend to frown upon half a tree’s worth on the sociology and tobacco rituals of hobbits. I like to start plots on page one and hopefully grip readers straight away.

So while I think about the plot of that story a little more, and let the characters prove, I’m writing something else — in a world I already know and love.

I want to tell more stories about St Paul’s College, as seen in The Pink and the Grey. I want to know more about characters like Dennis, Amanda and the Archivist, and what happened after the events of that book, and also what happened before. I want to look at life in college from different perspectives.

I’ve written a couple of thousand words, I guess: explorations, ideas, vignettes — not necessarily for publication. I’m letting the characters guide me to a plot, or plots. I might end up with a bunch of short stories, or a couple of novellas, or another novel, or nothing at all. I don’t know yet. I’m not forcing it.

Thinking so much about St Paul’s probably explains why I saw the Archivist walking along a Cambridge street yesterday. It was definitely him: in mufti, lurking behind sunglasses and a dazzling all-red suit, with his grey gonk hair streaming back. He was hiding in plain sight, exactly as he would.

I wonder where he was going? Why? Does it have anything to do with Amanda? I might ask him. I want to know more about that red suit, too.

So that’s what I’m up to. Tell me in the comments what you’d like to know about St Paul’s —  you might earn a line of thanks in the end result, whatever that turns out to be. Please help make my tea-based procrastination blogging worth it.

2012-2013

Happy New Year! I thought I’d take a few minutes to write a short review of my 2012 and how I see 2013 unfolding.

My plan for 2012 was to write and publish as many stories as I sensibly could – a mix of mostly shorts with some longer form stories of about 40K words, at the hotly disputed novella/novel border. I didn’t set a concrete target for how many, but I imagined a pipeline of sorts: in parallel I’d be writing one book, revising a second, and publishing/pimping a third. I wanted to end the year with a pleasing body of work for sale and an increasing trickle of revenue.

Of course, no plan survives contact with the enemy.

In 2012 I wrote many words: over 200,000 for sure. The bulk of Till Undeath Do Us Part was written in 2011 but it increased in length in 2012; and I wrote all of The Pink and the Grey and the first draft of my next novel. The balance of the word count went on stories I decided, for one reason or another, to shelve uncompleted. They remain in suspended animation: I hope to resurrect at least one eventually, even if only the core concept and the title remain.

I can’t truly say I met my goal for the year. But to publish a novella and a novel in one calendar year across a whole bunch of formats ain’t so bad, and I’m aiming to rattle through the remaining stages of the next novel as quickly as I can. Two novels and a novella in roughly twelve months sounds very good to me.

As to sales: well, I still suffer from invisibility, and that’s something I need to address in 2013. I’m grateful to So So Gay magazine for reviewing both books — and even nominating Till Undeath Do Us Part for Best Book of 2012 — but so far that remains the only publication to take a punt on either book. These reviews — unbiased by rose-tinted friendship — give me the confidence to keep writing, keep publishing, even when the gremlins of self-doubt mutter dark words in my ear.

That’s not to say I don’t value the support and kind words of my family and friends, especially those who’ve bought one or both books and evangelised on my behalf. It means a great deal to me.

What’s my plan for 2013? I wish I could say same as 2012 and carry on as before, but that’s not possible. I’ll write as many stories as I can, yes: but I can’t live on dust and air and junk mail. So I suspect I’ll be writing less for myself, and more for others. I have plenty of ideas that I’d love to flesh out into stories, if I can. I want to revisit St Paul’s College from The Pink and the Grey, and see if I can resurrect one of the suspended stories. We’ll see.

The first goal, though, is to publish the new book as soon as I can. And since a deadline doesn’t exist unless you tell someone, here it is: it’ll be out by the end of this month.

In the media

Review by So So Gay: The Pink and the Grey

Leading and fast-growing online LGBT lifestyle magazine So So Gay has reviewed The Pink and the Grey, awarding it four stars. I’m happy with that – who wouldn’t be happy with a review that starts “Undefinable and brilliant”?

Read the review

Interview for Stonewall Times

The internet-based role-playing game Star Trek Online has a large and active community of LGBT players, Stonewall Fleet, and there’s a community magazine called Stonewall Times. A few weeks ago its editor interviewed me about Till Undeath Do Us Part, and has kindly given me permission to reproduce the interview here.

Read the interview

Out now: The Pink and the Grey

It’s done. The Pink and the Grey has been published for the Kindle, for Apple’s iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch, and as a DRM-free ePub from Lulu.

I’ve created a page where you can read the blurb and find links to the book. I’ll update that as more formats come onstream, as a stereotype in braces would probably say.

Stats fiends: it’s 81,867 words long. In a standard 5in by 8in paperback format that’s about 280 pages. And yes, I am planning to release it in print form if you’d prefer an actual paper copy for your groaning bookshelf.

Hey, why not buy the ebook in all its formats and the print version? Why not buy a dozen copies to give to your friends? It makes an ideal Christmas present. Look, just buy it, will you?

I love the cover, which shows a shield not unlike that of St Paul’s College in the story. It’s designed by Mike Smith, creator of the excellent Blogshank blog. (He also writes and illustrates children’s books, so while you’re book shopping you should buy his Edward Hopper and the Carrot Crunch too — available for iPads and iPhones.)

Mike has also produced a new cover for Till Undeath Do Us Part in the same style. None of the story has changed but if you want to buy another copy I shan’t stand in your way. The new cover shows a detail from the stained glass of the west window of King’s College chapel, the magnificent medieval building that plays a part in the story. I simply cannot stop looking at the two faces. Wonderful, expressive — and very appropriate to the story, I think. (As I write, Amazon is still showing the old cover. I imagine there’s some caching somewhere. I twiddled all the necessary bits, I think.)

I guess I now have a brand. All I need are some sales…