Saturday, April 30, 2016
Bill Kirton began his career as an English actor, playwright and broadcast script writer. He now balances his police procedural novels with promotional work for North Sea oil companies at his home in Aberdeen, Scotland.
Bill, Tell us about your books.
My efforts have been going into writing three books for students in a series of ‘Brilliant’ books published by Pearson. They’re called Brilliant Study Skills, Brilliant Essays and Brilliant Dissertations. The titles (I hope) are self-explanatory. But the latest novel to appear was The Figurehead. It’s a historical crime novel set in Aberdeen in 1840. It came about because a friend said to me one day ‘You should write a book about a figurehead carver. I had no idea why he said that but, since my PhD was on the theatre of Victor Hugo and I love the whole revolutionary period of the 1830s and 1840s, I did some research and found I loved it. Readers of crime are very sophisticated and know all about DNA and other arcane forensic processes, so it’s good to set a crime novel at a time before we enjoyed such refinements.
My research involved lots of reading of contemporary newspapers and so on, but also I wanted to know how it felt to carve a figurehead so I joined a woodcarving class and that became a hobby of mine. I also signed on as part of the crew of the beautiful Norwegian square rigger Christian Radich and sailed from Oslo to Leith for the Tall Ships Festival. That was a very special experience.
When did you know you were a writer? Did you receive any encouragement along the way?
I think there’s a difference between when I knew I was a writer and when I heard other people say I was. I knew it from very early days–probably when I was around 11 years old, because I used to enjoy writing things–mainly funny stories but also playlets (awful, awful things–I found one a few years back and while I suppose it was OK for someone of that age, it definitely didn’t show any early promise).
As for encouragement, I don’t remember that with specific reference to writing, but Dad was a great reader and my brothers, sisters and I were all encouraged to do all sorts of things. But I was in my mid-twenties when I was invited to the newly opened Northcott Theatre in Exeter because a BBC producer, on the strength of some scripts I’d sent him, had told the director, the late Tony Church, that I was a playwright. Tony showed me round the place and we met one of his production team. Tony introduced me with the words ‘This is Bill Kirton. He’s a writer.’ I’d never heard it said before and I haven’t forgotten the pleasure it gave me.
What attracted you to mystery writing (police procedurals) and which author most influenced your own writing?
It seems as if all my answers are indirect because I didn’t really have this mystical thing which whispered to me ‘you must write a police procedural’. It was much more prosaic than that. I’d written mainly stage and radio plays and the occasional short story and one day I read of a novel-writing competition. So I started writing a novel. And that in itself was interesting because, like most other people, I thought ‘Wow, a novel. That’s long. Quite an undertaking.’ But I soon realised the perhaps obvious truth–that you don’t ‘write a novel’, you write a few sentences, some paragraphs and, at the end of each day, the pile of pages is that much bigger.
And, if you’re enjoying it, you eventually see that it’s actually looking quite a substantial heap, so you’re determined to finish it. I did finish that one. It was a spoof crime novel and, in fact, I’m reworking it at present in the hope that a publisher might like it.
Having done that, I was ready to write another and that one (which eventually became The Darkness was triggered by a chance remark made by a waiter at a local restaurant. He had an English West Country accent. I said ‘You’re a long way from home’ and he told me he’d chosen to come as far away from his home as possible because his wife and two daughters had been killed by a drunk driver who’d spent just six months of his sentence in jail and was then released. ‘Two months for each life’, as the waiter said. It affected me very deeply and I retained it. It eventually grew into my second novel, which was a stand-alone thriller. My then agent sent it to Piatkus, an independent publisher in London, who said ‘we like it but we’re not doing thrillers at the moment. Has he got any police procedurals?’
I wrote parodies of poetry for the school magazine and a couple of articles for the university newspaper but I think the first piece I got paid for was a radio play ‘An Old Man and Some People’ which was broadcast on Radio 3 and Radio 4 by the BBC in 1971, so I was 32. I’ve had several more broadcast since but, strangely, I think that was probably my best one.
Do you write full-time or do you have a "day job?"
I write full-time because writing is also my day-job. I used to be a lecturer in the French department of Aberdeen University, but I also did some TV and radio work. This led to me writing scripts for safety programmes and documentaries and then on into brochures, promotional and educational material and more or less all types of commercial documents and programmes. I live in Aberdeen, remember, so the oil industry always needed scripts and press releases. I was getting so much of that to do that I eventually took early retirement to concentrate on my writing.
This balancing of writing fiction and hard commercial fact is interesting. I’m always aware that the commercial work is what earns the money but I’m always happier when I’m writing what I call my own stuff. The commercial material has its own rewards. Most companies want to say the same things about themselves (i.e. how brilliant, safe and environmentally responsible they are), so there’s a challenge in finding new ways of saying it.
The worst part of it is when the management of a company (and this has happened with the biggest oil majors as well as smaller outfits), can’t be bothered to give a specific briefing about what they want and instead, hand you a bunch of technical manuals or their last dozen brochures and say ‘It’s
I didn’t have but I immediately set about writing one, Material Evidence, which featured DCI Jack Carston. I actually invented a town for the setting. It’s called Cairnburgh and it’s not far from Aberdeen. My thinking was that I didn’t want to set it in Aberdeen in case I wanted to say nasty things about the police. As it happened, the year after it was published, some events in the Grampian force exceeded any fictional plots I could have imagined.
It was published in hardback, followed the next year by Rough Justice, also in hardback, and they’ve both now been published in paperback in the USA as part of the Bloody Brits series. I rewrote The Darkness to turn it into a Carston novel. It was published in December 2008, and there are two others completed and ready for final edits.
What's your writing schedule like? Would you rather write than watch a football game or other sporting event?
I work from about 8.30 am until 6 pm, with maybe fifteen minutes for lunch, and the time rarely drags. If I’m really into it, I go back for more in the evening, too.
Watching football is my relaxation from writing and, when it’s a good game, no, I’d rather watch the game. Because I’m basically lazy. But I do love writing. When I’m into a novel, I’m completely absorbed by it. I have no notion of the passage of time, or of self or surroundings or anything. It’s a great privilege to be able to lose oneself so completely in an activity.
What are the best and worst aspects of writing? And how long does a book take to finish?
The best part of writing is the loss of self in the process, the feeling of a reality (albeit fictional) unfolding as I write, the way the characters do what they want and often surprise me and the occasional feeling that a particular sentence–-even a simple, un-poetic one–-has exactly the right words and rhythms in it.
Another best part is when a reader tells me they’ve enjoyed one of my books and I know that they mean it. Often, it’s just a polite thing to say, of course, but sometimes their enthusiasm shows that they really have read it and thought about it. That’s very special.
The ‘How long’ question is hard. The idea for a book appears and disappears, then I remember it and think about how to treat it. The time all that takes is difficult to assess because it depends on so many variables. But when I’m ready to start writing, the process is fairly regular and I reckon an 80-90,000 word novel takes about six months. After that, it’ll get lots of tinkering, but the bulk of the work’s over in that time frame.
How do you feel about the current publishing market? Is it in the doldrums in the UK as well?
I know that, as a writer, I should be able to quote statistics and examples to show the state of publishing today, but I can’t. Not because I’m not interested but because I have no control over it all and I prefer to focus on my own writing and making sure it’s as good as I can make it. But I can’t help but know that publishing is in a pretty poor state. Scotland has been lucky in a way–no, not lucky, canny. Canongate, for example, in Edinburgh, published Barack Obama’s early works, and there’s a strong literary community in Scotland which is producing all sorts of interesting and powerful poetry, plays and novels.
But the market dictates to all, and it’s rather depressing to see best sellers chosen because they bear a celebrity name rather than the name of a real writer.
Are ebooks well accepted in the British Isles and do they sell well? Are there many publishers in Scotland who produce books in multi format?
I’m fascinated to know what’ll happen with e-books.You read a lot about them but I don’t think I know anyone yet who has a reader or who downloads e-serials. The arguments in favour of them are clear but equally the book as object is still doggedly admired and needed. Somehow, a book has a notion of permanence, endurance, whereas words on a screen are ephemeral, when you ‘turn the page’ they disappear. The big publishers are recognising the need to produce multi-format books, but the smaller ones either don’t have the expertise or perhaps the desire to branch out in that direction.
I also think that, for readers, the directness of the experience of reading a book in the conventional format is qualitatively different from reading from a screen. I don’t know what it is but, for example, when I edit, I often miss things on screen which I pick up when I print something out. I think for readers there’s an intimacy about ‘curling up with a good book’ that’s very special and can’t be replicated with an electronic version. I hope I’m wrong there and that the e-book will become as personal an object as a paperback, because I think e-publishing has helped to keep a decent market, especially for genre fiction.
Which American genres and authors are popular in Scotland? And which Scottish authors are bestsellers?
American crime writers are very popular here. I rarely look at the romance, fantasy or sci-fi shelves, so I’m not sure how well the USA is represented there. But crime, boosted even more perhaps by the popularity of TV series such as CSI and The Wire, has a strong presence on the shelves. As for authors, I think the ones we go for are the ones who are bestsellers for you, too–Lee Childs (who’s British, I know, but he writes distinctly American thrillers), Elmore Leonard, Jeffrey Deaver, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, Ed McBain–well, you can fill in all the other names for yourself.
I think the same’s true for bestselling Scots too. Ian Rankin is obviously the top man, Val McDermid the top woman, and then there are many, many others writing good crime. One who deserves particular mention is Denise Mina. Her novels are full of compassion, humour, pain and the reality of life in today’s Glasgow.
Why do you write?
The simple answer is that I write because I can. I love words, what they do, how they sound, how they fit together. I consider myself lucky to have received, in my genetic make-up, an ability with words. That’s not a boast. In fact, I always quote something an artist friend of mine once said. We sometimes sat at meetings together and, by way of doodling, he’d draw wonderful pencil sketches of the people round the table. One day, I looked at one and said ‘Vic, I don’t know how you can do that.’ His reply was ‘Bill, I don’t know how you can’t.’ It’s such a simple way of saying that having a specific talent isn’t a cause for self-congratulation; it’s something that comes as naturally as breathing. And we’re lucky to have been dealt such a hand.
Anything else you'd like to discuss?
Not really. I think I’ve talked enough, don’t you? There are more ramblings on my website: www.bill-kirton.co.uk. Thanks for letting me blether on like this.
Bill’s website: www.bill-kirton.co.uk
His blogsite: http://livingwritingandotherstuff.blogspot.com/
Saturday, April 16, 2016
John Locke is the author of How I Sold One Million eBooks in Five Months, which includes more than a dozen thrillers and westerns selling for 99 cents.
John, why, after all your business successes, did you decide to write full time?
Actually, I’m still a part-time writer, with a full-time job that keeps me busy most days. But I’ve wanted to write books since I was in high school. I’m stopping to do a mental calculation. Could that have possibly been 43 years ago? Wow. I wanted to try my hand at writing all these years, but never got around to it because life kept getting in the way.
I know you write thrillers, but why westerns?
I had to pause just now to smile. Why westerns? Let me tell you something. Westerns are magic. When you read a western, you’re viewing the world in microcosm, because there’s a fixed time and setting, generally, with endless possibilities. The whole dynamic of a man and woman optimistically venturing into an untamed land with little more than a horse, gun, wagon, meager supplies…and a whole lot of courage—is the very definition of heroism. Courage is at the core of every western. And every good western offers adventure, heart, and a classic confrontation between good and evil.
How much research do you conduct before you begin a novel?
I do a lot of research, but try hard not to let it get in the way of a good tale. For example, my westerns take place in Dodge City, in 1860, and I describe a rough-and-tumble, bustling city in need of taming. Now I certainly know the first house in Dodge City wasn’t built till 1871, and it was a sod house. Why not set my story in 1876, when Dodge was exactly the way I describe? Because the other factual elements work for 1860, such as the terrible Kansas drought and the railroad and the stage coach lines and the trails and Indians and so forth. I could have invented a town or made my characters travel farther, but Dodge symbolizes everything I wanted in a western town, and it has name recognition.
My readers delight in the small things I point out that almost no one ever thinks about, like why Indians of the time were terrible at shooting rifles, or how dangerous it could be for a town woman to use an outhouse in the middle of the night, because where else would a bad guy lurk? But I don’t try to impress readers with the facts I uncover. I make the facts a part of my characters’ everyday life.
In your book, Don’t Poke the Bear, you talk about jail holes dug in the ground to house prisoners in Dodge. Did they actually exist or are your plots based purely on your imagination?
This is an example of the details I uncover and weave into my stories. It is true that almost no towns had jails in 1860. When a town did have a jail back then, it was literally a hole dug in the ground. But in Kansas in those days, it was very difficult to dig deep holes because the ground was often hard, and it was a rare settler who owned a decent pick and shovel that wasn’t damaged!
Do you feel that bringing back “adult Westerns” of the 1980s is going to revive the genre?
I’ve never read any adult westerns of the 1980’s, so I can’t say. My westerns are certainly adult, but they’re intended to be more fun than adult. They’re outrageous, and meant to be read with a smile. My goal is not to change westerns or revive them, but to breathe some new life into a genre that is uniquely American. My thriller readers know I have a soft spot in my heart for my westerns, and many don’t understand it. But I love them, and they make me happy in a way my other work doesn’t.
Why are women's legs on most of your book covers?
This was my publisher, Claudia Jackson's, idea. When I told her 75% of my readers were women, she said we should use women's legs on the next cover, because women are naturally drawn to other women's legs. I thought it was a clever idea, like a brand, so we decided to do all the covers that way. Now, when people see women's legs on a book cover, they know it's a John Locke book. I get publicly criticized for it sometimes, but my readers know it's all in fun. Also, we put a little number on the cover of every book so readers will know which number in the series that particular book is. It's sort of like a "Where's Waldo" but not hard to find! In Vegas Moon and A Girl Like You it's part of the boot. In Now and Then it's in an open coconut!
What’s the most important promotional activity a writer can conduct to make the public aware of his or her book?
Writing a personal blog in your unique voice, and getting it read by your target audience. I explain exactly how to do this in my new marketing book for authors titled, How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months.”
Do you feel that ebooks are going to eventually eliminate brick and mortar bookstores?
ebooks can be created by tens of thousands of excellent authors and distributed instantaneously throughout the world for a one-time cost of a few hundred dollars.
If writers follow your success plan to the letter, what’s the most they should charge for their ebooks?
They should charge whatever price makes the most economic sense. For me, it’s 99 cents. Here’s why: Follow the Stone has sold 60,000 downloads in five months, earning me $21,000. If I had charged twice as much I’d have to sell 30,000 downloads to break even. Let’s go all out and say 40,000 readers would pay twice the price. I’d earn $28,000 instead of $21,000. Did I come out ahead? In my opinion, no. Because in that example 20,000 readers chose NOT to buy my book at the higher price. Those 20,000 readers won’t be buying my second, third, and fourth books, nor will they spread the word to their friends.
Which social media outlets do you feel are the most important to further an indie writer’s career and how much time should he/she spend networking on the Internet?
I’m a Twitter guy. Facebook is probably good, but I prefer the Twitter experience. I don’t know the other outlets. If an indie writer is working social media effectively, he or she can tie a dollar figure to every hour spent at the keyboard. Let’s assume that dollar figure is $50 an hour. If I paid you $50 an hour to work at your keyboard, how many hours would you devote? The key is to learn what each hour of your time is worth. You can’t base it on what it’s worth this week. You need to compute it over the lifetime of the sales. Maybe in the past hour I met someone on Twitter who invited me to do an interview, and that interview resulted in twenty sales. And those twenty people each told three friends who told three friends. And then they all bought my other nine books. What was that hour worth to me? If I did the math correctly, it’s around $910. Maybe I worked another four hours today and generated nothing. Was it a good five hours of work?
Saturday, April 2, 2016
by Leighton Gage
If you come to visit us in Brazil, you’ll occasionally see a stand where the offerings look like this:
Literatura de Cordel (lit. “cord literature”) derives its name from the way the wares are often displayed, i.e. hung by a cord, usually with the aid of clothespins.
Such stands are less common in the southern part of the country, but are a feature in many of the fairs and markets of the northeast, principally in the States of Pernambuco, Paraiba and Ceará.
These little booklets are the last survivors of a form of popular literature with which an inhabitant of eighteenth-century Madrid, or nineteenth-century England, would have been quite familiar, but that you’d be hard-put to find elsewhere in the modern world. They contain stories and ballads and are generally produced in black-and-white, illustrated with woodcuts.
Down through the years, the content has taken-on a distinctly Brazilian flavor.
Many of the books deal with the folklore, legends and history of the northeast, subjects like Lampião and his band.
I've previously written about him under the title The Bandit King. And, if you like, you can read that post by going here:
One of the classics of cord literature, The Arrival of Lampião in Hell, by José Pacheco, is much-prized by collectors.
And a satire on the Brazil’s former president, The Arrival of Lula in Hell has enjoyed a good deal of success.
As to the art, two of the more talented woodcutters are Adir Botelho and José Francisco Borges.
This is Botelho:
And this is a work from Borges, who has had expositions at both the Louvre and the Smithsonian: