Friday, 29 April 2011
Friday, 22 April 2011
Writing partnerships: why two heads can be better than one.
Unlike songwriting duos, writing partnerships are rare. There's Nicci French, the husband-and-wife team who have been knocking out a thriller a year for the past decade. There are new kids on the block Saffina Desforges, in real life Sarah Griffiths and Mark Williams, who have been sitting at the summit of the UK Kindle chart for months with Sugar & Spice. And of course there is James Patterson and a parade of writers who do all the work in exchange for having their name in tiny letters on the cover of his latest schlockbuster.
Writers are supposed to work in solitude, hunched over a laptop surrounded by half-empty cups of cold coffee while they wrestle with their personal demons and howl into the great void... before going online and checking their Amazon rankings just one more time.
It doesn't have to be like that. My experience of writing with Louise Voss, which has so far led to two books, Killing Cupid (available in one good online bookshop) and Catch Your Death (watch this space).
Back in 2002 I was near the end of phase one of what I grandly think of as my writing life. I had recently been dumped by my agent (by letter; I'm sure these days she would have done it on Facebook) after a series of near misses with publishers. Louise, meanwhile, was halfway through her contract with Transworld/Black Swan. One evening, while gawping at celebs at the Groucho, we came up with the idea of writing a novel together.
I have no recollection of whose idea it was but like all the best brainwaves we were sure it must have been done before: a stalker novel in which the tables turn and the stalker becomes the stalked. We checked Amazon. No, it hadn't been done. We brainstormed a rudimentary plot and started writing.
It was a delightfully straightforward process. I wrote a chapter as the male protaganist, Alex, and emailed it to Louise, along with a few ideas for what happened next. She would edit my chapter then do the same, writing as Siobhan, the female protaganist. The process meant that we were both motivated to write quickly and to a high standard. And we were constantly surprised by what happened next.
Halfway through writing Killing Cupid I moved to Japan to teach English. But I was determined not to let Louise down; besides, this was the most fun I'd ever had writing. I remember my first morning in Tokyo, jetlagged and disoriented, sitting on the tatami mat in an unfurnished boarding house, writing the next chapter of the book on my laptop.
We had already discovered that Transworld were not interested in the book as they didn't want to publish anything that was not in Louise's normal genre of mainstream women's fiction. Her agent wasn't that interested either. However, a meeting with a BBC producer uncovered a big fan of the novel-in-progress. In fact, this producer – who went on to win a BAFTA – loved it so much she optioned it. For the first time I had actually earned a reasonable sum for something I'd written, and we were convinced the option would act as juicy bait for hungry publishers.
When we finished Killing Cupid – the final third of the book flowed as easily as water from a tap – we were sure we were going to be the next Nicci French. But the book commits that unforgiveable crime of not fitting neatly into one genre. It's half thriller, half comedy. We couldn't find a publisher. Then the TV adaptation went into development hell. I came back from Japan and life as an unpublished writer went on.
The experience of writing together, though, had been such good fun that we decided to give it another go. This time we would write something that fitted into a genre. It was shortly after the SARS outbreak and just before bird flu became big news. And The Da Vinci Code was massive. Louise had been thinking about setting a novel in an interesting setting: a closed-down common cold research centre near her hometown of Salisbury where, in the eighties, volunteers could spend a week blowing their nose and doing a lot of good for science. This all came together into Catch Your Death, a fast-paced conspiracy thriller.
But this time we hardly made an effort to find a publisher. We finished the book the same week my first daughter was born. Our own personal lives were chaotic. Real life got in the way. The book, although rather brilliant if I do say so myself, went on the shelf.
Skip forward a few years and the Kindle arrived. I persuaded Louise that we should publish the books ourselves. We re-wrote them, updating all the creaky technological references and lypo-suctioning the fat. This February, we published Killing Cupid. It has so far sold around 400 copies, attracted some great reviews and, excitingly, the BBC producer who liked the book the first time around has since set up her own film production company and wants to option it. Catch Your Death will hit Amazon in May.
And the rest is the future.
Thanks, Mark - I feel sure it is only a matter of time till Killing Cupid reaches the Amazon Kindle top 100.
Sunday, 17 April 2011
Wednesday, 13 April 2011
Today Lou, the founder of KUF, answers my questions about the site.
What gave you the idea to start KUF?
The UK Kindle Users Forum (KUF) came into being for a couple of reasons. I was waiting for my pre-order Kindle to arrive last autumn, and like so many others found myself spending a lot of time on the official Amazon forum chatting and generally getting excited. With such a buzz around the release, one of the major shortcomings of the Amazon forum - the lack of structure and a permanent archive of all the great tips made me realise the need for a dedicated forum for us Kindle fans in the UK. After taking a look around some of the established forums which were predominantly US-centric, I decided to use some of my spare time to create something for us Brits to use.
In all honesty, I wasn’t expecting a huge uptake of the newly created forum but was pleasantly surprised by the number of people who showed an interest and became members - yourself included. Once the Kindle actually started shipping we saw quite a rapid growth in new members and the posts really started to pick up as new users shared their thoughts and tips for both the Kindle hardware and related web sites with books and services.
The site is one of the most attractive and functional I go on. What things did you consider when designing KUF?
I think in some ways, the site almost designed itself although I had a couple of goals in mind before I started. Firstly I wanted to make sure that the site was going to be able to handle a potentially large number of users if it took off, so I chose a lesser known but more powerful forum software as a basis. The second, and perhaps most important (to me at least) factor was I wanted to ensure that KUF would work nicely with the Kindle browser as so many other Kindle forums were very cumbersome to look at and use on a small black and white screen.
With these things in mind, I decided that the colour scheme should be predominantly black and white so that the transition from using the forum on a computer to browsing it on a Kindle was a comfortable one. It took a lot of work to make sure that everything would scale down to the Kindle screen and that the forum would be as usable as possible on the experimental browser. It was quite a tricky job and it’s still a little rough around the edges in some places, but on the whole I am pretty happy - I just need a bit more time to iron out the final wrinkles.
Soon after the forum was up and running, I launched a side project, the feed service, partly to encourage growth of the forum and also because it was something I wanted to use myself. Basically, the KUF feed reader allows you to easily read RSS feeds from other sites via the Kindle browser. At the moment it is suffering from some neglect due to lack of time, but it still works very well and has quite a few regular users.
There are still many things to do with the forum and probably an infinite number of side projects, the latest of which is the KUF TV guide which is a 7 day TV guide properly formatted for Kindle and updated every day. Also as a side project, I set up a url shortener called 32go.co which adds an extra level of security over traditional url shortening services. KUF now uses that for all of its facebook and twitter posts.
The latest development has been the new home page. The old one was so dull that most people didn’t even realise it was there (they were just going straight into the forum) but now it is much more interesting, although there are still some things I wish to add over time.
Forums always attract trolls. KUF seems to have achieved an ideal balance of light-handed moderation, combined with zero tolerance of the nastiness sometimes found on other forums. What is your secret?
As our demographic seems to indicate that most of our members are fairly mature we don’t seem to have many real incidents on the site other than occasional spam. Anything that has cropped up has been handled comfortably by our moderators who have a very sensible approach to dealing with things.
We did have a few short discussions about how to handle moderation and were pretty much in agreement to keep things friendly and tolerant at all times but to come down very hard on things like spam, bigotry or personal attacks.
We want people who use KUF to feel at liberty to talk about anything they want, but also to feel safe at the same time - I think the moderation team have got the balance just right in every action they have taken. Because of this approach and a truly friendly bunch of members, I think KUF has quite a unique kind of atmosphere in comparison to many other forums.
And how do you deal with us pesky authors, always ravening to promote our novels? Other sites can seem almost anti-author (bit like the publishing industry, really).
The way I see it, the whole Kindle thing is not just about the device, but also about the books and the authors who write them. There seems to have been a lot of anger directed at authors of late on some forums. I have always wanted authors to feel at home on KUF - input from the authors is always very welcome and it’s great to be able to chat to them about their latest work. Sometimes the promotional material can be a bit much, but as long as it’s kept in the designated area of the site I think everyone is pretty ok with it. Some authors do tend to hit-and-run, simply posting promo and not really interacting with our members. That’s fine, but I think there is more to be gained for them by actually getting to know us all.
During October 2010, at KUF we had a last-minute idea of compiling together some specially written short Halloween horror stories, to which several authors contributed including yourself. [Thus demonstrating how unhorrific is the horror I write - Lexi] This year I would like to do something similar but with more forward planning and more time for authors to submit something. I think concepts like this are a great way for authors and wannabe’s alike to introduce people to their style of writing and a good way to encourage further book sales.
We also have the KUF book club which always has a good number of indie authors in the running and because of this, I think many of our members have been introduced to authors they wouldn’t have considered before.
KUF has grown fast since its launch August 2010. How do you see KUF developing?
It’s hard to say - I guess a lot of it is going to be down to Amazon and where they go with the device itself. The festive season was particularly busy for the forum with so many people getting their first Kindle for Christmas. Naturally things have slowed down a bit since then, and it’s the books themselves that keep things ticking over until new developments on the hardware front.
As much as KUF is about the Kindle, I think it’s the social aspect that keeps everyone coming back - it’s been a great way to meet new friends and people who appreciate the same things, so I hope that the forum continues to grow steadily. I would like to see KUF evolve into a great platform for everyone who has an interest in reading and as a way for authors to connect with their UK eBook audience. As the Kindle platform and electronic publishing evolves, we're set to keep pace and make sure that Kindle Users Forum is the best resource in the UK.
Do you have a day job, and if so, what is it?
It's actually more of a day and night job at the moment. For the last 15 years give or take, I've been a web developer building online applications for a huge variety of projects. It's a tough job with technology and practices changing almost every day. I may be getting a bit long in the tooth for it now, or perhaps I just need a holiday.
It's great to work on KUF as it's something that I can take pleasure in and enjoy without the pressure of deadlines. I just wish I had more time to work on it during the course of the week.
One assumes you must be a great reader – what sort of book do you enjoy?
I've always been a keen reader, ever since I was a child and perhaps even more so as I get older. Reading a book is my way of relaxing at the end of a challenging day. As far as taste goes, I'm pretty eclectic - perhaps even more so since the Kindle has given me access to a bigger range of genres and authors than ever. I would generally class myself as a Fantasy, Horror and Sci-fi fan primarily however as these are the books that really take me away from it all. Probably my two favourite books ever are the Gormenghast saga by Mervyn Peake and Shadowland by Peter Straub. More recently I have enjoyed the fantasy works of Joe Abercrombie, Steven Erikson and Scott Lynch; I've just finished reading The Heroes by the former. I have a huge number of books still lined up for me on the Kindle, and the backlog just seems to get bigger as I discover more and more that I want to read. I really enjoyed your very own Remix by the way. [Thank you! Lexi]
You must also be a Kindle fan. What do you like about it, and do you see the Kindle changing much in the future, and if so, how?
Aside from the points I've mentioned previously, one of my favourite things about the Kindle is the free 3G and Whispernet service which is invaluable when away from home. As a fan of genres that usually demand very long books, I also love that it's so lightweight and easy to hold in one hand.
Regarding the future of the Kindle, there has been quite a bit of speculation about the Kindle becoming an Android device with an LCD screen, although most of this seems unfounded. I'm quietly hoping that the speculation is wrong because it seems like every man and his dog is launching a tablet device at the moment and the fact that the Kindle is a dedicated reading device is what sets it apart. It may be that Amazon does release a tablet device, but I can't believe that it would be to replace the incredibly successful Kindle line.
One of the more interesting bits of information that has surfaced in the last six months is the very real prospect of a colour e-ink Kindle. Now that really would be a step in the right direction as it would mean that electronic magazines and image based publications would be much more inviting.
At this stage, only Amazon know where they want the future of Kindle to lie, but based on getting everything right thus far, I'm quietly confident that the future of Kindle is looking better than ever.
Thanks Lou, and may KUF go from strength to strength as it deserves. And if any of my readers with Kindles aren't already members of KUF, do pop in. You'll get a warm welcome.