PETER STUART SMITH
- Guest Author -
Welcome to a lengthy but very interesting interview with an author who has used several names. He is also a speaker and a best-selling author.
Welcome, Peter ...
1. TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF AND YOUR WRITING JOURNEY.
The short version is that I've been a full-time author since 2003 and a part-time lecturer on cruise ships since 2009. My professional authorship, for want of a better expression, started when I signed a two-book contract with Macmillan back in 2003, and since then it's been a bit confusing, because of my excellent literary agent. He successfully 'sold' me to Transworld, Penguin, Macmillan again, and Simon & Schuster, each time to write books in different genres, which meant a succession of different writing names. So although I started as 'James Barrington', I later became 'James Becker', 'Jack Steel' and 'Max Adams'. With the advent of the electronic publishing revolution I also became an e-book author, writing again as 'James Barrington', but then adding 'Tom Kasey', 'Peter Lee', 'Thomas Payne' and my own real name – Peter Stuart Smith – to the list, again because I was writing in different genres, fiction and non-fiction. It's no wonder I sometimes look confused!
2. WHEN AND HOW DID YOU BECOME A WRITER?
I earned my first crust from writing at the age of 17, with a probably libellous letter to a British motoring magazine, for which I was paid the significant sum – for those days – of £5. That initial success sparked my interest in the idea of getting paid for writing, and after that I wrote on an irregular basis for a number of British magazines, mainly those dealing with cars, motorcycles and guns, my three main interests (apart from chasing women, obviously) at that time. So I suppose that marked my initiation as a writer, though obviously I still needed a proper job as well, so writing remained a secondary source of income for many years.
3. WHAT TYPE OF PREPARATION DO YOU DO FOR A MANUSCRIPT? DO YOU PLAN EVERYTHING FIRST OR JUST SHOOT FROM THE HIP?
There's an old expression that there are tree writers and wood writers. A tree writer sees the next book in much the same way that someone can look at a tree and see every detail of it, from the roots to the trunk and up to every branch and every leaf. A wood writer is completely different. He (or she, obviously) envisages a book like a walk through a wood, knowing where he will enter the wood, and where he will emerge, but the bit in the middle is largely unknown territory. That's me, really. When I start a new book I know more or less how it will begin and I usually have good idea of what the ending will be, but the plot tends to evolve as I write it. It works for me, but I think I'm probably in a minority, not least because publishers and agents usually want to see a synopsis, so there always has to be at least some pre-plotting involved. I always tell my editor that every synopsis I write is a working version, subject to major changes and alterations as the book is being written.
4. WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT BEING A WRITER?
Being my own boss, I suppose, and the ability to work absolutely anywhere, as long as I can use my laptop, There's a tremendous sense of freedom about being able to decide where to go and what to do every day, so if I feel I need a day at the seaside – unlikely, but there you go – I can just switch off the computer and go. I don't have to tell anyone or ask anybody's permission, and that's great. It also means that when I'm lecturing on cruise ships, once I've delivered my talk, I can write for the rest of the day if I want to. It is tremendously liberating, and I really believe that being an author has to be one of the best jobs in the world.
5. WHAT IS THE HARDEST THING ABOUT BEING A WRITER?
Probably the same thing that is its greatest benefit – the freedom of working for yourself, because with freedom comes responsibility. As a writer, you don't clock in, or report to a supervisor, or have a work schedule to adhere to, or any of the other professional prompts that keep most people focussed on their career. If you want to stay in bed all day drinking beer and eating junk food while watching sport on TV, there's nobody around – unless your wife's at home – to tell you that you can't. So self-discipline is enormously important. Even if you don't feel like it, if there's a deadline looming, you have to work as hard as possible to meet it.
6. WHAT WERE YOU IN A PAST LIFE, BEFORE YOU BECAME A WRITER?
I had a whole raft of strange jobs, including working in a garage, as a mortuary attendant, in a hospital operating theatre and on a factory production line before I joined the British Royal Navy as a helicopter pilot. That didn't last long, because I had a medical problem – a detached retina – and that stopped me flying, but I liked the military lifestyle and so I switched to air traffic control and spent over 20 years doing that.
7. WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST WRITING ACHIEVEMENT?
Simply finding an agent willing to take me on and a publisher who was prepared to print what I'd written. The chances of that happening to any author were frighteningly small back in 2003, and even smaller today. My first manuscript had already been turned down by literally dozens of agencies when Luigi Bonomi, then working for the London-based Sheil Land Associates, agreed to accept me as a client. I had been sending out a standard package (letter, synopsis and first three chapters of the novel) to every agent listed in the United Kingdom, working my way down the alphabet from A to Z, so when Luigi got in touch I was already about half-way through the letter S and getting very close to the end of the alphabet. My plan, such as it was, was to go through the entire list, then re-jig the package somehow to try to improve it, and do it all again. I firmly believe that persistence is at least as important as talent for a writer!
8. WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON AT THE MOMENT?
I've just finished editing my next book for Transworld (The Templar Heresy by 'James Becker') and writing the second book of a 'Templar' trilogy for Penguin USA. The first book in this series was published in July 2015 as The Lost Treasure of the Templars, also by 'James Becker'. I'm also working on a plot for a novel in an entirely different genre, and writing another couple of books that will both probably be published as ebooks, one because it's a prequel to another of my novels that's already available as an ebook (Trade Off by 'Tom Kasey'), and the other because it's a kind of cross-genre novel that would be difficult to sell commercially. I'm also designing a website that will cover all of my writing activity (I already have dedicated websites for 'James Barrington' and 'James Becker'). Unrelated to writing, I'm also preparing a series of talks for a world cruise we'll be taking in January, where I'll be the main lecturer on board the ship.
9. WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
I suppose the obvious answer is 'paying the bills', but that's not really true. I have always written, even in the days long before I had any manuscript I thought was good enough to show to a literary agent. It's something I need to do, and my computer and back-up drives are full of ideas, part-finished stuff that didn't work for one reason or another, beginnings, endings and titles. I never travel without a tablet PC so I can read books, because for an author reading is crucially important, and that also lets me jot down any ideas that occur to me.
Most of my books have been sparked either by personal experience – the non-fiction ones in particular – or by something I've heard or read. The best example of this was probably my novel Foxbat, about the Russian MiG-25 fighter. When Viktor Belenko defected to Japan's Hakodate Airport in his Foxbat in 1976, the Americans tore it to pieces to properly analyse its capabilities, and concluded that it was a bit of a paper tiger – very fast (Mach 2.5+), but essentially old technology. What they didn't realize for some years was that they'd completely misinterpreted the reason for the aircraft's design and somewhat antiquated avionics, and that it was perfect for its intended purpose. I read a number of classified files about the Foxbat while I was in the military, and this obvious anomaly provided the idea for the book.
10. WHAT GENRE DO YOU WRITE?
That depends on which author's hat I'm wearing at the time. Briefly, these are my various noms de plume, the genres and titles of the books:
Macmillan, writing as 'Max Adams' To Do or Die
(World War 2 military thrillers) Right and Glory
Macmillan, writing as 'James Barrington' Overkill
(Mainstream global thrillers) Pandemic
Transworld, writing as 'James Becker' The First Apostle
(Historical mystery thrillers) The Moses Stone
The Messiah Secret
The Nosferatu Scroll
Echo of the Reich
The Lost Testament
The Templar Heresy (2016)
Penguin UK, writing as 'James Barrington' Joint Force Harrier
Penguin USA, writing as 'James Becker' The Lost Treasure of the Templars
The Archive of the Damned (2016)
The Brotherhood of the Skull (2017)
Simon & Schuster, writing as 'Jack Steel' The Titanic Secret
(Conspiracy thrillers) The Ripper Secret
The Endeavour Press, writing as 'James Barrington' Falklands: Voyage to war
(Non-fiction) John Browning: Man and Gunmaker
The Endeavour Press, writing as 'Tom Kasey' Trade off
(Thrillers, short stories, novellas) Cold kill
The Dante Conspiracy
The Endeavour Press, writing as 'Thomas Payne' Uncommon Sense
PostScript Editions, writing as 'Thomas Payne' The Dietaholic's Diet
PostScript Editions, writing as 'Peter Lee' The French Property Nightmare
(Non-fiction) MH370: By Accident or Design
PostScript Editions, writing as 'Peter Stuart Smith' Inspiration, Perspiration, Publication
11. DO YOU HAVE ANY TIPS FOR NEW WRITERS?
I remember having lunch with my agent some years ago and one of the things we talked about was the most important quality for any writer. We ran through the usual suspects – storytelling ability, complete command of English and so on – but the one single quality that we both agreed was absolutely essential was persistence. You can be the best and most talented writer in the world, but if all your work stays locked in a desk drawer or tucked away in a forgotten folder on your computer's hard drive, then you might just as well not have bothered to write it. If you have a manuscript that you feel is publishable, then you have to make sure that as many agents and publishers see it as possible, and that means sending it out repeatedly until one of them does something about it. If they all reject it, then maybe it really isn't good enough to make it, but publishing is replete with tales of bestselling manuscripts that were rejected countless times before somebody saw the essential merit in them. The one caveat, I suppose, is that most authors are very bad judges of their own work, so if a new writer is getting rejection slip after rejection slip, then it might well be worth asking a book doctor or independent assessor to give an opinion on the manuscript. That will cost money, but at least the author will get an independent appraisal of his or her work.
The other obvious tip, of course, is to actually write. Sitting around in a bar drinking beer and mulling over your ideas for the next great American/British/French novel or whatever does not actually generate any text on paper. If you're a writer, you should be writing every day, and when you're not writing you should be reading or thinking about what you're going to write. There's a possibly apocryphal story about a famous author who was asked to give a lecture on creative writing to a paying audience. He allegedly walked on stage, asked how many of the audience wanted to become professional writers, and obviously everyone put their hands up. 'So go home and write,' he said, and walked off. The point of the story, I suppose, is that writing is a craft, like any other, and the only way to become competent and proficient at it is to do it. Nobody can tell you how to write: it's something you have to learn for yourself by repeatedly doing it.
12. DO YOU SUFFER FROM WRITER’S BLOCK?
Luckily, the answer is no. I normally have at least two or three projects on the go at any one time, and if I do reach a point in one book where for some reason I can't see what the next step should be, then I simply put it to one side and start working on one of the other books. Usually, when I go back to the first one, my subconscious mind has done its stuff and worked out what should happen next without any particular input from me. I'm not saying that that will work for everybody, but it certainly does for me.
13. DO YOU HAVE A PREFERRED WRITING SCHEDULE?
No. I do practice what I preach, and that means that I write every day unless there is some valid reason why I can't, for example when I'm driving across Europe. What I do find is that my most productive time is often first thing in the morning, and I'm usually sitting at the computer no later than about seven each day. How long I spend writing depends to a large extent upon my next deadline. Where there is considerable urgency – as there was when I wrote The Titanic Secret – which my agent was desperate to sell at the London Book Fair, then I will write from first thing in the morning until close to midnight. That book, as a matter of interest, took precisely 28 days to write from start to finish and was bought as part of a two book deal at the London Book Fair by Simon & Schuster.
14. DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE WRITING PLACE?
Again, the answer is no. I write wherever I am, which at this precise moment is at a table in the corner of a commercial office in Sevenoaks in Kent. I've written on trains, planes, in pubs and in hotel rooms. However, I do think being comfortable is an important part of the process, and so the place where I write more than anywhere else is in my study, because there I have everything around me: reference books, a printer and a scanner, and – perhaps most important – high-speed broadband access to the Internet.
15. WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST JOY IN WRITING?
Probably not the actual writing process or anything directly involved with it, but I do get a considerable amount of satisfaction when somebody sends me an email or writes me a letter to say how much they enjoyed one of my books. It's very easy to read and like a book, and perhaps even to say to your friends that you enjoyed it, but it's a much bigger step to put pen to paper or send an email to thank the author, and I really appreciate that.
I remember a few months after The Messiah Secret was published in Britain by Transworld that I received an unexpected package from my publishers. When I opened it, I found a letter from a reader who'd thoroughly enjoyed the book, and an expensive reference work which was directly relevant to the subject matter of that novel. This man had not only taken the time to write to me, but had also then bought a book that he thought I might be interested in reading and sent it to me. And that, in my opinion, is quite special.
16. WHO IS YOUR FAVOURITE AUTHOR AND WHY?
This is a very difficult question to answer, because I have a number of favourite authors in a number of different genres, some of them perhaps surprising. For example, I believe that one of the greatest comic books ever written was Puckoon by Spike Milligan, though the very old novel Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons takes some beating. Arthur C Clarke wrote some of the best science fiction novels ever, and it's surprising how much of his speculative fiction is now our daily fact. In the same genre, the Cities in Flight novels by James Blish are excellent. As far as thriller writers are concerned, I do enjoy the 'Reacher' series by Lee Child, and books by Stephen Leather, Michael Connelly, David Baldacci and many other authors writing currently. In the non-fiction field, I'm particularly fond of Bill Bryson's output, because he manages to be both educational and entertaining, and that's a difficult trick for anyone to pull off.
But if I was forced to pick just one author and just one book to take to a desert island or somewhere, it would absolutely have to be The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien. It is certainly the greatest work of fantasy ever written, a story that's simply astonishing in its breadth, its characterisation and plotting. Tolkien was an extraordinary man who not only wrote an epic that is utterly compelling to read, but in the process he even invented a new language – Elvish – that works and is coherent, and he even wrote poetry in it. By any standards, that is an amazing achievement.
17. WHAT’S THE GREATEST COMPLIMENT YOU EVER RECEIVED FROM A READER?
Oddly enough, I've had quite a lot, and probably the most gratifying weren't in response to one of my commercially published books, but instead to a fairly short e-book that I wrote after the loss of the Malaysian Airlines' Boeing 777: MH370: By Accident or Design. As I said above, my background is in aviation, and I was directly involved in investigating the loss of two military jet aircraft during my career. What irritated me from the start about this particular incident was the rubbish being talked by so many of the alleged experts who were wheeled out by various television stations to explain what might've happened. Some of the statements were breathtakingly ignorant, like the man on Sky television in the UK who stated that primary radar was not an accurate means of identifying the position of an aircraft. I have no clue which planet he came from, but it clearly wasn't from anywhere near here.
You will no doubt be aware that a number of different theories were offered to the reading public after this disappearance by several authors, some plausible and others wacky in the extreme, but in almost every case the writers of these books seem to have been fixated on one particular explanation, and to have then concentrated only on the facts which supported that preconceived notion. When I wrote my book, I tried to do it from the opposite perspective, and do it in the way that aircraft accidents and incidents are investigated in the military: you start with the undisputed facts and then try to produce an explanation which covers those facts. And this explanation should be as simple as possible.
One recent 'explanation' was extensively covered in the international press, and what I found quite amusing about it was that the author specifically quoted Occam's razor in his introduction and said he would be following it. This is an old adage that simply states that you should always choose the simplest explanation for any event until that is proven to be incorrect. He then came up with an extraordinarily complicated series of events, several which defied commonsense, and which had to be carefully massaged in order to fit the known facts. Completely the opposite, in fact, of what he was claiming to do.
What has pleased me is that almost all the feedback I've had about this book has been complimentary and many readers have stressed the fact that, once they'd read my explanation of the known events and what might be conjectured from those, they understood far better what could – and could not – have happened to the aircraft. And I've also had significant professional feedback as well, including several responses from eminent scientists and in one case an underwater acoustics expert, all of which have broadly speaking agreed with what I've said.
18. WHAT WAS THE WORST COMMENT FROM A READER?
That's easy to answer, and quite short. I was given a one star review on Amazon by one reader because he objected to the title of one of my books. He hadn't actually bothered reading it, or finding out anything about it, but apparently felt justified in what he had done. The expression 'mindless little git' springs inescapably to mind.
19. WRITERS ARE SOMETIMES INFLUENCED BY THINGS THAT HAPPEN IN THEIR OWN LIVES. ARE YOU?
Not really, because the things I'm writing about are more global than local in scope. However, the series of mainstream thrillers I wrote for Macmillan would definitely influenced by my military background. Obviously I was unable to include specific and classified military information, because I have signed the Official Secrets Act on a number of occasions and if I revealed some of the things that I was privy to during my career I could end up in jail. I'm quite keen to avoid that. But what I tried to do was to bring a feeling of authenticity to those books, and particularly to any scenes involving aviation or weapons, and to get both the terminology and the technical aspects correct.
Lazy authors particularly irritate me, and I well remember reading one modern thriller – so as not to embarrass the writer I will not mention his name or the title of the novel – where he managed to squeeze two people, the pilot and the navigator, into a single seat, single-engine Harrier. And another author managed to not only fit a second jet engine in the same aircraft, but even fit it with afterburners and give it a supersonic capability. Roughly 2 minutes research on the Internet would have revealed the aircraft's capabilities and specifications, but both men were apparently too idle to take this time.
And my other two pet bugbears involve revolvers. I have lost count of the number of writers who apparently managed to fit revolvers with both silencers and safety catches. Despite one scene in a James Bond film, no revolver has a safety catch, and while you can certainly fit a suppressor – that's the correct word – to a revolver if you want to, it won't have any effect on the noise it makes when you fire it, because most of the sound is generated at the exit from the cylinder, not from the end of the barrel. It's not difficult to get this kind of thing right, so why don't writers do it?
20. OTHER THAN WRITING, WHAT ELSE DO YOU LOVE?
Reading, obviously, because all writers need to read widely, and not just in their chosen field. I normally have three or four books on the go at the same time, typically one non-fiction research book, and the rest novels of various sorts. I always have a book with me, either physically as a paperback or electronically on my tablet PC or my phone.
I do enjoy cruising, and being invited to take a particular cruise as a guest speaker is obviously an important bonus for me. I do several cruises a year. I also enjoy travel, particularly driving, and while I don't mind flying – as a former pilot it shouldn't bother me – I do get irritated by the amount of hanging around that has become an inescapable part of modern air travel. It's not just the waiting; it's also the general lack of comfortable facilities, or even enough seats, at most airports. Given a choice between flying or driving, I would personally always prefer to be in a car, unless the distances involved make this completely impractical.
21. DID YOU HAVE YOUR BOOK / BOOKS PROFESSIONALLY EDITED BEFORE PUBLICATION?
For my commercially published books, the publishing houses do all the editing needed, so the finished product is a kind of composite of my original manuscript and the editor's ideas and opinions. For my e-books, I'm both the writer and the editor, so any and all mistakes are mine and mine alone. Having said that, one of the characteristics that marks most of the self-published books that I've read is that they could do with a bit of editing. Sometimes with a lot of editing. Far too many self-published authors apparently don't even take the time to run a spellchecker on their manuscript before they upload it, or perhaps they do but assume for some reason that the spellchecker is wrong and their spellings are right, which is only very rarely the case. The other obvious giveaway for these books are the grammatical errors that abound, and in particular the misuse of the apostrophe, which I do find rather niggling.
The thing that most e-book authors don't seem to realize is that the tool of their trade is the English language – or whatever language they are using to write their books – and a professional writer will know how to use that tool. Spelling mistakes and grammatical errors seem to leap out of the page and will immediately identify a book that has been self-published by an amateur author who does not know what he or she is doing. When that happens in a book I'm reading, I usually delete it immediately, unless the story is particularly interesting.
22. DESCRIBE YOUR PERFECT DAY.
Most of my days are pretty good, actually. But I suppose a really good day would be any one when nothing goes wrong and ideally one that involves a certain amount of good news, like a new publishing contract!
23. IF YOU WERE STUCK ON A DESERT ISLAND WITH ONE PERSON, WHO WOULD IT BE? WHY?
My wife, oddly enough. We're a team, and that's all there is to it.
24. WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IF YOU HAD THE CHANCE TO SPEAK TO WORLD LEADERS?
One of the most irritating and insidious trends in modern political life is the apparent inability for any country to produce a politician who is actually prepared to speak the truth and to do what is necessary to resolve particular situations. I'm not familiar enough with American politics to have an informed opinion, but in Britain there is an ongoing problem with illegal immigrants trying to get into the country from France. There is no doubting the scale of the problem and politicians have been banging on for weeks about how there is a need for greater security, higher fences to prevent these people getting access to the Channel Tunnel and so on. All of which makes sense, obviously, but completely fails to address the single central matter which is driving this: the fact that Britain is a soft touch when it comes to illegal immigration.
I have no problem with any race of people and I think that in general terms immigration is beneficial to most countries. I also have a considerable amount of sympathy with the plight of many of these putative immigrants, some of whom are no doubt fleeing from horrendous regimes in their own countries. I would also be pleased to welcome any of these people to Britain as long as they were prepared to speak English, to adhere to British rules and customs, and to work for a living.
But what I definitely have a problem with is the way that the British government is prepared to provide housing and support, and hand over significant sums of money to illegal immigrants who have not the slightest intention of working, and who just want to milk the system for all it is worth. We now have in Britain the ridiculous situation that an illegal immigrant who has never contributed a penny in British taxes is actually able to receive more money and benefits than a pensioner who was worked for over 40 years in the country. By any standards and by any criteria, this is wholly unfair. British citizens who have contributed thousands, even tens of thousands, of pounds to the British Exchequer are actively being discriminated against in favour of illegal immigrants.
On a personal note, I had the temerity to emigrate from England in 1993, and within a few weeks of leaving the country I received an official letter from the British government stating but I was no longer eligible to use the National Health Service system, despite the fact that I had paid into it with my National Insurance contributions throughout my working life, and the fact that I was continuing to pay British income tax. That's what I mean by 'discriminated against'.
I would like to see a British politician with – not to put too fine a point on it – the balls to actually stand up and say in Parliament and in public what the vast majority of the British population already acknowledged to be the truth. To stop talking around the problems and actually get to the root cause. To make major changes to the Social Security system in the United Kingdom that will at last favour those people who have contributed towards it, and make absolutely sure that any immigrant who arrives in Britain is required to work for a living, or be repatriated.
And is there any chance of this actually happening? Of course not. It's not politically correct, so there's not the slightest possibility of changes being made.
25. WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR THE FUTURE?
To keep writing, and keep working. It's what I do.
26. WHAT FIVE BOOKS WOULD YOU TAKE TO HEAVEN?
The slight problem here is that I'm an atheist and I'm perfectly satisfied that God, the devil, heaven and hell are all figments of the human imagination, so as heaven does not exist, by definition, then I cannot go there, with or without books. If you substitute 'desert island' for the celestial sphere, then I guess my five books would probably be:
The Lord of the Rings (J R R Tolkien), A Complete History of Nearly Everything (Bill Bryson), Encyclopaedia Britannica (preferably an electronic version because of the weight), My Family and Other Animals (Gerald Durrell) and an omnibus edition of the complete works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But it would be far easier to just take along my tablet PC, which has got all these, and hundreds more, books on it.
27. DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN ANY OF YOUR CHARACTERS?
No, but a number of people that I've met in the past may see certain similarities between themselves and the characters who populate my novels.
28. DOES THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY FRUSTRATE YOU?
Terminally. That's one reason why I'm now spending quite a large proportion of my time writing e-books. Amazon has got all the publishing houses running scared, and they're taking it out on their authors. The industry is full of stories of perfectly good and competent writers, whose books are selling well, not having their contracts renewed, or they are having their advances cut – in some cases, slashed. There are also a number of writers who've made a conscious decision not to go the commercial publishing route because of the obvious uncertainty they would experience if they did so, and are writing precisely what they like without any editorial interference, publishing it through Amazon and then promoting it themselves. And this can be enormously successful: the success of E L James is a testament to this.
On the other hand, is difficult not to feel some sympathy for the publishing houses. They genuinely do not know what to do about Amazon and the e-book phenomenon, and the most obvious indicator of this is the way that they price the electronic versions of books written by their authors. In some cases, the e-book versions actually cost more than the paperbacks, which makes no sense whatsoever because the cost of supplying an e-book is essentially zero, whereas paperbacks have to be printed, stored and distributed, all of which costs a significant amount of money.
My personal prediction is that until publishing houses start offering e-books at a price most people feel is reasonable – less than the cost of a cup of coffee, for example – they will continue to suffer. The reading public is far from stupid, and most people are well aware that the gross profit margin for an electronic book is essentially 100%, and I'm quite sure a lot of them will simply refuse to pay this on principle. Certainly, I wouldn't dream of shelling out the better part of £10 to electronically download a novel that I can buy as a paperback for about half this.
And on a related note, an author who decides to go it alone and publish direct on Amazon can receive a 70% royalty on every book. The electronic version of his commercially published novel, on the other hand, is unlikely to generate more than about a 25% royalty, unless he has an exceptionally generous publishing contract. So the attractions of the do-it-yourself route are really quite significant.
29. DID YOU EVER THINK OF QUITTING?
No. Writing is what I do.
30. WHAT WAS YOUR FAVOURITE MANUSCRIPT TO WRITE? WHY?
Probably The Nosferatu Scroll, and for a number of different reasons. This started out as a 'brilliant idea' from my editor at Transworld, passed on to me, albeit with a certain amount of trepidation, by my agent. 'Your editor,' he began, 'has had a brilliant idea. She wants you to write a book about vampires in Venice.'
I could see why he was concerned. All of my books for Transworld up to that time had had a firm basis in reality. The stories I had created had evolved because of some historically accurate events that had occurred in the distant past, and the problem with this idea was that vampires were and are a myth. We kicked this around for some time, and I finally said to my editor that there really were only two choices. Either I had to acquire yet another writing name and produce a straight vampire thriller – which I was reluctant to do because that particular genre holds very little appeal for me – or I had to write a book in which the principal bad guy displayed some kind of vampire tendencies, but at no point would it be confirmed whether or not he genuinely was a member of the undead.
Writing it was a kind of delicate balancing act, but this turned out to be great fun because the area around Venice and the Venetian lagoon is one of my all-time favourite locations, and in reality there are an awful lot of very strange places out there. In the end, we left it grey, and allow the reader to make up his or her own mind about the true nature of the villain of the piece.
31. HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE ‘SUCCESS’ AS A WRITER?
Getting published. It's that simple, and do note that I didn't say 'commercially published', because although that would have been the only acceptable criterion 20 years ago it is no longer the case today. Anybody who has a book available to sell on Amazon is an author. No ifs, no buts. The only additional qualification, I suppose, is that he or she should have sold at least one book, but that's not particularly difficult to achieve.
32. WHAT SHOULD READERS WALK AWAY FROM YOUR BOOKS KNOWING? HOW SHOULD THEY FEEL?
That's an impossible question to answer, because I write in so many different genres. Somebody who reads Trade Off, for example, which is a chase thriller with a science-fiction twist will probably experience entirely different feelings to somebody who reads Pandemic, a mainstream thriller involving biological warfare.
What I do try and provide in almost all of my books is a fairly comprehensive author's note that will explain to the reader which bits of the story are firmly based on fact, and which parts are entirely the product of my own imagination. Interestingly, it is often the information I provide in the author's note that readers tend to comment on, and I think this is one aspect of the books which is usually quite well received.
33. HOW MUCH THOUGHT GOES INTO DESIGNING A BOOK COVER?
That's a good question that has more than one answer. For my electronic books, I commission the cover myself, because I have no graphic design skills whatsoever, and I provide a fairly detailed set of instructions so that the designer knows exactly what I want, including colours, fonts and images. For the commercially-published books, the design is done by the publishing house, or more often is contracted out to a specialist company, and in every case it is squarely aimed – at least in Britain – at the most important single person in the entire publishing industry from the point of view of getting sales.
And that person is not, as you might reasonably expect, the author or the editor or anybody else directly involved in producing the book. The most important person in publishing is the fiction buyer at Asda, the biggest of the British supermarket chains. If the buyer doesn't like the cover, Asda won't buy it, and if Asda don't buy it, the book will never make it into the bestseller charts.
34. WHAT’S YOUR ULTIMATE DREAM?
Oddly enough, I don't really have one. I'm quite happy as I am!
35. WRITING IS ONE THING. WHAT ABOUT MARKETING YOU, YOUR BOOKS AND YOUR BRAND? ANY THOUGHTS?
Anybody who tells you that marketing books is easy has no clue what they're talking about. There is absolutely no certain route to ensuring that your books achieve sales on Amazon or any of the other electronic marketplaces. I'm assuming here that those books are self-published rather than commercially-published, because in this case the marketing will obviously be done by the publishing house. In my opinion, the influence of Twitter, Facebook and the other social media sites is minimal at best. You can tweet about your book once every hour for an entire month and at the end of that time there's not the slightest guarantee that anyone will have even read any one of the tweets, far less ordered the book.
I think it's vital that any independent author needs to achieve as many honest reviews as possible, and as quickly as possible after publication. Some e-book promotion sites insist on a book achieving a certain number of reviews before they will even consider listing it, so if you later decide you want to go this route, getting reviews is crucial. You can of course buy reviews, but this generally doesn't work because at the lower end of the scale the reviewer won't actually bother reading the book, so the review will obviously be generic and non-specific, not to mention completely unconvincing, while reviewers who do it for a living are really expensive. And these are still paid reviews, which are always considered unreliable. What you can do is offer to provide a free copy of the book in return for an unbiased review, and most people accept that this technique is entirely legitimate. It's just a way of getting your book out there and into the hands of people who might actually enjoy reading it.
The second thing that every author needs – which I'm ashamed to say I'm still working on – is a good email list made up of people who have actively opted in to receive information. These can become your dedicated readers, and if they like the kind of things that you write, you will normally find that they will buy new books from you soon after publication. And, hopefully, they will also give you some decent reviews.
36. ARE YOUR BOOKS SELF-PUBLISHED?
As listed in the answer to an earlier question, some of them are and some of them aren't.
37. DESCRIBE YOURSELF IN FIVE WORDS.
Relaxed, laid-back, optimistic, honest, loyal.
38. WHAT PISSES YOU OFF MOST?
When you meet somebody new and the conversation turns, as it inevitably does, to what each member of the group does for a living, there's usually a bit of a pause after one person – usually me – confesses to being an author. This is often followed by one of two responses. The commonest is when another member of the group says something like 'I thought I'd take up writing after I've retired from accountancy/bus driving/building houses' or whatever. This makes as much sense as an author announcing that after he's given up writing he'll take up brain surgery. Or flying fighter aircraft. Or developing a cure for cancer. Writing is something you do if you're an author. You don't do an entirely different job for your entire working life and then on the spur of the moment suddenly decide to write for a living. It doesn't work that way. You have to learn your craft, and as any author will tell you this doesn't take minutes. It takes years.
The second response – and I promise you this really did happen to me – is that one member of the group will look at you in a calculating manner and then proceed to explain in some detail that he has this wonderful idea for a book. He doesn't yet have a title, hasn't completely worked out the plot, and isn't entirely certain about the characters. But if you take the idea and just develop it into a full-length novel, he will be only too pleased to share the proceeds with you on a 50-50 basis. I'm not kidding. I really did get an offer very much like this.
As far as I know, there's only one 'author' who works this way. I won't embarrass her by giving her name, though most people will recognize it because it's also the name of a country in the Middle East. She apparently works on almost precisely this basis. She comes up with a vague idea for 'her' new novel, gives the tiny scrap of paper on which she's worked it out to her chosen ghostwriter, and then waits six months for the ghostwriter to do her stuff. Then the ghostwriter is dismissed and this alleged celebrity's new book is published with her name on the front cover. She reads 'her' book for the first time after publication.
39. WHAT IS THE TITLE OF THE LAST BOOK YOU READ? GOOD ONE?
The Closers by Michael Connelly. A good Harry Bosch novel.
40. WHAT WOULD BE THE VERY LAST SENTENCE YOU’D WRITE?
Usually, it's not actually a sentence, just the word 'ends' when I finally reach the end of the latest manuscript. As far as the last sentence of my life is concerned, I genuinely have no idea, but if I was dying of something painful it might very probably be something along the lines of 'Give me the bloody morphine, and give it to me now.'
41. WHAT WOULD MAKE YOU HAPPIER THAN YOU ARE NOW? CARE TO SHARE?
God, this is dull and boring. I'm really quite happy. Okay, maybe a faster computer, though I genuinely don't need one. I'm even quite happy with my cars and where I live and all that kind of thing.
42. ANYTHING YOU’D LIKE TO ADD?
Not that I can think of. Nice talking to you.
Clancy's comment: Wow, thank you, Peter, James, Jack, Max. Very interesting. Your books certainly sound exciting. Keep going.