I’m well into the sequel for Before and After now and after a few bumps in the road it’s going great. However, I’ve noticed that one thing in particular tends to slow me down and that’s naming incidental characters.
It’s such a dumb thing that sometimes people don’t believe that I struggle with this. However, there’s such a lot of information and sentiment coded in names that if you choose the wrong one it can ruin a whole section, or it does for me anyway.
Consequently, I tend to go back and forth on what people should be called. The other day I spent ages deciding that a character would be called Guy Garvey, only to subsequently realise that the reason this had a fuzzy, warm feeling to it is because he’s the lead singer of Elbow.
See! It’s tough!
Anyway, my solution is to see if you will let me literarily kill you. You submit your name, I use the big long list of willing victims and just pick one that seems right. Plus you get a cameo (almost certainly as a dead body) to show your mates.
I’ve not been neglecting Before and After while I’ve been writing my next book. I’ve been doing quite a lot of podcasts and interviews, where I ramble at length about the book, my brilliance and what Shanafans can expect next. I’m going to round up some of the posts in this post so you can listen (or not) as you see fit.
Reading in Bed is a podcast where Amanda Steel records extracts of her reading from various books she’s enjoyed. She kindly read from Before and After and did a great job. You can find her reading below and her website here.
Next up I spoke to Eric Eskenazi who runs the excellent Erratic Dispatches podcast. It was fun speaking to someone from America about the book and getting a different perspective on it from that point of view. This one is 58 minutes of me chatting, so if you’re really finding it hard to sleep then this is the one for you.
I also spoke to BBC Lancashire about being a writer in the North and what it was like releasing a book about being trapped at home during a pandemic (spoiler: it’s a fun challenge!)
I’ve done another couple of interviews recently and I’ll add them to the blog when they go live. In other news, I’m experimenting with taking a break from social media as it seems to be sucking my time into a vortex of self-recrimination and Trump Derangement Syndrome and I need some fresh air. Consequently, I might just make some more time for blogging and further ramblechats. You lucky things…
Earlier this week I was contacted by a Manchester radio station who wondered if I might be interested in reading Before and After for them to broadcast. I ummed and ahhed because recording good quality audio is opening a Pandora’s box of niggles, hissing, pops and flubs.
After thirty seconds it appeared that my legs were walking me to the office and my hands were opening the Easy Voice Recorder app on my phone. 45 minutes later I’d recorded the first chapter. Given that this is one take I’m inordinately pleased with it. That is until I start listening to all the niggles, hissing, pops and flubs.
Anyway, I present it hear for you in case you fancy some listening material. I’m still available for readings and I’ve now done a few chats with book clubs who selected Before and After and I’m always pleased by how open those discussions are. It would be a bit embarrassing if everyone was just saying they liked the book because I was there. As it stands it’s clear that everyone is very happy to say what they do and don’t like – much as it should be.
Enough – pin back your lugholes and cop this:
Quick work update: hard at work still promoting Before and After and The Bossy Book. I have also finished the first draft of 232 Miles Of… the novel that’s set on the M6. There’s lots of good things in there but it’s still a bit raw and could probably do with five years in an oak barrel. I’ve now started work on a very dark tale of ghosts, fatherhood and medical-grade psychedelic drugs. Hoping to have draft #1 done by year’s end.
Anyway, let me know what you think of the first chapter.
With Before and After now out in the world and getting some great reviews (that’s been the aspect of publishing that’s surprised me the most), I’ve started to think about what comes next. It’s hard in some ways to think about moving on, without feeling like you’re somehow abandoning your first book. It feels like pushing a fledgling out of the nest in many ways. But a piece of advice I heard and that rings true for me, is that the best marketing you can do for your first book is to write your second. Also, I’m a “right, next” sort of guy.
This seems to be a recurring theme with the Indie Author career route – build momentum, keep writing, people find one book and then look into you as an author and hopefully buy and read your other books. There’s a school of thought that this approach means you should write in a very narrowly defined genre. That way people finding your sci-fi book aren’t going to look at your other output and get disappointed that you’ve written a horror and a police procedural.
I’m not sure how I feel about that logic.
I love sci-fi and post-apocalyptic and I’ve got lots of ideas that live in that area (including a sequel to Before and After – Beforerer and Afterer as my friend Jeff decreed it should be called), but I also love detective fiction and general literature. And children’s books. And Graphic novels. And very weird web stuff. In short, I’m not sure I buy into genre-grinding. I think I’m going to write what I find exciting and hope that readers respect that I’m not treating them like animals who’ll only ever eat one sort of feed. I also hope they’ll forgive me for referring to them as animals in that metaphor, and casting myself as the benevolent farmer. WTF Shanahan.
So, what’s the next book…well, it’s about the M6. Yes, the motorway.
People who have known me for a while might be aware that I have a small obsession with the M6. I’ve lived within hearing distance of the M6 for my entire life and in 2008 I wrote a sketch show about it that was called 230 Miles of Love. The slightly weird thing about that was that it was a satcom – i.e. a piece of locative media, where the sketches only played when the GPS told them to. This meant that the sketches knew where they were. For example one of the sketches was called Who Wants To Take The Toll and it ended differently, depending on whether you took the M6 toll or not. It was fairly ropey quality because it was all done in a blur of two days to write, record and produce it, but it was a great experience.
I’d decided that I’d like to write about the M6 and then the following day, I was chatting on Twitter to the world’s greatest flautist Michael Walsh (and if you haven’t given his Quarehawk a listen yet then shame on you) and he pointed me towards Song of A Road, a BBC Radio Ballad which took a musical documentary approach to the construction of the M1. It was so lyrical and vital that it really struck a chord. It seemed like a blessing on the project and locked it in that 232 Miles Of: was the next book.
The book is a thematic continuation of 230 Miles of Love. It will be 19 shorter stories, some interconnected, that all relate to the M6 in some way. Some will be personal and based on my own experiences and imagination, but others will be based on other M6 users’ input. What do you think of the M6? Do you love it? Hate it? Lust after it? If you think about the M6, what stories does it bring to your mind? There’s a form you can fill in if you’d like to share and it’s all anonymous (if you wish) and I’d love to hear your views.
What do you think of the idea? I’ve been really enjoying the looks on people’s faces when I tell them I’m writing a book about the M6. Generally, whenever I see those sort of reactions I know that I’m doing the right things.
I love reading to people. Love it. When my wife and I first got together I’d read to her all the time (mostly Pratchett, cos you can’t go wrong with Pratchett) and I’ve read to all of my children until the point where they don’t really want me to. There’s something so warm and human about telling a story straight into someone’s ear that hits me right where I live.
Huh? What? Well, just that really. I’m doing a little experiment for the next two weeks where you can book a slot in my working week for me to read to you. It’s totally free and I’ll call at a time you designate and read about 10 minutes of Before and After to you. You could think of it as an audio sampler. We can chat and if you’ve got any questions then I’ll do my best to answer them, unless it’s maths related in which case I’ll get one of my children to help.
It’s kind of a weird idea, but I know that as my readers you’re looking for weird kind of ideas and I dig you for that. So why not give it a try?
Additionally, a few people have also asked if I’d read at their book club meeting and the answer is hellyes. If you’re doing Before and After at your book club just drop me an email and I’ll gladly come and read to you. I’ll also send you a list of the book club discussion points which I’m putting together for a later blog post. Depending on where you are I might need you to cover petrol, or bike wheel rubber, but it won’t be much. I’m also happy to talk about the career path of becoming an indie author and share what I’ve learned thus far. Primarily, never use the word thus.
Also as an aside Before and After is now a best-seller…no biggie.
Hello, I’m Yo, one half of design consultancy VS+YO. I created the cover for Before and After and Shan asked me to tell you the story of how we made it.
Before we get started, a warning, this blog post contains spoilers! If you don’t want to know what happens in the book, go get it from the kindle store before you read this, go!
Shan and I have worked together for over 18 years and I think we have only met in real life four times. I love working with him for multiple reasons [Chief among these being that we only meet in person once every 4.5 years – Shan].
Firstly, he gives me compliments like this:
But more importantly we share the same values when it comes to design and creating.
We also understand that we are both focused on making things better, which is why when we share ideas we are completely honest with each other. And why, when Shan told me that the cover was the most important thing to the success of any book and if his failed to sell it would be all my fault, I laughed. No pressure then!
The process I followed for creating the book cover was the same as I would follow for any design project. At each stage Shan had the opportunity to input and feedback which meant that the project is collaborative and that he thinks that all of the design was his idea.
Step 1 – The brief
We kicked off project with a call where I asked lots of questions to get a clear understanding of what Shan was looking for. Here are my notes of what he told me:
I then asked for a draft of the blurb that would feature with the book so that I could get an idea of what Shan was going to reveal up front and what he wanted to be a surprise. You can read the blurb here.
I had an idea I wanted to put something on the cover that represented one thing when you first saw it and then had another meaning after you have read the book.
Shan had lots of ideas for the cover, including making a hybrid illustration, creating an optical illusion where some people might see a fat man other would see a dog and a design with a fat superhero wearing a cape.
Emma, Shan’s wife, also had an idea which Shan send in a video. This made my day:
I had lots to go on, but before started any design I wanted to experience the book and understand the key themes. I also wanted to see the competition to learn who we were competing with and how they approached standing out in a crowded market place.
Step 2 – Research
I read the book, every word.
Shan asked if I would send feedback, I sent him notes after I had read each chapter. Reading the book really helped me to understand the key themes and get ideas for visuals that would work on the cover. It also gave me an understanding of the experience of the book. I loved it! It made me laugh out loud on multiple occasions and cry once too.
Next, I researched the marketplace and the competition. Looking at the sci fi and post apocalyptic section of the amazon kindle store was overwhelming. There are so many titles! Our cover would definitely need to stand out and the design would have to work at multiple sizes and in greyscale as well as in full colour.
I had a call with Shan to discuss what I had learned. We looked at examples and discussed typography, colours and tone, what he liked and what he didn’t. This helped us to realise that a traditional cover design was not what we were going to create. A lone figure in front of burning buildings was out. Simple illustration was a possibility. We agreed the goal of the design would be to make it stand out and to get a reader curious enough to read the blurb.
Step 3 – Concept
Now I had all of the information I needed to get started, it was time to focus on ideas.
My ideas always start as words. They allow me to get ideas out quickly and not get caught up in how it will look.
To get started, I do a brain dump of everything I can think of in five minutes. From this quick, simple exercise I get a feeling for what excites me and what sparks visual ideas. I pay attention to words that can be connected and try combinations of words for ideas, with the aim of creating something unique and unexpected.
Then I move on to moodboards with photography and type. As a book cover is quite a straightforward design, I also mocked up some covers so that Shan could see the cover name in action and get a feel for how it could work. I showed the covers both large and as small versions in both colour greyscale to replicate how they could be viewed in the kindle store. Check out of the concepts we explored in this gif:
This stage is quick and the moodboards are designed to explore ideas, not necessarily a finished style. That comes after a direction has been agreed.
All concepts were presented to Shan on a video call where I explained the thinking behind each. We discussed each one taking into account how we could create a design that he could completely own without having to pay royalties on images. The presentation was then emailed so that he could think over the options.
The design that we were both really excited about and agreed represented the key themes was the biscuit concept. It nailed it on many levels. It was simple. It stood out. It would appeal to a mass audience. It made you curious, what was this biscuit book about? We both felt this was the right direction, it just needed more development.
We also agreed the book needed a shorter name, something more memorable, and that the biscuit should have a message on it.
Boom! The design became instantly more memorable. And it satisfied my need to create a design that was timeless and that would stand out in the kindle store. Shan and I were very excited, this was the one to develop to design.
Step 4 – Design
We wanted an original photo to work with so that we owned the rights and wouldn’t have to pay for a licence or royalties to use it. I’m not a photographer but as the book was digital and we were working to a budget I took the photos myself with my smartphone. I went on a search for the perfect bourbon (Waitrose essentials turned out to look the most like a bourbon and work the best. Fox’s bourbons in comparison looked like dog biscuits which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for this book).
My hubby, Tom, helped with the photography (and eating the bisuits). He noticed that one was broken and said it could be cool even though he had no idea why we were taking photos of biscuits.
I loved it! The idea of the biscuit being imperfect was like the main character Ben with his flaws, as if he had nibbled a little bit off hoping no-one would notice. The piece missing could also represent the part of his leg he has to remove. This was the one! [I never mentioned this before but one of the things I got from that is that there’s an old joke about the fact that broken biscuits have no calories, so it’s even smarter than you thought! – Shan]
As the cover image was going to appear as if it was out of context in the kindle store I felt it needed a line to explain what the book was about. I wrote one and added to the top. Then I experimented with the layout, see some of the versions in this gif:
Shan loved the big biscuit with the book title on it and the additional line. He is feeling confident and decided to ask a small trusted group to feedback on the cover.
Usually when working on a project, I ask that all decision makers are present for the first stages. It helps to get everyone on the same page.
When new people are brought into the process cold and haven’t seen the work behind a design there can be a tendency for things to get off track and this can add time and cost to the project.
We shared the design process to date and we had a winner! The feedback was to tweak to the type and I needed to have the title properly photoshopped on to the biscuit and we would be good to go.
Until Shan posted the cover in a facebook group and asked over 9.1k people for their feedback. [Sorry. – Shan]
There was a lot feedback! A lot of positives and some negatives too.
It didn’t look like fiction.
American’s didn’t recognise the biscuit.
It didn’t look like it fitted in the post-apocalyptic genre.
When dealing with feedback from with multiple individuals I aim to focus on the problem we are solving and keep bringing it back to what is important. Shan is very good at filtering out the noise and focusing on what is important.
Shan and I discussed the feedback in detail. Did these things matter? What was most important to us and to the viewer? What emotional reaction were we looking for?
We decided to give the cover design one final push to see if adding a post apocalyptic element to our biscuit cover would work.
I created some quick mock-ups, I tried adding biscuit crumbs coloured red so that at a glance it looked like blood splatter. I added a target to communicate weight loss but that would also look like a scope, which also features in the book. At the request of Shan, I experimented with adding a mad sci-fi colour even though we knew the cover would often appear in greyscale. I even tried adding a background of burning buildings, the cliche we originally agreed to avoid.
Sometimes, you have to try things to see them to confirm they don’t work.
These quick mock-ups proved that combining an extra element with the biscuit concept would require a lot more time and budget to get it right. And we would likely need to pay for photography or involve an illustrator.
We had two options, either to stick to our gut and go for the biscuit or continue to develop.
We realised something important. We didn’t care that it didn’t look like traditional fiction. We didn’t want it to look like it fitted in the post-apocalyptic genre.
We both loved the cover as it was.
We went back to the original with some final typographic tweaks to make the cover line and author name bigger as per the facebook feedback.
The cover now ticked all of the boxes we set out to:
It stands out
It is memorable
It makes you feel something
curious, what’s a book like that doing here?
hungry, mmm… biscuits
nostalgic, I haven’t had a bourbon in ages
And it motivates you to click to find out more.
Whether you love or hate the cover, the book is awesome. It’s not just for those who love end of the world, sci-fi. It’s for people who love an adventure, root for the underdog and like biscuits.
Go to the kindle store and download the book to discover why the bourbon biscuit is on the cover.
Yikes. This is all getting alarmingly real. I’m currently writing the third and final draft of the book and so far it’s been three days of weeping, gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. The key to the difficulty is in that terrifying word: final.
Decades of following English international sporting teams has conditioned me so that I come out in a rash at the mere mention of the word final. Finals are hopes dashed. Finals are repeating the words “but we could have had it all!” endlessly into the froth of a pint of lager. As each chapter gets done I have to essentially declare: yes, this is perfect and precisely how I’d like the reader to receive these words. How do you do that? I suppose the alternative is that you find yourself two years down the line starting your 48th draft and realise that you’ve whittled your stick down to a match, but, boy, what a match!
Em said I had to push on through so that’s what I’m doing, wise wifely counsel. I’m also keeping myself busy by working with Yo on the cover design. I say working with, but really she does all the work and I just nod and say things like, “Can that font run right to left?” or “Would it work in mauve?” Yo smiles politely down the phone and gets on with the vital business of ignoring me.
I’m actually going to let Yo write a post about how the cover is decided because frankly she’s the one who knows what’s what, but I thought you might like an image that she made which shows an array of covers that are also nominally in the same category (the jolly post-apocalypse category, although Before and After is perhaps the first ever post-apocalyptic weight loss book – how’s that for a niche?)
Do you have a favourite from these? I’m an Atwood guy all the way.
I’ve been having the conversation around publishing vs self-publishing with a lot of different people recently. To those who aren’t au fait with the publishing world there’s often real surprise, especially around the earnings details, so I thought I’d put together a post about my current thinking in case it helps anyone else and to explain my current quandary.
First a bit of background. In total, so far, I’ve published three books. Two of those – the Not Going to Uni Guide and the MAN v FAT Weight Loss Manual were published in conventional ways i.e. with a publisher (Pearson and then Headline) who paid me an advance to write the book and then I negotiated a percentage of future book royalties for when I’d “earned out” my advance. So in theory when you’ve earned beyond your advance you start receiving a percentage of the retail price per book. Typically, this can be anywhere from 5%-15% depending on the skills of your agent and how much clout you have at the negotiation phase. The publisher receives the rest.
The other book that I did was the Staggered Groom Guide. That was self-published. We paid to have about 5,000 copies printed (which cost around £3k) and then listed them on Amazon, through the I Am Staggered site and via affiliates. We held all the stock and then posted them out whenever an order came through. The finances for that were simpler, we had production costs (design, copy, printing, postage) and anything that was left over from the retail price was revenue. I think typically it ended up being about a fiver per book. In the end I think we had a box or two left, so we more or less sold out. We considered doing a second print run but by that point we’d started to think about selling Staggered so it wasn’t really on the cards.
On the plus side of working with a publisher there is undoubtedly the consideration of ego. Being published, getting an advance, working with an agent all sounds incredible, especially to anyone who has always dreamed of being a writer – it’s the way it’s supposed to happen. Plus, saying “I’ve got a meeting with my publisher on Monday” is never not going to sound cool. Conversely, you mention self-publishing and your mind drifts towards people writing endless fantasy epics that merge the worlds of Harry Potter and 50 Shades of Grey. There has been some improvement in recent years with the breakout success of self-published efforts like The Martian, but it still has the stigma of vanity project to it.
In theory, publishers also have a PR network going for them that will boost the sales of your book and give you insights into getting the biggest readership for your book. There’s also the simple fact that they’re taking the risk. If your book doesn’t sell then you’re sat on the advance and the publisher is out of pocket.
On the negative side of working with a publisher is pretty much everything else. I was surprised on both occasions just how little the publisher actually did compared to my expectations. Once the book was agreed it pretty much came back to being my responsibility. Because they want as much time as possible to look at marketing the book, they want the finished manuscript as soon as possible. I think I had four weeks for the Not Going To Uni book (around 50k words) and 7 weeks for the MAN v FAT book (60k words). I’m not sure why but I always thought that the actual process of completing the book would be more of a collaborative process where I would bring ideas/chapters/suggestions and the publisher would use their experience to help shape things. As it was, more or less everything was left to me. That’s great in one way, but I’d expected more.
The other real surprise was my misconception that the publishers would take the lead on the marketing of the books. Not so. You’ll notice that the majority of books published these days are connected to authors or organisations who have a significant online following, whether it’s Mrs Hinch, A.N. Other YouTuber or MAN v FAT – publishers essentially bank on you being able to sell your book to your existing readership. They use that as the break-even audience and if your book expands beyond that, then great. If not, then they’ve not risked too much. To be fair, that makes sense. As stated, they’re taking the risk by putting up the advance, so naturally they want to ameliorate that risk by going for someone with an existing readership.
Since I self-published the Staggered Groom Guide by printing it and posting them out to purchasers another player has entered the arena: Kindle Direct Publishing. Essentially, self-publishing onto KDP means that your book can be on Amazon and available as a print-on-demand product (i.e. they don’t print a load of books, they just print a physical copy every time someone orders one) for free. Yep, free.
The real eye-opener with KDP is that depending on what the price of your book is then you would make around 70% of the retail price. A typical Kindle book price would be around £3, which means you’d take just over £2 of that. The book also lists on Amazon and makes it easy for anyone around the world to buy your book. Of course, it does potentially lock out anyone who reads on other e-readers (kobo, etc), but there are options within KDP where you can also sell via your own site and through other e-tailers. I’ll hold my hands up here and say that’s something I need to look into a bit more.
I think the crux of the question is that if the majority of work falls on your shoulders when working with a traditional publisher, and you receive a commensurately smaller slice of the pie – why would you bother? Does my fragile ego really need that much underpinning? I should issue a hearty disclaimer here and say that that your mileage may vary with a publisher. It could be that I should have been better informed of the expectations with previous books. Or it could be that publishers do a lot more work with other authors, I don’t know. However, that’s my experience in a nutshell.
So for now, the quandary I have is whether I should even bother to approach publishers at all for Before and After? After a lot of reflection I think I’m going to ignore them entirely and just focus on self-publishing. Hopefully, I’m going to be writing a lot more books in the future and I think the joy of getting a book out to readers in the way that I want to, marketed in the way I think it should be is just too tempting. I have a real advantage in that I already have a brilliant team to work with who can help me design and create the best possible version of this book that I can. Plus, if I can retain a greater percentage of the retail price then over time it makes more business sense.
The clincher is the fact that if the book’s out there and gets a good reception then there’s nothing to stop me approaching a traditional publisher (shortly after amending this blog post to say how much I love working with publishers) and seeing if I can get a deal on the basis of the success of the self-publishing. So, onwards, to researching how to make self-publishing work!
Think of all the mediocre fiction that Twitter has saved us from. As a writer I find that I’m able to justify spending hours on the microblogging site where WAGS and Trumps go to war. It’s an addiction, especially when I can get away with farting out crap like this:
If you multiply the hours of procrastination by the number of writers then you’re probably talking about a million titles per year that Twitter saves us from. Let us be thankful. For me Twitter is just a way of plugging myself directly into the unfolding insanity of Brexit with its deadlines and red lines. Again, that’s an addiction. How I yearn for the days when news was tremendously boring, but in reality I know that it has always been this scintillating, it’s just never been done in full view of the public before.
Fortunately, when it comes to my own deadlines I’m a pro. Never missed one yet and I never intend to. There’s just something in me that won’t let me even contemplate missing one. I get a really curious line of sweat on my neck when the thought occurs. My only greater fear is if I was on a stage without knowing my lines. Consequently, when I swore blind that the second draft of the book would be done by the end of September I disappeared off to Devon for a week (sorry Em:) and pulled a series of 14 hour days to get it done.
It’s actually turning into something I quite like. It finally has a name… Before and After: the Shut In at the End of the World. I keep changing the capitalisation every time I write it, so I should probably decide on one version and stick to it. The book is currently with a number of beta readers who have very kindly said they’d read it and give me feedback. It’s a nervy wait. The feeling of exposure reminds me of the time when I stood naked in the front window of the house spread out like a starfish stuck to the glass. I stayed there until our neighbour saw me and ran to tell his mum. I was 35*.
One other piece of news: I’ve written a short script for 2000AD’s Future Shocks which draws heavily from the horror of HP Lovecraft. If it gets knocked back I’ll stick the script on here for you to enjoy.
Finally – if you haven’t heard Ghosteen by Nick Cave yet, then give it a listen as it’s amazing. Also, I’m really, really enjoying Quarehawk by Michael Walsh, which also features the Mancunian poet Mike Garry – here’s The Visitor, which is lovely.
Naturally, I had to find him on Twitter…
*That’s a true story but I was actually 6. Don’t ask me why I did it, I was fucking odd.
Whaaaaat? Where’s this free short story you promised me? Well, I’m sorry to say that it’s had to be hidden as it has been entered as part of the MMU Short Story Competition. So until that’s done I’m not allowed to have it on the web. Sorry. There’s plenty of short fiction around the site to read and if that doesn’t satisfy, you could always follow me on Twitter and berate me there.