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Why I write fiction

Why would I, as an ex-academic, spend the last eight years writing novels that just a few thousand people have read?

I certainly don’t write fiction for money. My tax return shows that I pretty well break even each year when I deduct expenses from royalties. If I factored in the lost opportunity cost of the hours I spend writing … well, let’s not think too hard about that.

You see, I belong to a subgroup of humanity who simply can’t not write. Every Tuesday I spend three hours with my critique group at the NSW Writers Centre in Rozelle, Sydney. The core of the group – four or five of us – are addicted to writing fiction. We just have to do it, just as some people have to sing, play tennis, or drive fast cars.

Perhaps I inherited this compulsion. My father wrote constantly – photo essays for Hertfordshire Countryside, articles on fingerprint techniques for The Police Review, textbooks on fraud investigation and police corruption. I suspect there were a few half-written novels among the typewriter tapping I remember from my childhood.

But it’s more than just raw compulsion. There are other motive forces behind my need to write. One is my fascination with the power of fiction, and the desire to master that power. George Orwell was the first novelist who showed me the force of fiction; his books shaped who I am today, and they shape how I write now. Through the years, others sculpted my intellect and sensibilities – Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Anthony Powell, Patrick White, Margaret Drabble … and on goes the parade of geniuses who have wielded the power of stories over me.

But I’m not a best seller – just a mere prawn in the curry of life (that’s a line I’m going to put into the mouth of one of my characters soon); my power to influence is tiny. But (and I know this might sound pathetic), I am almost moved to tears when even one person says, “I loved your book”, or “it was absolutely compelling”.

Here’s an example of job satisfaction: I gave an advance review copy of my latest novel to a friend. I forgot all about it until I got an email from him saying, “Oh no, Ralph died!” with a sad-face emoji. So what did I make of this? (a) He was reading the book – a triumph in itself because it’s harder than you might think to motivate people to read fiction, and (b) he was so affected by Ralph’s sudden death that he instantly emailed me. I walked around with a silly grin for the rest of the day. 

There are different kinds of power: Writing fiction gives me the power to entertain, amuse, sadden, satisfy. But let’s get back to the power to shape ideas and beliefs. Despite their tortuous plots, all my novels have what I think of as a moral core: In one, I explore the precariousness of middle-class morality; another has the plight of the Armenians as a backdrop; and they all contain a strand dealing with the way men negotiate partnerships with strong women.

Moral cores aside, writing fiction is, for me, a fascinating intellectual process. I’ll spare you the fine details, but suffice to say that juggling plot, setting, characters, and style is an intoxicating blend of creativity and technique. As an academic linguist, I hesitate to drift into metaphysics, but there are writing days when I enter what I call a ‘state of grace’ with the sentences flowing without obstacle. There are other days when it’s like shoving a barrow of shit uphill. 

Let me finish with what might be the most important reason I write. The four novels and one novella I’ve written so far are best described as being on the more intellectual end of popular fiction. If you were to ask who I see as models, I might suggest people like Lucie Whitehouse and Philip Kerr. My books entertain, amuse, sadden, and satisfy. But for the last three years, I’ve been grappling with a dystopian novel called Patria Nullius that deals with a climate apocalypse. I started the novel because I felt so helpless for the future of my grandchildren. It has been a pig of a book to structure. I’ve chopped and chipped at it, turned it on its head, but I’ve vowed to get it finished in 2020. I’m writing it because it will give me the power to influence in an existentially crucial way – even to a tiny extent.

You see, I can’t not write this book.

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You can learn more about my books here.

The penny dropped – a victory for love

When same-sex marriage became legal in Australia in December 2017, I was elated that the battle was won, and that Australia had – on this count at least – grown up. As a happily married straight male, my take on the matter was that this was a victory for human rights. That’s pretty much how I’ve thought about SSM for the last two years.

Last night, I attended my first same-sex wedding. Two dear friends tied the knot in front of friends and family in a moving ceremony at an elegant Sydney venue. And as the celebrant said the words, “Marriage, according to the law in Australia, is the union of two people to the exclusion of all others …”, I properly understood what happened in December 2017: That our lawmakers voted for love.

That doesn’t happen very often in the Australian Parliament!

Experimenting with Bookbub ads

Bookbub statistics

I’ve been experimenting with Bookbub ads over the last few weeks, basically gambling small sums to advertise my novels on this huge email-based book marketing platform.

Like many online ad platforms, Bookbub is based on an auction system: Bookbub puts your ad in front of eyeballs, you make a bid for the owners of the eyeballs to click on your ad, and you hope that the clicks turn into purchases.

BookBub ad creative

Your success depends on a lot of variables interacting to hook the right readers. For example, you can target readers who like particular authors, who live in different countries, and buy from different vendors (e.g. Apple, Amazon, Kobo). You can vary your price-per-click bid rate, and the price of your book. You can advertise on different days of the week, and you can choose to release to spend your money quickly or slowly. And of course, you have to design an ad that will seduce those eyeballs. The ad on the left has been one of my most successful.

There are lots of whizz-bang guides on how to get the most out of online ads (even entire courses!), but the take-away message is that you must test multiple versions of ads to find the optimum combination of variables.

As a former academic who has crunched a lot of slippery data (my field is linguistics), this kind of testing looks very complicated; there are so many variables. It is made more difficult for a small player like me investing an average $10 a test because the scale of results is too small to be statistically reliable. For example, why was the clickthrough rate for Apple and Kobo higher this Friday than Thursday, but lower for Amazon? (See the graph at the top of this post.) If I invested $10,000 rather than $10, I’d be much more confident in the results.

So where to? Short of running hundreds of small A/B tests or performing a factor analysis on a $10,000 test, I’m falling back on the approach I used as a linguistics academic when I operated in the grey zone between qualitative and quantitative data: (a) Start with a rough working hypothesis (b) gradually modify the hypothesis as new data comes in, (c) test the modified hypothesis. In practice this has entailed about ten tests so far.

And what have I Iearned? Well, here are some trends, but bear in mind that context is everything: I’m a ‘mature’ male Australian hybrid author writing quirky espionage fiction, and psychological and satirical thrillers, not a young female American author of time travel shape-shifter romance.

AD DESIGN: A quote from a review works better than a summary of the plot.

REGION: Australia (and to an extent Canada) are less competitive than the US and UK.

VENDOR: Apple and Kobo sell as well as Amazon in Australia.

WEEKDAY: Weekend ads may do less well than weekday ads.

AUTHOR: Readers of Daniel Silva like my books.

Remember these are trends based on small stats, not firm conclusions.

The outlook? I’m getting close to a return on my investment on my ads. I’m planning to run my best ad with a bigger investment, but to test some variations with a simultaneous low-cost ad.

I’d be fascinated to hear from other authors who are treading the same path.

Tense day working on my latest novel (weak joke alert)

Hard at work today revising my dystopian novel Patria Nullius. It’s a book within a book: The outside shell is in past tense and the kernel is in present tense. Yesterday I made the big decision to rewrite the kernel in past tense.

I’ve got Ladytron on the cans to help me along, so it’s all good so far.

Meanwhile, I’m grinding through the task of promoting my new book Bury me in Valletta. I’m given away some botched copies of the paperback (my botch-up, now fixed), and I’ve had great feedback. The ebook is discounted to 99c on Amazon and $1.99 on Apple. Do yourself a favour and download a copy. Even better, post a review if you like it!

The vendor links are here.

Thanks,

Stu