Category Archives: Opinion

Self Publishing in Retirement

While I was attending the London Book Fair I got chatting with internet advertising guru Mark Dawson, and he asked if I would do a quick interview to tell my story of how I discovered FB Advertising. I said of course (who wouldn’t). It turned into half an hour with James Blatch and you can see the results here with Me being interviewed by James Blatch

SPF-122: The Self Publishing Retirement Windfall with David Penny

If you don’t want to wait, the interview starts around 8 minutes in.

The joy of Campo living in Spain

We are the proud owners of a house in Spain. I know, it’s tough, but someone has to stand up and say Brexit might be Brexit but some of us still believe in Europe. But this is not meant to be a political post, so no more of that nonsense. Please… no more of that nonsense.

My wife and I appeared on the UK television show A Place in the Sun in February 2017. More about that experience in another post, but it is enough to say we made an offer on the second property we saw. It was accepted, and within three weeks we flew out to take possession. Which is when our education began.

Our house sits on a hillside in a small hamlet that is unknown to Google maps. That should have been a warning, but not one we took any notice of. Not then.

Our house is also classified as “rural”. Which means it’s Campo.

What is Campo?

Look carefully – the little blue dot is our water meter!

Campo is anywhere that is not connected to the grid, likely has no paved road to it, no telephone service, and no postal service. Usually water is supplied from a well or a tank on your roof. It’s more than rural. And often times the house you think you bought is not shown on any official plan.

We were lucky.

When you try to buy anything or get anything delivered you will invariably get asked “Are you Campo? Even something as simple as your post. We take some things for granted in the UK and most of the rest of Europe, like a telephone line, the internet, water, electricity and so on. Except we are lucky. We have both water and electric. But no phone. And we have internet, but again that’s a long story.

Anyway – when we arrived our land was thigh high in weeds so I drove into our closest large town, Velez Malaga, to buy a strimmer. There was a Stihl shop. I had been told Stihl was the best petrol driven strimmer to buy. I’m not stupid. I went into the shop.

First question from the lovely lady behind the counter:

“Are you Campo?” Except it was in Spanish. But I had my phone and I had Google translate.

“Semi-campo,” I said.

She smiled indulgently.

I asked how much the strimmers were.

She extracted a thick catalogue. It contained no prices. But she went through four pages and wrote in the prices for me while I took sharp intakes of breath.

Then she smiled and crossed them all out and wrote their special prices.

Another smile. Another crossing out. By now she had taken 30% off the price if I came in on Tuesday or Thursday. Apparently if you buy equipment on those days, between certain hours, you don’t pay any VAT (IVT in Spanish). I don’t know if this is official government policy or not but it seems to apply to all agricultural and machinery shops we come across.

So, it being a Tuesday, I pointed. I’d like that one, please.

She smiled.

It will have to come from Madrid. Three weeks. Everything has to come from Madrid, and it always takes three weeks. It’s a good first estimate.

No – our weeds are thigh high, I said, I need something today.

Ah. You can have this one. It is a little more, but we have it in stock.

Yes, I said.

She then proceeded to take 20 minutes dismantling the strimmer in the showroom and re-assembling it for me. All the while there was a queue of other customers, but this being Spain they managed to amuse themselves while openly staring at the strange Englishman.

I got my strimmer.

It works very well. It’s a Stihl, see.

And then we went to find furniture in Ikea in Malaga.

We asked for it to be delivered.

Are you Campo?

It was becoming a familiar litany.

There are not many Town Halls with a view like this

Next we went to the local post office to see if we could get our mail.

Are you Campo?

Yes, we are bloody Campo!

We don’t deliver to Campo. You can have a post box, but for that you need form XY-double-de-dub from the Town Hall.

The Town Hall don’t know anything about the form, but they do ask if we are Campo.

We are so Campo that after an hour in the Town Hall offices we discover our house is not actually the house on the town plans, but that’s fine, this is Spain, they will correct that for us right there and then. It often happens, they say, houses are sold and sold again but nobody bothers to tell them about it. We will have to wait several months before it is official. Where should they send the paperwork?

But it all worked out in the end, and then as we were about to leave the very nice lady asked if we wanted to vote in the European elections. We could, because we owned a house in Spain, she said. It might not be the house shown on their plans, but we looked like nice people, so we now have authorised forms allowing us to vote in the next Euro elections.

Coming to Spain from the UK is a strange experience, one you need time to adjust to. In a few weeks I will try to explain the joys of shopping in Spain, and next time I’ll wax lyrical over the history of illegal construction.

And yes, if you’re Campo you need to be careful about that. We, it turned out, were lucky.

Positively Indie

Alliance of Independent Authors /

My kids will tell you my opinion on self-belief. I admit I might have been a little too successful teaching them that lesson—but if you can do something, even better if you can do it well, why hide the fact?

So when I started writing again a couple of years ago, after a hiatus of 35 years, the world had changed from the one I used to know. Back in the hazy (and yes, as an ex-hippy they are a little hazy) days of the 1970’s there were two ways to get published. Fanzines—which didn’t pay—and books and magazines—which did.

I did both. Started with fanzines and worked myself up through the ranks, put in the hours even though Malcolm Gladwell was only 10 years old, until eventually things began to stick. I got an agent, then a publisher, had stories in Galaxy magazine and Vertex and four novels published over five years. And then I ran out of money. Or rather, I matured and decided I needed to eat at least once a day. I took a day job. Writing became a side project, and then faded… but it was never forgotten.

When I returned to it—and that first love is always something special, isn’t it—it was to a whole new world. Things had changed while I had been away.

There had been vanity presses back in the day, but now Amazon has cracked open the stone wall surrounding the magic kingdom and people can publish themselves. I had a decision to make. Start up in the same way I knew, find an agent, find a publisher, wait, or… something else?

The internet had appeared, too. In 1970, if you wanted an agent you bought the Writers’ and Artists’ Year Book and trawled the pages, you wrote letters (in longhand), enclosed an SAE, and you waited. Now Google is your friend.

So… the old way, or the new way, that was the decision I had to make.

I have to tell you, I was torn.

I’m of the baby-boom generation who sees the validation of a publisher as almost essential to a writer, so it was tough to consider alternatives. But like I said, the world has changed. Oh, has it ever changed.

I looked into the alternatives and discovered that if I published myself I could earn 70% royalty from Amazon, the same from other outlets if I went through Smashwords or direct.

From experience I knew a traditional publisher wouldn’t give me anything like that. But hey, they have overheads too: editors, proofreaders, cover artists… large, prestigious office blocks in London and New York, high-paid executives, lunches…

I looked into what I needed to do to make my book as professional as I could. I already told you about self-belief, so of course I knew it was a great book. To make it greater still I needed an editor, a professional cover, a proofreader. So I went out and found them. And then there’s the marketing. It would be great to leave that up to the publisher, but talking with traditional authors it soon became clear that most of the marketing still needs to be done by yourself. Fine, I’ve run a software company for over 20 years, I can do that too.

Maybe there’s a pattern emerging. I’ve talked on the web with a lot of writers who don’t want all that extra work. They see themselves as writers, period. And it’s great if that is all you want to be. But I can do all this other stuff anyway. Formatting for Kindle doesn’t scare me. Creating a website is what I do in my day job.

But I still had the decision to make, because something continued to nag away at me… agent… publisher… acceptance.

Except—it’s the acceptance of readers I want, not of those other people.

And the deciding factor came down to… control and timing.

I’ve written my book. It’s been edited. A cover created. Proofed. It’s ready. Now.

Find an agent – several months.

Agent sends the manuscript around. Another 6 months.

Publisher accepts (you notice I’ve still got the self-confidence), another 18 months before it sees the bookstands.

That could be anything from two years to three years. And the book is finished. Now! In three years time I want to have written and published a stack of other books.

In the end, it came down to that simple fact. And control. I don’t want to wait. And by going Indie I can control everything. If a reader finds a typo on page 297 I can fix it and upload a new version within minutes.

Decision made.

I’m Indie. Positively Indie. And proud of the fact. Oh, and if you’re interested, you can find the book here and here.

A writer’s year (2013)

Earlier today I watched Joanna Penn on Sky News talking about making a change in your career, and she said something profound that really struck me.

What she said was: “Think back to what you wanted to be when you were 13 or 14. Are you doing that now?”

Well, at 13 all I ever wanted to be was a writer.

And, even worse, at 23 I was! A real writer, with an agent, a publisher, and a book in the library. Sure, the advance was laughable and I never earned it out, but I had reached my goal in life, and over the next few years I published three more books and a few short stories.

And then… well, I took my eye off the ball. I gave up.

But 2013 was the year I seriously decided to get back into my writing. I’ve been playing around for a while, but I admit now it was only playing. I started in on my first book in 30 years 5 years ago, a detective novel. Later I took down the copies of my old Science Fiction novels and thought, hey, I can scan these in and bring them out as eBooks. Except, when I started reading them through I thought, oh-oh, maybe not.

So I wrote for a while.

I even wrote under a pseudonym to see if I could still make it and sold a few copies of what I wrote, but it wasn’t anything I wanted to tell anyone else about.

Then around a year ago I thought “Well, if you’re really serious, spend a little money and learn what you need to do.”

So last year I did exactly that.

I read what felt like a thousand blogs, bought a score of books, attended a couple of writer’s and reader’s conferences, took several courses, and now I’ve finished the book I was working on. Next month it goes to an editor (yes, more money), and I’m having a cover created as well (you know what I’m going to say).

Over the last year I’ve undertaken the following experiences:

Book in a Month

I enrolled in a Book in a Month Workshop. It was a little like NaNoWriMo but with a tutor.

This kick started me to actually finish writing the book I started a year ago. I had been driving my wife mad because I talked about it all the time but I wasn’t getting it done.

This course certainly got it done.

Over a period of less than 30 days I wrote every chance I got and ended up with 100,000 words.

Was it worth the effort? Yes.

Will I do the same again with the next book? No.

I learned a few things about the process of creation over the month, and the biggest thing I learned is that yes, I need to write fast and write with my editing head turned off, but writing as fast as I did had a negative effect afterwards. I was so burned out by the process it took me a few months to get back into it.

But, if you need a kick up the backside to get you to finish a book, I’d recommend everyone try this once.

Crime Writing Festivals

Coming back to writing I decided I wanted to switch genre from what I used to do. Gone was the science-fiction (for now). I wanted to write Crime. So I attended the Chipping Norton Literary Festival and later the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival.

I enjoyed Chipping Norton, but Harrogate was an epiphany. Here were the people I wanted to hang around with. Everyone there loves books and writing. Everyone. It was like I’d been on a ten year trip and finally arrived home!

At Harrogate I attended a short workshop on plotting, a part of the process I knew needed attention, and this led me to the next phase.

Guardian Masterclass in Crime Writing

I’ve blogged about this elsewhere so I won’t repeat myself here, other than to say this taught me more than anything else I’ve done all year. If you can find the time, and money, these Masterclasses are recommended.

One thing I did take away from the class that I didn’t mention in my post was the lesson Matthew Hall taught me: Spend time on constructing your story. He says he spends 5 or 6 weeks on plotting before writing anything. And after going through the mill with my new book I intend to follow his advice from now on. Get the plot nailed down first, and then start writing.


And so, after what seems to have been a pretty busy year I’m now sitting here with a finished novel wondering what to do with it.

I thought long and hard about whether to go the traditional route with the book. You know: submit to an agent, hang around to see if anyone’s interested, maybe get a publisher to nibble, hang around another year or eighteen months while it goes through the mill, and I decided… ahh, no, maybe not.

I know how self-publishing works. I know my own weaknesses, hence the editor and cover designer. I also know most traditionally published writers don’t make enough to live off. I’ve reached the stage in my life where I can see a light at the end of the tunnel, and that light is time. Time to do what I really want to do. Time to market my own book, and to write another (already plotted) and another after than (also already plotted). After that… oh, I have so many ideas I need a forty year retirement to fit it all in.

See, I’ve still got ambitions.

Chipping Norton – who’d have thought it!

I’m recently back from a fantastic weekend at the Chipping Norton Literary Festival. I know, I know… so if you have no interest in writing you can zone out now, because this is all about writing and writers.

I started out booking a couple of workshops on Saturday, then found more I wanted to go to on Sunday so made a complete weekend of it. There was a great atmosphere, and what I loved was the way everyone, from well-known writers to mere mortals like me, simply rubbed shoulders, chatted and got on. Case in point…

ChipLit2

Returning from a walk (I had three hours to kill between sessions) I sat and ate my sandwiches on a bench beneath a tree. Opposite was the Jaffe & Neal bookshop where a couple of my workshops were held, and on the right of the picture sipping tea and eating cake are Val McDermid, Stuart McBride and Mark Billingham – three of the UK’s leading crime writers. As I ate my chicken and salad on granary their conversation occasionally wafted over… “Yeah, I visited this coroner’s office, and you wouldn’t believe the things I saw there…”

So while enjoying a balmy afternoon tea in a pretty Cotswold town possibly the next gory thrillers were being discussed and planned.

And what did I learn, other than even people you consider famous are just people after all (although I think I already knew that)?

Well – I picked up some tips on how to improve my self-publishing, heard a talk by Peter James on his latest book, learned something about weaving historical research into a novel and finished off discovering how to create characters that jump off the page.

Now all I have to do is apply all this. My Spanish detective novel is now started. My vision is set. All I need now is time…

 

 

Keyboards

I’m going to come right out and say it. I’m a keyboard nut. Completely and utterly.
I blame my upbringing.

I started typing when I was 12. One of my earliest writing memories is of sitting outside in the garden – the sun was shining, because when you’re 12 the sun always shines – tapping away at an old portable typewriter. An Olivetti, I think. It belonged to my grandfather, who was typing up his Great War tales of derring do (which is a completely other topic I might post about sometime, because it’s worth hearing about).

Then some time later I bought my own typewriter. An old black Royal. I got it in a sale room, and probably paid no more than £1 for it. I never paid more than £1 for anything. I bought an amazing desk with a fold down lid made of solid oak for £1 which I used for 30 years.

So anyway, the point is that old Royal spoiled me. There was something about the sheer physical effort of pressing the keys and getting words down on paper that made the act of writing something different. I must have written 250,000 words on the Royal before I moved on to a portable and then, later, an electric typewriter. Eventually, and pretty soon after they came out, I bought an Amstrad computer.

However, something all these had in common was solid, clattery keyboards. That’s what I was used to. That’s what I associated with writing.

So… roll the clock forward to 2010, and I’ve been working with computers for 25 years and used keyboards of all kinds, but that was work, not creation. I would use whatever fell to hand (or finger).

But in 2010 I started writing again, and suddenly discovered that none of the keyboards I used was up to the job. There was a disconnect between my somatic memory and the physical act of writing. The keyboards weren’t the right size or shape or… well, feel!

I bought a MacBook, but the keyboard, while OK, wasn’t it.

I bought an Apple keyboard, and then an apple wireless keyboard, and still not it.
The keys were soft and squishy. They didn’t make a noise. And something about putting words on paper (sorry, I mean screen now, don’t I?) and what I use to perform the task didn’t sit right.

I bought keyboard after keyboard until I finally realized buying another one was plain stupid.

So I did some research, trawled the net finding out what the best keyboards were, and finally drove 25 miles down the road to Stroud to actually try one before committing myself (or being committed).

All of this is some kind of prelude to saying I went and bought a Filco keyboard.

Filco Keyboard

It doesn’t have a numeric keypad, because why in hell would a writer want a numeric keypad? They sell it in two models, defined by whether they contain brown or blue key actions (don’t ask). The brown keys (not the actual colour) don’t go click-click-click so if you work in an office you don’t drive everyone around you mad. The blue keys do go click-click-click, and suddenly I was in heaven. I had found the keyboard I lost when I got rid of my old Royal. Except now I don’t need to lift weights to press the keys down, but when I do press them they go click and clack.

Yes, it drives my family crazy if they can hear it, so I close the office door.
But the main thing is, I love this keyboard. Love it to pieces. It’s precise, professional, and it just feels right.

It cost ten times more than most other keyboards, but whatever the price it was worth it because I can type at least 30% faster than before, and I can type with my eyes closed because the keys fall in exactly the right place, and that noise… my God, the noise! I love it!