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Where’s the action at?

This site is essentially defunct. It hasn’t been updated regularly in many years, and much of the formatting, including the images, were lost during a move from one web host to another.

I’m blogging regularly on writing, story telling, language and life at simontownley.com, a site dedicated mainly to my fiction.

I also post about copywriting and marketing issues, albeit less frequently, at simontownley.co.uk – a site mainly focused on bringing in clients to my business.

I’m leaving most of the written content of this site online for now in case it is still useful to anyone. Some of the more tangential stuff will get pruned over time.

 

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Novel ‘Outlivers’ now live

outliversMy latest novel ‘Outlivers,’ a dystopian sci-fi tale for adults and young adults alike, was released on 18th October and is not live on Amazon, iTunes, Smashwords and most other good ebook sites. (It’s not on Kobo at the moment, but they are having all sorts of problems just now…)
Here’s the back cover copy as a taster:

Theia McKai is seventeen, defiant and deadly – an irresistible force in a stagnant world where the old enslave the young.
In a city ringed with fences and choked by surveillance, a privileged, elderly elite owns everything – and everyone. The long years of the outlivers drag on as they cling to power and wealth, refusing to die.
When martial arts prodigy Theia McKai is selected as a ‘companion’ for 200-year-old Rupert Geryon, minister for security, her every instinct is to run, resist, refuse.
Hypnotised, tortured and beaten, she faces a stark choice – submit to the desires of a monstrous old man or fight back and endanger everyone she loves.
Theia risks all to expose the truth about her world. But before unleashing change, first she must confront her greatest enemy. And win the ultimate battle.
Inside herself.

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‘Outlivers’ interview live on Scifan site

My latest novel ‘Outlivers’ launches on 18th October – and there’s an interview about the writing of the book, the characters, themes and lots more available here on Michael Long’s superb Scifan site. There’s also a giveaway running on the site so if you’d like a free ebook copy of ‘Outlivers’, please check it out.

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I’ve given this blog a kick to wake it from its slumber, so that I can rant a little: Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song…

There’s been a debate, here in the UK, sparked by The Booker prize. It’s a literary prize for the year’s best novel.

It’s been controversial this year, even more so than normal, because the judges have been saying they wanted to reward books that were readable. That ‘zip along,’ as one of the judges put it.

The literary elite have come over all pompous and offended. The self-appointed literati seem to think novels need to be slow and ponderous and incomprehensible in order to be any good.

Meanwhile, in the blue corner, a fair number of people, including quite a few who actually buy and read books, have been pointing out that it is, sometimes, an entirely good thing that a novel has a coherent narrative.

Not so, say the literati. A work of ‘literature’ should have higher ambitions than that. And of course, they do have a point. We wouldn’t want all the bookshops to be filled with clones of James Patterson and Jeffrey Archer, now would we?

So who’s right? Should we reward and hail the novels that contain literary ambition, which set out to chart new territory and stretch the art form? Or the ones that represent a damn good read?

I think you know the answer. Drum roll please. As readers, what we crave and desire and want and deserve and demand is….

BOTH!

Both goddamn you. Both, you silly little intellectuals in your ivory towers. Both, you publishing apparatchicks with your expense account lunches and your ridiculous shoes.

Why can’t we have novels that are well written and a good read? A good story, characters who come alive on the page, suspense, interest. Combine that with a strong theme, something to say about the human condition, imaginative use of language, care and control over every word on the page. Art and story combined. That would make for a terrific novel.

Is it really too much to ask?

 

 

Photo by h.koppdelaney.
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What’s the right word count for a novel?

Like many writers, I’ve sometimes asked myself this question: what’s the right length for a novel?

I know lots of rough guidance, such as 60,000 actual words as a minimum, 80,000 for an average adult novel, anything over 100,000 is a bit long and expensive for publishers to produce.

There is also the obvious ‘rule’ that the book should be long enough to tell the story, and not one word longer. (More honoured in the breach than the observance, perhaps?).

Yet I’ve still sometimes puzzled over the difference between actual word counts given to you by a word processor, and how that would translate into the pages of a book.

Even though my writing tool of choice, the excellent Scrivener, gives you not only a word count, but a calculation of paperback pages as well, even so, the number of words per pages is adjustable, and how does it really translate into what you would hold in your hand were the darned thing ever published?

That was what I really sought: an idea of what an actual word count feels like when it’s printed. So what I needed was the actual word count of some novels on my bookshelf.

Simplicity itself, in this age of ebooks. So here are the results:

The Road by Cormac McCarthy: 58,845 actual words (including title and byline, but none of the copyright information, or other preamble stuff) – 303 pages paperback. This novel has quite large print and lots of white space on the page.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J. K. Rowling (or Harry Potter And the Sorcerer’s Stone to those of you in the USA): roughly 79,500. Actual word count in 79,716, but this is text cut and pasted from a PDF into a word processor. Doing this has caught chapter titles on every page and page numbers too, so it’s not precise. I’m too lazy to clean it up. Precision isn’t called for here). This translates to 223 pages in my paperback edition.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling – roughly 203,500 actual words (same issues as above), which translates to a weighty 607 pages in hardback.

Complicity by Iain Banks: comes out at 99,207 but there’s quite a lot of cruft caught up in this, such as page numbers and random data that shouldn’t be there, so estimate it at 98,500. This translates to a novel of 313 pages in paperback.

And we’ll finish with the most ‘important’ and enduring novel of the 20th century (discuss):

1984 by George Orwell: 110,581 in an ebook version, which again has excessive amounts of cruft, but this equates to roughly 110,000. This translates to 400 pages in the Penguin Modern Classics version. There is, however, a more compact paperback version of 292 pages.

I could keep doing this all day, but you get the general idea. If you want to do this for yourself, you can get page counts for any title just by doing a search on Amazon.

There were a few surprises among other ebooks I checked. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is only 30,000 words. The Dickens classic ‘A Christmas Carol’ is under 29,000, and ‘The War of the Worlds’ by HG Wells is only around 61,500.

Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, however, weighs in at only just shy of 200,000 actual words (672 pages in paperback, according to Amazon). I haven’t read The Corrections, and it was on my reading list, until I carried out this process, and scanned the prose. Why is it so highly regarded? I reckon a tough edit would get it down under 80,000, and might even make it worth reading.

As always, quality beats quantity every time.

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If you think it’s wrong to f***ing-well split infinitives, listen up. You’ve been deceived by an ignorant pedant, who was somehow given the role of ‘teacher,’ even though he knew less than a dormouse about good writing.

I could go to great lengths on this subject, but the lowdown is this: the split infinitive ‘rule’ has never existed in English. What’s more, it’s never even been considered bad style or bad grammar, except by those fed bad information which they’ve never found the time to question.

The ‘rule’ comes from Latin, where it’s impossible to split an infinitive. (The infinitive form of a latin verb is one word, with a suitable ending. ‘Amare,’ for example, means ‘to love.’ It’s actually a present active infinitive, but this is not really intended as a post about Latin grammar.)

Many of the best writers in history have gleefully split infinitives, and railed against those who stick to the non-existent ‘rule.’ Wikipedia points out:

George Bernard Shaw wrote letters to newspapers supporting writers who used the split infinitive, and Raymond Chandler complained to the editor of The Atlantic Monthly about a proofreader who changed Chandler’s split infinitives:

I’m sticking with Shaw on this one. I think he knows just plenty about good writing.

(And yes, you’re right, I did just have a client complain about ‘bad grammar’ in some copy, because there was a split infinitive in there. But I can’t rant at a client, so I’m letting off steam here…)

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There’s hype all over the internet. You’ve probably noticed that already. It’s especially bad when people have something to sell, of course, although sometimes it’s simply people clamouring for attention.

With all this activity, people have to try hard to be heard. They make big claims, false promises.

As a copywriter, I can see a lot of people making a fundamental error with the way they pitch their products and services, or even simply the information they are offering for free. It comes down to a simple rule, one that most people are familiar with, and even if they’ve never heard it before, probably know it anyway, on an instinctive level:

If it sounds too good to be true…. then it probably is.

If someone’s offering you a way to make easy money, and there’s really no catch, none at all, then you’re right to be suspicious. If someone claims their online course will make you rich, or have you earning thousands of dollars a day in no time, then being wary, cautious of such claims is only natural.

If it sounds too good to be true…. then it probably is

You see, there’s a lot of people writing sales material on the internet, having learnt a few tricks here and there, brushed up on the tried and tested headlines techniques, and slapping together sales pages full of sound and fury that rarely signify anything more than an insatiable desire to con people out of their money by selling them garbage.

There’s a simple rule I often use when shopping around, on the internet or out in the world in general. It’s a bit of an admission from someone who makes his living by writing stuff for the marketing departments of corporations, but here it is:

The slicker the marketing, the worse the product.

The reasoning behind this is fairly simple and obvious. Some people invest all the time and money in developing or creating something great. Other people skip this bit, and concentrate all the time and money on the marketing, to shift their piece of garbage.

The slicker the marketing, the worse the product

Now, clearly there is a middle ground here, where sensible and legitimate businesses invest in their product / service, and then promote it with balanced and generally true marketing messages. But bear with me here, I’m trying to set things out in black and white, get some stark contrast going.

So, those with the great product tend to rely on word of mouth, letting people try the product or service and see for themselves how good it is. While those with garbage to sell will focus all their attention, and if they can, all of your attention, on their big, fat ‘BUY’ button.

Some of these people make money. Many of them probably earn much more than you or me. But that doesn’t mean we want to be like them and it doesn’t mean we should try to emulate them. Because, even putting the morality aside, it’s a strategy with a short shelf life. And in truth, it only really works consistently well when you’re selling snake oil and get-rich-quick schemes to mugs.

So, if you’re writing sales material for clients, or for yourself, or if you’re simply trying to promote yourself, your creations, your efforts, remember not to over promise. Don’t make claims that people won’t believe. If you make people suspicious, you’ll lose their trust, and the sale. Focus on the real benefits, the real value.

Half the trick to copywriting is finding that true value, and highlighting it in a way that catches the attention of those who will genuinely benefit from it.

I’m not saying that’s easy, or that it leads to instant riches. But at least it’s honest, and in the long run, it’s better marketing.

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A copywriter is someone who writes sales copy. It’s part of marketing and advertising, part of business, and persuading people to part with their money.

Like all of business, however, there are good, honest elements to copywriting (persuading people of the real value of a product or service) and there are the less savoury aspects (conning people into buying c**p).

I’ve been lucky, in that most of my work is done in the business-to-business field, where the less savoury side of copywriting doesn’t rear its head too often. I also turn clients down if I don’t trust them or approve of their business methods.

One area of copywriting that I’ve always steered clear of is the ‘get-rich-quick’ scheme. I’ve just today had to turn someone away, who was pleading for help in getting his business venture off the ground.

He’d already been rejected by 55 other copywriters, and he was desperate for me to help him.

Don’t throw good time after bad money. Move on.

Now, swallowing my pride, and refusing to get narked at being number 56 on his list (as you can see, he needs help with his marketing…), I offered to take a quick look at what he was planning to do. My worst fears were confirmed. He is involved in selling products offered by one of the many internet marketers out there. He is selling information products about business opportunities. He insists this is not a get-rich-quick scheme.

I can’t be bothered arguing with him. And I wished him every success. But I had to say ‘no’. Partly, this was self-preservation. He wanted a sales page like this. In return, he was offering 5% of sales, with no up-front payment. That’s not very generous, to be honest.

But I also have a problem with this whole area of business.

There are so many people out there on the internet selling information products about how to set up in business. They sell this information to their customers. All the information seems to amount to is a guide to doing exactly the same thing – the student is encouraged to set up their own business, selling information products about how to set up in business.

Really. I’ve never bought one of these, so tell me I’m wrong by all means. But from what I can tell, that is the whole of the business model. They make it sound exciting (that’s why they need copywriters), and they sell a dream. But the poor student is left out of pocket, and trying to get a business started in a hugely competitive field, with a second-hand, third-rate product.

My advice? Don’t throw good time after bad money. Move on. Because there’s a name for that particular business model. It’s called a pyramid scheme. And even if you do make money out of it, it won’t be good for your karma, your peace of mind, or your reputation further on down the line.

Photo by Yasin Hassan
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The writer’s guide to irony

I have no intention of debating irony. I’m leaving it to this this guy.

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Here’s the fastest way to improve your writing, or master any writing style

If you want to master a particular writing style, there’s one proven technique said by many to be the fastest and possibly most effective method going.

It’s a technique that can be used to master anything, from writing in the style of a particular author, matching a writing voice, or learning how to create copy for specific purposes, such as sales pages or advertising.

What’s more, it’s possibly the simplest and cheapest method you could ever hope to find. You don’t need books, or courses. It takes only minutes to learn. And you don’t even need a computer.

You don’t need books, or courses. It takes only minutes to learn.

All you need is a pen and a piece of paper, plus some text that you would like to emulate. That could come from one of your favourite writers, or from a great sales page, or from a newspaper, magazine – any piece of writing that you really admire.

You take the original text, and you write it out by hand. Again and again. As many times as seems necessary. Once is helpful. Doing it five times or more is better still. If you really want to master the secrets of how a piece of text was put together, you keep going, writing it out by hand until it seems like its part of you.

It’s great way, for example, to learn the rhetorical tricks and techniques used by master writers, or to get a feel for how they express their ideas using a unique voice. This technique won’t necessarily give you full conscious awareness of the writing techniques being used in the original. But you will learn the lessons on a deeper level.

Write it out by hand. Again and again.

If you want to emulate one of the great writers of fiction, or a master prose stylist, then this is an immensely rewarding, and enjoyable way to spend a few hours.

It’s also one of the fastest ways to learn how to write effective copy for use in advertising, sales and marketing environments. It is method recommended by Ted Nicholas in his book Magic Words That Bring You Riches, and by Maria Velosa in Web Copy That Sells. Maria writes:

In web copywriting, the best way to model success is to select a website that you admire greatly and that you know has produced tons of sales for its owner. Start copying it by hand. Write the entire sales letter out in your own handwriting. Write it out two or three times over the next week. Depending on how fast you write, this will take roughly five hours—less if you write quickly or if the sales let- ter you choose is short.
This takes a lot of discipline, not to mention time, but I assure you, it is worth the effort. You will not know the value of this until you do it. It’s positively eye-opening.

So, if you want to emulate any writing style, from the directness of web sales pages to the high rhetoric of the greatest prose stylists, the shortcut is to take out your pen and paper, and get copying by hand. Give it a try, a let me know your thoughts if you can. I’d be interested to hear how you got on.

Photo by e_walk via flickr.
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