Whatever Happened to Ivan Drago?

 

The ‘what if?’ question. It lies at the heart of all the best speculative fiction. It’s a simple little two-word question that can lead to so many great premises that span multiple genres – alternate history, science fiction, horror, dystopian, apocalyptic – to name but a few.

A few examples (that aren’t ‘what if the Nazis won the Second World War?’):

What if vampires existed and relocated to a small American town? (Salem’s Lot)

What if extraterrestrial parasites (Pod People) colonised our planet by creating replicas of ourselves? (The Body Snatchers)

What if Napoleon had escaped from St Helena and reached America?  (Napoleon in America)

And of course, my own meagre contributions in the pop culture/dystopian fields:

What if John Lennon had lived?

What if the 2011 London riots had never ended? 

It’s all about imagination – that great and glorious distraction. According to Einstein, imagination is better than knowledge. So remember that teachers – don’t ever chastise the kid sitting in class who’s playing with someone else’s glasses case because he’s pretending it’s the Batwing and that Batman is sitting inside and he’s about to save the world from the Joker or the Penguin or The Riddler or some other evil, costumed psychopath.

Yes this kid was me.

Imagination is more important than knowledge. That means it’s better than algebra.

It’s also great fun too, which is pretty much what this post is all about. You can apply the ‘what if?’ thing to anything and run with it. So with that in mind, I’m going to do a little ‘what if?’ exercise in relation to one of my favourite fictional film characters of the past thirty-five years.

Hope you enjoy.

***

What we talk about when we talk about Ivan Drago.

Usually it goes like this: Hey, what the hell happened to that guy?

He’s one of cinema’s most iconic Soviet characters – the pugilist Goliath with the chilling pre-fight one liners. But what happened to Ivan Drago after the fight with Rocky Balboa on Christmas Day in 1985? This question has become the greatest mystery in the history of the Rocky franchise, even more so now that we know who won that unofficial third fight between Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed (go watch Creed if you don’t know the answer).

Ivan Drago – a towering symbol of Soviet superiority. We met him in Rocky IV, just in case you don’t know what I’m talking about but I assume if you got this far then you probably do. He was a powerhouse, an anabolic steroid-popping 6’5, blond, spiky haired super soldier. He was also a heavyweight boxer who brutally killed Apollo Creed in what was supposed to be a harmless exhibition bout. It was as a direct result of this tragedy that Drago got a chance to prove himself against heavyweight champion (and Apollo’s pal) Rocky Balboa in a non-title fight, scheduled for Christmas Day in the Soviet Union.

If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know what happens next. After beating Rocky senseless for most of the fight (if that was a real fight it would’ve been stopped in the first twenty seconds), Drago got knocked out in the last round. And if I remember correctly, the last we saw of this fallen Soviet Demigod was him sitting on his stool, battered and broken, while Rocky was giving his post-fight speech which as you may remember single handedly ended the Cold War.

So there you go. Ivan Drago – just another vanquished foe in the Rocky canon.

But although he was the villain of Rocky IV, I always felt a little bit sorry for Drago. The Soviet government and the fans treated him like he was a piece of meat after all. To them, he was nothing more than a symbol of supposed Soviet superiority over the Americans. And when he lost that fight with Rocky – well, they bailed on him pretty damn quick. In fact, as soon as the crowd suspected that Rocky might actually win the bout, they started cheering his name like a bunch of over-excited fan girls in drab clothing.

That’s loyalty for you right there ladies and gentlemen.

So what of Drago? Where did the character go after such a crushing and humbling experience? Back to the military? Did he quit boxing altogether? Did he disappear to the Far East to make whisky commercials for the rest of his life? Or did he end up appearing on the Russian version of Celebrity Big Brother?

I believe this kind of mental rambling makes for good writing practice. At best it’s a light workout for the imagination and just in case you didn’t know, the imagination is a muscle that needs regular exercise. Neglect it and it will neglect you back when you need it most.

So then  – what if old man Drago was a recluse living in the backwoods of Russia? How would this story play out? Well, let’s assume that Drago was born in 1956 or 1957 (Dolph Lundgren was born in 1957 so we’ll go with the idea that he’s around sixty years of age in 2017.) There are many speculative possibilities when it comes to the fate of Drago, but I’m going to go with the idea that he’s become something a recluse and a minor legend.

The idea below is incomplete but if I was going to sketch something, it’d probably begin like this.

***

DRAGO

The old man lives in a tiny village in a remote part of Russia. It’s a hamlet really, no place that anybody’s ever heard of because nobody in their right mind would go there. Not unless they were looking for something or someone in particular.

It’s a cruel and yet majestic environment, surrounded by snow, mountains and wild animals. The only people who live there are hard men and women who’ve lived hard lives all their lives. They’re the kind of rugged, hard-to-kill people that should no longer exist in the twenty first century what with all its comfort, convenience and technological innovation. They’re throwbacks to another era; their dark, leathery skin, the giant hands shaped like shovels, and the narrow deep-set eyes that speak of appalling hardship.

These are his people now.

He sits in the bar every night. It’s the only bar in town, a dingy little shack with no more than a handful of people inside at any one time. But that’s where you’ll find him, a solitary, towering figure sitting up at the counter with a shot glass of vodka always in front of him. 

His blond hair has long since lost its youthful shine. Now it falls down to his shoulders, a dirty and neglected mane that looks like it might be a flea’s paradise. Most of his face is submerged underneath a chaotic beard that would give any pair of scissors a run for its money. His massive bulk, still muscular thanks to thirty years of manual labour, is buried under a thick, padded red and black checked shirt. Nobody can recall seeing him dressed in anything different – not since he first came to this place from the city, and that was a long time ago.

Drago.

He always drinks alone. The locals ignore him for the most part and he ignores them back. But sometimes visitors do pass through the area, drawn to this little nowhere settlement by the enduring legend of Drago. They want so much to see the man who even after all these years, is still a symbol – a symbol of something that hasn’t been forgotten in these wild parts. They come in and they gawp silently at the man, even if it’s just from the other side of the room.

Nobody in their right mind would dare to approach him.

But the odd crazy person has been known to pass through these parts. 

One guy in particular was still bitter about what happened. It had been over thirty years since that day in Moscow but there were some people who hadn’t forgiven Drago for letting them down – for letting the country that was no more and its ideology down.

This guy wanted nothing more than to fight Drago, one on one. He wanted to show the old man up in front of all the people who were there in the bar that winter’s night. Show him up for the quitter that he undoubtedly still was in that loser’s yellow heart of his. This guy, it turns out, had been looking for Drago for a long time. Long before anyone figured out where Drago was, this guy had been trawling the unimaginably vast former Soviet Union for more years than he could remember. By the time he found Drago, the man was in his fifties and certainly, he was no slouch himself in the physical department. He was well over six feet tall, with thick powerful arms and broad shoulders that like Drago, also suggested a life of hard labour.

The man just stood there, staring across the room at Drago. His eyes were bright and alert, which suggested that he wasn’t crazy and that he was in his right mind while doing this thing he was doing.

It escalated quickly from staring to insults.

For several minutes, he just stood there, hurling abuse at the old man, who like always, was sitting at the other end of the bar.

All the while, this guy who didn’t look crazy, he crept closer to the statue-like figure. 

And then…

Drago put down his glass of vodka on the counter. With a mournful sigh that seemed to reverberate against the wooden walls of the shack, he slowly turned his tortured, weather-beaten face towards the man that was insulting him.

The old man slipped off the barstool in the blink of an eye. Just for a second, he was an athlete again – the celebrated fighter who had an amateur record of one hundred wins and no defeats. He was the man who had killed the great Apollo Creed with his hands in a boxing ring in Las Vegas. And now there he was, standing tall like a grizzly bear on two feet – the great boxer once again, standing in the middle of the ring, listening to the national anthem – Gimn Sovetskogo Soyuza – playing in his head as he prepared for battle…

***

Well, that’s how I’d start it off anyway. Something like that. It needs work of course, but it’s kind of fun to speculate where the story might go from there. How about you? Got any ideas where I could go with this one? Should a dragon come crashing through the window at the last minute? No? Okay. Well feel free to jump in or suggest your own alternatives for the fate of Drago, or any other characters in the Rocky series.

Putting Rocky aside – maybe you have another fictional character with a fate you’d like to speculate on? If so, let me know. I’d love to hear some ideas.

Coming back to Drago for the finish – there is just a wee smidgen of a chance that we might find out what happened to the character on the big screen. We just need this movie to get made.

Until next time.

Over and out.

 

 

 

 

The Indie Books That Never Were

 

Sometimes I like to bitch and moan about writing. The hours are too long I tell myself, the rewards too few. I’m not the only author who does this I’m sure. Sometimes when we put out a new book it’s like hitting a baseball into outer space in the hope that somebody might catch it. We do it again and again and still, nobody catches.

What’s the point? It’s like nobody cares, right?

Well, yes. Truth is, most people – friends and family included – don’t give a damn about what we’re doing no matter how much we pour our heart and soul into it.

That’s life.

But believe it or not folks – I’m not actually here to moan today. I’m here to reiterate the point that it’s still without a doubt, theeeee cockadoodie best time to be a writer.

Every day I thank my lucky stars that I’m writing in the early twenty-first century. Thank God for the opportunities afforded to us in the digital era where our stories have a real shot of finding the right readers, thank to multiple publishing options. I thank my lucky stars that the age-old oppressive, tedious and unfair submission process to traditional publishers is no longer the only route that authors have towards building a legit career.

We are so lucky to be writing right now. Seriously folks. Think of all the writers in generations past – those poor bastards who weren’t around to experience the digital revolution in all its glory. The hard-working, big-dreaming, imaginative authors who never had the opportunity to see the likes of KDP, Createspace, Kobo and all the other platforms that give us what they never had – a choice!

And this is what bothers me. As well as the plight of the authors, what about all the great stories that were never told? It’s not like these authors didn’t have a good story to tell. We all know that traditional publishers are afraid to take a chance on something risky or unconventional that doesn’t tick the right marketing boxes. These old manuscripts weren’t rejected because they were bad books. They just weren’t the right fit because maybe they were too short, too controversial, too non-formulaic and so on.

And maybe the authors didn’t want to self-publish the old way – paying a fortune for a vanity publishing company to publish their book, then trying to sell their paperbacks out of a pile of boxes gathering dust in the garage.

I feel so sorry for these people. Countless, great and interesting authors who missed the digital revolution.

You’re a writer in 1985 and the publishers won’t give you a break. You don’t have the money or will to vanity publish. So you put your story in a drawer or somewhere else that represents story limbo, believing that it’s no good because enough people said no. And there it lingers, this great story that would have moved, inspired and been devoured by so many of us readers. I have no doubt there are great ones out there that in this era, would have found an audience if the authors had chosen the indie route (and honed their marketing skills just like we have to).

These people were born too soon. What a shame.

I can’t be only one who thinks about this, am I? About the lost pre-indie stories? Possibly, I’m weird that way.

So anyway, let’s not moan about how hard it is. At least not too much. This little post is all about being thankful. I’m thankful that I live in an age where we can send our work directly into the marketplace, irrespective of whether a literary agency or publishing house thinks they’re the right fit. Or that a book can be published via crowdfunding or something like that.

Historically speaking, most authors didn’t have many options. We do.

It is without doubt, a great time to be both an author and a reader. Let’s be thankful and continue to share great stories in honour of those authors and the indie books that never were.

Authors! Why Kittens Are Not Your Friends

 

Writing with pets – especially young ones – is tough.  It’s a unique challenge all on its own.   Yes, I’m sure children are hard work too but do they crawl up the curtains like hairy-tailed ninjas and tear out the fly screen just to annoy you?

There was a real sense of accomplishment when I finished FAB: Revolver in late March.  Authors (quite rightly) should feel a sense of accomplishment when they finish any piece of work.  But this was different because this latest book was written under very difficult circumstances.  Without being too dramatic, I would say I wrote it whilst being trapped in the eye of a storm.

A kitten storm.

How did this kitten storm happen?  Read on.

In late September, I was sitting at home (it was quiet and peaceful back then) minding my own business in a kitten-free environment.  At some point in the evening, my wife Íde (a vet) sent me a photo of two little stray kittens that had been brought into the vet hospital where she works.  It was a boy and a girl – twins.  They’d been found in a box in somebody’s backyard (so the bringer-in said!)

More like they’d crawled up from the fiery depths of Hell.

Íde was convinced they were right for us.  And in that moment, I’m certain that an evil force took possession of me and forced me to agree.

They came home the following night.  It was probably a dark and stormy night with lots of thunder and lightning.  I’m not sure how this happened.  Evil magic probably.

These are the first pics I took that night:

the evil monsters not long after they’d hatched from Satan’s eggs…(Bodhi (left) Billie Jean (right)

The monsters are so helpless at that age.  We were forced into instant slavery.  We had to bottle feed them and fill their little bag up with hot water bottles to keep their temperature warm enough.  We had to attend to their every need and all this at any hour of the day.  We hardly slept but it was too late to do anything about it.  We’d already invited them over the threshold.  It was their home now.  To my horror, I discovered that we even had to force them to pee and poo by imitating cat mum’s tongue with a damp cloth after every feed.  This was not pleasant.  My delicate writer hands were often covered in some sort of browny-orange shit paste.  And my God, how they screamed.

Time passed.  They grew stronger and more evil.

‘We’re going to mess you up…’

We gave them names – Billie Jean and Bodhi.  Nice names, to try and soften the edge.

They were still in the developing stages of evilness by the time I released Mr Apocalypse in December.  That wasn’t too bad.  But I knew the third and final FAB book would be the ultimate challenge.  By that point (early 2017), they were getting super-duper sadistic and now the time had come.

They were ready to ruin me.

I’d try to write in the morning and at the same time they’d go nuts.  Literally bouncing off the walls nuts.  After this initial storm (which could last for a good two or three hours), they would quieten a little in the afternoon but then so did I.  I’m an early riser and afternoon’s aren’t a good time for me.  In the afternoon, my brain is sozzled, especially in the Australian summer heat (being Scottish I’m not used to this).  This means that when the kittens were biding their time, recharging their satanic batteries, I was at my least productive.  Quite clearly they’d studied me well.  When I worked, they worked.  When I rested, they rested.  They had picked their active hours to be as disruptive as possible to my schedule.  Little buggers.

Speaking of a schedule, I was lucky to even have one.  The creatures would sabotage my diary and stationary on a regular basis and all my attempts at organisation were thwarted.  I have photographic evidence:

‘Schedule this motherfucker!’

 

‘That looks like an important reminder there. Let’s tear out the page.’

The kitten storm would always return in the evening.  Super turbo charged, Wizard of Oz tornado style.  More wall-bouncing.  Leg-biting, scratching – sometimes I looked at my skin and it was like I’d been pierced by a thousand tiny needles.

All my attempts to be productive were sabotaged.

But I wouldn’t give into them.  No way.  They wanted to break me but they only managed to bend me – a lot.  I wrote through it, not looking up when I heard the loud clatter of things being knocked off the shelves.  Not looking up when they were pawing at their water bowl, soaking the kitchen floor in an attempt to flood the house and drown me.  No way.  I wrote through the distraction.  Keep writing, I told myself.  So I kept writing and one day, guess what?  I finished the book.  Despite the best efforts of the two monsters, I’d managed to beat them.

Incidentally, any mistakes or typos you find in FAB: Revolver are entirely the fault of the two fun-sized tigers 🙂

If there’s a lesson to be learned here it’s that no matter how much your pets distract you, if you’re focused enough you can still produce work.  Even when you see the monster activating the crazy switch – you know the one that sees her pupils dilate and blow up like two giant, black beach balls.  When you see the ears go back and then she leaps onto your chair like certain death in motion, climbs onto your shoulders and just stands there triumphantly reminding you that yes, you are her bitch.

But the biggest lesson of all is this.  Authors, kittens are not your friends.  They will make it hard.

Having said that…

…what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  Thanks to the kittens, I can write through anything.  Hey, maybe they were just helping me fine tune my concentration all along.  With that in mind, if you can, why not give a rescue animal a home today?  Or tomorrow for that matter.  Especially demonic little kittens like these two.  They WILL make you a better writer.  Yeah sure, they’ll destroy your life in the process and take your sanity.

But somehow, you’ll still love them for it.

FAB: Revolver – What Is It?

 

Write the book you want to read.  Isn’t that what they say?  In other words, write the book that no one else in the world can possibly make but you.

I might have done that by accident with this latest one.

FAB: Revolver.  What is it?  Well it’s a combination of stuff I like – The Beatles, time travel, the 1960s, science fiction (not the hard stuff, good God no), a few laughs, a bit of action and I hope, a good story.  I didn’t deliberately set out to write the sort of book I’d love to read and it was only in retrospect that I realised what I’d done.  I doubt anybody else would have come up with the material in this book, but then there a lot of authors out there who’d say the same thing about their work.

It just kind of turned out that way.  Influences – I guess they jump into your story whether you like it or not.  If it’s in your head, it’s in your book.

With that in mind, here’s a brief list of the ‘stuff’ that influenced FAB: Revolver.

(I’m excluding The Beatles because that’s a bit obvious.)

 

THE TERMINATOR (1984)

I’m definitely exploiting a love of certain 80s/90s action movies in the book.  I was a child in the 1980s, a teenager in the 1990s – I was exposed to some good stuff.  So why the hell not people?

There’s a clear Terminator vibe going on in FAB: Revolver.  A futuristic cyborg goes back in time to kill someone and change history.  Yes, I’ve pretty much stolen that premise and tossed it into a Beatles flavoured stew.

Hey, everybody steals a little, right?

 

TIMECOP (1994)

And speaking of the 1990s.

Yep.  It’s that Jean-Claude Van Damme movie that’s either terrible or brilliant depending on who you ask.  Sure, this time-travelling adventure received mixed reviews but what’s not to like?  Personally I think it’s a well-written story.  It’s not just JCVD gets in a time machine and kicks some ass.  Okay it’s exactly that, but I still cared about the characters.

Definitely one of JCVD’s better films in my opinion.

So what have I nicked here?  Well, the Time Enforcement Commission I guess.  In FAB: Revolver, I call them Time Travel Detectives, but it’s kind of the same idea – a police force designed to stop people committing crimes in the past.  They don’t feature much in the book, but they do make one very important appearance close to the end…no spoilers here…

 

WESTWORLD (2016 – TV/1973 – Movie)

During one particular scene in the book, I was thinking about HBO’s impressive resurrection of Westworld.  Without spoiling anything, I was trying to write ‘humanity’ into a machine and (no surprise if you’ve seen the TV show) this is the source that came to mind.  Westworld is a fascinating, cerebral show that asks interesting questions of the viewer.  Highly recommended if you haven’t seen it yet.

Having said that, FAB: Revolver is more akin to the spirit of the original movie, which starred Yul Brynner as the robot gone haywire.  This is a great idea.  A theme park with robots acting as entertainment fodder for the paying public.  Then one of them goes crazy on the guests.

Yessss!

In comparison to the TV show, the movie is a bit more fun for fun’s sake.  Something I’m all for.

 

TIMELESS (2016)

And speaking of fun for fun’s sake.  I hope that more than anything, that’s what FAB: Revolver is.  In that sense I’m drawing on the spirit of Timeless – the recent TV show that saw a historian, soldier, and scientist jumping back in time, trying to protect history as we know it.  The great thing about Timeless is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.  Amen to that.  We don’t need to know the science behind every little thing and Timeless doesn’t give a hoot about the intricate details.  Fun for fun’s sake, remember?

It’s interesting how many bits and pieces have come together to make a whole.  In the case of FAB: Revolver, I was quite conscious of these influences but I was careful not to try and rip anything off (too much). I hope that by tossing The Beatles into the mix, I’ve made something fresh that stands on its own.

Time will tell.

 

Launch Week Deal – If you haven’t tried the FAB Trilogy yet, you might like to know I’m having a deal on the entire series from March 31st to April 7th.  During that time you can grab all three ebooks for less than $4/£3.

Here are the (Amazon) links:

FAB (Free)

FAB: The Fifth Angel ( Down to 0.99)

FAB: Revolver (Special Launch Price – $2.99/£1.99)

Or save yourself multiple clicks by going to my Amazon Author Page, featuring all the books (US page), (UK Page)

 

Thank for your continued support.  I truly appreciate it 🙂

Over and out!

 

TIP: When You Finish A Book, Don’t Have A Blank Page Waiting For You

 

If I could give one piece of advice to writers hoping to gain some momentum with their work, then it’s this:

When you finish a book, don’t have a blank page waiting for you. (Yep if you haven’t finished a book yet this probably isn’t the blog for you – you should be writing!)  In my opinion, you should already have started the next book.  It doesn’t matter how much you’ve done – maybe that means you’ve got an outline or you have some rough chapters already sketched out (as rough as you like, it’s better than a blank page!)

But avoid that blank page at all costs.

Writing a book is exhausting.  It really is.  I couldn’t imagine finishing a book, going through the publishing process, doing the promotion and then when you realise it’s time to keep writing – returning to the desk, turning on the laptop and staring at a blank page.

Starting from scratch?  Nope.  No thanks.

How many books will you release in an average year?  There is no ‘correct’ answer to this of course.  From what I can tell, the number varies greatly between authors.

I released four books in 2016 and that’s the target for 2017.

For some that’s a crazy number while for others it might even be lazy (yes these people exist).  If you think it’s crazy then you’re probably one of those authors who take at least a year to write a book.  Fair enough.  If you think it’s lazy, you’re probably one of those berserker authors who put out a novel a month.  What are you people on?

Fair play. Each to their own.  Who am I to judge?

I don’t think I write that fast.  I also write novels that are on the slim side, averaging between 45,000 to 65,000 words.  I don’t think I’d be able to stick to the release schedule that I’m on if I was doing 80,000 plus words.  That’s just not me.

But whether you think I’m crazy or lazy, I can only keep this output up by avoiding the blank page when I move onto the next book.  I do this religiously.  And how do I do that?

I use something that I call the A/B Project system.

(As with the vast majority of writing advice, feel free to disregard it if it doesn’t work for you.  This is just something I thought I’d share.)

 

A/B PROJECTS 

 

I’m always working on two projects – the A Project and the B Project.  The A Project is the main focus.  This is the one that takes up about ninety percent of my creative time.  This is the actual writing and rewriting and all the really tough stuff that makes your head rock and roll.  This is the grind.  This is the one you loved when it was a B Project but now that it’s the A Project and things are getting hard, you hate it.

And you can’t wait for it to end.

The B Project on the other hand is light and easy/bright and breezy.  There’s very little going on here in terms of pressure or hard graft.  In fact, you’re hardly doing any writing at all – you’re thinking for the most part and making notes at best.  BUT – when the A Project is in between edits or if you’ve sent it away to a professional editor, that’s when you need to step things up with the B Project.  Just a little.  Otherwise when the A Project is published, you’ll be coming back to that dreaded blank page.

Noooooooooo!!

But I always try to avoid making the B Project feel like hard work.  So if the A Project is ninety percent of the heavy lifting, the B Project is the other ten.  You’re working on it, but you’re not sweating bricks.

When the A Project is temporarily on the sidelines, have some fun with the B project.  Relax your mind after the gruelling slog of working on the A Project.  Loosen up and let your creative muscles fly.  Write your ideas down, start working on the outline, picturing scenes in your head.  Jot them down but don’t work too hard.

Remember A Project = Torture.  B Project = Fun.

Save your energy, infinite patience and loathing for the A-Project.  Enjoy the B Project now ‘cos soon the B-Project will be the A project and you’ll hate it.

That’s how I keep my momentum going.  That’s how I hit the target last year and that’s (hopefully) how I’ll do it again this year.

Two projects, one heavy, one light.  That’s all there is to it.

I’m super-duper glad when I see those rough chapters waiting for me (when the B Project turns into the A Project).  Sitting down to a blank page would break me.  Dramatic, but true.  No need for anyone to break however – I have an outline/story map and I might even have some rough chapters – my minus first drafts as I call them – already on the page.  It’s encouraging.  I can work from there.  And when I start from there, it doesn’t feel THAT long until I’ll have a first draft on the go.

Avoid the blank page.  Did I mention that already?

 

 

 

Movie Recommendations – T2 Trainspotting and Logan

 

After a couple of weeks binging on Hammer Horror movies at home (Yes I still prefer blood that looks like paint and fake, crappy looking bats with strings attached over CGI), I finally got back to the cinema to see something new.

Here are a few spoiler-free thoughts (not a review or synopsis – just my thoughts!) on two great movies I saw recently.

T2 Trainspotting

Like a lot of people, I was apprehensive about this.  You just can’t follow up a movie like Trainspotting right?  How dare they?  The original was a perfect thing and why would Danny Boyle and crew want to piss all over their 1996 masterpiece by making a shoddy twenty-years later sequel?

(Note – The Colour of Money was made twenty-five years after The Hustler and although it has its critics I actually think it’s a pretty good film.  Later sequels CAN work)

T2 Trainspotting works brilliantly.  A few friends back in Scotland went to see this before me and their positive reports were enough to convince me that it was going to be good.  Props to screenwriter John Hodge, who’s nailed it with a brilliant script.  This is a very moving, funny/tragic film about growing older, disillusionment and all those weighty things that happen when you’re no longer in your early twenties.

The performances are all top notch.  Beforehand I was a little worried that Robert Carlyle might be caricaturing his original and outstanding portrayal of Begbie.  He doesn’t.  Although Begbie is still a psycho with a grudge (understandable!) he’s carrying as much baggage as the other characters and there are some great scenes with his son who is the complete opposite of his father given that he’s working on getting a career in hotel management.

Begbie Junior running the Hilton?  Makes you think…

Favourite scene?  Spud coming out of the boxing gym and witnessing a scene from the original film (and from his own past).  A few lingering notes of ‘Born Slippy’ add tremendously to the atmosphere.  That for me was the most moving moment of the film.  Quality stuff.

I saw this in Australia and I’m pretty sure my Scottish accent was more Begbie-esque as I went swaggering out of the cinema.

So what next?  T3?  I’d actually like to see an adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s The Blade Artist which sees Begbie in very different surroundings.  I enjoyed the book and there’s an interesting film in there.  Apparently Irvine Welsh is up for it and so is Robert Carlyle.

Someone give them the money.  Please.

 

Logan

I didn’t know much about X-Men before seeing this.  In fact, until recently I’d never seen any of the films and I’d never read any of the comics either.  But recently I kept noticing articles about Logan and the premise had me intrigued.  I love the whole superhero getting older thing.   No matter who it is, it makes the character more human, fragile and ultimately much, much more interesting.

So in advance of seeing this, I binged on the X-Men movies over the past week or so.  And I enjoyed them.  Most of them 🙂  But it set me up nicely for going to see Logan a couple of days back.  I wasn’t disappointed.  It’s a great, emotional violent frenzy of a movie.  A kick in the guts in more ways than one.

There are some tender moments in there for sure, so it’s not your typical Marvel thing, which to be honest can get a bit boring.  This movie has soul – the magic ingredient and the one thing I demand in everything that promises to entertain me.

Patrick Stewart is brilliant.  He’s always brilliant.  Ever since I saw him prancing around on a horse in Excalibur I’ve loved that man.  Hugh Jackman is great too.  This is his last appearance as Wolverine and in my opinion it’s his best.  Again, something about fragile heroes – like Bruce Willis in Die Hard.  Knowing that the hero is vulnerable and that he really could get hurt or even die makes a story so much more engaging.  So much more tense.  That’s why the violence in Logan (and there’s lots of it) has the impact that it does.  It feels like life and death and much less like the cartoon violence of some other superhero movies.

Is Wolverine gone for keeps?  No way.  I’m sure we’ll be seeing the character again brought to life by another actor.  (There’s an obvious character in this film who should take up the mantle.  Why does Wolverine 2 have to be a man?)

Richard E. Grant is in this film too.  Anything that has Richard E. Grant in it makes me smile.  Even in this film where he plays the big bad villain, he’ll always be Withnail to me (lots of Withnail and I quotes buzzing in my head right now.  You haven’t seen it?  You must.  You bloody must!)

Anyway, this was a great film.  Logan was everything I’d hoped for and more.  Great characters, fast-paced and with an emotional core that will kick you where it hurts but in a good way.

 

If you haven’t seen either T2 Trainspotting or Logan, go catch them in the cinema while there’s still time.  If I WAS reviewing them (and I’m not) I’d give them both five out of five.

Oh shit.

 

Amazon Ads for Authors – A Few Tips

Hey everyone,

This isn’t an in depth post on Amazon ads.  It’s just a few thoughts based on my initial experience using Amazon’s handy wee marketing tool.  If you’re just starting out and are looking for a fairly comprehensive guide on how to get things going with Amazon ads, I suggest you try this article on Jane Friedman’s site.  It’s written by Robert Kroese, it’s easy to follow (with screenshots) and that’s what I used to begin with.

What follows are just some scattered observations based on my own recent experience.  I’m not an expert by any means but if you’re interested in going the AMS (Amazon Marketing Services) route, you might find them useful.

It’s early days but I’m pretty happy with my initial experimentation with Amazon ads.  I started using them around early January and I’m pleased to report that approximately two months later, I’ve made more money that I’ve spent.  I’m not talking great sums here – I’ve probably made just over a hundred dollars via AMS but I’ve spent considerably less and for me that’s a winner.

My initial advertising has been focused on two books – FAB: The Fifth Angel and Mr Apocalypse.  As mentioned earlier, I used Robert Kroese’s article to get things up and running and while the set-up is fairly simple, it can be time consuming if you’re adding keywords (more on that below)

If you’re thinking about Amazon ads, here are a few things to remember:

 

SPONSORED PRODUCTS/PRODUCT DISPLAY ADS

There are two kinds of ad that you’ll use with AMS.  Sponsored and Product Display.  My advice?  Use Sponsored Ads only, especially if you’re just starting off.  Product Display ads are those rectangular displays that appear on any given product page – they’re usually tucked away on the right hand side and within close proximity to the main product on that page.

As a reader/potential book buyer, I don’t like these ads.

Product Display Ad – Bottom Right

They’re intrusive and what’s more they just don’t look all that good aesthetically with the blurry background and all.  I get it.  It’s not meant to be pretty, it’s meant to be seen.  And they are prominent, there’s no denying that.  These ads can also appear on the Kindle screensaver/Home Page and that’s pretty cool.  The thing is however, that Product Display ads require more of a financial commitment upfront.  To get one of these going, you have to start with a minimum budget of $100.  That”s not ideal for indies who just want to test the water.

I haven’t tried Product Display ads yet.  All the advice I’ve read suggests that indies shouldn’t bother.  If you’re tempted to give it a try however, Robert’s article offers a few pointers.  But again, if you’re on a tight budget you probably want to give those a miss at least for now.

That brings us to a Sponsored Ad campaign, which is what most indies – including myself – are doing.  These are the ads that sit below the also bought section and in my opinion, they’re a whole lot less annoying than Product Display ads.

Sponsored Product Ads

But are they more effective?

You’ve probably got the best chance of getting a positive return on your investment with a Sponsored Ad.  There is no minimum budget here.  Start as low as you like although the consensus seems to be that $5-10 is a good starter point.  I use $5 for each book.  Some days, I go through my allotted budget but there are days when few people are clicking and I don’t.  In fact, the odd day – I don’t spend a thing.  Remember you pay for clicks, not impressions.  If we paid for impressions the cost would be astronomical.  So if you’re not getting clicks with your ad, you don’t pay.

I would suggest you start out with a Sponsored Ad.  As you’re setting up, you’ll have to decided whether you want Amazon to target automatically or whether you want to set up a manual campaign.  If you choose manual then you’re going to have to choose your own keywords.  Mostly these will be books in similar genre and author names.  This is the bit that took the longest but it’s well worth investing the time.  For me, it was half a day at first, searching through Speculative Fiction sub-genres and authors both on Amazon and elsewhere online (scouring through best alternate history lists/best apocalyptic fiction lists, and things like that).

 

KEYWORDS AND TWEAKING

I’ve read various opinions about how many keywords you should be aiming for.  In my own experience, the more the merrier.  I started off with about a hundred keywords for Mr Apocalypse and FAB: The Fifth Angel.  Since then, I’ve built up to over two hundred keywords for each.

I do this when I’m periodically refining each ad.

How to refine?  Tweak, tweak, tweak…and then tweak some more.

Every 2-4 weeks, I go through the data to see what’s working.  I study what keywords are getting clicks and of course, which ones are leading to sales.  I then use these leading keywords to generate new ones.  To do this, I go onto Amazon and find new keywords which are related to the successful ones.  For example, if a particular book title is getting me clicks/sales then I go onto that product page and look at the also bought section.  From there, I’ll usually find new book titles and author names to add to the keywords in my ad.  Over time, this has gotten me a better conversion rate and more clicks have turned into sales.

When it comes to using big mega-sellers and huge authors as keywords, just remember – these might get you a lot of impressions but (for me anyway) there are few clicks.  Still if it’s not costing you anything then these impressions aren’t necessarily a bad thing.  You’re in the shop window and that means somebody can find you if they come looking for a book just like yours.

Look out for keywords that are costing you a lot in terms of clicks but not resulting in sales.  This will drain your budget and you’re best ditching some of these as you constantly refine your ad.

Be wary of sticking rigidly to whatever advice you hear (including everything on this page) Break a few rules and experiment.  I’ve read things like don’t use single book title names as keywords, but this has actually worked out well for me on occasion.  Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora has worked out well for me, not only in terms of clicks but sales.  A lot of my tweaking has come via the also boughts on KSR’s product pages.

See what works for you.  But stay on top of things – don’t just set up an ad and then slack off.

 

MICRO-BLURB

The last thing you’ll do before running your ad is to write a micro-blurb that sits alongside your book cover in the Sponsored Ads row.  This is copywriting folks and that means it’s time to sell.  You need to sell your little baby in a just one or two sentences.  After keywords, this is what takes me the longest because I hate any form of blurb writing.

But it has to be done.

Anyway – you’re all set to go after that.  You’ll wait for a little approval period (not long) and then your ad is up and running.

Then you check in a week later.  See how it’s going…

 

LOTS OF CLICKS…NO SALES?

There are several reasons why people don’t buy after clicking.  Maybe they took a closer look at the cover and weren’t too impressed.  Maybe you don’t have enough (or any reviews yet), maybe you have a couple of bad reviews that put them off, or perhaps the synopsis wasn’t gripping enough.  Of course, just because they didn’t buy this time doesn’t mean they haven’t added you to their Wish List or made a mental note of your book for another time.  There’s every chance that they might see your book again during another shopping session and purchase second, third or fourth time around.

Obviously we’d rather they bought first time.   We’re paying for those clicks after all, but it’s out of our control.

I think the review thing might have cost me a few sales.  My reviews are mostly good but for these two books in particular, which are my latest, the reviews are still in single figures.  Having said that, people are buying so who knows for sure – every book buyer is an individual after all.

 

Conclusion

  • Use Sponsored Ads (about $5-10 a day is a good start – or lower)
  • Take your time when adding your keywords.  Don’t rush it.  Do your research and the more keywords you add, the better your chance of getting noticed.
  • Check your ads regularly/tweak/even copy the campaign and start afresh from time to time in order to keep track of what keywords are working and which are redundant.
  • Experiment.  Ignore standard advice if something is going right.

These are just a few observations based on my limited experience with Amazon ads.  In short, I like them.  In contrast to Facebook, people are on Amazon to shop.  That means there’s a better chance of actually converting interest into sales.  So far it’s working okay for me.

Good luck people 🙂

Over and out.

 

Why I’ve Decided To Launch A Patreon Page

 

As somebody else said, if Kickstarter is a one-night stand, then Patreon is going steady.

Wanna go steady with me?

A small announcement.  I’ve decided to start a Patreon page and I’ll briefly explain why.  By the way, I’m not asking random strangers who have no interest in what I do to get involved.  Why should they?  You can ignore this if you’ve no interest in what I do.  This is specifically for fans of the books or people who just want to support the arts or even those who just like me as a human being 🙂

So…

Here’s why I’ve just launched a Patreon page.  At the rate I’m going, I’m releasing four books a year.  That involves not only a lot of writing/rewriting/editing time but it costs a lot of money to produce these books.  Most people probably don’t realise the production costs associated with getting a book ready for public consumption.  It’s not like recording music or a film where you need tons of equipment, right?  Well sort of.  We have some production costs of our own and they’re quite substantial.  Editing is the great white shark taking a bite out of the indie author budget.  Graphic design is another big fish.  There are others.  And all of that comes before marketing and promotion costs.

It all adds up and you really feel it at the beginning.

Between December 2015 and December 2016, I released five books.  Two of my five titles are currently listed as free.  Yes that’s on me of course, but I did so as a way of drawing readers into two different series.  Those books were always going to be free.  Another book is a small collection of short stories that are early curiosities more than anything else and besides, shorts are a harder sell.  That leaves me two out of five books making a profit.  And did I mention production costs?

That’s the situation and that’s why I’m setting up a Patreon page.  I do admire the economic model of Patreon in that it allows creatives some breathing room while they’re getting things up and running.  There aren’t many outlets or sources of funding to fall back on and while some people might resent the concept, don’t forget, that ‘Earth’ without art is just ‘Eh’.

As is the custom, I offer small rewards to my patron.  Behind the scenes material, creative contributions, and you can even make a small cameo appearance in the Future of London series.  You can see what it’s all about on the Patreon page.

You can support for as little as $1 dollar a month.  That’s about 80 pence for those in the UK, $1.30 in Australia and so on…

If you’re a fan of the books (FAB Trilogy or Future of London) or maybe you’d just like to support in some small way, you can visit my Patreon at the link below this post.

And finally, don’t worry if you can’t – there’s absolutely no need to get involved unless you feel compelled to.  You’re not a bad person 🙂  I’ll continue to write anyway and there’s no getting rid of me.

(Unless I die of course – and then you’ll feel guilty!!  And if my kittens starve, well…)

Thanks everyone,

Mark

Self-Publishers CAN Wear Two Hats. Knuckle Draggers CAN’T Handle It

 

Yesterday I was reading a short, fairly innocuous article about self-publishing on a random business website.  It was basic stuff, nothing groundbreaking and I skimmed mostly.  But when I got to the comments at the end, I noticed that the first one was yet another sneaky little dig at self-publishers.

I sighed.

Here’s the comment.

‘Love the fact that self-publishers ALWAYS address things like marketing and sales, but NEVER talk about their lifelong efforts to hone the craft of writing (because the vast majority aren’t career, professional writers.) Probably why 99.9% of self-published works are (charitably speaking) mediocre.’

So in other words my fellow independent authors, if you’ve ever considered marketing your work in order to boost sales, don’t you dare think of yourself as an artist/author/creative type.  You’re a marketer who writes books!  Go spit on yourself now.  Take off your turtleneck sweater, your Che Guevara beret and go put on a suit or something square like that.

And give yourself a slap on the wrist while you’re at it.  Damn you!

Now I know that most mature, independent authors are supposed to do nothing more than roll our eyes when we read comments like these.  We’re supposed to just get on with the work and prove the naysayers wrong by our actions and the quality of our work.

And that is the right thing to do.

But for some reason, I couldn’t let this one go.  Of course I replied, politely informing her that she was mistaken.  It wasn’t so much that she was having a dig at self-publishing that bothered me.  It’s the fact that she was saying in a roundabout way that being an author and an entrepreneur is somehow incompatible.

Knuckle dragger.

That’s the term that kept popping into my head regarding this sort of perspective.  I have no idea why this person thinks that artists or creative types can’t also focus on promoting and selling their work.  They’ve been doing it for donkeys years!  In the early 1960s, The Beatles took off their leather jackets and dressed up in suits.  Why?  Because they were selling themselves.  They wanted to succeed in the music industry and they knew they had a better chance of doing that by changing things up.  Later on, they could do whatever they wanted but in the beginning they had to think about their image and not only their image, but the product itself.  Which songs work best as a potential break out hit?  That type of thing.

The Beatles, advised by their manager Brian Epstein, did this willingly.  This is marketing and promotion – or am I mistaken?  No one held a gun to their heads or questioned their purity as artists.

I could sit here all day and write about similar artists (and great ones too) throughout history who had to consider how to market themselves.  It’s not a new thing by any means.  Indie authors discuss this subject a lot because – thanks to constant technological advancement – it’s important to keep up with the latest and most effective means of getting yourself out there.  Right?  If you don’t then you run the risk of being left behind and if you’re an author who wants to be read then that’s not a good thing.  Or are we to be looked down upon for wanting to be read?

Readers won’t automatically flock towards us.  We have to find them.

Sure there are bad indie authors out there who don’t give a shit about craft.  But that’s not all of us.  In fact, from my experience of the indie author community, it’s a tiny percentage but it’s the bad ones the knuckle draggers like to highlight over the skilled writers.  Most indies that I know care a great deal about the quality of their writing but hopefully not to the point of being pretentious assholes who spend ten years rewriting a sentence over and over again.

The person who commented on the aforementioned article was wrong.  They ALWAYS address things like marketing and sales’.  I don’t but I certainly give it the time it deserves.  And unless I’m very much mistaken, these days the majority of traditionally published authors also have to consider marketing.  Seeing as how we’re living in the digital age and all.  It’s just part of the game.

She was also generalising with her use of the term ‘ALWAYS’ – (in caps too, give me a break).   She was throwing us ALL into the same basket as if to talk about ONE indie author was to talk about EVERY indie author.

Generalisation is lazy thinking.

Yes, we care about marketing.  But none of that stops us from working on our craft and becoming better writers.  Does it?  Self-publishers and traditionally published authors who focus on their marketing strategies are not turning their back on the craft of good writing.  We’re just moving with the times, wearing more than one hat, and no matter what the knuckle draggers say, that’s what we’re going to keep on doing.

 

A Blog About Failing

 

I think about failure a lot.  Past failure, present failure, the possibility of future failure – you name it.

Out of all of these it’s the past failures that really bite me on the bum and motivate me to work harder.  Maybe it’s just me but I don’t think about sunshine, rainbows and kittens when I’m down in the dumps with the indie author blues.  I’d rather be motivated than comforted if you get my drift.  So how do I do that?  I think about how I failed.

Failure, the great motivator.

But how exactly did I fail?  What is it that gives me a kick when I need it most?

This is a sensitive issue for me but I’m going to write it down anyway.  At best it can be used as an example of how failure can be a good thing or at least a useful thing to those who may be currently searching for motivation in other places.

I failed at being a musician.  By that I don’t mean I never learned how to play the guitar or the piano as a little boy.  Not quite.  I actually worked as a musician for ten years between 2001 and 2011.

So you succeeded, you might say?  Well, no I’d say I failed miserably.  It’s perhaps a matter of perspective.

I was fifteen when I started to think seriously about being a musician (1992 I think!)  One day my brother came home with an acoustic guitar that he’d borrowed from a friend and when he wasn’t there, I used to sneak into his bedroom, pick up the guitar, run my fingers down the steel strings and I was the happiest boy in the world.

I was hooked.  There are no words to describe the way that music reels you in.  Its charms are incomparable and I think it’s even fair to say that my first love affair was not with another person.  It was with music.  I fell hook, line and sinker and things would never be the same again in my life as a result.

Of course my parents and everyone else thought it was a phase that I’d grow out of.  But I knew better.  Get a real job and play gigs at the weekend, they said.  No thanks, I said.  This was the real thing.  For better or worse, I’ve always been all or nothing in terms of pursuing what I’m passionate about.  I still am.  And I’d never been as passionate about anything like I was with music when I was in my teens/early twenties.  I set the bar high in terms of future ambition.  I would be a successful musician and that’s all there was to it.  There was no room to fail.  I would be in demand, recording and touring the world and earning good money because well, because it was meant to be.

I believed I could do it too.  I was determined enough and what’s more I was a damn good bass player.  I don’t mean to sound arrogant because I’m hopeless at so many things in life.  But I could play the bass well and I don’t think anyone I ever worked with had reason to complain.

Eventually (at the age of 23) after many years of playing on the local band circuit in Glasgow, I got my first regular paying gig as a musician.  After that, I took whatever paid gigs I could get my hands on.  One thing you learn quickly when you’re trying to pay the rent through a music career – money is hard to come by.  On top of that, I was always the kind of guy who lost money down the couch.  I was never the type to find it.  You might even call me Mr Money Repellant.  So in those days, I took what gigs I could get and certainly I did a few thing that I’d rather forget.

The truth is I barely survived as a working musician between 2001 and 2011.  No matter how much I tried, my lofty goals were far from coming true.  In the big picture it was great of course – I was working as a musician but still, I was very much on the lower end of the music ladder.  Reality and my ambitions were poles apart.  I just couldn’t seem to get it going.

MeRosesExperience

It’s not like I didn’t try either.  I worked my ass off, practicing three hours a day without fail.  When I wasn’t practicing I was looking for work.  Before I had the Internet at home, I used to stand in Borders book store in Buchanan Street, picking up every doorstopper sized book about the music industry off the shelves.  I’d look through them right there in the shop (the average price was sixty pounds that’s why) and write down the contact details for music managers, agents and artists in a little notebook.  This took ages and I’m surprised the staff didn’t ever chuck me out.

After that I’d go to my parents house and use my dad’s laptop or go into an Internet cafe and sit there all day, sending emails to these supposedly important people (even letters at one point!), bullshitting (a little) about my experience and announcing to the world that I was available for work.

I thought the world would answer but it didn’t.

So this was my life.  My twenties were all about failing, playing gigs, hustling, rinse and repeat.  I put ads in music magazines like NME.  I started original bands from scratch searching for the right chemical mixture but it just never happened.  Sometimes I’d get invited down to London to meet agents to talk about future work opportunities.  On several occasions, these meetings fell through on super short notice and that stung because I’d already travelled down from Glasgow to London to meet them and had spent money that I couldn’t afford on travel expenses.

Anyway, I’m rambling here and apologies.  I don’t want to sound like a miserable, ungrateful git.  It certainly wasn’t all bad luck or somebody else’s fault that I didn’t make it.  I made bad choices for sure. 

So anyway I failed at music.  My ambition flopped and that failure felt public and humiliating for a while.  Still I got to play with some amazing talent from all over the world for sure.  I paid rent for a while but it was always a ferocious struggle to stay afloat.  I had dreamed bigger dreams than these.

In 2011, burned out and exhausted, I played my last gig.

IS THERE LIFE AFTER FAILURE-

Yes there is.  And that’s the whole point of this post.  A lot has happened in the last six years.  I took up writing in 2011.  I got married to a great woman (who I met on tour!) and then I picked up my degree in English Literature and History, spending some time in New Zealand along the way.  In 2015, my wife and I emigrated to Australia to begin the next chapter of our lives.

For me that next chapter has been in play for a year and it’s the indie author journey and a shitload of hard work.  Of course it’s another thankless task 🙂  Twelve hour days, crap money and if we’re being honest, not a lot of people giving a shit when push comes to shove about what it is that I actually do.

Still I’m very fortunate and count my blessings every day.  I do know that and if you’ve got your health, well you’ve got it pretty good.  And when I do get a little down in the dumps or the work seems hard and pointless, I think about how I failed before and that really pushes my buttons.  I let it piss me off because I haven’t forgotten how much it hurt in 2010/2011 when my music career came to an end.  These days however, I have no expectations as to what’s going to happen.  I’m taking it one day at a time.  My ambitions are modest but I’m determined again and I one hundred percent believe in what I’m doing.

So what am I saying?  In any walk of life, it’s what we do with failure that either makes or breaks us.  And some of us will break irreparably.  But instead of letting it break you, why not use your past failures to spur you onto better things?  Get angry, get mad!  Exploit them for your own sake because God knows, if you’ve had the guts to ever fail at something then you’ve earned it.