Wednesday, March 27, 2013

My Guest: Stephen Leather

My Guest this week really needs no introduction. I would never have the temerity to say he's a fellow writer of thrillers because he's in a league far removed from my own humble offerings. As an avid reader of his novels from way back, it's my great pleasure to introduce bestselling author

Stephen Leather 

The Writer & Book Reviews

When was the last time you read a novel that you hated? Read it right the way through and got to the end and thought “That was the worst book I’ve ever read”?

For me, the answer to that question is “Never”.

I have never read a novel that I didn’t enjoy. Okay, I might have started a few and stopped after a couple of chapters, but if I’m not enjoying a book I don’t force myself to finish it. Life is too short to be reading books that aren’t enjoyable.

But the reason I don’t read bad books is that I’m selective about the books that I buy.  The best way to get a recommendation for a book is word of mouth – to be told by a trusted friend that something is worth reading.  Some of the best books I have ever read came from recommendations from friends – Silence Of The Lambs, Green River Rising, Bravo Two Zero.

But even with a glowing recommendation, I would still look at the book before buying.  Yes, it’s wrong to judge a book by a cover but the simple fact is that a cover says a lot about a book. And so does the blurb on the back. Even the title.  Then before buying I always perform my own personal litmus test. I flick through to a page in the middle of the book and read a paragraph or two at random. If it’s well written, if it flows, then I’ll buy the book.

The equivalent in the brave new world of eBooks is the sample, where you can look at a chunk of the book for free before buying.  That facility alone means that you should never buy a book that you are going to hate. Or even dislike.

So here’s the thing. When I go to Amazon, why do I see so many one-star reviews from people saying that that had to force themselves to finish such and such a book,  that it was awful, that it was the worst book they had ever read? Why do they put themselves through such torture? Why did they buy the book in the first place?

The review system, and the way books can be ranked with between one star and five stars, gives everyone a voice, the chance to say how much they enjoyed – or hated – a book.  And sites like Amazon give everyone the chance to express their opinion – and to do it anonymously.  In a perfect world this would allow the buying public to get a general consensus about which books are good, and which aren’t. But sadly the world isn’t perfect.  Take one of the greatest English novels of the twentieth century, John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  One of the best thrillers ever written, but also one of the best novels.  As of today Tinker Tailor has 101 five-star reviews. But it also has ten one-star reviews.  Ten people think that Tinker Tailor is one of the worst novels ever published.  (And one of those reviewers said he couldn’t finish it, nor could he finish Catch 22).

John Le Carre is one of the greatest living writers, there is no question of that. I know that I will never produce work of the quality of his novels. That’s not to say that all his books are perfect. I didn’t like the ending of Absolute Friends, and if I had reviewed it I would probably have given it four stars for that reason.  But as of today, while Absolute Friends has ten five-star reviews it has two one-star reviews and five two-star reviews.  That means that two people think that Absolute Friends is one of the worst books in the English language.

Yes, of course everyone has the right to an opinion.  When someone tells me that they believe that the earth is flat or that the Americans didn’t land on the moon, I say “God Bless” and let them get on with it.  But I do fear there is something flawed with a system that allows people to express opinions that are so clearly wrong.

Like all writers, I get my fair share of bad reviews.  But in the good old days of real books, it was newspaper and magazine journalists who wrote reviews. And they would be balanced, and considered, and thoughtful.  And in fact most books never got reviews.  My publisher would always be thrilled to get even a few paragraphs in the Daily Mail or the Sun.  The vast majority of newly-published books were simply ignored.

But with sites like Amazon, everyone can review, and everyone’s review is treated equally.  An Amazon Top 100 reviewer who has reviewed thousands of books and written hundreds of thousands of words, is treated the same as an anonymous reviewer who has only ever reviewed one book. And in a lot of cases, reviewers leave reviews without any evidence that they have actually purchased the book. 

There’s no doubt that a proportion of reviewers abuse the system. So what is a writer to do if he gets a review that is clearly malicious or just plain stupid?  I’ve been given one-star reviews because I wrote a novel in the first person and the reviewer didn’t like first person books.  I’ve received a two-star review because the reviewer didn’t like the fact that I didn’t use chapters in my Spider Shepherd thrillers.  I’ve had reviewers saying that my writing was turgid and awful.  So my big question would be – why did you buy it in the first place?

I think it was eBook pioneer John Locke who said that if you got a bad review it was because the reviewer was outside your target market.  One of the things I have noticed is that if I price a book cheaply, I tend to get a higher percentage of bad reviews.  I think this proves that what John says is correct – because when it’s cheap people take less care about what they are buying, which means you get bought by readers outside your target market. Without fail, if I raise the price of a book, the percentage of bad reviews falls!

Last month I self-published a new crime thriller – Take Two. I priced it at the Amazon minimum of 99 cents, and it did well – it spent a month in the UK Kindle Top 10 and in February alone sold almost 40,000 copies.  But I did get a lot of bad reviews. As of today, it has 188 reviews of which 67 are five-star, 38 are four-star and 23 are one-star.  So more than ten per cent of my reviewers think Take Two is one of the worst books ever published.  The thing is, it isn’t, of course. It’s a fun crime thriller, set in the world of TV soaps, and it’s as well-written as any of my books.  But it has clearly been purchased by people who were expecting something else. Because it was cheap they probably didn’t bother reading the sample first. That’s the equivalent of taking a book off the shelf in a shop and buying it without opening it.  What I do find confusing is the number of reviewers who claim to be fans but who hated Take Two enough to give it one-star.  Yet those ‘fans’ have never reviewed any other books of mine. I would have thought a ‘fan’ would at least have reviewed a few of the books they had enjoyed.

Do bad reviews matter? You know, in the grand scheme of things I don’t think they do. I think most buyers realise that the review system is flawed and pretty much ignore it. They realise that an unknown author with ten five-star reviews for his only book is probably being supported by his family and friends. And that a lot of the one-star reviews have very little to do with the quality of the writing and more to do with trolls being trolls.

When I first started self-publishing eBooks, I would often confront people who had given me bad reviews, especially when they were clearly malicious. I learnt pretty quickly that it is a pointless exercise.  Either you wouldn’t get a response (because the account was only opened to post the one bad review) or the reviewer would react by saying how I dare I criticise them and that I had no right to query their judgement. I’ve learned that it’s best to say nothing. In fact, it’s best not to read reviews at all.

When self-publishing kicked off, Amazon were quite good about removing reviews that were clearly malicious, but their attitude has changed recently and now requests to have bad reviews taken down are met with a standard email saying that they are trying to encourage a diversity of opinion.

So here’s the simple truth.  Everyone is entitled to their opinion. And everyone is entitled to express that opinion.  All you can do as a writer is to grin and bear it. The best advice I got was from eBook guru Joe Konrath who said that writers shouldn’t read reviews of their work.  Or Google themselves. Writers should do what writers are supposed to do – write.

< Amazon Link

Stephen Leather is the author of more than thirty novels and is one of the UK's most successful eBook publishers. His book 'The Basement' topped the Kindle bestseller list in the UK and the US and in 2011 Lee Child was the only British author who sold more eBooks. His latest thriller, 'False Friends', was in the Sunday Times Top 10 hardback bestseller list. Before working as a full-time writer he was a staff journalist on newspapers such as The Daily Mirror, The Daily Mail, The Times and the South China Morning Post.

Stephen Leather's website is where you can find information about all of his novels as well as many other interesting facts about this prolific bestselling author. Stephen can also be followed on Twitter @stephenleather

Thank you, Stephen, for a post which gives all writers plenty of food for thought.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The story so far...

I have been very lucky to have a number of writing friends share their thoughts as my guests on this blog during the past few months. As some of you may have missed these excellent articles, here is the list of all who have appeared to date, with direct links to their posts:

Paul A. Rice

Why I Write & Why You Should...

Jonel Boyko

Book Reviewing - a Master Class

Jordyn Redwood

Story ideas

Fleur Ferris

Don't waste opportunities - be prepared to take your manuscript all the way

John Dolan

Playing A Round Writing

C. N. James

Are Independent Authors the New Publishing Paradigm?

Amy Joy

The Rise of Digital Books

Seumas Gallacher

…throwing a spammer in the works …(or, letting it all hang out there…)

Thank you once again to all of you for your time, effort and insights.

A new, and surprise, Guest in a few days - Check back often!

Eric @

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

My Guest: Paul A. Rice

My guest this week is a fellow thriller writer, ex-pat and Spain-dweller. His interesting article touches on a subject that is as fascinating as it is varied in its answers. Without further ado, I give you...

Paul A. Rice 

Why I Write 
     & Why You Should...

If I'm to be honest, I'm not really sure why I write. I've dabbled several times along the way, but never seriously. It just comes upon me, the need to write, and almost surprisingly I find myself at the keypad again. I have never really applied myself before as it takes a lot of self-belief, which I didn't have back in the old days of my dabbling. I seem to remember getting serious when I was on a very lonely job in Kandahar, Afghanistan. There was no TV, no internet, and the food was horrendous. Nor was there much alcohol available, or anyone to share it with when I did manage to scrounge some. So, I hit the keypad and started writing, just to stop myself from going mad. I'm not sure I succeeded...

These days I have become addicted to writing. It is so challenging, but also very rewarding. I have spent thousands of hours writing my books and have nothing but respect for those authors who have made a success of their work. I now know exactly how much dedication and hard work it takes just to get a draft copy finished, never mind a highly-polished and ready for publication manuscript. I write because I love doing it. The task is immense, but I like a challenge. The other bonus is that since I've been writing I have had the privilege of making many new friends via Twitter and other social media applications. Keeping up to date with their writing and Blogs etc, is a great way for me to learn more about the art.

It's not easy being an indie author, and the task can seem almost fruitless at times - but we're all allowed those dark days, no matter what we do. Some days you just get out of bed on the wrong side. The bonus is that I get to do exactly what I want with my work, and I can release new books very quickly after they have been completed. It's also fun - reading feedback, watching sales, trying to make 'it' happen. You learn to treat these things with the disregard they deserve, which is why I said it was fun. If it's not fun, and you're not a multi-millionaire, famous author who has to honour a publishing contract, then why are you doing it?
Make it fun. Enjoy the experience. It can only enhance your learning, and who knows where it will lead?
I consider the last five years as my apprenticeship in the art of writing - I don't think you can ever stop learning in this game. I've made mistakes, I've been naive and I've been far too impatient, which is normal with me. But, I have learned and learned an awful lot. I put a lot of my learning down to the feedback I have received from critics. Someone once told me that I needed to hone my writing 'blade' in the white heat of my critics' fire - never a truer word said. I take heed of every word they say. Some of those words stay with me daily. I'm also thoroughly determined, obsessed even, to get this right. The feeling one gets upon receiving a good review is what makes all of this worthwhile - knowing that someone far away has enjoyed the tale, bonded with the characters, is all the motivation I need.

I don't sit down and make a big plan about my next writing project - I get an idea, see the settings in my mind, smell the places, watch the imaginary characters growing, and then I wander around for a few weeks thinking about the whole idea. Finally, and filled with trepidation, I simply sit down and start writing. It amazes me how the words and characters just seem to appear at times.

You know, I've read some of my own work and can't even remember writing it. Bizarre? Yes. Fruitful? Definitely.

I consider my life experience to be the source of my inspiration, my qualification, if you will. I call upon all the ghosts of my yesterdays to help me when I write. They have never abandoned me, even though I have tested their patience many times. They, when coupled to my vivid imagination, provide me with an endless sea of ideas. I probably possess a rather ironic and very humorous outlook on life, and this crazy world in general, which I certainly hope comes out in my lead characters at times.

If you want to write, then my main advice would be that you have to be prepared to spend many hours on your work, and be even more prepared to go back again and again to keep on trying to improve the story. However, I would also suggest that you don't try to write like other people, you are who you are, find your style, your voice, and run with it.

But, most of all - never give up, not ever.

Oh, and get yourself an editor - a good one. I didn't for a long time, and I've paid the price.

If you want to write - then start now, write that story, it doesn't matter how much you don't know about writing - you'll get better at it, you'll learn. You can ride a bicycle, right?

If you don't tell that tale, the one sitting right in the middle on the inside of your own head, then it will never be told.

Now, that would be a complete tragedy.

Get writing, come on - go for it!

I was born in 1961 in Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe) to English parents. My father worked for Caltex Oils and my mother for the Rhodesian Government. I spent the majority of my early days at various boarding schools in Rhodesia, before returning to the UK in 1975, where I attended school in Marlborough. Since then I have lived in many different places throughout the world - at present I live in the sunny province of Almeria in southern Spain. I work internationally during the day, and I write at night. My favourite times are when I get to go home and be with my gorgeous wife - Jane. I also like to watch a whole heap of motorcycle racing on the TV. I love reading and I adore writing. Oh, and a cold beer isn't too far down the list of my favourite things, either...

My latest novel 'Hunters - A Trilogy' has just been released. 'Tears in Tripoli - A Jake Collins Novel' is a fictional thriller that I wrote after being in Libya whilst providing security services to some of the world's top media teams. The book has received some great reviews and is growing in stature on a monthly basis.

At present I am busy writing Jake's second tale. 'Dangerous Games' is turning into a real cracker - you can read a preview on my website. I am also fermenting the idea for a new thriller. Well...really, the truth is that I just haven't had the time to start writing it yet. I'm too scared that it will distract me from finishing Jake's sequel. But, it's there. I can see the whole story and all of the people involved – all of them. They're in my head, waiting for me to release them...

You can find out more about me, as well as read extracts of my novels on my website and follow me on Twitter @riceauthor

Thanks, Paul, for a peek into the inner workings. Take care, and keep safe!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A Very British Blog Tour

I've been tagged!

... and by a Scot to boot!

My friend, and fellow scribbler, Seumas Gallacher, he of the Blogging Sporran, did this foul deed! (his post here)

So here goes.

HEALTH AND SAFETY WARNING: This post contains blatant examples of British humour. Read with care!.You've been warned.

I've been tagged to answer questions about being Very British, I think. Not sure I am, but you be the judge:

Q. Where were you born and where do you live at the moment?
A. I was born in New Brighton, in the Wirral, Cheshire. The Wirral, for those weary travellers who’ve not heard of it before, is not one of Tolkien’s creations, but the peninsula that sticks out between Liverpool to the north and Wales. It’s most memorable feature, for me, is the huge number of golf courses packed into its acreage. I lost many a ball there in my youth. You've not lived until you've been ball-less on Merseyside!
Q. Have you always lived and worked in Britain or are you based elsewhere at the moment?
A. I worked in the UK for 12 years before moving to warmer climes (Oh, the winter of '76! Still remember it. Even my hot-water bottle froze!) I was based in Madrid, Spain for many a year but travelled all over Europe and to the States, Africa and other exotic hotspots (emphasis on hot). I still live in Spain, but now on the Mediterranean coast.
Q. Which is your favourite part of Britain?
A. Having lived outside the UK for over 30 years, I tend to see Britain not as someone born there but with a fresh pair of eyes every time I return. Therefore, although I still have a soft spot for the Wirral and North Wales, there is something new to be rediscovered with every trip back to Blighty. I always seem to have that song by 'Sting' running through my head when I'm there, though.
Q. Have you ‘highlighted’ or ‘showcased’ any particular part of Britain in your books? For example, a town or city; a county, a monument or some well-known place or event?
A. Not yet. To date my novels have been set predominantly outside the UK. In the novel I’m currently writing, ‘Leaving Shadows’, I start the tale in the South of England (rainy and cold) and then skip to London (rainy and cold and grey), but leap over to Europe after that (dry and sunny). Weather is such a strong influence in my writing. 
Q. There is an illusion – or myth if you wish - about British people that I would like you to discuss. Many see the ‘Brits’ as ‘stiff upper lip’. Is that correct? 
A:  No. I spent years explaining to the Spanish that I didn’t even own a Bowler hat nor rolled umbrella. I used to know someone, many an eon ago, who had a Bowler - he kept it on the back seat parcel shelf of his Mini to stop his golf balls rolling around (Shout-out to Roger Doswell, wherever you are). Topical allusions such as these abound everywhere. Tea at Five? The only time I've experienced this (paper doilies and all), it was at a Belgian's house in Nairobi! They did it as a tribute to me, so I wouldn't miss home so much! After 30 years I’ve yet to see a ‘Toreador’ walking the streets in Spain, yet it’s part of the image Brits often have of the locals here. And the ‘stiff upper lip’? Probably an excess of Botox, if you ask me.

Q. Do any of the characters in your books carry the ‘stiff upper lip’? Or are they all ‘British Bulldog’ and unique in their own way?
A. I do enjoy having the occasional subtle sideways dig at British stereotypes in my books, especially the few that I’ve encountered in real life. But I try to make them as believable as possible, without exaggerating their foibles too much. Exagerated foibles! Sounds contagious.
Q. Tell us about one of your recent books
A. My last novel, ‘the CULL’ was an interesting project. I decided to take the whole vampire theme, dump all the teenage angst etc, and return to the horror of Polidori and Stoker. I started with an in-depth investigation into where the myths came from (not Vlad Tepes the Impaler, as you might expect, but much, much older and from a different part of the world) and tried to establish a solid ‘scientific’ explanation for the creatures if they were in fact real. Then I wove a fast-paced contemporary suspense thriller around this. If readers are looking for another YA novel with ‘romantic’ vampires, then ‘the CULL’ will surprise you: it’s hard-nosed and scary. It’s been described as Patterson meets Dan Brown meets Bram Stoker, but entirely unique. Read it, and judge for yourselves.
Q. What are you currently working on?
A. I’m currently in the middle of ‘Leaving Shadows’, a spy thriller that starts with the kidnapping of the Head of the Secret Intelligence Service, aka MI6. But nothing, not even from the first page in the tale, is as it seems. Watch for it in Spring of this year.
Q. How do you spend your leisure time?
A. Reading, as do most writers. I also love watching films (that’s movies for those who don’t speak the Queen's English), listening to music, travel… oh and I teach traditional martial arts to anyone who’ll listen and advanced tactical self-defence to Police, military and bodyguards and the like. You know, the usual staid, quiet life of an ex-pat.
Q. Do you write for a local audience or a global audience?
A. Honestly I write for myself. I am my only fan! No, joking aside, I like to give my books a global appeal, but I focus on writing what I enjoy. I try above all else to be entertaining. I used to read many books whilst stuck in airports or overnight hotel stays as a break from the stress of the job. I endeavour to make my novels great reads when you’re in similar situations (so fair warning: don't try to read them anywhere else - they don't work!); something to take your mind away from the day-to-day. When you want to return to reality, close the book.
Q. Can you provide links to your work?
A. On my website there are links to all of my novels on distinct platforms (Amazon, Kobo, Nook, Sony, etc... even paper!) so rather than adding a long list here, you can find them with a single click on my Home page. While you’re there, the web has extracts of all the novels, the Inside Secrets (some of which should not be read until you’ve finished the relevant book), even a competition where you can win a character named after you in a future book. There’s also writing tips if you’re daft enough to take up this strange and intoxicating business of novelist yourself. The web runs to over fifty pages and there’s something for everyone.


Got to go now. 

Kettle's boiling. 

Time for a cuppa! 


One lump or two?

Eric @