Write What You Want to Write – Not What You Think is Commercial

Write What You Want to Write – Not What You Think is Commercial

Before I completed my novel which was published, I tried writing several other books (plus more that never got past chapter one…), including one called The Spectrum of Legitimacy. That was my attempt to write Speculative Fiction, which I do love reading (think Clare North, Nick Harkaway, Scarlett Thomas). But I wrote it for one main reason: I thought it was what would work commercially, as opposed to what I specifically wanted to write.

It was an interesting experience, and as much as I enjoyed writing it, when I gave it to a few early readers, their message was very similar: it’s okay, I liked aspects of it, but… I felt you [me, the author] didn’t love it.

That was quite hard to hear.

I wrote Spectrum after The Kosher Delhi, and at the time I received that feedback, I had stopped trying to get The Kosher Delhi published. But when I thought about it, I realised those readers were right. My heart was with The Kosher Delhi and that was the book I wanted to be associated with writing. Why? Because I had written that because I wanted to write the story, because I myself wanted to know What Happened Next! What did Vik and Yvonne do? I liked Spectrum, but not as much.

So I went back to The Kosher Delhi, brushed it up, started sending it out again to agents and publishers and finally that was accepted.

It was a lesson learned: write what you want to write, not what you think people want to read, what you think is commercial.

In the words of comic-book and film writer Mark Millar: “For years I wrote what I thought other people wanted to read, it was only when I started to write what I wanted to read that things took off for me.”

As for The Spectrum of Legitimacy, maybe I will go back to that one day; or maybe I should listen to one of my early readers when they said “it sounds more like a James Bond film”. Hmm, in which case, perhaps I should try selling the title to the 007 filmmakers…

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What have you done today to help sell another copy of your book?

I used to be a software salesman, and on one occasion I visited one of the UK’s main political parties to demo our system. When I was there, I noticed a small notice above my contact’s desk which said “What have you done today to help us win the next general election?”

I think that as indie authors, we could use that conviction. What can we do every day to help sell another copy(s) of your book?

It could be something simple: sending a tweet, posting a photo on Instagram, responding to a Group post on Facebook, making a quick change to your website to improve it. Or you could be planning a series of blog posts, writing a blog, editing one, publishing it. Plan an AMS or Facebook marketing campaign, tweak an existing ad, analyse your stats. Write a list of who you should talk to about your book, add someone to that list, email someone, visit a local bookshop. Research similar authors. Even just reading your marketing plan to see what else you can do to add to it. And so on and so on.

There are so many quick, simple (and not so quick or simple!) things you can do. If you want a few more specific ideas, the following are good resources:

So, what have you done today…?

NB If you want to take a copy of my ‘header image’ and print it out for yourself, please do so. Just click on the image and it will open a far larger version. I have used a commercially usable photo from Pixabay. Or, of course, design one yourself!

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The Best 7 Novels About Food

Food is in many novels, including mine, but there are some books which nail it. Some revolve around food, others incorporate it less so but in such a way that it still means you couldn’t imagine the story without food. Here are my favourites:

  • The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan. I loved all Amy Tan’s early books, and her incorporation of food into her novels is wonderful and especially evocative. (I could easily add The Kitchen God’s Wife to this list as well). You can taste the dim sum! Add to that her skill in writing about relationships and cultures in America and you have a very special book.
  • Day of Atonement, by Jay Rayner. How can I not love a plot which has home-made chicken-soup machines! But the food is just part of it; it’s funny, insightful, addresses what it means to be a Jew in post-war Britain, and a real page-turner. (I wish he had written more novels, apart from The Apologist, and not just continued as a food critic!)
  • Chocolat, by Joanne Harris. I admit, I saw the film first, but when I read the book, it was so much more sensual.
  • Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, by Kiran Desai. The food – the fruit – is the background to this beautifully written novel, about a man who sits atop a tree in a guava orchard and becomes a popular “holy man”. I loved it.
  • The Mistress Of Spices, by Chitra Divakaruni. How to use food as the core, the structure, the surround of a captivating, magical, beautifully written novel. The sort of book where you forget everything else going on around you while you read it.
  • Number One Chinese Restaurant, by Lillian Li. I first heard Li speak about her book on a podcast, and I went online and bought it the next day. Yet again, a mix of relationships and food, and Li’s descriptions of Chinese cuisine and the restaurant is so expressive and well written.
  • The Kosher Delhi, by… me! Well, I have to give a little boost to my own novel. I hope it does justice to food; certainly reviewers have been kind to have said that some of the restaurant scenes are amongst their favourite parts. I’m still waiting to hear if anyone tries out the recipe at the very end of the book…
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What inspired me to write my novel

One of the most common questions I am asked is: What inspired you to write your book?

I should prefix my answer with a quick overview of the novel (don’t worry, no spoilers here!). The main character, Vik has a Jewish/Indian heritage, and the core theme of the book is his challenge against racism, discrimination and standing up for what one believes in.

I come from a Jewish/gentile family myself; my father was Jewish, my mother C of E, both Caucasian. Many years ago, I lived in Singapore for a while and I had a lot of Indian friends. And I started to find similarities between Jews and Indians. That may not seem obvious at first, but they both love their food/drink, religious festivals, they sometimes have a similar sense of humour, and they have both suffered their own stigma and racism throughout history. And while sitting in a café one day with an Indian friend, I came up with a book title: The Kosher Delhi. Many years before I wrote it!

I find people with mixed heritage fascinating in ‘real life’, and such characters in novels too, but the weave of Jewish and Indian is not such a common mix!

The first scenes I actually wrote were about Vik and my secondary protagonist, Yvonne going on their ‘Away Days’, followed by what became the opening chapter where they accidentally bottle the old man in the bus stop. At the time, I was writing it more as a hedonistic view of the early 90s – food, music, sex – with a young couple discovering life, more in the vein of Geoff Dyer’s Colour of Memory. But the more I wrote it, the more I realised that although I wanted to keep the core of that concept, it needed something else, and I wanted to say something else. The issue of racism was self-evident with Vik being Jewish/Indian mixed heritage (and Yvonne being such a believer in social justice), and I followed that by incorporating another of my hates, homophobia. The latter theme grew organically as I carried on writing.

Food and music are also a central part of my life – of many people’s lives. I love cooking, although I’ve no desire to become a chef myself; and I wish I had learned a musical instrument when I was younger and had wild years in a rock band… But going to gigs is still something I love.

I always knew I wanted Vik to be in New York at some stage in the book, and for the story to grow gradually as he and Yvonne travelled from Leeds to London and across the Atlantic. New York is a city which enabled me to incorporate more of the 90s vibes, and which allowed me to challenge both Vik and Yvonne in other ways. I knew Vik should be working in a restaurant in New York in some way, and Greenwich Village was a great location for that. I’ve visited the Big Apple a number of times since the 1990s, so that fitted in well.

In my original draft, Yvonne and The Libertine Dolls are more prominent, but as much as I enjoyed writing the more band-oriented scenes, it was clear that was a distractor for the story and so I removed much of it. Maybe those chapters can reappear as small sketches in the future!

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My top 4 tips on how to write a synopsis for your novel

So you’ve written your novel, you’re ready to submit it to agents/publishers and now you have to write a synopsis. Good luck! If you haven’t done this yet and you thought it was hard writing your book, wait until you try to squeeze the plot, themes and approach into a few hundred words, or less. To summarise the process in three words: It isn’t easy.

So, what advice can I offer if you are finding it difficult creating a synopsis which does justice to your work?

I’m going to assume you know the basics of what a synopsis is, and why you need to write one, and I would also encourage you to review carefully exactly what each agent/publisher wants to see from your synopsis, in particular the length of your précis; don’t give them a three page synopsis if they only want 300 words. But if you’ve done that, then what can you do next?

  • When I was writing my synopsis for The Kosher Delhi, I read all sorts of articles about how to do it and what to include, but the best ‘how to’ advice I found by a long chalk was this excellent approach from Glen C Strathy: How to Write a Synopsis of Your Novel. I couldn’t believe how much better my synopsis was after following his advice. That is because Glen breaks down the approach into bite-size chunks which you then collate together at the end. Excellent.
  • Give your friends, family and early/beta readers (those who read your novel) your synopsis and ask them to review it in the same way that they gave you feedback on your manuscript. I was quite shocked when one or two people critiqued my first attempt at a synopsis quite harshly – I thought it was quite good! – but they were right.
  • Read this article by publishers Curtis Brown: How to write a synopsis for a novel. It is the most useful article which I have found written by a publisher, and goes into great detail.
  • You could take a short course on writing synopsis. For example:
    * The London Writers Club One day Masterclass, one-to-one advice, run by Jacq Burns (I did this and Jacq’s advice was eye-opening and extremely helpful);
    * Curtis Brown’s Edit and Pitch Your Novel;
    * CityLit’s How to write a novel synopsis.
    And there are many more you can find online. It is money well spent.

Good luck – creating a good synopsis is an exercise and an art in its own right. As for a final three words of advice: listen, re-read, refine.

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It’s the journey that matters

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.” This is a marvellous way to sum up my writing style.

Any good story of course needs all the ingredients of challenges, uncertainties, change; and although a novel should be written so that the reader wants to know what is ultimately going to happen, I am not writing a whodunit or a crime story. I write general fiction which means, to me, that it is just as much about what happens along the way – more so – than it is for where my characters end up.

This is of course true of any genre, but if you aren’t trying to hide a secret or open up the ‘big reveal’ at the end, then I think it is even more important for my style of writing to ensure that ‘the journey matters.’

That said, in the words of Jodi Picoult, “This isn’t just social commentary. This is also about writing good page-turners. I want people to keep reading.”

Absolutely. First and foremost, it’s a story. It has to be. If it isn’t a good story, then it’s not for me.

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The Challenge of Designing the Perfect Book Cover

In 2019, the old adage ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover’ has never been further from the truth. It is exactly what many people do these days! Especially with the growth of Amazon and online sales.

When we view a book on Amazon, we all inevitably scroll down until we see the row of books which were ‘Also Bought’ by customers who read this work. And other than the occasions when you have heard of an author in that list, it is of course the cover which will make a huge impact on your decision on whether to click on it or not. So the cover design has to make an instant connection with the reader.

For some genres, covers can have a ‘pattern’: Fantasy novels have their dragons, chick-lit/romance a pretty house with smoke spiralling out of the chimney, contemporary crime/thrillers are often dark and/or with big text. They are helpfully recognisable.

My ‘problem’ is that The Kosher Delhi is general fiction. There isn’t such a simple approach. My publishers, RedDoor explained that, therefore, we needed a cover which associates my book with another author(s)/book(s) to which my novel is akin (e.g. David Nicholls, Nick Hornby, Hanif Kureishi). Fine, I thought, that shouldn’t be too difficult; I’m sure I can have a go at designing one…

How wrong I was. I spent a few (albeit happy!) days creating some ideas in Photoshop, reviewing other book covers, using similar colours, copying fonts, creating what I thought was appropriate, and mocking-up several different concepts, before presenting some of those to Anna at RedDoor. ‘Yes,’ she said politely, ‘Let me have a think about what we might do…’ And twenty minutes later, she came back with two or three ideas all of which were far better than mine!

I was also reminded that the cover has to look good not only on the paperback in a shop, but also when it’s a tiny image on your mobile phone when browsing Amazon, and even when it might be blown up as a backdrop for a bookstore reading/trade fair. It’s quite a challenge.

RedDoor therefore commissioned one of their designers, and I have to admit that I waited with some nervousness and excitement to see what Anna came back with. What they did present absolutely hit the brief. I am very happy with it.

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Fictional Restaurants I Would Like to Eat in

One of the themes in The Kosher Delhi is food, and the restaurants which Vik works in. All fictional, of course. Which got me thinking: which fictional restaurants would I like to eat in if only I could do so?!

Here’s my selection. What others would you add?

  1. Milliways in The Restaurant at The End of the Universe: a five star restaurant situated at the end of time and matter? Why would you not want to go?!
  2. La Ratatouille: it’s the kitchen I was thinking of a lot when I was writing The Kosher Delhi.
  3. JJ’s Diner in Parks and Recreation: breakfast food all day…
  4. Jack Rabbit Slims in Pulp Fiction. How cool?
  5. Soul Food Cafe from The Blues Brothers: for the music and atmosphere – Aretha Franklin singing! I’d stay all day.
  6. Stan Mikita’s Donuts in Wayne’s World: for the jukebox and clientèle.
  7. The Whistle Stop Cafe in Fried Green Tomatoes
  8. Nat Dayan’s bakery in Dough (with the special ingredient of course…)
  9. The Kosher Delhi, in The Kosher Delhi! Well, it is my book, and if I could eat at Vik’s fusion restaurant in Greenwich Village then that would be rather wondrous!

And a few additional bars/coffee houses:

  1. Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca: for Bogie, Bergman, La Marseillaise – Play it, Sam.
  2. The Cat’s Pajamas in Marie-Helene Bertino’s The Cat’s Pajamas at 2 A.M.: for the jazz
  3. Any of the jazz bars in Rafi Zabor’s The Bear Comes Home: man, they would be cool (but smoky)
  4. Ten Forward on TNG Enterprise: with Data, Guinan, Picard, Deanna Troi…
  5. Cafe Nervosa in Frasier
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How I Write

I heard an interview with David Baddiel recently, where he talked about “how he wrote”; he said (and I am paraphrasing): I sit down at my computer, look at the internet for a bit, realise I should do some writing, do some writing, reward myself by looking at the internet again… Of course, he did then explain about his actual approach, but his account resonated with me. Clearly, real writers waste lots of time too looking at Twitter and Wikipedia…

This is how I wrote The Kosher Delhi:

When I wasn’t looking at the internet, I tended to write as follows: On a morning, I would write a few pages of the novel and change it a bit as I go along; personally, I do believe in improving some aspects of it as I write. But, if I realised that there were words I needed to change later, or there was something I still needed to amend/improve/insert, then I sometimes highlighted such words/sections in yellow (using the software’s Text Highlight tool) and moved on. The following day, I reviewed what I wrote the day before, made further changes to that and then started writing new pages for that day. That also helped remind me where I was, what I needed to write next. And repeat. All that I did directly on my PC/laptop.

Partly through necessity of life and partly because I can’t write and write for weeks at a time, I did sometimes stop and leave the MS alone for a while. When I did that, I found it very helpful when I returned to it some weeks later and I reviewed great swathes of it again. When I did that, I printed out what I wanted to review and wrote on it using a pen; I found I could see the book far more clearly that way, in terms of what was good, what needed changing etc. I even printed the novel in ‘book fold’ style and put a couple of staples in the fold, so that I was reading it in A5 size, turning pages over “like a real book” – that seemed to really work for me. That said, I have also sent my book to my Kindle and added notes to it on that, before updating the master MS back on my PC.

As for whether I am a “pantser or plotter” (a classic phrase people writing books these days use), I am somewhere inbetween. But I definitely err on the panster side. As the Kosher Delhi progressed, I did have a single Word document with all the character and plot information in it, including the core of what I still needed to write/incorporate and what needed changing. And I had supporting documents such as ‘The Characters Ages’ year by year in a spreadsheet. But a lot of the plot was only in my head. I can’t imagine ever plotting everything out before I start a novel, although I do think a lot about the overall structure before commencing (or, at least, I think I do…) I also use Mind Mapping when I am first considering a plot/novel; I have written a separate post about that.

In terms of software, I used a combination of Microsoft Word and Google Docs. I did like using Google Docs because I could access it anywhere from any computer (even offline on my Chromebook), and I could easily download copies for version control. But ultimately, I found I needed to ‘finish’ the documents in Word so I could print them, format them slightly more easily, just have little bit more control. And my editor used Word for track changes.

I should finish this post with a huge caveat: this was just what I found worked for me! For this one novel. There is no right or wrong (as far as I know) and I have still only written one (unproven) book. So if you do something differently then that’s completely fine.

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How to Listen to Early Readers

Soon after I started writing The Kosher Delhi, I gave my partner the first few chapters and asked for her feedback. She came back the next day after reading it on the train home and said, ‘Now I don’t want you to get upset, but this might be a difficult conversation…’ She then reeled off a series of points and thoughts about the book which she didn’t think were realistic, didn’t work, or where she got bored. I sat there, listened (very) politely and had to admit to myself that she was right on every account (well, nearly every point). It was sobering but unbelievably helpful. Oh, and she did also say what she liked!

When I look back now at what I consequently changed, I am sure that if I had presented that original version to my publisher, they would never have progressed their interest.

It was the same with my other early readers. (I hesitate to call them beta readers; from my software development background, I think of ‘beta testing’ as testing software which has at least had a fair amount of internal review already – so I think some of my early readers were pre-beta…) Every single one of them gave me useful feedback, made me think, and more often than not, I changed something. Not always – there are inevitably aspects where as an author you have to believe that what you have written is correct; but often. For example, if one reader gives one specific piece of feedback, that doesn’t automatically mean you need to change a point (although you can do), but, for me, as soon as two or three people commented on the same issues, well, clearly I should pay attention to that.

I did receive one person’s feedback where their comment was so blindingly obvious that I’m embarrassed I didn’t see it when I wrote it! But that’s one of the benefits of getting early readers – you can’t always see the wood for the trees; you’re too close to the plot/characters to see something doesn’t work. It may sound like the opposite should be true, but I found that it was possible to want to write a particular thing so much that I couldn’t see it didn’t work.

I was also very specific on what I asked my readers to comment on: I asked them to tell me ‘Did my book make you want to know what happened next?’ and ‘Did you manage to forget it was me (i.e. your friend/brother) reading it?’ And of course, please do tell me what you did/didn’t like if you can do – although I found that those two simple questions usually meant my reader told me their likes/dislikes anyway.

I should also add that although I have concentrated above on the criticism I received from readers, I was fortunate that all of them also said how much they enjoyed it! Which meant that even if they questioned aspects of the novel, it still made me feel fantastic that someone did like my writing!