BLOG 3 - Castles and Ghosts … and the IT man who created a monster

BLOG 3 - Castles and Ghosts … and the IT man who created a monster

8th December 2020

IN THE third part of his blog on book writing and getting published. Fleet Street journalist Terry Manners looks at the non-fiction and horror/fantasy markets in the UK and America and reflects on the early beginnings of some of the iconic monsters of fiction that have stood the test of time and made their creators famous. And why more importantly today, with the birth of Netflix and multi-TV Channels, it is vital to keep in mind film, broadcasting and print rights as you perhaps write your novel in Lockdown. And if you write it and get it published, how might you sell it? And what might you earn?

You are not likely to write the best-selling book of all time of course, which is The Bible at around 5 billion copies worldwide. The others are some way behind. A long way behind. They are the novels that sell over 100 million copies and the list is long. They include: A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens; The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (if that’s your thing) and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, by J. K. Rowling. But let’s be clear, a good book sale for you with a publisher today, would be about 25,000 copies and around 15,000 copies would probably bring you, the author, an offer to write a second book in the series. Of course, you may turn out to be the next Dan Brown who sold 1.1million copies of his Da Vinci Code in just nine months and earned £200million in sales and film rights. You can never tell. Six of J.K Rowling’s books are in the top-selling hardbacks of all time. Who would have thought it after so many publishers turned her down?

But first you cannot do anything without the idea … the plot. And it has to capture the imagination of the agent and publisher in the synopsis, as we discussed before. Otherwise, he or she might not bother to read the first chapter of your manuscript. So, who would have thought that in the bedrooms of a rented house on the rainswept banks of Lake Geneva, a few friends on holiday in 1816, were so bored they created a couple of the most famous fictional monsters the world has ever known? Dracula and Frankenstein – just like that.

It had rained hard for weeks all over Europe and Lord Byron, his physician and friend John Polidori and writer Mary Shelley and her husband Percy were stuck in the Villa Diodati. To ease the boredom, they came up with the idea that each of them wrote a ghost story. They spent three days in their bedrooms scribbling and Polidori came up with The Vampire while Shelley created Frankenstein. Two totally different fictional monsters but both were to capture the imagination of the world and later Hollywood. It was some 80 years after Polidori created his blood-sucking, aristocratic monster that Bram Stoker came along and adapted him and in came the bats.

Today of course, vampires and genetically-modified zombies are still with us and books like the vampire saga Twilight, which brought a new slant to the genre, are big business – so think of one yourself. Written by young American author Stephenie Meyer, Twilight, New Moon, Eclipse andBreaking Dawn have been translated into 39 different languages and earned her in excess of £800million, ranking her in the top 60 of the Forbes Celebrity pay list. The films grossed over £2.5billion at the Box Office. Not bad eh? So, get cracking.

From fire breathing dragons and hydras to werewolves and gremlins these haunting demons from the past still populate our bookshelves, just like ghosts. But publishers are always looking for something different, something to break the mould. Get your imagination going. Keep your eyes open for unusual news stories like the one about the fatbergs a few years ago … rock-like masses of waste matter discovered in London sewers formed by the combination of flushed, non-biodegradable wet wipes, and congealed grease or cooking fat. Someone has now written a book on one … and he is a friendly creature. Great idea.

He has been created by former IT engineer Nathan Wright and is named, appropriately Fatberg, who leaves his home in the sewers and explores the streets of London curious about humans and wants to be their friend. As ugly as he is, he believes he can make a difference to their world. His adventures are a big hit with children. So, your turn.

But gothic fiction and horror have never gone away. Even today, people still love spooky castle settings, omens, portents visions and the supernatural. New plots with old themes are still being written … secret passages, trap doors, hidden staircases and women in distress, all veiled in mystery and fleeting dark shadows. But now there is the added modern phenomenon of shape shifters and genetic cloning.

Just remember in your writing what the most popular books on the market are and what you are competing with and more importantly get on the bandwagon when it is rolling, not when it is grinding to a halt. See what’s trending. Currently the biggest selling books are romance and thrillers. And thrillers are most likely to be turned into audio books. But if monsters, fantasy or romance aren’t for you, then non-fiction could be your path. Now for this you do not necessarily need to have completed a manuscript to submit to an agent, I will explain a bit later. But you will have to convince him or her that you are the right person to write it – and that there is a market for it.

For example, you may be a climber who is about to take on an unconquered peak of some remote mountain where others have died; or you are going round the world on a bicycle … or you have uncovered some private love letters in your family that were from Lord Nelson and it was an unknown affair.

Or persuade someone that you should write their life story because they are famous or was an unsung war hero who once saved Churchill. Or even have an idea to research a story that has never been done.

Here’s one, I always considered but never did … the fiction based on fact story of The Cadbury Family, what a yarn, what a saga, from its Quaker beginnings and illicit love affairs to a multi-million-pound chocolate empire. But it is all documented somewhere in historical records, newspaper cuttings and letters in museums.

I mentioned before, a close friend of mine Robin McGibbon who wrote many life-story books, particularly about The Kray Twins and their notorious East End gang The Firm. He went many times to see them in jail and taped their interviews which he later sold as The Kray Tapes becoming particularly close to Ronnie, who amazingly opened up to him about the darker side of his life. Robin even tracked down fugitive gangster Ronnie Knight in Spain too, if you remember him? It takes a lot of courage to do that kind of thing but until you try you never know if you will be successful. And never be timid about picking up the phone, especially to America. Their Freedom of Information Act is so far ahead of ours. Companies, courts and newspapers all have to respond with information if they have it and help. I did so much work on my book on female serial killers called Deadlier Than The Male over the telephone and I was even put through to women poisoners and killer nurses for interviews in American jails.

My favourite personal example of ‘going for it’ with an idea that involved the United States was when I was Assistant Editor of the Daily Express in London. It was the 25th anniversary of the Moon Landings and I had the idea of inviting readers to the celebrations. But we needed a celebrity guest. After some ‘blue sky’ thinking I came up with the idea of inviting the first man to walk on the Moon, Neil Armstrong. Ridiculous, I know. But in a wild moment, back from the bar of the Press Club, I rang NASA, explaining what we would like to do. To my surprise I was immediately put through to the Chief Press Officer who said: “Neil is at home this week, would you like his number in Ohio?” Amazing. I rang the number and a woman answered. The conversation went something like this:

“Sorry to bother you M’am. My name is Terry Manners from the Daily Express in London. Is Mr Armstrong available please?”

“No sir, sorry. I am his housekeeper. Mr Armstrong has popped out to the store for a while to get a loaf of sliced bread. But he will be back shortly. If you ring back in half an hour or so, you should catch him.”

I could hardly believe it … the most famous man in and out of this world, who took a tremendous leap for mankind on the lunar surface, was queueing for a loaf of cut bread. I rang back of course, and Neil and I had a smashing chat for about 20 minutes, but the fee and added benefits he was asking for was truly out of this world – and our budget. I will never forget that encounter.

Another example of chance paying off I remember, was the day in the newsroom when our reporter John ‘Bomber’ Burns, who covered the Ulster troubles and got his nickname for obvious reasons, was working on the story of another Ugandan bloodbath. He was given a number to call … he rang and got through to ruthless dictator Idi Amin who picked up the telephone in his palace bedroom. So, you see, always give it a go.

But back to your book. We are now supposing that you have decided to write non-fiction on a subject you might be knowledgeable on … and you have done your research. So, you need to find an agent who has connections in whatever field it is in, from stamp collecting and country walks to life stories and biographies. You will need to send a one-page mini-synopsis highlighting with bullet points, what makes the book new and special with the proposed word count and delivery date. Some agents will request a few lines on the most recent competing and comparable books in your market and what is so different about yours. You will also need a page on sources used and they might ask for details of any specialist marketing outlets such as websites, organisations or magazines that might publicise your work. And then of course – there is the all-important sample chapter of about 8,000 words.

Different agents vary of course, but they all follow this format. If you do manage to get a deal, you will get an advance to cover your expenses for research, telephone, travel and entertaining and payment for writing. This is usually paid in three parts and set against possible revenue from sale. A third on signing a deal; another third after delivering the manuscript and the last payment on publication. The publisher recoups their money the moment the first copy is purchased by a reader and you start to get royalties after the advance is paid off. Then you move into a royalties-percentage deal, but more about that next time.

The thing to remember is that non-fiction books are not marketed the same as fiction books, where big-earning authors build up a following after their first novel that has been heavily pushed by the publishers to general readers of thrillers, sci-fi and all kinds of romance and horror. A wide market. Non-fiction is bought by people who are interested in certain topics … old Hollywood stars; pets; cooking, self-help, tanks, battleships, politics or sport etc.

Your market is more limited but still profitable. The best-selling non-fiction book at the moment is A Promised Land by former US President Barack Obama, published by Viking at £35. And Delia Smith’sChristmas Recipes is up there in the Top Twenty too, along with 100 Outstanding British Walks, a selection of maps and trails of scenic beauty and historic interest from the Ordnance Survey.

But whatever you finally decide, there is one vital rule. You must read your manuscript/synopsis/submission and letter back, not once but a couple of times before sending it off. Agents hate nothing more than illiteracy and silly, slap-dash mistakes.

And never be afraid to change your words, not once perhaps but, over and over again until you get it right. The last thing of course, is do not write a school essay, do not write for yourself. Write for others. Too many people think they can write because they do quite good letters in the office or once did a publicity brochure for the boss. It is not the same thing at all.

Next week, Terry Manners, who was Editor-in-Chief of Express Newspapers in Scotland; Editor and Director of the Western Daily Press and Associate Editor of the Press Association and has written seven books for major British publishers, takes a look at the pros and cons of self-publishing and reveals more anecdotes behind the tricky skill of writing someone else’s life story … and the importance of publicity in newspapers and magazines. Websites even.

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Terry Manners