What is Success?

I’ve been away look­ing at the Eiger, so my post on J K Rowling’s recent exper­i­ence with a pseud­onym comes a little late. However, giv­en that the suc­cess or fail­ure of writ­ing careers turn on such mat­ters, I’m going to add my tup­pence worth here.

To recap: J K Rowling, whose has glob­al sales of 450 mil­lions books (accord­ing to one source), pub­lished a nov­el called “The Cuckoo’s Calling” under the pseud­onym Richard Galbraith. The nov­el received warm reviews but did not sell many cop­ies. The BBC reports the fig­ure as 1500.

Whatever the sales were, they shot up once the true iden­tity of the author was revealed.

One of the most inter­est­ing responses to the story–or, more pre­cisely, to the effect of the story–was from the writer James Smythe.

In his post An Open Letter to New and Would-be Writers, James makes the point that we should not define suc­cess quant­it­at­ively (para­dox­ic­al though that might sound). The book is already a suc­cess if a pub­lish­er picks it up and runs with it. James cites the example of his own book, The Machine, which has not taken off as well as it might.

Publishing is just like any oth­er media busi­ness: you pro­mote some­thing, throw money at it, you tell people that they want it, and it will be a suc­cess. But not every writer gets that money; for some of us, we’re resigned to pray­ing for mir­acles, or rely­ing on blind luck.

I thought James’s post was inter­est­ing in sev­er­al ways. First, it’s hon­est. Second, he sounds like he means it. Third, he may be right.

What is suc­cess? Like porn, it’s dif­fi­cult to define, but easy to spot. Stephen King is suc­cess­ful. James Smythe is suc­cess­ful. Me…

I think all writers struggle with this. I’d say my writ­ing is suc­cess­ful in a nar­row sense. I sell books, get reviewed (only by cus­tom­ers on Amazon and Goodreads, but they’re hon­est and straight­for­ward). I’m with a lit­er­ary agency who count Pulitzer win­ners among their cli­ents. I receive emails from happy read­ers (the dis­gruntled nev­er say hello).

Smythe ends with this:

This isn’t about sales; it’s about intent. You intend to write a great book; do that. The rest is all, frankly, bull­shit.

I used to think that. Now, I fear, I’m older and more cyn­ic­al. If you can sur­vive on intent, more power to you. However, I do agree that, in the case of a work of fic­tion, it either suc­ceeds by its own lights or it does not; nev­er mind the Booker Prize, is the work true to itself? Did you fix its prob­lems? Did you care about it?

I care. Still.

Creating an Animated Banner Advert

There are sev­er­al joys pecu­li­ar to the inde­pend­ent writer. One of them is the respons­ib­il­ity of advert­ising. A few weeks back, I made the decision to plough more of the earn­ings from my books into these adverts. One of the places I wanted to advert­ise is a site call kboards.com, a busy hub full of Kindle writers and read­ers.

What Goes into the Ad?

It needs to cap­ture interest with min­im­al inform­a­tion. I kicked around some ideas using the ‘rule of three’: this, that and the oth­er, or ‘not this, not that, but the oth­er’. Since I don’t really have graph­ic illus­tra­tion skills bey­ond cre­at­ing book cov­ers, I’d need to use text. I came up with:

One heroine

Three books

Lost in time

Overall, I’m happy with them. They’re short. They tell you that the main char­ac­ter is a woman, that there are three books (so far) worth of story, and that the genre is sci­ence fic­tion (time travel).

My girl­friend looked at a draft of the fin­ished GIF and said that read­ers wouldn’t know any­thing about the qual­ity of the books. I agreed, and added a quote from an SFX of Déjà Vu as a ‘zero slide’ at the begin­ning.

How Does it Look?

The stand­ard dimen­sions for a ban­ner ad is 728 x 90 pixels. Once I’d stuffed that full of my text, there was no room for the book jack­ets, and it gen­er­ally looked shite. #advert­fail

Fine, I thought. I’ll just cre­ate an anim­ated GIF.

For the unini­ti­ated, an anim­ated GIF (pro­nounced ‘fish’) is a little video.

Creation: Keynote

I don’t have any fancy anim­a­tion soft­ware. I do, how­ever, use Apple Keynote to give psy­cho­logy lec­tures. Keynote is a par­tic­u­larly advanced present­a­tion plat­form that has text effects, slide trans­itions, and tim­ings. Crucially, it can also export a present­a­tion as a Quicktime movie file. That file can then be dropped into a Mac app called GIFBrewery to make an anim­ated GIF.

  • Open Keynote and select one of the stand­ard tem­plates

  • Next, you’ll want to have Keynote change its slide size to 728 x 90. Guess what? It won’t, because 90 is too small. You will need to cre­ate a slide with the ban­ner ad pro­por­tions but more pixels. I’d sug­gest 2184 x 270.

Keynote slide size

  • Create as many slides as you like. Each one of these will be a ‘moment’ in your anim­a­tion. For my own ban­ner, there were sev­en moments.


  • Set the tim­ings and trans­itions between the slides. You’ll see that, for the example below, I’ve set the trans­ition between the first slide and the second to be the ‘sparkle’ effect; the sparkle moves left to right; and the trans­ition activ­ates auto­mat­ic­ally after three seconds.


  • Once you’ve set up auto­mat­ic trans­itions between slides, Keynote should be able to play through the ‘present­a­tion’ without manu­al inter­ven­tion. About five-ten seconds long is prob­ably enough—but if your ban­ner ad is awe­some, maybe people will watch it for longer. Who knows.

  • Now export the present­a­tion as a Quicktime video. Go to the File Menu > Export > Quicktime. Keynote will offer the fol­low­ing options, which are set accord­ing to those I used for my own ban­ner:

QT Options

Creation: GIFBrewery

The Quicktime file is some­thing that GIFBrewery can hap­pily use to pro­duce your ban­ner.

GIFBrewery has many options, which you can explore. The two main things to point out are:

  • Resize’ will allow you to reduce the pixel dimen­sions of you video. If you’ve impor­ted from Keynote, these dimen­sions will be too large, so here is where you can reduce it to 728 x 90 pixels.

  • The ‘GIF prop­er­ties’ pop-up allows you to tweak the frame-rate (and there­fore over­all speed) of the GIF. You will also find options for redu­cing the num­bers of col­ours. Remember that the webpage host­ing your advert needs the GIF to have a very small file size. In the case of kboards.com, this is less than 60K.


Wrapping Up

Here is the fin­ished GIF:

2013 05 20 22 24 09 SB

I hope that’s help­ful. It took me a couple of nights of pokery, not to men­tion jig­gery, to real­ise that I could use Keynote to pro­duce a movie file, and then a good piece of soft­ware to gen­er­ate the GIF.

If you want to use my files as a head start, here they are:

The GFBrewery set­tings file

The Keynote present­a­tion file

The Keynote Quicktime export

Waterboarded by an Angel

M’colleague and gen­er­ally excel­lent writer Aliya Whiteley is cel­eb­rat­ing the launch of her new short story col­lec­tion, Witchcraft in the Harem. How to describe it? Well, World Fantasy Award win­ner Lavie Tidhar says:

The exper­i­ence of read­ing this col­lec­tion is like being water­boarded by an angel. Shocking, heart­break­ing and laugh-out-loud funny, this is some of the best writ­ing I’ve ever seen. If you like Aimee Bender or Etgar Keret, you will love Witchcraft in the Harem.

I had a high old time on Monday night at the launch. Given that I’m talk­ing occa­sion­ally on this blog about the cre­at­ive pro­cess, I thought it would be nice to ask Aliya about how you get the full world feel in some­thing as small as a short story. Take it away, Aliya.

How do you make a short story feel full?

Thomas Hardy was an amaz­ing nov­el­ist. You only have to read the first pages of The Mayor of Casterbridge to real­ise you’re enjoy­ing the powers of a mas­ter of descrip­tion. And there’s a lot of descrip­tion to get through. I mean enjoy. There are long para­graphs about the Wessex coun­tryside and the mean­ing­ful weath­er. However much you love Hardy, you have to admit that the mod­ern taste in prose has moved away from such lov­ing build-up. A book that starts with three thou­sand words describ­ing the land­scape is unlikely to meet with the approv­al of a big pub­lish­er nowadays.

Description gives depth, but if you’re work­ing on a short story, then you need to provide that roun­ded feel­ing in oth­er ways. And if you write flash fic­tion, then you need to cre­ate the entire world in under 1000 words and lose none of the real­ity. So how do you do it? Here’s some help­ful advice. Bearing in mind that I don’t give good advice and can­not be trus­ted.

Set your story at the bottom of the ocean.

Deep, see? No, okay, that’s not entirely ser­i­ous. But do set your short story in some place that will be evoc­at­ive with very little work from you. The Orient Express, for instance. Or choose one really good detail and describe that rather than going large-scale. Describing the swiv­el of the golfer’s hips as he hits his first shot is as mean­ing­ful as writ­ing about all eight­een holes.

Don’t bother to set it anywhere.

If you’ve got bril­liant char­ac­ters, amaz­ing dia­logue, and an excit­ing plot, then let them do all the work for you and for­get describ­ing the col­our of the car­pet. The set­ting doesn’t always mat­ter. Sometimes it’s more power­ful if we’re not provided with a frame­work.


The first story in my new col­lec­tion is called Galatea. It’s a piece of flash fic­tion about a lonely orphan boy who grows up to be obsessed with naked flesh. There’s no men­tion of the Pygmalion myth in the story but the title brings with it a whole myth­ic­al set of expect­a­tions that say more than an extra thou­sand words could man­age.

Avoid the natural world.

If you find your­self describ­ing the types of trees in the field behind the house the char­ac­ters live in (and they aren’t even look­ing out of the win­dow) then you’re not keep­ing the word count down. Unless you’re writ­ing a story about killer plants or the passing sea­sons or some­thing, obvi­ously.

Use default settings.

When it comes to describ­ing what people look like, there’s very little point unless it’s remark­able. We all assume people look a cer­tain way. Alas, Hollywood-style pleas­ant beauty has won over our ima­gin­a­tions in this regard, so instead of wast­ing time with hair and eye col­ours con­cen­trate on the way the char­ac­ters respond to each oth­er. If they’re attract­ive, don’t both­er describ­ing your idea of attract­ive. A read­er might hate muscled men or women with long legs. But what hap­pens when they enter the con­ver­sa­tion? That’s more inter­est­ing, and it tells us all we need to know. Then the read­er becomes the detect­ive of the story, solv­ing the clues you leave behind. Artfully arrange your bread­crumbs rather than sup­ply­ing a whole loaf of bread. It keeps them hungry and takes up less word­count too.

So that’s what I know about turn­ing a short story into a sat­is­fy­ing and roun­ded exper­i­ence. I’ve set stor­ies in the Canadian Rockies and in Viennese Concert Halls; I’ve used myth­ic­al fig­ures and fairy tales; I’ve pared back the weath­er reports and the nat­ur­al world. Except in the one story that’s set in a cab­bage patch, obvi­ously. And I’ve kept them all short and sweet. Even the one set in the Mariana Trench.

No, okay, I made that bit up. I told you I couldn’t be trus­ted.