Monday 27 August 2012

360: Why Titles are Crucial

I have this habit of sometimes going to a movie I know absolutely nothing about, just because the time of the showing happens to fit with my movements on the day.

This has thrown up some superb bits of cinema which otherwise I might have ignored.

For example, I will go to a movie I would have otherwise shunned, because of an unattractive title.

In the case of 360, I was hardly even sure that was the title. Was it perhaps a misprint of the show times?

Anyway, I schlepped along, and once again I was rewarded for taking a punt. I loved 360. Beautiful and very striking photography. Impressive editing. Great cast. And, best of all, an engaging story with well rounded characters.

Because I knew nothing about it the movie, I had no idea who had written or directed it. But I was impressed and wanted to know.

Well, they're an impressive team.

Screenwriter Peter Morgan's credit's include The Queen, The Last King of Scotland and The Other Boleyn Girl. The director was Fernando Meirelles who had helmed (as they say in Tinseltown) City of God and The Constant Gardener.

I say I knew nothing about 360 before I went to see it. That's not quite true. I did know one thing.

It was a truly dreadful title, which would inspire people to avoid the movie like the plague.

Numbers don't make great titles for films. Sure, there was Seven. But that was, at least, spelled as a word. We could see that it was a title.

Perhaps they considered this for 360. If so, I image the discussion fell apart at the point where they couldn't decide if these numerals should be rendered as 'Three Hundred and Sixty' or 'Three Sixty'.

Or maybe they thought they could cash in on the success of Frank Miller's 300. Bad call.

I don't really know what the thought process was behind naming this film.

I just know it consigned a memorable and well made film to oblivion.

Sunday 19 August 2012

The Importance of Being (Well) Covered

During my checkered career I've played piano in a New Orleans whorehouse and driven a truck full of nitroglycerin across the ravaged roads of South America.

Okay, that's not true. And in fact the second one is a movie.

But I did once work as a website producer at the BBC.

And one of the things I learned there was how to use small images. The home page of our website featured pictures which were about the size of a postage stamp.

It was i
mmediately apparent to me that complex, detailed images weren't going to cut it. They didn't have any impact, tended to look weak, blurred and cluttered — and sometimes you couldn't even see what they were.

No, I realised what was re
quired in this context were strong, simple compositions. When you're working on that scale, graphic simplicity is everything. The style of picture I most often opted for was a head shot. There's a reason faces work well on postage stamps.

I've always taken a v
ery keen interest in the covers of my books. That hasn't stopped most of them, with the notable exception of Miss Freedom, being total dogs. Not coincidentally, Miss Freedom was the first time I had artistic control over the cover design.

So when I joined forces with the British e-book publisher Endeavour Press to publish my spy novel Operation Herod, I was delighted that they wanted to consult me about the cover. I was doubly delighted when they said it was crucial that the design worked well at a really small size — because on Amazon, particularly in the bestseller lists, you're dealing with tiny images.

We were back to postage stamps.

But, thanks to the collaborative spirit at Endeavour (thanks, Matt) and our talented designer Vikki, we were able to come up with a cover which looked good full sized and that still had impact when it was miniaturised, as if by a mad scientist with some kind of book-reducing beam machine.

It turns out guns work just as well as faces. Although I wouldn't push this as a broader philosophical observation.

So, with this excellent — strong and simple — cover I watched my book rise from number 20,000 in the Amazon general fiction lists to number 5.

I wouldn't say the cover was the sole or primary reason for this. But it sure as hell helped.

And what struck me most of all, as I looked around at the other books in the bestseller lists, my neighbours, is how few of them had learned this simple, basic lesson.

Take a look at the Amazon top 20. Many of those covers look fine full size. But the hefty majority of them look like the proverbial dog's breakfast (okay, I'm a cat person) when reduced to thumbnail size.

Just so it won't look like I'm indiscriminately dissing the competition, I would like to single out two other titles and congratulate them for knowing what they are doing. I've included images here. They both look excellent, big or small.

Now, I'm not a fan of this kind of chick-lit imagery, but the Jennifer Skully Cottonmouth cover is perfect for it's purpose, and every time I scanned the Amazon lists I admired how well it worked. And all around it, by way of ironic contrast, were covers by people who didn't know what they were doing — smears of colour, jumbles of shapes.

But the one I really like is the Rebecca Forster. Terrific piece of work. It's really effective. Great idea...

Using a face!

You can support good design by buying these books and ones like them.

Sunday 12 August 2012

Rupert Hood — Estate Agent or Secret Agent?

When I sat down to write a spy thriller — the 21st Century equivalent of a James Bond adventure, I first did some careful planning. Very unlike me, but I wanted this book to be something special.

You see, there are two crucial elements in plotting
any 007-style adventure (I'll tell you about them in another post). But before you even get to that, you first need something crucial.

Your character.

I don't know when I arrived at my most important inspiration. But I do know it was vital to everything that followed, and it was really what liberated me and allowed me to write the book — and enjoy the process.

You see, James Bond is a glamorous, deadly-efficient spy. A fighting machine. A lady killer. Cold blooded, sleek and efficient.

But he is who he is. He may go undercover, or assume false identities for the duration of a mission. But he doesn't lead a double life.

Unlike, say, Superman.

Poor Superman is stuck with masquerading a Clark Kent. People think he is a nebbish. He has to swallow his anger and stay in character.

I don't think I was consciously aware of the Superman/Clark Kent parallel until much later.

But I knew I'd struck gold. I suddenly had a character who could travel the world battling with evil on its own terms, a resourceful action hero who might undergo the most hair-raising of adventures and emerge triumphant.

But then, when it's all over, he has to return to his cover identity. Working at an estate agents in Putney. Doing the 9 to 5 grind. Slaving in an office. Enduring the rush hour.

I found this enormously liberating. I could write a high octane espionage thriller while simultaneously tapping into the common experience we all have, of a terribly mundane world.

A world where you eat lunch at your desk and reflect on how much you dislike the person who works on the other side of the cubicle from you.

It gave me a world I could write about. It also provided a great opportunity for reader empathy.

Rupert Hood — estate agent or secret agent?

Both, of course.

Sunday 5 August 2012

Farewell My Lovely... Pilcrow

What is a pilcrow? It's a paragraph marker. It tells you where a paragraph ends. Or begins. Depending on your point of view. It looks like this. They are a nice way of breaking up blocks of text without making the text look ragged.

The idea is that they allow the reader's eye to find where the paragraph breaks are, while preserving the integrity of the block of text.

They're useful f
or liner notes on LPs, CD booklets, that sort of thing. Short sections of text which are part of a graphic layout.

They allow the
text to be treated as a single design element.

You wouldn't want to read an entire book where pilcrows are used — though early books were indeed printed that way. To me they seemed perfect for the small blocks of text used in a blog.

However, I've been advised to stop using them (by a trusted friend) because they make the blog less readable.

Well, since I did a big publicity push for my new novel (see my blog entry for Operation Herod), the last thing I wanted was a less-readable blog.

So now it's farewell little pilcrow. I'll miss you. Sob. Choke.

(I'm going to go on using you on my music blog, though! He said defiantly.) And here's a last blast of them:

Saturday 4 August 2012

Operation Herod: "Mr Bond, I would like you to meet Dr Strangelove..."

I've always wanted to write something in the tradition of the great sixties spy thrillers.

Think the 007 movies or Peter O'Donnel's wonderful Modesty Blaise stories.

Adam Hall's Quiller adventures, or Len Deighton's Ipcress File and its sequels...

Indeed, I wanted Operation Herod's cover to evoke Raymond Hawkey's stylish milestones for Deighton.

(Kudos also to our lovely designer Vikki.)

What story lurks beneath this cover?

Well, let me ask you this:

What makes for a memorable Bond movie?

A wise man once said, the two most important elements are the villain — who was it going to be this time? A Goldfinger? Or maybe a Blofeld? —

And the big action set-piece at the end:

Perhaps we feel like a helicopter assault on a mountain fortress today?

So I set about dreaming up a villain (or, in this case a villainess). And a big blast of high octane action to pay off the story.

And, since I'd admired the Modesty Blaise thrillers as much as Bond, I also set about planning some O'Donnell-style narrative surprises.

Plus, me being me, I needed a spark of satire.

Think Dr Strangelove or the original, brilliant
Richard Condon version of The Manchurian Candidate. It's a thriller, but it's funny as well as scary. And a little bit mind-blowing.

Now, thanks to Endeavour Press, here it is.

(Available soon from all good global marketing corporations named after South American rivers.)

Update: now available from Amazon here.