When is a prequel not a prequel?
My debut novel, Mickey Take: When a debt goes bad… was released in October 2014, and like the novels of so many first-time, self-publishing authors, when viewed on the Amazon graph, its sales from the end of 2014 through the first half of 2015, looked a bit like a “J”. Trouble is it only looked like a “J” when you held it up to a mirror!
Family and friends are great at giving a new book an early lift, but how do you then sustain interest in the work of an unknown author in the cauldron of the e-book market, much less generate new sales? Be active on social media, they said. So I dusted off my old Twitter handle that was only following Stephen Fry and a dozen silent friends, had six followers and a record of three tweets in eighteen months. Confession time: when I'd set up my Twitter account, finishing let alone publishing Mickey Take was an almost unthinkable construct, and so I’d glibly keyed in stevieboy – my teenage moniker from twenty years before (OK, thirty years before). But no, that was already taken. @stevieboyh on the other hand, was available, and at the time seemed the perfect disguise behind which to venture into this slightly odd, micro-blogging circus. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Luddite – I’d been on Facebook since 2007… my first status update? “sleeping”!
So, with a new-found enthusiasm for Twitter, by pure chance I one day followed the London-based writer and Twitter strategist Ian Sutherland (@iansuth the fiction author and @ianhsuth the guru). Of course, I'd never heard of him before. The other thing I didn’t know at the time, was that a systematic mechanism was set in motion when I clicked to follow him. I just thought he was being nice offering me one of his books — a novella called Social Engineer. Yes, he was being nice, but he had no idea who I was either and this offer was far from exclusively aimed at me. I now know he was using a Twitter Lead Generation Card to draw me (and anyone else following him) to his novels. Unwittingly proving his strategy, I downloaded Social Engineer and enjoyed a great read. I wrote a review and continue to recommend it. But it was also enough to interest me in his other work of fiction — a full-length novel called Invasion of Privacy which I duly bought, downloaded, enjoyed and again reviewed. And that’s when the penny finally dropped!
I can now say that I’ve read every word Ian Sutherland has ever published. His third book is called Advanced Twitter Strategies for Authors and I’ve been an avid follower of his methods since autumn 2015, growing my Twitter following from that difficult first 2,000 to 72,600 today. And that was the easy part. Now I need to get some of them to actually buy my books! And that’s where the concept of a marketing funnel comes in.
Given that I had started working a busy contract, with added travel, the week after I published Mickey Take, writing became an afterthought on the train home in the evenings through the winter and spring of 2015. The original plan at that time was to start on a sequel when the contract ended. But the more I thought about Ian’s approach, the more I felt a short back-story might be a smarter use of my time before moving onto the next full-length novel. I’d always wanted to do National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) which involves drafting a 50,000 word story during November – like marathon-running for writers. But for nine of the previous ten years I’d been committed to volunteering as the financial controller of a charity fundraiser, The New Ways Advent Ball (www.newways.org.uk), an event that took up most of my spare time and energy during the autumn months. Having stepped down after the 2014 ball, I was finally ready and able to feel the burn of NaNoWriMo!
If the goal was to write 50,000 words in 30 days, I failed. But, at 39,871 words, I did succeed in completing the first draft of a story that was to become Jammed Up: a Debt Goes Bad novella. Anyone who has read Mickey Take will know that Michael Field introduces himself and we get to hear about his somewhat dubious past as the story progresses. And we meet Grace, who has also come from inauspicious beginnings. They are the main characters, but I couldn’t imagine creating more backstory around them that isn’t already revealed (or perhaps concealed) in Mickey Take. So for anyone expecting to read more about their past in Jammed Up, I'm sorry to disappoint you. Instead, I looked for other common threads that I could exploit in what would be a prequel with a difference.
As a writer, I’m drawn more towards the backgrounds and motivations of the bad guys and so I decided they should form a familiar backdrop that would tell readers more about how they came to be allies or rivals. There's a reference in Mickey Take to a failed murder trial and that became the fundamental link between the two books. Then all I had to do was drop a new and very different character into that same murky world that Mickey would have to struggle with some years later. I don’t know why my protagonists are almost always slightly hapless! They seem to stumble into danger even with their eyes wide open. To be fair to them, that has probably got more to do with the seemingly benign influence of Herb Long. He is generally the catalyst for events that then spiral out of control. But is he just a good guy doing bad things or a bad guy with a soft centre? I’ll say no more about him for now. But step forward ‘Jam’.
Kingston Michaels, to give him his real name, was a street-wise scrapper, growing up in survival mode in Croydon, South London. No father figure at home, but a benevolent “uncle” taught him to box and he never looked back. But if there’s one strong character trait you develop on the street, it’s loyalty. Tragedy and victimisation drew Jam to the older boy who was to become his one true friend — his bredren, Jabba, whose wasted mother’s last wish was for Jam to protect her ‘slow’ son. And so, pitching these two wayward souls into the long running feud between Herb and his arch-rival Raymond Riggs was to become the unorthodox premise for Jammed Up.
Is it technically a prequel if it doesn’t have the same lead characters? Can it be read first as an introduction? Or like all true prequels should it come second regardless of the chronology? Those are questions for the readers to decide. I’ve tried to do justice to the story as a stand-alone novella so that it can do both. From a creative perspective it needs to satisfy readers of Mickey Take by not only adding to their appreciation of the original but by giving them another great read to enjoy with a familiar flavour. And with my hard-nosed indie author marketing hat on, I need it to be that funnel — to be, first and foremost, a great start that makes new readers want to read more of my writing; to go and buy Mickey Take. Yes, I want to have my cake and eat it! And no, I’ve never really understood what the difference was either!
Is it even a novella? I was reassured some months ago that the length of a novella is up to 40,000 words. Yay, cracked it! And then the editing began… Stephen King says he knows he'll cut 10% from his first draft, so why is it that I always end up adding to my word count? Mickey Take grew by 10% in the edit. For Jammed Up it was over 20%, bringing it to market at just under 49,000 words.
Bright side, I almost won NaNoWriMo, after all!
Jammed Up: a Debt Goes Bad novella is available in kindle, kobo and nook editions
Mickey Take: When a debt goes bad... is available in paperback and kindle editions (free to Amazon Prime members)
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Jammed Up - http://authl.it/B01F3VC49A?d
Mickey Take - http://authl.it/0993096719?d
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