Reviews are very important for getting sales. In general, the more reviews a book gets, the more copies it will sell.
Review a copy of my Game of Empires or Death in Ravenna on Amazon.co.uk, and get a signed hardcopy of my first Byzantine novel, The Column of Phocas. Tell me you have placed your (reasonably favourable) review, and I will put your copy in the post to anywhere in the United Kingdom.
I wrote The Column of Phocas in 2006, and was unable to find an agent or publisher. Rather than let it sit unread on my hard disk, I published it myself. It sold rather well, and led to six commissions from Hodder & Stoughton for the main Byzantine series. Part of the deal, however, was that I should withdraw The Column of Phocas from the market. Because of this, I still have three boxes left.
I now offer these hard copies free of charge to anyone who will review one of my two latest novels. This being said, I feel obliged to emphasise that The Column of Phocas is not at all as polished as my subsequent novels. Let me explain why:
1. It is an unrevised first draft, written in just under two months. You will not believe the arrogance that led me, once I’d finished the last page, to format the thing and send it off to the printer. There are missed full stops and dropped speech marks. There are fragments of sentences that I revised as I wrote and left undeleted. It is probably better in its later incarnation as Conspiracies of Rome.
2. I wrote it about two million words ago. In 2007, my editor at Hodder sent me some blunt e-mails about house style. Until then, I had an eccentric taste in punctuation. In particular, I didn’t see the point in putting a comma before a closing speech mark in an unfinished sentence. I was also rather hazy about whether full stops should be inside or outside closing speech marks. Note: they can be either – but you must choose one standard, and stick to it.
3. Its pace is variable. Unless you’re a genius, this is something learned by practice. The story in a modern novel must be told almost wholly by way of dialogue and action. Speaking about novels in general, every sentence must contribute to the plot. Digressions that don’t somehow contribute must be ruthlessly cut out. Back in 2007, I had some whiney conversations with my editor to the effect that I was writing fiction set in a virtually unknown period, and that the occasional digression was needed if readers were to understand the plot. Her answer was that this was a difficulty I’d set myself by not writing about Julius Caesar or some other period where the readers could be expected to know the background, and that it would be a test of how good a writer I really was to overcome it. The result was that I spent six months on Terror of Constantinople, writing and rewriting until I’d integrated narrative and background. The Column of Phocas was written before this second education as a writer. It shows.
4. Still on the matter of pace, one of the key sections in the novel requires me to lengthen a day, and to divert the reader’s attention from what is happening off-stage. I know how I’d do this today. Nine years ago, I managed it with an essay on how books were produced in the early middle ages. All I can say is that it’s a good essay. I do know my stuff.
5. There is too much swearing. Yes, I know that characters in an historical novel must speak, mutatis mutandis, as if they were alive now – “’Gadzooks,’ quoth he, ‘thou hast thyself well-acquitted this day,’” is unacceptable. But did I need quite so much effing and blinding? I think the answer is no. Since then, I’ve become more varied in my dialogue. In my recent novels, there is no swearing at all.
On the other hand, The Column of Phocas is a good introduction to the considerable body of my fiction that has followed. The plotting is typical of everything else I’ve written. My musical tastes centre on the German world between about 1770 and 1830. The ideal then was to develop a large structure from a few short themes. Everything in The Column of Phocas logically unfolds from the decision of two of the main characters to spend a night in a ruined monastery. But for that, nothing else would have happened.
If I am remembered at all a hundred years from now, it will be for my fiction rather than my political writings. A critical reading of The Column of Phocas lets you see, much better than in anything else I’ve had published since, what my intentions are and how I try to achieve them.