John Fullerton's Blog

September 17, 2020

Obsession

I tell myself that the second in the series, provisionally called 'Spy City', is finished. Of course it isn't, though I wish it were.
It must seem very odd to most people, but I wake up in the wee hours with a conversation in full swing between protagonist and antagonist, or with a sudden shock of awareness that I haven't really explained x or y, or I've left out the reason for z. Why is she handing over stolen documents rather than photographing them? Does he really accept her explanation without challenge? It happens night after night, and every day I sit down and add or cut whatever it is, patching the holes, cutting exposition, adding a word here or cutting another there.
It's an obsession, and it can't be shaken off until I'm sure that I've done all I can. Which is downright peculiar, as none of it really matters...it's genre fiction, after all. The world won't be any better or worse if none of it ever appears, but I can't help myself. My characters are better known to me and more demanding than practically anyone I know in real life.
Meantime the first, 'Spy Game', is heading for what the publishers call 'developmental editing'. I'm not sure what that is, except that it sounds painful. And possible covers are being developed which is something to look forward to.
No doubt I'll be woken tonight to told by my subconscious that something else needs fixing...it's never been wrong so far.
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Published on September 17, 2020 02:04 Tags: thriller-fiction-writer

September 10, 2020

Titles, new and old

I’ve never been much good when to comes to finding titles for my books. The first was obvious; it was non-fiction, a handbook I wrote in six weeks on my Olivetti portable and intended as a guide to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the early 80s. So the title was easy: ‘The Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan’ (deservedly long out of print so don’t bother looking).

I couldn’t for the life of me think of a title for the first novel, but my agent at the time came up with one: The Monkey House. One or two disasters followed, one of which was so embarrassing I’m not going to go there.

When I started writing the latest - or rather, the one before the latest - it started out life as ‘Enemies’. As you might have guessed, I had been reading a lot of Norman Rush (no-one could ever be accused of reading too much of his work - he’s a particular favourite, and he does seem to like short titles for his marvellously long and intense novels.)

‘Enemies’ became something more intriguing half way through the writing of it: ‘Teaser Stallions’ seemed quite literary, but then it occurred to me that it might be mistaken for an explicit manual on horse breeding and that wouldn’t do at all.

So now it’s Spy Game - and it says exactly what’s in the tin.
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Published on September 10, 2020 03:10

August 21, 2020

Len Deighton's Samson novels

I’ve always enjoyed Len Deighton’s novels, but in my late teens and twenties I was only really interested in ‘what happens next’ and I wasn’t mature enough or patient enough to appreciate them as I should have. I didn’t do them or the author justice. I’d buy each new book and read it hungrily and with great haste and I now realise just how much I managed to miss.
During lockdown I re-read all 10 of the Bernard Samson spy novels and discovered both the depth of character and the subtle emotions that I’d missed.
The books are an extraordinary combination of domestic drama and boardroom comedy (sometimes the other way around).
One can’t fail but identify with the bespectacled hero, Bernie himself, who’s probably the only capable, honest and hard-working character of the lot - but he’s denied staff status in British intelligence, a pension et al, while the appalling and indolent upper crust faker Dicky Cruyer preens and struts over his Spode china in his palatial office - a type that is all too obviously present in the higher reaches of what passes for the English political class today.
Winter - the first in the series - is really quite remarkable, not for the quality of the writing so much as the humane viewpoint of the author. It’s the first in the series, a history of a family across two world wars, and it shows the origins of the major characters who reappear throughout the rest of the series.
Deighton condemns no-one. He takes no side. He manages to distance himself, developing characters who turn out to be Communists or Nazis - and he does so in such a way that we continue to regard them with interest and sympathy despite their moral failings. They’re not devilishly inhuman or cruel - they’re just flawed human beings like ourselves. Pauli, for example, turns out to be a Nazi lawyer - yet we understand him and we see why he is what he is. Deighton is showing us how it was that millions of Germans became Nazi supporters or passive sympathisers, or were drawn to the opposite barricades, something that historians have sometimes failed to do. It’s quite an achievement.
In these ugly times, with democratic government undermined by rampant corruption and under siege from the far right, it seems particularly apt.
Deighton himself is far more than simply a thriller writer. He is a food writer, something of an accomplished historian, too, and his various literary connections run wide and deep. The latest paperbacks reissued by Harper come with fascinating introductions by the author, and I learned and enjoyed much from his descriptions of how and where he wrote. What particularly struck me was the way those ten novels lived in his head for a decade or more. He thought, ate, drank and dreamed his characters for all that time.
For lesser writers like myself, Deighton hasn’t only given us great pleasure in reading his work but also an important lesson in dedication and commitment.
Than you, Len.
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Published on August 21, 2020 05:02

August 19, 2020

Thank you

I'm surprised by, and grateful for, all the kind comments and 'likes' from Facebook friends about my efforts at novel writing. Thank you. Your generous encouragement is greatly appreciated.
But now for some cold, harsh reality. Last year the UK Authors' Licensing & Collection Society found a 42 percent decline in authors' income. The average author's annual income in 2017 was 10,500 pounds ie. not nearly enough to live on. According to Publishers' Association 2016 figures, authors received just 3 pct of publishers' revenue in a market worth 5.1 bn pounds, while major publishers' profits were estimated at about 13 pct.
So what went wrong? For a start the Net Book Agreement between publishers and retailers, which had guaranteed and maintained prices from 1900, collapsed in 1994, allowing supermarkets to take a large chunk of the business and making huge discounts the norm. The chains became all powerful and could virtually dictate discounted prices. Some 500 indy bookshops went under.
(Under the NBA, if a book's retail price was 10 pounds, as indicated by the price on the back cover, that was the baseline for royalty payments, often starting at 3 or 5 pct and then increasing as sales rose.)
After the collapse of the NBA, not only were books massively discounted, but a publisher seeking to place one of its author's books in the windows or on the front tables of, say, Waterstones or WH Smith, had to pay thousands up front for the privilege. In economic terms, they had to give books away to drive marketing. Which is why only the established top-selling authors got much in the way of significant marketing by their publishers...
And today? If you're lucky to be published by a large publisher, you might still get an advance, but this business model is largely discredited. Nowadays, most authors must rely on royalties and on the face of it, with online bookstores, these appear be much higher than hitherto, but that's only superficial. Let's say a publisher offers a 50 pct royalty across all platforms - ebooks, print-on-demand (POD) paperbacks, audio. This isn't 50 pct of the cover price, but 50 pct of 'net receipts' - that is, the retail price less local taxes, discounts, printing & production costs, distribution and promotion. With discounts of 50-55 pct petty common, the author would in effect be entitled to perhaps 50 pct of 30 or 45 pct of the recommended retail price....and there's the rub!
When a publisher recently offered me a 17 pct royalty and another 25 pct, I had to laugh...
Hence the rise of self-publishing. The author keeps 100 percent of her/his earnings - but he or she has to pay for proof-reading, formatting, cover design - and advertising.
So unless you're the next JK Rowling, don't bother writing books if you're looking to make a decent living, at least not in the UK.
Book retail price levels are still maintained in France and Germany, incidentally, and the Netherlands actively supports writers financially.
Hope helps!
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Published on August 19, 2020 09:30 Tags: publishing-novels-author-offer

Offer

At last, after turning down two really awful offers for my new novel (and after innumerable rejections as well as having to put up with snooty people who simply don't respond at all - all of it being par for the course in this business), I finally have a decent offer from an independent publishing house run by a couple of likeable people passionately committed to what they do. The contract looks fine, but I'm running it past the Society of Authors contract specialist for a final check before signing. I have written yet another novel during Lockdown and hope that, too, will go to the same publisher. We shall see...
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Published on August 19, 2020 09:25

Daggers

I discovered today - through a very successful and esteemed crime writer - that according to her 'reliable source' one or more members of the Crime Writers Association committee overruled the judges' panel and blocked my early work from the Daggers awards shortlists because of its profanities, and that this happened more than once. Of course matters have moved on, and the judges are nowadays independent. So I won't have to stick to putting 'gracious me!' and 'good heavens' into the mouths of gunmen, soldiers and other riff-raff. What a relief! I can continue on my foul-mouthed way.
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Published on August 19, 2020 09:22

July 22, 2020

Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsch

One of the most important and best written non-fiction books I've read in a very long time.
It's a dissection and exploration of British racism by a barrister, Oxford Phd and journalist, the daughter of a German Jewish immigrant and a Ghanaian.
It's history, it's political analysis and it's also a frank and touching autobiography.
Hirsch's book is accessible and elegantly written, but what shines through is her calm, dispassionate, honest and frankly courageous investigation of an extremely upsetting aspect to life in the UK. She boldly penetrates deep into the national smog of blindness - the wilful refusal to face up to something that has crippled this country for so long.
Personally, I found it inspiring, deeply upsetting, worrying and shameful.
Racism isn't just restricted to those many areas of the country - ghettos, in effect - where there are poor schools, lousy teachers, high unemployment, totally inadequate public services, sub-standard housing and gross neglect by successive Westminster governments, but it reaches its vile tentacles deep into the so-called establishment. In fact, that's where its roots are to be found - in the cloisters of Oxbridge, the chambers of the Inns of Court, the City of London, the monarchy - every one of those traditional and very 'English' institutions that many people so admire.
Hirsch has given us a masterful study on the meaning of identity, racial and otherwise. It should be compulsory reading for every politician, every police officer, every teacher, lecturer and every 6th former. Boris Johnson, David Cameron and others of their kind - including Keir Starmer - should be forced to read it.
Thank you, Afua Hirsch, for encouraging us to look into the mirror and to face up to what we find there.
It isn't pretty.
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Published on July 22, 2020 12:18

March 16, 2020

The spy who got away

Next Stop Execution: The Autobiography of Oleg Gordievsky Next Stop Execution: The Autobiography of Oleg Gordievsky by Oleg Gordievsky

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Exciting, moving and fascinating personal tale spanning the last and probably most critical years of the Cold War and the transition to the new Russian state in which the author, a senior KGB officer and defector, played a not insignificant role in helping the Western alliance cope with the most dangerous aspects of Soviet espionage. The author comes across as a decent, tolerant, thoughtful and highly intelligent man with a sense of humour who struggles between his instinctive loyalty to his country and his growing awareness of the sheer nastiness inherent in the Soviet system. He's honest about his own shortcomings and fears, personal faults and failures, touchingly so. He reflects deeply on his reactions to events and his family problems. On occasion he seems to swing too far the other way, enthusiastically and uncritically embracing the Anglo-Saxon way of life and consumer culture, which certainly isn't perfect. All in all a thoroughly enjoyable, well-written and informative insight by one man at the sharp end of Centre (now SVR) foreign operations who committed the terrible crime of thinking for himself and yet survived with a little help from his SIS friends. Bravo, Oleg!



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Published on March 16, 2020 05:05

February 10, 2020

Huawei 5G...and Chinese spies.

Anyone following news in the UK will know that Boris Johnson and his Tory government are embroiled in a row over Huawei's role in the country's 5G network.
Johnson has ignored protests and advice - as well as an apparently 'apoplectic' Trump - and gone ahead with a deal which Johnson claims is a safe compromise.
But we can't take Johnson's word for it - the man's a proven and inveterate liar.
While I admit I would do practically anything to upset the egregious Mr Trump and his administration (along with the mendacious and far-right Johnson), I don't know enough about Huawei's products and services to hold an opinion.
Until now.
I'm in the process of reading the extraordinary, revolutionary and encyclopedic 'Chinese Spies from Chairman Mao to Xi Jinping' by Roger Faligot, the English edition having been published in Australia and New Zealand by Scribe this year. The translator of the original French is Natasha Lehrer.
It's an enormous, dense work. It's not always easy to read, especially if one isn't familiar with Chinese names, history and culture. I was a little confused by the backwards-and-forwards of the timeline and the author's oft-repeated word 'meanwhile...' and had to go back and forth trying to pin down the year of one event or another.
But the book is a magnificent body of research, an education in itself, and a frankly a very scary one.
For a start, Chinese intelligence isn't simply a tool, a service, a supplementary method of the PRC. It's central to the very being of a state that was born in clandestine circumstances. It's the essence of Chinese domestic control as well as its global ambitions. Its leaders past and present were born, raised and trained in intelligence work. It informs everything they do and Faligot is especially good at tracking family and clan ties with the multi-headed hydra and shifting landscape of Chinese intelligence.
This means there's no data control, no limit on what is, or is not, considered appropriate for intelligence gathering. It's what Faligot calls the 'sea lamprey' tactic.
Huawei Technologies was founded in 1987 by a former PLA officer, Ran Zhenfei, in the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone and it is, the author tells us, the perfect symbol of China profiting from, and buying up, the rest of the world.
By the early 2000s, Huawei counted 31 of the top 50 telecoms operators among its customers. It had about 30,000 researchers worldwide. Some 62,000 employee worked in R&D.
By 2018, its workforce had tripled in size to 180,000 globally with 79,000 in R&D.
'Its competitors are convinced that it exploits every kind of technological intelligence strategy, pointing out that it has shown very little concern for geopolitical ethics since it signed lucrative contracts with Saddam Hussein's Iraq and the Taliban in 2001 to set up both civilian and military communications networks.'
He adds: 'As Deng Xiaoping liked to say, it doesn't matter if a cat is black or grey - so long as it catches mice.'
Huawei has developed a gigantic business intelligence apparatus to unearth everything about its competitors, its potential markets and the R&D of other companies it is interested in buying.
'..this apparatus also works to the benefit of the state apparatus, including the PLA - in which Ren still serves as an officer in the reserves - and of course, unavoidably in China, the CCP.'
It 'presumably enables access to vast amounts of personal data. It is difficult to know what to make of this last point - especially if one thinks of the potential overlap with ministries like the Guoanbu (intelligence) and the PLA's 3rd department, in charge of communications warfare.'
The author points out that in 2013, the Joint Intelligence Committee, which co-ordinates security and intelligence in the UK, warned that in case of cyber-attack 'it would be very difficult to detect or prevent and could enable the Chinese to intercept covertly or disrupt traffic passing through Huawei-supplied networks.'
The French prime minister's General Secretariat for Defence and National Security (SGDSN) suspected Huawei of being a Trojan horse that provided Beijing with the ability to freeze 5G networks in case of conflict, while French intelligence (DGSE) uncovered efforts by Huawei agents to build a private biographical data system on leaders of French competitor Orange.
'Together with the Australians, Germans and other European security services agree that, despite disclaimers by its leaders, Huawei was intimately linked to the PLA interception and cyberwar effort'.
Maybe - just maybe - Mr Trump and his meretricious aides are right after all, at least on this issue.
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Published on February 10, 2020 06:25

September 13, 2019

The Radical Rising: The Scottish Insurrection

An extraordinary book that shook me to the core, partly because of my ignorance, but also the realisation that really nothing has changed in 200 years. We all know the Union was never a partnership of equals, but a conquest employing not so much brute force as much as blackmail and bribery, and maintained by subterfuge - and murder - ever since. The 1820 rising was driven by massive, popular and deep social grievance, and it was prematurely provoked a year early by the actions of well-paid police spies who led many well-meaning radicals onto the bayonets of waiting troops, to the gallows, or to banishment for life in Botany Bay. The people of Scotland, especially the working class, were deprived of their rights, lied to, misled and abandoned. So it is today. Most shocking of all was that the entire 'provisional committee' organising the insurrection was itself a creature of the British state. Have we learned these lessons? For the sake of everyone living in Scotland in the era of Theresa May and her successor, the sinister clown Johnson, I really do hope so.
Authors: Peter Berresford, Ellis and Seumas Mac A' Ghobhainn. Published by Birlinn, 2016
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Published on September 13, 2019 11:51