Interview with Patrick G Cox author of 'A Baltic Affair'

Today I'm chatting with Patrick, whom I've had the pleasure of working with twice now.

Pat, Please tell us a little bit about yourself to start things off.

Patrick G Cox, author
I've always been a bit of a dreamer. Growing up in South Africa, on the Eastern Cape coast, I spent a lot of time swimming, sailing, boating, hiking - just about everything except homework for school. My father and his friends taught me about boats, boat handling, sailing and seamanship, and my parents and grandparents gave me a love of reading.
One of my teachers got me interested in history, another in drama and performing arts, yet another in writing - though he despaired of my abuse of commas and punctuation. So does my editor. I left school with a head full of vague ideas about becoming a priest, making a million, owning a yacht ... Still haven't managed any of those, but I did eventually find my way into the fire service and spent some 20 years in SA and a further 15 in the UK getting paid to do the best job in the world.

One day I'll write a biography, the title will be easy - Soot, sweat, blood and laughter about covers it. I started writing technical manuals in SA for training, continued in the UK at the Fire Service College writing study guides, teaching notes and my first book, Marine Fire Studies for the Institution of Fire Engineers. I've files full of magazine articles of techy stuff I've published and I always dabbled in fiction, mainly for my own amusement, but always with an eye on perhaps getting something published.

What genre, and what is your latest novel A Baltic Affair about?

Custom Book Cover Design "A Baltic Affair" by author Pat G Cox, Cover artist: Kura Carpenter
Genre. Hmm, that's a challenge. OK, the latest book, A Baltic Affair, is straight Naval Historical Romance. I'd like to think in the same sort of league as Reeman, O'Brien, Forrester or Kent. I plan a sequel to it as well, but it is still in the embryonic stages. My earlier books are part of a series, the Harry Heron Adventures and these really are a cross genre - one review called it Asimov meets Hornblower. A Hornblower type character thrust into a Star Trek or Babylon 5 universe. I really enjoy both good historical
fiction and believable science fiction. A Baltic Affair is straight historical, set in the final years of the Napoleonic War, in a theatre that was crucial to British interests and the economy, yet, probably because there was no major commitment of the Army - they were in Spain - and no major sea battles, despite the Royal Navy having a large and powerful fleet in the Baltic, gets very little attention. Hopefully this will change that.

What sort/age of readers would most enjoy it?

I'd hope A Baltic Affair would appeal to everyone with a love of sea stories and history, essentially everyone who enjoyed Master and Commander or any of the other historical naval stories would enjoy this one. I'm always wary of assigning an 'age group' to my readers. I started reading this type of story in my early teens and I know there are some young readers buying and reading it - but I also have readers in their late seventies reading my Harry Heron series which was originally aimed at the Young Adult market. It
all depends on an individual's taste. I write 'adventure' stories - so perhaps the audience is anyone who likes adventure.

Did you always know you would be a writer?

No, but as I said earlier, I've always been a dreamer, and most of my school notebooks were full of story ideas and attempts to write stories. I gave the fiction a rest for about twenty years while I wrote the 'Tecky' stuff and a few other things - like regulations for storing hazardous gases, a by-law or two and study notes for a Higher National Diploma course - but then began to scribble stories again when I first got access to a computer and word processing program. I've still got some on the big old floppy discs, the 5.25 inch jobs, but I no longer have a machine capable of reading any of them, and anyway, I cringe at how bad my dialogues and narratives were back then. It took me a while to get out of the 'technical/teaching' style of detailed descriptive in narratives and to work out how to write readable dialogue - with the descriptions conveyed in 'conversation' rather than narrative. Thanks to critiques, reviews and an editor or three, I think I've managed to get it, if not brilliant, at least very much better.

What’s your writing style, do you plan everything first, or write and see where the story leads you?

My style depends to an extent on what I'm writing. For fiction I find I map out an outline, then I create a timeline and plot in the historic events and facts that I must work the story around. I may be an odd man out in todays writing world, but I get really angry when I read something where historic events have been twisted out of their context or turned into something they weren't. I like the facts and the history straight, then let the
characters do their thing against that background. I do a similar thing with my scifi stories, you can't ignore the rules of physics or astronomy - apart from things like hyperspace and hyperdrives - you can't put a habitable planet in the orbit of, say, Venus or Mercury.
So, yes, you do need a map, but it doesn't have to be detailed, you can have spaces labelled "here be dragons" so you can spring some surprises and take a slightly different line from the obvious. it also gives the characters to lead you into areas or a storyline you may not have had in mind at the outset. Sometimes an incidental character can develop in an unexpected way - you have to be flexible.

Where did the idea for the story come from?

A Baltic Affair started as a challenge. I was challenged by my wife to write a 'romantic' story. The idea for the setting came from reading an article on the subject of Napoleon's "Continental Blockade" and the changing alliances involved. I wonder how many people today even know how important the Baltic Trade was to the British economy? Not many I would suspect, yet it almost brought Britain to its knees. If the
Tsar hadn't broken ranks, and the Prussians wanted revenge for Jena, or the Swedes actually engaged the British instead of declaring war and then carrying on trading as if nothing was happening ... And in the middle of it all was the quiet 'diplomacy' of a fleet of 'ships of the line' supported by many small craft who actually did most of the fighting. It made the perfect setting for a story which involved all the politics, all the struggles and the opportunity for a 'boy meets girl; overcomes lots of difficulties and finally marries her' type of story.

Which character do you most identify with and why?

Which character do I most identify with? I'll give you a clue, his name is the Cornish version of a well-known saint's name, and his surname is a colour. Funnily enough, the love of his life just happens to have the same first name as someone very close to me, and her 'home' is in fact a real place not unknown to my late father-in-law.

What was your favourite and least favourite part in researching for the novel?
I don't think I have a 'least favourite' part in the research for this novel, it was all fascinating and opened up some insights I hope I've been able to put into the story accurately. I love history, and in particular, I love the naval history of the 18th and early 19th Centuries.The sea was the prime enemy for the men who, as the psalmist wrote, "... go down to the sea in ships, and do business on great waters ..." There are many accounts of 'enemies' risking life and limb to save each other from storm or shipwreck. On the coast of Denmark there are memorials erected to men lost in British ships wrecked there during the Napoleonic war, and men saved from those same wrecks by the Danish 'enemy' often settled there. As I said, it was fascinating, I wish it could be taught in our schools.

Why did you decide to venture into self-publishing?

The vexed question. Why 'self-publish'? It certainly isn't an easy choice. A Baltic Affair was rejected by two major publishers and I'm still waiting for responses from a couple of agents. That may be my fault. I'm no good at 'selling' myself and I sometimes find the 'submission requirements tricky or even restrictive. I know why they have them, after all I'm not the only author bombarding them with the next 'best-seller'. 
Janet Angelo, an Independent Publisher spotted the work and wanted to work with me on it. Our agreement
is more a 'Joint Venture' than a 'self-publish' affair. Yes, I've paid for the editing and for some of the publishing costs, but I have to say, it is worth the effort.

I doubt I'll ever see the sort of sales of, say, Sir Terry Pratchett (I won't be sorry if I do!), the book is finding a niche and logging sales. This is the fifth book I've published myself, the other four are my Harry Heron series, but that is another story. It would be true to say that I ventured into 'self-publishing' the first of those because I was terminally naive, and honestly believed I had found a way to get published and sell books. It was quite a learning curve from there, and though I wouldn't do it quite the same way again, I would still, in all likelihood, go down that same path - but differently.

What tips would you give to others considering self-publishing that you wished you knew when you started?

I think the first part of that is never ever publish your first draft. It'll be rough, even if you don't see it, it will have silly glitches in the plot and lots of grammar and other 'little' problems. My own experience with the first story I published makes me cringe now. The basic story was good, but I'd told it like a technician. I eventually withdrew it and republished a completely revised version, but I hate to think what I did to my credibility as a writer with it.

The second part is two fold. Always get a critique of it by someone who knows about writing fiction. Then revise the story to address all the criticisms. A good critique will tell you what's missing as well as where you've got too much or perhaps introduced something which is at odds with the plot, or lost something that breaks the continuity. The other half is get a line editor to go through it and make sure all the typos, all the stray apostrophes and commas are round up and put in the right place. One of my tricks is to read my manuscript aloud. That very quickly shows up my penchant for 'run-on' sentences, or sentences where I've managed to lose the subject or object. It also shows up where there are problems with punctuation. When I've done that and fixed the problems, then I send it to my editor ... and she invariably finds a whole lot more.

With self-publishing you, and only you, are responsible for the final product. Proof-reading is a painful process, and again it needs someone really good at spotting the little things that go adrift, and most authors are so involved with their work they miss them. I certainly do. One of the more annoying things is that different versions of Microsoft Word often have small differences in their code - and these introduce spaces where there shouldn't be, or remove them where they should be, when you transfer your manuscript from your version to the publisher's type setting version. In one of my books the Galleys went back and forth six times to get those sorted out - and there are still some I and the proof-reader missed.

Finally keep the expectations realistic. A lot of new authors seem to think they are about to become millionaires now their book is in print. In truth, with self-publishing, you're lucky if you recoup your outlay. There certainly are people who have made it into the 'big league' but they have almost all of them started out with the capital to buy in promotion on a scale most of us can't. I was recently told that one self-published author spent $120,000 promoting his book before he was 'noticed' by a traditional publisher. Even so, it will be several years and a number of books before he recoups that outlay.

I'm told that 200,000 books are published each month. Unless you are already a 'known' author, getting your book noticed is going to be tough. Even the likes of Sir Terry Pratchett, Stephen King and Dan Brown have to work hard on the marketing of their books. Just having one in print does not mean its going to be in the bookshops or even reviewed in the newspapers. I recently discovered that one 'Booker Prize' nominee sold
a total of 140 copies worldwide. There are no guarantees of sales or even of success.
The 'publisher' is just what they said on the label, they'll prepare your book for printing and get it printed, no more. Yes, it will be listed on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Ingrams and so on, and yes, you'll find it listed in the W H Smith and Waterstones catalogues, but it's unlikely they'll stock it unless you can get in there and convince them that they'll not be wasting expensive shelf-space. Bear in mind that 'print on demand' also means the book will be more expensive then something printed in thousands, so there is a price disadvantage to overcome as well.

What has been the hardest part with promoting your work?

My toughest challenge is promoting my work. I'm not a natural salesman, I wish I was. I make use of the 'social media' and I'm building up a presence on a number of websites, I run my own as well - and I promote my work through my blogs, through writing technical articles for trade magazines and, whenever I have a chance, persuading a bookshop to give me a little shelf space on 'sale or return'. So far I've not had any books returned, but the trick is convincing them to re-order!

At present I try to follow up every lead I get for new ways to promote my work. I've finally managed to get a contact list of people who do newspaper reviews so I'm working my way down that and I'm also following up a suggestion that my books would make good movies or television series. It all takes up time, it takes a lot of courage - especially after the first fifty or so 'sorry, but ...' responses. It isn't easy, but then, each little triumph makes it more worthwhile and moves you one step closer to that magic moment when someone
says, "Hey. I read your book! Where can I get another?"

What else have you had published, and what is coming up?

I've a long list of Conference Papers, articles, technical notes and two books, Marine Fire Studies and A Guide to Fire Investigation in my professional role, but my 'fun' list includes my Harry Heron adventures. It is best described as a 'mixed' genre since it is mainly 'scifi' but with a strong historic twist in that the the three main characters are from the Napoleonic period Royal Navy. They are fun to write and, I hope, to read. The main thrust is an exploration of the way someone from the 1790s - 1800s would respond to a whole range of things. I got into 'self-publishing' through them, since most UK based 'trad' publishers and agents don't seem to like scifi with a 'military' theme - one actually told me that anything that made the military look good wasn't what the 'industry' wanted. I'd love to say I've proved them wrong, and I'm working on it. Sales are regular and, hopefully, building up. There are four titles so far -

Their Lordships Request, which introduces the characters, and let's the reader gain an insight into how Harry Nelson-Heron and his friends develop the knowledge and attitudes they have, while introducing the future that lies in store for them as a parallel story.

Out of Time, which sees Harry, Ferghal and Danny sucked into the future where they are subjected to a tussle between their relatives, 'research' interests and bureaucrats. In the process they are forced to adapt fast, meet aliens, are subjected to an illegal genesplice and develop some unexpected abilities - but it is, in the end, their old-fashioned approach which swings the balance ...

The Enemy is Within! takes the trio on a new adventure as they settle into a future that holds more challenges than they dreamed possible. They are still the target of researchers, but now, as part of the Fleet, must learn to become officers in that service. They get marooned on a strange world where the main predator is a vegetable, fight off enemies of the state and finally bring home a captured 'prize' on their own.

On the Run has the trio once again in the thick of an ongoing interstellar war, but Harry and Ferghal find themselves once again marooned a planet where the are saved by an alien intelligence and it's surrogates. Their actions, again influenced by their 'old-fashioned' approach to life, leads to the final climactic battle between the opposing forces and the near ruin of everyone's plans.

A fifth book is currently being overhauled and will, I hope, be published later this year. The title is The Outer Edge and once again the trio bring their talents to bear.

I've another historic book I'm working on. Based on the life of St Patrick, I'm revising it yet again to meet the critical suggestions I got from the last appraisal. It is one I really do want to see get a wide readership, but to do that I need to make sure it is as good as I can make it.

For the rest? I've lots of outlines and another Harry Heron taking shape slowly.

Where can we buy your books?

I've links on my website to the majority of sites selling them, but they can be ordered from any reasonable bookshop anywhere. Amazon has them all, and there are Kindle editions as well. Barnes and Noble list them and I know that Waterstones and W H Smith in the UK will order them in - might even stock them if enough of your readers rush in to place orders!

Thanks Pat, I'm sure everyone will really appreciates how helpful and generous you've been in sharing your insights. You're clearly dedicated to your craft, and I wish you lots of success.