Saturday, 29 May 2010

Cop-out blog number one

Since this is the beginning of a busy time, I'll be casting around for blogs to satisfy the hunger which continues to drive you here. This first one is a recording of a song I wrote and sang at the Edinburgh Festival several centuries ago. There's no actual video. The images are there to provide the means to lay down the sound track. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible

Monday, 24 May 2010

Luck and laziness

I’ve often referred to my laziness and some of you have suggested I’m not really lazy at all. But I am, and yet what I’m going to write about will seem to contradict that. Let’s deal with all that first.

It’s been one of those weeks that make being a writer very satisfying. I at last made myself stop researching the sequel to The Figurehead and decided to start writing it. Then came the good news I wrote about in the last blog – the publisher’s interest in my sci-fi/fantasy short stories and the arrival of the proofs of The Figurehead. Next, on Thursday evening, the reading went well and, if I’d had copies available, I’d have sold several. But, that aside, it’s always nice to be at events which feature readers and celebrate the activity of reading.

This brought me neatly to Friday morning – the day I was due to set off for Glasgow for the weekend of my grandson’s 5th birthday. Just before I left, a parcel arrived. There were a couple of things I was expecting, neither relating to writing, so I was surprised and delighted to find it contained my author’s copies of Brilliant Study Skills – a classy, beautifully presented book which, to people who don’t know me, might convey an impression of respectability and gravitas. I barely had time to glance at it before going to get the train.

After a relaxing, sunny day in Glasgow, I checked emails and, to ratchet up the delight another notch, there was one from the publishers of Brilliant Study Skills with a commission to write two more books in the series – on writing essays and dissertations. I’d discussed this with them before so it wasn’t a surprise but, coming on top of the other things, it had a ‘too good to be true’ quality to it. I have to deliver them by the end of September, so that prevents me indulging in my usual procrastination.

My two grandsons aren’t impressed by any of this; their critical evaluation of me as a writer depends upon whether I can make them laugh when they come into my bed in the mornings. Needless to say, their laughter isn’t provoked by elegant turns of phrase or subtly nuanced linguistic and thematic juxtapositions but by me doing funny voices and creating characters who live inside walls or have two mouths so that they can talk and eat simultaneously. (This particular detail involved an interesting sub-plot about the anatomical separation of vocal chords and alimentary canal and, if the listeners had had their way, would also have necessitated an exploration of what happened at the rectal end of the process.)

So it’s been a lovely week followed by a happy, relaxing weekend.

Now, after such a long introduction which looks suspiciously like boasting, what’s the connection with laziness? Simple. Laziness for me is avoiding things I don’t want to do. Writing is a pleasure, even when it’s challenging. I actually enjoy it so I don’t seek to avoid it. Writing commercial stuff is different – that’s something I do to earn money. I do it conscientiously but without enthusiasm and when the work dries up in the lean periods, I’m actually pleased.

But there’s a wider, less solipsistic point to this, too. When lots of ‘results’ of this sort come together, it feels like (and in part it is) luck. But it has to be put in the context of the many weeks or months of ‘lucklessness’ which preceded it. We get pleasure out of writing, we work at it, cut, edit, polish, to make it as good as we can, and we send it away hoping that it reaches someone who appreciates it and recognises its quality. So when we get the usual rejection slip or, worse, no acknowledgement at all, we’re deflated, and it’s easy to start wondering whether we’re deluding ourselves and should maybe start a paper round or a window cleaning business.

No. Keep writing, keep submitting material. Rework it, resubmit it because, yes, in the present market you need luck but (clich√© alert) you make your own. If you stop writing and submitting you’ll never get lucky. I know, that’s so obvious it’s hardly worth stating, but it’s too easy to start thinking it’s all a waste of time. It isn’t. Look back over material you may have forgotten, look at it critically, amend it if necessary, and start sending it away again. All the frustrations vanish when you get that letter of interest or acceptance, or you hold that precious book.

Only one way for me to end this, isn’t there?

Good luck.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Me and the Chaffinch

I feel so guilty at the thought of the tens of thousands of people who’ve been sitting at their computers for days now, waiting for a new blog to get posted here. They may occasionally click over to Facebook, Twitter, or their own emails just to check but they rush back here as soon as they can, desperate for more wisdom, enlightenment and the perpetual reassurance that life is worth living. (Oh, and for the occasional word to top up their vocabulary – this week it’s 'rebarbative'. I love that word – it sounds exactly right for what it means.)

What makes it worse is that, while you've all been suffering, I’ve had a few of those days which are happy, positive, life-affirming. To begin with, this week came the news from the publishers of The Figurehead that it’s just about ready. The editor and I have been proof-reading the text again and got rid of the 14 typos that were still there. (What’s the betting that plenty more turn up when it’s actually been published?) The techie people are now deciding on such arcane features as ‘spacing and drop characters’, ‘wrap adjustments’ and ‘kerning’. All of which means that I’ll soon be clutching a copy of my latest baby in my grubby palm. Not, sadly, in time for the talk/reading I’m giving about it tomorrow evening, but there’ll no doubt be compensation for that when Stephen Spielberg rings me next week to beg me for the movie rights.

Then, yesterday, an email from another publisher saying she liked a proposal about a collection of short stories which I’d sent, together with some samples. She’s asked to see the whole manuscript. This time it’s not crime but some fantasy/sci-fi type things which I wrote after spending some time looking at Second Life. They’re supposed to be funny and they’re all about the interface between reality and the virtual online worlds. The small problem is that the ones I’ve written so far add up to some 16,000 words and, while that’s fine for ebooks, a paperback needs at least 40,000. So I’ll be spending lots of spare time adding to the collection. But, once again, it’s a great feeling.

And I also need to tell you about the chaffinch.

I sit here with my view of the garden, and my carved gargoyle and eagle just outside. Most of the time, though, I’m looking at the screen or the keyboard, so it always startles me when that bloody chaffinch decides to attack the top of my window. I hear a small bang and there he is, still flying but bashing his beak against the glass. And he does it again and again. I’ve just been outside to take a photo of what he must see when he makes his assault. That's it at the top. I took it from ground level because he always flies up from there for his attack, bashing against the pane at the very top. OK, I'm not a chaffinch, but I see nothing there that would fool me into thinking it’s a good place to nest, so what’s he doing it for?

Maybe the soul of a critic has transmigrated into his body and he hates writers. Maybe he’s practising some arcane act for the next Simon Cowell show – ‘Nature’s Got Talent’ or something. Maybe he’s a chaffinch philosopher and he’s just proving that life is an illusion and ultimate satisfaction is unattainable. Whatever it is, after all his clattering against the glass, he must go home every night and say to his wife ‘My beak’s killing me’.

Anyway, my own busy-ness is likely to go on for a while so why not re-read all the previous blogs and tease out the almost infinite layers of meaning which are folded into them? Remember, feel the swan in your blood.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Welcome blog joggers

Thanks for dropping by on blogjogday. I hope you’ll have a look round while you’re here. When you’re through, jog on to or, if you fancy a different blog, go to

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Blogging – a Godsend to writers

No doubt about it, blogging and social networking are inescapable and will be for a long time to come. But if you’re a writer, you need to know how it works and how you can make the most of it. So this is what happens.

First, you have to write your novel, of course, or at least jot down a few paragraphs – enough to put extracts online now and again. But you can probably get away with just a few pages. You’ll be telling the world you’re a writer and, with no evidence to the contrary, who’s going to contradict you?

Just to be safe, though, prepare a few snippets of writerly wisdom. Mix and match them a bit because you want to tap into as many potential readerships as possible. Intellectuals are the easy ones. For them, just look up some huge words and juggle them into sentences. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know what they mean; if they sound obscure enough no one will dare question them because that might suggest inadequacy on their part.

Another easy target is the literary snob. To satisfy them, just check the Wikipedia entries for a few of the big hitters – depending on your genre, that could be Tolstoy, H G Wells, Brett Easton-Ellis, Balzac, Nietzsche, Jane Austen, whoever. Find out what their particular stylistic or thematic tics were and add little parallels to them in your own works. No need to point out these parallels yourself – a reviewer will find them, congratulate himself on how clever he is, and want to be first to point them out. This will make other reviewers hunt for similar echoes and you’ll soon be on the Man Booker short list.

Then there are the more difficult, easily-offended demographics, such as the gender-specific readerships, the gay community, and Jehova's Witnesses and their ilk. Apart from slamming a metaphorical door in the faces of the fundamentalists, my only advice there is to maintain a balance. Talk and write winningly about ‘sensitive machismo’, ‘pugnacious fragility’ and 'caring conservatism'. (Forgive me, I had to pause there to snigger at that final, curiously British oxymoron.)

And remember the size of the relative markets; the largest English-speaking readership is in the USA so make sure that you don’t offend any Americans. I know that’s easier said than done, but there’s no room for pride in today’s successful writer.

If you do all of that conscientiously, this is what will happen.

You’ll get followers. Some of them will actually like the books you’ve written and/or the things you write in the blog, but you’re looking for someone more specific. Favourite would be the major player in the movie industry who reads a couple of your pages, flies you first class to Los Angeles for lunch and buys the rights to all your works for several million somethings. (She's so impressed that she lets you choose the currency yourself.)

The news gets out that your income from the books has already got people feeling sorry for J K Rowling so the critics are desperate to sneer and scoff and rank you alongside Dan Brown in the ‘who-the-hell-told-this-guy-he-could-write?’ stakes. But your imagination, creativity, command of language and style disarm their criticisms, and their glowing reviews open up new, more highbrow audiences.

The ensuing popularity draws even more followers to your blog (which is now ghost-written because you’re busy swimming in the pool of your new home in Barbados) and many of them have lots of money and thousands of friends. They buy your books to give as presents to all their acquaintances and family and they mention you to their friends. So word of mouth brings in even more punters until your books are required reading in every school and university on every continent.

You appear on chat shows with a ready-made set of answers (ghost-written, of course, and tailor-made for the show’s demographic). For example, to the question ‘What’s the secret of your popularity?’ your answers might be:

• (on a late-night, highbrow arts programme) ‘I hesitate to indulge in hubristic speculation. I prefer to think I’ve tapped a vein in Jung’s collective unconscious which facilitates individuation as a liberator of synchronicity and posits stability as a regenerative thesis.’

• (on a popular but low-brow show) ‘I … well, dunno what to say really. Big surprise, but awesome, wicked, mega … really, really cool.’

• (on any Simon Cowell vehicle) ‘Who gives a shit? It’s making me millions.’

So it really is that easy. Thanks to networking, you could soon sack your ghost-writers and give up writing altogether.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Nothing but the truth

Jean Henry Mead, writer of the excellent Escape and the Logan and Cafferty series, creator of and contributor to several blogs, has written to say she’s given my blog the Honest Scrap Award.

My first reaction was to suspect that the ‘S’ at the beginning of the second word was a typo but apparently it’s an award for blogs which share honest bits of information about their writers. I assume that Jean was thinking of all the things I’ve said to convince readers that I’m possibly the nicest person in the universe. And there’s the rub – because the conditions of accepting the award are as follows:

1. You have to present the award to 7 other bloggers. (Well, that’s easy enough – the only problem is choosing from a longish list of possibles.)

2. You have to make a list of ten HONEST things about yourself. (Hmmm.)

I therefore have a choice. I can either stay as I am – awardless – or tell the truth about myself and lose all credibility. Unless I can come up with a stratagem. So while I’m pondering that, let me identify the seven others (in no particular order):

1. Michael Malone’s May Contain Nuts.

2. Gary Corby’s A dead man fell from the sky.

3. Scary Azeri's Scary Azeri

4. Marley Delarose’s Love knows no boundaries

5. Linda Faulkner's Linda Faulkner … on writing

6. Kari Lynn Dell’s Montana for Real

7. Sandie Dent’s Sandie Dent

All very entertaining, enlightening, funny and varied.

As for the 10 honest things, my strategy is to make them the sort of ‘confessions’ that are so boring that no one will get beyond the 3rd or 4th. So:

1. I’m wearing black moleskin trousers and a sort of corrugated cream shirt.

2. My inner self is 50 (and sometimes 60) years younger than the outer one.

3. I take a bike ride before breakfast most days (and am often overtaken by a tall, loping jogger).

4. I sometimes read thought-provoking or ‘intellectual’ books because I think they’re going to be good for me. (I’m usually wrong but even when I’m right, I forget what was in them very quickly.)

5. I have a daughter who reads the same books because she actually enjoys them.

6. I would love to understand the ‘truths’ of mathematics. I’ve tried many times but never succeeded.

7. I’m inordinately proud of my 2 brothers and 3 sisters and, if you spent any time with one or all of them, you’d see why.

8. I thank my car after any particularly long journey. Just a wee pat on the bonnet and a ‘Thank you, car’. (Come to think of it, this fits with my previous blog about ascribing feelings etc. to inanimate objects.)

9. When I scratch myself, I do it relatively discreetly.

10. And I realize that, despite all my worst intentions, I’ve actually been honest and all these statements are true so I’m obviously losing my grip on deceit.