Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Christmas in College

DR MCBRIDE: Can’t it wait until later? I really need to finish this critical analysis of that late Beethoven quartet which…
PROFESSOR DEELEY: We don’t have time, McBride. You know the date, I take it?
DM: Of course. it’s the 4th. Why?
PD: Yes, the 4th of December. They’ll be here in a couple of weeks.
DM: But this Beethoven score – I’m so close to finalising it. That b minor viola shift…
PD: I know the feeling only too well, McBride. I felt exactly the same about what was to be my definitive article on Tolstoy’s debt to Victor Hugo. But there are other considerations. We must be realistic. We need to get ready.
DM: Damn. Every year it’s the same. Every year I vow I’ll move to some respectable provincial university. But I never do.
PD: And why would you? There’s Oxbridge, us, and the rest are nowhere.
DM: I know that. But every Christmas, with all the damned tourists, the carols, that absurd charity pantomime. It’s so demeaning.
PD: Tradition, McBride. And, of course, economics. They bring the dollars, we deck the halls with holly, ivy, mistletoe and dress up like munchkins. It’s a small price to pay for 11 months of academic freedom.
DM: Professor Deeley, I have a PhD. I’ve published monographs on atonal shifts in Bartok.
PD: And your point is? Remember that you’re speaking to the editor of two volumes of Dostoevsky’s correspondence.
DM: I know. I remember the reviews of it. An outstanding piece of work.
PD: Thank you.
DM: But also, in and of itself, a confirmation that we should not need to do this … these Christmas things. They’re demeaning.
PD: It’s what people expect. Who are you this year?
DM: I’m sorry?
PD: In the … performance.
DM: Oh. Er ... Father John.
PD: Ah, showering reprobation from the pulpit.
DM: That’s the cross I bear this year. What about you?
PD: Well…
DM: You’re not driving the sleigh again, are you?
PD: No, I…
DM: You’re Joseph.
PD: No.
DM: Not Mary, surely?
PD: Er…
DM: Professor Deeley, you seem reluctant to divulge it. Is it something shameful?
PD: Not exactly. I’m … I’m the beau.
DM: The beau?
PD: Yes. Under the mistletoe.
DM: I know where the bloody beau goes.
PD: Please, McBride.
DM: And who’s the belle this year?
PD: Holly Devere.
DM: Holly Devere? The 4th year medic? The one who does lap-dancing in the Union?
PD: I believe so.
DM: You bastard. I’ve been after her for a month.
PD: Don’t you think I know that? Everybody does. It’s damned embarrassing. Bad enough having to canoodle with a student without knowing she’s … well, not mine. I didn’t choose her.
DM: Maybe not, but you’ll be doing the canoodling with her. You bastard. That should’ve been me.
PD: Has it occurred to you that perhaps they wanted a beau who wouldn’t be a laughing stock?
DM: A laughing stock?
PD: Oh come, McBride, you may not be a linguist but… Beau? Beautiful?
DM: What’s your point?
PD: Nothing of any consequence. Hugo’s theory of the grotesque. Inner beauty is what counts. You may resemble Quasimodo but I don’t doubt that, inside, you also have his capacity for love, compassion ...
DM: You patronising bastard.
At which point, we leave the Professor of European Literature and his colleague from the music department to settle their academic differences with a mixture of vitriolic abstractions and playground taunts, but with no danger of any physical contact. Their Holly-induced enmity will, in due course, lead to McBride penning a stinging refutation of Deeley’s interpretation of Beowulf. Deeley, in turn, will use his influence to ensure that McBride never gets to be the beau. And the tourists will be beguiled by a pantomime which affirms the old enduring values.
So happy Christmas to you all and…
God bless us, every one!

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Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Welcome to the Benighted Kingdom

A while ago, I asked for comments on a satirical piece I was including in a series of short stories. It was about the clichés that attach to various nationalities. Joe, the creator of an online role-playing game, went visiting the various geographical locations in the game and here’s what the bit about the USA became:

"Joe found this herd mentality interesting and spent some time acclimatising in various places. His frequent trips to the Americas made him wonder whether it had been wise to give residents so much freedom to adapt the in-world environment to suit their own preferences. Each state he visited proclaimed its pride in being part of the USA and yet the differences between them were so extreme that he began to wonder what ‘United’ meant. The south thought the north was populated by effete homosexuals while the north failed to understand the semantic lapses that led their southern counterparts to confuse the words ‘bride’, ‘groom’ and ‘first cousin’. The western states claimed to be the true representatives of American history, those in the east celebrated a long European ancestry. The only thing that united them was a general agreement that God was American. And, except for a few individuals in Kentucky and Tennessee, every single resident had wonderful teeth."

The reason I quote it here is that, despite my (supposedly) funny insistence on the differences between states, in the international arena they really are UNITED, and all the stronger for it. Americans from all over are proud to chant their allegiance to ‘USA, USA’.

So what? Well, it’s because here in the UK, a tiny minority of our elected ‘leaders’ are braying their triumph at the fact that our Prime Minister (Prime Minister! God help us.) has told the other 26 countries in the EU to eff off. So here we are again, the Britain that seems to think it still has an Empire, that now ‘rules the waves’ with aircraft carriers which have no planes on them, in a position of tremendous power as a minority of one. The rest of Europe will carry on doing the thing Cameron ‘vetoed’ (look the word up, Prime Minister), they’ll at least try to look beyond their own self-interests and their borders and, with luck, they’ll save the Euro, re-emerge as a relevant force in world affairs, and maybe, in some idyllic future, become the USE.

So much for democracy. We didn’t elect a coalition government and we certainly didn’t give a mandate to just 10% of our elected ‘leaders’ to dictate foreign policy. But that’s what we’ve got. Their views on Europe and, more importantly, on Britain, are outdated, irrelevant and harmful. The ‘bulldog’ whose spirit they claim to represent was replaced ages ago by the poodle that George Bush dragged into his adventures like Tintin and Snowy. Don’t get me wrong – Britain still has inner strengths and pride, a history and a present of greatness, but that’s not the Britain that Cameron and his beasts belong to.

It’s all about power, isn’t it? Cameron caved in to please his party’s hard-liners, Clegg, the supposedly pro-European Deputy Prime Minister (Deputy Prime Minister! God help us.) let him get away with it because it’s the only way he can hang on to a cabinet post. Meanwhile, any vestigial power we had as a nation has evaporated. Brilliant, Cameron.

As they put on their earnest, serious faces and tell us it’s for our own good, every single UK citizen is diminished by their insulting, patronising attitudes to diplomacy and to us.

Wait, though. We may not be part of a United States of Europe, but at least we’re a United Kingdom. Oh yeah? Not for much longer. Another consequence of Cameron’s folly may well be that, up here in Scotland, we vote for independence.

Great job, Prime Minister.

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Saturday, 26 November 2011

The Pulse in Poetry

Ladies and Gentlemen, the man who needs no introduction, my gifted, laid-back little brother, with a contribution illustrated by his son Joe.

Just for a change from our early morning competition over who has had the worst night’s sleep, or from repeating the clichéd, “Well, this won’t buy the baby a new bonnet,” and because it was later than usual, I tried some Yeats as I woke yesterday: “I shall arise and go now……”

My wife beat me to the bathroom and – to prove I was not the only literate partner – took up and almost sang the first stanza:

            “I shall arise and go now, and go to Innisfree
            And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
            Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee;
            And live alone in the bee-loud glade.”

And then, moments later, through the cleanest of teeth, her tone had changed from singing sylph to whip-cracking critic:

“Nine bean rows? Nine rows of beans? What does he want with nine rows of beans? It’s not like he’s got a freezer or anything. He’ll never get through nine bean rows. We have a job eating our two rows before we get fed up and start making piccalilli –and there’s no evidence he was keen on that.”

And, unwittingly, alongside a brief search for a rhyme for piccalilli, I found myself not only agreeing that – unless he was drying and storing the beans – three rows would be plenty, but also resolving to do a little more research to discover if the beans needed to be salted, like pork, to last the winter, although, being – presumably – a freshwater lake, he might have trouble keeping his salt pot filled.

“And he’s only got honey to accompany them: ‘….a hive for the honey bee…’ Mind you, one hive is a bit more realistic, but that one ‘honey bee’ isn’t going to make life very sweet.”

I chiefly blame (and thank) Monty Python for these journeys into the absurd. Before you know it, you’re miles away from the content, not to mention the writer’s intention. You can end up feeling like the spoiler in the seminar, who won’t let the group get past “April is the cruellest month” by telling you how it can be quite nasty in early June if the jet stream doesn’t behave itself. Thank goodness the rest of Innisfree doesn’t invite any more culinary speculation.

The same, over-rational spoiling is at work in a short story by Salley Vickers, where a character is posing the old riddle which goes,

            “As I was going to St Ives, I met a man with seven wives,
            Seven wives had seven cats, seven cats had seven kits,
            Kits, cats, men, wives, how many were going to St Ives?”

Her companion isn’t satisfied to be ‘tricked’ by the correct answer (one; it’s only the writer who is going to St Ives) and says,

“Why shouldn’t he meet them on the way? He might be overtaking the guy if he had all those blessed creatures to drag along with him.”

But what has this to do with the heady life and times of award-winning writer and top brother Bill Kirton?

Well, it feels like it links to previous posts about the balance between the writer’s intention and the freedom and right of the reader to make what they will of the text, even if that construct is as remote and prosaic as the examples above. However, those reader-rights ought to be supplemented by the need to, at least, suspend disbelief and allow some poetic licence, if they are to have access to the deeper structures in the text.

What this entry needs now is a meatier selection of examples where the literal has blocked off the literature. That’s where you guys come in.

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Tuesday, 22 November 2011

My brother is my keeper

I should have known better than to post the previous offering, in which I was boasting about winning awards. Hubris is always punished and yesterday came retribution via that man you all (unaccountably) seem to like - my brother Ron. And what better way to convey the experience than by simply pasting the email I sent to him when it happened. The relevant part of my note to him went like this:

This morning, to put off getting started on anything, I looked at an analytical thing that counts blog visits, pageloads, and other stuff which I don’t understand. As a result of checking to see whether I’m wasting my time writing the bloody thing, I found details of each blog’s popularity and as I scanned down the figures, I was quite pleased to see that some of my efforts attracted well over a hundred (although the vast majority were in double figures – and mostly low ones at that). Then – oh frabjous day etc. – the wonderful figure of 586 leapt off the page – but it was bugger-all to do with me. It was your second contribution. Fair enough, I thought, so I looked for your first one and, for the months of January/February 2010, I found the following sequence:

3 - 5 - 0 - 2 - 3 - 1 - 1 - 2428 - 3 - 1 - 1

That’s not a joke or a misprint. I’m therefore the blogging equivalent of the singer of Pinball Wizard and I owe a duty to ‘my’ readers to cajole you into raising my profile once more, you lazy, popular bastard.

To his credit, he didn’t gloat but he did recognise the need to restore some of my credibility again simply by associating me vicariously with himself and he promised that he’d give it some thought. Actually, it’s just occurred to me that those elevated numbers were probably achieved by him visiting the blog to look at his own contribution again and again and again. But I can’t afford to take chances and so, rather than sign off as ‘Award-winning author Bill Kirton’, I’m happy to acknowledge that the above was written by ‘The brother of Ron Kirton’.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

What identity crisis?

Cliché alert – ‘No two writers are the same’. OK, good to get that out of my system, but there’s more because I also think that ‘No ONE writer is the same’. Here’s what I mean.

We all know the publishing business has changed significantly and increasingly quickly over the past five years or so. When I started writing novels as opposed to plays, you polished your MS, printed out a copy (not cheap if it ran to 300-odd pages) and sent it out to agents and/or publishers. Postage wasn’t cheap either, (you also had to cover the costs for its return if they didn’t like it). Then, through the (sometimes) months you waited for them to reply, you got on with the next novel. Meantime, you also had your day job and you were a husband, wife, lover, significant other, hermit, father, mother, son, daughter, outcast, or whatever other roles your social situation imposed on you. See what I mean? There were (and are) several people inhabiting your body. But, back then, the writer bit was just that – you wrote, sent your stuff away, waited patiently but eagerly for a reply, got rejected and did it all again.

Today, though, even that writing bit has fragmented. Being a writer doesn’t just involve the one role. There’s still the writing (the best bit), but there’s also:
  • the PR person, desperately trying to create and project a cuddly profile;
  • the fish out of water, trying to learn and apply marketing techniques;
  • the social networker, scrolling through tweets and Facebook comments with all the other writers;
  • the blogger, trying to sell books;
  • the prostitute, willing to do just about anything to be published or shoved up the sales lists;
  • the reviewer;
  • and, mostly, the unrecognised genius, whose blockbuster novel will change the course of humanity but lies misunderstood in the depths of a computer.
I exaggerate, of course, but only on the basis of fairly common experiences shared by many.

But why am I saying stuff you all know anyway? Because what I’m really doing (with very little subtlety) is boast. I’ve already sent out a few tweets and FB comments saying how wonderful I am, and this is another because yet another ‘self’ has been added to my list. I am now … (discreet but still quite loud fanfare) … an ‘award-winning author’. My publisher, Diane Nelson of Pfoxmoor Publishing, submitted two of my books to the 2011 Forward National Literature Awards. The Sparrow Conundrum was the winner in the ‘Humor’ category, and The Darkness came second in the ‘Mystery’ category. OK, trumpet blown, so what?

First, the news turned me into a six year old on Christmas Eve. And yet, objectively, I’m not comfortable with the idea of ‘competitive literature’. Even though I know there are terrible novels out there as well as terrific ones, I applaud anyone who’s had the stamina and the commitment to actually write one and see it through to the end. But if I deny that we’re all in competition, where do sales figures fit in? In the end, being able to add that little ‘award-winning’ tag to me and two of my books theoretically gives me a wee marketing edge. I say ‘theoretically’ because I don’t yet know whether that’ll be the case and, anyway, it’ll be up to me (the sloth) to make it happen.

Perhaps more importantly, though, it opens up another tricky area when it comes to the various ‘selves’ I was speaking of. My two awards were for very different books. The Sparrow Conundrum is a spoof, The Darkness is a stark revenge/vigilante story with a pretty chilling resolution. So what does that make me? A funny man or a scary man? And what about the other stuff, the police procedurals, the historical, the non-fiction and, most of all, Stanley’s Boswell? Multiplying your ‘selves’ can be counter-productive.

Readers, naturally enough, like to know what to expect when they buy a book. If they’ve enjoyed your gore-saturated slasher mystery, they’ll probably feel cheated if your follow-up is a light-hearted romantic romp through the tulips. In a way, then, they impose an identity on you – and they have every right to do so. But what happens if it’s not you but the characters in the follow-up who decide that they’ve gone off the idea of being serial killers and instead want to fall in love and skip through a field outside Amsterdam?

As I keep saying, ‘Hell is other people’ but it’s also readers and our characters.

On the other hand, to end on another cliché, I wouldn’t change it for the world.

(The above was written by award-winning author Bill Kirton.)

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Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Amazon is my shepherd. I shall not want.

Those nice people at Amazon emailed me this morning to say there was a book they were sure would be of great interest to me. And they were right. The only problem was that I’d not only read it, I’d written it. The book in question was the fourth in the series I’d written for Pearson, Brilliant Workplace Skills, and, to try to penetrate and benefit from their marketing strategy, I asked myself why they decided that that was the book for me.

First, why Workplace Skills rather than the others? I’m well past retirement age and, in fact, I took early retirement to concentrate on my writing, so I only share my office with me. Which means I have little need for the book’s insights into topics such as promotion prospects and how to enhance them, interpersonal relationships, office politics and protocols, and (God forbid) romance in the workplace. So they couldn’t have thought the content would be of interest.

Which leaves style. Maybe they thought ‘Ah, he’s a writer. He’ll appreciate the finely rounded phrases here, the prose rhythms and cadences, the immaculate structuring of arguments, the inspired organisation of the material and the impeccable choice of words’. But no, style and content can’t be separated so arbitrarily. And anyway, all of you, the sophisticated literates who read these blogs, will already have curled a scornful lip at the heavy-handed irony of those stylistic claims and judged that this paragraph is merely a filler, a spurious pretence that this posting has a theme, a direction, a purpose.

So what else? Maybe they’ve looked at my novels and decided that the fiction writer in me needs to be mentored by his non-fiction counterpart. After all, I’m clearly rubbish at writing crime novels. My detective makes jokes, doesn’t have a drink or drug problem, isn’t particularly scruffy and lives with a funny, attractive woman to whom he’s happily married. He cares about people, too, and he’s more interested in truth than in justice, so he’s obviously not cut out to be between the covers of a modern crime novel. And even when I try history, the crime bit gets overtaken or at least muddied up by romance. As for The Sparrow Conundrum, what self-respecting auteur would admit to committing such rubbish to paper (or screen)?

Or maybe there’s something else, something unthinkable really. Maybe, in their desire to dominate the world and take the place of oxygen, Amazon has lost the plot. Could it be that they … I hesitate to articulate it, but … do they perhaps not know much about books? Surely they don’t think Brilliant Workplace Skills is a … a product, something electronic maybe, an executive toy, an object you put on your desk and … well, play with until it’s time to go home. No, that can’t be it. Amazon is the pinnacle of evolution, the ne plus ultra of refinement and civilisation. Amazon is the reason the Big Bang happened. No, the fault must lie in me (and, no doubt, many other writers). Amazon can’t have made a mistake.

(The car, by the way, is a 1956 Volvo Amazon. I got the picture from Phil Seed’s Virtual Car Museum

P.S. OMG, as some people say, as if to demonstrate the truth of Amazon's omnipotence, as I was posting this, news came through that The Sparrow Conundrum, whose quality I so cheaply dismissed above, had been awarded first place for 'Humor' in the 2011 Forward National Literature Awards. I don't know what it means, but I'm bloody impressed.

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Monday, 7 November 2011

Random musing, Wimbledon, stuff like that

Just some random thoughts provoked by recent events. No, not Greece or the Eurozone crisis, or the fact that there are 7 billion of us now (although the concept of ‘us’ is laughable in the context of the generally accepted 99-1 wealth split). And it’s not the absurd fact that Berlusconi was ever allowed to hold any sort of political office (or any other office than that of a brothel concierge). And so on, and so on. No, we all have our convictions and hopes in these matters of global concern; they don’t always coincide and no amount of preaching or arguing changes things. Maybe if I had the occasional chat with Jesus, he’d make my putts drop, but I don’t, so He helps my playing partners to beat me. Serves me right.

So these random thoughts are on things of no significance to anyone. They serve the Beckettian purpose of helping me pass the time. ‘We always find something to give us the impression we exist’ says Estragon in Godot. So the more entertaining and stress-free that ‘something’ is, the better.

Such as the recent academic research that found that people born in August are:
a)      less likely to get to the ‘better’ universities in the UK, and
b)      less comfortable in social situations.
The argument is that they’re the youngest in their particular academic year and therefore 12 months behind their classmates. What it adds up to is that you’re wasting your time reading this and, if you’re a ‘follower’, you shouldn’t be. Because I was born in August, which means that I’m congenitally thick, I don’t know words such as ‘congenitally’, and I’m hopeless when it comes to engaging others in social interactions. (On the other hand, I’m still 15 days more intelligent and sociable than my daughter, who was born even later in August than I was. Except in a different year.) (You see? That last remark was either a post-modern witticism on the nature of time and progeniture, or clear proof of my disjunction from coherent thought.) (It also gave me the chance to indulge my obvious predilection for parentheses.) (But I’ll stop that now.)

The only conclusion to be drawn from this which might have some positive value is that, if any of you are planning to have a baby, wait until January to make sure it’s born in September. I’m sure you’ll be able to find other things to do between now and then.

Random thought 2 was provoked by a FaceBook posting by my other daughter (who was born in April and is therefore much cleverer than I am – in fact, so clever that she managed to be born just 12 hours before the end of the tax year, which at the time earned me an income tax rebate). Anyway, she wrote that, the moment she hears a politician say ‘Let’s be clear about this’, she stops listening. Whereupon daughter 1 added that she has the same reaction when they begin sentences with ‘Look’. My own contribution was that, when they say ‘The fact is’ or, even worse ‘The fact of the matter is’, it’s a clear signal that what follows will be fiction. So, even given the huge intellectual distances separating us, it seems that we’re bound by quite close family traits

Speaking of family, here’s another aside which is an unashamed boast. One of my granddaughters has been chosen to have free tennis tuition at the All England Club (i.e. Wimbledon) every weekend. She's the red dot in the picture. She’s 5 years old so I anticipate a seat in the Royal Box in, say, 2026 to see her lift the trophy. I shall, of course, encourage her parents to be ruthless in forcing her to practise, give up school, pleasures, TV, boyfriends. She’ll be made to eat healthy food which tastes like cardboard, rise at 5 am to get her conditioning right and run several miles before breakfast and after dinner each day. And I’m looking forward with great eagerness to the day when she’ll be sponsored by manufacturers of tennis shoes who pay workers in the Far East 25 cents a month so that they have the necessary millions to spare on stars. Quite right, too.

Enough randomness. I was going to go on about those incomprehensible souls who think ‘Second Place is just the first loser’ (Dale Earnhart) or commentators like the British guy describing a race in the world rowing championships who, when a British crew won, went all orgasmic, screaming ‘They don’t do bronze, they don’t do silver, they only do gold’. I’m not sure what he said when he had to call home British crews who did ‘do’ silver or bronze. Still, as Beckett (again) said ‘You're on Earth. There's no cure for that’.

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Sunday, 30 October 2011

Vladimir Poignard - the interview

To celebrate a couple of milestones for the Booksquawk site to which I contribute reviews, I wrote what we called a spooftacular. And, since it seems that everyone grabs the excuse of Halloween to do a 'special', I thought I'd slavishly follow the fashion, join the flock, and share it here. Before this recording, all that was known of the person behind the wildly popular writer of such horror classics as I Recognise The Neck But Who Does The Razor Belong To? and The Night Of The Haggis was that he lived somewhere in the north of England and had resolutely refused to be photographed or give interviews. I have no idea why his representatives agreed to allow me to meet him, and what follows is a rare aural document and a genuine scoop for the blog. Only three people were present at the recording: Vladimir, myself, and my wife, Carolyn.

Audio track - Vladimir Poignard, the interview by Bill Kirton

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Sunday, 23 October 2011

Guest blog – Social Media: a double-edged sword.

By R. B. Wood

(Richard Wood is a friend whose first novel, The Prodigal’s Foole, has just been published by Pfoxmoor. As part of his blog tour to celebrate its launch, I’ve invited him to give us some observations on writing today. Here's what he thinks.)

The twenty-first century for writers is a marvelous time to be in the business.

The big six are trying to figure out what to do with the ebook revolution while Amazon nips at their heels to eliminate the middlemen (namely agents and other publishers).

Small indie presses are popping out of the ground like daisies and the self-publishing market is exploding.

What does all of this have to do with social media and said internet tools being a double-edged sword?
Let an old man get to the point in his own way.

Never since the introduction of the printing press (“Gutenberg!” you all shout – no… it was introduced much earlier. But that’s for another post), has there been such a revolution in the writing/publication industry as that which we are witnessing today. The small and self-publishing market alone has expanded dramatically and shows no sign of slowing down.

Both Bill Kirton and I are proud to be listed with other fine authors of the Pfoxpub group, under the hardworking leadership of Ms. Diane Nelson. Pfoxpub, which encompasses both the Pfoxmoor and more adult leaning Pfoxchase imprints, is one such small press that has arrived on the scene to embrace the new publishing model.

But along with being in the literary company of a small cadre of excellent authors, editors, and artists there comes a problem. See, the marketing budgets of the ‘Big Six’ are significantly larger than our budget. So how do we compensate for this disparity?

Well, the internet and social media of course. Told you I’d get there eventually.

Tools like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google+ are used with some success in advertising our wares. We’ve done other internet-based marketing as well, from blog tours to online trailers and from Writer websites to Facebook Fan pages and participation in online forums. Social media has been a big part of “getting the word out there.”

But it is a double-edged sword for two reasons.

TIME – All of these activities take time away from the actual writing. Websites need to be maintained. Twitter posts need to be consistent and conversational. And don’t get me started on Facebook, which in my opinion is the digital equivalent of the rabbit hole poor Alice fell into. The Social Media campaign takes time, planning and in some instances as much creativity as was poured into the stories we want to sell in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve found loads of advice online for an “indie writer” such as myself. I’ve made fantastic friendships (I’m proud to count Bill as one such friend), found amazing critic partners and all have generally improved my writing significantly.

Which leads me to the other part of our imaginary blade:

90% of those I’m connected with are writers. This is fantastic when you are just starting out. But make no mistake about it, most of the folks you end up connecting with in the writing world are trying to sell their own stories. And think about how many of your 2500 Twitter friends’ books you’ve purchased in the past year. A dozen? Half-a-dozen?

So even in this new world of ebooks and social media, we writers are left with the age old dilemma. Finding the READERS to go with all those writers whose company you enjoy online.

Social media will get the new millennium writer started. And you’ll be amazed at the number of writers out there who will want to connect to you as well. But remember two things about this new world we all are struggling with: limit/plan your time on social media; and make sure you connect with readers of your genre as well as those dear writer friends.

Links for Richard:
Podcast (The Word Count)

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Friday, 14 October 2011

Behind Shadow Selves

This week, the fourth novel in my Jack Carston series, Shadow Selves, is out as an ebook. It doesn’t have the same sort of back story as The Darkness, which I wrote about a while ago – here, in fact – but, like all the others, it has special connotations for me.

The trigger was many years ago when my friend, Donnie Ross, who was then an anaesthetist, said that if I ever wanted to do some research on surgical procedures and operations generally, he could arrange for me to visit an operating theatre and see how it all worked. My first thought was that I’d probably faint, be a bloody nuisance and get in the way, but it was a great chance to do some real observing, so I said ‘yes please’. Just a few days later, I got the call and found myself in the theatre wearing all the stuff you see on hospital telly shows and being so fascinated by all that was going on that it never occurred to me to faint. In fact, the operation scene in the book is a direct description of the experience and of the astonishing business of being prepared to dig around in someone’s thorax amongst all the lungs, heart and other stuff that’s packed and folded away there.

But I wasn’t planning a book involving surgical things or anaesthetics, so the notes sat in the computer. For ages, though, I’d been toying with the idea of setting one of my books in a university context. I used to be a university lecturer and I’ve done writing fellowships at three others, so I knew something about the settings and what goes on there. The problem, however, came from something I’ve mentioned before – a lot of my thoughts of academia involved other people and fiction doesn’t work (for me, at least), if your head’s full of real people. If you find yourself thinking ‘Oh, this character’s like so-and-so’, the character can’t develop in his or her own right. The real person gets in the way.

So I had to work hard to take myself and my ex-colleagues out of my thinking and start from relationships rather than let the characters decide the relationships beforehand. In the end, they grabbed their independence and, since I didn’t know them and they weren’t based on any memories or specific realities, they had room to surprise me.

The reality I didn’t change, and it’s one which has worsened rather than improved, is the significant transformation that took place in many institutes of higher education, beginning in the 80s, with Thatcher’s insistence on ‘leaner, fitter’ establishments. I know I’m generalising but, before then, education combined the close study of your chosen subjects and topics with the freedom to investigate beyond them, to develop a broader cultural awareness. It provoked and encouraged you to be intellectually curious about everything. Post Thatcher, it became a student-processing, goals-orientated, vocational experience with too many boxes to tick to spend time on thinking, reflection, broader investigations.

I’ve said it before, but academic life was marvellous – sitting around with young, intelligent, interested people talking about books, and getting paid for it. And yet, beneath the urbane, learned surfaces, the most bizarre thinking sometimes went on and apparent intellectual giants behaved like schoolkids. The title, Shadow Selves, relates to this phenomenon. It’s from Carl Jung, who wrote ‘Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is’. So here, the lecturers, surgeons, anaesthetists, nurses – and, yes, the police too – all have these shadows, but it’s not necessarily the blacker ones that cause all the damage.

Commercial break. You can get Shadow Selves at:

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Tuesday, 11 October 2011

The view from the virtual world

Some gratifying news this week. First, Pearson want me to write two more books in their 'Brilliant' series, then an email to say that the first one I wrote for them, Brilliant Study Skills, is being translated into Spanish for the north and south American markets. The new books are needed for March next year so I won't be able to indulge my idleness until the spring. On top of that, the Pfoxmoor edition of the next Jack Carston mystery, Shadow Selves, will be out soon and the fifth (and perhaps final) one has been written and will be appearing next year.

All of which is very nice but will put the brakes on the audio tracks I've been doing recently. That's been fun, largely because I love finding technology simple enough for me to use. I hope it's been useful, too. The idea is always to try to attract readers and whatever methods are available, we have to use them.

Anyway, I'll still add audio extracts to the list on the right now and then but this one is different. It's a story from a batch I wrote a while ago when I was playing the online game Second Life™ .  It's a fascinating game and I met some interesting people there, some of whom are still good friends. But it certainly sets your mind working on the whole business of virtual and real worlds, and technological advances are so fast that any stories you write about them can be out of date by the following day. I have a batch of these stories but they'll probably never appear for precisely that reason. On the other hand, the real interest lies in the fact that the avatars and impossible contexts of virtual worlds are still manipulated and populated by normal people with familiar, maybe even eternal hungers, curiosities, foibles and all the other things that provide us with material for our fictions.

This one moves through the screen and looks back at our world through the eyes of an avatar. Warning - it contains rude words and adult content (but definitely not of the titillating variety). I'd appreciate your comments - positive or negative.

Audio track - The view from here by Bill Kirton

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Thursday, 6 October 2011

Extract of Sparrow

No, not the latest gastronomic delight from one of the army of today's chefs who spend their time not on cooking but on arranging mutilated vegetables and fragments of meat in artistic patterns on a plate or slate or lump of driftwood before drizzling balsamic fuel over them and scraping a smear of something along the edge of the confection. This is a wee experiment. I've recorded another extract from The Sparrow Conundrum and thought it would be a good idea to embed it in the blog. You may or may not agree but, for those of you with time to spare, you can click the play button at the top of the column on the right and listen. I'm sure you'll let me know the wisdom or otherwise of the initiative. It's the moment when, having had his garden (and a relief postman) blown up, Chris Machin (aka Sparrow) is visited by the sociopathic Detective Inspector Lodgedale as he's eating breakfast.

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Monday, 3 October 2011

Les Voiles de Saint Tropez

 This is hard to write because it features a conflict between my social and political principles and my sybaritic tendencies. For the past week, we’ve been the guests of very generous friends who have a place in the south of France near to St Tropez. They hired a car and a very fast and quite big boat – the sort that usually has women with long legs and bikinis lying on the foredeck. In this case, there were no women but, at the other end, there were 2 Honda 225 4-stroke engines.

It was moored at the bottom of the patio where, on evenings when we weren’t at a restaurant, we sat drinking wine and eating rillettes, pâtés, cheese and the like, with the sun setting over the Mediterranean beside us.

Every morning there was a gorgeous orange dawn then, after breakfast, we just stepped up onto the bow, untied a couple of lines and motored slowly out of the port. Once on the open water, we could ease the throttles forward and skim out to watch the hundreds of sailing boats taking part in the annual ‘Voiles de Saint Tropez’ regatta.

I love sailing boats and this was a gathering of some of the most beautiful examples of the various designs and rigs, from smaller cruisers to enormous racing yachts with crews in the twenties and vast sails. Time after time, I marvelled at the fact that we were cruising along surrounded by hundreds of sails, nearby and filling the horizon.

The sun shone all week and, altogether, it was like living a fantasy.

The quaysides in St Tropez were thronged with tanned and beautiful people who could obviously afford the £85 they were being charged for T-shirts. They strolled along beside the moored boats, admiring the masts and spars, the brass and copper fittings, the strange coexistence of the seemingly conflicting trappings of hard racing and unashamed luxury.

And there I was, amongst it all, not bothering to remark on the transitory nature of material things, such as the boats and the people, and me. I was just in the moment, enjoying it. There was a statue of good old Sisyphus there, too, but somehow it expressed the positive aspect of what he represented, the way he triumphed over things, despite their meaninglessness, the way he engaged with life. So my tedious philosophising was stilled. It had no place in such an intensely physical environment. Nothing needed to mean anything.

But… yes, there’s a but…

… there was a bitterness in the concentration of so much richness, so much luxury; of millions of pounds, dollars, euros being in the hands of a minority who indulge every whim with no awareness of or concern for those who have to live for months and months on a fraction of what they pay to moor their boat for the week. And I was as guilty as the rest, forcing myself to close my mind to that huge gap, unrecognised by those on the privileged side of it. Yes, the privileged ones, like me. I had a great time, but what a pity it’s not accessible to everyone.

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Tuesday, 20 September 2011

War Horse, but not the movie.

I’ve been involved in theatre in various ways over the years, writing, directing and acting in plays, watching performances by amateurs and professionals, and scratching my head at some of the things critics have raved about.

There was a time when we’d arrange to go to London for the weekend and cram in as many plays as we could. In those days it wasn’t cheap but at least you didn’t have to take out a second mortgage to get even the cheapest ticket. The problem was, though, that much of what we’d actually chosen to see – because it had been recommended, well reviewed, or featured a favourite actor or director – was crap. The house lights went down, the curtain went up and, within 10 minutes, we knew we’d condemned ourselves to an hour or so of purgatory until the first interval set us free.

Simon Russell Beale was brilliant in Richard III but we sat through all of his Hamlet getting more and more angry at the sight of the actors going through the motions. An American visitor in front of us fell asleep very early only to leap to her feet and applaud wildly when it was over. All the critics had said it was a brilliant production so I suppose, even though audiences were bored out of their skulls by the insults to their intelligence they were seeing, they were afraid to disagree with the arbiters of taste and excellence.

But that’s just one example, and I’m just saying this to admit that, much, maybe even most of the time, theatre is embarrassingly bad. And that’s a great shame because when it works, it’s unbeatable. Sam West’s Hamlet was a triumph – it made you leave the theatre thinking you were somehow complicit in the nasty politics that had gone on onstage.

Last Friday, though, with my son, I went to the New London theatre to see War Horse, and, for nearly three timeless hours, I forgot who I was and was grabbed by the experience and dragged through most of the emotions of which I’m capable. The movie may prove to be brilliant – it’s Spielberg after all – but the beautiful horses he’ll have gathered for his shots won’t have anything like the realism and character that the puppeteers managed to give those on the stage. In every single way, the performances, the effects, the sounds and music, the wholeness of the thing were astonishing. We watched a cavalry charge in World War I, horses fighting for supremacy in a paddock, the transformation of an awkward young colt into a big thoroughbred in an instant – and all of these creatures were being manipulated by people. But, within minutes, I stopped seeing the people and only saw horses.

I always make my blogs too long and, if I tried to convey even a part of the full experience, I’d need this to be even longer, so take a quick look at this trailer for the stage play, not the movie, and you’ll get a tiny fraction of a glimpse of a mind-blowing experience (my words are so inadequate for things such as this). It’s beyond analysis so, if you get the chance to see it on stage, sell everything you have to get a ticket. It's an astonishing, visceral, truly cathartic experience.

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Friday, 16 September 2011

OK, I miscounted, but this is definitely the last one (I think).

In previous posts, by 'penultimate', I meant 'ante-penultimate' and by 'the last' I meant 'not the last'. The answers below, however, are the only ones which remain from my Pfoxmoor author friends: Maria Kuroshchepova, R B Wood, Greta van der Rol, Heikki Hietala, Michael Pollack, Gev Sweeney and Sessha Batto.

What do you think of the word ‘nice’? In what contexts would you use it?

(MK) Can’t stand it. People use it when they have nothing good to say about this. “I’ve written a book” “Aww, isn’t that nice.” Or “So what do you think of this painting?” “Oh, you know... It’s... nice”. I sometimes use it as approval for a joke or a clever statement - but in those cases I write it out in all caps.

(RBW) It’s one of those fluffy words that is so overused it becomes meaningless.

(GvdR) It is the most obnoxious adjective I can think of, especially when diluted even further with the word ‘quite’. It’s the sort of word you use to describe something you think is nauseating but you don’t wish to be rude.

(HH) Nice is a non-word that should be reserved for those moments when you have absolutely nothing to say.

(MP) It’s a weak word. I use it when I can’t find anything nice to say.

(GS) .”Nice,” to me, implies “meh.” “Okay.” “Polite.” “Sunny within the confines of sociability.” “Unwild.” “Non-controversial.” “Something that has the potential for becoming worse, if not bad.” “Have a nice day.” Heh heh …

(SB) It’s a complete and total nonentity of a word. Nice means boring, inoffensive, bleh that you couldn’t care enough about to come up with a description for. Not bad necessarily, but most surely boring. I use it when I don’t want to offend but have nothing positive to say.

Would you like to be immortal? Why or why not? 

(MK) Yes. All the shit I could learn! But I want to retain youth and health too. Being an immortal wreck of a person does not appeal to me.

(RBW) No. The thought of outliving my children is far to sad to contemplate.

(GvdR) I’d only want to be immortal if I could be immortal in a much younger body and if I had some immortal mates. But I can’t help but feel that Isaac Asimov was right about over-long lifetimes, let alone immortality. It leads to stagnation of the species.

(HH) Funny you should ask that as I am working on a scifi shortie on that very theme. I’d never want to be immortal. In fact, I believe you have seen all you need to see by the age of 75. Reincarnation rules.

(MP) No. Life is a constant beat-down. An 80-year stretch trying to find the sparkle in an otherwise strife-filled life seems long enough to me. I’ll embrace death when it comes… just not quite yet… I’m not done with my work.

(GS) Yes. To pass on the message that despite changes in fashion and technology, people are inherently the same now as they were centuries ago and will continue to remain the same centuries from now.

(SB) Never! I think it would be terribly depressing to see everyone you know wither and pass away. I’d much rather ride the wheel again and come back in my next life and start all over. If I could remember the lessons I’d learned in this life, so much the better.

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Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Bloke who knew Questionnaire slightly when they were students together

The last revelations from my author friends at Pfoxmoor: Maria KuroshchepovaR B WoodGreta van der RolHeikki HietalaMichael PollackGev Sweeney and Sessha Batto.

Your fairy godmother grants you a wish. You can curl up in front of the fire with your favourite object. What is it? (NOTE. You can define `object’ in any way you like.)

(MK) Just one object? Can I make the object a collection? I mean - a corporation is like a person in some respects, so can an assembly of objects count as an object? Because that would include: two gigantic pillows, my favorite wrap, all my animals, including husband, and a stack of books. Oh, and there would be some chocolate and alcohol involved in there somewhere too.

(RBW) A legal document granting me full custody of my children.

(GvdR) I would like an object that would have me looking the way I did at age 30, thanks ever so.

(HH) I’d want a teleporter to be able to go see the M41 up close, pop out to anywhere in the world, and finally, back in time to see who killed Kennedy.

(MP) A metallic blue Kirsten Dunst comes to mind, but I’ll go with: my MacBook Pro.

(GS) I’d be curling up in front of that fire in the favourite overstuffed chair from the house where I grew up.

(SB) Only one?! It would have to be one of my swords . . . but I’d have to cut with them all first to make up my mind, decisions, decisions . . .

A beggar sitting on a blanket on the pavement (OK, sidewalk, if you insist), says as you pass, `Fortune has favoured you but looks less kindly on deprived and desperate beings such as myself. It would be a kindness if you were to redistribute some of your wealth to redress the balance between you and I’. What do you reply? (NOTE for grammar nerds like me – I deliberately chose ‘I’ instead of the correct ‘me’ to set up my own answer.)

(MK) I grab him and take him somewhere for a cup of soup, during which I figure out why he is a beggar and what we can do short- and long-term to get him out of this predicament. I know it sounds uber-corny, but seriously, that’s what I would do. Blame it on Chris Gardner (for those who don’t know - the author of “Pursuit of Happyness”).

(RBW) I would say: “I have no cash, but would like to take you for a hot meal and a long conversation” (paid for via credit card.)

(GvdR) I’m an author. I’m probably more deprived than you are.

(HH) I’m a fatalist in matters of the wallet.

(MP) Stop begging. Pick yourself up and find work. God helps those who help themselves, and that seems like a damned fine policy. If there truly is no way that you can find a job in America legally plying some skill or another, then I will help you as I can and ask others to do the same.

(GS) I have my own place on the pavement.

(SB) I’m terribly afraid you have me confused with someone else – after a career in the arts, believe me, I have not a penny to my name.

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