Monday, 24 January 2011

Dragon Academy's blog tour

I'm not sure how blog tours work but I heard that Diane Nelson (who's a friend and a regular commenter here) was having one for her Dragon Academy so, in the spirit of mutual marketing assistance recommended by Linda but also because I've read and enjoyed the book, I've decided to make this blog one of Diane's tour stops. (I know, I don't understand how it all works either.) So all I'm doing is posting the review I gave the book on Amazon. It probably breaks all the blog tour rules but that's what rules are for (except when it comes to grammar and stuff - but that's another blog, and has nothing to do with Diane, whose writing is immaculate).

This is what I wrote.

We all know dragons don't exist, right? Well, once you've read this, you'll maybe reconsider. When the last pod of Greywing dragons is discovered, the scientists of the Bureau of Land Management who are studying them are concerned to find that they're suffering from parasitic worms and in danger of dying out completely.

Husband and wife team, Dietrich and AnnaLise, run a riding school in New Jersey. When Dietrich's sister-in-law, Berit, who's an Adjunct Professor in Large, Dangerous Animals with Anger Management Issues at UNLV, asks them to look after Michael and Nikita, two of the youngsters from the pod, they agree on condition that Berit's son, Nick, comes for the summer to help them.

Transporting the dragons from Nevada to New Jersey is an epic in itself, with the truckers BobbyRay and BillyBob unused to the habits and feeding needs of their cargo and the dragons' tendency to set fire to things. But when the dragons arrive and settle in, the author focuses on the developing relationships between all the people involved and the two dragons. At the centre are the two couples - Nick and Maxie, who's a pupil at the school, and Nikita and Michael. The fascination is that there's an interplay of jealousy between dragons and people. Nick and Nikita start building a relationship, which makes Michael angry, but Michael, in turn, displays a clear affection for Maxie. And so the story builds, with sub plots and adventures, culminating in a glorious set piece involving the military, the scientists, a massive forest fire and the search for Michael among the flames.

Summaries of this sort do no justice to the book's impact. There's humour, tenderness, anger, guilt, love and many more emotions in both people and dragons. Simultaneously, there's an attention to detail in the descriptions of riding horses and dragons which brings an intense realism to the whole reading experience. As they decide how best to saddle a dragon, the nature and textures of scales, wing membranes and shoulders are explicit. We learn how the valves in their nostrils are adapted to the flames of plasma they blow out. And, gradually, through it all, Nick also realises that he and Nikita are communicating through telepathy.

But the combination of the fantastical (dragons, telepathy) and the real (harnesses, anatomical details) makes the story believable. We care about what happens to dragons and people, we laugh and suffer with them. As the teenage anxieties of Nick, anxious to experience a `date' - i.e. a movie and pizza with Maxie - increase, so the dynamics of the relationship between Nikita and Michael develop also. The book ends with Nick being forced to make a difficult decision. It also leaves room for further adventures.

If you believe in dragons already, this book will delight you; if you don't, you might well after you've read it, and it'll delight you anyway.

By the way, it’s aimed at the YA audience, but I’m over half a century beyond that and I loved it.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Writers are not nice people

Well, after Linda’s excellent practical advice in the previous posting (which, quite rightly, got and continues to get far more responses than my own witterings), it’s back to useless, idle speculation. For those of you who seek true enlightenment, I suggest you direct a few judiciously worded pleas to brother Ron to get off his lazy butt and contribute.

Now, if I asked you to name some nice writers, i.e. writers who are nice people, I bet that, in the UK at least, Alan Bennett might be at or near the top of the list. And yet, a few years back, in an interview about his play The History Boys, he said ‘no writer's entirely nice, otherwise they wouldn't be writers. It's quite a sneaky profession really’. The remark was picked up and chewed over by members of an online group of writers to which I belonged. I’m reviving it here as a sort of follow-up to the blog I wrote about the difficulty/impossibility of basing characters on real people.

The implication in Bennett’s tongue-in-cheek remark was that we use people’s experiences as our raw materials, distorting or otherwise exaggerating them to suit our purposes. In other words, we exploit people. Well, we do, but I think our excuse is that we do so for a reason and, trying to follow one of Linda’s suggestions, I’ll use my own latest publication to illustrate my point.

Shadow Selves takes place mainly in a university and a hospital. At one point, as part of his investigation, my policeman goes to watch an operation. The description and details of that operation are all taken from a visit I made myself to an operating theatre to watch a thoracic operation at close range. The surgeons delved about inside a woman’s chest cavity, shoving lungs and other red and white bits out of the way, chopping lumps out of tubes, and, at the same time, chatting away about a concert one of them had been to the previous evening. The patient’s head was concealed by a suspended sheet and the surgeons’ entire focus was on the small area of flesh with its big hole, into which they were dipping their hands. In a way, they weren’t dealing with a person but with a sort of anatomical puzzle.

Despite the fact that their manipulation of the various organs that were in their way seemed a bit cavalier, no one would seriously suggest there was anything ‘inhuman’ about their actions. They just needed to be objective and think in terms of the mechanical aspects of what they were doing. So, while chatting about music as you grab a pulsing organ and push it aside may seem disrespectful, intrusive, it’s actually the reverse. The fact that they were prepared to take responsibility for such extreme interventions to improve the lot of a fellow human was an affirmation of their humanity. They cared. They were doing all that so that she’d survive. And she did.

You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you? Scalpels, pens – same thing, really. Except that very few of us use pens any more. Yes, we pick up news stories, snippets of conversation, fragments of real lives, aspects of real people, and we steal them and shape them to suit our subjective purposes. If you like, we don’t treat them with much respect. But usually, these purposes are positive, affirmative things – we want to add to people’s enjoyment, make them laugh, offer them new perspectives, enlighten them, highlight threats to their security/happiness/culture, and a host of other things aimed at lifting them out of the humdrum or the painful.

Of course there are writers who are definitely not nice – political apologists, religious propagandists, individuals with a personal vendetta against society or one of its groups. Such people thrive on distortion, reductionism, cynicism and a dedication to their own cause which shows little respect for those outside its concerns. But I prefer the glass to be half full and the writers I know and celebrate, famous and unknown, are those who write to make other people’s lives better. Like Mr Bennett, they’re nice.

Monday, 10 January 2011

A guest posting - great marketing advice from LInda Faulkner

Thanks for hosting me on your blog, Bill. I want to announce, right up front, that my request to appear here was based on purely selfish motives, namely to promote my new book, Taking the Mystery Out of Business: 9 Fundamentals for Professional Success. It was released earlier this month and is available all over the place—just check out my website for more details.

I also want to state that if you’re a writer and you hesitate to take advantage of all your friends, acquaintances, and anyone who so much as gives you the time of day—you’re missing the boat from a promotional standpoint. Writing a saleable book is the easy part of writing—and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise. It’s also the fun part and it probably takes less time than all the other duties and responsibilities we writers assume if we want to get our precious books in the hands of eager readers.

My “day” job has involved working in sales and marketing for over thirty years. I don’t have a problem with the promotional end of being a writer. It does, however, take me as much time and effort as it takes everyone else. So, because I really enjoy Bill’s blog, his followers, and the entertainment you folks provide on a weekly basis, here are some tips for those of you who either abhor the marketing/promotional end of writing or who would like some free advice:

1. You MUST tell everyone you encounter that you’re a writer. I still haven’t figured out why, but lots of people are impressed with writers. Sure, some people won’t be impressed. Some people don’t like the kind of stuff you write. Other people can’t read. They’re not the ones who count—from a promotional perspective, that is. It’s the people who adore writers and bask in the reflected glory of writers you need to reach. Can’t find ‘em if you’re not looking for ‘em.

2. You MUST seek every promotional opportunity available, such as online opportunities (Facebook, Twitter, Linked In, My Space, Goodreads, blogging, a website, guest blogging, etc.), local events (radio and TV appearances, book signings, workshops at the library, etc.), and the unconventional. My latest book is a business book, so I’m promoting it to businesses by seeking occasions to provide complimentary 15 to 30 minute workshops in exchange for the opportunity to sell my book. I also have postcards printed and ask (okay, bribe) family members to pass them out. The bribe part comes into play when I give them a free copy of the book if they personally hand-deliver or mail at least 25 postcards to their friends, business associates, and total strangers. Oh, I also beg all my friends who have blogs to let me to appear. If I haven’t reached out to you yet, feel free to send me an invitation.

3. You MUST be generous. If you want other people to promote you, you must promote them. Example: my Author Exchange Blog, which I started months before my first book appeared in print. If any of you would like to make a guest appearance on it, or would like to send me announcements and other stuff, just check it out and shoot me an e-mail Be sure to mention you’re a friend of Bill’s—that gets you preferential treatment. Seriously.

4. You must be persistent, you must have a thick skin, and you must operate from the mindset that what you’re doing is both fun and beneficial. Otherwise, promotion will become a chore and—with all my sales and marketing experience, I promise you this: if you hate what you’re doing, it will communicate itself to the people you’re talking to and will negatively affect your efforts.

If you have a specific question about any business aspect of writing (or any other profession), I will be happy to spotlight you and your question on my Taking the Mystery Out of Business blog. Just shoot me an e-mail.

Another option is to post your question here and wait for my answer.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The real question is why

OK, for a change, here’s a quick biology lesson. It’s about something that sounds as if it was a warrior in some ancient battle – Ixodes ricinus. But we know it better as a sheep tick. (By the way, the ricinus part of the name is a bit sinister. It relates to its other common name, the castor bean tick, and it’s from castor beans that you get that horrible poison, ricin, which, of course, features in my novel The Darkness.) Anyway, Ixy, as we’ll fondly call it, is a very common tick indeed. It can live for anything between two and six years.

It starts life as one of a couple of thousand eggs, hatches out as a larva (with its 1,999 brothers and sisters), and is ready to feed within a few days. So it climbs up a nearby plant, grass stem or whatever, and waits. Eventually (after maybe minutes, maybe days), it smells butyric acid, which tells it that a mammal is nearby and, as the animal brushes past the grass, Ixy leaps onto it and starts gorging itself on blood. This lasts for 2 or 3 days, during which it puts on weight and is eventually 10 to 20 times heavier than when it started.

When it’s had enough, it drops off and, after several months, it becomes a nymph. During those months, it doesn’t eat, mate, play football, watch movies or anything. It just gets older. So far, remember, it’s had just one meal. Not surprisingly, then, the following year it feels peckish again, climbs up another stalk and waits for a bigger animal to come along. The first snack was from something like a vole, this time it might choose a squirrel and the meal will last longer – 4 to 5 days – then it’s back to the undergrowth.

Finally, as adults, Ixy and his pals climb even higher and wait for larger animals from hares up to deer. The females then go to town, feasting for about a week and sucking down up to 5 ml of blood. Ixy, being a male, hangs around for longer but only takes small snacks because he’s busy mating with every Ixy female he can persuade into thinking it’s a good idea.

Then the female drops off, lays her eggs and dies. Ixy just drops off and dies. He doesn’t even get to see his kids. Remember, all this can take two years or six. Two or six years of hanging about, climbing up bits of grass, having three meals, mating, then dying. Now, apart from the mating bit, which I’m guessing doesn’t involve much foreplay, that doesn’t sound like a very interesting way to spend a life, so the question that always strikes me when I read of the wonders of nature and the processes of evolution is – Why?

And, of course, simply by asking that question, I’m back with my old mate Sisyphus and his rock. What on earth is the point of it all? Maybe evolution is making the hill smaller with each ‘advance’, but why? What’s it for? I don’t suppose Ixy is much of a thinker but if he is I bet he’s cursing God for making him a sheep tick when he could have been something with more apparent purpose like an Aardvark or a merchant banker. Imagine his thought processes as he dangles there on his bit of grass, feeling hungry and just waiting. He doesn’t even have the comfort expressed by Estragon in Waiting for Godot ‘We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?’

Good fun, though, isn’t it?