Thursday, 31 March 2011

Bagpipes and Bullshot and Janice Horton

The Darkness appeared at about the same time as a romance novel by Janice Horton called Beneath Apricot Skies. They’re both set in Scotland but there the parallels end. My book was pretty scary, with some nasty goings-on, a murder, some disappearances and (I hope) a challenging attitude to morality. Janice’s, on the other hand was full of warmth, romance, humour, and beautiful places with, at its centre a love between a Scottish laird whose funds were running pretty low and an American cowgirl. But, because we have several mutual friends who bought both the books, Amazon obviously thought they belonged together and, for a while, said that people who bought Janice’s also bought mine, and vice versa. There’s no reason why readers shouldn’t enjoy both books but some unsuspecting people who’d just been drawn into Janice’s lovely, upbeat tale might get a nasty shock if they thought mine would offer the same sort of pleasure.

Anyway, Janice, who obviously shares none of my laziness, has now reworked the original story, getting more quickly into the meat of it and giving even more scope to the humour, a fact that the new title confirms – now available for Kindle, the book’s now called Bagpipes & Bullshot. And her visit to my blog is part of her enterprising blog tour.

B): So welcome Janice, and first of all, I note you’ve been asking people NOT to buy it. That doesn’t sound like a good marketing strategy.

J): I hope it is, Bill. You see, I’ve asked everyone who might consider buying it to wait until Friday 1st April. The date is important because it’s very difficult to get a new e-book noticed by potential readers unless it features on one or more of Amazon’s Top 100 charts, but because of the way Amazon calculates its sales, just a few sales on one particular day – Friday 1st April – can make all the difference in pushing it through the charts.

B): Very clever. You seem to have given this plenty of thought. Before we move on to the actual experience of publishing with Amazon Kindle, though, tell us a bit about the book.

J): Well, it’s a humorous contemporary novel which twists an everyday love story with a whole cast of village eccentrics into an entertaining play on Scottish rural life. The story begins with boy meets girl in Texas but soon unfolds into a tale of love and conflict set in Scotland. I’ll leave it for the reader to tell me if it’s a love story with elements of humour or a humorous novel with elements of love story.

B): What made you decide to go indie and self-publish on Kindle?

J): Two reasons: the first was that having been previously published in paperback by both traditional and self publishing methods, I couldn’t resist the challenge of having a go at e-publishing, especially on Kindle, because distribution and marketing on Amazon are all well established. The second reason was that I unexpectedly fell in love with the Kindle my husband bought me for Christmas and wanted to have my books available for it.

B): You know I’m a complete techno-idiot, so how did you find the process of uploading to Kindle in terms of technical problems?

J): I read the Amazon guide to formatting and uploading and also watched some helpful You Tube videos to give me an idea of what I was letting myself in for. I also opted for the simple route. You can get involved with writing your own HTML if you like, I didn’t. Preparation is key, so do make sure you edit your manuscript with formatting ‘activated’ which will help you check that tab stops and page breaks are correctly placed. If they’re not, then transferring your file will move your paragraphs all over the place. You do get a chance to preview before you actually publish but that should just be for final checking. I had the manuscript on Word, saved it as a HTML filtered file, and uploaded it to Mobipocket Creator (downloaded free from the internet). This created a stable file recognised by Amazon Kindle.

B): You make it sound easy. Next question, though, now that it’s available to download, how are you going to get it noticed amongst the thousands of other books already available on Kindle?

J): OK, this is the plan. I want you to ask your lovely blog readers to support me by either buying the book on Friday 1st April 2011 (it is £1.38 / $2.24) or by telling other people about it through their own social network. I would be very grateful for all sales, support, and help to spread the word. I’ll be blogging and tweeting all day on Friday 1st April. You can find out where I'll be on my Blog Tour throughout the whole day by checking on my own blog here. I’ll also be running a prize draw there (Friday 1st April only) to win Kindle beach protectors (an essential and stylish accessory for every Kindler). All you have to do to be in with a chance to win is go to my blog and leave a comment.

B): Hmmm, my ‘lovely blog readers’ – I’ll let that one pass. But how about people who don’t have a Kindle? Can they download it for their PC, Mac, IPhone, IPad, whatever?

J): Yes, absolutely. Go to Amazon and download their free App for PC, Mac, IPhone or IPad.

B): You seem to have covered all the bases. Anything else?

J): Well, just the obvious one really – buy the book. I’ll be forever grateful.

B): OK people, you heard Janice. But DON’T buy it, at least not until April 1st. I for one will be very interested to hear how the strategy pans out. Thanks for the visit, Janice, and lots of luck with Bagpipes & Bullshot – I’m looking forward to seeing for myself the changes you’ve made to Beneath Apricot Skies.

J): Thanks for the invitation, Bill. It’s been a great pleasure.

A bit more information about Janice for those who don’t yet know her work. She lives in Scotland and writes entertaining and humorous contemporary women's fiction novels which are, for the most part, inspired by the romantic beauty of the heather-filled glens around her country cottage. When she’s not writing novels she writes lifestyle articles and has had work published in national magazines and regional newspapers. She’s also been involved in BBC Scotland's Write Here Write Now project. Her next novel Reaching For The Stars will be available soon on Kindle. Her website is here, and her blog here and you can follow her on Twitter at @JaniceHorton.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Stanley’s ambitions

Stanley is showing a remarkable flair for marketing. Having caused a minor stir with the mugs (he insisted I recycle that pun on his behalf), he was rather taken with the idea of featuring on the front of a t-shirt. His preference, for some reason he refused to divulge, was for one worn by a female, so I think the illustration will not be to his liking, which, of course, in his world means it WILL be to his liking. Anyway, once again, he’s seeking to tempt you with his merchandise to such an extent that I’ll no longer have to write about his exploits.

(By the way, the wording on the shirt is an addition of mine - to acknowledge the hero of Looking for Eric. The words were spoken in the movie by the great Eric himself, with 'Cantona' instead of 'Stanley'.)

In fact, there are already seven Stanley stories, which is convenient because, with six more to appear and six more grandchildren in line for dedications, there’s a pleasing symmetry about the whole enterprise. The trouble is that, by the time the seventh is published, I’ll have written more – and I certainly don’t want any more grandchildren; Christmas is already horrendously expensive. The other trouble is that, with Stanley threatening to sue me if I step even marginally away from the truth of his words and actions, I may have difficulty maintaining that willing suspension of disbelief needed to sustain the reader’s interest.

One thing I should have added before, when I posted the shot of his mugs, was that Stanley’s image rights belong not to him, as he insists, but to Melanie Chadwick who first sketched his portrait. The fact that she made him (according to him, anyway) far less attractive than he finds himself, is irrelevant. As well as suing me, he intends to ‘take her for everything she has’ (his words) for whatever the visual version of libel is. He even used the words ‘bearing false witness’ before I reminded him that that was in one of the commandments and represented the word of God, not the word of Stanley. But all that did was start him muttering about the parables he could tell.

In the end, Mel and I might need not just a lawyer but an exorcist, too.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Not a blog, just a picture, on Stanley's insistence

With the publication of Shadow Selves, The Loch Ewe Mystery and now The Sparrow Conundrum all around the same time (thanks to some poor management on my part), Stanley has been getting a raw deal (which, of course, suits him perfectly because it confirms that the universe and everything in it is only there to perpetuate his misery). His next story, Stanley In Love, is ready for publication, beautifully illustrated and formatted by Melanie Chadwick again. Only problems with getting it printed in Europe as well as the USA are holding it back.

So, when I saw an advert for free mugs, t-shirts etc., I thought if I got one made on which he was the star, he'd be pleased. (He wasn't.) I told him that, when he's famous, he'll have to put up with such artefacts being in homes throughout the civilised and uncivilised worlds, as well as (probably) being the motifs on dresses worn by Lady Gaga and others at the Oscars. It would need a better writer than I am to describe the conflicting emotions which crossed his features as he realised he might some day achieve the pre-eminence which he thinks is his due, the consequent happiness it would make him feel and the misery that feeling happiness would provoke.

Life is hard for a 3 inch high superstar.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

A quite long, FREE glance at the Sparrow

For those of you who don't read the comments bits, just to tell you that you can download the prologue and first three chapters of The Sparrow Conundrum free in the e-format you prefer here.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Where did the Sparrow come from?

No, this isn't another 'What does the dog mean?' posting, so settle down while I tell you a true story. The picture you see is the cover of my new novel. In fact, it was the first novel I ever wrote, many years ago. As I mentioned in a recent posting – Softly, Softly – I tell writing groups or workshops that you don’t ‘write a novel’, you write some words, then some more words, then some more – and eventually there’s a substantial pile of paper on the desk and you realise you actually have written something that’s a lot longer than a short story. That’s making it sound easy and unstructured – it’s not, and I have great respect for the form and conventions of novel-writing, but that was my experience with this first book. I invented the characters, had a great time with them and actually looked forward to getting back to the writing to see what happened next.

I’d written lots of stage and radio plays which were produced and broadcast and a few short stories, but it never occurred to me that I should try a novel until I read about a competition and decided to enter. This was so long ago that blogs, Facebook and the rest didn’t exist and even PCs were scarce and definitely unaffordable. So I wrote it in longhand and typed it up. It didn’t win the competition but I sent it to an agent and he took me on.

In the end, he didn’t manage to sell it, but the important thing was that it had shown me I could sustain and control an extended narrative, so I started writing the next one, which was an early version of The Darkness and which led me to another agent and my first published novel, Material Evidence.

So now you’re yawning and asking ‘So what?’

Well, I’m suggesting that ideas, words, even apparently unwanted stories can be successfully recycled. The Darkness is another example. As I said, it was the second novel I wrote but, after many, many rewrites and changes of title, personnel, and themes, I think it’s become one of my best. So ‘recycling’ doesn’t just mean you keep sending it off to one agent and/or publisher after another, it means keep working on it, rewrite, edit, polish, improve. OK, some ideas don’t work and should be discarded, but give them a chance and only throw them out when it’s obvious they’re rubbish.

It reinforces, too, my conviction that writing and editing are separate processes. In your first draft, don’t be held back by the need to be ‘correct’ – either in terms of grammar, spelling or, for want of a better term, morality. Let the words flow, let the characters do what they want, don’t try to drag them back into any preconceived plotlines without first checking whether they’re actually leading you to somewhere more interesting. Then step away from them, forget about them for as long as possible and return to them as an editor, with your critical faculties sharpened.

The Sparrow Conundrum has been through even more changes than The Darkness. It started as a spoof spy story, moved to a spoof crime story, changed locations several times and titles even more – but its personnel and central story were there from the start. I’ve always had a soft spot for it because it’s (intended to be) a frankly comic (absurd, farcical) novel which I wrote purely to entertain. It’s the only book I posted on Authonomy in the brief period I spent on the site and there’s no doubt at all that it benefitted enormously from the reactions and constructive criticism of the other writers there.

So there, that’s its story. For the moment, it's available on but soon there'll be a print version, too, available in Europe as well as in the USA. So what I want you to do now is …

… first of all, become its friend or fan or whatever the correct designation is on Facebook. I’ve cleverly called its page The Sparrow Conundrum. Then, after you've written comments there saying how wonderful and funny it is, buy it, read it, tell all your friends and extended families and community groups and reading groups to buy it, order several copies for all the libraries within a twenty mile radius of your home and place of work and, in your spare time, try to get it put onto the reading list of every subject in your local schools, colleges and universities, nominate it for the Man Booker and Pulitzer prizes, nominate me for a Nobel prize, tell the Coen brothers they can have first option on the film rights and … well, that’s enough to start with.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Jargon and other distortions

I’ve mentioned before that I’m halfway through writing another book in the Brilliant series – this one on Workplace Skills. A tiny part of it will deal with jargon, to which I’ve always been – shall we say, sensitive? So when I read the following paragraph in today’s Guardian, I thought a good cop-out blog would be to share some of the remarks and writings that I’ve copied down in a book I’ve kept for many years. The Guardian’s piece was from an organisation called the Local Better Regulation Office, which read:

'We are hosting a master class to take local authorities through the process of developing outcomes and impacts dashboards against their developed pathways. The session will focus on local authorities who have gone through the process of developing their logic model, and now require additional expertise on how to develop indicators to measure achievements against outcomes.'

We all love language, the things it can do, the magic it can unlock or create, and when it’s mangled, strangled and kicked to death by committees, evasive politicians and people who should know better, it hurts and infuriates. On the other hand, the way it sometimes transcends the atrocities inflicted on it to suggest dimensions unsuspected by the speaker is delightful.

It would be too easy to take examples from George W Bush, John Prescott, Dan Quayle (of far from fond memory) or all those other eminent public speakers who, rather than having a command of language, were in constant conflict with it.

Equally easy targets would be those ‘Instructions for use’ translated from another language, such as the one for a toy car, which warned ‘on occasion by using it as pushcart for the toddling baby about 12 months since born, the leg comes into contact with the car’s speed and accordingly the baby may be overturned’ or the cleaning fluid for glasses which suggested users should ‘apply less than one drop to both sides of the lens’.

But I prefer examples from people trying hard to make the words work for them. Like the engineering union official interviewed on the BBC who said ‘our members’ mood is one of very seriousness’. And these gems from a British football manager famous for his loquacity. Of his team’s disappointing position in the league, he said: ‘we cannot expunge the last 20 games. What we can say is as a result of the last 30 games, whatever the variables, excuses or praises one wishes to implicate, our position is as it is.’ He also wrote of another team which just managed to avoid relegation and which we’ll call Acme United: ‘Only a very, very few people were aware of the demeanour of Acme in 1986. Reminiscent of the eerie old haunted house that had been empty for years and was begging for life. No different to the dodo. How joyful for them not to have acrimoniated in the non-league. How delightful for them to be making a success of defeating extinction. Let us hope we are all able to be pulmonic!’ Another football manager – again British – whose team was winning 2-0 but ended up losing the match 3-2, remarked ‘As I see it, if you’re going to commit suicide, you don’t do it yourself.’

In fact, British sportspeople seem to have a gift for speaking English as if it’s a foreign language. One boxer claimed that ‘the British press hate a winner who is British. They don’t like any British man to have balls as big as a cow’s like I have.’ A Formula One driver said wisely that ‘the proof of the pudding is in the clock’. One reputedly intelligent footballer’s contribution to the sum of human knowledge was ‘Football’s football; if that weren’t the case it wouldn’t be the game it is.’ And yet another football manager, coaching a team in Spain, who wanted to stay there because of his garden, told his interviewer: ‘Look at that olive tree – 1000 years old. From before the time of Christ.’

It goes on and on and on – but in each case, it’s words that provide the delights – even in my final example – perhaps the silliest of all. The first names of a succession of managers of one English team in the Midlands were: Don, Johnny, Ronnie, Ron, Ronnie, Ron, Ronnie, Ron, Johnny, Ron and Ron.

Maybe it just shows how sad I am that I have a book full of stuff like that which I’ve bothered to copy.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

It's official - I'm stylish

OK, I admit it's only the opinion of my friend Rosemary Gemmell, who nominated me for a Stylish Blogger Award on her website here. As usual, there's a catch, and part of the deal is that, if I accept, I have to say 7 things about myself. It doesn't stipulate whether they have to be true or not so it occurs to me that it might be fun to mix a few possibles in with the probables and see how many of the people I can fool for how much of the time. And, of course, I can justify 'lying' in this context because, as a writer, most of what I write is fictitious anyway, and yet I've thought it, so it's true. (And, to any philosophers reading this who think they can see flaws in my reasoning here, I simply say 'GO AWAY'.)

So, 7 things about me. Hmmmm, now let me see ...

1. I once did a parachute jump for a TV programme. During the 2 hours training I had before the jump/shoot, I thought it was a waste of time telling me about how to align or adjust my body shape if I found I was coming down amongst trees or near power lines. After all, I’d only be making one jump – over rolling Perthshire farmland. The landing area was marked with a big white cross in the middle of a huge field. One cameraman jumped out with me but the main camera crew were clustered around the cross. I landed on the other side of a wood, 2 fields away amongst a herd of Highland cattle.

2. I won the 6th form English prize at school. When the teacher announced it to the class he did so as if he were telling us all that a 3-toed sloth had just beaten Usain Bolt over 200 metres.

3. I once built a Mirror sailing dinghy in my study. I measured the doors and corridor very carefully several times to make sure we’d be able to carry it out when it was finished. When the time came, it looked huge. But my son and I had no trouble getting it onto the grass outside.

4. In a children’s novel of mine that’ll be out later this year, I use several sailing-related experiences of my own (including the boatbuilding one) for the story. Another one is when I was sailing a dinghy in beautiful Loch Ewe with a friend. We were beating upwind in the middle of the loch when a nasty squall came over. My friend, who hadn’t done much sailing, started singing hymns. They obviously didn’t work because we were dismasted and just blown all the way back to where we’d started from.

5. As a student, I spent a year in the Franco-British college in the Cité Universitaire in Paris. One night we were playing cards when there was a terrifying explosion. A terrorist had detonated a bomb at the entrance to the US college on the opposite side of the single track road. The confusion after an event like that is indescribable. So is the depression you feel at the fact that people are capable of doing such things.

6. My first published work was a parody of John Masefield’s poem Cargoes. His was about ships, mine was about dogs.

7. All of the above are true.

Part of the deal is to pass the award on. Rosemary’s already nominated some of the ones I’d have chosen, so I’ll just add, in no particular order:

Scary Azeri

Murderous musings

Montana for real

Linda Faulkner

Marley Delarose

Sandie procrastinates

Mysterious writers

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

TV or not TV

There’s too much whingeing online by authors who feel it’s their right to have a publisher and/or an agent. I know from experience that it’s frustrating to see the rejection slips piling up and get those two line e-mails reassuring you that they’re not suggesting you’re crap and they hope someone else will take your work. But the fact is that they’re busy people and the market is very crowded. Another fact is that many of the apparently unloved books are of very high quality (although some aren’t). The reason I’m saying all this is because I don’t want you to think that what follows is me complaining about anything. So this is the story.

Without my being aware of it, the BBC television drama department was considering 2 of my books for possible adaptation. In other words, my detective, Jack Carston, was going to be the next Inspector Morse. (You’ll have to allow me the occasional bit of self-indulgence.) This obviously is not something to complain about. I did nothing to bring the books to their attention and I imagine that 99.9% of authors would consider themselves privileged to be in such a position – and I do.

I first heard of it when I received an e-mail asking if the television rights for The Darkness and Rough Justice were available in principle. I resisted the urge to jump up and down, phone everybody I knew, buy a yacht and even say anything about it on this confessional. Instead, I calmly replied that they were, only realising later that instead of writing ‘Hi’ at the beginning, I’d written ‘High’. (I’m not making that up. It perhaps indicates that I was experiencing levels of elation unbecoming in a man of my years.)

I then heard nothing for about seven weeks, so I wrote again and asked what was happening. I got a very nice reply, revealing that they liked the character of my detective and adding details which showed that they had given the book a close reading. But they decided that the narrative approach in the novel would be difficult to adapt for television. I can understand why they thought that although I don’t altogether agree with them.

Naturally enough, I was disappointed. Despite the fact that I try to convince myself that nothing will come of such promising situations, there’s always a sneaking feeling/hope that it will. So rather than the satisfaction of being proved right, I had the feeling that something had been snatched away from me. But that’s not true. On the contrary, I should and do take pleasure in the fact that they were considering the books at all.

Nonetheless, the feeling was there. But then, the next day, when friends and family had commiserated and said positive, complimentary things, what remained was not a feeling of dejection, but the thought that, having got so close without doing anything at all to deserve it, I should overcome my idleness and start being as active as Linda suggested in her recent posting. If a committee is sitting discussing my books while all I do is sit with my feet on the desk, what might happen if I actually stood up?

I’m not saying that this is a new me, or that I’m preparing my Oscar speech, but it is true that this sort of abstract encouragement is all it needs for a writer to feel validated. OK, in the end I wanted to tell you this, but I also wanted to extend its significance. I think it sums up a lot of the daily experience of being a writer. Yes, it illustrates the disappointments but it also calls attention to the privileges we have. We do the writing, enjoy ourselves, create the characters, the settings, the worlds, and send them off. And then we wait. And wait. But, as we’re waiting, we also hope – and that’s a luxury which isn’t available to everyone. In fact, if we consider the deprivations and abuses some people have to endure, hope seems a very fragile and scarce commodity.

As I’ve said, the agents, publishers, and others in whose computers or on whose desks our manuscripts are sitting are busy people and our book is one of hundreds they’ve received that week. Working their way through them is an administrative process. But while it sits there, it’s our little Godot and can be the source of very happy dreams.