Saturday, 3 November 2012

Hand Knitted Electricity

Just a short post today announcing the publication of Hand Knitted Electricity which I had a hand in.

 I should warn you that this so-called book is not for those of a nervous disposition, or indeed anyone easily offended by the politically incorrect. So don't go buying it for your sweet old granny thinking it's about knitting and stuff because you might precipitate her early demise. The publisher cannot accept any liability for suffering caused, but if  you're willing to take the risk on your own head be it and if she leaves you a sizeable inheritance you might like to chuck a few quid in our direction by way of thanks.

Anyway, if you like a laugh you might enjoy it. It's available from Amazon, or for those of you with Kindle from here.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

When Words Get In The Way (or how not to be Mr Hutchinson)

One thing writers have in common is a love of words. After all, they are our stock in trade. So it would be strange if they didn't hold a certain charm, even fascination. There is something about the sound of the right word, the feel of it in the mouth, the sight of it on the page, that is immensely satisfying. But as with all pleasures it can become an obsession.

Do you enjoy word games like Scrabble? Do you cancel appointments so as not to miss your daily dose of Countdown? Do you sit up late trying to finish the Times crossword? If so, you could be a lexaholic.

Stephen Fry is a famous one and it shows. Robert Robinson was another - remember all that camp delivery on Call My Bluff? The pure joy of words is the greatest spur to a wordsmith, but it can also be their downfall.

Because it's so easy to let your passion get the better of you. Remember, story telling is about communication - it's a two way street, like a conversation. Just as you would bore a listener rigid by spouting great long pompous sentences of obscure and unnecessary words, you lose the reader in much the same way. If you have a propensity to wax lyrical all the more need for critical editing, either from yourself or a sympathetic beta reader.

Otherwise you run the risk of sounding like a pompous bore, as this clip from Fawlty Towers shows:

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Santa Claus touched me up, claims elf.

The world of fictional characters was shaken to its foundations today in the wake of a new ITV documentary, "Kringle the Kiddy Fiddler" in which several underage elves claim the much beloved seasonal benefactor sexually assaulted them.

"I was working late in his workshop at the North Pole," claimed one sobbing elf who wished to remain anonymous. "When I heard the familiar Ho-ho-ho and the next thing he'd yanked off my tights. It was dreadful. I haven't been able to work since, I was so traumatised."  

A spokesman for Christmas said these allegations were completely scurrilous and unfounded. "Santa Claus is the seasonal Father to children everywhere, and there is nothing whatsoever unnatural about an old man in a red suit creeping into children's bedrooms in the dead of night to give them the contents of his sacks. For anyone to say otherwise is pure malice."

But other alleged victims have since come forward to add their sordid stories to the debacle. "He asked me if I wanted to pet his reindeer," said one. "Then we drove around in his Rolls Royce Sleigh drinking eggnog. I started to feel dizzy then the next thing I knew he had his hand up my dress."

Santa Claus, or Kris Kringle as he is known informally, has long been celebrated for his generous gift giving to children and works tirelessly every Christmas Eve to bring presents to every child, near or far. He has been recognised by having his picture on Christmas Cards and in songs like "Santa Claus is Coming To Town".  He has always maintained a wall of strict privacy regarding his private life and consistently refuses media interviews.

"It's just not right," claimed a former reindeer who claimed he was sacked for speaking out about Kringle's activities in 1987. "Something should be done. He's a menace. They should get someone safer who's good with kids. Like that Jimmy Savile bloke."

Santa Claus declined to comment.

Monday, 24 September 2012

...and trolls

As a companion piece to my last blog I thought it pertinent to mention another species of review which gives cause for annoyance or amusement depending on whether you are on the receiving end.

With review sites like Goodreads and all retail sites having customer reviews which are open to anyone regardless of whether the purchase of said item can be verified, the way is clear for trolls to put the boot into any unsuspecting author they deem deserving. I call them trolls because personal attacks on an author can hardly be called reviews. These troll attacks can be the result of many things, but usually it's someone with a grudge for one reason or another.  I've seen spates of negative "reviews" appear after a forum debacle or after an author has received a bad press for whatever reason. Self publishing guru John Locke received a raft of these after the revelation that he had paid for some of his reader reviews. 

You can easily spot these in the one-star or two-star (if they're feeling generous) section. The giveaway is that they contain no specific details about the book, only vague criticisms of style/genre/cover art spiced with digs at the author. They often lead to bitter rows in the comments too which reinforce the vitriolic motive.

As well as these there also is a subset of trolls who fancy themselves as experts on a particular subject and make it their mission to nitpick every detail in a novel in order to write self-aggrandising reviews which are really nothing to do with the book at all but a means to show off their amazing prowess. Historical fiction is particularly prone to this kind of trolling.

These trolls are more interested in boosting their own self image than relaying useful information. Some barely mention the book, instead listing their own (dubious) qualifications. Sadly their lack of knowledge is even more apparent than the gaffes they are uncovering. Some have trouble stringing a coherent sentence together and it is hard to take someone's pompously proclaimed qualifications seriously when they can't even spell.

So there's much entertainment to be had from troll reviews. What do you do if you get one? Have a good laugh and ignore it. The one thing trolls love is to get attention - it's the reason they do it, after all. Don't feed them.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

On Sock Puppets and Reviews

Everybody's doing it. Or so it would seem.

In case you haven't heard - in which case you should come out of that sensory deprivation chamber NOW and get with the programme - there's been a lot of rumpus this week about authors faking rave reviews by creating sock puppet accounts. Go and Google sock puppet if you want all the sordid details, I can't be bothered trawling through the multitude of news items. Not only that but SP guru and Kindle pin-up boy John Locke admitted he'd achieved his jaw dropping sales by paying for five star reviews. 

Well, I'm disillusioned. With each new revelation it seems the world of honest law-abiding authors and reviewers is nothing more than an illusion. And I can't help wondering how long this has been going on. Did the doyens of literature stoop to such disreputable tactics to launch their masterpieces?

Amazon review of:  Oliver Twist by Norbert Cheeseworthy

This is the best of books. It's not the worst of books. Were I a younger man I'd aspire to write such a tome myself.

Was this review helpful to you? YES/NO    78 out of 98 people found this review helpful. 

Amazon review of: Genesis by Old Testament Scribe

And lo! I looked upon the face of the book and saw that it was good. Certainly worthy of five stars.

Was this review helpful to you? YES/NO    8965 out of 98888 people found this review helpful

Amazon review of Emma by Regency Fop

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a discerning reader should shell out a good part of his fortune to gain possession of this book.
                                                      Was this review helpful to you? YES/NO   76 out of 82 people found this review helpful

Friday, 24 August 2012

In the Interest of Press Freedom

For several days now a picture has been posted widely online, in fact one might say it had "gone viral" in modern parlance. In spite of its easy availability Buckingham Palace has asked me not to publish the picture on my blog on the grounds that it violates the privacy of a well-loved member of the royal family. But the larger issue is one of press freedom. For that reason, and nothing to do with getting a few more hits than normal, I have decided to publish and be damned.

So here it is. The picture the Royal Family did not want you to see:

Next week: Harry gets his nob out.

Saturday, 11 August 2012

Getting Fit

It was time to take action. After over a year of vegetating indoors - practically taking root in my desk chair - I have finally run out of excuses and started Jillian Michaels 30 Day Shred which seems to be working in that my legs are killing me. But it's good to feel fitter. I've even splashed out on a new mountain bike.

I used to be fitter but in the last few years it's slipped down my list of priorities to somewhere behind Sprawling and Pigging Out.  That's the trouble with a sedentary lifestyle where the most exercise you get is clicking a mouse button. But I do find better fitness is worth the effort in lots of ways other than squeezing into my clothes. More oxygen to the brain fuels creativity and ideas come more easily. Energy levels increase so housework and anything requiring effort becomes easier. 

Part of my new fitness kick is cutting down on the junk food and alcohol which hasn't been as hard as I'd imagined. I'm sleeping better and feeling calmer. 

So, what do you do to keep in shape?

Sunday, 5 August 2012

In Praise of Scrivener

One question that frequently comes up on writers' boards is whether to use writing software. Does it help?

Well, as I've frequently said on this blog, I am something of a writing software junkie.  Or at least I was until I bought the software that cured me. It wasn't easy. It meant changing to a Mac computer, but I've never regretted it.

Now, I should say for starters that no writing software will do the work for you. But a good programme, like a craftsman's tool, makes everything so much easier. When I started novel writing I wrote in Word which seemed to serve my needs adequately during the drafting stage. It was only when a huge revision was needed that I realised its limitations. Don't get me wrong, Word is a brilliant word processor. It just isn't designed for large scale projects and when it comes to moving large chunks of text around it is clunky and slow. Not ideal. That was when I became tempted by Scrivener.

Scrivener is the perfect tool for novelists, although it can be used for any type of writing. You can organise your chapters and scenes right from the planning stage through to final revisions and shuffling things around is dead easy. The Binder, at the left hand side of the screen, shows graphically how your scenes are laid out so you can see everything at a glance. Your scenes are also summarised on index cards so you can move them around that way too. There are templates for character and scene descriptions, customisable full screen mode for writing without distractions, automatic backups and easy import of research files from the internet.  And loads more. Really, this programme has it all. I've never felt the need to use any other programme in the few years I've used it.

So, if you have a few bob to spend and want to make your life a lot easier you could do worse than buy Scrivener. You can even download a free trial first, to see how you like it. More details can be found here.

Friday, 27 July 2012

The Graveyard of Abandoned Projects

Gah! I have been through the wringer with this WIP, let me tell you. I don't usually suffer from writer's block but there are days when it's like wading through treacle.

But finally the end is in sight. The end of this revision, that is. And possibly the end of this WIP because I promised myself if one more run through doesn't fix it I would stop torturing myself and consign it to the Graveyard of Abandoned Projects.

The trouble with this writing lark is the more you do it and the more you learn about what is right and what is wrong the harder it becomes to feel satisfied with what you've written. I've learned a lot writing this particular book, or I should say rewriting it since I've spent more time doing that. I have umpteen files of discarded material as proof of my many changes of mind. But at least I've stuck with it and should have a semi decent draft of something which may never see the light of day but does at  least have a beginning, middle and end.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

More on Reviews

I've discovered a new pastime/hobby/source of entertainment.

Purely by accident I wandered into a page of one star Amazon reviews for, of all things, a Bic ballpoint pen.  You wouldn't have thought such a mundane item could be the inspiration for such hilarity, would you?  But it's a testament to how creative people can be.  

So it's set me off on a mission to find the most creative reviews.

Here's a great one on best selling Mum Porn, Fifty Shades of Grey.

Have you seen any brilliant reviews lately?  Please post your suggestions in the comments below.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Reviews and Author Feelings

Reviews have always caused angst.  A good review in the right place can propel a book/film/show into the stratosphere, and let's face it nobody likes a bad one however much they may claim to ignore them.

Time was when only professionals could review, but no longer.  With customer feedback on all retail sites and Goodreads, suddenly everyone's a critic.  And these days, with more people dipping a toe into self publishing, the question of eliciting good reviews raises its own ethical issues.

I recently encountered a situation where a SP author had entered into a reciprocal arrangement with another SP author to review each other's books.  A problem arose when, having read the book, she felt unable to give more than two stars as she could clearly see its faults.  "How do I review the book without hurting her feelings," she asked.

The trouble with this sort of arrangement is it can lead to a You Scratch My Back and I'll Scratch Yours scenario that devalues the whole reviewing process.  I've seen people say that they no longer trust Amazon five star reviews because of it, which is a shame because hearing others' opinions can be very useful, but only if the opinions are genuine.  

If you feel your hands are tied, because you naturally want the author to look favourably on your own book, there is no way you can give an honest review.  Even if you try to soften the criticism with blander statements, what use is that to potential readers who the review is for?  If you can't tell the truth, don't do it.

My friend decided not to review the book in the end, explaining her concerns to the author by email. I think this was the best course, and a lesson for the future to avoid such arrangements unless you have already read and enjoyed a book and could endorse it with total honesty. 

The best way to get a five star review is to write a five star book.  

Sunday, 24 June 2012


So many shades of green!
Normal service has been resumed.

It was nicer than I expected.  Our cottage was near the loch side so you could walk from the front door down to the water where it was so peaceful, apart from the lilting burn (which was pretty full - we got our fair share of rain although the sun shone more than I dared hope),  the only other sounds the meh-ing of sheep in the nearby field and birdsong.  We discovered a colony of lizards in the rockery and one evening I spotted the barn owl, an eerily silent figure flitting through the orchard.

And midges.  Of course.  I got a good crop of bites - by the way, why is it always me who gets eaten alive and not OH?  Is his blood less tasty?

And it turned out we had wifi which I didn't expect so I've been lurking about the internet after all.  So much for my good intentions.

Anyway I feel relaxed and spaced out now so it's ironed out a few of my wrinkles.  Here are a few snaps to give you an idea.

At the loch side

looking towards Schiehallion

Me & Theo with OH and son Scott

Saturday, 16 June 2012


Well, it's finally arrived.  My long anticipated holiday is here at last.  In a few hours I'll be zooming up the motorway to the Perthshire wilderness for a week of solitude, pub grub and no internet.

It's odd but the prospect fills me with a kind of giddy panic.  It's so easy to go online I'm hardly off it these days - not that that's a good thing - but I'm hoping its absence will help me get my head together on one or two projects.  

I'm taking a minimum of writerly paraphernalia, basically notebook and pen. It's so long since I didn't type it will be interesting to see if I can still write longhand.  I might end up pulling something and having to wear a splint.

This being Scotland there's a good amount of rain forecast, so I might even drown!

Anyway, before I go here's an interesting blog post I spotted this week that might be worth your attention.  

Be good!

Saturday, 9 June 2012

This and That

A miscellany for you this week.

I'm not a fan of writing rules, as you know, but this list from legendary film makers Pixar hits the spot.

And speaking of legends, master novelist Ray Bradbury passed away this week.  Here is a lecture he gave in 2001 to new writers.  Enjoy!

Saturday, 2 June 2012

The Joy of Editing

I'm heavily into editing this week.  It's tough going but I think I'm making headway.  One thing I'm discovering as I go along is whenever I hit that wall - you know the feeling where you catch yourself procrastinating and can't get then energy to drag yourself back to work?  Well, whenever that happens I'm finding there's something fundamentally wrong with the scene itself, either it's not needed at all or it's the wrong viewpoint.  Often times the whole scene is redundant.  I find that in the early stages of writing a story you write a lot of stuff that turns out to be unnecessary, it's part of the process of discovering the characters and exploring the story world.  I'm trying to trust my instincts in this edit.  If my heart isn't in it, that's a sign that something radical needs to change.

What about you?  Do you have any tell tale signs that signal a need for radical editing?

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Back on Track

I'm feeling uplifted this week.  It's not just the exceptionally fine weather which has sprung unexpectedly from the depths of a wintery deluge, although that doesn't hurt.  No, I've had something of a breakthrough in my thought processes.  For months my current WIP has been languishing in limbo, resisting all attempts to kick it into a shape fit for consumption.  My creativity has been stymied by indecision.  In the last month I dragged it out of mothballs and forced myself to rearrange the scenes.  This helped get me involved with it again but still the same doubts lingered. I know the story and don't want to change the plot significantly, but the structure wasn't right and I couldn't see how best to fix it.

As I mentioned last week I've been revisiting my old friend Dwight Swain, and his chapter on Beginnings, Middles and Ends pinged something in my recesses of my brain.  Thus inspired I have set to work on the editing - hopefully the final attempt, if this one doesn't crack it I will shelve this project for good and chalk it up to experience.  So now I'm feeling purposeful.  It's a bit like realising where you are when you've got lost.  I have a plan of progress to work to and it feels great.

Because I like to write.  When I don't write, because I'm stuck, I get anxious.  But sometimes it takes a prompt from somewhere unexpected to help get back on track.  That, for me, is the best use of How To Write books.  The good ones will fire your imagination and help negotiate tricky problems.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

What I'm Reading

This week I have been mostly reading:

Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain

I read this book yonks ago but what's alarming is I don't remember much of it.  Maybe it was too soon in my writerly development to make an impression.  Anyway, I saw it recommended recently and decided to revisit.  As you know, I'm something of a How to Write bookaholic - can't count how many I've devoured over the last ten years.

It's a relatively old book (first published 1965) but even taking that into account he gives sound advice on writing better stories, from structuring conflict  to developing workmanlike habits.  He stresses the importance of feeling in writing fiction, something that's easy to loose sight of when researching and becoming obsessed with facts.

Plotto by William Wallace Cook

Has been on my night stand for a few months.  It's another old book - 1928 this time - and is less a how to book than a catalogue of complications to help construct plots.  To be honest, I'm finding it hard to get into and haven't quite cracked the system he uses despite a couple of attempts.  Maybe I'll take it on holiday with me next month and give it my fuller attention.

The Secrets of eBook Publishing by Mark Coker

This is an easy to read guide by the founder of Smashwords.  Downloaded onto my Mac which means I can only read it in bite sized chunks, but a useful guide.

Think Like A Publisher by Dean Wesley Smith

Another How To guide, from publisher and author Smith.  Makes interesting reading on all aspects of setting yourself up as a publisher.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

More Internet Insanity

There's an old saying, "Nowt as queer as folk!" And if you hang around the internet for long enough you'll find it's no exaggeration.

This week I was tipped off on a writers' forum about a blog post where a self-published author had voiced some opinions on reviewing.  The forum post was clearly a call to arms because when I followed the link I found a dozen or more posts haranguing the poor woman for nothing worse than having an opinion.  How dare you, they cried as one, tell us how to voice our opinions.  Shame it never occurred to the nitwits they were doing the exact same thing.

Because we all have opinions and we all think we're right.  Maybe we are, maybe we aren't.  But unless we're putting a gun to someone's head and forcing them to do our will, where's the harm in it?  If you don't like a book or a blog or the colour of someone's hair, so what?  You're entitled to your opinion just as I'm entitled to ignore it.

The internet community is a funny place.  It is an unreal world peopled largely by creatures of our own imagining.  We put faces to these strangers based on the things they post - we begin to feel a connection or a revulsion depending on how well they match up to our own values, and it can feel oddly intimate considering it is nothing more than words over the ethernet.   For some individuals the internet should come with a health warning because that very anonymity brings out the worst in them.  I've blogged before about the groupthink effect on forums, but there are also trolls who no doubt see themselves as crusaders, ridding the internet of injustice, persecuting anyone whose ideas they dislike, stalking and spying in a way only previously found in Le Carre novels.  It's bizarre to the point of insane.  Isn't it enough for these people that they be allowed to voice their opinions?  Apparently not.  

I recently saw a discussion about whether Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler's infamous magnum opus, should be republished in Germany.   I hadn't realised it was banned there until now, but it doesn't surprise me.  We have come to think of Nazism and fascism as synonymous, thanks to several decades of hefty propaganda.  But the fact is fascism is all around us and always has been.  It's in you and me.  Yes it is.  Whenever you want to delete a comment or ban a poster who has said something you don't like, that's fascism in action.  It's a human disease - intolerance.  But really, there is no need to ban or edit or delete anyone.  

Because they're just opinions, people.  They can't hurt you. 

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Do Books Change the World?

So, what are we writing for?  Can writing make a difference?  Or is it just entertainment?

Of course there are examples of non-fiction which has helped to shape and alter public opinion, but can fiction?

The danger of setting out to make a difference is you may fall into the trap of preaching which is one of the biggest reader turnoffs.  And fiction, like any art form, is only partially in the mind of the author.  Every reader will take something different from it, depending on their own attitudes.  Sometimes they will even take something that was never intended, had never even occurred to the author.  Is that a bad thing?  Is there a right and wrong interpretation of a book?  I don't think so.

All we can ever do at any given moment is be true to our own vision of the story.  After it goes out into the world it's up to the reader to decide what we are trying to say.  So our sweet love story may be seen as a scathing indictment of the class system, our edgy thriller a critique of modern day morality.  It's in the eye of the beholder and not completely under our control.

So I think fiction can make a difference but usually unintentionally.  Readers are too many and varied a group to react identically to the same story.  Of course, in times of change a novel can capture the zeitgeist of the moment and become emblematic, for example Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.  But such instances are rare and unpredictable.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

A Tribute to Human Spirit

I'm posting a link this week.  No, this isn't anywhere I've been - I'm much too cowardly to venture into such a terrifying place as this - but it's fascinating to think that people voluntarily go up there, presumably for the thrill of danger.  

Here it is.  While you're watching, you might like to reflect on a few things.

According to Wiki, Camino Del Rey was built between 1901 and 1905 to carry materials up to the hydroelectric plants in the Spanish mountains.  It is a concrete walkway, a metre wide, supported by steel girders.  Just imagine what it must have taken to build such a precarious path in so inhospitable a location. Were lives lost?  

It just goes to show the determination - some might even say foolhardiness - of the human spirit.  But if people can imagine something, and they need it badly enough, they will succeed.  It's inspiring.

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Sponsored Classics

With the contraction in the book business it seems the Advance is shrinking faster than a Spice Girl on a postpartum diet. For those of you who aren't familiar with advances - which planet are you from, by the way? - they are a lump sum paid by publishers to authors as a way of sealing the contract between them.  The term really means an advance of royalties, so naturally the amount offered will reflect:

a. how much the publisher values the acquisition and feels confident about selling

b. how much effort and expense they are therefore likely to expend in promoting the book

That was back in those halcyon days before the world economy collapsed and Amazon was just a scary story Acquisition Editors told their juniors to keep them in line.  In these cash strapped times advances are hard to come by.  So what can we authors do to find alternative sources of income to support our art?

Perhaps it is time to find commercial sponsors?  It happens on TV after all.  Product placement is hardly new.  Maybe it's time classics new and old carried some familiar household products to help generate revenue?

We could have: 

Hard Times by C. Dickens, sponsored by Rotary Watches.
The Constant Gardener by John Le Carre, sponsored by Levington's Compost
Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss, sponsored by Whiskas
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, sponsored by Thomas Cook
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan, sponsored by Stannah Stairlifts
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler, sponsored by Nytol

Saturday, 14 April 2012


I've had anniversaries on my mind this week, probably because both my wedding anniversary and birthday have occurred within the last eight days.  They seem to whiz round with ever increasing rapidity but I'm sure you find the same.

Another more momentous anniversary falls tomorrow.  The Titanic sank one hundred years ago.  Even a century after the event the resonance of that shocking disaster still touches people like myself who were born many years after it and weren't concerned personally in any way.  But the facts of it are so huge in scale and still difficult to comprehend.  Titanic was the pride of its shipping line, the biggest and best of its kind, the most luxurious and invincible.  And yet five days after starting its maiden voyage it lay at the bottom of the ocean, a testament to the fallibility and frailty of humanity.

Of the 2 223 on board who woke that morning, only 710 would see another dawn.  Among them were men, women and children; crew members and passengers; rich and poor.  1 517 deaths in the space of a few hours.  It is a sobering thought even one hundred years on.

I recently watched A Night to Remember, the 1958 British film of the disaster, and can heartily recommend it not only as a faithful representation but also as a gripping piece of filmmaking. 

We should remember this anniversary, if only to remind ourselves that however grand the human race thinks it is, nature always holds the trump card. 

Saturday, 7 April 2012


Back when I was a young whipper snapper, oh - must be around the time of the Ice Age - when I went to school we got "Composition".  That's what they called stories back then.  For a long time I thought it was just a fancy name that looked better on the front of your jotter than "stories".  Because as far as I could tell there was no difference.  

But composition is important, indeed crucial, to telling a good story (not that I learned that in school - the word itself was all I remember being taught).

I've come back to this recently because, in my quest to improve as an amateur artist I have encountered some interesting advice that pertains to writing as well as art. And it's this:  If you have trouble finishing a project, it's likely that the composition is wrong and no amount of tinkering will ever make it right.

So what is composition?  In art, it's the arrangement of elements in your picture. For a picture to be effective it has to be composed well from the outset, or the planning stage.  We need to be aware of the focal point - the punchline if you like.  Where is the eye drawn?  What is the ultimate point?

And stories are the same.  What is the message, or point of the story?  Are all the elements arranged to lead the reader to that point or does it lose focus?  In other words, is the story composed in such a way to carry the reader to the conclusion we want?

So, if you are constantly tinkering with a story and can't seem to get to a satisfactory conclusion, maybe your composition is off.  Maybe the characters aren't the best fit, or the setting, or the events.  It's food for thought.

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Last Day of March

According to the adage, it should go out like a lion since it came in like a lamb.
This is the time of the year when time seems to accelerate.  Maybe it has something to do with losing that hour last weekend.  The days are longer now, and next week will be Easter.  My garden is bursting forth, especially the weeds, and birds are clamouring for food like it's going out of style.

What else does March 31 commemorate? 

In 1889 the Eiffel Tower was officially opened.

In 1942 the Japanese invaded Christmas Island.

In 1966 the Soviets launch the probe Luna 10 to orbit the moon.

Birthday of French philosopher Rene Descartes (1596), German composer Johannes Sebastian Bach (1685)and American actor Christopher Walken (1943), amongst others.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

On Colour

I'm a great lover of hue.  Who's Hue?  No, not that kind of hue.  I mean colour.  Part of what draws me to drawing and painting is the chance to pour colour onto the page.  But I'm discovering something interesting about hue.  Although it seems like the most important part of a picture, it's actually hardly important at all.  What's more important is the relationships between the colours you use.

Take an old master like Rembrandt.  His painting are set on dark grounds and with a limited palette of colours, but the secret of his lifelike portraits is the hue is perfectly chosen to convey not only form and shade but also the character of the subject.

So you don't need a whole spectrum of colour (my first mistake) in fact the more colours you use the harder your task in conveying form.  But finding just the right hue is no easy task and takes a lot of trial and error.  This weekend I have tried copying one of his pictures with pastel pencils on a ground of black acrylic. It's been a fun exercise to find which shades to use for flesh colours and I'm modestly pleased with the result.

And I can't help thinking that fiction is a lot like that too.  Hit the right note with your characters, give enough light and shade, and your story will come to life as you'd never expect.  Too much and nothing works.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

The Obsequious Tweet

Twitter.  What's it for?  I mean, really.

The word originally meant endless noisy birdbrained chatter, but that differs from Twitter

No, I can't see a difference. 

 OK, I know what you're going to say.  Oh, it's a great way to build a platform and promote your books yada yada yada... That's what I thought too, except with Everybody and His Auntie up on the ethernet shouting about their books all the time who's going to notice?  And what's worse, Twitter seems to be counterproductive in many ways.  If all I know about someone is they want to sell me their book I'm not enthralled, or even interested.  In fact I'm bored.  Shouting Buy Buy Buy till you're blue in the face might work on prime time tv but trust me it don't work on Twitter.

Oh, but you can follow all sorts of famous people and find out what they're really like.   I follow a few of the famous and not-so-famous-but-slightly-more-important-than-me and I admit it can be mildly diverting to find out where they buy their support hose or what they had for tea.  But some of their peccadilloes are best kept hidden, frankly.  If my favourite author is a Holocaust denier and thinks East Europeans should be repatriated it's not exactly enhancing his reputation.  Just because someone excels in their work doesn't make them a wholesome or even decent individual.

Oh, but you have to network.  What that means is sucking up big style to publishers, agents, authors or anybody who can use their influence in your favour.  It's called assmosis and it's as old as time, not a Twitter invention at all.  But there's something unsavoury about the way it is played out on Twitter for all to see, stripping all parties of their dignity.  Typical exchange:

FamousAuthor: So glad to finish pesky edits.  Time to get out of my support hose and uncork bubbly.
Asskisser: Congratulations! When will book be out?  I can't wait!
FamousAuthor:  Probably not till next year.  Sorry.
Asskisser:  Oh, please don't apologise.  You've given me a treat in store. You're the greatest writer in the world...suck..suck..

This will have to do as it's triggering my gag reflex, but you get the picture. I've seen so much of it lately it's made me wonder when these creeps get time to do any writing with their tongues so firmly jammed into so many tight crevices.

Of course it's inevitable that these feted individuals become corrupted by the attention and drunk on their power can overstep the boundaries of professional ethics.  I recently witnessed a Famous Agent post a photograph of a hand scrawled and unspell-checked letter from someone claiming to be an aspiring author.  To my jaundiced eye it looked more like an elaborate piss take, but in any case it gave her hordes of Twitter followers the opportunity to cluck such grovelling responses as:

OMG I'm so sorry you have to put up with things like that! 
With your great skill you could sell it anyway!
Can I apologise on behalf of all aspiring writers everywhere.

Not one of them questioned her motives for putting a private letter up for public scrutiny.  Some of these people have fawners, not followers.

Saturday, 10 March 2012


I've been struggling to sketch a portrait from a magazine.  Beautiful model, head tilted back, photographed from below, not too much light and shade.  It doesn't look like a hard subject but my first attempt looked like a hideously deformed dwarf.

Then it dawned on me I was forgetting about perspective.  The rules of proportion only apply when the subject is viewed straight on at a level plane.  Once you alter anything, like a turn and tilt of the head or drop below the horizon line the image distorts accordingly.  What is closer appears larger.  Like a terrace of houses, all the same size, petering away into the distance when viewed from the end of the street.

The odd thing is our brains are so accustomed to processing the images we see that they automatically allow for the effects of perspective so that we are no longer conscious of it.  I'm having to train myself to override this faculty to draw what I see rather than what I know is there.  

I think this same loss of vision happens whenever we're too close to or familiar with something.    It may explain the myopic views of some publishing professionals faced with the changes happening at the moment.  After all, it's hard to see something afresh when you've looked at it unthinkingly for many years.  

As my sketching problems clearly show.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

So Bored

I've been boring myself rigid this week.  It's a tedious job but someone has to do it.  Some time back I scribbled some chapters of current WIP into a sketch book and now, for the sake of being better organised and being able to find things (not to mention edit them) I'm transcribing into Scrivener.  Of all the many jobs a writer has to do, this is the one I find the most brain numbing.  And struggling to understand my handwriting isn't the only problem.  

Writing on the computer more or less all the time, I've become accustomed to spellchecker and the ability to quickly and easily alter a sentence virtually simultaneously.  I'll often rearrange and revise something as soon as it's on the screen.  Hand writing is a different ball game, as I'm discovering.  So much needs reworking I'm virtually rewriting the whole thing.  And it's very tiresome.

But onwards and upwards.  There are no shortcuts it would seem.  Thank God for word processors.

Speaking of which, here is a nifty free application called OmmWriter that I encountered recently.  Very simple, total blank screen and Zen-like background music to get you in the zone. Enjoy.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Titanic Anniversary

This April will see the one hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, so expect to see a lot of commemorative documentaries and dramas about the ill-fated liner.

Even one hundred years on there's something that still fascinates people about this event. It has spawned films and books, but for me the most affecting of all is the wealth of real life stories about those who died or survived that night in the North Atlantic.  Even a look at the casualty list makes poignant reading; whole families, young and old, rich and poor, came to a sudden and bitter end that night.  Many of them no doubt believed this trip of a lifetime to the New World would be the start of a wonderful new life, never suspecting it would in fact be the end of this one.

I am currently reading The Story of the Titanic As Told By Its Survivors  edited by Jack Winocour.  Forget about all the silly Hollywood melodrama, this is the real deal.  Personal eyewitness accounts by those who were there and managed to survive. The remarkable thing is there was no drama, either on the night or in the account. That is what makes the stories so gripping.  The events themselves are terrible enough that anyone with a modicum of imagination can place themselves in the witness's shoes and relive the shocking events.  

Many of those lost were never recovered, and of the three hundred or so bodies retrieved from the water only some were ever identified.  Titanic's Ghosts is an excellent documentary about recent attempts to identify the remains.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Sketching Characters

I'm currently trying to sketch my son as an exercise.  I'm using a photo taken a few years ago.  To simplify it, I've reduced the image to black and white and trying out different techniques, papers and materials to see which is easiest to use and get the best results.  It's an interesting process.  Each time I do a new sketch I end up with something quite different.
Characters are like that, for me anyway.  Nailing a character is like trying to achieve a likeness in a sketch.  It's all about knowing what to include, and what to leave out.  Some details help inform a character, make him real and identifiable.  Get something crucial wrong and you throw the whole sketch out of whack.  Similarly acting out of character throws the reader out of the story.  It's one of those tripping up moments.

So how do you form your characters before you start?  Some authorities recommend writing out full bios, or character statements.  I think anything helps if it gets you into the mind of that character.  Some people start blogs and write it in the character's voice.  That's a good one for exploring background and attitudes.  But any time spent on this exercise is not wasted, because the Devil, as they say, is in the detail.  Get your character right and you'll create someone real that people want to read about.  And that's half the battle.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

In Praise of Libraries

I did something yesterday that I haven't done in yonks.  I went to the library.

Yes, I know. Flay me senseless with disapproving retorts.  Everyone knows you should Support Your Local Library and it was very remiss of me to neglect it for so long.  But to be honest I had forgotten all about it.  

Time was I hung around not only my local library, which isn't the greatest depository of reference material, but also the Central Library in Edinburgh, a better stocked resource, with the dedicated enthusiasm of a junkie.  When the lending allowance went up from 3 books to 15 I nearly fainted with excitement at the prospect of lugging great bagfuls of hardbacks home on wet winter evenings.  I could while away hours fingering the bindings.  

My local library looks nothing like this
So what happened?  The internet, that's what.  Why trudge out of the house when all you need to do is Google something?

But as I mentioned in my last post, I'm toying with art again and looking for inspirational material.  Some subjects call for hard copy and art is one of them.  Hence my visit, prodigal son-like, to the local library.

What was nice was they even remembered me after so long!  Now, that's the kind of personal treatment you don't get from Google, isn't it?  I might not use it much, but it's nice to know it's there.  So don't be like me, folks. Support Your Local Library.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

What Not To Write Part 2

I'm dabbling in art again.  Every few years I get the itch to paint things, but this time I'm sketching.  The urge comes and goes and I go with the flow.  But I've been reading a fascinating book called Drawing On The Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards.  It's very likely you've heard of it, being a classic in its revolutionary approach to drawing.  Everyone can draw, she says.  The problem is not in the hand or the eye, but in the brain.  Your brain has certain preconceived templates, or gestalt, into which it fits the sensory stimuli it receives.  That's why we tend to draw what we expect to see, rather than what we actually see.  Artists must learn to overcome their own brain to get to the reality, the truth of the world before them.

To help with this she suggests copying from inverted images.  Turn a person's photograph upside down and you no longer see the person but a mass of light and shade.  It's harder to copy because there are no preconceived ideas to hang the blobs on, but the results are astonishingly accurate.  In this way we bypass our own filtering system to find something more real.

And it's making me think about how I write.  Isn't that a filtering process too?  Do I really tell it like it is?  Can I tell it like it is?  Is there some way to overcome the gestalt?

Perhaps the way to do this is to write around the story, the way Edwards advocates drawing what isn't the subject.  Our brains are programmed to join the dots and fill in the missing information.  Screen actors know this principle; the single most differentiating feature of screen acting is the blank face onto which the audience project their own feelings.  Use only streaks of light and shade, the well chosen word and curious phrase, enough to suggest what is happening.  Less is more.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

What Not To Write

I recently finished a collection of marvellous short stories, Give Me Your Heart by Joyce Carol Oates, tales of obsession and twisted psychology written with such skill they leave you breathless with admiration.  At the same time there's a sinking feeling that whatever you try to write pales by comparison, but it's a sign of a great writer that you're immediately propelled to the writing desk yourself. There is nothing more inspiring than reading something that really speaks to you.  For that is where the artistry lies - knowing just how much to say and how much to leave out.

I think this is where writing becomes art above craft, knowing how much to leave to the reader’s imagination.  Because writing is a two way street; it's never all about the author, just as any communication relies on interaction of parties.   The skill lies in drawing the reader along with you.  It's hard, and all the harder for being invisible.  You don't see it on the page, because it isn't there.  You feel it in your gut.

Of course you can take inscrutability to extremes.  We've surely all read a book, most probably a set reader in full time education, which made us mad with frustration.  But what does he mean?   The critics may have orgasms over the brilliance of the metaphors but no one else can make sense of it.  At the other end of the spectrum you have dull pedantic prose lacking any mystery or nuance.  But somewhere in between is the sweetest communication, a real insight into the world of another human being, a true meeting of minds.  

"Too much information" was one of those buzz phrases a while back.  You know, the casual enquiry about someone's health met with a detailed description of the finer points of their rectal exam.  Well, it's the same sort of thing.  Some stories, particularly horror and crime thriller, ladle it on like treacle.  But for me a lighter touch is more engaging.  I always remember a line from Truman Capote's In Cold Blood;  "There was blood and hair on the walls."  Says it all.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Don't Get Me Started on ....Writers' Forums

The other day someone on one of the bazillion writing forums I belong to asked what everyone thought about An Other writing forum.  Although I belong to An Other forum I didn't reply.  Whenever these sorts of questions crop up it can be a cue for a flame war and I didn't fancy getting involved.

Forums are odd entities.  They tend to bring out territoriality in their members, even though they don't even exist in a physical sense.  The idea that you can belong to a forum is really silly when you think about it.  A group of people post comments on a web page; everything about it is mutable: for a start, the members may not even be real people at all.  Unless you have met them in the flesh how can you know for sure?  Sock puppets and fake IDs are more common than you'd expect.  And if they are real, what is it that binds you to them other than some half baked opinions?

I've been trolling around the Internet for - well, too long.  I've been a member of many writers' forums and I've noticed characteristics they all share, although they invariably claim to be unique and special:

  • They all claim to be the best and rubbish the competition.
  • They all have cliques even if they strenuously deny it, and they usually do.
  • They all have trolls and flamers even if the strenuously deny it, and they usually do.
  • They all demand loyalty to the forum and frown on any individualistic behaviour that threatens it, like making negative comments elsewhere online.
  • They all have some sort of pecking order despite claiming to be democratic, which they usually do.
It never fails to amaze me what people will put up with for the dubious benefits of belonging to a forum.  Tin pot dictators abound on these boards, self-appointed experts laying down the law as if they had some say over anything, when the reverse is patently the case.  The world of writing and publishing is not some highly organised conglomerate but a melee of competing individuals.  There are no rules other that What You Can Get Away With.  But it doesn't stop some trying to impose their own regulation and others accepting and parroting it in a self-perpetuating cycle of delusion.  

Not only do we buy this, we lap it up - we go looking for it.  Human beings seem to need the discipline of a set order even if it's only illusory.  Perhaps that's the reason we're only too happy to give up our freedom; anything is better than the chaos of reality.

But the worst aspect of forums is the Groupthink, that zombie trance of blind obedience where people act as one monstrous entity.  Somehow the monster grows, feeding off mutual flattery, steered by a few dominant personalities until the members find themselves collaborating in behaviour they wouldn't dream of doing in real life.  Bullying is the most obvious expression of this, but it can take many forms.

A kind of swaggering one-upmanship can come into play.  I've witnessed Monty Python's Four Yorkshiremen-style contests on the most bizarre topics, like who was the most abused by a former boss, or who's written the nastiest Amazon review.  At some point you hope they will wake up and have a "what was I thinking?" moment, but I wouldn't bet on it, especially if they've taken the precaution of hiding their true identity to give themselves carte blanche in the bitchiness stakes.

I was warned off writers' forums some years ago by a published author who noted that she didn't know any successful writers who bothered with them.  And it's true, the people who really could give you useful help and advice don't seem to inhabit these enclaves.  These days I do more lurking than posting - some kind of sentimental attachment stops me deleting my accounts altogether, and they are after all a fascinating study in group behaviour and self-delusion.  But I no longer believe in the Rules, the grand sounding promotional material, the self-aggrandisement.  Writers shouldn't belong anywhere if they truly want to have their own voice.