Friday, March 24, 2006

No Smoking

Here in wintry Scotland smoking in public places is banned from Monday. That's pubs, bars, places of work etc. I'm not sure the American poet John Ahearn would necessarily agree that's entirely a good thing.

Here's his witty take on the subject of the evil weed:

A Pack of Camels

A camel is a stupid beast
to walk a mile for, foul of breath,
tempered like the Middle East,
but at least he’s able to smile at death.

Not much else to grin at there
on the package where he stands;
a flat and far horizon stares
at lethal sky and lethal sand.

Our humped necropolite surveys
a very icon of decease,
where pharaoh’s emptied ashtrays
rest in pyramidal peace.

Behind him, like an ancient cough,
Kufu’s ostentatious grave;
Khafra’s crumbles further off,
past date palms sweet with slaves.

But other wonders have his eye:
beyond the surgeon general’s glyph,
in domed and minareted sky,
obverse, generic Giza drifts.

Welcome to Hotel Osiris.
Nothing stirs, not air, not gin;
the waiters stand with blank papyrus
in their grayed, untidy linen.

Business looks a rank disaster:
at the desk an owl preens
behind a tray of loose piasters
for the cigarette machines.

The ceiling fans have long ago
surrendered to the yellow air,
hang disconsolate in rows
above the pestilential chairs.

The service is a trifle lax
for such a fine establishment,
except for complimentary packs
provided by the management

in the desiccated dark oasis
of the famous salon bar,
where a plush, pervading stasis
covers the canopic jars.

On the wall a yellowed card
with a disembodied pointing hand
directs us to the camel yard
or three thousand miles of sand,

it’s difficult to say which:
but there in yellow sky we read
an ancient blue demotic pitch
for Winston-Salem’s blended weed:

“Don’t look for premiums
or coupons, as the cost of our
tobaccos prohibits the use of them,
as if any creature of an hour

fool enough to smoke this stuff
had any reason to expect
to walk with Isis long enough
to cash the tickets they’d collect.

But the fellahin may rest assured
that our endeavors will not cease;
we’ll be their sickness and their cure
until the last survivors rest in peace.”

The best statistics tell us clearly
that everyone who ever lived
is dead already, very nearly.
Life leaks like a sieve.

It appears to be a trend,
if not a tendency: research
suggests that there’s a common end
toward which we wooly creatures lurch

with all the poundage we can pack
of grief and gall and rotten luck
until the last one breaks our back
and frankly--well, that’s the crux,

isn’t it? How we choose to view it?
Life’s like smoking cigarettes:
we know it kills and yet we do it.
No one’s beat Osiris yet.

It’s one thing or another, like
my granny told me all the time,
before she died of Lucky Strikes,
a broken woman, ninety-nine.

As for me, on the recommendation of my friend Story Blook, I've just downloaded an Emmylou Harris track from i-Tunes. The song is, apparently, best appreciated when you're pissed so I'm off to see if that's true.

Enjoy your weekend.

Never on a Sunday

I don't allow myself to write on a Sunday. Even if I've been punched on the nose by my muse.

The thing is, I've got to have one day a week when I'm free from guilt. Because you know how it works normally, don't you. When I'm writing I feel I should be working (ie my day job). And when I'm working I feel I should be writing.

Oh, and just to really fuck me up, when I'm doing anything else at all I feel I should be writing.

So, I can't really win. Apart from a Sunday. Unless, that is, I break my self-imposed embargo and sneak up to my room and switch on the computer to add a few more words to my magnum opus. Whereupon of course my wife immediately looks suspicious. "What are you doing up there?"


"You're not writing that book again, are you?"


"You sure?"

"Honestly. "

"You're up to something."

"I'm just looking at some pornography."

"Hm. Okay. That's all right then."

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Do readers matter?

I'm busy writing my new novel. I've already decided in advance that I'll publish it myself, on a blog, just as I have done with A Half Life of One. This decision has some interesting consequences.

For the first time in my life I feel as if I'm writing something without anyone looking over my shoulder. I'm not worried about who is eventually going to look at my finished manuscript. Not agents, nor publishers, nor friends. Not even casual readers. I'm writing the book simply for me. Once I've finished writing and editing - a lot of editing to satisfy my own internal reader - I'll simply post up the book and forget about it.

And yet, as I've discovered with Half Life, that isn't the end of the process. People do in fact read what you've written. Whether they comment or not on what they've read doesn't matter. Thanks to the magic of the site meter you can actually see how much time people have spent perusing your masterpiece. Sometimes it's hours, spread over several visits.

So, people of their own volition put time and effort into reading what you have written. Which makes me shift a little uncomfortably in my seat. By effectively self-publishing my novel I think I may have unwittingly entered into a contract with my readers. A contract for the exchange of energy, the flow of ideas and honest emotions.

But a contract implies rules and responsibilities on both sides. And the reason I'm squirming a little at the thought is because I fear I've short-changed my readers with the ending of the book. Although the ending is good enough for me, I know from the feedback I've had that it is not good enough for them. Not all of them anyway.

Does that matter? Do I have a responsibility not to short-change my readers in any way? Am I, in fact, obliged to put things right?

I'm not at all sure what to do here. I just can't decide whether a writer has any obligations towards his/her readers or not.

You're a reader, what do you think?

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Verbal Adventures

My new book is going well but I need to push the boundaries more. My last one was too safe, particularly in its use of language. I keep thinking of something John Ahearn, the poet, said recently about the need to be adventurous in your writing. I haven't written any real poetry since I was eighteen or so but I've been looking back at some of my early efforts and I can see how experimental I was trying to be then. Some of the stuff I can't understand now, but at the time that was the whole point.

In those days I believed I would revolutionise writing. One of my early heroes was Gerard Manley Hopkins and his sprung rhythm. I don't know if he's read much these days or not. Most of my contemporaries raved about Dylan Thomas but I'm afraid to say I had my doubts. Still, he could use language in wonderful ways and you can't argue with that.

Back then of course I was a hopeless romantic. My favourite quotation was, not surprisingly, from Oscar Wilde. "People say that love is an illusion. They're wrong. Life is an illusion."

I dunno, Oscar. Maybe life and love both.

Whatever, my new book is going to take chances, to push those boundaries until they burst.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Pretty Damned Frustrating

Spent most of today (and half of yesterday) trying to convert my novel A Half Life Of One into PDF format so that people could download it from my blog.

Transforming it was actually the easy bit. There's plenty of free software around that allows you to convert Word into PDF at the touch of a button. Unfortunately I then discovereed that Blogger doesn't let you put the PDF file directly into your blog. You have to get it hosted on an independent site and then paste in a link to it. Sounds easy now. But it isn't. I must have tried a dozen different hosting sites, mostly free. Hot linking is the problem it seems.

However, I finally figured it out and it seems to be working. So if you want to download A Half Life to read offline, or even print out, feel free.

Which reminds me. I must have another go at that ending. I know what I want to do. I'm not going to change it as such. I'm simply going to add to it. Just a couple of sentences but I think they'll transform the book. Sometime this week I'll do it, when I've plucked up the courage to look at it again.

Waughn Out

Need a break from Evelyn Waugh so I've started reading The Commitments by Roddy Dyle, an Irish writer. Excellent, earthy, great dialogue. Very funny too.

Talking of which, we went to see Jerry Springer The Opera on Saturday. Saw it about a year ago on the telly and loved it. The theatre wass even better, even if we were slightly pissed. Think you'd have to be awfully narrow-minded to take offence. It might be rude, and irreligious and scatological but it's so good-natured and anyway people should laugh at themselves and others and not take themselves so seriously.

Afterwards watched a group of drunken youths kicking the shit out of each other in the road outside the theatre. One guy thumped a young woman in the face. Several did their best to kick a guy on the ground in the head. That was a form of street theatre which I did find offensive and upsetting. And pretty scary too.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Fuck me

Because in my day job I inhabit a macho, man's world I tend to swear a lot. All the time actually. It doesn't mean anything. Sometimes though the swearword gets picked up, analysed and thrown back at you in an amusing way.

Here's some standard rejoinders.

"Fuck me!" you say in amazement.

To which the polite response is, "Not while there's still dogs in the street."


"Fucking hell!" you say, even more amazed.

"Let's hope they do," is the suitably pious reply.

And now, after an exhilarating day, I'm knackered. Emotionally drained as you can see. I'm off to get quietly pissed, slumped in a corner, listening to "The Wrecking Ball" by Emmylou Harris, which I've just bought.

Have a good weekend, you hear.

I got the money

Well, I went down to the bank armed with loads of Cash Flow, Profit and Loss and Balance Sheet Forecasts and managed to raise the cash we need to expand.

I was working on the figures until late last night and got up early to check everything over. Couldn't really sleep anyway with all the adrenaline coursing through my veins. This meeting was a big thing for me.

I've slightly lost track of how many comanies I'm a director of at the moment. I think it's nine. We've spread all over the world like a virus. Small but deadly. We employ about 120 people and are recruiting hard. I own various amounts of each business from 30% up to 100%.

It's pretty damned exciting at this stage when we're growing. For every failure there's two successes. But it's stressful. Very stressful. It's easy to get it wrong and small companies don't have any margin for error. It could all go belly up tomorrow.

At one time I had hoped that by now I'd have sold out and settled down to doing nothing but writing. I'm not sure that's how I feel about things any more. I want to see how far I can take these businesses. Growing them is just as creative as writing. And a lot more lucrative.

Once I could have put my hand on my heart and said, about the businesses, I would give it all up tomorrow to be a published writer. I don't think I truly feel like that any more.

I think it's better to try and do both. After all, at least I know I can do one of the two things reasonably well.

Funny old world

In the curious, make-believe part of the literary world which I occasionally inhabit everything isn't always what it seems. For example, I cherish the illusion that readers of my novel, A Half Life of One, are discerning aesthetes, serious types in search of a life-enhancing read.

Well, one of the interesting features of of the visitor tracking statistics that I have embedded in my blogs is that it will sometimes tell you why visitors have arrived where they have. Quite often they come via Google. Because they have typed in a query. You might expect queries like "Modern literary masterpiece" or "Gloomy but interesting read" or "Something I can't put down" and so on from the type of readers I expect to attract.

But how about "Suffocated to death after the woman sat on his face"?

I don't know who was more surprised after this person's visit. Me because he ended up reading my book in which at no time does anybody sit on anyone's face.

Or him (I think it must have been a him, don't you) when he discovered the literary sensation of the last six months.

Must have been him, I think, because he only read a couple of sentences before he scarpered.

Which is exactly what I must do. Down to the bank to borrow another million to expand the business.

Funny old world, though, isn't it?

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Vile Bodies

On your behalf I've been ploughing through Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies in search of the joke I mentioned in an earlier post.

It's forty years since I first read the book and will be as long again (if I'm spared, which seems unlikely) before I'll attempt it again. It's Waugh's second novel, written in 1930. It's described in the blurb as "experimental". Stephen Fry - the British vaguely-literary personality calls it Waugh's "funniest novel". Which is just the sort of puffery which gives blurbs a bad name.

The book is completely worthless. As are the characters that populate its pages. Bright young things mostly, they are all shallow, stupid, egotistical, work-shy, amoral and, aptly, vile. If you were feeling sympathetic (which you won't be after you've read a few pages) you might describe the book as a satire. More likely you'll want to go and clean your teeth and rinse your mouth out after you've put it down half way through.

To cap it all, the joke I was looking for isn't in it.

I just hope you feel suitably guilty at what you're putting me through in my quest for historical accuracy.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

More poetry

I asked John Ahearn if I could post another of his poems. Here's what he said:

To answer your question, I'd feel exposed, racked by anxiety, filled with faceless, all-pervading dread. Sure. Put it up. Our works are like our children; for better or worse, we have to own them.

And here's what he wrote, another lovely poem:

The Wheel

At the foot of our basement stairs
A spoked wheel leans on a box,
its perfect symmetry of pairs
a pure illusion, paradox.

The eye rights it, the way the heart
restores its lost and broken objects,
trues the skewed, rusty parts
to pure, unearthly polish, reflects

gold the brass of vanished keys,
beyond price the fountain pens
forgotten in lost libraries,
perfected in nostalgia’s cloudy lens.

Eyes shine too in the mind.
In corridors of complicated sleep
they probe the shadows unresigned
to what we had, but couldn’t keep.

Ageless in a labyrinth of grace,
they search the old familiar ground
for spokes to fit the vacant spaces,
end their quiet clamor to be found.


In Brideshead Revisited, the novel I've just finished re-reading, Evelyn Waugh uses a number of big words, including "manumission".

Do you know what it means? Without looking it up. I didn't.

As a postscript, I have a vague idea there was a popular club of this name in Ibiza a few years back, but I may be wrong. I didn't think clubbers were that literate.

Monday, March 13, 2006

I wish I'd said

You know how you go through life being confronted by difficult situations and afterwards you think, "I wish I'd said..."

It happens to me all the time. Sometimes though you can get it right. Not often, but it's so sweet when it happens.

A couple of years ago my wife and I were driving back over the Grampian Mountains, in the middle of nowhere. I think we'd been to my mother's funeral. We stopped at a very isolated hotel for a drink, a former drove inn at the foot of a deep, uninhabited valley.

It was one of those places you go into where everyone stops talking and turns to stare at you. Five young guys at the bar and a very drunk old man stotting off the walls did exactly that. They couldn't have been more surprised if we'd been naked. I realised we'd made a mistake but it was too late to back out. I ordered drinks and we sat down at a window. After a few minutes the conversation amongst the young men resumed in hushed tones.

I needed to go to the toilet. I got up and walked the length of the pub to the Gents toilet. Once inside I closed the door behind me. The wooden frame was roughly made and full of gaps. I could plainly see the legs of the guys sitting at the bar through the ill-fitting slats. I could hear them too. Suddenly they started giggling. "Oh no," someone groaned, "Heggie's chatting up the boy's wife."

"The boy'll go mental," someone else said.

I turned and peered through another hole in the door. The old drunk was leaning over my wife, obviously chatting her up.

I finished my business as quickly as I could and pushed open the door. Immediately the bar fell silent. The air was thick with tension. Purposefully I strode back towards my wife. I had no idea what I was going to say or do. My mind was a blank.

The old drunk looked up at me as I approached, his head lolling backwards, his eyes rolling.

"Excuse me," I heard myself saying in a loud voice, "Is this woman bothering you?"

The whole place dissolved in laughter. They even clapped in polite appreciation when we left. It was very, very satisfying.

Brideshead Revisited

I finished reading Brideshead Revisted today. The joke I was looking for isn't in it so I'll have to read more Waugh to find it. That's not exactly a hardship.

I read the paperback I bought, according to the flyleaf, in November 1965. According to the diary I kept at the time I read the book in that same month, forty-one years ago, when I was seventeen.

It's a beautiful book, a love story on several levels, all of them inexpressibly sad. I almost cried at the end.

Time passes, good books last forever.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Me at work

Here's a film of me writing my next blockbuster

Friday, March 10, 2006

Not all black and white

I'm one of these people who don't see the world as black or white. For me it's all shades of grey.

As a result, for example, although I don't believe in God I'm an agnostic, not an atheist. That's because although there's no proof that God exists, there's none that he doesn't either. On this one I'm happy to wait and see. I'll find out soon enough. If he/she does exist by the way, I'm going to treat him/her as an equal, on my terms. I don't bend my knee to anyone. Now, I realise this might get me into trouble in the afterlife, but there are SOME things I believe in, and equality is one of them.

My lack of a rigid belief system can get me into trouble. I find it hard to condemn Tony Blair totally for example. I think he's a bit of a fraud and a chancer, a guy whose ambition has got him way out of his depth. But some of the things he's tried to do seem okay to me. Geez. I've said that and now I can't think of any examples. Not one. I'll move on quickly.

George Bush is more problematic. All I can say in his defence is that he truly believes in what he is doing. Doesn't make him right, of course. He has a rigid belief system. For him the world really is black and white. People like that - and there are a lot about in every walk of life - scare me rigid.

Call me a bleeding heart liberal if you like but the more you look at any issue the less clear cut the answer seems. That isn't a recipe for inaction, simply for more considered action.

Still, you can't tell people can you. I used to work for a guy who would argue about everything. Whatever you said he would take issue with you. One day, out of exasperation, I said, "Jeez, George, your impossible. You'd argue that black was white."

"Black isn't a colour," was his immediate rejoinder.


John Ahearn, an American poet, kindly sent me some of his poems the other day. Here's one I particularly enjoyed because it lifted my spirits when I was feeling a little down. It reminded me, too, that I should read more poetry. My soul needs it.

Fable by John Ahearn

A pointy-headed potentate
declared His closet out of date,
commissioned robes to be designed
with His divinity in mind.
The tailors ran Him up some stuff,
none of it nearly good enough:
to Him the breathy silks of China
whispered hints of something finer.

On pain of death He set His drapers
weaving bolts of silky vapor
and they did exactly that:
they brought the jaded plutocrat
a suit of air and stroked and fussed
until He was completely trussed
in nothing but His own belief,
wafting a matching handkerchief.

Light of Heaven, thus arrayed,
decreed a royal cavalcade
to show the population just how
comely was its sacred cow.
And so He rode His gilded chair
among the thronging thousands, bare,
while everybody played it cool
and noticed nothing. Enter Fool.

“He’s naked!” sang our barefoot boy;
“We’re history,” mumbled hoi polloi.
Anointed only gazed and said
a single quiet sentence: “Head.”
Someone took it from the street,
put it gently at His feet.
Awed, we watched His raiment flowing,
the silken grandeur of His going.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

What's the Grumpy Old Bookman worth?

To me about fifty to sixty extra readers a day for a couple of days.

That's what I get whenever I've managed to entice him to mention this blog. Using various stratagems I've achieved that feat three or four times now. In fact, I think I may hold the record for posts about other blogs on his site.

In our hermetic little literary world the Grumpy Old Bookman is an undoubted A-lister. He's also the only one who's ever referenced me, despite a fierce marketing campaign on my part aimed at other A-listers. It works, I think, because he knows what I'm up to - he's sees right through my little marketing ploys. Fortunately he's got a sense of humour which is similar to my own. Maybe that's because we're both getting on a bit. Oh, and of course we're both British. And he's obviously a kind guy too.

I won't be targetting him again in the near future - he's done his bit for this blog and I think he deserves a break. My one disappointment is that I haven't managed to get him to link to me. Maybe I'm a bit too frivolous even for him.

Or maybe he just doesn't read this blog.

How to get your novel read

I've harped on about this before but it's important. I'll try and keep it brief.

As you know this blog was originally conceived as a promotional platform for my novel A Half Life of One. The idea was that through a combination of my innate brilliance and wit and a crafty application of web marketing techniques I would build up a large readership who would then go and read the novel.

That doesn't work.

There's a number of reasons for this. For a start, it's extremely difficult, slow and time-consuming trying to build up your readership. To make matters worse, many of the people who visit this blog are simply not interested in reading my novel. Why should they be? Just like anyone who wanders into a bookshop on the High Street there's lots of choice, something else catches their eye, they don't have time, it's not the sort of thing they're interested in etc.

In other words most of them come here for completely different reasons.

I know all this because I've studied the stats over on Half Life's blog. They tell me where the visitors have come from, what bits of the book they've read - if any - and how long they've stayed.

So as a mass-marketing promotional tool this blog is a failure.

It's not all bad news though, not by any means. As I mentioned in an earlier post I recently stumbled across a blog called Free Online Novels run by Jennifer Armstrong. I submitted a link to Half Life which Jennifer pasted up the next day. Since then Half Life has had over a hundred visits. From people looking for something to read. Over sixty visits in the last three days alone.

The conclusion I draw is obvious. If you've got a half-decent book that deserves to be published get yourself a free blog, shove your novel on it and then tell Jennifer. You'll get readers coming to you from all over the world. Guaranteed.

Self-publishing these days really can be that simple.

Of course, you may want something more than just plain vanilla readers looking at your book. Maybe you want potential publishers and agents too. That's a whole different ball game and I'd welcome any thoughts and suggestions you might have on how to go about it.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Get over it

Round about Christmas time the words just dried up. I gave up writing my blog. I could barely write my name.

I was bemoaning my fate to my wife. Forty years of struggling to be a writer had come to this, to nothing. She was sitting on the settee across from me marking a doctoral thesis on macular degeneration. She raised her eyes wearily. "You're a failure", she said, "Get over it."

I think it's called tough love. It made me laugh anyway.

Thank you

From a writing perspective blogging has saved my life.

For years of I toiled away in isolation trying to get something published. My only communication with the literary world was the steady trickle of rejection slips that trickled through my letter box. Okay, a couple of agents did offer me some mild encouragement, probably because they were soft-hearted.

Writing in a vacuum is hard. Soul destroying. The process of constant rejection would grind down the toughest heart.

Then the blog came along.

Blogging did two things. First of all, in the constant struggle to find something interesting to say, it made me think about what I was trying to achieve with my writing. Why did I write? What was I trying to say? Who the fuck was I?

Writing my near-daily posts stretched my mind. It also got my flabby writing muscles working again. Blogging is the best exercise an aspiring writer can indulge in, believe me.

The second thing is equally important. It's called feedback. The comments visitors leave on my blogs. Suddenly I found I wasn't working in a vacuum any more. After years of neglect like-minded people were taking the trouble to offer me constructive advice and encouragement. Simply out of the goodness of their hearts.

If I get depressed at the state of the world - and thanks to Bush and Blair I often do - then thinking about some of the kind - and perceptive - observations people have made about what I'm trying to do has restored my optimism, my faith in human nature.

What's even more remarkable is the number of comments I've received. If you look at one of the literary A-listers like the Grumpy Old Bookman who gets between five and six hundred hits a day you'll see that very few people ever take the trouble to leave comments on his blog. By and large he works in a vacuum, which makes his achievements all the more remarkable.

If you want to know how to encourage an aspiring writer, it's easy. Just leave a comment. Any observation, however trivial, or cutting, or funny will be cherished, believe me. Tell me about yourself, if you wish. If you visit this blog we're bound to have things in common. Don't suffer in silence. We're in this together. No more will we be screaming into empty space.

So, if you've ever left a comment on this blog, or you might in the future, thank you. Truly. It's what literature and writing and books are all about. Readers and writers connecting. Believe me, for a writer nothing is more important.

Oh, and my next novel? It's coming along fine, thanks to you.

Brideshead Revisited Re-visited

Because no-one has been able to tell me the source of the Evelyn Waugh joke I paraphrased here I'm having to re-read the whole canon of his works in an attempt to track it down.

I've started with Brideshead Revisited, which happens to be my favourite novel of his. I've probably read it three or four times but not for maybe ten or fifteeen years. It's a little wordy and full of obscure cultural references, especially regarding art and architecture. Waugh does not wear his learning lightly but I think that's part of the joke because the book is very, very funny. Set mainly in the interwar years the book depicts the aristocratic world of the beau monde who lorded it over society at the time. This was the society that Waugh, who was upper middle class, aspired desperately to join.

Funnily enough, when I was younger, so did I.

I was brought up in a council house in a working class mining village in rural Scotland. My uncle, who was the head of the house, was no Lord Marchmain. He was, in fact, a farm labourer. I suppose you could say, in that respect, that he too came from the landed classes.

Notwithstanding my lowly social status, sated on a diet of Evelyn Waugh, I went up to Aberdeen University in 1966 expecting to meet Lord Sebastian Flyte, and drink champagne (which I had never tasted) while lounging around endlessly discussing Byzantine art with my fellow students. Just like they did at Oxford in the novel. Oh yes, and I expected to have to wear a top hat on Sundays too.

Sadly Aberdeen University didn't turn out quite like that, I didn't befriend any Lords, and I never really got over the disappointment.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The thaw sets in

After several days during which we've been more or less marooned in the house by the snow a thaw has finally set in.

The main sufferers have been the birds. A thick carpet of snow has prevented them from feeding and as a result our bird table under the tree has been mobbed. Blue tits, finches, blackbirds, robins, wrens and even a pheasant have been regular visitors. A greater spotted woodpecker hammering away at the hanging cage of nuts has been the star of the show.

The bird table features in my book A Half Life of One. Nick, the hero, watches the birds and, contrasting them with his own predicament, envies them their freedom.

But of course they're not free. They are trapped in their environment too. And in winter that's a pretty precarious place to be.

Monday, March 06, 2006

You prick

If you prick us do we not bleed? asked Shylock in The Merchant Of Venice.

I guess all writers do by definition. We're sensitive human beings. So when we get pricked by even well-meaning, gentle criticism there's a danger we'll bleed to death. There were a couple of Comments posted over on A Half Life of One at the weekend that fell into that category. Here's the first from John Ahearn:

Hi, Bill--Greeetings from the land of Bully George and Gunner Cheney.

Just finished your book this morning (still and always the Johnny come lately) and thought I'd write to thank you for posting it, and to tell you how much I enjoyed it. The idea that one can be a kidnapper and a murderer without disarranging one's life very much--as long as the bills get paid--is worthy of Kafka.

Having said that, however, I can see why it wasn't published. Without the viewpoints of the other characters, it remains a short-story that's overtopped its banks. It's a good one, but it's simply not a form that gets published. For it to be a publishable novel, and to sharpen the overarching irony, we need to be in Maureen's head through all the travail, and to hear the son's voice as his dad comes apart, and most particularly the victim's voice as she wends toward her fate. We need especially to be with her as she weakens and dies in order to know exactly how rotten a scumbag Nick truly is--while the world accepts him back as a successful rate-payer.

I hope I'm not being presumptuous in saying all this, but I felt I had to because the posted kernel is so good. I'm a fifty-nine year old booknut, voracious reader, writer. (Last published in 1969, small press, not a ripple, very disillusioning. Poet now--at least you know where you stand and what to expect.)

I'm happy to read that you've begun another. Probably the best way to go--throw this one in the drawer for a couple years, then go back to it, fit it out to travel in the world. But don't abandon it--it really is too good.

Thanks for posting it. It's a great read. --John Ahearn

I must be honest and say that the observation that the book "is a short story that's over-topped its banks" did kind of leave me mentally winded for a while. However, I'll accept the point John is making that the characters that surround the main protagonist are under-written and under-developed. I could work on that. I deliberately didn't get into their heads and write from their point of view because I wanted to underline the total isolation of the principal character. But John makes a valid point.

John's description of the "hero" Nick as a "rotten scumbag" also took me aback somewhat. I know what Nick did was wrong and that the way he did it descended into unforgiveable depravity but I always saw him as a good but essentially weak man overwhelmed by circumstances. Thinking about it over the weekend I've changed my mind somewhat and accept John is probably right - the guy is a scumbag. Trouble is, I might have done the same thing in similar circumstances and I'd rather not dwell on that possibility too long.

The second Comment came from Reader X as follows:

What about some "shortening"? Your book reads: "Five minutes later Alan Tait, the senior business director from the bank, who Nick had dealt with ever since he had founded the business fifteen years before, smiled self-consciously as he walked into the room with his right hand extended. “No chance of a game today,” he said, nodding at the view through the picture window as he avoided direct eye contact."seems too long-winded (to me).

It would prefer to read somethig like:"Five minutes later, the senior business director Alan Tait entered the room. “No chance of a game today,” he said, smiling self-consciously and nodding at the view through the window as he avoided direct eye contact."

The fact that X founded the business fifteen years before, etc, etc, could be discreetly said somewhere else (also in preferably shorter sentences).reader x

I don't quibble with any of that at all. Some of the writing is "flabby" as I've mentioned before and it could do with editing.

So where does all this leave me? Another re-write? Guys, right now I couldn't face it. I must have re-written that book twenty times already. I'm sick of it. Maybe in a couple of years.

In the meantime keep the suggestions coming. Readers are the oxgen of a blog but commentors are the very lifeblood. Prick me as often as you like guys - I really appreciate the efforts you're making to help me.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Screw you...

Screw your courage to the sticking post and you'll not fail, as Lady Macbeth said. And the same goes for blogging.

You have to keep plugging away telling it like it is if you want to build up any kind of readership. Don't lose your nerve, he honest, take chances. Just like writing a novel in fact.

A guy who really speaks a lot of sense on this subject is Kent Newsome. He's come up with a theory of "Four Reallies" which makes a lot of sense to me. Him and the Grumpy Old Bookman are the two blogs I read every day without fail.


Christopher Marlowe: Was this the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

Me: No. I never launched any ships. It's me.

Christopher Marlowe: Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.

Me: Steady, Chris. I shoved my photo into my Profile to make my blog a bit more human, is all.

Christopher Marlowe: And what are you that live with Lucifer?

Me: I don't live with Lucifer. I live with Janet.

Christopher Marlowe: Then thou must be damned perpetually.

Me: Easy, Chris, she's not a bad woman at heart. Look, I know what's bugging you. You were expecting someone a lot younger. I'm sorry. The thing is, I have the mental age of an adolescent and it comes across in my writing.

Christopher Marlowe: Ah, Pythagoras' metempsychosis, were that true.

Me: It is true, dammit. Read the blog if you don't believe me. I've had hard life. Things never worked out the way I hoped they would. Never got the book published. Beating on, against the current...All that stuff. You can't hide failure. It's etched on my face. To say nothing of the laughter lines. But what can you do? What else is there?

Christopher Marlowe: As for myself, I walk abroad o' nights and kill sick people groaning under walls: sometimes I go about and poison wells.

Me: Fair enough. Each to his own I say. I'll stick to the blog for the time being if it's all the same to you.

Friday, March 03, 2006

My Grauniad Angel

One of the surprising things about writing a blog is that you discover people are worried about you. In my case with good reason.

Over the past few weeks I've had a number of e-mails from a fellow blogger offering me advice on the appearance and content of my two blogs. She knows what she's talking about and I've implemented most of her suggestions to good effect. I think of her now as my Guardian Angel, hovering over me in the blogosphere.

She e-mailed me yesterday because she's obviously worried about something I said in one of my recent posts. I've decided to re-produce her e-mail in full (with her permission - provided I respected her anonimity) because there's so much in it for any neophyte blogger.

Here's what she had to say:

Hi Bill

Great to see your recent post about starting your next novel. That (for me) is what writing is about; the thrill of discovering/creating a story. Good luck with it, and long may the excitement continue.

Your previous post sounded very down, I thought. First, if you only get a handful of entries for the awards I think you'd be entirely justified in saying there weren't enough entries and declaring the contest void. Certainly I wouldn't feel happy accepting your money if there were only a handful of entries - I'd much prefer you to go and buy yourself a bottle of Scotch with it.

Second, you seemed unhappy about the amount of time blogging was taking up and how ineffective it was proving as a marketing exercise. (For one thing, the link to A Half Life of One isn't very prominent. I bet most people who wander past your blog don't even realise you've written a book because it just looks like a link to another blog. You could do worse than bump it up to the top of the page, like the Blookreader link, and write a sentence saying what kind of book it is. That would help make it more visible) Anyway, I wondered if you might be interested in some things I've noticed since I started blogging? This is stuff I've noticed from reading other blogs and seeing what seems to work well. It may be some interest to you; if not, feel free to ignore it.

a) it doesn't seem necessary to post daily, but it does seem important to post regularly. I think people are quite happy with the idea that a blog might only get updated once or twice a week (that's what I manage, and no-one seems to object), but erratic updates are off-putting.

b) comments seem much more likely to appear if the post asks an open question of some kind. People feel they're being asked for their opinion, so they might try giving a reply to see what happens. Bernita Harris (see below) almost always ends her post with a question.

c) people love it if you respond to their comments, especially if you respond fairly quickly. I know if I leave a comment on a blog I'll almost always go back to see if the blog owner has responded, and if they've said something nice I feel very pleased. And I'll likely decide the blog owner is a nice person and go back there again.

d) it's impossible to attract the attention of A-list blogs because they're high-status and they know it. Fellow Z-listers, on the other hand, quite readily form into loose communities of equals with similar interests, and it seems possible to find one's way into such communities. This only seems to work if there's a shared interest of some kind; all my handful of regulars either read or write historical fiction and/or have an interest in history. You clearly have an interest in writing, and I gather your new book is contemporary/recent past. I don't know what kind of book it is - mystery? thriller? literary? humour? - but you do. If you find a blog written by someone who either reads or writes modern fiction, or someone else who's tried self-publishing, chances are they might be interested in you, and you might be interested in them. Blogger's comment system seems tailor made to help people make contact with each other, so if you comment, the other blog owner knows you exist and will likely come over to see if you're interesting. If you follow the links in their sidebar, and/or click on the links for people who comment on their blog, that may lead you to other people with shared interests that you can make contact with. This has the makings of letting you into a community, or even of linking up one that didn't previously exist.

If you don't already know about them, you might be interested in Ian Hocking
who writes contemporary-ish thrillers and humour.

You may also be interested in Bernita Harris who seems to have accumulated quite a little community of writers who gather on her blog to chat. I think she has about 30 regulars (one of whom is me). She writes time-travel romance thrillers, and I think most of her regulars write contemporary mysteries and contemporary romance.

e) people love it if you comment on their blogs, but this only works if you have something to say.

f) keeping a blog going with the only the content of one's own brain is really hard work. But there are lots of things to talk about that other people might be interested in. I read a lot, so I post book reviews. I also comment on TV or radio programmes that raised something I'm interested in, and ask any readers what they thought. I comment on stuff on the net that interested me and ask people what they thought of it. Sometimes this gets a bit of a discussion going and then another posting topic might arise out of the comments.

g) pictures seem to be popular. Bernita has a whole series of coathanger cartoons, some of them rather good. Gabriele regularly posts a picture of a German castle or the local scenery - just scroll down some of the posts on her blog

I like your picture out of the window with the snow. You might want to do that again with the changing seasons, or pictures of interesting/attractive places nearby. It's a post, it's content without having to cogitate for hours, and you never know who might be interested.

h) Bernita and to a lesser extent Gabriele both post snippets of their work in progress and ask for comment, which usually provokes quite a discussion. Ian Hocking occasionally does the same. If/when you've found yourself a little community of fellow writers and/or readers, you could consider doing it. It's free content (because you've already written the text), and you might even get some useful feedback out of it.

I'm finding blogging quite fun, because it's worked out for me as a way of chatting to people who are also interested in history, historical fiction and books in general (I don't know any in real life!). If one or two of them bother to read my book when I post it, that'll be a bonus.

Anyway, I pass this on for what it's worth, just in case there's anything that might be useful to you if you're wondering how to carry on with your blog without it becoming a burden.

Best wishes


Isn't it amazing - and wonderful - that someone you don't know would take so much time and trouble to help you? It's enough to make you want to keep on blogging.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

The actual View From The Pundy House

After three days of snow here's the actual view from my study as I write

The awesome power of Google

Yesterday was a great day for me. I wrote the first chapter of my next novel. Let me say that again. I wrote the first chapter of my next novel. After years of prevarication; half a dozen false starts; and a growing fear that I did not have another book in me, suddenly it all came together.

I can't say too much about the book at this stage - I don't want to kill the magic - but it's a sort of saga stretching from 1953 until 2002. I don't know the plot exactly but I do have a pretty good idea of the main characters and I know the theme that is going to drive it forward. To be honest, I haven't been this excited for years.

The book will be different from A Half Life of One because there will be a fair bit of humour in it - as there is in any life, no matter how dark. Because it's a modern historical novel I need to do a fair amount of research to get the period right. And that, of course, is where Google comes in.

I wanted to check out a joke I read years ago. It was 1959 and my father had just died and we had fled our home in urban Essex and gone to live on a farm deep in the Scottish countryside in East Lothian. I was stuck in the farmhouse, alone and miserable with nothing to read but a stack of old Readers Digests. I was at rock bottom. Then I read one of those humourous shorts that populate the pages of the magazine and it actually made me laugh out loud. That was over forty years ago but I still remember the day that happened. Maybe the Readers digest saved my life.

You can't get much more ephemeral than a snippet in an old Readers Digest but out of curiousity I Googled the punchline I remembered yesterday. Here's what immediately leapt out at me:

[Reader's Digest, 1958]
My friend R.B. Jones doesn't have a first or middle name -- only the initials R.B. This unusual arrangement was never a problem until he went to work for a government agency. The government is not accustomed to initialed employees, so R.B. had a lot of explaining to do. On the official forms for the payroll and personnel departments, his name was carefully entered as R (Only) B (Only) Jones. Sure enough, when R.B. got his pay check, it was made out to Ronly Bonly Jones.

It made me laugh then and it makes me laugh now. But it's pretty spooky, isn't it? The whole of recorded history, no matter how trivial, seems to be available at the press of a button. My life story is out there too - insignificant and half-forgotten as it used to be - and with Google's help I'm going to recover it and re-order it and transform it into my next book.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

I can't even give it away

In the other world I inhabit I'm regarded by certain ignorant people as a pretty astute businessman. The evidnce for their touching faith in me is that I've started a number of companies over the past twenty years and a few of them are quite successful in a modest sort of way.

Accepting that I must indeed know something about business I've decided that it is time to turn my financial brain to a forensic examination of the publishing revolution I started when I launched this blog.

As you know, back in October I invented the new Read On Demand publishing paradigm as a vehicle for promoting my novel A Half Life Of One. I figure now is the time to see if the metrics make sense from a financial perspective.

Let's look at the sales side of the equation first. Analysing my stats I figure that four people have actually read A Half Life in its entirety. Maybe another four have dipped in and might perhaps return to finish the book. Let's say that's five readers in total.

What has it cost me to capture that modest readership?

Well, the main marketing promotion I launched has been via the International Blookreader Award for which I've offered total prize money of £175 (307 dollars; 257 euros; 35,577 Japanese yen). What I hoped to do here was attract readers to this site and finesse them across to the Half Life blog. So far the competition has attracted two entries, which is somewhat less than I'd hoped for. On the other hand, if it stays this way I may not have to pay out all of my marketing budget.

However, let's assume the competition attracts another entry before the closing date of 31st march that it is sufficiently literate to deserve a prize. That means in hard cask I will have shelled out £175 to attract five readers. That's £35 a reader. See, I told you this was a whole new paradigm. Be honest, when have you ever been paid £35 to read a book?

It gets better.

The blog has been going for five months. Because I've striven to generate new, original and, occasionally, witty content I've had to spend a fair bit of time wracking my brains for something to say. Let's say about two hours a day (truth is, some days a lot longer - a whole lot longer). Add in another hour a day compulsively checking my stats. That's three hours a day for roughly 100 days.

Now, imagine I was a plumber. I think a fair price for my labour would be £35 and hour. That's 61 dollars or 51 euros or 7119 yen. An hour.

So my labour costs generated in attracting my 5 readers is £10,500. Which is a lot of dollars and euros and an incalculable amount of yen.

I'll ignore my other overheads such as heat, light, power etc since they might make the numbers look silly. Ditto the opportunity cost to my wife when I could have been spending my time adding value to my other businesses.

In short, I have spent £10,675 attracting five readers to a novel I was happy to give away for nothing. That's £2135 a reader.

Conclusions? Two main ones, I guess.

Firstly, A Half Life of One is the most expensive book ever written.

Secondly, I'm not sure I've got the economics of this right, but it seems to me if I attract any more readers I'll rapidly go bankrupt.