Tuesday, October 31, 2006

A Really Sad Story

There's a really sad story being revealed among the Comments section of John Baker's Blog. The details are a bit confusing but he seems to have fallen in love with a hermaphrodite when he was up in Aberdeen many years ago. The hermaphrodite is now a man and, it appears, is still in love with John. It's impossible to predict how it's all going to turn out, but I fear the worst.

John is being remarkably brave about the situation and he even makes a "joke" about it. Sadly, his real feelings are all too obvious and the joke rather misses its target.

I was almost in tears when I read his response.

On a more optimistic note John has an interesting new post about the use of humour in fiction. It sounds like he knows what he's talking about. We can only wish him well in his current situation.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Christmas Day 1952

He didn’t get a proper bike for Christmas after all because his dad said he was too young. He got a Scalextrix set instead with racing cars. He hid his disappointment because he didn’t want to embarrass his dad even though he thought the real reason was that his dad was hard up because the overtime had dried up. His dad plugged it in and they raced the cars round the track.

Christopher won every race but he didn’t think his dad was really trying. His mum wouldn’t play. She said she didn’t know how. “It’s easy,” said Christopher, showing her how to push the lever on the control console, “Come on mum, have a go.”

But Mrs Fillary said no, it was a boys’ game. She lit a fag and read her Woman’s Own magazine again instead. She never played games. He heard her muttering to herself while they were playing. She thought his dad was stupid spending so much money on a toy. It would just be another fad that he got tired of, like everything else. She kept going on about it.

“Give it a rest, Anne, would you,” said Mr Fillary eventually, “It’s Christmas for Christ’s sake.”
His mum continued muttering to herself but more quietly, although you could still hear the rumbling. He thought she might be a bit frightened of his dad but not enough to shut her up completely.

The cars kept coming off because they were going too fast round the bends. His dad got tired and wanted to stop but Christopher wouldn’t let him. In the end his dad said, “I’ve got to go and make the Yorkshire pudding.”

They were having roast beef and Yorkshire pudding because his mum had left it too late to get a turkey like she was supposed to do. His mum and dad had had a row about that when his dad found out but Christopher didn’t mind about the meat. He crossed his fingers that they wouldn’t have another row today because that would spoil everything. The two of them had been fighting a lot recently. Christopher tried to calm his mum down when this happened but it didn’t work. She didn’t listen to what anyone said. His mum blamed his dad for everything so you never knew what was going to set her off. They had roast beef every Sunday and he loved the Yorkshire pudding that went with it. His dad made it in the lid of an enamel casserole dish that was blue and had lots of dimples in it. You poured the batter into boiling hot dripping. Next day you could have bread and dripping to eat if you wanted. Dripping was good if you put lots of salt on it. His dad had learned to cook in the navy. He’d been in the War. He didn’t like to talk about it but his mum said that he’d been torpedoed twice and was lucky to be alive. Once she said she wished he hadn’t been rescued after all but that was only during an argument and she didn’t really mean it. His dad had a collection of war medals upstairs which he let Christopher look at now and again.

Because it was Christmas they had the meal in the living room instead of in the scullery where they normally ate. His Dad did most of the cooking. When it was ready he passed the food through a hatch from the scullery and his mum and him put it on the table pretending they were waiters. Even his mum laughed at the joke. As a special treat Christopher had some orangeade and the bubbles went up his nose and made him sneeze when he tried to drink it. His dad drank a bottle of Bass which he poured into a tumbler. His Mum wasn’t allowed to drink because she was taking tablets for her nerves. Before they started they pulled some crackers and then they all wore paper hats, even his mum.

Because it was Christmas they had real gravy which was great.

Afterwards his dad rolled himself a fag with Old Holburn tobacco. His mum smoked Players Weights because they were the cheapest even though they made her cough. He was always being sent out to buy fags or tobacco but he didn’t mind because he usually got something for going.

Then they had the trifle which his mum had made. It was all right but it hadn’t set. His mum said it wasn’t her fault, there must have been something wrong with the custard. Christopher said it was all right, he liked it runny. His dad said it was fine, don’t get yourself worked up about it. His mum pushed her plate away, she said she couldn’t eat it, the whole meal was ruined. She started to cry. Christopher and his dad ate their bits even though it did taste a bit funny right enough and his mum quietened down in the end and they didn’t have an argument after all. Then they all listened to the wireless. Dick Barton Special Agent came on which they all liked, except his mum. Half way through when it got a bit scary he went over and climbed onto his dad’s lap. He could smell the beer on his dad’s breath, mixed with the smell of oil and sweat that he got from working in the engine rooms of the boats in the docks. Because it was Christmas his dad had shaved and his skin felt soft and smooth. Christopher soon fell asleep on his dad’s lap. They stayed like that until it was time for bed.

His mum knelt with him while he said his prayers in his pyjamas and then his dad came up and read him a bit from Treasure Island which his Auntie Mary had given him for Christmas. Auntie Mary lived in Scotland very far away.

It was a brilliant Christmas even though it hadn’t snowed and he hadn’t got the bike he’d asked for. But at least his mum hadn’t had one of her tantrums, which was the main thing. It was great when she behaved herself.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

It's history, boys, but not as we know it

I don't normally do reviews but last night we went to the theatre to see The History Boys and it was so good I just have to tell you about it.

Usually I'm pretty lukewarm on Alan Bennet. He's amusing all right, but he can get a little too mawkish and sentimental for me. The History Boys, though, is in a different league altogether.

We drove into Aberdeen which meant I had to stay sober since it was my turn to drive. It's actually the first time I've ever watched a play in the theatre stone cold sober and I must say it was an entertaining experience. I'm always nervous in crowds and that added to the sense of drama last night. Heightened sensibility and all that. With the added bonus that I didn't fall asleep and annoy everybody with my snoring during Act Two.

The play is beautifully written and constructed. Witty, intelligent, poignant and moving. Everything that a Saturday night in front of the box isn't. This is a playwright at the peak of his powers. A master of stagecraft showing off his repertoire of tricks. But he isn't showing off. The audience - sophisticated and almost as knowing as the author - plays the part Bennett has written for it as well. And when he does catch us off guard - well, we're delighted. Mutual admiration from one professional to another.

The acting and directing, by the National Theatre company is exemplary, not to say inspired. Full of brio, life-affirming and heart-breaking all at the same time. Not a dud note in the entire cast.

The writing pushes the boundaries too. Or it would have done if there were any boundaries left to push. There's a scene near the end where one of the star students asks his young male teacher - who he knows is in love with him - to give him a blow job. It's a sign of how much times have changed that in Aberdeen - Aberdeen, that most provincial and small-minded of Scottish towns - a scene that once would have provoked a sharp intake of breath now had most of the audience silently willing the teacher to accede to the request. Go on, take a chance, live dangerously. Do it for us.

Well, most of the audience anyway. There was a family of four in front of us. A fierce-looking father, a doting, subjugated wife and two faintly-embarrassed teenage sons. The father led his family to their seats and allocated their places when they arrived. At the interval he shepherded his flock to the aisle where I heard him explaining the finer nuances of the plot to his captive audience. During the blowjob scene I saw him exchanging horrified glances with his wife. He looked trapped. It was too late to lead his flock away from this calumny. I guess I was watching a play within the play, which only added to the pleasure.

In summary, one of the most enjoyable, most uplifting nights I've ever spent in the theatre. Alan Bennett I love you. Folks, if you get the chance - don't miss it.

Friday, October 27, 2006

The secret of successful blogging

Well, I've been at this blog now for over a year and it's taken me that long to work out what makes a blog successful. By successful I mean read by more than three people (my brother, my wife and my milkman).

At first I thought it was all about marketing. All those tricks they tell you about. Getting people to link to you. Leaving comments on other blogs. Writing stuff with popular tags. Writing lots of short posts. Writing lots of long posts. Put in some photographs. Make it humorous. Make it serious. Make it topical. Develop a theme. Write about yourself. Don't write about yourself. Write about what interests your readers (if you have any).

Make it spontaneous. Polish every sentence until it's perfect. Find a niche. Make it universal. Make it controversial. Don't upset your readers (if you have any).

And so on, and so on.

But it isn't any of those things. Or rather it is all of those things. And more.

The secret to producing a successful blog is simple. So simple in fact that there isn't any secret to it. All you have to do is produce interesting, original, high quality content every day. That's all. Do that and people will return in increasing numbers every day to hear what you've got to say.

Unfortunately, the secret - which I've now revealed to the world - is the problem. Have you any idea how hard it is to produce interesting, original posts every day? It's bloody near impossible. At the very least it's a full time job. And that's ignoring the inspiration and talent you also need. So, unless you're unemployed or retired or a person of independent means you might as well park those dreams about becoming an A-lister in the blogosphere. It isn't going to happen. Which, paradoxically, may be no bad thing in the end. Success can become something of a burden. I spoke to the Grumpy Old Bookman the other day - one of the real literary A-listers who consistently puts out high quality content on a daily basis - and this is what he had to say on the subject:

"To tell the truth, the blog is getting out of hand. I enjoy it, and wisely or otherwise I feel obliged to keep it going, but it consumes an unholy amount of time. Much gets neglected."

As far as my own blogging goes, it seems to come in spurts. Sorry, I know, I know. The image that phrase conjures up is just as distressing for me as it is for you. What I mean is, I often run out of things to say, my batteries run dry. The sperm bank is empty. Oops, sorry. I don't mean that at all. The well runs dry. That's better. But even when inspiration returns it still takes a lot of time, and effort, to produce all these trite sounding apercus I churn out.

So I guess the moral is: a blog is like a sewer. What you get out of it largely depends upon what you put into it. Hm. I wish I could have thought of a less fragrant analogy but I don't have time. I've got to go off and earn a living, sod it.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

November 1952

It was already dark when he prepared to set off for the hairpin bridge. His mum didn’t want him to go in case he got run over but he argued and argued until she gave in.

“Don’t blame me if you get yourself killed,” she muttered as she tucked his scarf into his coat.

He laughed. Nighttime was exciting, magical. He felt safe at night, like a shadow nobody could catch. He had no fear when he darted in and out of the traffic to cross the road. He ran like a Plains Indian in the wild west, never getting tired, floating across the ground. Nighttime was his favourite part of the day. He loved it when the neon street lamps cast their strange yellow glow over everything and there were lots of dark corners to hide in and the wind was cool on your face as you ran along not daring to look behind you in case there was something there.

All the same he didn’t take the short cut through the bombed-out building site because that was too dark without the street lamps shining in. You never knew what was in there and even in daytime it was scary. Someone said a tramp lived there. Somebody else said it was a witch.

The staircase up to the top of the hairpin bridge was made of railway sleepers and smelled of creosote. You didn’t want to meet anybody else on the staircase at night either. When you got to the top you could lean over the parapet and stare down on the railway lines thirty feet below. Him and his friends used to spit on the trains as they went underneath, trying to gob down the funnels. The steam came up and made them damp. He loved the smell of the steam and the smoke and the screeching noise the train made as it braked on the bend and the way the bridge shook as the train went underneath.

His dad was working overtime like he did every night. You had to work overtime to make ends meet, his dad said.

At seven o’clock the hooter sounded down in the docks and a few minutes later the first cars appeared, racing over the bridge. A few more minutes after that a big crowd of men on bicycles rode into view. He jumped up and down anxiously scanning the crowd. It was easy to miss his dad in all the excitement.

Some of the men shouted cheerily at him as they rode past, standing up on their pedals as they struggled up the incline.

“All right, son, your old man will be along soon!”

“Don’t worry, nipper, your pa’s right behind us, he can’t keep up with us young ‘uns!”

They knew who he was because he often went down to meet his dad.

At last he caught sight of his dad, his bicycle rolling from side to side with the effort to pedal up the bridge, a long way behind everyone else, almost as far back as the stragglers who were walking home. He didn’t mind that his dad wasn’t as fast as the rest of them. His dad was older than them. It didn’t matter to him. He loved his dad. “Dad! Dad! It’s me!”

Mr Fillary looked up and smiled. He dismounted and pushed his bike across to the pavement. He was out of breath and he leaned on the handlebars, resting. “I wasn’t expecting you tonight, son. It’s a bit cold for you to be out, isn’t it? I wonder your mother let you come.”

“I talked her into it, dad. She didn’t want me to come.”

“Well, you’re here now. Jump on.” He hoisted Christopher onto the crossbar of the big green bike and pushed it slowly up to the top of the bridge. At the top he paused to get his breath back again. After a few minutes he mounted up and they wobbled uncertainly as they set off but as soon as they crossed the flat part of the bridge where it went over the railway line and started on the downslope they picked up speed rapidly. Soon the wind was pulling at his hair. He could smell the diesel and the sweat from his dad’s coat as he sheltered in his arms. He felt safe and happy wrapped in his dad’s coat, like he was wearing a suit of armour. He loved his dad more than anything in the whole world. Riding on a bike with him was the best thing ever even though his bum ached on the crossbar. He laughed out loud with delight when his dad rang the bell even though there was no-one in front of them.

When they got to the bottom of the incline he stayed on the crossbar for a bit until his dad got tired then he climbed down and ran alongside. His dad wasn’t quite right because of the war or something and got tired easily, especially after he’d been working all day. That’s what his mum said. It was harder at night too because you had to put on the dynamo to power the lights and that rubbed on the back wheel like a brake.

Christopher had a three wheeler of his own but at Christmas he hoped his dad would buy him a proper bike with a dynamo so that he could ride alongside his dad at night.

That evening, after tea when he’d gone to bed, his dad came up and read him a chapter from Children of the New Forest and Christopher was just falling asleep when his dad gave him a gentle kiss on the forehead and he felt his bristly unshaven skin and smelled the diesel oil again.
He fell asleep with a big smile on his face and dreamed of the new bicycle he hoped to get, the red one with straight handlebars and plastic mudguards and ten gears.

And a dynamo to see at night.

Fuck nothing

David Niven was an actor who typically played a certain kind of louche, upper-class womaniser. Which is what he was in real life. He had also been to Sandhurst and during the Second World War he served in the army, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Commandos. He took part in the Normandy landings.

He appeared in several of the Pink Panther films and even won an Academy Award in another of his film roles. But I think he's probably best remembered for his two volumes of autobiography, The Moon's A Balloon and Bring On The Empty Horses. Both books are hugely entertaining, even though it subsequently turned out that not all the anecdotes they contained were strictly true. Some, it seems, were second hand and others apparently embroidered.

My favourite story in Bring On The Empty Horses concerns Michael Curtiz, the Hungarian-born director of Casablanca. Curtiz, whose grasp of English was less than perfect, was an irascible bully, a veritable tyrant on the film set. One day, annoyed at some minor critical comment of Niven's about his directing, he turned on the actor in front of the assembled cast and roared, "You think you know fuck everything and I know fuck nothing. Well, I tell you, I know fuck all!"

I do hope this particular story is true and even if it isn't it still makes me laugh.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

More thoughts on publishing

Regular readers of this blog will be well aware of - and probably participated in - my attempt to construct a top-class marketing pitch for my novel A Half Life of One. I'm pretty sure I've now got the best Query Letter and Synopsis that money can - or in this case didn't - buy. I'm also pretty sure from the feedback I've had over the last year that the book isn't a total clunker. Quite a few people have read and enjoyed it over the past year via my other blog. Judging by the stats there around 1-2 people a week read the book in its online form. Let's say 50-100 readers a year. Not quite a bestseller then.

The question I find myself wondering about now is: how much greater will the readership be if the book is picked up by a traditional or paper-based publisher? One thousand more readers a year? Two thousand? Twenty thousand?

Judged by the following two examples, the answer might be, not much.

Gerard Jones is famous - perhaps notorious is a better description - for his website "Everyone Who's Anyone in Adult Trade Publishing". After many rejections, Gerard finally had his book "Ginny Good" published in April 2004. The book was favourably reviewed in the Guardian and a number of other publications. In October 2006 he received his royalty statement. In the previous six months he had sold 24 copies (one of them, incidentally, to me). Becoming a published author hasn't yet made his fortune it seems.

A couple of months back I had a conversation with one of the blogosphere's top literary bloggers. A true A-lister. She receives in excess of 900 hits a day, sometimes much more. A few months ago she published a novel which she has promoted on her blog. The book is also available as a free download. This book too has received a number of favourable reviews, including one in one of America's top broadsheets. Six months after publication she had sold 34 copies.

Maybe getting published won't be the answer to all my prayers after all.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Five things

Debi Alper tagged me for a meme entitled: Five things about me that are not generally known.

This is a tough one for me. For a start I don't know what you don't know. To make matters worse, just about everything you could possibly want to know about me has already been posted up on this blog as part of my unremitting search to discover the truth about myself. After a year of blogging there's not much left.

But, for what it's worth, here's five things you're unlikely to know about me:

1 For forty years, until about six years ago, I believed I had killed my father
2 I never wanted to be an entrepreneur
3 While I was still at university I applied for a "dead end job" (my description of the advertised post which I repeated to the woman who interviewed me) - and got it
4 I never wanted to have children
5 I started smoking when I was fifteen because I thought that was what writers and poets did. I stopped when I was twenty-four because by then...but you know the rest.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Publication date for my new novel

I hate uncertainty in life and have therefore decided to apply sophisticated econometric modelling methods to calculate when my new novel, A Half Life of One, for which I am currently seeking an agent, will be published.

The world of statistical modelling has come on a long way since Bishop Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of All Ireland and Vice-Chancellor of Trinity College, Dublin calculated that the world was created in 4004 B.C. So far, in fact, that some Creationists now think that this date is too distant.

The econometric model I have adopted is one using non-linear regression analysis utilising simultaneous equation methods which are able to handle the large number of variables involved. It is assumed that both the data and the regression error components are normally distributed.

The econometric equation takes the form:

Y= f(C,O) + (AB_EFb) – (GH + error) – D~G…………..+7M

Where Y = Date of Publication and the following (weighted) variables apply:

A = Number of agents to which the Mss is submitted
B = Number of agents who reject the Mss
C = Number of agents who have previously rejected the Mss
D = Literacy growth rate in China
E = Decline in literacy standards in the West
F = Length of time each agent takes to respond
G = Chance of cataclysmic meltdown in major financial markets
H = Number of re-writes of original Mss
I = Average attention span of agent’s intern/reader
J = Height of the average Slush Pile, adjusted for weight
K = Number of form rejection letters minus handwritten responses
L = Number of agents who actually read the submission
M = Number of publishing companies owned by Rupert Murdoch
N = Growth of Myspace, YouTube and similar non-literary sites
O = Share of new books published by “Celebrities”
P = Number of personal contacts in the publishing industry
Q = World War Three

Applying the formula we arrive at a publication date of 21st March 2021. This is actually a Sunday. However, Monday, 22nd March 2021 is within the standard deviation of the model and is therefore the forecast Publication Date with a variance of + or – 3%. Within the constraints of the existing model it is not possible to predict either the time or place of the publication.

To pre-order your copy of the novel at a 5% discount please e-mail me right away.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Casting a fly on the water

Today I sent off my marketing pitch for my novel A Half Life of One. As you know I'm trying to catch myself an agent. I re-wrote the Covering Letter and the Synopsis in the light of all the great advice I was given by readers of this blog. Then I re-wrote them again. And again. And one more, final, time. Hopefully they're now perfect. Better than the novel probably.

Actually I re-wrote the first chapter of the book too, in the light of some of the things I'd learned writing the query letter. As a result, for the first time I'm happy with the opening. You can read it here if you're interested.

I will, of course, let you know what kind of response I get. You're partly responsible for the success or failure of my marketing strategy, after all.

Imposing democracy on Iraq

Like a lot of people I'm increasingly fearful about what's happening in Iraq. No matter how I look at it I can't see a happy outcome to the situation, irrespective of how justified the original invasion may, or may not, have been.

The fundamental problem it seems to me is that we are trying to impose a liberal democracy on a country which is deeply divided upon religious/ethnic grounds. And democracy depends entirely upon the willingness of the minority to be governed by the majority. "The tyranny of the majority" as it has been called. Up to now, democracy has worked fairly well in many Western countries because most people are either centre right or centre left. The differences aren't so great, nor are they unduly threatening.

Where there are differences, say in Northern Ireland for example, democracy becomes a lot more problematic. The minority is reluctant to be governed by what is perceived to be a hostile majority. Often with good reason. You have to have an extraordinarily positive take on human nature to trust your wellbeing to someone whose views are diametrically opposed to your own.

The split in Iraq is roughly 60% Shiite Muslim and 35% Sunni Muslim. Christians and others make up the balance. They were divided before the invasion, of course, but a brutal dictatorship held the country together. Militants on both sides, as well as the insurgents, are currently fomenting sectarian violence and driving the communities even further apart.

So what's the answer? I don't know, but I fear it isn't democracy, at least not the kind of liberal democracy we espouse in the West. Maybe partition is the answer. Maybe the country will break up. Both alternatives are horrendous to contemplate. You can just imagine the strife and the bloodshed as borders are redrawn and people "relocated". There don't appear to be any easy answers to this sorry saga. Even worse, it seems to me that we in the West are preparing the way for an orderly - or disorderly - retreat. Leaving the Iraqi people to fight it out, to clear up the mess we have created.

Meanwhile the carnage - mostly innocent victims - continues. No wonder I get depressed.

Time to own up

A few people have asked me what a Pundy House really is. Well, here's the story...

When I started blogging a year ago I had really no idea how the system worked nor what I was trying to do with it. In some trepidation I signed up for Blogger and immediately found myself being whisked along by its wizardry as I set up the blog. One of my first problems was to find a title.

I had a few ideas in mind - The Write Stuff, that sort of thing. Smart, punning titles. But when I Googled my ideas they had all been taken. I began to panic. Fortunately, at that point I recalled a conversation I had had the day before with an old school friend who I'd become re-acquainted with through Friends ReUnited. We had benn reminiscing about how we had worked as students for a couple of summers in a brewery in Edinburgh. The brewery was located at the bottom of the Royal Mile, near the Palace of Hollyrood. In fact, it was on the site where the new Scottish Parliament now, expensively, stands.

My friend reminded me that one of the supposed perks of working in the brewery was that after your shift was ended you could go along to the Pundy House (an old bothy or shed) where you were served free beer in milk bottles. The beer, for whatever reason, wasn't fit for sale and was called Pundy. The Pundy House was full of old guys who had seen everything and generally had a pretty jaundiced view of the world and were quick to tell you about it.

So, more by accident than design, I guess the name fits my blog perfectly.

Oh, as an historical footnote, I'm pretty sure that the standard of debate in the old Pundy House was rather superior to what we get now in the building that's replaced it.

The world's most efficient publishing company?

On Monday night I e-mailed the publishers Opening Chapter and ordered a copy of Derec Jones' novel The Three Bears, having read the first chapter online and enjoyed it immensely.

This is Wednesay morning, 8.15am and I have a copy of The Three Bears sitting right in front of me. Mr Jones has even taken the trouble to sign it for me. I can't wait to read it - fortunately, thanks to their superb service, I don't have to.

Even Amazon couldn't offer a service this good. There's definitely a future for small publishers if they can get their act together the way Opening Chapter has.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

More on mousetraps

On Wednesday 11th October 2006, Chen Ying-bian was woken by his wife at 5.00am as usual. He washed, shaved and put on fresh clothes. His breakfast was set out for him in the usual place, by the window of their apartment on the fifteenth floor. As he stared down on the small group exercising in 228 Memorial Park he sipped a glass of warm soy milk and nibbled at a plate of shao bing which he dipped in a bowl of soy and ginger sauce.

After breakfast he and his wife Cuixia lit some incense and prayed together for ten minutes in front of the little shrine in the corner of their sitting room.

Outside the apartment, although it was still only six twenty, it was already hot and humid. Chen slung his suit jacket over the handlebars of his motor-scooter and set off through the busy traffic for his office in the Ministry of Education Computer Centre in the Jhongjheng District of Taipei.

As he weaved his way through the traffic in front of Taipei 101 - the world's tallest building - he found himself once again pondering the sage words of the visiting professor who had addressed their research and development division the day before. “Invent a better mousetrap,” the ancient Professor had intoned in a voice so whispery they had to crane forward to hear, “And the world will beat a path to your door.” The idea of the world beating a path to his door excited Chen even though, being a Taoist, the idea of killing did not.

Seated at his desk in the huge open plan office he switched on his computer and waited impatiently for it to boot up. Once he had logged on he Googled the phrase that had kept him awake all night. “Humane mousetrap market.” His fingers quivered with excitement. The concept of a humane mousetrap allayed all his religious reservations. Diligently he worked his way through the many results thrown up by Google.

Disappointingly there appeared to be numerous variations already invented of the humane mousetrap. This did not seem at all like the idea that would make his fame and fortune. He was about to give up his search when he reached result number forty. He frowned as he read the description: “View From The Pundy House: April 2006”. Although his mother tongue was Mandarin he conducted all his research in English which he spoke fluently, albeit with an American accent. A Pundy House? What was that, he wondered, some kind of temple? After a moment's hesitation - there was much work to be done that day and every second was valuable - he clicked on the entry and entered a strange and mystifying world that kept him fascinated for the rest of the morning.

At 11.20am on Wednesday 11th October on the other side of the world Bill Pundy clicked on his Site Meter to check his daily visitor numbers. His eyes ran down the Recent Visitor details. All the usual suspects had dropped by that morning. Skint Writer, JTA, the Minx. His stopped at an unusual domain name. Edu.tw. Edu.tw? TW? Where on earth was that? Wales, maybe? And what on earth were they doing visiting The Pundy House? Maybe it was someone new who wanted to read A Half Life of One. He felt his pulse quickening. All his hard work was finally paying off. It had started. Readers were flocking to his site from all over the world. "It just shows you," he thought to himself, "Build a better mousetrap and the world..."

Friday, October 13, 2006

The final attempt at a query letter

If you look at my two previous posts, Still trying after all these years, and How not to sell your novel to an agent you will see my two previous attempts to Write a Query Letter and Synopsis for my novel A Half Life of One. Well, here are the positively final versions, available as a sneak preview. Tomorrow I parcel up the first three chapters of my book and send it off to an agent.

This is the first time I've ever taken seriously the task of actually selling my book to an agent. And it's much harder than it looks. I've benefitted enormously from lots of sage advice from readers of this blog and maybe I can single out two people for special mention. First off there's Debi Alper, herself a published novelist. Debi went through my efforts in detail with the eye of a professional writer who knows exactly what an editor wants, and gave me detailed feedback on where I was going wrong. Thanks, Debi.

Then, and it's a big then, there's Lynne Scanlon, The Publishing Contrarian. What can I say?

Many months ago, not long after I first posted the book up on my other blog, Lynne read the book from cover to cover. And in the process she bombarded me with comments, questions and suggestions. Her eagle eye noted factual errors and inconsistencies. At the end of it all she gave me her honest opinion of the book and its shortcomings. She even persuaded a novelist friend of hers to do the same. But that wasn't the end of her involvement. A couple of months later, following the book's rejection by Macmillan New Writers she demanded to see my query letter and synopsis. Synopsis? I remember thinking, what synopsis? And then she spent a lot of time and effort cajoling me into writing out that first attempt which I posted earlier. An attempt which she tore apart. She was a little less savage with my next effort, but still she told me in no uncertain terms that it wasn't right. I finally begged her to stop and produced the versions you see below.

I asked Lynne to stop because this is what she does for a living and she was doing it on my behalf for nothing. Why? I think she believes in the book. I know she believes in the book. And actually, if it wasn't for her there wouldn't be a book. If I ever get it published - and I'm beginning to think I might - I'll dedicate it to Lynne. Thanks, Lynne, you're an amazing lady.

Any shortcomings left in the Query are, I hasten to add, entirely mine and mine alone. Blame it on stubbornness - I had to leave some of me in there. Of course, I may still not attract an agent, and the query letter may not be perfect. But at least I have the satisfaction of knowing WE gave it our best shot. Didn't we.

The Covering Letter:


14th October 2006

The Top of the Slush Pile

Book Proposal: A Half Life of One – 75000 words

Dear Ms Smith:

What would you do if your business had failed and the bank was about to re-possess your house and throw you and your family out onto the street? How would you fight back if you and your spouse were going to spend the rest of your lives paying off the enormous debts which you alone had incurred?

Like the “hero” of my novel, A Half Life of One, I am an entrepreneur who has started and run companies both here and in the Middle-East, all related to the Oil Industry. Fortunately I have been rather more successful than Nick Dowty, the protagonist in A Half Life of One, for whom business failure triggers a horrifying chain of events. These include the killing of an innocent bystander and the assault upon, and subsequent abandonment of, his chained kidnap victim, apparently left to her fate in a secluded ruin.

I have used my blog The View From the Pundy House to gain feedback for my book. The well-known blogger, The Publishing Contrarian, read A Half Life of One online and described it as “Good. Very good. It reminds me of ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’”. Over 90% of readers who start the book online go on to finish it. Here are some comments different readers have left:

“You have a wonderful story-telling capacity. Very well developed.”
“Thank you for a great read.”
“There’s real power in your story.”
“I love your book.”
“If I was a publisher I’d be ringing up and arranging an advance right now.”

Thank you for taking the time to consider this submission.

Yours faithfully,

Bill Hopeful

The Synopsis: (Don't read this if you want to read the book!)

A Half Life of One - Synopsis

Nick Dowty, is a decent, hardworking, middle-aged family man and entrepreneur. He lives in a rural village in Aberdeenshire in Scotland. Due to changes in the purchasing supply-chain within the international oil industry he faces financial and personal ruin when his business collapses.

In order to support the large capital investment required by his business Nick has unwisely given unlimited personal guarantees and put up the family house as security to the bank. His wife has been a trusting party to these arrangements. The bank is now threatening to re-possess the house and arrest his – and his wife’s – future income to pay off his debts. He faces a lifetime of penury – a harsh punishment for a minor business miscalculation. In addition to the bank, other trade and personal creditors are circling. Phone call after phone call and every post bring threatening demands. Nick tries to hide the escalating terror he feels from his wife and son, even as he tries to intercept the calls and the post. His failure to find and retain a secure job adds to the pressure.

Under the mounting stress his 25-year marriage begins to implode. His son is about to go to University, but there is no money to support him and pay the fees. His growing sense of failure as a loving husband and caring father increases his despair. As the time of their eviction approaches and their money runs out the family is reduced to eating from tins and borrowing from Nick’s mother-in-law to survive. A relentless debt collector arrives at the house and makes an inventory of the furniture. Nick, at his wit’s end, and close to a complete breakdown after his latest attempt at gainful employment ends in failure, hatches a desperate plan. Wrestling with the moral dilemma that confronts him he makes his decision.

Nick decides to kidnap and ransom a wealthy female entrepreneur who owns a nearby country estate.

Although he is determined to use the minimum of force, the plan goes badly wrong. The woman is fly fishing on the river Dee. Nick has an unexpected encounter with the ghillie, and the ghillie is killed when Nick overreacts. Nick and the woman they watch in horror as the body floats downstream, the ghillie’s hand waving forlornly as it rolls with the current. He kidnaps the woman and imprisons her in a remote, ruined cottage in Aberdeenshire. . The once-familiar Scottish landscape now assumes a nightmarish quality for both of them. On the way to the cottage, in a moment of madness, Nick realizes the woman is powerless before him, and to his own horror he subjectss her the woman to a degrading and humiliating assault. The once-familiar Scottish landscape that he has loved so much assumes a nightmarish quality for both of them.

While the woman is still chained to an old stove in the derelict cottage without food, water or electricity, Nick’s wife, a highly competent teacher who is totally unaware of these events, has been to see her own lawyer. Apparently, Nick’s agreement with the bank has been drawn up under English law which has no jurisdiction in Scotland. Their home, and their future are no longer under threat. Nick realises in horror that the kidnapping, and killing, was unnecessary. At the same time Nick is unexpectedly offered a job in a government-sponsored business development agency. It is a position for which he is ideally suited. He forgoes the ransom, abandons his hostage to her fate and goes on to establish a new and successful career working for the agency.

At the end of the novel Nick has suffered no retribution for his crimes, nor is he apparently repentant. He believes, or at least hopes, that the circumstances justified his actions. He may have made the wrong moral decision but he survived his crisis. In his mind he has re-written the history of those terrible events. He appears normal to those around him. Only the reader knows the truth.

I enclose three chapters from the completed manuscript which is 75,000 words long. The entire book can becan be viewed online at:


Bill Liversidge

Thursday, October 12, 2006

A Portrait of the Poet as a Young Man

When I was seventeen I thought I wanted to be a poet. Doesn't everyone? Of course, I discovered that you have to be really very special to stick at it, nurturing the muse over the years. Like John Ahearn. I couldn't write poetry now - my soul is too empty, sucked dry by the years.

Back then I knew I was trying to find something new and different in my writing. I didn't know what it was and I cloaked my ignorance in obscurity. Still, I've been re-reading some of those early poems and I think I made a valiant attempt. They're not much good but I admire my linguistic bravery. Braver then than now, maybe. Here's an example:

There lies latent a past time
in the heavy honey flow of music.....

Against the window
of glass
the snow makes music:
beat hard the harsh drums. Beat these drums upon me.

I have lived a thousand rolling years
long in this room, until now the light
retires under the safe music that
charged high with many violent living leaping colours
struts round the room, precedes
ahead, behind and over to
cloud into me
with easy mobility.

I did not wake this morning you know, yet
all this long time the music that paints
the walls cold grey did
not cease dry-flooding me and moved this
to feel
the steel-sharp stirrings of the
still-dry hidden seeds of being.

Almost almost almost there
through the music
a clean transfusion
into half-formed images
slipping painfully into me through
mixed and broken memories
that cry out of the music.

Ah, but the music burns down down down now
and the
time for
return is
the endless heavy honey flow of music is

Callow or what? That's my photo to prove it. Laugh as much as you like, I won't mind.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

What a coincidence

I was reading Skint Writer's blog today and I see that he has been blogging for exactly six months. Well done, Skint, so little time and so much achieved.

Made me wonder how long I've been blogging for. Well, blow me, I've checked my old posts and it's exactly a year today since I started! Isn't that amazing. Here's my first ever post:

"Only connect.....ONLY!

On an impulse that has been building up for years I decided to create this blog. What I'm going to try and do is create a platform that will allow me to publish my latest novel, some short stories, some rants and some thoughts on the state of the world. To share myself with some like-minded people. So this is day one. I hope you enjoy the journey with me."

Well, it's certainly been an enjoyable journey, and one which I hope still has some way to go. I'm amazed I've kept it going for so long - despite the intermittent silences when I've felt like I had nothing to say.

And like any good journey I've met some really fascinating people on the way. And made some good friends too. Connected, in fact, with people like you. My heartfelt thanks for keeping me company.

The Edsell Blues

Yesterday I had the Edsell Blues. No, not depression. Potatoes. I grew them along with the Pink Fir Apples and Golden Wonders.

They have a very thick and tasty skin which I leave on. You can't boil them because they turn to mush. I either steam them or par boil them and then roast them. They're one of the tastiest tatties I've ever eaten.

Actually, gardening generally, and eating your own produce in particular is a pretty good antidote to depression. Something about getting back to nature, being self-sufficient, even creative I guess. And of course there's all that vitamin C in the skin.

So, the moral is: eat up your Edsell Blues if you want to drive away the winter blues. Because, unfortunately, winter is coming. Fast.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

October 1952

School turned out all right.

To his surprise he discovered that he was the only one in the class who could read properly. He had been reading for ages, that was how he knew about Joan of Arc and God and the Holy Ghost. He didn’t remember how he had learned to read. He was already a member of the local library. He took out six books at a time which was the most you were allowed. He went every week. He loved reading. His favourite was a book about horses called Black Beauty.

Their teacher was called Sister Dominic and she looked like a young saint. She was impressed that he could read. She put him to the back of the class and gave him a pile of books to get on with while she taught the others to read. Some of the class were very slow on the uptake and they were moved to the front of the class. He noticed that after a few weeks it was mostly the poor kids at the front. Some of them smelled of rotten eggs, others of cabbage. Dennis Coffee’s nose ran all the time and he never stopped sniffling. He could make himself burp and sometimes he even farted out loud which made everyone laugh. When that happened Sister Dominic blushed and pretended she hadn’t heard. Most of the time it was hard to stop giggling and you had to make sure you didn’t catch anybody’s eye or you would get an attack of the giggles which you couldn’t stop. If that happened as a punishment you would get hit over the knuckles with a ruler. If you still didn’t stop you got put outside in the corridor. If Sister Bernadette found you there you were for it.

In the playground he did slow-motion fighting with his friends. Mostly they were cowboys and Indians. He was an Apache. Derek Ryder was always Billy The Kid. Footballs weren’t allowed but someone used to bring in an empty Jif lemon container and they played with that until the janny came out and stopped them. The janny was an old man with white hair and thick black glasses with blue-coloured lenses and no-one liked him. He stopped you doing everything. The next day they got another lemon and did it again. It was fun being part of the crowd and doing something wrong. In the end the janny gave up. They stopped playing when someone threw the Jif ball over the wall..

Derek Ryder became his best friend. One morning Derek came to the house and they walked to school together. After that he came every day. The school was five minutes from his house past the big Post Office building that had shiny marble floors where his mum bought stamps to write to her sister in Scotland far away. The road was lined with big old sycamore trees that formed a canopy and it was like walking through a tunnel. At one end of the road was the church. There was a convent in between. Then there was the school. They ploughed through the piles of fallen leaves with their feet pretending it was snow. One day Derek put Brylcreem on his hair and combed it straight back like a Teddy Boy. He had a leather jacket and knew how to smoke. You could buy real cigarettes one at a time from the sweet shop if you said they were for your mum. Derek read the Beano and the Dandy and the Hotspur. He knew about football too and had been to see a team called Spurs with his dad. That was up in London. You went on the train. London was the capital of Britain and the Empire. Derek was quite clever but he was lazy. He was in the middle of the class. When he grew up he wanted to be a joiner like his dad.

After a bit Patricia Fitzgerald got moved back to the desk beside him. She was very pretty with curly blond hair and Chris blushed whenever she looked at him. They sat together for two years but he never spoke to her because he was too shy. Once she offered him a jelly baby but he shook his head even though he wanted one. Whenever she spoke she had a posh voice. She put her hand up first and answered all the questions until Sister Dominic said give someone else a chance. Her dad was a teacher at the school. Chris knew most of the answers too but he was too shy to put his hand up. Soon she was top of the class and Chris was second.

The girls were cleverer than the boys except for Rose Regan. Rose Regan was bottom of the class. She was really thick. She didn’t have a dad and someone said she was really a diddikay. She smelled of rotten eggs and she wore a brace on her teeth because they were all crooked. She wore glasses too and they were held together by elastoplast but they were squint. She chewed gum all the time and never did what she was told. She was tall and she often hit the other boys and called them names. When she farted she didn’t make a noise but you could smell them. No-one liked her. Sometimes she said bad words and got put out into the corridor. She didn’t care. She was the only one who wasn’t scared of Sister Bernadette. When she was out in the corridor they could get on with their work.

After a bit they got homework. Mostly it was copying words and making sentences out of them. Sister Dominic said they were learning to write. Chris wrote with his right hand but Dennis Weaver wrote with his left. He could draw cartoons and pictures really well even though he was left-handed. He wanted to be a fireman when he grew up.

At first his mum met him after school along with the other mums but after a few days she didn’t bother and he went home with Derek Ryder, kicking up the leaves as they walked. They usually stopped at the sweet shop and bought gobstoppers and liquorice with their pocket money. The shopkeeper said they were lucky. Sweets had only come off the ration not long ago, he said. It was something to do with the war.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Me and feminism

Dear old Skint Writer, that well-known feminist advocate, kindly tagged me for a meme concerning the things that feminism has done for me. This is a subject that I am, of course, glad to tackle, knowing as I do, just about everything that is good for women. But before I launch into my learned reply, maybe I can get my apologies in first by way of a rather craven preamble?


In my defence for what follows may I ask you to remember that I am a middle-aged guy who was a grown man – male chauvinist? - when modern feminism was no more than a glint in Germaine Greer’s eyes. I became aware of the feminist movement only gradually. Some of my (male) friends still regard many of its tenets with a mixture of distrust and only grudging acceptance.

Although I have made a real effort to become a properly-reconstructed male I only manage to keep treading this righteous path by making a real, and continuous, effort – something that doesn’t come naturally to a man. Notwithstanding my many shortcomings be assured that I accept feminism was a long overdue movement that emancipated women from the yoke of men. It was – and is - a good thing. Indeed, by and large, I believe that women still get an unfair deal at the hands of men in many walks of life.

So here goes, here’s five things feminism has done for me:

1 Feminism opened my eyes to the fact that women were people too. Until I was twenty-five or so I put all women on a pedestal, taking a wildly romantic view of the species, thinking they were something special, unknowable, magical, exciting in their strangeness. I now treat all women as equals, in much the same way that I treat men. Something has been lost here, but more has obviously been gained.

2 Feminism showed me that I was treating my wife like an underpaid servant. She held down a job, did the shopping, hoovered, cleaned the lavatory, made the beds, ironed etc etc. In return, I imagined I was the main breadwinner, worked the longest hours, earned the most money, took responsibility for the family budget, cooked the occasional meal.

Except that, in reality, there never was a fair division of labour or responsibilities. She did the lion’s share of the domestic chores, played her full part in earning the family income, cared just as deeply about the family welfare as I ever did. In other words, I was a lazy male slob, taking her efforts for granted. I’m not as bad as I used to be – if I was she would have left me long ago - but I still don’t do my share. No wonder I feel guilty typing these words. Actually, thanks to feminism there are times when I feel guilty about being a man. We seem to be the cause of most of the misery and unhappiness in the world today.

3 Feminism alerted me to the unfairness of many organisations and institutions. Parliament, big business, academia etc are all under-represented by women, often unfairly so. In these institutions women’s views are rarely accorded equal weight with those of men. We still live in a male-dominated world.

4 Feminism conditioned me to think in a politically-correct way. Nowadays I dare write nothing about women without thinking through the implications of what I’m really saying, searching out the hidden meanings that may betray my old outdated values. This is as it should be. However, as a result, sometimes I’ll keep quiet, fearing a possible feminist backlash. There is something wrong here – I wouldn’t worry in the same way about upsetting men just because they are men.

5 Feminism gave me a wife who over the years has become stronger and more independently-minded as the world has changed. A wife who can stand up for herself, giving as good as she gets, and more, in a man’s world. Someone I respect more and more as she has matured, and as a result, love all the more too.

Hm. Maybe I should do the ironing, and then she might respect me a little bit too.

Still trying after all these years

Okay, after I got some feedback from Lynne Scanlon at The Publishing Contrarian on my original covering letter I had another go at my sales pitch for A Half Life of One. I haven’t had Lynne’s feedback on this effort yet but let me know if you think this an improvement or not. I suppose the key question you might want to ask is, does this make me want to read the book or not?

The Covering Letter:

5th October 2006

The Top of the Slush Pile

Book Proposal: A Half Life of One

Dear Reader:

Like the “hero” of my novel, A Half Life Of One, I am a middle-aged entrepreneur who has started and run companies both here and in the Middle-East, all related to the Oil Industry. Fortunately I have been considerably more successful than Nick Sterling in my endeavours.

The theme of my book describes what happens to an ordinary – and very decent - man in the oil industry when his business begins to fail and he is subjected to ever-increasing financial pressures with which he struggles to cope. The shocking solution this good man devises to save himself and his family from ruin is the tipping point that changes everything. Throughout the book there are historical echoes of ordinary people placed in similarly fraught situations, for example in Nazi Germany. Everyone who has read the book professes themselves horrified at the way the situation develops. It really is a very scary book indeed.

I have used my blog View from the Pundy House to gain feedback for my book. The well-known blogger, The Publishing Contrarian, read A Half Life of One online and described it as “Good. Very good. It reminds me of ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’”. A number of other readers have also been very complimentary, albeit stunned by the developments in the book. Over 90% of readers who start the book online go on to finish it – even though most people find that reading a novel on a computer screen is a peculiarly uncomfortable experience.

This story is set in contemporary Scotland, around Deeside, in an isolated landscape where a terrible event unfolds in a vacuum, and may or may not be discovered in time.

I should warn you that anyone who reads the book is likely to have their faith in human nature utterly undermined. It is an easy read but a dangerous one.

Yours faithfully

Bill Hopeful

The Synopsis

A Half Life of One

A middle-aged man with a wife and teenage son is threatened with ruin after his business collapses due to circumstances mostly beyond his control.

The man has given personal guarantees to the bank for large amounts of money. The bank is threatening to re-possess the house and sequestrate him and his wife. He faces a lifetime of penury – a harsh punishment for a minor business miscalculation. Creditors are circling. Every telephone call and every post brings threatening demands for money.

As a result of the intense pressure his marriage is under strain. His son is about to go to University but suddenly there is no money to support him and pay the fees. He feels he has failed his wife and son as a husband and father.

He tries desperately to get a job but several offers end in failure. He is at his wits end. A debt collector arrives at the house and makes an inventory of the furniture. Finally pushed into a corner he hatches a desperate plan.

He devises a scheme to kidnap a wealthy female entrepreneur who owns a country estate near to where he lives. With the ransom money he intends to save his wife and son from penury and the resulting humiliation and misery.

Although he is determined to use the minimum of force the plan goes badly wrong. A companion of the lady is killed - murdered. Together they watch in horror as the body floats downstream, waving forlornly as it rolls with the current. The lady herself is kidnapped and imprisoned in a remote, ruined cottage. The once-familiar Scottish landscape now assumes a nightmarish quality for both of them. In a moment of madness he subjects the woman to an horrific assault, an act which traumatises both of them. Events are now running wildly out of control.

A short time later the man is offered a way out of his predicament. He takes it. It is unclear at this stage what is the fate of the hostage but the reader is bound to suspect the worst. The man goes on to establish a new and successful career working for a quasi-government business development agency. He suffers no retribution for his crimes, nor is he apparently repentant. He believes, or at least hopes, that perhaps the circumstances justified his actions. He is now living in a deluded, amoral world of his own devising. He appears normal to those around him. Only the reader now knows the truth.

I enclose three chapters from the completed manuscript which is 75,000 words long.

The complete book can be viewed at leisure here:


Bill Hopeful

Friday, October 06, 2006

Time for a bit of bile

Here's a poem from the beautifully splenetic John Ahearn, America's greatest living unpublished poet. Read it and smile and have a good weekend.

Lines to a Graduating Class
I Will Never Be Invited
To Address

Salutations, Bachelors
of All that Stuff you crammed,
nothing could be naturaler
than oat bran and jam.

Go forth and prospect
with your new picks and pans;
mediocrity has prospered
since the world began.

Don’t be seen to be offended
no matter what you find;
when the ceremony’s ended
it’s your life on the line:

then we’ll damned well see
what you learned in school,
how seamlessly you scheme and cheat,
how nimbly play the fool.

Highly marketable skills,
and nowadays the heart
of our pre-employment training mill’s
curriculum of orts

and seances, I’m more than proud
to be sober enough to say.
Ask the cheaters who endowed us,
the fools who pay our way.

Now, there are those among you who
evince peculiar drives,
who will choose to lead exemplary, true,
loving and creative lives,

but if you do, don’t expect
any mercy from us:
such behavior’s always been suspect,
and virtues don’t become us,

as a rule are seen as ostentation,
ornament, perfume,
and often enough the situation’s
just what we assume.

But if virtue is its own reward
you’ll get what you deserve;
you’ll soon learn that mum’s the word,
that virtue’s in reserve.

Above all, don’t delude yourselves
(strange to say that here!)
that all those goodies on the shelves
are quite as they appear.

Possessed, the prizes glitter less,
but with new ones every year
your marriages may be a mess,
but not your kitchen gear.

Those who have Da’s Kapital
may think you’re off the hook,
but the real world’s a mer de mal:
keep your own set of books.

Out there you watch yourself;
out there it’s sink or swim
in the high seas of sex and pelf,
and pelagic, magic gin.

Go. Be fruitful. Multiply.
And if you hate your kids
it’s more the times they’re living in
than anything you did

to make them the obnoxious things
they all too often are,
especially since, most evenings,
you work late at the bar,

or over at your secretary’s,
befriending his or her
obnoxious tots who look so very
young, like yours were.

Of course, one needn’t reproduce,
it’s not a law, certainly;
one can play it fast and loose.
One’s fertility

may be superseded very neatly
without much stress,
except that one is never completely
sure if one’s loneliness

is one’s alone, and not an aspect
of issueless maturity,
the thought of dying isolate, relict,
absent futurity.

Parents know better than to dwell
on questions such as these.
They know we’re all alone in hell,
whether we burn or freeze.

Either way, there’s no relief.
The universe is curved:
it doubles back to give us grief
whatever gods we serve.

So as you pack your mortarboards
and head for Easy Street,
find a room you can afford
and try to bear the small defeats

which are undoubtedly to come
with reasonable cheer:
everybody starts out dumb
and wet behind the ears,

and then you’re down the rabbit hole
of what can be achieved.
Welcome to the rocks and shoals
of Master Make Believe.

How not to sell your novel to an agent

Looking back, it seems incredible to me how little importance I placed on the need to market my novel to an agent. I believe the Americans describe the process as the "Query Letter". The Query Letter is in fact two documents: the Sales Pitch and the Synopsis.

My approach over the years on the other hand is best characterised as minimalist. Show them the first three chapters and they will buy it. No selling needed. Genius is obvious after all.

How stupid can you get?

Here's an example of my standard query letter before Lynne Scanlon went to work on it. Ask yourself, Would you buy an unpublished novel from this man?


Dear Sirs

A Half Life of One

This story is set in contemporary Scotland, around Deeside, in an isolated landscape where events can unfold in a vacuum, without ever being seen.

A middle-aged man loses nearly everything when his business collapses. The bank is threatening to re-possess his home and throw his family out onto the streets. Under extreme duress from his creditors he hatches a plan to kidnap a wealthy female entrepreneur who owns a country estate near to where he lives. With the proceeds of the ransom he intends to save his wife and son from penury and the resulting humiliation. The plan goes wrong and a companion of the lady is killed, perhaps murdered. The lady is kidnapped and imprisoned in a remote, ruined cottage. In a moment of madness she is subjected to an horrific assault by the man, an act which traumatises both of them.

A short time later the man is offered a way out of his predicament. The man abandons his hostage to her fate and goes on to establish a new and successful career working for a quasi-government business development agency. He suffers no retribution for his crimes, nor is he repentant. He believes, or at least hopes, that perhaps the circumstances justified his actions.

The theme of the book relates to what happens to an ordinary – and apparently good - individual when he is subjected to external pressures with which he cannot cope. The main question I hope to provoke is: how would the reader cope in similar circumstances? The main emotion I wish to evoke is terror at the realisation of how easy it is for any of us to go off the rails. Throughout the book there are historical echoes of ordinary people placed in similar situations.

The book is 75,000 words long.

Whatever the outcome of this submission I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for taking the time to look at my efforts.

Yours sincerely,

Bill Desperate"

Thursday, October 05, 2006


If you're going to follow a leader - and generally I don't - it's important you pick the right one.

I used to be a keen dinghy sailor, mostly sailing inland or in sheltered inshore areas. I liked 470's - small, two-person dinghies that can be sailed pretty fast. I enjoyed competing, although I wasn't heavy enough to provide the kind of ballast you need to challenge at the top level.

One day I had the opportunity to go sailing offshore in a bigger boat. The plan was to sail from Troon in Scotland to Belfast in Northern Ireland, across the open sea. The boat was a thirty-four footer, a proper yacht and something I hadn't sailed before. I was nervous at the prospect, I admit it. When we arrived at Troon it was pretty blustery, the sea looked choppy, grey and uninviting. It was also bloody cold. Despite my waterproofs I was shivering.

There were five of us as crewmen - all inexperienced, and all apprehensive. We assembled at the clubhouse where we were met by our skipper Richard. He must have been about forty, weatherbeaten, with a broad toothy grin and a straggly grey beard. Just the look of him was reassuring. Although he didn't have an eyepatch he looked like a real sailor.

Richard gave us a brief introduction to what we could expect out on the briny and then assigned to us our respective roles. To my horror I was instructed to take the wheel once we'd boarded and steer the boat out of the marina.

Setting off from the clubhouse Richard led us off along the pontoon towards our waiting yacht which was moored at the far end about thirty yards away. As he walked he explained in precise technical detail the various styles of rigging of the different boats we passed. We all gazed skywards as Richard pointed out the importance of the tell-tales at the very tops of the different masts, vital for showing which way the wind was blowing in relation to the boat. Then he walked straight off the end of the pontoon into the harbour.

As we stared down at him bobbing gently in the murky water with an indescribably sheepish look on his face I remember thinking, "Jesus, I'm gonna trust my life to this guy?"

Finding My Voice

One of the things I like about blogging is that you can say things pretty much straight out of your head. What you the reader gets is a straight transcript of the dialogue that is continually going on in my brain. This is how I think, how my thinking sounds. It's me. I'm not putting on a posh voice or airs or graces or anything. The stuff I write on my blog is accentless, natural and (fairly) spontaneous. It's about as true to the real me as you can get.

When I sit down to "write" on the other hand my language immediately changes, as do my thought processes. I become more formal, more literary. I guess I've been conditioned by all those books I've read over the years. I have a preconceived idea of what a book should sound like. As a result I feel like I'm writing in a straitjacket.

One consequence is that my "writerly" prose is stilted, conventional and dull. As is my literary imagination - I've even learned to think in a certain constipated, "literary" way when I sit down to write my novel. This isn't a problem with blogging. Jesus, if anything it's the other way round.

Hopefully, what might happen one day is that the two styles will gradually fuse and I'll get the best of both worlds whatever I'm writing.

Fusion writing. Is it a style? A genre? Or just a load of bollocks?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

August 1952

He turned around and she was gone.

“Mummy!” he screamed after the figure that was rapidly disappearing across the crowded playground.

Mrs Fillary carried on walking as if she was deaf.

He didn’t understand why she couldn’t hear him. “Muuuum-eeeeeeeeeee!” he yelled at the top of his voice.

Mrs Fillary reached the school gates on the far side of the playground and turned right into Canberra Road, heading for home. She never looked back.

“Muuuuuuum-eeeeeeeeeeee!” he cried as he ran across the playground after her. His eyes filled with tears, blinding him.

A hundred young heads swivelled round and watched him with amusement.

He caught up with her and grabbed the back of her long brown woollen coat. “Mummy, mummy, mummy!”

She stopped and turned. She was smiling down at him. He couldn’t believe it. She seemed amused by his behaviour.

“Mummy, mummy, mummy.” He pushed his face into the rough folds of her coat. He was sobbing, gasping, gulping in air, hysterical. At that moment he hated her.

She took his hand and dragged him gently back into the playground. She took out a handkerchief and knelt down and dabbed his eyes and wiped the dusty tearstains from his face. The damp linen handkerchief felt rough on his skin. She was hurting him. She handed him the damp handkerchief. “Here, darling, blow your nose.”

He did as he was told. “Don’t go, mummy, please don’t go.”

She sighed. “I’ll wait until the bell goes.”

“Don’t leave me!”

“Stop being silly, darling. You’re a big boy now. Act your age.”

He stopped crying and looked around him. Everyone was watching him and sniggering. He felt humiliated. He lowered his eyes and stared at his feet. He was wearing his brand new baseball boots. They had looked so nice in the shop but now they just looked stupid. He wanted to run home and hide under the bed in his room. He wanted to die and go straight to Heaven.

The bell rang and everyone formed into lines outside the main entrance to the school. Mrs Fillary looked confused. She didn’t know which line her son should join. A small dark-haired girl in a green jumper noticed her confusion. “Over here,” she hissed, tugging on Mrs Fillary’s sleeve. “Quick, before Sister Bernadette comes out or you’ll be for it.”

Mrs Hillary hauled her son to the end of the little girl’s queue. “You’ll be all right now, darling,” she whispered, “Just do whatever the teacher says.” She bent down and kissed the fine blond hair on the top of her son’s head. Somebody behind them in the adjacent queue giggled.

At that moment the double doors into the school were flung open with a clatter of screeching metal. A small, fierce-looking nun dressed all over in black apart from a white collar round her face appeared framed in the archway. To Christopher it seemed like a vision, like something out of the prayer book he had got for Christmas. He thought maybe she was Joan of Arc even though he had thought she was dead. Perhaps she had come back to life like people did in miracles. He’d read about that in in a book old Mrs Fitzgerald had given him for his birthday. The crowd of chattering children quickly fell silent as the nun surveyed the scene through slitted eyes. He held his breath. The whole thing was miraculous.

Christopher looked round for his mother but she had vanished.

He was all alone. She had abandoned him again.

All that long hot summer he had played down at the fort beside the river, coming and going as he pleased, running wild. He had caught grasshoppers and butterflies and put them in match boxes. If you put a grasshopper in a matchbox and shook it hard its head came off. Now he was the one that was trapped. Alone in this strange playground about to enter a grim and nasty building, a big dark box. Anything might happen to him inside that box.

He began to cry once more.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

What next?

I'm looking for a really great novel to read next. Something published in the last five years. A book that will really blow me away. Something life-changing.

I'd appreciate any suggestions.

Walking on eggshells

So, in an effort to work out why I am the way I am I've been delving deep into my childhood. Trying to work out what happened. I guess that's the key for all of us, isn't it?

As you'll quickly infer from the working drafts of my new novel that I intend to occasionally post up on this blog, my childhood was dominated by my mother. In fact, until she died a couple of years back, my whole life has been influenced by her. And not in a good way either. Even thinking about her now I can feel my stomach muscles tightening.

It's hard to describe the effect she had on everybody around her. She simply hated everything and everybody. The world was a conspiracy to make her unhappy. As a result she resented us all. Of course, she was ill and we all knew this. By the time I was seven she had already spent considerable time in a mental hospital. So we took this into account. She wasn't being malevolent or evil. She was sick. All the time. And the way she was ground you down.

Actually, it wasn't quite all the time. I can remember her smiling - she had a beautiful smile. And when she was happy - so briefly - we all shared her happiness, extravagantly so. Sometimes I even managed to make her laugh. I tried hard at that. I tried so hard to make her laugh, dreaming that I could make her better.

We didn't resent the way she was. Mostly we just felt sorry for her. But she was a burden, no question about it. I guess we felt that everyone has their cross to bear. I don't remember my dad ever complaining. He just made the best of it.

To try and ameliorate the effect she had on me and my father (who got it worse than I did) I tried my very best to be a perfect child, to please her and one day, God willing, even to make her happy. Of course, I was always failing. Nothing I did seemed to please her. In truth I think she hated me almost as much as she did my father.

As a result I went about in her presence feeling as if I was walking on eggshells. One false step and I would set her off.

And somehow I've spent the rest of my life trying to please other people. It's as if I've been conditioned. As a result I sometimes feel I haven't really lived. As if I've done it all for someone else.

Like I've been trapped in a glass cage all my life, a specimen in someone else's experiment.

January 1953

His dad woke him up, gently shaking his shoulders. “I’ve got a surprise for you.”

Christopher yawned. “What is it? Smarties?”

“Look out the window.”

He slid out of bed and climbed up on a chair and peered out of the window. They were surrounded by water. “What is it?” he gasped.

“It’s a flood. We can’t go downstairs. The house is flooded.”

Christopher gawped down at the muddy brown water. A sofa bobbled around on the choppy waves in the middle of the road. A black dog sat on the wall of the house opposite yelping forlornly. They were half a mile from the River Thames. Last night when he looked out of his bedroom window he had seen the familiar houses and gardens glistening under the yellow street lamps. The road that ran past their house had been empty apart from a few parked cars. While he had been asleep the world had changed completely.

There was a funny smell in the air like after you went into the bathroom straight after your parents.

He rubbed his eyes to make sure he wasn't dreaming. “What’s happened, dad?”

“I don't know, son. We’re marooned. That water’s about three feet deep and it’s filthy. It might get deeper. Here, come and put your clothes on.”

His mum shuffled through to the bedroom. She looked scared. “I’m dying for a fag,” she said, “But they’re all downstairs.”

They heard shouting. They all went and leaned out of his bedroom window. A man in a canoe came down the street.

“What’s happening?” his dad called out.

“Don’t worry,” the man in the canoe called back, “The army’s coming. Stay where you are.”

“Will it get deeper?”

“Shouldn’t do. The high tide is past. “

“What happened?”

“A big storm breached the sea defences.”

"Oh my God, we're going to drown," said Mrs Fillary.

It was cold in the house because there was no electricity. They were hungry. And thirsty. There was nothing to drink. The water that came out of the taps in the bathroom was black.
After about an hour his dad stood up. “I’m going to get something to eat,” he said. He sat on the edge of the bed and pulled off his trousers and socks.

“Get my fags,” said Mrs Fillary, hitting her chest with her fist as she started coughing.

His dad went down to the scullery in his underpants. Christopher stood at the top of the stairs and watched him step into the murky water. The water came all the way up to his dad’s waist. “Jesus, that’s cold,” his dad gasped as he waded forward.

When he came back up the stairs he was shivering and dripping water. He carried two tins of beans and a tin opener.

“That’s all there is in the larder,” he said.

“What about my fags?”

“Gone. Must’ve floated off somewhere.”

“Did you have a proper look?”

“For Christ’s sake, Anne.”

They sat on the bed and ate some cold beans from the tin with a spoon.

“I hope I get rescued in a boat,” said Christopher. He’d never been in a boat before.

“I hope they come soon,” said Mrs Fillary. “I’m freezing.”

“Get into bed,” said Mr Fillary.

Mrs Fillary climbed into Christopher’s bed and pulled the sheets up to her chin. “Why does it always have to happen to us?”

“It’s not just us, it’s everybody.”

“I wish I was back home in Scotland. We should never have come down to this godforsaken country.”

Christopher found his book, The Famous Five, and climbed in beside his mother. “I hope it’s a canoe,” he said, giggling with excitement.

After about three hours they heard the sound of an engine. They rushed to the window again. It was a green Bedford Army truck just like one of his toy motors. Some soldiers with waders on jumped out and started knocking on their front door. His dad went down and unlocked the door. Then he got a piggy back out to the truck. Two of the soldiers came up the stairs and wrapped Christopher in a grey blanket and one of them carried him out to the truck in his arms. The soldier said, “Don’t worry, son, everything’s gonna be all right.” He spoke in an American accent.

“I wanted to go in a boat,” said Christopher, looking glum.

The American handed him a bar of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut chocolate. “Maybe you will one day,” he said.

It took three of them to get his mum out after she became hysterical.

Monday, October 02, 2006

American Hinterland

My next novel - which is coming along in fits and starts - draws upon my earliest childhood memories up to my early twenties. A kind of historical novel I guess. As background research I've been reading a lot of history on the fifties and early sixties. I need to make sure that the context in which the characters move is historically accurate.

But I also need to recall and evaluate my own personal history. What made me the person I am, what influenced me socially and culturally, what values fed my hopes and dreams. Fortunately the internet is a great way to research what was going on culturally at the time.

Books, of course, were a major influence. The major influence I guess. But so was televison. I watched a lot between the ages of six and fourteen or so. All in black and white of course. And when I look back at it now a lot of it was American and most of that was Westerns, a more or less forgotten genre. From Wells Fargo up to Wagon Train I watched them all religiously. How I admired the strong silent heroes that populated those weekly dramas. How I longed to inhabit their frontier worlds where every problem had a neat solution, where goodness always triumphed over evil, where you knew who your enemy was and what to do about him (you shot him).

Looking back I wonder guiltily if I was completely wasting my time spending all those hours glued to the box. Maybe I should have been reading the classics, studying Greek perhaps, certainly improving my mind. When I examine my own cultural hinterland now it seems a rather barren landscape. Why did I waste so much time? Why am I still wasting my time? I seem to have learned nothing with the passing years.

In my defence I don't watch anything like so much television nowadays. Well, they don't make decent Westerns any more, do they? And the cult of celebrity that has replaced that flickering, magic world proffers nothing but cardboard heroes upholding dubious moral values.

Clint Eastwood and his posse of sidekicks would have run them straight out of town.

My first holiday

I must have been about six or seven when I went on my first holiday. It was March and we waved goodbye to my Dad as the train pulled out of Tilbury station on its way to London. I remember feeling that I had abandoned him as he disappeared into the distance. He had stayed at home to save money.

When we reached London we caught a taxi - the first time I'd ever been in one - from Paddington to King's Cross station and boarded the train to Edinburgh. My mum was terrified in case we wouldn't get a seat. The train was busy all right but I was lucky and someone let me have a seat by a window. The journey was supposed to take around ten hours but when we reached Scotland the train got caught in a snowstorm and we sat for hours waiting to be rescued. The heating went off in the carriage and it was freezing cold.

When we eventually reached Edinburgh we dragged our suitcases across Princess Street to the bus station and caught a bus to Haddington. From there we took another taxi to the tiny village of Humbie in East Lothian where Auntie Mary and Uncle George lived. I had never been in the countryside before. Uncle George kept chickens and every morning I helped to feed them and collect their eggs which I loved doing. Auntie Mary cooked porridge for breakfast made with salt and served with cream off the top of the milk. I had never tasted porridge before -my mother rarely cooked. Then Auntie Mary would give us boiled eggs with toast and butter. We stayed for a fortnight and almost every day my mum had a row with Auntie Mary. Although they were sisters they didn't get on. Auntie Mary said my mum had airs above her station and was lazy. Auntie Mary worked in service as a cook for a gentleman who lived in a big house in a nearby village. She caught a bus there and back every day.

When we got home again my mum's nerves were shattered with all the travelling. She started fighting with my dad as soon as he returned from work that night. It seemed to me that somehow she blamed him because the holiday hadn't been as good as she had dreamed it would be. She always blamed him for everything. I tried to calm her down but nothing I said made any difference. She never listened to reason. I'd been hoping things would be better after the holdiday but nothing changed. She was just the same as she always was.

I was glad to get back to school when the holidays were over. I wrote an essay about my holiday and the teacher said it was really good. Especially the bit about the chickens. No-one else in my class had ever been as far away as Scotland and I was proud at how daring me and my mum had been travelling all that way on our own.