Tuesday, February 27, 2007

I wish I'd said that

I don't know if you've noticed but every now and again I like to slip the odd literary joke into this blog. I do this for two reasons. One, to introduce some proper humour into this blog. And two, to bolster my sagging, and increasingly tenuous, credentials as a pseudo-literary blog.

I don't just toss in any old literary joke I hasten to add. "Who's in the john, Milton?" would almost certainly not make it, for example.

Maybe "I wish I'd said that", linked to the rejoinder"You will, Oscar, you will" would just sneak in if I could figure a way to do it.

The joke I was actually considering posting was the story about Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, the somewhat serious American playwright, an unlikely combination if ever there was one. It's a little bit of a hoary story so I thought I'd better check out its veracity before I posted. It turns out there are several versions but the one I remember goes like this:

Miller was a Jew with a very typical Jewish mother. After they became engaged he took Marilyn back to the formidable matriarch's apartment several times to eat. Each time the old lady served up a traditional meal consisting mainly of matzo balls to the lovestruck couple. Eventually, so the story goes, Marilyn turned her big, wide, innocent eyes to Mrs Miller and said breathily, "Mrs Miller, don't you ever cook any other part of the matzo?"

The interesting part of this story isn't the joke in question. While researching the authenticity of the anecdote I read a piece in the New York Times about the couple which was written in the nineteen fifties. In it the writer described Marilyn as a "panduriform" actress. I'd never heard the word before but I have to say I was impressed. No suggestion of dumbing down in those days.

I had to look the adjective up to find out what it meant and I guess you will too. When you do I think you'll agree it's a perfect description of the actress. And just like Oscar, I've a funny feeling I'll use it too, in the not-too-distant future.

So You Want To Be A Writer

This guy's a real writer whose blog is one of the most honest around. His post on what makes a good editor is brilliant.

My ten favourite books

I've been trying to remember my ten favourite childhood books. In particular, those which I read between the ages of five and eleven, which for me at least were pretty formative years as far as my moral framework went. Here they are, in no special order of importance:

1 The Fighting Formula by Peter Burgoyne. Can't remember the plot exactly but I think it involved a secret potion which made you invisible whenever trouble loomed. And I always wanted to be invisible in those circumstances.

2 Just William by Richmal Crompton. Any of the early William books would have fitted here - I read them all and loved them too. I so wanted to be like William but in reality I was far too buttoned-up. Actually, I still want to be like William...

3 Children of the New Forrest by Captain Marryat. I loved this book. I so wanted to be a Cavalier, which is to say a rather more civilised version of William.

4 Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. I received two copies of this book one Christmas which was a bit of a bummer. Read it a few times but didn't like it that much. I guess it was a girls book?

5 The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle. In real life Hoyle was an eminent scientist who pioneered the steady state theory. Loved this book too but strangely never read any more science fiction.

6 Mr Midshipman Easy, also by Captain Marryat. Life on the ocean waves. Loved it.

7 Don Quixote & Gulliver's Travels. Must have been children's editions of some sort but I loved them both.

8 The Coral Island by R M Ballantyne. Seaside adventure. Exotic. A great escape.

9 Biggles Works It Out by Captain W. E. Johns. I blush at the memory. As, no doubt, did Ginger, his co-pilot. They were awfully good friends.

10 The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss. A tale that reinforced Christian and moral values. I remember enjoying it at the time, even as I was being indoctrinated.

I read bits of the bible too of course but didn't enjoy that much. My main non-fiction reading was The Children's Book of Knowledge, a wonderful ten-volume encyclopedia which my father bought on the never-never. I still have them and treasure them because they remind me of him. When you open them, even after all these years, the smell is still the same, and you are instantly transported back to your childhood. Aren't books wonderful.

Boner Fide Euphemisms

Over on the excellent Paperback Writer there was a complaint recently about the overuse of the euphemism "pole in the pants" for the penis, and how boring and cliched it has become. In the interest of better writing it seems a new euphemism for the male member is required.

This is the sort of challenge to which I normally rise. However, I fear that on this occasion I have been beaten to the punch by a website called Woody's World of Penis Euphemisms.

All the usually variants on boner are there, and more. Common nouns such as wiener, stiffy, tadger and pecker are all listed. Cock, obviously, is right in there. In fact, I couldn't think of a single synonym for the male member which wasn't listed, although that may be more due to my sheltered upbringing than to Woody's encyclopedic knowledge of all things penile.

Matters become more interesting when we come to the actual synonymic phrases that appear to be in widespread use. One-eyed trouser snake is one I have heard frequently, indeed I believe it is my wife's personal favourite. Love muscle is another which when I first heard it back in the seventies made me feel slightly nauseous. I am sure we are all familiar with, and have used, the expression Vlad The Impaler. However, Winky the milk spitting tunnel ferret is definitely a new one on me. The expression seems a trifle cumbersome and I can't really see it slipping into everyday usage. Twelve Inch Train of Pain likewise seems a tad optimistic and may be discounted on those grounds. The Heat Seeking Moisture Missile I felt was rather too graphic for comfort as well as lacking a certain romance perhaps and therefore wouldn't snake its way too frequently into polite conversation in the drawing room.

The one that really made me laugh however was the wildly inappropriate Pope John Pole III.

All of which, I suppose, begs the question: what do you call yours?


I do a lot of stupid things. For example, I'm trying to give away free copies of my novel A Half Life of One over on my other blog. To obtain a free copy all you have to do is e-mail me. To date no-one has. Recently I began to wonder why. I mean, to write a book that doesn't sell is one thing. But to write a book that you can't even give away might be considered a tiny tragedy. God's way of telling you not to give up the day job, perhaps.

I checked the site again yesterday to see if I could figure out the reason for this surge of apathy. Maybe I wasn't marketing the book vigorously enough? Maybe I need to have a proper cover for the book? Perhaps a two-for-one offer? Or maybe I didn't have my e-mail address on the site? Oh. I didn't.

How stupid can you get? That stupid, right?

Like I said, I've done a lot of stupid things in my life. I often feel stupid. I am stupid.

What interests me, though, is: is it a crime to be stupid? We can't all be intelligent. And yet "stupid people" seems to me to be a pejorative term. Clever people look down on us. We are inferior. I don't think that's fair. It's not our fault we're stupid. And most of us have tried to improve ourselves through education and hard work. But still we remain ineluctably stupid. One sandwich short of a picnic. A plank. A bampot. A tosser. Asinine. Obtuse. Dense.

Why does nobody like us? I guess if I knew the answer to that question I wouldn't be quite so stupid after all.

And if I wasn't quite so stupid I wouldn't still harbour dreams of becoming a writer.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Blair made me a capitalist

That's Eric, not Tony. Tony made me a cynic. No, Eric Blair, writing under his pseudonym George Orwell, was the one who turned me into a capitalist by imbuing me through his writing with a mortal fear of poverty. Sadly, I doubt if that was the intention of the lanky, Old Etonian socialist.

Between the ages of fifteen and sixteen I greedily devoured more or less Orwell's whole oeuvre. Books like The Road To Wigan Pier, Down And Out In Paris And London and, above all Keep The Aspidistra Flying depicted poverty so graphically that I determined that once I grew up I would do all in my power to make enough money to live comfortably for the rest of my life. Which probably explains why, when I left University without a degree, I eventually started my own business and spent the next thirty years trying to accumulate enough capital to leave me with a pension big enough to keep me out of the poor house. Even now, incidentally, thanks to Brown, I'm by no means sure I have achieved my Blairite goal.

To be fair to Orwell he did point out in, I think, Down and Out that if you have absolutely no money and no possessions, and no hope of obtaining either, you cease to worry about poverty because you have no farther to fall. In other words, things can't get any worse. I wasn't convinced by this argument. However, I did share Orwell's view that the working class were the salt of the earth, honest artisans who held an almost total monopoly on a strange kind of deep, natural wisdom. If I was ever going to find The Truth, or the Secret Of Life that would enable me to become a Great Novelist, that's where I needed to start looking. Although I had been born into a working class family I was now, through education, interests and outlook, firmly (very) lower middle class. That summer, before I went up to University, I determined to reacquaint myself with my roots.

These were the days before the Gap Year was invented (although as it turned out, I actually spent my Gap Years while I was at university, since during most of the time I was there I was permanently pissed) so I formulated a different plan. During the long interregnum between school and university I would go and work on a building site as a brickie's labourer. Quite why I thought bricklayers were the philosopher kings of the working class I cannot now remember. Nevertheless, that summer I trudged round various building sites in Edinburgh looking for employment. Most of them seemed to be shut for the long vacations that bricklayers apparently took. I guess they needed lots of time to re-charge their brains with Plato and Kant, and maybe Russell too.

Running short of money I eventually gave up on building sites and looked for any kind of employment that would keep me out of the poverty trap which was about to spring shut. In the end I applied for a job in a large department store on Princess Street. I explained to the rather daunting Personnel Manager who interviewed me that it had to be a dead end job (I was only going to be there for a short time before I resumed my nascent literary career), and that it was imperative that I had contact with working class people. So it was no good putting me in parfumerie or haberdashery, for example.

Amazingly, I was offered a job. In the Bedding Department. Considering the rampant state of my hormones at that age, it seemed like a suitably apt Orwellian title and I accepted gratefully.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Blogging matters

I was really saddened recently when the Grumpy Old Bookman announced that in future he would only be blogging on an irregular basis. He is one of my blogging heroes, consistently informative and entertaining. I've mentioned before how much I admire the amount of work he puts into his blog - and how it shows. Last year I had a running joke about how I was trying unsuccessfully to get him to link to me. Well, while I was away on holiday to NZ, he finally put up a link. Thanks, Grumpy, for everything.

Actually, links are important to me. Like most people, I imagine, if I make the effort to blog I want to be as widely read as possible. Linking is a good way of spreading the word and building up readership. It's also very satisfying to find that someone thinks enough of your efforts to put up a link. On reflection, it's an area where I've been somewhat remiss in the past, so if you want a link on my blog drop me an e-mail and I'll be glad to oblige.

Another area where I am remiss to the point of rudeness is in responding to Comments (and even e-mails). Let me say right out that I love it when people comment on this blog. In fact, the comments are frequently the best bits of the whole damn thing. The 100+ comments made on one post while I was away were hilarious and deeply gratifying. Now, you may have noticed that I rarely respond. I'm not trying to excuse this rude behaviour but I will try and explain it. There are basically three reasons for my silence. Firstly, many of your comments are so intelligent - and frequently witty - that there's no way I can respond at the same level. I'm just not that clever. Secondly, I guess I'm a little scared of building up too personal a relationship with my readers. Don't take that the wrong way - I love you all. It's just that if I'm going to have the freedom to say exactly what I think on this blog without worrying too much about hurting anyone's feelings I need to keep a certain distance between me and my readers. The final reason is...damn, I've forgotten what the final reason is, but I'm certain that if you'd read it you would find it in your heart to forgive me. Just rest assured that I read every comment and I'd be heartbroken if you guys stopped butting in.

If the GOB's semi-retirement was a downer the launch of John Ahearn's blog Wordcarving was the very opposite. I've admired John's poems for a long time now and previously published a number of them on this blog. If you haven't already done so go take a look at his latest efforts. If this guy isn't a poetic genius, I'll eat my hat.

Finally, I'm continually surprised and delighted at the kindness of strangers. Susan Abraham, over on her blog Writing Passions, has put up a link to my online novel A Half Life of One, together with a very kind description. Thanks, Susan, that act of kindness really made my day.

When worlds collide

Humour is a funny business, isn't it? Here I was thinking I'd written one on my funniest-ever posts and yet everyone else thinks it's rubbish.

I am of course referring to my previous post titled "Literary Alchemy". Which, in the odd way blogs work, is the one that comes after this. The general reaction to the post has been so negative that I think it's worthwhile trying to deconstruct it and explain what I was trying to do so that maybe others can learn from my mistakes. Before I start, however, let me say that I know I'm opening up a can of worms here even though I'm aware of something I said in a previous post some months back - all blogging careers end in failure. I think I may be about to prove that some end sooner than others.

So. First off let me state unequivocally that the post was meant to be funny. I thought I'd flagged that up by bookending the bit about being struck by inspiration while making love to my wife. Reader, no such interaction occurred. Not that night, nor for some considerable time in recent history. Mostly we're just lying there living in our separate worlds. I'm busy composing posts in my head for the next day's blog. I don't know what my wife is thinking about but it certainly isn't sex. At least, not sex with me.

The body of the joke was meant to be multi-layered. The first target was myself. I kept thinking of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza while I was composing it. Tilting at windmills and all that. The basic premise that anyone can take a small pile of unsaleable (and probably unreadable) secondhand books and make a fortune out of them was, I thought, completely ludicrous and illustrated how far out of touch with reality I have become. The theatre of the absurd also comes to mind here, and I've used this technique before, usually with happier results.

The second target I was aiming at was the financial services industry. Not capitalism itself I hasten to add. I'll make my views on capitalism clear within the next couple of posts or so since it's obvious that this subject underlies much of the negative feelings the post provoked. Financial engineering is however an aspect of capitalism I do abhor. Fat cats down in London and in other financial centres inventing fancy ways to make obscene amounts of money without actually doing anything that adds to the public good. Well, that makes me livid.

I attempted to satirise these city wide boys by introducing a load of technical terms and techniques that are in common use in the financial futures market. At the same time I hoped this jargon would add a spurious authority to the post - thus making it funnier. This attack on the market, incidentally, was the bit I thought was rather clever. Unbelievable as it sounds, many financial schemes sold to the public today are indeed based on as flaky a premise as the one posited in my post. And if you think that is of little concern to you - well, if you have a pension then you're wrong. To make up for the actuarial deficits that have grown over the years fund managers are indulging in increasingly arcane and risky financial engineering to boost returns and bridge the gap. Don't take my word for it either. Check out Warren Buffet, the world's second-richest man, on the subject. Buffet believes that the whole banking sytem is at risk from the growth of the derivatives market. Maybe it's safer to stick your money under the bed after all.

In hindsight I can see that this part of the post was where the joke really started to backfire. Mainly because, I think, I'd overlooked something. I live in two worlds - one commercially-oriented and the other the world of books. I know a reasonable amount about both. I assumed my readers did too. Most writers, I realise now, don't share that common interest or knowledge of the financial markets and therefore are not actually equipped to see the joke. Indeed, most writers appear to abhor capitalism so it isn't just disinterest - it's actual hostility. No wonder you didn't find the post funny.

Of course, there are other possibilities here - maybe the joke itself wasn't funny or maybe it's the way I tell 'em but I don't think so. Without meaning to, I definitely hit a raw nerve. A nerve I'll attempt to dissect before the week is out.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Literary Alchemy

I was making love* to the wife** last night when I suddenly experienced an epiphany regarding the true worth of my novel A Half Life of One. By the time I rolled off onto my back I had completely figured out how the book is going to make me a fortune. Well, I'm a quick thinker - which is what makes me a great entrepreneur, as well as a lousy lover.

As I lay there in the half-darkness, red-faced and panting, my excitement mounted and my nerve-ends started quivering..

At that moment my wife opened her eyes. "Oh, I'm so sorry, darling," she mumbled drowsily, "I thought you had finished."

I ignored her. All I could think about was the new-found wealth that had so unexpectedly come within my grasp.

Here's how it is going to work. You will recall that - having failed to find a traditional publisher - I intend to publish and distribute 100 copies of A Half Life of One for free. Or rather, they'll be free at the point of use. This little exercise in artistic generosity is actually going to cost me around £100. Except that it isn't any more.

All because of the scarcity value of the novel. In strictly limiting the print run to 100 I have inadvertently put a value on the book. As all economists know, when a commodity is in short or limited supply it automatically becomes valuable (think of the price of oil going up as supply fails to keep pace with demand). So, even if as a work of art A Half Life is worthless (a statement which in itself is highly contentious), as a commodity it has value simply because of its scarcity.

Of course the real challenge is how to convert this nominal value into actual money. The kind you can spend in Monte Carlo or Biarritz. It turns out that the answer is simpler than you might expect. What I'm going to do to unlock this hidden value it to set up an Online Exchange allowing owners of A Half Life to trade their copies, both amongst themselves, and to envious outside collectors. This exchange will replicate the activities undertaken by shareholders on the London Stock Exchange or on Wall Street, or the DAX, with real-time prices, online screens, broker recommendations etc. The internet makes this possible.

So how will these activities make me money? Simple. I'll take a small commission every time the book changes hands. As a result, suddenly I've created value where none existed before. That's what business is all about. Clever, huh?

But, I hear you say, there are only a hundred copies of A Half Life in existence. If every copy is bought and sold once a year on average (and many people will obviously be reluctant to part with this literary masterpiece) that would amount to one hundred trades a year at most. At around 5% of the selling price the commission on these 100 trades will hardly keep me in Armani suits.

That's true. But here comes the really clever bit. As well as the primary trading platform I intend to set up a Derivatives Exchange. Out in the world of Big Finance, derivatives are where the serious money is made. You don't know what a derivative is? It's simple. Basically, it is the right - but not the obligation - to buy or sell a commodity even though you don't actually own it. Derivatives, or options as they are more commonly called, come in two basic varieties - puts and calls. If you think the value of your copy of A Half Life is going to go up in the next few months you would buy a call. If, on the other hand, you think it is going to go down (it could happen: if I signed a major publishing deal with a mainstream publisher for example) you would buy a put. Indeed, you could execute what's called a straddle and buy both. Then you would make money whether A Half Life went up or down in value, which is amazing, but true. Although you wouldn't if volatility was low and the price stayed the same. Follow me? Don't worry if you don't understand. Most people who play the markets don't know what they're doing either.

The point is, even though there will be only one hundred copies of A Half Life of One in existence there will be thousands of investors buying and selling millions of puts and calls every day even though they'll never own the book, let alone read it. The same thing happens with coffee or oil or pork bellies. No one expects a hundred pork bellies to be delivered in a van to their back door just because they've bought options in this commodity believing the price is going to fall next month.

As I said, you don't have to understand the mechanics of this - although it's exactly the same model employed on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange where pork bellies really are traded. The point is, in all of these financial powerhouses the derivatives markets dwarf the main stock exchanges which trade the commodities upon which derivatives are based. It may sound like Alice in Wonderland but believe me fortunes are made and lost every day in these markets.

So, even though there's only 100 copies of A Half Life in existences we can write thousands of different options, forward contracts and swap agreements based on these few, precious copies. That's called leverage. And because I'll own the exchange on which these transactions will take place I'll take a tiny commission every time a trade occurs. I've done some simple calculations based on moderate volatility and I reckon I should make around half a million pounds profit in the first year, increasing exponentially as interest in the book grows with the passing years.

Gee. The idea is so beautiful I love it. And to think it might not have happened if the book had been accepted and published by a regular publisher. Such an occurrence would have completely destroyed the rarity value upon which my future wealth depends.

In other words, becoming a successful, best-selling, published author would have ended up costing me a fortune. Guys, entirely thanks to my wife's amorous nature, I've had one hell of a lucky escape.

*A euphemism

**So that no-one reaches the wrong conclusion should read "my wife".

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Such a beautiful day

It's a beautiful February morning here in the north of Scotland with hardly a cloud in the sky. Too good to waste so I drive out to Glen Tanar, about fifteen minutes away, and set out off on my favourite walk which lasts about two hours. Here's the river which gives the glen its name. In the autumn it's full of spawning fish.

It's not a long walk but it is steep as you climb up onto the hill. I look on it as a training walk and when Spring arrives I'll use it to get fit. I'll aim to do it about three times a week in order to build up my fitness and stamina. I reckon by the end of March I'll be fit enough to undertake some longer walks.

I usually pause on the ridge to take in the view. This is Morven, a Corbett, less than three thousand feet high. Most of the snow has gone after the recent warm winds. This hill features prominently in my novel, as does the surrounding countryside where a violent kidnap takes place.

I like to walk far and fast. The longest walk I've ever done in one day is about 34 miles. That was ten years ago and it took me around eleven hours. I only stopped once, for twenty minutes or so, to eat lunch. That walk, in the Cairngorms, took in Cairn Toul and Braeriach, two of the highest mountains in Scotland. I'm so unfit at the moment that I doubt if I could walk half that distance. The other problem I have is that my feet are soft. They need to be like leather to avoid blisters, a particular problem in the wet. Right now, because of all the melting snow the track ahead is pretty wet:

I've done this walk hundreds of times in the past ten years. I would guess it's where most of A Half Life of One was composed, and a good percentage of my blog posts too.

In another couple of weeks this pool near the end of the walk will be chock full of mating frogs and frogspawn.

Kind of beautiful right now though, don't you think?

Friday, February 16, 2007

It's all in the head

I don't know how other people's heads work but inside mine I'm having a perpetual conversation with myself. So, obviously, I don't think in images, I think in words. (I'd be interested, incidentally, to hear how other people's brains work). When I get really excited about an idea the conversation becomes extremely animated and sometime, especially when I'm driving, I'll actually start talking to myself out loud. I guess this is a worrying sign.

Worse still, if what I'm saying to myself is funny, I'll even burst out laughing, which can lead to some embarrassing situations as you can imagine.

There are though, some downsides to this unending internal dialogue. Like when I wake up at night and find I'm shouting at myself inside my head and the noise is deafening and I can't get back to sleep. At times like that the conversation can go on for hours.

Since I started blogging events inside my head have taken a turn for the worse. When I was a young man the conversation was mostly about girls and the the things I'd like to do to them. As I got older and began developing businesses for a living the chat with myself was dominated by the various ways in which I might become rich and how I could spend all the money I was going to make.

Nowadays - since I started blogging - I find myself writing - and endlessly re-writing - countless numbers of blog posts inside my head. Best time, as I've said before on this blog, is in the morning, especially in the shower. Then the words - and the ideas - really flow. The trouble is they don't stop flowing. By the time I've had my breakfast and dealt with my business e-mail the thoughts and ideas that sounded so original - and, if I'm lucky, amusing - a couple of hours earlier now sound stale and dull and hackneyed. No worth posting in fact. So I don't.

As a result of this self-censorship, of the thousands of posts I've composed in my head since I started blogging only a very tiny percentage ever see the light of day. I guess you could argue that's a good thing. Strict quality control and all that. But I'm not sure that's right. A blog, if it's about anything, should be a true reflection of the person writing it. Not some bland, carefully manicured version of a guy's mind that has been heavily censored by the thought police, sanitised by the spin doctors.

I guess if I ever want to make a success of blogging I'll just have to order my priorities properly and put off real work until later in the day. Or maybe even the day after.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

One too many threesomes

It's funny how different the future is from what you expected when it finally arrives.

When I set out to change the face of publishing eighteen months ago with my novel A Half Life of One I sort of expected that the end result, along with all the acclaim and adulation, would be a life-transforming series of bumper royalty cheques. Instead, I'm going to give away one hundred copies of the book at a cost of £800.

That's not all that has turned out differently to what I expected. Along with massive sales would have come the bragging rights that would allow me to rub shoulders over the canapes with the likes of Dan Brown and J. K. Rowling at the various literary soirees I was expecting to attend. Instead, as my fame slowly spreads and I do eventually get invited to these literary beanfeasts, I'll have to steer the conversation away from crude sales towards the instrinsic merits of the books we have all written if I'm going to maintain my air of literary superiority.

Then there's the groupies. Originally, I expected to be a best-selling author by the age of twenty-five (I'm now fifty-eight so the timescale has already slipped a little) embarking on my first lecture tour of America There I dreamed of descending upon a string of University towns whose lecture halls would be packed with earnest and eager young students all of whom would be desperate to be touched by my literary genius. "Touched" in the sense of "shagged", to be more precise.

If things had gone to plan this carnal vision might have reached its apogee, about fifteen years from now, in a luxurious New York apartment overlooking Central Park. Picture the scene...

Great Aunt Dorothy, stiff-backed and still-beautiful despite her great age, sits with her hands folded demurely on her lap as she observes her five grandchildren spread out in a semi-circle in front of her on the luxurious astrakhan rug, each with their various picture books opened on their knees.

"Great Aunt Dorothy," pipes up Britney, a winsome child of barely six years old, "Why did you never marry? Don't you like men?"

Aunt Dorothy is surprised by the question. She hesitates. It is a painful subject. Eventually she says, "I did have a love affair, many years ago. When it ended I never found anyone else to replace him"

Little Tom's eyes widen. "Wow! What happened to the guy? Did he die?"

Aunt Dorothy lowerd her head. These memories are intensely painful. Indeed, she's never spoken of them to anyone before. She speaks slowly and haltingly, measuring every haunting word. "He was a famous author. And yes, he did die, a couple of years later. He was very young at the time. As was I."

Ciceley stares up at her Great Aunt, open-mouthed. It seems impossible to believe that this frail old lady has ever been young, never mind having had a love affair. She says softly, a slight lisp occasioned by the braces on her gleaning white teeth, "Tell us what happened, please, Great Aunt Dorothy."

"Yes, please, please," echo the other children. As we all know, love affairs are such fun!

"Well," says Great Aunt Dorothy, "I was at Vassar, in my final year, when the famous novelist Bill Pundy..."

"Wow," interjects Wayne, who is the eldest child there and knows more than everybody else,"Not the guy who wrote 'A Half Life of One'?"

"The same," whispers Great Aunt Dorothy, "Any way, Bill - oh, how can I ever forget those masses of blond hair tumbling over his collar, that wild Romantic look in his eyes - gave a lecture about how he had struggled for nearly two years to become a famous writer. It was such a touching story that he brought tears to my eyes. Indeed, the whole auditorium was snuffling and wailing when he finally sat down. Afterwards, some of us were invited backstage to meet him and , well, that's where it happened."

"What did?" asks Ciceley, here tiny freckled nose wrinkling up in bemusement.

"Our love affair, darling."

Wayne too looks puzzled."That was it? Backstage? How long did it last?"

Great Aunt Dorothy thinks for another infinite, terrifying moment. It was all such a long time ago. "About twenty minutes I believe, dear. I didn't look at my watch, as you can imagine."

"Twenty minutes!" the children cry in unison.

"There was a queue," explains Great Aunt Dorothy patiently, "His publicist liked to keep things moving. We did it standing up. She told me later that sometimes the other groupies became impatient and on one campus a fight had even broken out."

"What did he die off?" demands Wayne, who feels the story isn't as tragic as he'd been hoping.

"Let me see. The coroner said that his heart had given out. All that sex had, literally, killed him. 'One two many threesomes' was the official verdict, I believe."

Ciceley stares wide-eyed at her Great Aunt Dorothy. "That's such a SAD story," she says eventually.

Great Aunt Dorothy extracts a silk handkerchief from the sleeve of her angora sweater and blows her nose daintily. "Yes," she says huskily, "Isn't it."

Back in the real world however I believe my story will have a happier ending. I read somewhere recently that an old and somewhat raddled rock star had revealed that groupies aren't quite what they're cracked up to be. Apparently all the good-looking fans have boyfriends and what you're actually left with are the acned, the overweight, the sad and the downright unhygenic.

None of which attributes, of course, occur in cyberspace.

Monday, February 12, 2007

It's the way you tell 'em, Lawrence

There's a passage in Robert Graves' autobiography "Goodbye to All That" about his fellow student T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) which whenever I read it as a teenager used to reduce me to tears of helpless laughter.

As a mature undergraduate at Oxford after the War, Lawrence was frighteningly well-read and rather held in awe by some of the younger Dons. One of the senior Dons, Professor Edgeworth, however, possessed an equally wide vocabulary and used his knowledge of the English language to intimidate his students. This ploy didn't always work. One evening, Lawrence returned from a visit to London, and Edgeworth met him at the gate. "Was it very caliginous in the Metropolis?" the Professor asked.
"Somewhat caliginous, but not altogether inspissated," Lawrence replied gravely.

What price literary immortality?

I've spent the weekend calculating the price of literary immortality and the figure I've arrived at is, including postage and packing, 800 UK pounds (1557 US dollars; 189896 Japanese yen; 125681 Angolan new kwanzas).

How it works is this. When I wrote A Half Life of One I wasn't striving after literary immortality. I wrote the book because I had to; I had a story to tell; something I had to get off my chest. However, now the book is written I want to leverage its existence into something equally important. Like immortality.

Why? Well, nearly everyone who has at some time been near and dear to me and who has died is virtually forgotten by everyone apart from me. My mother and father; the aunt and uncle who brought me up; my father-in-law who became a surrogate father. Within another generation their memories will be completely obliterated. They will have left no trace of their existence behind on this earth. I don't want the same fate to befall me.

I've given this a fair bit of thought and I've concluded that the best chance of being remembered in years to come is to publish a book. Of course, most books published in the past are now discarded and forgotten. I needed to make sure the same thing didn't happen to me. As well as the price, I needed to work out the odds against gaining literary immortality. My immediate priority therefore was to do some research into the expected longevity of the average novel. First off I consulted Miller's Antique Price Guide. Then I conducted some informal discussions with both Sotheby's and Bonhams, the well-known fine art dealers. To cut a long story short the consensus seems to be that any book published today has odds of a hundred to one against being around in three hundred years time.

That means that to secure my place in the literary pantheon three hundred years from now I need to publish and sell a hundred copies of A Half Life of One. And therein lies the problem. Although the book is good - some say very good - I am by no means confident that I can actually sell a hundred copies. And since we're talking about my eternal future here I can't afford to take risks. I've therefore decided to adopt a radical new business model to ensure I hit my sales target. I'm going to give the book away.

I'll continue to promote A Half Life of One over on my other blog. Anyone who wants can then read it online for free or if they prefer they can e-mail me and I'll send them a copy for nothing. I reckon that taking into account the origination and printing costs, together with postage and packing this little exercise in securing my everlasting destiny is going to cost me around £800. Which is a whole lot cheaper than selling my soul to the devil.

Because I'm only going to print a hundred copies I'm also virtually guaranteeing the rarity value of the book in years to come. As a result anyone who owns a copy a few hundred years from now is going to be quids in. You may think that I might resent this unearned future wealth passing to someone other than myself but not a bit of it. I look on it as my gift to future generations, an act motivated entirely by unselfishness.

All in all then, I think you'll agree that what I'm doing is a very small price to pay to secure my literary immortality, rubbing shoulders in distant centuries with the likes of Goethe, Shakespeare, Scott Fitzgerald, John Baker and Debi Alper.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Now what?

You may remember a couple of months back that I asked for help in writing a synopsis and a query letter for my novel A Half Life of One. As a result I did indeed receive a lot of help and good advice and subsequently I put a proposal together for the book and e-mailed it off to eight agents, split equally between the UK and the US. Four eventually said "no", and the rest didn't bother to reply.

Even though I believe the book could be a modest commercial success I find myself surprisingly unperturbed by this lack of interest. The fact is, I think I can have more fun, and gain more satisfaction, by publishing the book myself. So that's what I'm going to do. I want to do it properly though, and it's important to me that the final result (a paperback) is as professional and attractive as possible. This is, after all, going to be my first, best shot at immortality. In fifty years time when the rare first edition comes up for auction at Sotheby's I'd like to think it will fetch a good price, right up there with Fitzgerald and Hemingway and, er Dan Brown (not that Dan Brown, this is another one who's only just been born - we're talking about the future here, don't forget).

So, first off I'm going to commission a cover design from a designer I admire. I'll publish the result when I get it. I also think I should have the book professionally edited - both for typos and for content (although the Publishing Contrarian has already done a lot of work on this aspect). Any suggestions, or offers (paid, naturally), or advice on this, or any other aspect of self-publishing, will be very welcome.

The book blog for A Half Life of One, incidentally, still gets around nine hits a day which may not sound like very much but if I could convert even a tiny fraction of those visits into sales I would be a very happy man indeed. I've got some ideas on how I might best accomplish this but I'll save that for another post.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Writer blocked

I haven't written a word of my new novel, Mummy's Boy, for nearly two months. There are a number of reasons why I'm unable to restart.

I believe the underlying problem is linked, in a rather curious way, to my ongoing depression. I've written a lot about depression on this blog in the past, mainly I suppose because it's such a significant fixture in my life. Right now I'm in a low- to medium-level phase. But it's not the depression itself that's the problem. I can cope with being depressed, I have done all my life, and it's my natural state. And it's worth repeating here that there's a big difference between depression and despair, which latter state really can bring everything crashing down. No, I can cope with depression all right. The bit I haven't figured out is how to cope with happiness, or even, when I think about it, mild pleasure.

I didn't realise what was happening until a few months ago when my wife informed one of our friends who was trying to entice me into a game of golf that "If it gives him pleasure don't expect him to do it." I was really shaken by her observation at the time and it made me take a long hard look at myself and at what I had become. Until that point I hadn't realised how pervasive and corrosive this curious form of self-denial had become.

When I began to examine my life I realised that over the years I've more or less stopped doing everything that has given me pleasure. Coffee, sailing, fishing, going to the pub with my friends, the theatre, the cinema, watching rugby. The list is endless, manifesting itself in a hundred subversive ways. My favourite phrase, "Trapped in a happy marriage" hints at another slant on this self-denying ordinance. I even suspect I'd give up alcohol, if I could. Oh, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. Far more numerous are all the things I haven't done or tried in case they might turn out to be pleasurable too.

And that's the problem with writing the book (and one of the reasons incidentally why recently I almost gave up this blog). I enjoyed it too much and, to make matters worse, it seemed too easy. And you know what I do with things I enjoy, don't you...

If you haven't read any of the chapters I've posted up here the novel is basically the story of a boy growing up and his developing relationship with his mother. Because the story is told through the eyes of the child there is a certain simplicity in the style, an apparent lack of artifice, I guess it's a bit like a child's school essay and therefore hard to take seriously. And, of course, the book is plainly autobiographical insofar as it's based on recollections of my own childhood, so you might believe it doesn't have a plot. But it does, and I'm already excited at the horrific way things will turn out for the child as he grows up. It helps, incidentally, that because my childhood is now so long ago, I've been forced to use my imagination to fill in some huge gaps. Oh, and don't be fooled by the apparent simplicity either - behind the scenes I'm busy manipulating the reader's emotions just as hard as I can.

Notwithstanding the work I'm putting into the book's construction I'm still finding it ridiculously easy to write. Normally when I write anything I will write a draft that incorporates many changes and then do at least a dozen re-writes before I end up with what I consider to be the first draft. That first draft inevitably reads like it has been written by Henry James, with long involved sentences and hugely convoluted and tortuous ideas struggling to escape from the sticky prose. So then I prune everything and chop up the sentences. Cut out adverbs. Beef up the verbs. And then I'll leave it for six months or so before I do another re-write. And so it goes. A few years down the line I might, if I'm lucky, end up with a finished novel that I can send out to an agent.

Not this book. This book, which is intended to be my masterpiece, the best thing I've ever written, the best thing anyone has ever written. Two drafts max so far. Maybe one more when I write the final sentence.

Perhaps my writing style has been influenceded by my blogging. What I do on this blog is basically slap down the first draft and then do a quick edit which will consist of looking for typos and maybe simplifying the ideas I'm trying to express. Then I'll press the button and whack my post out into the blogosphere, just like firing a clay pigeon into the air, before it gets shot to pieces.

So the book is easy to write and I'm hugely enjoying it and I'm beginning to get excited because I think it is very, very good indeed.

Which is all the reason I need to trigger writer's block.

Friday, February 09, 2007

21 words

Skint has posed a question which is a tough one to answer, but here goes:

21 words

A wind-skinned skeleton
Clothed only in deceit
Head bowed over the abyss
Awaiting the kiss
Of the upraised sword.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

A Literary Quiz

The trouble with most literary quizzes nowadays is that you can usually cheat by googling the relevant word or phrase. This one is different. So here goes: In which famous 20th century British novel is the word "buer" used several times, and what does the word mean?

Fleeting fame and finite mortality in the blogosphere await the first correct answer.

Born Free

Jean Jacques Rousseau famously wrote that "Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains." I've always thought the opposite is true. We are born into slavery, shackled by our genes, our environment, our parents' love, other peoples' expectations, our own shortcomings, the whole damned world around us.

I've spent my whole life trying to get free. I think I'm getting there. I've certainly got the scars to prove it. But believe me it's taken a lifetime, and it's been a close-run thing.


Yeah, so we recently spent a month in New Zealand. It was our third visit in three years and this time we confined ourselves to the North Island. Confined isn't really the right word. Once you leave Auckland you find yourself in a big little country, very sparsely populated.

In scenic terms my wife describes NZ as being like Scotland on steroids. It's all a bit bigger and more beautiful and emptier but still strangely familiar. The people though are something else. They just have to be the friendliest in the world. Even at passport control when they ask you why you're there they seem genuinely interested. Maybe that's why the queues move so slowly.
Because we always take our walking boots with us we have to go through the strict environmental control channels. This time around a rangy young customs officer checked to see that our boots had been properly cleaned and disinfected. When he was satisfied he asked us which part of NZ we were heading for. When we told him we'd be staying up north near the Waipoua forest he immediately started to give us a detailed description of some of the birds and wildlife we could expect to encounter, as well as some places we just had to visit. Uncomfortably aware of the growing queue behind us we eventually made our excuses, shook hands with the young man and headed for the airport exit. Looking round we could see the queues stretching back towards passport control as he engaged the next new arrivals to his country in earnest, enthusiastic conversation.

Away from Auckland when you drive into the outback it's also a bit like stepping back in time. Back to the fifties in fact. A kind of more innocent, more self-reliant age. Don't get me wrong, this isn't some kind of Shangri La, and NZ has plenty of social problems just like any other country, but you'll go a long way to find a nicer place to live.

Even though I'm a chronically shy person, and normally find it difficult to engage with the indigenous people of the country I'm visiting, in NZ that isn't a problem. Go into any shop and you can expect a genuinely warm welcome. Ask any question and the locals will be delighted to give you a detailed response. It just seems like they're glad you've taken the trouble to visit their tiny little country in the back of beyond.

So would I live there? No. Certainly not in the suburbs which can be deadly dull. And the small towns with their hotels running bingo, and bikini competitions, and seriously hard drinking every night. I dunno, but sometimes you don't want to be trapped in a timewarp, a sort of fancy dress Groundhog Day.

Don't get me wrong. I love the country and I adore the people. It's such a nice place. And that's the problem. Somehow for me it lacks an edge. It's almost too safe, too pretty, too content with itself.

But hey, give me another couple of months back home and you can bet your bottom dollar I'll be desperate to get back there, back to a modest kind of paradise. As a matter of fact, as I watch the snow falling outside the Pundyhouse window, I'm beginning to wonder what the airfare is right at this moment.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Coming last

Between the ages of eleven to eighteen both my son's used to be keen competitive swimmers. We used to get up every morning at 5 and take them into training in town. They'd train for an hour and a half in the morning and ten an hour in the evening after school. At weekends they'd either be competing or training. Occasionally they'd get a Sunday off. If it sounds horrendous it wasn't. They had a great social life and a wide circle of friends throughout the country. And they glowed. They had an aura about them. Life was fun.

They were both good too. Very, very good. For a while we even wondered if the eldest especially might not be good enough to make the Olympics. But good as they were they didn't win every race they entered. At that level there's always someone, somewhere, at some time who is is better than you.

I used to comfort them when they didn't win by saying that swimming was a competition they couldn't lose. No-one forced them to do it, they could opt out at any time, it was only a game.

Later on, as they grew up and started to make their ways in life, whenever they encountered any setback or disappointment I adapted the swimming analogy to console them. Life wasn't a competition you could lose etc. Sure it was a race in a way, but everyone was in it. There were no losers. No-one ever came second in life.

I was wrong of course.

You can certainly lose at life. All you have to do is fail to give it your best shot. Your very best shot. Then one day you'll wake up and realise it's all too late. And you'll feel bad, so very bad, because you'll know you didn't try as hard as you could have done. Whatever it was you once wanted so badly will be beyond you now. You'll have failed because you simply didn't try hard enough to make the most of your talents.

Writing is the same. It's years since I gave it my best shot, applied one hundred per cent effort. As a result, all those dreams I used to have, where are they now? Tarnished, gathering dust, most of them half forgotten. I'm not talking about getting published here either. I'm talking about writing something that you know is as good as you can make it, maybe even, in parts, perfect. Good writing doesn't just happen. You have to work your ass off at it, give everything, your very best shot until what you've got is as good as it can be. When you reach that point, find that word, shape that perfect sentence, you've won, and you can die happy. At least you can until the next page looms, when the race starts all over again.

Obvious as it may seem I've only just worked this out for myself. I can only hope I'm not too late to achieve something that's really important to me. From now on I'm going to give my writing my best shot. When I die I want to die happy.

And while I'm alive I certainly don't want to come last.