Thursday, November 29, 2007

Requiem For A God

When I dropped in as usual to read The Grumpy Old Bookman on Monday I was shocked and saddened to discover that he was retiring from blogging with immediate effect. He describes the termination of his blog as a Sabbatical but his farewell had an air of finality to me. Life won't be the same without him.

Michael Allen stood head and shoulders above his peers in the world of book blogging. Witty, informative, opinionated and original. Productive too. He reckons he's pumped out more than a million words on his blog since he started. That's a formidable achievement, almost a full-time job. I don't know when we'll see his like again.

I was lucky enough to conduct several e-mail coversations with him over the past couple of years. I was shamelessly plugging my blog and my book A Half Life Of One. I knew it. He knew it. And he knew that I knew it. It didn't matter. He always responded to the bait with good-natured kindness and plugged the blog and the book on several occasions. It was with mixed feelings that I realised that my book was the final subject on his final proper post. On this occasion I hadn't even asked for his help. Kind and generous to the end.

I hope he still inhabits the blogosphere and not just in spirit. If he does, and drops by here and reads this I'd like him to know just how grateful I am for all his advice, kindness and tacit encouragement over the years.

Gone maybe, forgotten, definitely not. Not for a long time.

Monday, November 26, 2007


Jock Pundy (59), Scottish-born Eastern Hemisphere Marketing Director of sprawling publishing conglomerate Pundyhouse Publishing Inc, flew into Luton airport by aeroplane on Thursday accompanied by assistant/translator Ms Agnieszka Malyszbienczy (23), Polish-born Plumber’s Mate on work experience from the Gdansk shipyard where she was training to be a full-time riveter, ahead of the company’s Autumn Sales Update at the Rits Hotel, London.

There was confusion the following day at the hotel when Pundy discovered that his Press Conference had been double-booked with the Australian Society Of Sewage Engineers. The issue was resolved when the two bodies agreed to share the hall and alternate questions. The Conference Room on the fourth floor of the prestigious Rits Hotel was consequently packed at the appointed hour with financial analysts, agents, booksellers, TV executives and sewage engineers. Wally Ackerman, the Australian-born Director of the Society Of Sewage Engineers agreed to chair the meeting. A handout was given to each attendee explaining that because some delegates at a previous presentation had had trouble understanding the mellifluous tones of Mr Pundy, a translator would be employed to convert the publisher’s thick Scottish brogue into Received English.

At a little after 11.00am Mr Pundy and his assistant entered onto the stage and the excited hubbub in the room immediately died down. Mr Ackerman rose to greet the speakers.

“G’day,” he intoned with a smile, extending his hand in greeting to the rapidly advancing figure of Ms Malyszbienczy.

“Gdansk,” she corrected him coldly, brushing past.

Mr Pundy wore a large salmagundi-patterned bonnet with a plaid scarf wrapped round his face as protection against the Autumn chill, leaving only his eyes visible which gave the somewhat disconcerting impression that he was wearing a tartan burka. Ms Malyszbienczy for her part wore a black corduroy suit with a skirt so brief one delegate later described its virtual non-appearance as “a salutary and deeply-moving experience”. All eyes followed her as she took a seat on the podium beside her boss.

Mr Pundy wasted no time in launching into his speech. “Weel lads, it’s guid tae see sae mony weel-kent faces,” he tintinabulated through his scarf.

“Well boys, eez goot to zee zo meny well-knowed faeces,” translated Ms Malyszbienczy, smiling sweetly at the audience as she spoke, a number of whom felt quite faint at this point.

“Ony questions?” continued Pundy.

Ms Malyszbienczy stared at her boss for several seconds with a puzzled expression on her face. “’Ee is aksing you eef yew ‘ave eny questions,” she announced eventually, a look of triumph on her face.

“How are sales of A Half Life Of One holding up?” enquired a pin-striped analyst.

“Guid, laddie. Aye, canny complain.”

Every eye turned expectantly upon Ms Malyszbienczy. The auditorium was so quiet you could have heard a toilet flush in the adjoining Gent’s lavatory, especially if you had a trained ear like many of those present. “’Ee says ‘Goot’,” Ms Malyszbienczy explained eventually.

“Any new marketing initiatives?” enquired one of the Sewage Engineers, a young man in his late twenties who appeared particularly keen to catch Ms Malyszbienczy’s eye.

“Weel, chappie ye ken aboot ‘Buy One Get One Free’,” responded Pundy, “Weel, wer gonna blast that scheme richt oot the watter. From Monday wir launching ‘Buy one get five free’. Sales will gang through the roof” He turned to Ms Malyszbienczy and awaited her translation.

Ms Malyszbienczy’s eyes widened as she struggled to make sense of her employer’s speech. She shifted uneasily in her seat, swivelling her long, unsheathed legs from one side of her chair to the other. Two hundred pairs of eyes on the floor below swivelled in unison.

At that moment there was a commotion outside the doors of the conference hall. A stream of newly arrived sewage engineers was flooding into the atrium outside. Pressure quickly built up as the engineers jostled for space. Suddenly the doors to the hall burst asunder and a tsunami of cloacal experts surged into the room like effluent bursting out of a blocked storm drain.

As he disappeared beneath the seething, flocculating mass of humanity Pundy was heard to scream out, “Help ma boab!”

“Dobry wieczor,” translated Ms Malyszbienczy, on this occasion incorrectly.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Prix Goncourt

Anyone know how you enter this competition? Do you have to be French? Same info required for The Booker Prize. Also, does the Pulitzer include fiction?

Any tips, advice or top prizes I've overlooked greatly appreciated.

Set text

Now that I have successfully self-published A Half Life Of One to a fusillade of ecstatic reviews and general rejoicing throughout the land it can only be a matter of time before the book becomes a set text in schools, colleges and universities, much like, say, Lord Of The Flies (to which it has been compared) or Finnegan's Wake (to which it hasn't).

I always hated exams. I am, as a result, sympathetic to the plight of the hapless students who will shortly be racking their brains for something intelligent to say about my masterpiece. I have therefore prepared the following crib sheet to help them in their scramble for exam points. Anyone who hasn't read the book (Note: I've seen the sales figures and that means you) should look away now in case the following revelations spoil their enjoyment of this literary tour de force.

1 The title A Half Life Of One is a reference to the radioactive decay of an organism as well as a pun on someone who, through their own fecklessness, only has half a life. (Note to examiner: A correct answer here is worth ten points. Anyone who compares the title to the sci-fi shooter computer game Half Life should automatically get half their marks deducted).

2 The book is a faint allegory of life under an occupying force such as existed in Vichy France during the Second World War. In the same way that ordinary people behaved badly then under enormous pressure so does the main character in AHLOO. (Note to examiner: This answer is worth 15 points provided the examinee does not stretch the allegory too far. Comparisons to Animal Farm should be marked down).

3 The main character in AHLOO is called Nick Dowty. Originally he was called Nick Doughty with his surname being ironic - he is anything but brave and persistent. The revised surname is a double pun - on both doughty and doubt (he is forever questioning the rightness of everything he does). The Christian name Nick is an homage to Hemingway's character Nick Adams. (Note to examiner: Award 5 marks for each correct part of this answer).

4 Reviewers have compared this work to The Bonfire Of The Vanities, Lord Of The Flies and unspecified works by Kafka. (Note to examiner: 3 marks for each apposite citation).

5 In the novel when the woman is kidnapped she is made to run to the car at the point of a gun. The author here echoes the way deportees to the concentration camps were made to run everywhere both to disorient them and to dehumanise them (they were treated as cattle). In the penultimate draft Nick Dowty actually screams at the woman in German but this was considered too unsubtle and revised into English. (Note to examiner: the examinee cannot possibly know this. Suspect cheating if this answer is given.)

6 The field of skulls is a parody of magic realism but also serves to highlight the strangeness of the landscape into which the woman is abducted (5 points).

7 The author has stated that he does not know what the buzzing sound is that emanates from the cottage in which the woman is kept. He maintains that not everything written in a novel is necessarily a "known known". However, accounts from the death camps report that after the poisoned gas was dropped into the gas chambers, prison guards outside would hear a sound like bees swarming which lasted for several seconds (0 points for this - it is simply something that everyone should know. About the death camps that is, the book does not matter).

8 The final chapter contains a parody of the end of Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (5 points).

That's it. It simply remains for me to wish every candidate the best of luck. Your time starts now...

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Now what?

My decision to spend no more time promoting my book A Half Life Of One means I can get back to doing what I really want to do. Which is writing my next book. The only question is, which one?

I've been working sporadically for about a year on a novel called "Mummy's Boy". This is very much a work-in-progress and I haven't really thought through the whole plot. It starts off telling the story of a boy from the age of five up until he's eleven in a fairly conventional way. The boy - you won't be surprised to hear - is really me at this stage. The child has a happy childhood despite the fact that his mother is a developing schizophrenic. His father is poor and increasingly given a hard time by the boy's mother. At this point I should say that the book is emphatically not a "misery memoir". These are the happiest days of the child's life and he easily copes with his mother's illness and the family's relative poverty.

At the age of eleven however the boy's life takes a dramatic turn for the worse when his father dies in fairly horrific circumstances and his mother is hospitalised. The next few years are difficult to say the least. In the end - at around about the age of twenty-five - everything works out all right. All right that is, in terms of the fucked-up world in which we live. I suppose it's another modern horror story, just like A Half Life Of One.

And that's the problem. I'm fed up writing about myself. I'm fed up writing about about things I know too well. I need to stretch myself artistically. Explore new subjects. Free up my imagination. Take chances.

So right now I'm considering two other options. The first is an historical drama set during World War Two in Vichy France. I can't say too much because it'll give the plot away but let's say it turns conventional morality on its head. It will be a serious book requiring quite a lot of research. The subject matter will be controversial.

My other option is completely different. It's a modern thriller with lots of black humour. To give you the flavour here's how it starts:

There are only two ways to double-cross someone successfully. The easy way is to kill the sucker straight after the con. The hard way is to dupe the mark so that he doesn't know he's been had. Mostly I prefer doing it the hard way because it is more professional. Tommy Bilsborrow on the other hand was such a schmuck I decided the only truly satisfying way to shake him down would be to combine the two techniques, preferably slowly.

I'm keen to get started but I don't want to dive in precipitately and find I've made the wrong choice. Maybe you can help me here. Based on the limited evidence above - which is about the same as you would get on the average dust jacket - which of these three books would you prefer to read?

The things people say

I was quietly pottering around the blogosphere last night with a glass of red in my hand when I stumbled in on my old friend The Inner Minx. Well, talk about surprise. You could have knocked me over with a broomstick. Seems like she was interviewing my doppelganger Bill Pundy about his novel A Half Life Of One. I'm still enough of a neophyte to find that reading my own reviews is a nervewracking experience. Fortunately I think the Minx liked the book. Well, maybe "liked" isn't quite the right word. You can read the interview - and corresponding review - here.

Minx and I go back a long way in blogging terms. Seems like we've been reading each other's blogs since day one really. It's something of an asymmetrical relationship though. She gives and I take. In fact, if it wasn't for her encouragement - and judicious use of her infamous pointy stick - I would have given up blogging long ago. Whether you want to thank her for that or not, only you can say.

Minx's review isn't the only one that has surprised me recently. A lady calling herself Prairie Mary, who apparently hails from the plains of Montana, offered to review the book a few weeks back and I duly airmailed off a copy and thought no more about it. You can read the subsequent review here. I have to admit - somewhat shamefacedly - that following the review I didn't give Mary much more thought or even have the decency to put up a link to her blog (since rectified). More fool me. Turns out Mary is quite a person. She's just published a biography of her late - and rather famous - husband which sounds like a fascinating, not to say daring, piece of work. Being married to a famous sculptor isn't her only claim to fame by any means. Go visit her blog and discover more about a rather remarkable lady.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Poetic justice

Go here to learn the best news I've read in ages.

This guy is the real thing. A true genius. Poetry that will break your heart with its beauty and at the same time make you glad to be alive.

Take a bow, John Ahearn.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Something obscene

When I was a callow youth of sixteen or so I wrote a poem that began "There is something something something obscene in the manufactured article."

I didn't know it at the time but what I was trying to convey was my hatred of the consumer society, which back then was in its infancy, a slumbering giant waiting to embrace us all. Forty years on that prospect has grown until the shadow of the giant towers over us all.

I was in town the other day and the streets were heaving with shoppers. As the crowds elbowed past me, their grim fun-filled faces fixed on a far horizon, I felt like a visitor from another age. I caught sight of my refection in a shop window. I saw an alien, lost in space.

The crowd swarmed over the shopping centre like locusts. Shopping as therapy. Shopping as pastime. Shopping as fucking. Shopping as religion. Shopping as living. Shopping. Shopping. Shopping.

Everybody was buying except me. I was selling. I was selling my book A Half Life Of One. Selling as therapy. Selling as pastime. Selling as fucking. Selling as religion. Selling as living. Selling. Selling. Selling.

Selling to the locusts.

Well, I'm not going to do it anymore. I've had enough. I wrote the book and that's the end. The book is done and dusted. The finished article. Here and now. I'm proud of it. I gave it my best shot. It's not going away.

The time has come to move on. My work-in-progress, Mummy's Boy, languishes on my computer. I can't wait to return to it. Get that first draft slapped down. The endless, exquisite hours of re-writes that will follow. A world of my own creation. No crowds. No shopping. No selling.

I'll be in Heaven.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Big Jessie

The phone rang when I least expected it. Someone was trying to get in touch with me. Either that or there was an intermittent fault on the line. I wondered who it could be, assuming it wasn’t a fault. The phone continued to ring and my curiosity increased in direct proportion to the number of times the strident tones rang out. By the seventeenth ring I could stand it no longer.


“Good news.”

I immediately recognised the grating burr that normally belonged to Jock Pundy, the florid Scottish-born Marketing Vice-President of my publishers, Pundyhouse Publishing International Inc. I zipped up my trousers. “Don’t tell me. You’ve sold another copy?”

“Got it in one, sonny. Some deluded wee soul sent in a cheque for the full amount this morning. Maybe she didnae read the reviews. Hell, maybe the poor lassie canna read.”

It is always hard to tell with Jock Pundy whether he is joking or not, since much of what he says is unintelligible. I decided that, on this occasion, he wasn’t. “Well, that’s good. Better than last week anyway.”

“Foo’s your wife?”

“How’s my wife?” I repeated, unsure if I had heard him right.

“Aye. Has she read it yet?”

“Well, she’s still here so I guess the answer is no.”

“Dinna worry, ye can always……….” The rest of the sentence was totally incomprehensible.

I didn’t argue. I couldn’t. I didn’t know what he had said. “I wish sales were a bit better,” I said eventually, when I thought he had finished speaking.

“We’re working on it, son. Ye need tae remember most book buyers are weemin. You’re no connectin’ wie them. They want tae mither ye but yer no lettin’ them. Ye need tae get in touch wie yer feminine side an' project that.”

“My feminine side?”

“That’s right, laddie.”

“You don't understand. I’m an engineer.”

He said something which might have been a Scottish expletive. Or he might, just possibly, have been cracking a joke. “How am I going to do that,” I said, disconsolately. I could just picture the guys out on the rig if I started walking round in a funny way and letting my hair grow long. I wouldn’t be safe.

“Leave it tae me,” said Jock. At least I think that’s what he said. “We need tae do a makeover job on ye. I ken this photographer guy. John Ahearn. I’ll get him tae do some new publicity shots tae send oot. Softer focus, kinder, prettier, all that sort of rubbish.”

“When do I have to meet him?”

“I’ll arrange it.”

He did and I received the first of the new publicity shots today. To my surprise I was rather impressed. They definitely showed a side of me that I hadn’t seen before. Maybe I had misjudged Jock Pundy after all. I’ve reproduced one of the stills below for your appreciation. Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Don't try this at home

As I explained in my previous post I originally intended to target the next phase of my e-mail book marketing campaign at Independent Booksellers. But there was a problem. I drew up a list of fifty or so booksellers and started checking them out. Most of them turned out to be second-hand, antiquarian or specialist booksellers. Not the kind of people who would normally stock a self-pubbed novel like A Half Life Of One.

In the end I was left with the following list of potential victims:

Crockett & Powell
Wenlock Books
The Pan Bookshop
London Review Bookshop
Simply Books
John Sandoe
The Book Depository
The Bookseller Crow
And several more who should probably remain anonymous.

Then I hit my next problem. When I checked out their websites several of them appeared to be rather serious organisations with absolutely no sense of humour whatsoever. To understand the problem you have to bear in mind that my marketing assault was going to be led by the following e-mail teaser (a sophisticated variation on my previous effort):

"Subject: Cheer yourself up

Hi Mr Bookseller Smith

It's always heartening to come across someone who is worse off than yourself. If you ever get depressed by the current state of the bookselling/publishing industry take a look
here and marvel at the efforts of a self-pubbed delusionist as he attempts to market a novel that may well be rubbish.

Don't bother if you're busy tho' - it isn't that funny. Or that clever, sadly.


Bill Liversidge
View From The Pundyhouse (blog

And the label to look here referenced my blog post titled "***Press Release*** Onanist Publisher announces..."

You don't have to be a marketing genius to figure out how this bit of advertising hokum would go down in certain sections of the more strait-laced bookselling community, struggling as they are with giant bookselling chains, high rents and rates and a deluge of new titles from traditional publishers. In the end I reduced my target list to six bookshops who looked like they could take a joke.

At this point I confess I began to feel somewhat demoralised. Even if all six bookshops agreed to stock my novel it didn't really feel like I was achieving critical mass amongst the bookbuying public. Bestsellerdom seemed as far away as ever. In the end I did what every good marketing professional does in this situation. I panicked. I drew up a random list of writers, publishers, literary movers and shakers and anyone else I could think off who might just possibly attract some attention to the book. Later that day I sent out over seventy Cheer yourself up e-mails - if not a spam attack, at the very least a corned beef attack, with the emphasis firmly on the corn. Then I hunkered down in my bunker and waited.

I didn't have long to wait. A writer responded to the sentiment in my e-mail. How could I possibly know I was worse off than he was? Didn't I know he had devoted himself to a life of writing and was living off air. I was mortified. I sent off a grovelling apology. Next a bookseller sent back a rather techy e-mail saying it was plain I hadn't ever been inside his bookshop and there was absolutely no way he would stock my book. I was shaken. It was only a joke...

And then the shit really hit the fan. Someone left the following Comment on the blog:

stanley crapbook said...

Dear Mr Publisher,as a new and upcoming auther, I would like to give you the oppertunity to have a look at my manuscript,'Hot Mountain Babes' and publish it.It is the best selling story of a man what gets done over by his wife with a rolling pin. She has found out that he made a fortune from a book what he wrote and spent the lot on a herd of sheep in Scotlandshire. It is very funny and I am surprised when I see all those other rejection letters that I have - they obviously dont know what they are talking about. Your new publishing company looks like it is the one for me and I look forward to hearing the date of my publickation and please don't give me one of those crappy covers.

Yours sinceerly

Stanley Crapbook

pee ess - Oh and sorry for approaching you in this way. I have sent over a 100 emails to you - I think you should get a new secretary, the one you have is obviously a moron.

To say I was shocked by this Comment is an understatement. I was as upset by the personal nature of the sentiments expressed as my unsolicited e-mail had obviously upset its recipient. It's said that you shouldn't dish it out if you can't also take it, and that is true. But somehow, unless I had completely misjudged the tone of my original e-mail, the viciousness of this response really hurt.

For a few seconds I was shellshocked. This guy had bothered to reply. What was the rest of the world thinking. I had made a complete fool of myself. How could I have been so unbelievably stupid. How could I.

I shut down my computer.

I needed to get out of the house at once, before I was sick. When I stopped shaking I climbed into the car and drove into the countryside to try and calm myself down. Everywhere looked grey. All I could think about was how stupid I had been. All those stupid e-mails. That stupid post. My stupid dreams. How could I be so stupid? How could I be so stupid?

I drove for an hour and returned home as it was getting dark. Reluctantly I went to my desk and switched on my computer and logged on. I didn't want to. God knows what I was going to find.

And there it was. Another e-mail waiting for me. From someone I had targetted earlier that day. A bookseller. Maybe the same one who had left that poisonous Comment. I hesitated for a long time before I opened it, my heart thumping. This is what it said:

OK - I have laughed me knackers off this morning reading through your blog. I really hope the book isn't "A HUGE PILE OF CRAP" because your blog is genius.

I run a marketing course for self-published authors, and I also deliver seminars at the Society of Authors, and I would be honoured to use this as a case study sir.

Please send me a review copy - I have someone in mind (a customer of mine) for whom this will be right up their street...

The very best of luck.

Best regards - Mark Thornton, Mostly Books

Not for the first time over the previous few days I wanted to cry. Thanks, Mark, you may never stock the book but you almost certainly saved my life.

Next post: A List of Heroes and Heroines