An Elephant with two Trunks

Let’s have a referendum.

I think that all elephants should have two trunks. How about you? Wouldn’t that be a really cool thing. Good for the elephant, I bet. And good for the zoo visitor who will be able to see something different. Imagine the benefits of two trunks. Breathing while drinking. The ability to pick up two things at a time. It seems a shame that they have been denied the extra trunk for so long.

I’m convinced that having two trunks would be a major benefit for both elephants and humans. Don’t you agree?

So, let’s vote on it. We can have a referendum. Sort this out once and for all.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? The idea that just because people vote for something then it has to be like that. You and I know perfectly well that no matter how overwhelming the vote might be, elephants only have one trunk and that’s that. The vote changes nothing. All it does is make us look stupid and ill-informed for bothering.

The Brexit referendum is pretty much the same. People (narrowly) voted for two trunks. They were promised two trunks by politicians who didn’t have any prospect of delivering.

Now, the reality of EU membership is starting to become clear. It’s a club we can’t leave. We are in Europe and, no matter how many people vote to be somewhere else, that’s where we stay. Our major trading partners are European. Our food supplies come from Europe. Our defence strategy is European. And so on.

The big shout from the Leave campaigners is that the people have spoken The will of the people must be done. We have to leave the EU. Elephants must have two trunks.

The Government has recently realised that elephants only have one trunk and that there’s nothing they can do to change it.  Two isn’t possible but none certainly is. If they can chop off the trunk of every elephant then at least they will have done something in response to the referendum.The elephants will all die but that’s merely the consequence of holding a referendum that demands a change in the number of trunks an elephant should have.

It’s the will of the people that elephants must have two trunks. They voted for something that isn’t possible. Even another vote that promises three extra trunks per animal wouldn’t change the facts.

It’s the same with the EU. Voting for things to be different doesn’t change the fact that we rely on our EU membership for our livelihoods.

But, the people have spoken and cutting off our only trunk might be the only alternative to leaving things as they are.

photo credit: marfis75 Elefantastisch. via photopin (license)

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Writing Tips

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Someone has asked me to write down my writing tips. So I have.

My first tip is: Write

This is so bloody obvious it shouldn’t need saying. But it does. It took me ages to realise that’s what I needed to do.

For years, I wrote very little, preferring instead to prepare for that wonderful day when I would be free from all encumbrances, released form inhibitions and have the swathes of time I needed to write.

Poppycock. Baloney.

This was self-sabotage of the worst kind.

A writer needs to write. The thing that has helped me more than anything has been the development of a writing habit. This began when I managed to persuade myself that writing was more important than watching Coronation Street. As soon as the theme music started, I left the room, went to my quiet place and sat down to write. My wife and family became used to it. They were distracted by the TV and I claimed an hour or so of peace. This was my big breakthrough. I ‘came out’ as a writer as a result. I became a writer at last.

Now, my practice has shifted to early morning but remains an overt one. My wife doesn’t expect to see or hear from me until about 11am. By which time I have done my writing for the day.

Writing every day is good for my soul. It provides me with nourishment and contentment. On days when I can’t write, the ensuing day seems to have less sparkle.

However, if I don’t write, I’m gentle with myself.

Writing every day (or most of them) brings another benefit. Productivity. A morning’s writing can produce a thousand words. If I do that every day, we’re talking about three hundred thousand words in a year. Five hundred words a day would still produce the raw material for two or three novels.

The maths are compelling if you write every day. Two hundred and fifty words, a page, accumulate nicely to a novel a year proportions.

It’s doing it every day that makes this possible.

Quite honestly, I couldn’t write any more than I do. Writing is hard work. Exhausting work, physically, mentally and, if you’re having a good day, emotionally.

My advice is to write, then. Whatever you’re writing, write until you’ve finished it. Don’t look back. Don’t try to judge it. Resist the urge to throw it all in the bin.

Put it away for a while. Some like a month, me, I prefer a year.

photo credit: Brett Jordan Word (lock) via photopin (license)

Is Kindle broken?

Amazon KDP has been good to me. Way back in 2013, Due Diligence made it into the top twenty crime thrillers and the overall top one hundred kindle charts. You can imagine how chuffed I was. I sold several thousand books in a very short time and all because Stephen Leather invited his readership to try it.

A few years down the line, services like BooksgoSocial and Bookbub will promote your book for a modest fee. They can be picky, though, as they depend on keeping faith with their readers and not fobbing off some rubbish on them. A lot like Stephen, who took the trouble to read the copy I sent him. Not like Stephen because he helped me for free, as he’s helped lots of other writers.

Amazon, in order to promote their Prime membership, decided to offer free loans of books that were enrolled in KDP Select. At first they paid authors on the basis of downloads. Then they decided that this wasn’t fair. Short books received the same payment as longer ones. It didn’t matter if the books were read or not the author got paid regardless. Then Amazon decided to change the basis of payment. Every page read was recorded and totted up and the fund distributed accordingly. Seemed fair to most people at the time.

I quite liked it at first, I had a ‘pages read’ graph to go with my copies sold one. Some days, I’d pretend the pages read were the copies sold just to make me feel especially good. Then bad things started to happen. I got wind of authors’ amazon accounts being removed because of anomalies in their page counts. One of my books took a leap skywards for no reason, thousands of page reads where there had been a steady few hundred before. I got cold feet and took all my books off Select. Losing your Amazon account is fatal for an author in these digital times and I realised that abuse of the new Amazon payment system was likely to become worse. I was right.

Recently, really awful books by unknown authors have been hitting the top of the Kindle charts. Books with very few and very bad reviews. They got their exposure and thousands of sales by what’s known as clickfarming.

Clickfarming involves downloading the book hundreds of times and then employing someone to flick through each copy. Let’s say a book is 200 pages. After each 200 page views are recorded, Amazon count it as a sale. Then the book is catapulted up the charts, people see it and they buy it.

Not only that, but the author is paid a share of the KU pot on the basis of every page read.

Some organisations offer this service to authors for a fee. Others take all the money themselves by uploading their own books, often computer generated or pirated.

In order to make it more difficult for Amazon to detect them, some clickfarms add some ‘innocent’ books to the ones they are pushing.

Amazon delete the accounts of anyone they suspect of clickfarming and this seems to have included authors who were completely unaware of what was going on. I’ve not heard of any successful appeals.

So, keep your eyes peeled, stay sharp and safeguard your precious account. If you’re new to Kindle, think twice before enrolling in Select.

photo credit: ToGa Wanderings Free Internet via photopin (license)

Don’t Give Up

William Shakespeare was not impressed when we met.

Me? I’m trying to put on a brave face in front of the diminutive literary giant and failing badly.

It’s easy for a writer like me to fall into the trap of becoming overwhelmed by a feeling of inadequacy when confronted by someone I can’t ever hope to emulate. I’ve often felt like giving up writing after reading Iain Banks or Haruki Murakami. I can’t write like they do so why should I bother trying?

A couple of people in my writers’ circle have recently informed me that they are giving up writing. They both cited disappointment with their lack of success with books they had published. This has got me thinking about my own situation. The odds are stacked against me becoming a literary giant.

So why bother writing at all? It’s hard work, demands a lot of time and produces scant monetary reward. Putting in the same hours at work would make much more economic sense.

These are some of the thoughts I’ve had:

Writing is like golf.

I don’t play golf regularly. I’ve never been tempted to take it up but I have played a few rounds in my time. If I did play golf I would do it without the expectation of winning the British Open. So why expect to win the Booker Prize with my writing?

What would I do someone saw me playing golf and said that I could earn as much money as Tiger Woods and if I gave them a few thousand pounds they would show me how? Laugh in their face, of course. But what about those predatory publisher that make similar promises? What is it that makes us writers so vulnerable?

If I did play golf I wouldn’t expect friends and family to spend hour after hour trudging around after me watching me hack my way from hole to hole. So why do I expect them to drop everything and read whatever I write as soon as I send it to them?

Then there’s the issue of practice. If I want my golf to improve I need to take lessons, which I have to pay for. OK, I might get some help from a playing partner who couild make a few observations about my technique, or lack of it. Another golfer may be able to spot some obvious flaws but if I’m to remedy them I’ll need professional help. Writing is very much the same. If I keep on writing the same way for year after year there’s not going to be much improvement. Other writers might point out that I’m telling rather than showing, or that my characters are stereotyped but I’m going to need to attend some courses or get some coaching if I’m going to change things. Practice is essential, but it needs to be informed. The right kind of feedback is essential for progression.

Very few get to be professional golfers. It’s the same with writers. Yet golfers keep on golfing, they don’t give up just because the hurdle to fame and fortune is set unreasonably high. They play because now and again they hit an almost perfect shot and that gives them immense satisfaction. Nobody else needs to see their hole in one, though it’s even more fun if they do. Sometimes I write something that makes me sigh with pleasure or laugh out loud. That’s why I write. If it makes someone else feel the same way, then even better.

My advice is this. Write. That’s what writers do. Commercial success is an unrealistic expectation forced on us by a society that demands instant gratification.

a Bit of a Rant about Self-Publishing

If you’re reading this then you’re almost certainly a reader and you might even classify yourself as a writer. I’ve written lots in this blog about the process of writing and my own personal experience. It’s been a while since I had a proper rant about self-publishing so I’m going to indulge myself. It’s Christmas, after all. Or it was not so many weeks ago.

There are lots of books out there. Millions and millions of them. Not many of them are worth reading, even so there’s not enough time to read all the good ones. What I’d like to see is a better way of getting through all the dross to find books that are worth my valuable time to read.

We all know that everyone can self-publish at the click of a mouse. This doesn’t mean that everyone should. Quite the reverse. This wonderful opportunity should surely be used with discretion. Self-restraint should be the order of the day but I’ve seen very little of that recently.

I estimate that there are about three million self-published titles. I doubt that one per cent of these are readable. That leaves three hundred thousand that have been reasonably well written and professionally edited. My bet is that one per cent of these, three thousand, are books that I would find enjoyable. Problem is, how do I find them?

About half a million titles per year get traditionally published in the UK and US combined. One of the features of traditional publishing is that they sell books like vegetables. Once they’ve had a couple of months in the shop window, they get replaced by new fresh produce. This is in sharp contrast to the self-published market where it’s very rare indeed for an author to unpublish their beloved opus.

Traditionally published titles have a greater chance of being good books, properly produced and generally readable. Let’s assume that a whopping ten per cent would interest me. That’s fifty thousand books a year, about a thousand times the number I read.

So, for me, the statistics, even though I’m making them up as I go along, are compelling. I don’t have the time to search amongst all the dross for that rare self-published gem. My chances of a good read are greatly enhanced by sticking to the traditional offerings. For this reason, I have never bought a self-published book. Occasionally, I might have a ‘look inside’ but this generally only serves to confirm their appalling lack of quality.

What’s the answer? How can self-publishing be improved to overcome the reluctant buyer like me?

For a start, writers can stop publishing crap. That would even the odds a little. Completing a first novel is a wonderful thing and something to be proud of. Self-publishing it is almost always a big mistake. Very few of us are able to produce work of merchantable quality first time round. Conventional wisdom suggests that a writer needs about a million words of practice. That’s the equivalent of ten full length novels. Ten. No matter how special a talent you might be, you’re going to need lots of practice and tuition.

Writers can get valuable encouragement and learn their trade by joining a writers’ circle and attending writing courses.

Once a writer has produced a good chunk of work, there are useful books on craft that may be helpful. You may even be lucky enough to find someone to read your work who doesn’t care about your feelings.

It’s a good sign when a writer stops being precious and protective about their work. I’m afraid that most writers never progress to this important stage which is necessary in order to work constructively with an editor. Every writer needs a professional and talented editor.

There you go, rant over for the time being.

photo credit: _Hadock_ Study Time via photopin (license)

Review of 2017

Dark days ahead?

 

 

I really commend the blog written by Tara Sparling, a talented lady that I met at the Harrogate Crime Festival.

https://tarasparlingwrites.com

I mention Tara’s blog because I’m about to do something that writers get into big trouble for and that’s plagiarism. She’s already done a very witty and perceptive review of 2017 and I have been inspired to copy her. Sorry, Tara, but you missed some very important events.

Including:

January

President Donald Trump is sworn in as the most charismatic, intelligent and honest president in history, according to his inauguration speech. President Putin hails him as a visionary and good friend to Russia.

February

A leaked intelligence report revels that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were having an affair during the presidential campaign. Trump makes a categorical denial and accuses the media of inventing false news. Hillary Clinton says she didn’t know that Trump was Republican and that everyone is entitled to be forgiven for an honest mistake. Bill Clinton refuses to comment.

March

President Trump announces that a wall will be built on the border with Canada to prevent Americans escaping northwards.

Paula Hawkins releases her follow-up novel to The Girl on the Train entitled Another Girl on Another Train.

The UK trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty confirming withdrawal from the EU.

April

The Canadian Government offers to pay for the wall.

Another Girl reaches number one in the bestsellers. At number two is A Girl on a Train.

Ireland, Denmark, Poland, Holland and Belgium invoke Article 50.

May

President Trump agrees to Canada’s offer. Canada point out that the offer was made on 1st April and was meant as a joke. Trump asks the CIA to provide a detailed briefing on the subject of jokes.

The remaining EU members except France and Germany invoke Article 50.

Leicester City, Sunderland and Hull City are relegated from the Premier League. Manchester United and Manchester City share the title. Dagenham and Redbridge both win the FA Cup.

June

Work on the Mexican wall is delayed because of a labour shortage.

France and Germany invoke Article 50, meaning that the UK has nothing left to leave. Teresa May holds a snap referendum which votes to stay in the EU now that Britain is the only remaining member.

July

Trump meets Putin in Moscow. Both men hail a new era of cooperation. Putin promises not to invade anywhere west of Germany.

August

The European Parliament is relocated to Milton Keynes now that Britain is the only member. UKIP change their name to EUPIP and Nigel Farage is elected President of Europe.

September

Britain agree to re-admit all the previous members to the EU, apart from France.

October

Putin visits Trump in Washington. The two men decide to swap jobs for a year in the interests of better understanding.

November

Civil unrest in Russia results in Putin returning to Russia.

December

Civil unrest in the US greets Trump’s return from Russia where a week long celebration is held.

Nigel Farage renames the European Union as the British Empire. India, Canada, South Africa, Australia and the West Indies are admitted.

Christmas is moved to July in order to relieve the backlog of undelivered parcels caused by Amazon’s drone pilots going on strike.

You thought 2016 was bad?

Happy New Year

Reviews

This isn’t a review site. Usually. Today I’m making an exception.

I like watching TV and I like watching films. I rejoice at the freedom the internet has granted me to watch more or less whatever I want more or less whenever I want to.

There’s also the ability to use a ten minute rule without the inconvenience of wasting money or having no alternative. If I’m not captivated within that time, I simply find something else to watch.

I suspect this technique is fairly widespread and applied not only to the visual arts but also to books. We writers need to take lessons from films and television to learn the art of grabbing attention and holding it.

The first item I want to tell you about is a film called Rurouni Kenshin.

I do like kung fu movies, I’m a big fan of Bruce Lee and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is one of my favourite films. Rurouni Kenshin achieves the almost impossible by bringing a general atmosphere of compassion and gentleness to a story that is essentially a series of fights, some of them quite bloody. The leading character plays a big part in this by being remarkably attractive. He brings to mind Tripitaka from the Monkey TV series. If you remember him you’ll know what I mean.

There are two more films in the series, I recommend all three. At least give them the ten minute test.

The second offering I have for you is In the Night Garden. This is something I have been watching in the company of my 2 year old grandson. It’s what lets him know it’s time for bed. As soon as Derek Jacobi says someone’s not in bed he looks guiltily at the screen and heads for the stairs.

I started off being mildly irritated by the whole thing but now it seems to have invaded my subconscious to the extent that it can surface at any time and I start singing the Iggle Piggle song. The facet that the Ninky Nonk can be small (as in the background of the picture) at one instant then big enough to accomodate the entire cast the next doesn’t bother me any more. We’re all in a dream and reality is only a single facet of that illusion.

These are two very different examples of how to captivate an audience. The brutal opening sequence to Rurouni Kenshin contrasts starkly with the character who emerges into the light. His struggle with inner demons makes for compulsive viewing. At any moment, his peaceful intent may crumble and then he’d be lost forever.

In the Night Garden celebrates the comfort of repetition and familiarity. Nothing much happens. Exactly what your mind needs to slow down and be ready for rest. The entire programme is formulaic to the extent that you can always tell how far you are from the end and, of course, bed time. It’s very weird, but good weird.

There’s a lot to be learned from films and TV that works. I ask myself what makes me feel connected with the characters and how the author has managed this process. I also need to know what keeps my interest until the end, has me on the edge of my seat.

Next week, I may review Timmy Time and Deadpool. On the other hand, I probably won’t.

photo credit: id-iom Why don’t you just switch off the television set? via photopin (license)

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Violence

 

There are many violent things happening in the world. The murderous actions of extremists are on the front pages of our newspapers on a regular basis. In reaction, governments pledge to drop more bombs in the places that the terrorists might be. The term is fighting fire with fire. In the real world, it’s what the general public seem to require of our politicians.

In the fictional world of Jenny Parker, violence isn’t an option for her. Even if it were available to her, which mostly it’s not, she realises that the kind of people she has to deal with actually thrive on violence. It’s something they understand. Jenny has to find other means of saving herself knowing that threats of retaliation in kind aren’t going to change her antagonists’ mindset.

If someone’s trying to kill you shouldn’t you just kill them first? Isn’t that the only way?

I don’t believe it’s that simple. I find plots that rely on a hero being able to out-fight, out-shoot or out-muscle the villain somewhat unsatisfying. There is, of course, a degree of might-is-right inherent in the way we humans conduct ourselves and it’s a horrible fact to contemplate. But that doesn’t mean violence has to be the only way out of a difficult situation.

One of the reasons I write the Jenny Parker series is to get away from the convention that a hero has to be able to beat up the bad guys. My old karate teacher, Billy Higgins, used to say that a good big ‘un will always beat a good little ‘un. He also taught me that, regardless of how proficient I might be, someone bigger and stronger would most likely kick my ass. The point of the training was to be able to defend myself long enough to be able to run away. Sprinting is a noble form of defence, in my opinion. Mind you, I only progressed to the level of yellow belt which some might find highly appropriate.

Jenny Parker doesn’t have super powers, nor does she wield a samurai sword to deadly effect. She has to think on her feet and talk her way out of danger. It doesn’t always work, mind you.

In the world of thrillers as in the real world, I firmly believe that violence will never bring a satisfactory resolution to a conflict. There are more subtle and effective means. And these are much more interesting to me and, I hope, to my readers.

photo credit: Explosion (Verleitung, Ablenkung beim SEK-Einsatz) via photopin (license)

Inspiration

As Stephen King will tell you, writers rarely ask each other where they get their inspiration from because we don’t know. The more we think about it, the weirder it becomes, so we tend to take it for granted that the ideas will flow.

Some of us find inspiration comes more easily than others. There’s this horrible thing called writers’ block that gets in the way some times.

I’m very fortunate to have worked with the brilliant and insightful Barbara Turner-Vessalago for many years now. She has taught me the process that I use whenever I write. It doesn’t matter what I’m writing, this really works for me.

Most of the time, I’m writing a novel. I used to think that a novel was an enormous almost never-ending task. I was often so daunted by the immensity of it I would feel like giving up. Then I learned that any piece of writing has to be written one word at a time. One word isn’t so difficult to do. The next one comes even easier than the first and I’m away.

My starting point is almost always a place into which I parachute my characters and allow them to have a good look around. Then I see what happens and write it down.

Barbara’s writing process is called Freefall and I heartily recommend it to you. I have found that most books on writing craft only become useful when I’ve more or less finished what I’m writing and am looking for technical assistance to make it work. Freefall is so wonderful because it gets me going. Starts me off. I lower my self into a time and place, sniff the air, listen to the rustling of the wind in the trees, narrow my eyes against the setting sun and…

I think you’ve got the picture.

Until recently, the only access to Barbara has been through her workshops in Canada, Australia and two per year in the UK. I’m lucky in that I’ve managed to attend at least one a year since 2007. Now, she has published two books on Freefall. Get them. You will find them useful and inspiring.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Writing-Without-Parachute-Art-Freefall/dp/1908363045/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Freefall-into-Fiction-Finding-Form/dp/178592172X/

At the moment, I have the fourth Jenny Parker novel away for copy edit. The two Tyrant fantasy novels are sitting in a proverbial drawer maturing and my SF novel, Voyager, has just reached the 30,000 word hump which means it’s now got a life of its own and all I have to do is watch what happens and write it down. So I’ve taken a couple of weeks out to write a radio play. This is really good fun and a complete change to my usual form. As a prelude, I attended an inspirational one-day course presented by a radio producer called Polly Thomas. If I like what I produce, I’m going to actually submit the script to the BBC, who sent me the only rejection letter of my career in 1972.

Wish me luck.

photo credit: SFB579 Namaste Candle-Light via photopin (license)

How the Universe Works

Ever wondered what make everything the way it is? As far as I can make out there’s just one fundamental law that governs everything, it’s called the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This states simply that the entropy of any system always increases.

So there you have it. That’s all you really need to know to understand how the universe works.

I could stop writing now but I won’t. It may be that one or two of you would like an illustration of what the Second Law means.

OK, Here goes. If you put a drop of ink in a pool of water, the ink will spread out until the pool is a very light shade of blue. That’s the Second Law in action. It may seem innocuous and a bit obvious but it really does have huge significance. Let’s take another example. Drop a sugar cube into a cup of hot coffee. The sugar cube disappears because the sugar dissolves. No big deal, you might say. But, consider this. NO MATTER HOW LONG YOU WAIT THE SUGAR CUBE ISN’T COMING BACK.

The diffusion and the dissolving are not reversible. That’s entropy for you.

Another word for entropy is chaos. The world we live in moves inevitably from order into chaos. There’s nothing we can do about it. The Law is the Law.

It may be that we experience time the way we do because of entropy. Without entropy, time could go either way. It wouldn’t matter if it went backwards or forwards. The drop of ink coalescing in the midst of clean water would be just as likely a state as any other. But it’s not. The way I see it, the Second Law ensures that time only moves forwards for us, never back. Which is a pity because I’ve just sent my two main characters in the SF novel I’m writing back to 1977. I’m struggling to come up with an alternative theory that circumvents the Second Law. Any help would be appreciated.

So, if the universe is a cup of coffee and we are grains of sugar, we know what’s going to happen to all of us at some time. We’ll dissolve away, lose our individuality and become part of the coffee.

The least we can do is to make the universe a tiny bit sweeter.

photo credit: only alice descent via photopin (license)