Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Your Cheatin’ Heart

Since I haven’t posted in a while, that must mean The Novel is going well. I’m happy to say that is the case. And that’s all I’m going to say. Watch this space.

What is helping the process along, and what I have put aside The Novel to blog about, is my latest gadget. As some of you may know, I have been on a life-long quest for the perfect writing gadget. I’ve had many successes over the years, but none as versatile, user friendly and fit for purpose as the AlphaSmart Neo. I have sung the praises of the Neo in several articles, so I won’t reprise them here, except to say the Neo, with its lightweight, rugged design, long battery life and low price tag still fills a significant writing niche, but that gap, I am afraid, is rapidly shrinking. Advances in technology have recently seen my old nemesis, the laptop, regain its position at the top of the heap.

In the not-too-distant past, laptops were too expensive, too fiddly, too heavy and had too short a battery life to be seriously considered as a solution for writing on the go (as I do). But now a line of mini-laptops has arrived that are lightweight and boast a battery life of up to 10 hours.

Now, that may seem paltry next to Neo’s 700 hours, but you can clearly get through a typical writing day on that, and the other advantages make up for the inconvenience of having to be near an electrical outlet for two hours a day.

The biggest innovation, however, is not the weight or the battery life, but the price. Many of these mini-laptops are as cheap as (or cheaper than) the Neo, which raises the question, “Why restrict yourself to the limitations of a Neo when you can get the functionality of a full-featured computer for the same price?”

Why, indeed? So, fickle thing that I am, I have forsaken my Neo for another pretty face. I am such a gadget slut.

The little Acer I received for my birthday (my birthday is actually two weeks away, but my wife wanted to buy this before the VAT rose back to 17%) is every bit as light as the Neo and actually smaller. It has more speed and twice the disk space of my desktop and it is rapidly becoming by “base” PC. I can even access the Internet with it; in fact, I wrote and uploaded this blog post on it—no composing on the Neo and downloading to the desk top PC for the subsequent editing and uploading.

Unfortunately, no gadget is without its weak points, and the Acer, as well as most of the mini-laptop range, suffers in the keyboard department. I am fortunate in that I have dainty fingers, but most normal people would find themselves frustrated by these diminutive keyboards. This is the most noticeable drawback, as the Neo had the type of keyboard writers dream of—quiet, smooth as silk, responsive. But as I said, I can live with this; you may not be able to.

Other drawbacks: even though it is small and light and has adequate battery life, you still need to carry the electrical cables with you just in case you run low on juice, or if you want to keep it topped up. This adds to the weight overhead, and the general portability of the device. Also, preliminary test show it is also not as comfortable to use and I can’t actually open it fully on the bus, which was the whole purpose for buying it in the first place. I can open it enough to work with it, but it isn’t as convenient as the Neo. But I fully anticipate it will be easier to use on the train, where I often could not even take out my other laptop due to its size, and in the pubs, where lugging my huge Dell around was a real inconvenience.

Despite those drawbacks, and the touchpad (which I hate) and the small screen (which is big enough, but pales next to the wide screen of my Dell) I am happy with the Acer, and plan to make it my gadget of choice for 2010.

Now, let’s see what 2011 brings!

OF NOTE: a year ago, when my desktop PC began slowing down, I did an on-line search for tools to check it and fix it. I came across PC Tools and purchased a trial version which was worthless, and moved on. Over the year, this company has continued to SPAM me and this past week they billed my credit card £29.95 for a year’s extension on their software license. A quick web search revealed this is their business model, scamming people into testing their product and then getting a grip on their credit cards and not letting go. People reported going through a lot of time and effort getting them to return the money, only to find they were charged yet again. The only solution offered was to “lose” your card and have your bank issue a new one.

I personally don’t have the time to chase these charlatans down, so I am eating the £29.95 and chalking it up as a lesson learned. My credit card is up for renewal soon, anyway, so they will not be able to charge me again. But I wanted to let people know about PC Tools and their business practices so you can avoid being taken.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Speed Writing

Gosh, 47 days without a post! Bet you thought I gave up writing or something. Quite the opposite.

After months (many months, years actually, but "months" doesn't make me sound like so much of a slacker) of dithering and procrastination and trying to come up with a formula that would motivate me to write, I seem to have accidentally stumbled upon something that works, so if I don't post here as often as I used to, it's because I'm being more productive in a 'real' writing sense.

I won't go into details, because what is working for me is not likely to work for you, but to satisfy your curiosity—and to give you a peek into my method on the off chance you might find motivation in it as well—I’ll tell you this much:

I shifted my focus away from a set amount of time each day to a set amount of words. Over the past years, I have proven time and again that I can easily fritter away the hour or two I put aside for writing, but now that I know I can't stop until I finish a set number of words, those words come, and they come quickly.

Also, it's gratifying hitting targets every day as it provides a sense of accomplishment throughout a process that traditionally has been a slog.

The quick writing has other advantages, as well. In the past, I used to agonize over every paragraph and finish the book having rewritten lots of it along the way. So when I read it over, I think, “Well, that’s not too bad,” and I tinker with a few bits of it, pronounce it done and send it out. My purpose now is to get to the end of the story with nothing but the skeleton of a plot and a heap of words that screams for a re-write. Yeah, I’m actually trying to write something what, when I get to the end, will be obviously shit.

And I have to say, I’m doing a darn good job of it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

24 Hours: Horsham

My Friend Marsha wrote a book. (Okay, she’s not really my friend, but as a fellow expat from the Americas – when I say it that way I can include Canadians – and fellow writer, I feel like we’ve connected on a deeper than “exchanged-a-few-emails” level.) It’s called “24 Hours: London” and it goes through a diurnal cycle, listing what you can do, where you can go and how you can entertain yourself during that particular hour (e.g. naked disco dancing at 22:00 -- ).

To help her launch it, I thought I do a tribute post, in the best, “I know a good idea when I steal one” tradition:

24 Hours: Horsham – the Baby Boomer Edition

05:00: What are you doing up? Nothing is open. Go back to bed!

06:00: There’s still nothing open, but the kettle is on. Make yourself some toast and oatmeal.

07:00: Costa Coffee will be open in a while if you want a frothy coffee and a breakfast muffin. McDonalds and Starbucks will be open, too, but don’t go there, not unless you’re happy to feed the American corporate giants.

08:00: A nice morning stroll along the Causeway to St. Mary’s churchyard. Nothing stirs a bit of joie de vivre like spending half an hour or so communing with dead people.

09:00: Time to queue up outside the Royal Mail office with the pensioners. Or you can queue up outside of Waterstones and vie for a seat at the Santa Fe café.

10:00: Swan Walk Mall is in full swing now; time to do your bit to help Britain out of the recession.

11:00: Elevenses at the Black Olive. Try their bacon butty, it is to die for.

12:00: Have a walk around the Forum and admire the sundial, dedicated by her Majesty the Queen. While standing next to it, ask passers-by if they have the time and tell them that the sundial is broken and is stuck on 6:37 PM.

13:00: Wander through picturesque Horsham park; you can linger by the bandstand and have a light lunch at the Café in the Park or sit on a bench to watch the children in the playground.

14:00: Uh oh! Here comes PCSO Davenport. Someone has complained about a pervert sitting on a park bench leering at the children; time to move on.

15:00: There is still time to pick up a bale of toilet paper and a sack of crisps at Poundland. Bring lots of change.

16:00: Have a browse through Beales and stop off at Café Nova on the first floor, just to admire the look of exquisite boredom on the faces of the waitresses and marvel at how long it can take a coffee shop to produce a cup of coffee.

17:00: Five o’clock; time to roll up the sidewalks. If you haven’t bought it yet, it’s too late now.

18:00: You have your pick of restaurants on East Street—Horsham’s own Restaurant Row; from the plain to the posh, it’s there. And if you’re really feeling the pinch, you can find a bargain dinner at the chippie, Panda House Chinese Take-away or the KFC on the Bishopric. Dine early and you’ll beat the rush.

19:00: Just enough time for a quiet pint at the Stout House.

20:00: Thanks to the Nanny State, it’s back home for a Bolivar and brandy on the balcony.

21:00: If you have Freeview you can get channel Fiver and watch CSI, CSI, CSI, …

22:00: …and CSI…

23:00: A nice cup of tea and a good book in bed.

24:00: A comfy pillow and a warm duvet.

01:00: You may find you’ll need to get up for a wee about now.

02:00 – 04:00: What do you care? You should be asleep like a normal person!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Tour; a Reminiscence

The Tour is over, so now it’s time to sit back, relax, pour myself a big glass of Pinot Noir and reminisce about those halcyon days of travelling the world.

I have to say, The Tour was one of the best ideas I stole from people who are smarter and better at marketing than I am; it’s cheap, simple and has the potential to introduce you to a much wider audience. And it might have actually worked if I had kept in mind that it was supposed to be a promotional tour. As it happened, I met so many great people and began having such a good time that I became caught up in the adventure and usually forgot to mention the book.

Still, it was very worthwhile, and as I sit here sipping my noir, I can look back on some memorable moments and interesting tour statistics:

- Visits: 26
- Furthest: this was a tie between Suzer and Vicki Gray, both in Australia
- Closest: Marsha, from London
- Most Memorable: sitting on Wendy’s porch drinking mint juleps
- Most Fun: going on an outing with Jen and her Girl Guides
- Most Relaxing: this is a tie between Andy Mont in Tenerife, Paul Allen in Catalunya and Debs in Murcia; I love sitting in the sun drinking beer
- Most Exotic: being hosted by an Azeri (Scary Azeri) in London
- Most Hectic: visiting Kat and her family on the USAF Base in Suffolk
- Most Ironic: posting a virtual tour post while actually being in the place I claimed to be (Brainard, NY)
- Second Most Ironic: visiting Northumberland, then going home and posting from Bizzywig’s blog as if I were in Northumberland
- Most Amazing Coincidence: posting about an unsung fingerprint expert on Brit Fancy’s blog and finding out she was the great-great-granddaughter of the man I wrote about
- Biggest Shock: showing up at Mickey’s place in Massachusetts, prepared for a bloke weekend of drinking beer and catching some American football on the tube, only to discover Mickey is not a guy but an attractive woman

It is also worthy of note that, of the 26 people who hosted me, 23 one of them were woman. I don’t know quite what to make of that, but it sure was nice.

And one final Tour statistic:
- Books sold: 3

C’mon people, you’re not keeping your end up!

Seriously, thanks again to everyone involved for making this a success. Now I’ll have to look around for another good idea to steal.

Thanks and Good-bye from

Michael Harling is the author of
“Postcards From Across the Pond – dispatches from an accidental expat”
“Laugh out loud funny regardless of which side of the pond you call home. Bill Bryson move over, there’s a new American expat in town with a keen sense of humor.”
-- Jeff Yeager, author of “The Ultimate Cheapskate”

Buy the Book:
Follow the Tour:
Visit the Home Page:

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Of Two Minds

As some of you know, and the rest of you are about to find out, I smoke cigars. Oddly, it was an ex-girlfriend (now known only as She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named) who put me onto the habit. It’s not one I am looking to give up—I find it relaxing and enjoyable and an indispensable benefit to the planning phase of my writing—but lately I have been of two minds about it.

My current schedule seems to be: get up later than I should, spend a few minutes thinking about what I want to write, write for an hour on the bus on the way to work, write for half an hour on the bus on the way home from work, then take a nap and tell myself I’ll finish up after dinner. Get home, have dinner and then spend the better part of the evening relaxing on the balcony with a beverage and a cigar.

It’s not a bad routine, but it has not increased my productivity and I am starting to wonder if I am going to become known as Michael the great writer or Michael the great cigar smoker.

So I proposed to cut down. This is when the two minds came about. Morning Michael was tired of starting his day fretting over the work that didn’t get done the night before. Accordingly, Morning Michael decides that, this time, Evening Michael will write, not have another cigar. Morning Michael is very certain of this.

Then Mid-afternoon Michael starts thinking that it has been a long day and maybe Evening Michael deserves a bit of relaxation. After all, he’s not being paid to write. Evening Michael agrees, and, after dinner, heads out to the balcony.

This week, however, all of us went on another business trip to Devon. The daily routine for these days is somewhat similar to my normal days, except the bulk of all the writing time is used to smoke cigars and a huge writing opportunity is wasted. So this time, after Evening Michael laid out all the cigars and associated paraphernalia for Morning Michael to pack, Morning Michael put it all back and said we would all be better off if we spent a few days away from cigars.

We all agreed with that, at the time, but right now Evening Michael is pretty mad at Morning Michael because it’s a beautiful autumn afternoon and a cigar and a beer in the hotel’s outdoor seating area would be very, very nice.

On the other hand, I’ve finished up a review I promised a month ago, and caught up on my columns for the week, so maybe sitting in front of the keyboard has turned out to be a better idea than sitting with a cigar after all.

Morning Michael is saying, “I told you so,” but we still think he’s a sanctimonious wanker.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Writing in a Glass Box

Writing isn't the solitary activity it used to be. The same technology that has turned much of the human race into square-eyed troglydites huddled in their darkened lairs staring at moving images on their Playstation, Wii or PC screens and eschewing actual human contact, has, paradoxically, paved the way for 24/7 virtual contact. And increasingly, this contact comes bundled with feedback, whether we want it or not.

Our blogs, our Facebook pages, our Flickr photos, even our Tweets are subject to commentary by the virtual critics who hide behind screen names and are, quite likely, simply taking a momentary break from blogging, Facebooking, Flickring or Tweeting themselves. The proliferation of blog-to-book deals means that some of us--myself included--are writing books while several billion people look over our shoulders and, more often than not, offer helpful suggestions.

But is this a good thing? Shouldn't art be developed in isolation and left to percolate and evolve and discover itself before a cybersphere of self-appointed critics take a swipe at it? How would the great works of the past faired if subject to this sort of hyper-scrutiny?

GlobeMaster: Bill, sweetheart, I'm a big fan of your blog but methinks the latest entry is as cheery as a plague-pit. For who would bear the whips and scorns of time only to watch a play where everyone dies? Have Romeo run off with the Priest; you know they were made for each other.

TudorMan: Doth wenches snigger at thy codpiece? Click here for help.

NatH: Herman, A white whale? Hell-o! They don't exist! Check your Google-Analytics; I bet they're taking a huge dive. Your followers are not going to buy this, or your book.

GoodnessAndMercy: My Dear Miss Hill, I stumbled across your Facebook page quite by accident and I have to say I find the accounts of your "adventures" highly disturbing. I see you are friended with Madam Bovery, and I am hardly surprised. People like you need to be rooted out and exterminated; I have a stake and dried faggots ready for you, and I'll find out where you live eventually.

PratchettFan: JK, You will never create a fantasy world to rival Mr. Pratchett's. Your latest entry sounds like it was written for children. Why don't you try writing for some woman's magazines, instead?

CivilReenactor: Mr. Crane, I have studied with devotion your photologue of Private Henry Fleming and his experiences with the Union Army. However, your latest installment included a battle scene wherein a sergeant in the 1st Regiment Provisional Militia is clearly wearing the uniform of the 2nd Battalion St. Louis City Guard Infantry. Historical inaccuracies of this magnitude are unconscionable. In the future, I will limit myself to the exploits of Buck, as posted by J London; so far, he has never mislabeled a breed of dog.

ConnecticutYankee: Mark, your podcasts about the boy on the raft are great! You need to limit the dialects, however; I can hardly understand what some of the characters are saying.

@Schopenhauer: Leo, I appreciate your dedication and devotion to your work. I am also a big fan of your tweets, but don't you think it might be better to

@Schopenhauer: start a blog rather than trying to write a whole novel using nothing but Twitter posts? War And Peace has been going on for more than a yea

@Schopenhauer: r and a half now and, although I love following you, it is getting tiresome. Please, get a blog!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Dog Dancing

Lately I’ve been struggling with a vague, undefined feeling of discontent, but then Natasha did a post about it and gave it a name: The Gap.

This began when I determined to start sending my thriller novel out again, but ultimately decided not to after reading the first chapter over and discovering it was, well, not very good. There was a time when I thought it was good, and there was a time when it was as good as I could do, but that time has passed.

What I began to ponder was the talent that people like Ian Rankin and Stephen King have, which allows them to write such sterling prose, while people like me sorta suck. How did they get it? Where does it come from? What do I need to do to develop it? Can I, in fact, develop it?

Then I saw a movie called 31 North, 62 East. This movie was made in Sussex and Horsham (and a bit in Lebanon) on a budget of about a quarter million pounds and was shot in a matter of weeks. Also, it was the production company’s first attempt at a major motion picture, or a motion picture or any kind, for that matter.

Filming in Sussex. They managed to find enough cash to hire a chopper for the day.

On a purely artistic level, it was rubbish, but when you take into account all the mitigating facts from the previous paragraph, you cannot but admire them for pulling it off, and pulling it off rather well. (Again, all things considered.)

The acting was wooden, the plot contrived, the set unnatural and obviously staged; in all it was like watching an amateur theatre group doing a movie, which in a large part it was. But there was a story there, and the clever devices they used to suggest climatic battle scenes without actually having to spend the money on them won my grudging admiration. (It also showed that people like Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep may demand huge fees, but they have that “something” that makes them worth the price.)

So what do we do, us people writing sub-stunning prose and producing movies that are so bad reviewers go out of their way to find good things to say them because anything less would be like tripping a crippled child? How do we bridge this gap? How do we go from thinking, “Okay, I wanted to produce something great, but this is crap,” to “this is what I had in mind, and I’ve pulled it off”?

These people actually got their moving into some prestigious cinemas. They are making no secret of the fact that this was a stepping stone to the next movie; the one they really want to make. So even if watching this movie was like watching a dog dancing—the amazing thing isn’t that they are doing it well, but that they are doing it at all—they may be closer to the mark in their next effort.

So, taking my cue from them, should I continue to try to publish my thriller novel, even though I know I have outgrown it already? Would it do me any good to get it published and have reviewers trash it? Or should I just call it a stepping stone and, by standing atop it, reach higher next time.

It’s sort of galling that these folks got their “throw away” project some major attention while my book, which took me longer to write than it did for them to conceive, script, film, edit, produce and release their movie, is consigned to the dead file. But if publishing it at any cost would mean people might start comparing me to a dancing dog, I think it might be best kept there.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


I’m in Craster, Northumberland with no phone signal or Internet connection. Without warning, I’ve found myself plunged into 1979. It was awkward at first, and I went through the usual stages of denial, anger, bargaining, etc. before arriving at acceptance. The thing was, I had plans to keep up on my e-mails and do some posting to my blogs in real-time while I was here, and instead I’m going to disappear without a trace. How is everyone going to get along without me? I soon realized, however, they would do just fine, and that my anxiety stemmed merely from an exaggerated sense of my own self-importance.

So I learned to embrace my solitude, and came to understand just how ephemeral the Internet is, which leads into what I wanted to talk about in the first place: E-Books.

Craster Castle: no toilets, no Internet Café.

There is a lot of talk about e-books being the wave of the future and taking off in a big way. I have my doubts--I think they will become more popular, but I do not believe they are the future of literature--and my conclusion is based on the very argument people have in favor of e-books.

VHS, they say, took off only after a format (i.e. not beta) was settled on. DVDs followed, and MP3 players. So the current reticence in adopting e-books is only temporary until a format is settled upon. But people who watch TV like to be able to choose when they see a show, and listening to an MP3 player is a lot more convenient then carrying around a phonograph. People who like to read, however, also tend to like books.

I know; I'm one of them. I like the texture, the feel, the weight of a book in my hands. I like to be able to write in the margins if it pleases me, and to throw a £7.99 paperback into my rucksack and take it camping with me, something I would be hesitant to do with a £400 Kindle.

I like browsing books, collecting books, and seeing them on my bookshelves. I like lending books to others or leaving them behind for others to find. I like the fact that there are no batteries required or technology that can fail. An e-book is not better than a book, it is a poor, ephemeral substitute.

I've heard it said that if you publish something on the Internet it is there forever. Define forever. We have clay tablets from the Babylonians, manuscripts from the middle ages--that is the closest we are going to come to permanent. The Internet is there only until, as my plight at the moment demonstrates, the plug is pulled.

The Internet is the most laissez faire, unpredictable, temporary thing every invented; and it is made up of a loose collection of privately owned servers all over the world that will be there only as long as the owners decide they want to keep them. If everyone suddenly got tired of it, it would disappear in an instant.

Also, and this is my own prejudice but I don't think I'm alone, once material is put into an electronic format, its value depreciates.

If someone "publishes" an e-book, it is not regarded as a real book. If someone writes for the web, they are paid (if at all) a fraction of what they would get if they were published in a printed magazine. Electronic words do not, in a literal sense, exist, and are therefore not as highly valued.

If you want something dependable, you get a real book, because technology can fail. And as I’m sitting here with no Internet connection and no way to contact anybody or download anything to read, I think I’ve proved my point.

So I think I’ll spend my time enjoying the solitude and appreciating the lessons this week of non-connectivity is teaching.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

My Day. Thanks for Asking.

My Day Job

I work with computers, and while I make it a point to not talk about my office life, I feel it is my duty to try to illustrate to you non-computer people what working with computers is like; it may keep you from making a serious career move error.

To keep it simple, let’s equate any of the myriad of simple tasks I have to perform during the course of my work day to something that you can readily relate to: your task is to come home, hang your coat on the hook in the hallway and eat dinner before going out with your friends to the pub. That’s it; a sequence of two simple tasks followed by a reward.

So you enter your home and hang your coat on the hook.

It falls on the floor.

You pick the coat up and check it. There is nothing wrong with it. You hang it on the hook again.

It falls on the floor.

You check the hook; there is nothing wrong with it. You hang your coat on the hook again.

It falls on the floor.

You try to hang your coat on the second hook, instead.

It falls on the floor.

You take a scarf off of the third hook and hang it on the second hook.

It stays in place.

You hang your jacket on the second hook.

It falls on the floor.

You hang the scarf on the first hook.

It falls on the floor.

You put the scarf back where you got it on the third hook.

It falls on the floor.

You now methodically try hanging your jacket and the scarf on each of the three hooks and watch as they each fall to the floor every time.

You mumble to yourself for a while, then do a Google search on the specific style, brand and version of the hooks.

You find there is a “known Issue” with this type of hook which causes anything hung on the first hook to be ever after unusable on any hook.

After an hour of perusing help forums and technical blogs, you come to understand there is nothing you can do about this. You are advised to not try removing the hooks and replacing them in a different order because it won’t help.

You remove the hooks and replace them in a different order.

It doesn’t help.

You remove the hooks, throw them away and go to the nearest hardware store.

It’s closed.

You go to the next one.

It’s closed.

You find an open one in an industrial estate 20 miles away. The man says you should have kept the hooks; he knows a way they can be fixed.

You buy three different hooks and return home.

The new hooks are not compatible with the base board the original hooks were installed on.

You return to the hardware store and buy a multi-functional baseboard.

The new baseboard needs modification before going onto the wall. This causes the hooks, which now fit, to be fastened upside down. They work fine, but you can’t hang anything on any of them.

You pick up your coat and scarf, fold them up and put them in the linen cupboard.

You try, but fail, to convince yourself that this is a better solution than the hooks anyway.

By now your friends are having a great time at the pub and you have not actually completed your first task. Still, you might just be able to make last call if you cook and eat your dinner quickly.

You head to the kitchen, take a ready-meal out of the fridge and put it in the oven.

The oven won’t light . . .

Posted by Mike
Somewhere in South Wales

PS: Just as I attempted to post this, the train went into the longest tunnel I have ever seen. We're still going through it; I think it must come up near Swindon.

PPS: We finally came out of the tunnel and, after I got my signal back and attempted to log on again, we entered another one.

Not. My. Day.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Wealthy Writer

My publisher recently sent me a copy of “The Wealthy Writer.” Not because they thought I needed a prod to assist me in making more money, but to review. It’s their book; they wrote it. You could do worse than read this book-—the marketing tips alone are worth the cover price—-but if you have aspirations akin to mine, you may come away more disheartened than before.

The book is part pep-talk, part practical advice from a duo who have been successful on both sides of the publishing game—-being publishers and self-publishers. This puts them in a unique position and makes their guidance worth heeding. The most impressive thing about the book is, even though they are publishers, they advise self-publication as the best way to make money with your writing. And they have real-life examples to back that up.

As they point out, if you self-publish your book, you stand to make a profit of £7 to £10 per book instead of £0.45. If you flog your book unmercifully and sell 3,000 copies, you make £30,000. If that sounds too good to be true, it isn’t. There are hard truths to back that up, but there are also mitigating factors.

The Hard Truths:
     - Even if you go with a major publisher, you are still going to be responsible for most of your book’s marketing, so you save little here and give up a lot.
     - If you go with a major publisher, you would have to sell over 66,000 books to give you the same amount of money you could make selling just 3,000.

Mitigating Factors:
     - You are not not going to sell 3,000 books.

The other, oft-visited issues I have with self publication are:
     - No matter how hard you try, your amateur product won’t be as good as what a professional would produce. I can personally attest to this.
     - You still have to face that "self-published" stigma.

All that said, self-publication is clearly a better option than it was just a few years ago. The advent of POD and computer graphics means you really can put out a (nearly) professional looking product, and get it printed, for a nominal fee. No more stacking boxes of unwanted books in the garage or laying out thousands of dollars for a print run. And as the option becomes more and more viable, the stigma appears to be shrinking. Even in its self-published form, I was able to get “Postcards” into a few books stores.

After reading this book, I am convinced you can make a decent living writing and publishing and flogging your own books, just as I became convinced you can make a decent living writing service articles after I read “How to Become Embarrassingly Rich by Writing Service Articles,” or something like that. In each case, however, it presupposes you are doing this full-time. Now I have nothing but admiration for people with the courage, conviction and drive necessary to quit their job and devote themselves to full-time self-employment, but the vast majority of us simply are not in the position of being able to walk away from a steady pay check. And take it from me, there comes a time when you simply cannot devote more of your non-work life to marketing.

But all of this is academic; self-publishing is not for me, and neither is it—-if you have writing ambitions similar to mine—-for you. This book, as well as “Aiming at Amazon” both state plainly that this model works only for non-fiction. Novelists, short story writers and humorists need not apply. Now, you are certainly welcome to publish your book yourself, but they practically guarantee you won’t sell many. A non-fiction book provides something tangible that people want: “How to Live on £0.37 a Day,” “Three Steps to a Better Orgasm,” “Eat All You Want and Still Stay Thin—-a Bulimic’s Guide to a Beautiful Body,” . . . really, I could do this all day, but you get the point. With non-fiction you have a built-in customer base; with fiction you have a story.

This isn’t a gripe, I’m simply pointing out the facts. And, personally, I’d rather have the stories; I just wish there was a way to make some money with them.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Decisions, Indecisions

The results of my recent check up are in, and it's official: there is nothing wrong with me, I'm simply a lazy slacker.

That's disappointing; I was so looking forward to skiving off of work for a few months with Epstein Bar or something. But just because I've been pronounced healthily, don't think I've turned into a bundle of energy. I'm still sleeping too much, and still looking at the long lists of things I need to do and thinking, "Sod it" and going off to have a drink and a cigar. One thing if I enjoyed it, but I keep feeling guilty that I'm not being productive.

My slackerliness (is that a word?) and state of distraction has been highlighted by something uncharacteristically useful I just read in my September issue of Writer's Digest. It was an interview with Cory Doctorow, and in it he said, if you're going to write, then 1) write, 2) finish what you write, and 3) submit what you finish. As he pointed out, if you do those things, you may still never succeed, but if you are not doing all three of them, then you are not a writer, just a person who occasionally does writerly type things.

Write, finish what your write, submit it to an editor; everything else is gravy.

So I guess, at present time, I am not a writer, which is the most likely reason for my malaise. I need to shake off the distractions and get back to basics, which is producing stuff I can submit. Oddly, everything was fine until the book came out, then all of a sudden I'm writing web-posts and marketing material and taking on columns and not producing anything I can submit to a publisher.

So I had to make a choice: unfortunately, at this time in my life, I do not have room for both ventures plus a full-time job, so am I going to continue to attempt to become the Bill Bryson of the South, or take what little writing time I have and dedicate it to stories, novels and articles I can at least submit, if not publish? The answer was obvious. It's not as if I'm making any headway in my bid for fame, so cutting back on the expat shtick in order to get back to producing some serious writing was a no-brainer.

Then BBC calls. Would I like to do an interview on BBC Oxford? So now I'm back doing the "accidental expat" shtick and trying to think of ways to capitalize on this small success.

Here's one: Have a listen – set the time line to 32.

It's only good for a week, so check it out soon.

Monday, August 17, 2009


I've been a bit distracted lately. Not that it's difficult to derail my attention span (oh, that's quite shiny!)

Now where was I? Sorry, I was distracted.

A few weeks ago, lot of things happened all at once and each got me thinking in a different direction. It all came out well the end, but it's been a tangential month.

First, I started getting offers for advertising on my blogs, which made me realize that:
     1) you don't have to be good or popular for people to want you to prostitute yourself, you just have to have been around a while, and
     2) I'm not in this for the money.

That second conclusion took a lot of thought, because it wouldn't have been a much work to pimp out my site and watch the money (pennies, I suspect) roll in, but that's not what I'm about (unless, of course, the price is right—I have principles, but I'm not stupid).

But this led me to thinking about what I was in it for, and I looked around at all the writing I was doing and thought, "Bugger this!" So I consolidated and pulled back and took a breather, hoping the idle time would recharge my batteries and leave me itching to write.

While I was waiting, a few incidents drew my attention to the fact that, although my ramblings are posted to a number of places on the web, I really do not write for the web, or, more specifically, what I do is not “web writing.”

Due to my years of writing for newspapers, my web posts generally run about 800 words, have a beginning, a middle and an end that ties back to the beginning; they are, in short, essays. So I began looking into the art of writing for the web, which means:

     - Short sentences

     - Bullet points

     - Lot's of white space

It’s USA Today style, but leaner. For people with even shorter attention spans. The ultimate expression of this, so far, is Twitter. I don’t want to go down that road. Consequently, I decided writing in “web speak” wasn’t for me.

So I continued waiting for my muse to return from holiday and thought, if I couldn’t write actual web-style prose, maybe I shouldn’t be doing all this web writing in the first place—I got into it mainly to promote my book but it’s getting a little out of hand lately—so maybe it's time to think about getting back to my novel and writing the type of prose I’m actually good at but then my writing magazine arrived in the post and I found yet another distraction: Googling the publishers of those people listed as having "published" a book to see if they had, in fact, self-published it.

This is something I started doing by accident and kept up after it became apparent that fully half of the people receiving congratulations on "publishing their first novel" had paid for it themselves. Congratulating someone for self-publishing a book is like congratulating someone for purchasing a new laptop; you're merely giving yourself an expensive gift.

I was gratified to find that, in this issue at least, each “published” author was, in fact, published.

However, I also found out that a new publishing company, Red Phone Publishing, is holding a contest wherein the winner gets a publishing contract. How exciting! The entry fee is £10 and you send in a description of your book, along with the first 50 pages of the manuscript and they let you know if they can publish it or not. They deserve a huge amount of credit for discovering how to charge unsuspecting writers for sending in a query package. Let’s hope other publishers don’t jump on this bandwagon.

I shouldn’t think they’d have to, as there are many other ways to bilking writers out of their money. comes at the hopeful author with a barrage of “you’re getting a raw deal” hysteria, then tells them there is hope, then tells them how much they’ll have to pay them for it. Basically, they self-publish your book for you; you’re better off doing it yourself. It’s cheaper.

So did my examination of my writing magazine leave me depressed? No, not at all. It proved I could easily see through the machinations of people out to separate me from my money—these were not ads, they were articles about supposed “great deals” for writers—and the absence of self-published “new writers” meant there actually was hope.

But most of all, searching out these newly published authors accidentally provided me with a list of small to medium publishers, most of whom take unagented submissions and who, obviously, are willing to take a chance on an unpublished author.

Now that’s the sort of distraction I like.

Word Count: 800

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

When Worlds Collide – The Last Tripod Page

This post represents something new, not just for my website, but in the annals of the Internet and, perhaps, of recorded history itself:

A post for a virtual blog-world tour is simultaneously a post for a real-life tour. Additionally, a post on my Postcards website about my life in England, is also a post about my book, and therefore intersects my “Life of Writing” blog, as well. And you few, you lucky few, are here to witness it.

The downside is, three distinct virtual and real-time events all taking place simultaneously may create a rift in the space-time continuum and generate a spectral loop, causing us all to relive this day over and over again, like Bill Murray in “Groundhogs Day” or the crew of the Enterprise (TNG) when they had to live a terminal event over and over again until they managed to save the series from premature cancellation.

So do something fun and interesting today; you don’t want to chance re-living your tax audit or a trip to the proctologist over and over until the end of time. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Where I am in the virtual world is on my friend Glenn’s Tripod website. I hope you visit; he must be the last person in the world (real or otherwise) with a page on Tripod. I gave mine up during the Nixon administration. In the real world, I’m in Glenn’s back yard, sitting at the picnic table with a glass of whiskey, a cigar and an internet connection. Where I am on the New York Times Bestseller List is anybody’s guess.

The life of an author isn’t all glitz and glamour, you know; I’m rarely chased by paparazzi and I have yet to be besieged by groupies flinging their knickers at me while I’m giving a talk about “How to be a Popular Writer” at NYU. (I’ll be speaking to my agent about this, believe you me, as soon as I get an agent.) Mostly authors spend a lot of time doing what I’m doing: travelling from town to town trying to meet as many people as possible and win them over so they will go out and buy the book.

Don’t get me wrong; I love the travel, but it does get tiring. And I love meeting new people. So much so that all I want to do is talk with them and hear about their lives and get to know the area they live in. And then I move on to the next stop and realize I never mentioned my book. Not that it matters; I wrote “Postcards From Across the Pond” because I was having so much fun with my own life that I wanted to share it with others, and I see this tour as a way of allowing others to share bits of their lives with me without having to go through all the bother of writing and publishing a book. So forgive me if I forget to include the Hard Sell in my posts.

Aside from the struggle to escape obscurity, I’m having a blast. The blog-world tour has bounced me back and forth across the pond and taken me to Spain and Tenerife as well. And soon, I’ll be heading to other surprising destinations.

In the real world, my wife and I have travelled to Montreal, breezed through Albany, stayed in Syracuse, popped down to Cazenovia for my son’s wedding, and then settled in Brainard to try to fit in a few relaxing days before heading to Rouses Point and making the crossing back into Canada for the flight home. It’s been a tiring trip, but it’s our own fault: we took The Boy and his girlfriend to Paris when they visited us and the romance of the city overcame him and her proposed to her. After they became engaged, you just knew something like this was bound to happen.

It’s all been lovely but half the time I don’t know where I am or what day it is, and it has been a challenge keeping The Tour going while on the road.

But mostly it has been great getting re-acquainted with America—the real America. We got to meet my new daughter-in-law’s family and after an hour with them it was as if we had known them all our lives. They were, without exception, gracious and accommodating. Likewise other distant relatives I had not seen in years made us feel very welcomed and we were able to spend a wonderful, relaxing afternoon with my aunt, her children and their respective partners chatting around their backyard picnic table over pizza and Pespsi.

Living in the UK for so long, I only get to see America as the rest of the world sees it, and it’s easy to forget that they are some of the friendliest, charitable and welcoming people on the planet. This trip has reaffirmed my conviction that America is a great nation, and what makes it great are the people who live here.

I’m looking forward to spending a few more days among them, and today’s schedule involves meeting up with my cousin and maybe taking a trip down the Hudson Valley to visit the Vanderbilt mansion and, of course, spending time in the back yard with some beverages and fine cigars.

I want it to be a perfect day; I’m not taking any chances.

Would you like to participate in the
Visit the Tour Page to sign up or to view the latest Tour updates.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Road Trip

Would you like to participate in the
Visit the Tour Page to sign up or check progress.
Latest: 08 Jun 2009 - Cornwall - Wright Story

Me and my book, "Postcards From Across the Pond," are going on tour. Virtually.

With a limited marketing budget, I've decided to travel the world using the blogs of people I don't know. I'm calling it "The Kindness of Strangers Tour" and the idea is to visit as many places as I can. Just to see where it leads me.

Now that I'm actually starting out on this journey, it's difficult to remember how the original idea came about, but it has culminated in this:

I am asking anyone who follows me, or knows of me, or my book to allow me to guest post on their blog. Wherever they happen to live, I will count as having visited and will update The Tour Page with links to their blog. Never mind that actual, earthly locations mean nothing in the blog-world; that's sort of the point.

The reason I'm relying on people to volunteer is because I briefly flirted with the idea of actually seeking out blogs and approaching likely ones with my proposal. After surfing through approximately 87,283,834 blogs, however, I discovered that most are:
A. Abandoned
B. About knitting
C. Filled with photos of the above, so many that it's a wonder the World Wide Web has not collapsed under its own weight.

So, given that, and the fact the most of the remaining blogs are, in a word, dire, and the authors of the few actual good ones (like yours, dear reader) probably don't want some stranger poking his head in and asking if he can camp there for a while, I decided it might be better to rely on spontaneous benevolence. At the very least it won't take up as much time.

My first port of call is in Cornwall; my next one could be anywhere. I'm looking forward to travelling through cyber space, meeting new people, exploring new locations—-in a virtual sense—-and posting about my adventures.

It should be fun, and I'm hoping people will catch the spirit of the adventure and join in so I don't have to quietly take down a bunch of empty pages in two months time.

Oh, and most importantly, I will continue my regular posts here. That's also the good thing about the blog-world; you can travel, and still stay home.

Hope to see you in Cornwall soon, and back here for my next post, and wherever I happen to end up after that.

Thanks for your support.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Breaking the Rules For Fun

I’m still having fun playing with my new toy, but mostly that involves reading the book and admiring the pretty colors. I’m hoping to make some progress soon but I just started yet another project (more on that in a future post) and it’s taking longer than I thought to get it off the ground. Once that’s out of the way, well, something else will come along.

I am enjoying the book, however. James V. Smith’s “You Can Write a Novel” has a different approach than any other how-to-write book I’ve seen. He doesn’t advise you, or say, “well, there are many ways X could be done, and some people like to do this, others like to do that, but you need to find what works best for you.” No, he say: “Do it this way.” Granted, that may not work for everyone, but I like the concept.

Many of the rules he puts down deserve to be set in stone like that, such as don’t litter your prose with adjectives and adverbs, don’t use three good words when one excellent word will do, don’t use obscure language; rules like that—the rules I break every day.

Despite having delusions of genre, I mostly write humor, and a lot of that humor is in creative or unorthodox use of the language. When I write, I’m not aiming for a short, pity sentence with a strong verb; that certainly would add intensity and drama to my humorous anecdote about falling down the escalator at Reading Station, but it wouldn’t make it very funny. Revision, to me, often involves hunting up the most sublimely obscure adjectives I can find (there, I did it again) so the sentence doesn’t read smoothly.

This isn’t a problem, it’s just an observation. Despite my sporadic fiction output these days, when I do write a short story of work on a novel, I don’t find it difficult at all to change gears. I just find it interesting how the carefully crafted language of the humorous personal essay would ruin something like The Hunt for Red October or The Da Vinci Code.

It’s also interesting that you can improve almost any piece of dramatic fiction (especially from a beginner) by simply going through and taking out the adverbs, but you can’t punch up a humor piece by randomly sprinkling it with modifiers. Humor doesn’t really follow a set of rules, which, if followed, will produce hilarious results. The only rule in humor writing is it has to be funny.

So I’ll keep on breaking the rules when I write my essays, but when I finally get to the novel, I’ll have to start behaving myself.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Writing a Mystery

My lack of communication lately is due to the continued mulling over of my writing life and what I want to do with it while avoiding arriving at a decision. Then last week I received a package.

It came in a plain, heavy-duty mailing envelope. There was nothing with it--no letter, no invoice, no advertisements and no indication of where it originated except for the clue in my own address: it ended with the designation "UK" so I know it came from abroad.

The package contained a novel writing kit, which consisted of a handsome set of multi-colored novel-component forms and a book. I was amused and intrigued. Did it come as some promotional package, a bonus for re-upping my magazine subscription, or had a won it in a contest? If so, there would be some indication of where it came from and why I had it, but there was none. And the only magazine I have re-subscribed to recently is "The Writer," and since the "You Can Write a Novel Kit" is put out by Writer's Digest Books, I find that idea highly suspect. Had someone gotten tired of hearing me whining on the web and sent it to me to shut me up? Who knows? If someone did send it to me, thank you.

I wasn't sure what to do with it at first. I figured I could use the pads for scrap paper (they were too small for the copious character sketch notes I compile, anyway) and maybe have a look through the book just for fun; I mean, what more do I have to learn about writing a novel? So a few days later I picked up the book and read the first few pages. I'm still reading it, and the note pads are back in the pack ready to be used for their intended purpose.

This little book has more of the nuts and bolts of writing a novel than any I have ever read. And I find myself buying into the minimalist theory of the author, James V. Smith, Jr, especially since I recognize over-planning and never getting to the actual work as one of my major pitfalls. The theory is, all the prep work you do is, at best, a waste of time and, at worst, locks you into a set pattern, causing you to expend a lot of energy fitting all your preconceived notions into the story, leaving little room for creativity and surprising turns.

It's something I can relate to from the experience of my last novel. All the work I did up front rarely made a difference, and along the way, as the story took shape, I came up with a lot more and better ideas. By sketching out the really important points, you can just get on with the process of writing and flesh everything out along the way. Writing a novel should be a process of discovery, not a paint-by-numbers exercise.

So I think I'm going to give it a try. I'm convinced writing the novel is the best thing to do; all I have to do is find the time.

The mystery of where this came from, however, remains.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

It Figures

After last week’s post, I thought I’d give the boys in the Marketing Department a leg up by buying them a copy of, “Six-Figure Freelancing,” by Kelly James-Engar. I harbour no illusions that I could hope to make that much—hell, I’d be happy if I were a four-figure writer, even if two of those figures were after the decimal point—but I did hope there would be a few pointers in the book that might prove useful to a part-time writer who is crap at marketing.

There were none.

This is not the fault of the book. The book, after all, purports to tell you how to make gobs of money by putting words on paper, and it really does deliver; it’s just not relevant to what I do. First of all, it requires you to be a full-time writer, and I can understand that. If you’re going to put in the kind of time it requires to make that kind of money, you need to be at it full-time from the get-go. And, while it is possible to make a good living as a freelancer, Ms James-Engar’s outline for success seems to be arranged like this:

How to make $100,000 a year writing:
Step 1: move in with your boyfriend
Step 2: quit your job
Step 3: find markets that will pay you tons of dosh in exchange for your writing

Equally illuminating was the advice on how to break this onerous task into simple, easy to manage bits. You shouldn’t worry about making $100,000 a year, she advises, just concentrate on making $400 a day. Wow, why didn’t I think of that! Let’s see, Day One, made…uh…zero. Darn! Failed already.

Before I take the piss out of Ms J-E too much (if you’re reading this, Kelly, ‘taking the piss’ is a British term and it is not a derogatory term) let me say that it really is a fine book and delivers as promised; it’s just not for people like me.

This book is for entrepreneurs who, trapped in a day job, dream of starting their own business. But what to do? Coat-hangar manufacturer? No, the start-up costs are too high. Sheep farmer? No, that might mean moving to Scotland. Writer? Now there’s an idea—low start-up costs, no office required. That’s the ticket!

And it really is almost that easy. There are, as Ms J-E points out, a lot of highly lucrative markets out there and, once you find them and cultivate a relationship with them, you will find your yearly income growing to heights you never thought possible. But you won’t be doing what I call writing. You’ll be working on corporate annual reports, or business brochures, or keynote speeches. Only an entrepreneur could be pleased about working on an annual report that he has spent a lot of time and effort finding and negotiating for. For someone like that, it’s the thrill of being your own boss, for someone like me, an annual report is drudgery, and I’m certainly not going to go out and ask other people to give them to me.

The sort of writing I do (as, I suspect, do most of you) is mentioned in the book. Ms J-E calls it “creative writing” and it is very definitively put on a back shelf. It’s not profitable and, therefore, not worth spending time on. There’s a bottom line to consider, you know.

I don’t mean to be derisive of this book—I have the greatest respect for anyone who can make a living on their own—but it is to writing what a house painter is to still-life oil painting. Granted, the house painter is going to end the week a lot richer than the guy huddled in his garret trying to bring some apples, oranges and a pear to life on canvas. But I’m not really talking about a “higher calling” or anything like that, I’m talking about abilities and, frankly, I’m simply not talented enough to do what Ms J-E has done.

It’s like when I was playing music. Back in the day, I had a guitar, I knew a lot of songs and had a better than average voice and, incredibly, I convinced people to pay me to play for them. Because of that, people began mistaking me for a musician and expected me to be able to jam with them, or diversify by joining a band. But I couldn’t; I didn’t have the talent. I was just a guy with a guitar doing the only thing he knew how to do.

The same with writing; I do what I do because that’s all I can do, not because I have purposely limited myself to humorous essays and maudlin novels.

So the guys in marketing are still limiting their computer use to solitaire and checking their e-mail, and playing trashcan basketball to fill the rest of the time. But the year’s not over, so maybe they’ll pull up their socks and we’ll hit the target yet. Only $99,983 to go.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

I Need a New Business Partner

The problem with running a freelance writing "business" is that you are pretty much a one-man band. Not only do you need to manufacture the product, you have to be the salesman, the marketing division, the legal staff and the guy responsible for the coffee and donuts.

Production I don't have a problem with. Since proposing to start treating my writing as a business some six years ago, I am writing better and more consistently than ever. It's the joker in charge of marketing and sales that I have a problem with. In truth, that comes as no surprise; my lack of business acumen is long documented—I still have a copy of a memo I sent to my boss many years ago assuring him there was no future in Microsoft Windows, and I bought a Beta Max; 'nuff said—but as I enter the seventh year of my "business" I would have thought that, even by accident, I might have made more progress.

It so happens that I track my hours and finances meticulously (yeah, I'm a bit OCD) so I can reveal that last year, my writing salary was £0.21 an hour. Not exactly enough to make you consider giving up the day job, especially when you take into consideration that, during the same periods, I spent £1.48 an hour.

To exacerbate my dilemma, I am currently in a position where I need to make a choice about which direction to steer my business in. Though I am chuffed to bits about having a book out, this presents a new problem: do I continue to write humorous books on being an expat, or return to mainstream novels? I can't do both—there simply are not enough hours in the day—and the only thing I can be certain of is, if there is a business decision to make, I will make the wrong one (refer to earlier mention of memo and Beta purchase).

Another irritating fact is, any chance I have of publishing a second book hinges on the first one. "Postcards From Across the Pond" doesn't have to be a best seller, but I can't really see myself writing to a publisher with my one and only credential being a book that sold 12 copies.

So the guy in charge of marketing and sales had better start pulling his weight or he's going to find himself out of a job.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Art Imitating Life, Imitating Art

I finally finished the post on Writer’s Block, but the story about the post so clearly illustrates my point, that I thought I’d frame my little essay on Writer’s Block with my essay about writing the essay on Writer’s Block.

When the idea for the essay hit, I dove into it as I generally do, but after a paragraph or so, I started to think it would make a pretty good filler article for Writer’s Digest and decided to submit it when I finished. (I’ve sold to them in the past, so it wasn’t quite as off the wall as it sounds.)

And I continued writing, but now I was conscious of what I was writing. The weight of an unseen audience began to crush me and the idea—so big and grand when I started—grew smaller and smaller until it disappeared altogether. Then the words stopped coming.

Fortunately, I have no shortage of things to write these days, so I simply moved on. I continued to visit the languishing essay, but however hard I tried, I could not bring it back to life. At length, I gave up on the idea of sending it to WD and decided to just attack it and post whatever crap appeared.

So I wrote:

The Case for Writer’s Block

Popular opinion among writers these days has it that Writer’s Block does not exist. “Plumbers don’t get Plumber’s Block,” they tell us. “Therefore writers do not get Writer’s Block.” It’s an interesting hypothesis, but they are comparing apples and oranges, or more to the point, writers and plumbers.

A plumber may be a craftsman but his skill relies on manual, not mental dexterity. He has likely received training in his trade, he has probably taken tests and, at some point, someone has pronounced him a plumber. Doubts are not a part of his day. He doesn’t lie awake thinking, “Who am I kidding; I’m not a plumber. Everyone must know I’m a fake. I’m probably the worse plumber there ever was. Maybe I should try being a bricklayer, instead.” If they did, I expect they would take more time off from work, and they would put it down to Plumber’s Block.

But writers whose synapses have seized up—and more than a few successful writers claim to suffer still—are expected to face the blank page every day and dredge something up from the echoing, empty depths of their minds. And not just anything; it needs to be worthy, yet marketable; new enough to keep their readers surprised, yet and similar enough to keep them comfortable. Is it any wonder many writers are frozen by stark terror at the thought of hitting the first key? The writer’s mind is where their work comes from, it is the part of their being that must be functioning properly in order for them to do their work, and if it is blocked by fear or self-doubt, then they are unable to perform. This is Writer’s Block.

Besides, plumbers actually do get Plumbers Block; it’s called the flu. If they have it, the part of their being required to carry out their tasks won’t function, blocking them from doing their work as thoroughly as if they were a writer shackled by insecurity. (For the record, I’d rather wrestle with stifling emotions; writer’s block doesn’t stop me from going down to the pub.)

The only problem with writer’s block is, unlike the flu, you can’t really use it as an excuse to bunk off if you want to be a professional, and that’s where we get the notion that it doesn’t exist. But this doesn’t mean it isn’t real; it just means you can’t give in to it.

And I don’t think that’s fair; after all, no one expects a plumber to show up for work when he has the flu.


I looked over what I wrote and felt rather pleased with myself. I’d broken my writer’s block and produced something that was probably good enough to submit to Writer’s Digest after all, and I proposed to do just that as soon as I got home. To celebrate, I packed away my laptop, pulled out my new edition of Writer’s Digest and settled in for a good read. And there, on page 62, was a filler article on Writer’s Block.

At least they saved me the angst of composing a cover letter.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Adult Supervision

It's a lazy Saturday afternoon; day two of a four-day weekend. My wife is out with friends and I have nothing planned. I am, however, in possession of a credit card and reside within a seven-minute walk of three different bookstores (four, if you count The Works). That is, I have discovered, a dangerous combination, especially when I am left without adult supervision.

I actually went out to buy Sarah Lyall's book, The Anglo Files, because it keeps getting such bad reviews and I want to see how she is slagging off the British and what she's said to piss them off. I was not surprised to discover the book was not in any of the stores. (I was also both gratified and disappointed to find my book on the shelves of Waterstones—it's always nice to see your book on the bookstore shelves, but why hasn't it sold out yet?)

So, I came back home with Tom Bale's Skin and Bones, Alexander McCall's Tears of the Giraffe, a steak and Stilton pasty, an Easter card and some chocolate as a surprise for my wife and a bunch of flowers, bought on a whim. But the one item I went out for, I still don't have.

Luckily, there's Amazon UK.

(NOTE: I realize this hardly constitutes a post, but nearly two weeks have passed and I wanted to stick something up here to keep you from thinking I had abandoned the site. I actually have several posts planned. The one is progress is about Writer's Block but I'm having a lot of trouble with it. How ironic is that?)

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

How to Get Books Cheap

An interesting experience came out of my recent book signing: I was allowed to shoplift my own books.

While the signing went off without a hitch, there was a problem with the distributor and the books the bookstore had ordered did not arrive in time, so I brought my own stock with me. As mentioned in my earlier post, they sold out (yesss!). But the shipment to the bookstore still did not arrive.

I ordered more books to replenish my own supply and they arrived the next day, so I gave some additional books to the bookstore so they could fill the back orders and put some on the shelves. This kept them going until their order finally arrived.

On Saturday morning, I went to the bookstore, confirmed that they had received their shipment and accepted a pile of books from the manger as repayment for the ones I had loaned her. When I got home, however, I saw that she had only given me the amount I had used during the signing, not the extras I had supplied.

So I went back to the store (it’s a five-minute walk—a double-edged sword if ever there was one) and found her scurrying about doing bookstore manager type things. She acknowledged her error but, as customers were pressing for her attention, she told me to just take them off the shelves.

Up until that point, I hadn’t even bothered to seek out the book, just so I could see myself on the bookstore shelves, but now that I did look, I found she had done me well. My book was in the travel section, the local section and set up on several display stands strategically scattered throughout the store. I was, to say the least, delighted. What I did not want to do, however, was take all of them from one place, as this would lessen the impact. The result of this decision saw me wandering through the store, apparently at random, lifting books from the shelves and stuffing them in my rucksack.

And nobody stopped me.

Only once did another customer look askance at me as I grabbed a few books from the Travel section and deposited them in my pack.

“Don’t mind me,” I told her, “I’m just shoplifting.”

She smiled, and continued her browsing.

When I had my quota, I shouldered my backpack and walked out of the store without anyone saying a word.

Now I’m not advocating stealing books because that would be wrong (and bad for my royalty statement) but it certainly was fun having permission to nick my own books. I only hope some people noticed I was stealing the same book over and over and thought, “Wow, that must be some good book! I’d better buy a copy.”

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Gone Fishin'

During the intense research I conducted this morning (i.e. web surfing) I discovered that yet another major newspaper has gone bust. As an empathetic sort, it saddens me to think of all those people suddenly out of work. As a writer, it disturbs me because the chances of seeing my words in print have been marginally trimmed (ask not for whom the Bankruptcy tolls; it tolls for thee). And as a person interested in history, I find it frightening.

I realize we are living in a time of change. The Internet, once the plaything of nerds, is now a major force. A lot of people are spending a lot of time on it so that is where a lot of the advertising dollars are going, instead of newspapers or magazines. Hence to rapid decline of printed media.

And the web is a wonderful place, bringing with it a thousand fold increase in writing opportunities. Photos, movies, pop-ups and other web wizardry can now adorn our words, making them more accessible and attractive to our readers than ever before. I've already discussed how, in the 1980's, if you wanted to start a newsletter or a small magazine, you could expect to spend hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars and put in some incredibly long hours, but just ten years later you could do the same for a much smaller fee on a web site, and now you can do it for free with a blog.

This has boosted interpersonal communication to a level never before imagined and, as a writer, has increased my potential audience from subscribers to my hometown newspaper to practically everyone on the planet.

So why the niggling unease?

First of all, while it has raised my profile among people who normally would not have heard of me, and has enabled me to publish a real book (the kind made of paper, with a cover, and my name on it) it has not raised my writing income at all. Perhaps I'm speaking too soon, because once the book takes off and starts earning me thousands of dollars in royalties I may change my tune, but right now, I am not making anywhere near as much as I made back in the 70s and 80s writing humorous articles and selling them to local newspapers. The web might offer writers the opportunity to write, but it doesn't pay very well.

There's also the esteem issue. When communication was expensive, more thought went into what was said. Back then, words were precious; today they are free. And, like it or not, people equate free with worthless. Even among paying markets, a person writing an on-line column does not get paid as much as a person writing a column for the print version; it just isn't regarded as important.

As a writer whose words are primarily on the web, that's something I have to consider. But this is all mostly down to change, and major changes like these have always brought with them a variety of peripheral issues, all of which eventually resolve themselves despite the hand-wringing of old curmudgeons like me. So none of the above bothers me as much as my final point: None of it is real.

The family history articles you wrote, the photos you took of your cousins wedding, your household accounts, all the bits and pieces necessary for future generations to assemble an understanding of what life was like at the turn of the century do not actually exist.

A rogue electro-magnetic eruption from the sun could wipe out all those electronic bits stored on hard drives, memory sticks and floating through the ether of cyber-space (note to the literally-minded: I made up that electro-magnetic thingy, but you get my point.)

The Internet might be ushering in an era as revolutionary to written communication as Gutenberg's printing press, but books produced in the 1600s can still be read while I've had an untold number of data files rendered useless because the software or hardware required to access them has already become obsolete.

Without newspapers and magazine to capture what we, as citizens of the new millennium, considered important enough to write down, this whole era, from about 1995 until we finally sort ourselves out, might be represented on historical charts by a big blank spot with a sign reading "Gone Fishin'" in the middle of it.

Friday, February 27, 2009

What It All Means

There's a video going around the Internet about the proliferation of technology and Asian people. I usually don't even watch these things; they're generally naff and/or a waste of band width (with the exception of the one of an American teenager sticking a fireworks rocket up his butt and having his friend light it), but this one was really quite thought provoking, almost frightening. I’ve seen it in several places, but this is the only one I can remember. At the end, they pose the question: What does it all mean?

They didn't answer it, so I will.

Partly, it means, in a relatively short time, we're due to be overrun with Chinese and Indian people. But at least they will all speak English. It also means that, as the 5th most populous “country” on the planet, MySpace better start pulling its weight in terms of foreign aid and UN military support.

But mostly it means we are all getting stupider at an exponential rate.

Think about it; if the most intelligent man in the world, back in 1800, knew, let's say, 10% of all there was to know, he would know only about .01% percent of all there is to know now, and in 5 years time, only about 0.0003473%. We are all, therefore, becoming less intelligent at an alarmingly increasing rate.

As writers, this means we are under pressure to churn out more and more information, while at the same time, facing the burden of having to absorb more data at a faster rate. Even with the advantage of having 5 times as many English words at our disposal than Shakespeare did, this is still a daunting task.

To put this into some sort of perspective: back in the 1980's, I became interested in the history of fingerprinting. Yes, I'm as very sad person, but that's not my point. The thing was, I studied this field over the course of a few years, finding esoteric texts, private correspondence and first-hand histories from sources I worked hard to locate and traveled far to find.

I then had the luxury of reading, absorbing, analyzing, cross-referencing and extrapolating my own findings and ideas from this information. From this, I published several articles in trade journals and newspapers and soon became a sought after speaker at conventions and universities.

All the materials that went into this effort now reside in a single, albeit fat, folder in my file cabinet.

Presently, with 4 Exabytes (that’s 4.0x10^19, and I won’t pretend to know what that means) of unique information churned out this year, it is not unusual for me to acquire just as much data—in the form of e-mails, reports, memos, specifications and project proposals—over the course of a single work day. How is a person supposed to absorb all of that? The answer is, they can't. The best anyone can hope to do is scan the most important bits and attempt to formulate an intelligent decision based on their sketchy understanding of the facts.

This, I believe, leads to stupid decisions.

The video claims that one weeks’ worth of the New York Times contains more information than a person was likely to come across in their lifetime in the 18th century (which may be true; how many peasant farmers needed to know their BMI or remember their PIN number?). In order to feed this insatiable appetite for knowledge, useless or otherwise, writers today are left to scan and gulp down great hunks of indigestible data so they can spew it back out as, what they hope are, reasonable articles. These articles then go into that gigantic jumble of disarray that "QI" likes to call "general ignorance."

The next person to write on similar subjects might scan those articles and pull out a few facts. But these facts were probably drawn from other articles whose authors gleaned them from yet other articles that were based on quick searches of Wikipedia entries compiled from FaceBook postings. So the irony is, the more information we produce, the less we know, and what little we think we know was probably made up by an eleven year old delinquent pretending to be a 17 year old girl.

In all probability, in the time it took me to write these words, another sixty seven million gigabytes of data have been spun out, making me (and you) just that much more proportionally ignorant of everything around us.

One can only hope that this constant spinning of information will slow down enough for us to catch up. If not, we will all be doomed to watch our relative intelligence quotas spiral downward into statistical insignificance.

But I hope, no matter how bad it gets, that none of us will become stupid enough to shove a lit fireworks rocket up our butts.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Celebrity Life

This past weekend I did my first book signing. As I completely sold out my stock in under three hours, I guess you could call it an unqualified success, but it wasn’t all down to my careful planning and/or foresight.

Mainly, I was lucky in about three different ways. It was a lovely spring morning, and that brought a lot of people out. The bookstore manager, after a few trial and error attempts, put me in a location to die for (right at the top of the stairs so no one coming up to the top floor could possibly miss me, and right next to the very, very popular—just try to get a table—coffee shop). And there was another signing going on downstairs at the same time, which brought in additional people (I know for a fact that got me at least one additional sale).

So I’m trying not to let this go to my head; if I do another signing, it could just as well be on a miserable day in a deserted book store with me sitting at a table in the back by the Graphic Novels section. But at least I know a successful signing is possible.

The things I did right:

I went to the local paper about three weeks prior to the event and offered them the opportunity of interviewing me. They were very good about it and held off publishing the article until the day before the signing. Nearly half of the people who bought a book said they had heard about me in the newspaper.

I made a poster with my name, book name, photos of both and the large title “Local Author” on it. I printed out one but, after the bookstore manager saw it, she made another copy, put them both in A4 display frames and set one on either side of me on the table. She also took my books off of the display rack (about 15 feet away) and put them on the table as well. This proved the winning combination: anyone going to the second floor to browse for a book or get a cup of tea could not avoid seeing me; the colourful posters and pile of books told them right away who I was and why I was there; if they sat in the café for any length of time, many of them became interested in what I was doing and stopped by as they were leaving.

So I got good press and good location, but I still could have blown it. The final key is to smile, make eye contact and chat to people even if they just stop by for a quick look (only one person who stopped at my table did not buy a book, and I gave her a business card with my web site address on it; you never know, she might become interested later). If you’re friendly, people will generally be friendly back; it was a bookstore, not a back street pub, the people were predisposed to buy books and were, overall, pleasant, so there was no need to be shy.

Other items that were not make-or-break but were nonetheless important included bringing a bottle of water, two pens and some mints. My business cards, while not necessary, also came in handy and I gave out almost all of them. I also wore my “Postcards From Across the Pond” tee shirt (what, you don’t have one?) but I don’t think anyone noticed.

The last item, but one I think really helped in a number of ways, was my AlphaSmart Neo. Sitting at a table with people milling around you can make you feel awkward, but if you have something to do, it helps you relax. I found typing into the Neo also reinforced the notion that I was, actually, a writer. While no one came over to ask what the cunning little device was (I get that a lot in pubs) I think it aroused some curiosity, and at the very least, it acted as an electronic security blanket.

If I had it to do over again, what would I do different? Not much. I might print off more than one poster, and bring my camera (I had to call my wife and ask her to come down and take a photo of me) but otherwise, I think I came across as a real, professional writer doing a real, professional writerly-type thing.

And only one lady came to my table to ask me where the toilets were.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Whitter On

You have the right to remain silent

In the event that you live in a cave somewhere and communicate by carving messages on stone tables, or use the Internet exclusively for downloading porn, you may not be aware of the Times On Line article that has the blogshpere and its resident bloglodites in a tizzy.

Here is my USA Today-esque bullet-point summary:

     - The Ignition: The Times on Line wrote an article
     - The Bad Thing: Said article lifted quotes out of context and without permission or link-credit to the author, Miss Diva
     - The Aggrieved: Miss Diva is upset, and rightly so
     - The Irony: The Times on Line is staffed by professional journalists, who reportedly look down upon bloggers as unprofessional, yet they engaged in egregiously unprofessional and unethical behavior themselves.
     - The Action: Link to the Times on Line article, link to Miss Diva and write a post to “tell the world that you and your writing and your blog deserve respect." (credit: Miss Diva: "Write on! Respect the blog"
     - The Point: To start a revolution demanding respect for bloggers
     - The Result: High profile for a shoddy Times on Line article (and Miss Diva) and a great subject for bloggers to get their knickers in a knot over.

I realize the above sounds rather flippant, but that's just what I do. For the record, I do believe Miss Diva has every right to feel aggrieved and her response is admirable. I do believe the Times on Line behaved unprofessionally and unscrupulously. And I do believe that bloggers are entitled to the respect they deserve. But I do not believe that bloggers necessarily deserve respect.

That’s a subtle difference, but an important one, so pay attention.

The first responses I saw to this brouhaha had me convinced they were coming confiscate our keyboards and legislate away our bandwidth. Curious, I followed the links.

The offending article, which I will not compliment with a link, is simply a lengthy, rambling advertisement for a book (which one might suspect is equally long and rambling) and deserved little attention. Instead, by behaving unprofessionally and unethically, they got a lot. So what are we to learn from this except that pissing people off is a good marketing strategy?

The article, in case you’re interested, simply poses the controversial notion that maybe too much blogging and/or revealing too much in your blog might not be good for you. Whoa! Stop the presses! On the ground-breaking revelation scale, they might as well have said that having unprotected sex with random strangers probably isn’t the best use of your leisure time. Blogging doesn't require you to buy drinks, and is less likely to result in a worrying rash, or late night, drunken phone calls demanding to know why you never return their messages followed by unnerving accounts of weeing on a stick and what it revealed.

I think everyone who has the notion ought to blog. It's free, it’s easy and, unless you live in a country run by a despot, it’s legal. It will also give you satisfaction in ways you never expected. Sure you run the risk of blog-addition but, as addictions go, you’re better off with that than, say, a three hundred dollar a day cocaine habit. I don’t know of anyone who has come to after a night of enthusiastic blogging to find they’ve traded their living room furniture for an eight-ball.

So have at it, just don’t anticipate automatic respect; it doesn’t come as part of the package like all those annoying Blogger widgets.

Miss Diva, herself, appears to agree with me. What she says is bloggers “…should demand the respect that their traffic, their influence and their talent commands.” I read this as: good blogs deserve respect. The attention of the billions of people surfing through cyberspace needs to be earned. This happens through good writing. Good writing takes practice. And practice is best conducted in private.

Just because you can post every word you write doesn’t mean you ought to. There are many fine blogs out there, but some (not yours, surely) make me long for the days when people used to write their innermost thoughts in notebooks and hide them in their sock drawer. If professional journalist do not respect bloggers, it is quite likely because the vast majority of bloggers do not deserve respect.

Miss Diva says if you put "Blogs Ruin Journalism" into Google you’ll receive 3,900,000 hits. I tried that and got exactly ten, and most were from blogs linked to Miss Diva. When I tried it without the quotes, I got 614,000. On the other hand, I got 32,500,000 hits by entering “Big tits are bad” and 121,600,000 for “See me naked.” So what are we to learn from this? Nothing, really, except that “Big Tits are Bad” would make a wicked title for a blog post.

But back to the professional journalist; even if they really do believe blogging is ruining journalism, can you blame them for feeling that way? Suppose you were a professional housepainter. That’s what you trained for and take pride in and it’s how you earn the money to support you and your family. Now suddenly, everyone on earth has taken such an interest in house painting they are all going around painting each other’s houses for free. Wouldn’t you circle the wagons? Wouldn’t you point out the ones who, given the results of their passion, should maybe take up a different hobby?

So I can’t really blame the journalists for feeling that way, but I don’t want to hand them any more ammunition, either.

Let’s use me as an example (because I’m all I have and I’m not likely to file a lawsuit against myself). I have been keeping a written diary since I was 13 years old. This was back when long distance communication was limited to smoke signals. As soon as the Internet came along, I started a web journal. I now have a published book, two blogs, a web site and I guest blog on about half a dozen other sites. But I also continue to keep a private journal. This is because I understand that many of my inner thought do not deserve an audience (you should thank me for this, really). In my private journal, I don't have to think about content, form or my audience; I am free to experiment without worrying about criticism. My private journal is batting practice, and I did a lot of it before I inflicted my writing on the wider world.

Now, I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t blog; I’m just saying that, if you’re looking for respect, you might want to put off the public blog for a bit and start by keeping a written journal that you hide in your sock drawer where the kids won't find it. Then, after you’ve put in some meaningful batting practice, the World Wide Web will be much more grateful when you do appear, and in the meantime it will remain less cluttered and the Internet can go about doing what it was meant for: downloading porn.

Friday, January 30, 2009

It's Official

My little book, while not yet grabbing the literary world by the throat, has certainly wrestled my world to the mat. The amount of effort involved in promoting oneself in an effort to get a book noticed is remarkable. So remarkable, in fact, that I find I have precious little time for writing.

How ironic. All my life I have wanted to be a real writer (you know, those guys in the corduroy jackets with the leather patches on the elbows who sit around smoking pipes and looking thoughtful), and now that I have a book out and can call myself an author, I don't have time to write. Or, more exactly, time to write what I started out to write, which is fiction.

Work on my novel has ground to a complete halt, and this annoyed me so much I plotted out all of the writing tasks I had to do along with those I wanted to do with an eye toward organizing my time so I could fit them all in. The inescapable conclusion I came to, however, was this: there are, officially, not enough hours in the day to do both.

I mulled this over for a while, thinking about what would have to go onto the back burner, until the answer became screamingly obvious. I have a book out; my main responsibility, both to my publisher and to myself, is to push it for all it is worth. Leaving your first book to fend for itself, which assures that it will sell like bacon cheeseburgers at a vegan convention, is about as helpful, career-wise, as crash-landing on your first day as a commercial airline pilot. So, right now, promotion is my main job. Oddly, however, that involves a lot of writing, just not the sort of writing I envisioned myself doing. (Think: guys with pipes.)

Currently, I have two blogs, and I just started another with Toni Hargis, which will be a continuation of the debate about life in the UK verses life in the US we started on BBC 5 Live last week. (We were guests on a panel discussion with Richard Madeley. For my US readers, he and his wife Judy are to books in the UK what Oprah is to books in the US. Toni was in a studio in Chicago and I was at BBC Central with Richard. Did I give him a copy of my book? You betcha!). I also guest blog on three different expat sites and am a regular columnist on another. But all of this involves writing humor and none of it involves corduroy jackets, with or without the patches.

So am I to infer from this that, no matter what my original intentions were, I am a humorist? I think I tend to downplay my humor writing because it comes so naturally to me, but does that make it any less valid? I am a writer, and I am--though quite by accident--an author. Should I ignore that?

Maybe it is time to start thinking of humor as my main gig and admit to what I am. At least for now.

While there may come a day when I can devote time to both my serious writing and my humor writing, it won't be while I am also holding down a full time job. There are, as I have already proven, not enough hours in the day.

I’m going to miss wearing that jacket, though.

Friday, January 23, 2009


I've read that there are four ways you should never begin a novel:

1. With the character sitting around ruminating
2. With a flashback
3. With a dream
4. With a scene pulled from the middle of the book to compensate for starting with 1, 2 or 3.

I read that just as I was finishing my previous novel, which is still making the rounds. That novel originally began with the character sitting around ruminating. So I rethought the plot but could not come up with a way to start the book closer to the action. It's a mystery/thriller, where the heroine is drawn in gradually, so nothing astonishing (meaning scenes involving the spilling of blood) happens until later in the story. Starting off with some killing would mean 80% of the book would be a flashback.

So, having already broken rule number 1, I committed a number 4 and pulled a scene from later in the book that was, incredibly, both a dream and a flashback. This means, in a single novel, I managed to make every single mistake you can in regards to the first chapter.

Does that mean it's a crap book? In my view, no.

The Rules are all fine and good, but take a look at a few current or past bestsellers and you will find these rules broken on a routine basis. So breaking them does not, in and of itself, result in a crap book. A crap story and poor craftsmanship results in a crap book.

For example, “The First Casualty” by Ben Elton, starts off with a scene so obviously ripped from the later portions of the book, and which really had no bearing on the story, that I felt cheated by it. But I don't blame him, I can only envision his publisher saying, "Look, Ben, no one is going to buy this book unless someone dies on page one."

The book itself is a murder mystery, but it requires a bit of set up before the killing begins. Apparently publishers regard readers as ADD sufferers who cannot stretch their attention span for ten pages, even if the story is interesting, which that one was.

Right now, I'm reading "The Mermaids Singing" by Val McDermid, which begins with at least three of the principle characters sitting around ruminating. There may be more, I haven't gotten to the action yet. This book, too, contains a preface that hints at future action and looks as out of place as Ben Elton's preface and probably for the same reason.

I have tried, but I simply can't fit a murder into the first chapter of my book. Without an entire reworking of the plot, which would essentially make it a different book, it just is not possible to have anyone killed any earlier.

But should I? Does a story really need to revolve around the perceived shortcomings of the reading public? These previous examples seem to suggest that authors don't think so, but publishers do. That said, starting out with some action is very likely a good idea, but not all stories require it and, as a reader, I find the notion that I can't be intrigued by nuances insulting.

So I have to accept the idea that my novel may never be published, as it appears my only options are to break Rule Number 1 or Rules 2, 3 and 4. Despite this recklessness, I believe it is a good book, so I have no plans to change it at this time.

My current novel, however, starts off with a bang.