Saturday, July 17, 2010


I recently undertook a study of blogging and how to do it better (i.e. I accidentally surfed onto a "How To Blog Better" blog). Much of it was common sense—though it never hurts to remind oneself of the obvious—but there were a few new tidbits in the list that I could benefit from.

The primary, and most glaringly ignored, rule was: "Don't have more than one blog." Um, guilty, but with mitigating circumstances, Your Honor.

This blog, which I used to consider my back-up blog, was started as an auxiliary to my erstwhile website that, against my will, morphed into a blog. This blog was also largely ignored and I never expected it to amount to much. In fact, I fully anticipated it would be so universally ignored that I would be free to cavort naked here (metaphorically speaking) without fear of being seen. I guess this supports the theory that, if you write it, they will read.

But I digress, which goes against the grain of another rule, and the subject of this post: “Focus.”

This may fall into the category of common sense, but a blog needs to be about something, or, more precisely, some "thing." And it should be the same thing every time.

This is a writing blog, and every post should, in some way, reflect some aspect of writing. I like to think I've followed this rule; even the rare "twofer" posts that I put up here and on my other blog, are so treated because they fit the criteria for both locations, not simply because I'm lazy.

Surprisingly, I find it easier to maintain focus here than there. Here, I'm a writer, there I'm an expat, and while I actually do wake up every morning with the thought, "I am a writer" going through my head (it's what prompted me to set my alarm for 5AM, after all) I can often go through an entire day without thinking, "I am an expat."

The other consideration is, not only am I an expat on my other blog, I am a funny expat, so I need to write about being an expat while avoiding weighty subjects and controversial issues. Maintaining this sort of focus is limiting but crucial to retaining and expanding my readership. It also keeps me out of trouble: much as I might like to be a serious journalist, I know I am woefully under-informed and allow knee-jerk reactions to dictate my politics. In short, my views on weighty subjects are about as deeply researched and valid as those found in The Daily Mail, and airing them will not give my readers what they came for. I forget this at my peril.

(Incidentally, I am not writing this post because of anything I recently wrote over there, so don't go looking for an ill-advised post on abortion or immigration where I make a pillock out of myself. I'm just acknowledging that I am occasionally tempted to.)

So the point of this post is simply to remind myself, and anyone else who cares to come along, to "dance with the one that brung ya." If you pause here, expect to read my views on publishing, technology, train travel, sheep farming, income tax or the best way to arrange your sock drawer, but all of it will, in some small way, be related to writing. Visit my other blog, and expect to be mirthfully reminded that I am an American, out of my depth in a strange land. And if you find me doing anything else, post a comment reminding me to focus.

One last rule of note that the article mentioned: “Don't expect to make money with your blog.”

Well, no problem there, at least.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Interview With Meg Gardiner

A week or two back, I managed to snag an interview with Edgar award winning author Meg Gardiner, for my other blog (no, not that one, this one). This came about because Ms Gardiner, in addition to being an internationally famous writer, also happens to be an expat.

But she is primarily a writer, so she kindly gave me permission to reprint the interview on my writing blog for the benefit of my half-dozen readers.

Writing, as Meg points out on her blog – Lying for a Living – is her third career. Born in Oklahoma and raised in Santa Barbara, CA, she practiced law in Los Angeles and taught writing at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Several years ago, after living in California most of her life, she and her family moved to the UK where she began writing suspense novels. She now writes full time and says it is a job she feels immensely lucky to have.

Meg has recently released her eighth novel, Liar’s Lullaby. I have not yet read that one, but if China Lake and Mission Canyon are anything to go by, it is bound to be a cracker.

1. How did you come to live in Britain and how long have you lived here?

My husband was offered a job at his company’s London office. And I was an avid anglophile, thanks to Shakespeare, Winston Churchill, and the English pub I frequented on Santa Monica beach. I couldn’t wait to move. Plus I’m a James Bond fan, and wanted a jet pack.

We came for a two-year assignment. That was in 1994. When the jet packs are delivered, we’ll load them up and head back to California, like the Beverly Hillbillies.

2. Was your transition to British life easier or more difficult than you had imagined?

It featured some surprises. For instance, my new British friends constantly said, “Brilliant!” to me. It took a while to understand that they didn’t, in fact, consider me an earth-shattering genius. They were simply using the local equivalent of “Cool.” This ego-deflating insight came when a friend said, “Pop-Tarts for breakfast? Brilliant!”

And, like most Americans, I presumed that British television would be all high culture, all the time. The first evening I turned on the TV (“after the watershed,” whatever that meant) eager to expose my daughter to E.M. Forster and the Tudors. We sat down and – Breasts! Big and bare and onscreen. And butts. More than one, and in bed, and… where the hell is the remote?

Transition? What transition?

Actually, the kids are now fluent in both Yank and Brit. One’s a cheerleader and two are Eagle Scouts. They drive a Mini, love ham, egg and chips, play rugby, and can’t live without Top Gear.

3. What preconceptions about Britain and the British were shattered or confirmed after your arrival?

I assumed that in Britain, I would stroll to the quaint neighborhood market to do the family’s grocery shopping. Instead, I walked into a Tesco the size of Heathrow airport. It was apocalyptic.

And I assumed that Sundays in Britain would be like something out of Mrs. Miniver: pews packed with devout Anglicans singing “Nearer My God to Thee.”

And that my fridge would be larger than a shoebox.

However, the coach and footman, and the ladies in waiting, make up for all of that.

4. Having spent most of your early life in the American south and southern California; do you consider the British climate a trade up, or are you thinking you got the short end of the weather-stick by moving to the UK?

As I tell my children when they face a challenge: It builds character.

5. What, in your opinion, is better about living in the UK as opposed to the US?

Pubs. Stonehenge. Prime Minister’s Questions. Long, lingering summer evenings in the garden. BBC reporters who don’t shout and whose careers clearly, endearingly, don’t depend on big hair and shiny teeth. “Jerusalem” – Give me my bow of burning gold; bring me my arrows of desire… I’m tearing up just thinking about that hymn.

6. What do you miss about life in the US?

My family. Good Mexican food. Customer service. College football games on crisp autumn afternoons. Marching bands. Midnight mass at the Old Mission in Santa Barbara. Wild thunderstorms over the New Mexico desert. Hitting the road and driving out where even radio stations can’t reach you.

7. Your books are set in the US; while writing, do you have to remind yourself that America has no zebra crossings and they don't queue, or are you fluently bilingual?

Books can be edited before publication, so I don’t worry about dodgy, or sketchy, language goofs. But when I travel between Britain and the U.S., I have to remember which side of the car has the steering wheel, so when I climb in I don’t look like an idiot.

8. How do you stay connected with friends, family and novel locations in the US?

An extensive network of miniature spy cameras.

9. When you visit the States and people realize you live in Britain, how many of them ask, "Have you met the Queen?" (BTW, have you?)

None, fortunately. Unfortunately, many ask: Why don’t you have an accent?

But I do have an accent, I insist. A California accent, dude.

10. I understand you used to be a mime and, while this has nothing to be with being an expat or an internationally acclaimed writer, I have to ask: are you better now?

I can’t speak as a mime.

I hope you enjoyed Meg’s interview. Now go out and buy her books.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Seeking Its Own Level

They say if you release pedigree dogs—great dane, bulldog, rat on a string, whatever—they will, in a few generation, revert to your bog-standard mutt; that animal most of us think of when someone says the word, “dog.”

It seems to be that way with the Internet, as well.

(Oh no, he’s going off on one of his, “I’ve been around this Internet thing a long time, so gather ‘round, kids, while grandpa tells you a story” binges again.)

In the beginning, before there were web pages, there were bulletin boards. In this text world (Yes, kids, text; you only saw writing on the screen, and there was no such thing as a mouse!) people logged on and sought out like-minded people to exchange porn, I mean, ideas with. This was the forerunner of the newsgroups, chat rooms and fourms.

Then web pages arrived. The early days saw some interesting evolutionary branches, but eventually an accepted pattern emerged: a main page with changing text on it and a collection of relatively static pages containing other information, such as About Me, Other Writing, Buy my Shit, etc.

Your average website

Then came blogs.

We HTMLers hated them. They were crass, vulgar and, well, really really easy, so one by one we sold our souls. But some of us, like myself, would not compromise. My main blog is graphed into my old web site so the static pages co-exist with the ever-changing main page. This took no small effort and is not for the faint of heart so most people contented themselves with a link to their real web site.

But so strong, so natural, is the pattern of main page linked to static pages that blogs have now evolved into, well, web sites. Wordpress has had this feature for some time, but if any of you lived through my ill-fated foray into the world of Wordpress with me you’ll know this was a painful time.

And nowBlogger—the slag of blog software—has jumped on the bandwagon. Pages are, once again, a standard feature, only now they are as easy to set up and maintain as a blog.

The new look of Blogs

I expect I’ll make full use of them, at least on my other blog (though this one might serve as a guinea pig). At least I see an innovation that doesn’t make me go into “Grumpy Old Man” mode, but only because this isn’t really an innovation, it’s a return to the way things were meant to be.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Review - Take II

Now that I am a little further in the book I mentioned in the previous post, I thought I should provide an update.

Before I do that, however, I wish to remind you that the observation was about the book starting off slowly, whereas my boss said it grabbed him from the first page. I still hold to that; I was nearly a third of the way through the book before it really got a grip on me.

It came about slowly. As I mentioned, I was determined to stick with the book because I was confident it would pick up eventually. I doggedly read through chapter after chapter, then one day found myself wondering about the characters, and the plot and speculating on what might happen next.

Eventually, I began to look forward to my next opportunity to read on. And today I gave the book the highest possible compliment: I missed my bus stop because I was so engrossed in reading it.

This has happened only once before, when I looked up from my reading of “Postcards From No Man’s Land” by Aidan Chambers (I bet you thought I was going to say, “Postcards From Across the Pond”) to find I was at St. James Park and had to get off the Circle line and double back to Victoria Station.

So “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” now has my full endorsement. You could do worse than to go out and buy a copy.

But if you find that it starts off a little slow, stick with it; it will pick up eventually.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Girl With . . .

This isn’t so much a review as it is a cautionary tale about recommending books to your friends and colleges.

Because I don’t live under a rock at the bottom of the ocean, I have been aware of the series of books titled, “The Girl …” followed by a variety of phrases: “…With the Dragon Tattoo,” “…Who Played With Fire,” “…Who Kicked the Badger,” “…Who Swam with Dolphins,” “…Who Played Canasta on Saturday Nights With a Bunch of Her Old College Friends.” Okay, I made some of those up, but I anticipated seeing them in the near future if the speed with which the first three books came out was any indication.

Despite their wild popularity, I avoided them for this reason: they had appeared nearly simultaneously and I must (no, I really, really must) read books in the order that they were written. When I discovered Minette Walters and Meg Gardiner, I had to look on their web pages to find out what order their books were written in so I could start with the first and move forward. When I found myself reading a Val McDermid book out of sequence, I immediately put the book aside, bought and read the previous one and then went back to the one I had started with.

But “The Girl…” series was like the sequels to “The Matrix,” all out at once and stepping over each other. I wasn’t having it. So strong was my fear of getting them out of order that I didn’t even get close enough to them to notice they are clearly marked as volumes 1 to 3, but that’s beside the point. The point is I had no intention of reading them, not until my boss started effusing about them, that is.

My boss is a calm, steady and almost irritatingly unflappable person. He never swears, or shouts at his PC, or pound on the keyboard, and he never raises an eyebrow when I do. He is composed; never angry, never excited, simply in a chronic state of Zen. So when he began to unabashedly gush over this book he was reading, I paid attention, especially when he went on to gush several days in a row. It was marvellous, it gripped him from the first page and just never let go, an incredible read. Praise like this was amazing coming from him (he’d read my book, after all, and had hardly said a thing) so I proposed to buy the book, but only after I confirmed, from two independent sources, which was the first in the series.

I has not gone well.

As is my habit, before settling into the story, I read all the reviews and the “about the author” section, where I learned why, after popping up from obscurity with three obscenely profitable novels, there have been no follow-up books from the author, Stieg Larsson: the poor man is dead.

Seems he handed over the manuscripts to his agent, and then unexpectedly checked into the big slush pile in the sky. As a writer who is looking forward to, not only being published, but basking in the glow of the adulation and money that will surely follow that happy event, news of Mr. Larsson’s inconvenient demise depressed me beyond words.

It was some time before I felt mentally fit enough to tackle the story. At which time I found out it was originally written in Swedish and translated into English. Please don’t think I have anything against translations—I don’t think I lost anything by reading the first three Harry Potter books in American instead of in their original British English (yes, they actually do translate British books into American English)—but I am always vaguely uneasy with the text of a translation, as I can never truly get to grips with the style of the author; was it a good book that was badly translated, or a rubbish book that was brilliantly translated. To my mind, a translated book tells me more about the translator than the author.

Despite these setbacks, I began to read. I am three chapters in and I can sum up my opinion of the book in two words: BORE-RING!

Not only has no one died yet, I have learned more about industrial finance in post Soviet Era Eastern Europe than I even wanted to. And having the information dump stuffed into an animated conversation between two friends drinking on a boat did nothing to make it any more scintillating than it sounds. I cannot imagine this book gripping anyone on the first page unless they are a closet accountant.

I am, however, not giving up; I am convinced the book will get better. All those people raving about it can’t all be wrong and, sooner or later, I hope the story will begin to grip me as it has obviously gripped so many others.

I just hope it’s sooner rather than later.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Package From America

When I arrived home from work today, this was sitting on my door step:

I’d been waiting for it since last month, it having made a rather circuitous route to my home. First, I’d spent several days tracking it down on the Internet. Then, because about an eighth of the world doesn’t know the other seven eights exist, I had to have it shipped to my son in the US so he could send it on to me.

And this is what I was waiting so expectantly for:

Yes, they’re paper pads.

But not just any paper pads, these are number 30-721 Ampad memo books. Aren’t they beauties?

I’ve been using them for as long as I can remember. They have 50 lined sheets and are small enough to fit neatly in a shirt pocket or the back pocket of my jeans. For size and convenience, I have never found anything to rival them. I call them my Perfect Paper Pocket Pads.

Back in the States, I could buy them at Wal Mart, and whenever I found them I always bought out the lot. When I came to the UK, I brought enough over with me last, well, about eight years. And so, eight years later, I began my Internet search, only to discover Ampad no longer makes them. The Ampad representative, however, was able to put me onto the company that had bought out their stock.

So now I’m flush with PPP Pads, just as I found another (I’m such a paper pad slut).

This new pad won’t take the place of my cherished PPP Pads; it isn’t like I’ve found a new love that I’m abandoning a long-time partner for. It’s more like a mistress, one I acquired by accident.

This is how it happened: Last weekend, I was short-sighted enough to leave the flat with nothing to write on. I’m sure you’ve been there, and know the gnawing panic that comes from being unable to jot notes on the run. So I slipped into the local book shop, grabbed a pad from the display, paid and left.

It wasn’t until later that I began to realize how much I enjoyed taking notes with it. I usually hate to write in longhand, but here I was writing outlines, plot sketches and even short articles. The book was small but held ample, sturdy pages that begged to be written on. In the back was a pocket for holding odds and ends, a serial number on a sticker and a leaflet telling the history of the pad.

It was a Moleskine product, and the story behind the notebook was every bit as inspiring as the price was breathtaking. Having come to understand that they are considered the fillet mignon (with a side of broiled potatoes and French-cut green bean) of notebooks, I belatedly checked the receipt; it had cost ten quid. (About $15)

I didn’t let that put me off, I just considered it a nice gift to myself.

So now I carry two notebooks; my PPP Pad for writing messages and organizing my ToDo lists, and my Moleskine notebook, for jotting ideas and letting my imagination wander into places where a word processor can’t fit. They seem to work together well. But I haven’t introduced them yet; I’m not sure how well they would get along.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

One Of The Girls

I had a different post ready to go up, but I was diverted by some arresting statistics. This worked out nicely because I was going to post a secondary item in the sidebar but that item lends credence to what these statistics pointed out so, thanks to being so alert (or easily distracted, take your pick), I can post now everything in a single article, the premise of which is:

Over the course of my life, I have spent an inordinate amount of time in the company of women.

I don't mean to say I am a modern incarnation of Don Juan, wooing women on two continents (having recently and successfully stormed Europe). No, I mean I just always seem to be around women, through no fault (or complaint, for that matter) of my own.

As a young lad, I had an older sister, a doting mother and an absent father. Dad was around—he often stopped in between shifts at the mill and sessions at the bar—but he didn't leave much of an impression. Mostly it was me, mom, my sister and about 6,000 cows.

I was, however, a Boy Scout, so I managed to do my share of male bonding during my teenage years, but just as it looked as if I was on my way toward a wall-balanced life, I joined a charismatic Christian cult. While I did make some male friends there, these organisations tend to draw more females than males, but not the sort who would do you any good, if you get my meaning.

After checking back into hotel reality, I got a job as a keypunch operator. To say this field has a disproportionate number of women would be like saying the ocean is damp; I was the only male in the entire department.

When my children were growing up, I was working nights while my wife worked days, so me and the other moms all got together at day care and, later, for school meetings and such.

As a born-again bachelor, I took up scuba diving, a truly manly sport. But then, ignoring the advice of a good friend (a woman, I might add) I went scuba diving in the Caribbean and, as it had for her, the experience spoiled me. I could no longer face the dark, cold lakes of the Adirondacks, so I sold my gear and became an Irish dancer. I mean, what choice did I have?

I was actually surprised by the predominance of women there, what with Michael Flatley being all the rage, but there was only one other man in the entire class.

So I went to Ireland, met my current wife and settled in Britain. And started a blog. Or three. And, without meaning to, I began to acquire followers. But is what I discovered about them while doing routine blog maintenance this afternoon:

Of my followers, 82.2784810126582% on my Postcards blog, 91.4285714285714% on the Pond Parleys blog and 88.4615384615385% on my writing blog are women. Now, this isn't a complaint, simply an observation, but my intent was to promote myself as an expatriate writer a la Bill Bryson and, instead, I seem to have become an honorary member of the mummy-blogging circuit

So what's a guy to do when he find himself, once again, surrounded by women? Go out and do something that puts him in contact with other people, of course. And that's what I'm going to do.

I have volunteered to assist my wife in her latest endeavour—a sponsored walk. She's doing the walking; I'm just helping out by being a steward. And you can help out by sponsoring her.

Click this link: to donate money toward the cause. The walk is to raise funds for St. Catherine's Hospice, a worthy charity. It's only a half-marathon, and they are only walking, but they are doing it between midnight and six in the morning, so she deserves a bit of support.

Oh, and did I mention this is the Midnight Walk for Women? Twelve hundred women, two thousand flashlights (torches), eighteen hundred bottles of water and me. I expect there will be a few more men there, but here I go again.

Don't worry; I'll bring my camera. Updates to follow.

And thank you for your support.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Perfect Writing Day


Look!  No Jet Trails.

Saturday turned into one of those rarest of days—a nice day with nothing to do; the perfect opportunity to catch up on my writing.

And I needed to catch up. After rearranging my character sheets for the third time, I realized I needed to get back to the actual writing. So last Monday I set up a plan to track the re-write. I acknowledge a need for tracking and meeting targets in my work because I am an expert at frittering away time. The initial draft was easy; hit a word count ever day and watch the manuscript grow like mould in a warm jam jar.

But this wouldn’t work for the re-write, so I settled on a page count. Four pages a day seemed about right to me, and if that turned out to be too easy, I could always raise the bar later.

I set to work on Tuesday; by Friday afternoon I was on page three.

So I looked forward to Saturday to do some serious catch up, hoping that, once I broke through the minefield of the first few pages (just enough suspense, not too much back ground, plausible plot, characters that make the reader turn to page four) I would begin to move forward faster and with more confidence.

With my wife up in London attending a quilting exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, I was left without adult supervision and made ready to seize the day.

First, however, there were the errands. I had suffered an eyeglass emergency during the week and this required me to devote part of the morning visiting the optician. This is because, outside of 24-Hour London (Hi, Marsha) England pretty much shuts itself in with a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit to sit in front of the telly after about 5:00 PM. Therefore, I spent half the morning at the opticians. The other half of the morning I stood in a queue at the post office because the Royal Mail branch that used to be down the road from my office was shut last year and the Royal Mail on-line postal purchasing site suddenly stopped working last month, leaving me no option but to queue up at the one open post office in the Horsham district along with everyone else in town.

I returned to my flat in time for lunch, and then retired to the balcony with a beverage (non-alcoholic, naturally; I like to keep my mind sharp when I’m writing) and a cigar to contemplate my next move. I know this sounds like an avoidance technique, but I actually find it useful to gather my thoughts and ponder plot problems. Besides, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to study the vaguely unsettling sight of a pristine blue sky—unmarred by clouds or criss-crossed with jet trails—stretching over Sussex.

This is what it usually looks like.

Once finished, I returned to the computer refreshed and ready to tackle the recalcitrant manuscript. I logged on, checked my e-mail, deleted all the ones promising to enhance my maleness and offering cheap Viagra, saw I had none left and popped over to Meg Gardiner’s blog for a quick look. This is where things went, as they say here, pear shaped.

On Meg’s blog was a humorous bit pointing to an article saying a certain type of female character, specifically written by men, should be drummed out of literature. And the character was of the same type my lead character is.

Writers, as you may know, have delicate egos. Mine is no different, and this second-hand chide deflated it good and proper.

So I returned to the balcony with another cigar and beverage—alcoholic this time.

Was I really writing a cliché? Have I invested all of this time, effort and agony only to produce a literary joke, the equivalent of a “Dogs Playing Poker” painting? I don’t mind making a good try and finding I haven’t quite made the mark—there is something admirable in that, and you can always try harder next time—but I don’t want be ridiculed.

I pondered this for quite a while, eventually coming to the conclusion that my book is different. I would have to, now, wouldn’t I? The alternative is to admit you are a hack worthy only of scorn. But the fact is, my book is different. My main character might be that sort of character, but it is a funny book, not a straight-up thriller. She’s trying to be that sort of woman, and for the same, derisive reason given in the article, but she’s making a bit of a hash out of it, in part to show the folly of that certain type of female character.

That soothed my wounded pride and after another drink and cigar I felt ready to face the pages once more.

Then my wife came home unexpectedly early (I thought those quilters would be out partying all night but I guess they all had a date with a quilting hoop and the evening news) and I wisely opted to spend the evening with her.

I felt better about the book this morning, but still haven’t made any progress on it; yesterday was the perfect day for writing, today was the perfect day for housework.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Writing in a Different Language

Nothing drives home the fact of how much you don't know about your host culture than writing a book set there featuring characters who grew up there.

My current project takes place in England and is populated with native Brits. For the most part, people are people, and I've been here long enough to know how they talk and how they go about their daily business, so I shouldn't fall into obvious traps, like having a character talk about when she was in "high school" or making reference to a "senior prom." There are, however, numerous opportunities for gaffs.

After finishing the first draft, I reread it and took pages of notes highlighting details I needed to research. Such as: you can't go visit someone in the hospital (actually, the person would be "in hospital") here and expect the receptionist to give you a room number. Patients are on wards, there are nurses, but no candy stripers and some nurses, depending upon their duties, are called "Sister" or "Matron."

Registering a car, getting insurance, all different from my American experiences. They don't have appointment books, they have "Diaries" and they don't write things like, "Nathan said 'Hi' to me outside of math class today and I have a great big pimple in the middle of my forehead! I wanted to die!" in them.

What gets me is not the amount of research I have to do to make my prose not sound like it was written by an American (for one thing, in the above dialogue, I'd have to change Math to Maths and Pimple to Spot); I'm more concerned about the things I can't know:

What is it like to go through the British school system? What TV shows would they have watched, what pastimes would they have enjoyed, how would they and their friends have behaved?

But, to quote Donald Rumsfeld, those are things I know I don't know, and I expect a combination of creative prose and research will get me over those hurdles; it's the things I don't know I don't know that are more likely to trip me up. (By the by, that famously amusing "Things we know" quote makes perfect sense if you read it carefully.)

My biggest fear is that I will spend a lot of time on this manuscript only to send it off laced with unintentional hilarity like having a Memorial Day celebration and totally ignoring Whitsun, or having a character asking for a "round trip" ticket.

At least I know enough to not have a cop pull a gun.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Time’s Up

The six-week cooling off period between ending the rough draft of my novel and beginning the rewriting process ended last week. I chose that length of time because it was the minimum recommended by people who should know. I was going to extend it, but I was itching to get back to the project and was running out of ways to avoid writing all the things I was supposed to be writing during the down time.

So I spent this past week re-reading the manuscript and making notes. A lot of notes. I know I was obnoxiously self-congratulatory when I finished the rough draft in 10 weeks, but you can now rest assured I no longer consider it such a momentous feat. Anyone could have done it, honestly. All it amounts to is typing random words every day until you hit 75,000. And that’s what the rough draft looks like, a big pile of random words.

My task now, is to try to make something out of this mountain of rubbish. This is by far the harder task, and it is one I have little experience in. Fortunately, I have a clear idea where I want to go and a road map on how to get there. I’m not saying it won’t lead me down a dead end, but at least, for now, I’m moving forward.

What I’m not going to do is gleefully describe my process and progress. Despite this being a supposed writing blog, I think that would be pointless.

Some time ago I aired my view about blogs being Level I, II or III. I even stopped writing the blog for a while until I arrived at Level II (and then only to announce it) and took it back up with I hit Level III—as a bona fide, published author.

Now, I’m not so sure about the levels, or about me being an author. I’m still thrilled to have a book out, but in my mind, it doesn’t count. And it won’t until I publish a novel. So I am back to thinking of myself as a beginner (which, in this arena, I am) and refraining from giving advice or sharing my methods because, well, who am I? I might be doing this all wrong and that would be doing you a disservice. When I publish a novel, then I can dispense wisdom from my lofty height. ;)

Until then, the best thing I can do is recommend “How Not to Write a Novel” by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark. It is funny, informative and a very good read. I learned a lot from it, between cringing at the mistakes I found out I am making. But it was also inspiring to note that I could generally remember a novel I enjoyed reading that had broken the rule I was reading about.

In writing, the only rule is, there are no rules. But until you become good enough to understand how to bend them to your advantage, it’s best to keep within the guidelines.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have a big pile of words I have to get back to.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Cross-Dressing Blogs

In casting about so something new to write about, it came to my attention that the "Sucking Face" post on my Life of Writing blog had as much to do with writing as the post on my Postcards From Across the Pond blog had to do about being an expat. So, in the interest of buying myself more time (and perhaps gaining a few crossover fans) I have simply swapped them around.

I hope this doesn’t break some sort of blogshere code of honor or anything. I’m not trying to pull a fast one; I’m just too tired to write anything new (in the blog arena) at the moment.

And the best part it, the Sucking Face post, when it goes on my Postcards blog, will automatically be posted to Facebook.

Without further ado, here is the reposted post from Postcards:


I received the following e-mail the other day. The header is heavily edited for obvious reasons, but the body of the letter is word-for-word:

From: Bert Mckinnon: AssholeWithTooMuchTime@OnHis.Hands
To: NotMyEmailAddress@ButIGotItAnyway.Dammit
Subject: Hello
Attachments: (Brunette.jpg) – the sort of photo that comes in a new wallet
How your mood? I very much would like to know you better... I would like to write to you a little about myself... To me of 28 years. I the brunette, very cheerful and beautiful woman... If you wanted me the nobility better can write only to my personal Email.
I hope you to me will write about myself.

Aside from the obvious (this person is tragically in love with ellipses) I’m guessing English is not the native language of the sender. And I have to wonder at the point of such a letter.

How lonely and desperate do you have to be for “If you wanted me the nobility better…” to sweep you off your feet?

And “Bert McKinnon”? What sort of name is that for an Internet temptress? I don’t know about you, but Bert screams “I’m a man” in my world, unless you are a Roberta. But anyone out for a cyber-snog with the name of Roberta McKinnon would do well to adopt a more appropriate nom de plume, such a Sally Cyberslut or Julie I-want-To-Send-You-Naked-Photos-Of-Myself-To-Gain-Your-Trust-So-I-Can-Empty-Your-Bank-Account Smith.

At least she didn’t mention the size of my penis (how do they know?) like many of the mystery women who write to me do. You know, things like “Make your man-tree hard grow so women laughing at you will stop.” I made that up, but it isn’t far off of the mark.

Unfortunately, these are the types of communications that make up the bulk of my e-mail these days. I can’t complain; it’s my own fault.

A few years ago I naïvely thought I could defeat spammers by changing my e-mail address on a regular basis. So I changed my spam-ridden e-mail address to a new one and told all my friends. Many switched to the new address. Some did not. The spammers used both. Not one to give up on a bad idea, I tried this about five times before I admitted defeat. By then I had thoroughly confused my friends and provided a huge target for the spambots.

My supposed saviour, Yahoo Spam Filter, didn’t help. There is a button you can click to notify Yahoo that the letter is spam and the filter will “learn” what is and is not spam and filter out all the bad stuff. In my experience, all the button does is alert the spammers as to where I am because whenever I undertake a campaign to eradicate spam, I generally end up with ten times more.

Worse yet, the Yahoo Spam Filter also sends all my blog comments, which are specifically tagged to go into my IN box, into my spam folder. So I currently enjoy the irony of having to go to my spam folder because, if there is any mail for me, that’s where I’ll find it.

So I am reading a lot of letters from Bert and his buddies these days. It’s a bit of a nuisance, but on the bright side it is often a revelation to discover the extraordinary and starling ways desperate third-worlders with an internet connection and a penchant for larceny can torture the English language in their attempts to woo the gullible and, one has to suppose, functionally illiterate into revealing their bank details in exchange for virtual titillation.

So until Bert and his ilk discover they can make more money robbing liquor stores, or I become wealthy enough to develop my own, effective spam filter (or at least have enough money to hire people to read my mail for me) I’m afraid finding relevant communications will continue to be a scavenger hunt through spam hell.

But those days may be over sooner than you think: I just received a notification from The National Lottery Board informing me that I have won $87,674,287.37 in the National Lottery. I can’t wait until they deposit the money in my bank account!

Monday, March 01, 2010

Sucking Face

I suppose it’s time to stop bitching about Facebook; it doesn’t show signs of going away any time soon and, I have to admit, I’m beginning to find it useful.

Before you think I’m jumping too enthusiastically on the technology bandwagon, let me assure you I still eschew e-books and think Twitter is a waste of bandwidth. Twitter offers only a tiny part of Facebook’s most used and useful feature, but without any of the bells and whistles. It is a redundancy. It should slink away. Now.

But Facebook, despite still being beyond my understanding, is carving out a cozy corner in my heretofore cold heart. It is actually a time saver, allowing me to hit one page and find out what all my virtual acquaintances are up to in one go. That, to me, is the selling point, and why it is the page I usually hit after my Yahoo mail homepage. It doesn’t take as much time or effort as reading though blog after blog and it lets me catch up on everyone. That said, it is a lot more superficial, but these days, that is probably a bonus.

Logging on to Facebook is like wandering into the school cafeteria at lunchtime. You can see groups of people clustered around different tables, some you know, some you don’t. You can overhear snatches of conversation between your friends and friends of friends. You might even sit down and have a word with one or two of them. Then you leave, content knowing everyone is all right and having a good time and that they know that you are as well.

If, however, you’re looking to sit down over a buttered scone and a cup of tea with one of your closer friends, well then, you need to go somewhere else.

A blog, for instance, where you can ramble on for more than 140 characters, make a point, paint a scene, talk about something important to you in a meaningful way and not be forced to reduce it to, “Got dumped on Saturday. Really sucks. :(“

I was a long time coming to blogs, being happy in my Luddite world of HTML, but once I crossed over, I was hooked. Problem is, now that I am firmly settled in the blogshpere, I find they are, like, so 2008. I thought I was being hip, but I find myself, once again, sitting on the trailing edge of technology.

I just read an article claiming that e-mail will be extinct in another ten years. Seems it is being regarded as too old fashioned. The focus, the article claims, is shifting away from instantly sending a significant chunk of information directly to the person you want it delivered to and more toward broadcasting snippets of news to a wide group of people.

Texting, Facebook, Twitter—that’s what the hip young people are using these days. E-mail is, well, so, 2008.

It makes me want to crawl back to my HTML and hide,

F*&%$@G Facebook.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Now For My Next Trick

Well, I finished the manuscript. 75,000 words in 77 days, and only 988 words off target. I don’t know about you, but I’m well impressed.

The method I used dragged me through the mid-novel slump and even the bit where, when I saw the end looming ahead of me, my fear of what I was going to do once I finished tried to sabotage me by insisting I drag my feet. It didn’t remove those feelings, it was just that I still had to produce until I hit my target. Every single day.

When the last day arrived, I got up at my usual time (5 AM) and just hit the page running, so to speak. It was Saturday, so I didn’t have to stop to go off to work, I just got up, sat down and started writing. About 1,500 words later I found myself typing THE END, and at that exact moment (I’m not making this up) the sun broke over the horizon and lit up the living room.

Not that this was in any way meaningful of portentous, it was just really cool.

And the problem of what to do next has been solved, as well. I always planned to put the manuscript away for a few weeks after finishing it. Despite being eager to get on with it, this step has come highly recommended by many professional writers, so I thought I’d give it a go. The problem was what to do in the mean time. I toyed with the idea of trying a few short stories, but then a new project landed in my lap that is going to take a few weeks. Perfect.

This next phase—-the new project included—-is more about revision and editing than getting words on paper, so I am still wondering how I am going to plot my progress, but I’m sure something will occur to me as get further into it (I’m all about plotting progress).

So I’m off on a new adventure, which is probably going to continue taking much of the time I usually spent surfing the Internet and updating my blogs. I’m not abandoning my on-line presence, just putting it into perspective: do I want to be an Internet personality, or a writer?

Someday, I’d like to be in a position to do both, but as long as I have to make a choice, I know which one I’m going to choose.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Doldrums

Imagine that! A post about writing on a blog that purports to be a writing blog where I write about writing. That’s what I started out to do, at any rate. I guess I got in the way, or, perhaps, I wasn’t doing enough writing.

Currently, I’m enjoying feeling like a writer. Being in the deep throes of a first draft does that to me, especially when I’m pushing through that saggy, middle bit where even successful, bestselling authors claim to grapple with the notion that the manuscript is crap and despair of ever finishing it or, if they do, of making anything coherent out of it. I’m at that phase now, the horse latitudes of the first draft, what marathon runners call The Wall. The good news is, because of The Method, I am not flagging.

Noting again that everyone is different and that what is working for me may be a hindrance to you, I am encouraged by my progress. Forcing myself to reach a specific word limit every day means that, even during these dark days when I would usually do anything to avoid working on the novel, it is still moving forward at the same pace.

The advantages are numerous. The disadvantages are:

- Writing every day means just that. Writing. Every. Day. I don’t get to sleep in and tell myself I don’t have to do anything that day. I must get up. I must face the key board. I must not leave it until X number of words have been produced.

- What I am turning out is not a first draft, but more of a rough draft. I may be giddy with reckless optimism now, but at some point I am going to have to face that pile of words and try to make something out of it. I am trying to trust the process, but I have to admit that occasionally, late at night when I think about what I am proposing to do, my blood runs cold.

- Even though I generally finish my allotted number of words within an hour and a half to two hours, it leaves me drained, and I don’t feel like writing much else the rest of the day. This means my blogs are being neglected and needlessly obligates me to produce forced-sounding posts (like this one) periodically to keep them from feeling abandoned, like a parent who is too busy to get to junior’s oboe recital on time and takes him out for ice cream afterwards as a means of assuaging guilt.

But despite all of the disadvantages, they are mitigated by the fact that they are temporary; I expect to finish the rough draft soon, probably sooner than I had planned. After that, there are many more obstacles to come, but they are for other posts.

Who knows, maybe this writing blog will start to be about writing after all.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Because Even I Can’t Believe It

I’m still enjoying my new toy and, except for a ‘minor hiccup,’ we’re getting on just fine. That minor hiccup, however, was nearly the end of things, and I offer it here as a cautionary tale to benefit us all:

When I got the laptop, I immediately copied my novel directory onto it. Since I no longer had to work on multiple computers, there was no need to constantly copy my novel to a USB drive. (The astute among you already see where this is heading; but wait, it gets worse.)

I spent four days installing software, copying files, tweaking and happily working on my novel. Then, because I had too much time on my hands, I managed to uninstall the video drivers.

There are mitigating circumstances surrounding this, but listing them here would take too much time and would not negate the inescapable fact that it was a boneheaded thing to do. Especially since, as a computer professional, I should know better.

At any rate, I found myself with a perfectly functioning, brand new laptop that would show me nothing but a black screen. It seemed almost amusing at first, until it dawned on me that four days worth of my unbacked up novel were hiding in the dark on the laptop’s hard drive. At my current rate, that’s about 5,000 words gone. Or, more maddeningly, sitting there in front of me but, like a treasure sitting in plain sight in a pitch black storage room, totally inaccessible.

I was sick. I tried everything—safe mode, plugging into an auxiliary monitor, even tinkering with the BIOS. Nothing worked. Not only had I destroyed a two-hundred pound piece of kit, I had lost four days of work, and the worse thing was, I couldn’t blame anyone but myself. I was so frustrated I went to bed at eight o’clock because reality was too harsh to face. Naturally, I didn’t sleep much, but over the course of that sleepless night, I underwent the seven stages of grief and woke to my 5 AM alarm with fresh resolve.

I recalled the last sentence I had written the day before, so I fired up my desktop PC, opened the most up to date novel file, spaced down a few lines and picked up where I had left off, proposing to fill in the gap when time permitted. After a few paragraphs, however, a thought occurred to me: opening my novel involved a series of keystrokes, and I thought I could go through them even with my eyes closed, so to speak.

Not wanting to waste my writing time, but unable to get the absurd notion out of my mind, I opened up the laptop, started at the blank screen and started pressing buttons:

Enter to log on, open a desktop explorer, down, down, right, down, copy, up, up, left, down, down, down, down, paste. My USB port blinked. Something was being copied to it. I put it in the desktop PC and was so incredulous when I saw my novel fold there I thought I must have actually backed it up and just forgot about it. But the timestamp confirmed, I had done it; I had miraculously reached into the black abyss and come out with my novel. I opened it—all the words were there—said a quick prayer of thanks to the writing gods, and got to work.

Later that day I pulled out the laptop’s documentation and there, at the bottom of the last page, was The Command, bracketed with warnings in bold capital letters to never, ever use it except in a dire emergency, as it would restore to laptop to its original state and destroy everything else on the hard drive. This looked like an emergency to me, and my novel was the only thing I had needed to save, so I invoked The Command. Fifteen minutes later, after many “Are you sure?” warnings, my laptop was, literally, good as new.

The subsequent set up, having just recently been done, was repeated in about two hours. Problem solved.

I realize I was luckier than I deserved to be, but the lesson was not lost. I always back up my work to a USB drive after every session now, and I never, ever tinker with the video drivers.

Now if I can just get that mouse driver updated...