Archive | November 2012

Out Of Sequence

Just over a month ago, I posted the opening chapter for my current ‘work in progress’ – a new novel called King’s Port Rock.

I’ve been wanting to write this book for years. I jotted down my first ideas 10 years ago and the idea has been lurking in my head ever since. (Did I mention before that I’m a slow worker?)

I’ve always had projects that I’ve started and ‘temporarily’ put on hold. There are at least two part-written novels in my files that I really, really want to finish one day. Maybe when I can discover a parallel universe or a way of putting time on hold.

But I think one of the reasons this project has taken so long to get going is that I’m trying something slightly new and, for me, a little scary: humour.

I’m not going for the laugh-out-loud, whack my readers on the funny bone approach. What I’m aiming for is something that’s a mixture of wry, quirky and slightly odd. With the occasional daft bit to make you smile.

Whether this is something I can pull off remains to be seen.

My original idea was to post the chapters in sequence as I wrote them and try and get feedback from readers. But I’ve already messed that up.

I finished what was to be the second chapter earlier this month. But then I realised there was something missing. So Strange Cargo has become chapter three and I’m now working on what, I hope, will now be chapter two.

Anyway, if anyone wants a read, please take a look at the King’s Port Rock page – there are PDF downloads for Chapters One and Three. I would love to get any reactions (laughs, smiles, groans and moans) and will let you know when the real Chapter Two is complete!

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Black Friday Bonus

Well, I wasn’t planning any more giveaways this month. But then I remembered it’s holiday time over on the other side of the pond.

In 2010, my wife and I were lucky enough to be in the States for Thanksgiving and were hosted by the lovely Hollingsworth family in Monroe, Louisiana – thanks again, Clay, Connie and Corinne!

Carolyn and I were nearing the end of our mad tandem ride’s American leg. Having been riding 60 and 70 mile days, we were more than happy to stop in Monroe for a couple of nights, stuff ourselves with food and generally move as little as possible.

On our way to Thanksgiving!

We’d not done Thanksgiving before – in fact when planning the trip I’d forgotten the Americans even have a holiday in November! (A mistake I won’t make again.)

I’d certainly never heard of Black Friday and couldn’t understand it when our hosts’ daughter insisted on heading out at about 11pm to go to the sales – dragging her long-suffering mom with her. Feeling extremely full and very content, we were in bed by 10pm and fast asleep by the time Connie and Corrine were hitting the shops.

The other thing I really remember about our Thanksgiving experience was the incredible change in temperature. As you can see above, we were wearing shorts and sandals when we crossed the border from Texas into Louisiana and on our first day in Monroe the air still felt extremely warm and muggy.

But on the evening of Thanksgiving the thermometer plummeted. Taking to the road again on Friday morning, we were kitted out in warm leggings, jackets and gloves. We stayed that night at a motel in Winnsboro and I was amazed to look out the next morning and see thick frost everywhere.

Cycling across the States was a wonderful experience and Thanksgiving brings back memories of just a small part of our journey.

So, whether you’re sitting around stuffed with turkey and unable to move or if you’ve just come back from the sales with a new Kindle then this is for you!

My crime thriller Thin Ice is free from today until Tuesday. It’s the story of young journalist Danny Harper, who wakes up in hospital to find out that the life he remembers no longer seems to exist.

However, he knows things that prove his memories can’t all be false – including information about a serial killer stalking women in his town.

Just click on the links to download a copy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.

I Blames The Government

Well, to be honest, I blame the government for many things. Politicians and bureaucrats deserve my ire for all manner of failings – the state of the economy, the holes in the roads, world peace (or lack of), the price of beer etc.

But my complaint today is about my education. Okay. To be fair that took place some time ago but it was only relatively recently that I spotted one particular gaping great big hole in my knowledge.

For many years – a couple of decades in fact – I happily went through life pretty much ignorant of… GRAMMAR!

Is this how English grammar should be learnt – on a beach in Thailand?

When I was at school in the 1970s, we were taught the difference between a noun, a verb and an adjective and that was about it. (I don’t remember anything being said about adverbs and there was certainly no mention of prepositions, conjunctions, phrasal verbs or any other fancy stuff.)

Anything else we learnt was by absorption – reading and listening to how others used the language.

In many ways it didn’t hold me back. I got a degree, became a journalist, went into PR… communicating in English became my trade. But I was like all those other people who drive cars without ever looking at what’s under the bonnet (or hood if you prefer). I was competent at using English but I didn’t really understand how it worked: its rules or structures.

And as a writer I want to complain. Loudly. Because I was held back by the UK education system AND it spoilt my holiday!

Let me explain: in 2006 an early version of my novel The Vault was read by an editor and I got a report that commented on my overuse of perfect tenses.

At the time I didn’t want to admit my ignorance but the truth was I’d never even heard of a perfect tense, let alone – knowingly – used one in anger.

I let the report slide and life moved on. Then, a couple of years later my wife and I decided to give up our jobs and retrain to teach English as a foreign language (TEFL). We were interviewed by a school in Lisbon and told that although our English was good, our grammar knowledge was… lacking.

But, having given up our nice secure jobs, before attempting the training course we decided to do a bit of travelling. And a few weeks later, there we were: sitting under a palm tree on the beach in Thailand… reading a big, heavy textbook on relative clauses, passive constructions, discourse markers, modal verbs and all this other stuff that quite frankly made my brain ache!

Now, thanks to my TEFL training, I finally know what that editor was on about. And I think that having a better understanding of my language has really helped me analyse and improve my writing. But what I don’t understand is why didn’t they teach me at least some of this stuff at school? How come all these foreigners who come here to learn English are taught more about the rules than we ever were?

If I’d had a decent grounding in grammar my writing might have been much better years ago. Plus, I wouldn’t have had to sit on a beach studying when I’d far rather have been snorkelling!

PS. That’s my wife wearing the bikini in the picture, not me.

Evolution Of Style

I’ve always wanted to be a writer. Actually, I’ve been a writer for around 40 years. (I started young!)

But more than that, I always dreamt of being a published author. Not so much for the fame and fortune – although obviously a steady monthly income from my books would be very welcome.

No, my main motivation has always been a love of making things up. Inventing places and people and situations is one of my favourite forms of entertainment (alongside food, travel, drinking, reading etc). I can devote hours to speculating and pondering: in fact, I spend far too much time thinking about stories and not enough actually writing.

I definitely don’t want fame – not the celebrity, face-in-the-newspapers, kind of fame. What I want is to entertain. Maybe provoke. Inspire people to do something new or look at the world in a slightly different way.

I want to give readers a story or an idea that enables them to escape into an alternative reality: to enjoy some vicarious thrills with me as puppet master. And once it’s over, I’d like my audience to sit back and think ‘wow, shame that’s over’ or ‘that was intriguing’.

I suppose what I’ve craved over the years is recognition. For people to think of me as someone who can create memorable, original stories that move the reader in one way or another.

Trouble is, being a good writer isn’t that easy.

In my early 20s, I became a trainee journalist, working for an old-fashioned weekly newspaper in the town where I’d grown up. Immediately prior to that, apart from fiction, the only writing I’d done was essays on politics and sociology for my degree.

Making the transition to newspapers was a challenge. Instead of waffling on for thousands of words about different ideological theories, I had to boil the who, what, where, when, how and why down into a newpaper report of a few hundred words.

That was tough enough. But some years later I found myself on a daily paper in Plymouth. By this time I was writing news stories of the same complexity in dozens rather than hundreds of words.

Now – depending on your genre – brevity isn’t everything. But what I learnt was that a standard of writing that was okay for a little local paper didn’t cut the mustard on a city daily with frequent deadlines and a lot more pressure.

Writing fiction is the same. What’s okay for a school assignment probably won’t earn you any literary prizes.

I moved house recently and, as mentioned in a previous post, unearthed a box full of old manuscripts and notes. One folder contained a number of short stories written in the early 90s.

I was very proud of those stories at the time. I even sent some to various small press magazines. But looking back now I feel slightly embarrassed and not at all surprised they were rejected.

They’re not terrible. Some have good concepts and nice turns of phrase. But. Overall? They’re simply not good enough. With the benefit of hindsight – and a bit of dispassion – I can see that much of my writing was overly wordy, badly edited and clumsy in both execution and design.

I guess that’s one of the advantages of the years passing: I’m able to look at my younger self’s writing and see its strengths and weaknesses. My stories had promise. But they weren’t good enough: not for publication and not for my current standards.

There is reassurance to be had though. Those old stories offer a kind of yardstick. I look at them and know that I’m a much better writer than 20 years ago.

And, yet again, it emphasizes the fact that becoming a good writer takes work. I’m still learning – and hopefully my peak is to come.

On the other hand, I am now a published author and have had some good reviews. (Some excellent, some good… and some not so good.) Each good review is such a milestone. When someone I’ve never met takes the time to write a review saying how much they enjoyed my stories then I’m already achieving my dream.

Maybe I’m a slow learner but at least I’m evolving!

Puddings Are Go

I normally hate having anything to do with the festive season before the beginning of December. At the very earliest.

Christmas is special. Which is why people who put up decorations in October or November should be strung up with their own tinsel.

But this was important – and in the interests of further cultural exchange, goodwill to all etc – I thought I’d share the following.

A labour of love.

Forget NaNoNooNah and all that nonsense. Today, I made my Christmas puddings. And making the puds is something that falls outside my normal rules. That’s because proper, homemade Christmas puddings are so much better when made a couple of months in advance. (Actually, the middle of November is leaving it a bit late.)

I love Christmas puddings. In fact, I care about them so much I’m going to feed mine little sips of brandy over the next six weeks!

And because I love my fellow bloggers as well, I’m going to share my recipe. (Okay, calling it my recipe is stretching it: it’s a combination of my mum’s recipe and one from Delia Smith but I’ve blended and adapted to suit my tastes.) So here goes:

Huw’s Christmas Pudding Recipe

150g white breadcrumbs, 180g white self-raising flour (sifted), 240g of light brown muscavado sugar, 200g shredded vegetable suet, 1/2 tsp ginger, 1/2 tsp grated nutmeg, 1 tsp mixed spice, 1/2 tsp salt.

Mix these ingredients together in a large bowl. Then add the following, one by one, and keep mixing:

180g sultanas, 180g raisins, 400g currants, 120g mixed peel, 100g blanched almonds, one medium cooking apple (chopped fine or grated), juice and zest of one lemon and one orange, four eggs (beaten), 220ml cider, 4 tbsp brandy.

Once it’s all well stirred, let the mixture stand overnight. The next morning pack into two (1.2 litre) pudding bowls. Cover top with a layer of greaseproof paper then a double layer of aluminum foil and fold it over the rim. Tie in place tightly with string and steam puddings for eight hours.

I like to feed my puddings with a little extra brandy – remove the cover, make some small holes in the pudding and drip the brandy in. Repeat this once a week!

Store in a cool, dry place until wanted. Then steam for two hours and serve with whatever takes your fancy – cream, custard… or brandy sauce. Enjoy. Just don’t mention the ‘C’ word again for a minimum of another 17 days.

Boundaries Disappear

As an author I’ve never really thought about where my readers live. I write because the stories are in my head and I publish in the hope others will enjoy them too.

So far, about 75% of my book sales have been in the UK (where I’m from). Nearly all the rest via Amazon.com. No real surprise. I write in English so, logically, most of my readers are from the UK, US, Canada etc.

But blogging? That’s opened my eyes to a whole new world. Literally.

I’m quite new to blogging. I set up my site at the start of the year – basically as a shop window for my books – but that was it. Since August though, I’ve discovered there’s so much more fun to be had and now post on all kinds of things to do with writing, indie publishing etc.

And thanks to these more regular (and hopefully more interesting) posts, my site traffic, followers and comments have slowly, quietly crept upwards.

But then last week I was Freshly Pressed and… wow! Like going from the slow lane to Mach 10. More visits and comments in two days than over the past three months.

The experience was fascinating (as well as highly gratifying) – and had me glued to all those neat little WordPress tables and graphs for analysing your visitor statistics.

It was wonderful seeing my visitor numbers soar and getting so many comments and such a mix of reactions to my post. (Thank you, thank you!) But what really amazed me was the stats on where my visitors come from.

Top of the list: US and UK. Again no surprise. (Although just because someone’s server is based in the US it don’t necessarily mean they live there.) But looking down the list: in fourth place, India; in sixth place, the Philippines; followed by Indonesia.

Okay, perhaps some visitors were ex-pats, maybe other English teachers like myself. But not all.

From following and visiting other blogs I’ve discovered that there are people everywhere sharing thoughts and insights on all manner of subjects. (Sometimes English isn’t even their first language, making me highly embarrassed by my really sketchy ability when it comes to foreign languages.)

To begin with my blog was about my books. But my attitude and reason for blogging has changed. Now, I’m proud to blog and to share and to visit just for the sake of what blogging allows: a cultural exchange with very few boundaries.

A Defence Of Books

Well. The original idea behind this blog was to promote my novels. But it seems to be taking its own direction!

On Wednesday I was delighted to be Freshly Pressed and see my blog appear on the WordPress.com homepage. Honour indeed.

But slightly ironic as my post – about how writers no longer need a reference library – was listed under ‘technology’ rather than tags on writing or publishing.

So, for my 50th post, I want to turn full circle and write a defence of real books: those big, heavy, paper ones that used to rule our lives.

I’m not criticising e-books and the web. Far from it: I can’t imagine life without my browser and my novels, bar one, are currently on Kindle only.

But for writers (and other researchers), I think it’s dangerous to rely on electronic archives. Because much information on the web is too up to date. Sometimes we want to know about opinions and facts from a particular era. Which is when we need to turn to contemporary sources.

I’m the proud owner of a full set of the 10th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica – 35 volumes written and published over the tail end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.

They’re wonderful old tomes, full of esoteric knowledge and antiquated opinions. There’s everything from elaborate line drawings showing construction details of European military fortresses to a ‘current’ atlas showing the Persian and Austro-Hungarian Empires.

While doing some research for a job for a UK asthma charity I looked at my encyclopedias and found that back in the 19th century some people still recommended tobacco as a way of alleviating asthma!

Looking for information on Cornwall, I found that in the 1890s the main route into the county – crossing Bodmin Moor – had a reputation as one of the bleakest roads in Great Britain.

A cursory web search would never reveal the kind of information above. Yes, the web is fantastic for finding out modern details such as what bullets former Soviet soldiers are likely to have in their guns (I needed to know for The Vault) but real books can’t be beaten for getting your head into a different era.

Plus, those lovely old burgundy bindings on the Britannica do look beautiful when all lined up on my bookcase.

Extra, Charitable Plug

First: apologies to those who’ve been following this blog for a while and have read this before.

Second: an enormous welcome to all you who’ve discovered me thanks to Freshly Pressed… and would you like a free book for the weekend?!

My most recent novel, The Vault, is being given away on Amazon for the next 3 days (Friday to Sunday) – and it’s published in aid of the disaster relief charity ShelterBox (50% of royalties go to them).

It’s a murder mystery set in a small English town, revolving around young schoolboy Adam Strong and his battles with a group of local yobs. Intertwined are three other strands: dead bodies found in a local lake, an armed attack on the home of a reclusive billionaire and a sex offender on the run.

Obviously, free copies don’t raise any money. But, the more downloads the book gets, the higher this raises its profile on Amazon and actual sales should increase.

So, even if you don’t want to read it, please download a copy! (And spread the word if you can.)

Links are here for Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk. You’re also very welcome to buy copies of any of my books at any time!

Thanks, Huw.

PS. No Kindle? No problem – download a free reader for your PC from Amazon – click here.

The Pace Of Change

How life has changed. It used to be so different. Does anyone else remember their shelves groaning under the weight of all those books?

For a writer it’s incredibly easy now. Want to research some obscure topic? Just go to Google and start searching.

But take a moment and – unless you were born any later than say 1990 – remember how it used to be.

Once, I felt quite insecure without my reference books around me. They gave me security. I’m proud of having a fairly wide vocabulary (words are wonderful and I never really understood that time a friend took the mickey out of me for using the word ‘fractious’ in a pub conversation).

But even with all the verbiage that sometimes trips off my tongue there are still occasions when I can’t think of the right word – or the correct spelling.

It never used to be a problem though. I’d simply reach for the reassuring weight of my Oxford English Dictionary, sitting there next to a battered edition of Roget’s Thesaurus, a synonym finder and a copy of Brewer’s Dictionary Of Phrase And Fable. Nearby were various encyclopedias, books on plants and birds, an atlas and assorted travel guides.

All of the above were a fairly standard writer’s library. But where are they now? Mostly in a box in the attic getting mustier and dustier with every year. Superfluous when, with a few clicks on my keyboard, I can find more detailed and up-to-date information online, often far quicker too.

Old technology: 17th century clock in Copenhagen – still working, still beautiful.

What amazes me is how fast, in relative terms, the world has changed. (For those of us living in the developed or the developing worlds anyway.)

My father used to lecture in electronic engineering at the University of Southampton. He started as a lab technician and, back in the late 50s, one of his roles was to go in and switch on the university’s Pegasus computer so its valves had time to warm up before anyone wanted to use it.

Back then Pegasus was the university’s only computer and had its own building. Now, the apps on your mobile phone are way more sophisticated.

In the early 80s I was a student at university and unusual in having my own PC (a cast-off thanks to my dad’s job). Most of my fellow students at that time had never touched a keyboard.

In the late 90s I went on a rather belated gap-year, backpacking around the world. It was truly a voyage into the unknown and I remember the excitement of arriving in bigger cities like Kathmandu and going to the main post office to see if we had letters waiting from family and friends. Phoning home was a major operation. Email was barely heard of. We even sent postcards.

Three years ago I started planning a major charity cycling trip around the world. The difference was incredible. Using Google Maps I could plan the route for each day, calculate distances and even ‘fly’ sections with Google Earth. I contacted hundreds of individuals and organisations in advance, booking up places to stay, talks and media interviews. All done electronically and the information saved on my hard drive.

Researching stories is equally different. For my forthcoming novel Pagan’s Sphinx I was able to check all kind of details without leaving my desk or picking up a book. Facts like sunrise and sunset times for the Western Sahara on particular dates, road numbers in Morocco, what 19th century Egyptologists said about The Great Sphinx at Giza etc.

Technological progress seems endless and I’m sure it must help save the trees but sometimes I miss the real books, the weight and the feel of them.

We also start to take the technology more and more for granted but occasionally it turns round and bites us. Like when I wrote the first draft of this post last night (without remembering to save as I went) and then WordPress had a glitch and I lost the lot!

Maybe I’d better keep hold of those books. Just in case.

I Want To Scream

Just occasionally I hate WordPress.

I had spent a good half an hour writing a post to do with technology, reference books and how life has changed for writers.

Then I went to hit publish and got a failure message. And my words all disappeared, eaten by the ether.

It’s been a long day. I thought about starting again. But I’m not sure I can bring myself to do it.

So. All you get is a brief rant and an apology for the fact I haven’t got anything more productive to say. Maybe tomorrow…

Another Giveaway

Today’s special offer – download a free book and help a deserving charity.

My most recent novel, The Vault, is free on Amazon for the next 48 hours (Friday and Saturday).

It’s a murder mystery set in a small English town, revolving around young schoolboy Adam Strong and his battles with a group of local yobs. Intertwined with Adam’s story are three other strands: the discovery of three bodies in a local lake, an armed attack on the home of a reclusive billionaire and a sex offender on the run.

The Vault has an average rating of 4* on Amazon.com (6 reviews) and 3.8* on Amazon.co.uk (8 reviews).

The book is published in aid of the disaster relief charity ShelterBox– I’m giving 50% of all royalties to the charity.

Obviously, free downloads won’t raise any money BUT the more downloads the book gets, the higher this raises it’s profile and actual sales should also increase.

So, even if you don’t want to read it, please download a copy! (And help spread the word to all your friends, family and other contacts.)

Links are here for Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk.

Thank you, Huw.

PS.It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a Kindle – download a free Kindle reader for your PC from Amazon – click here.

PPS. If you forget, The Vault will also be free next weekend (Friday 9th to Sunday 11th November).