Archive | August 2013

Ancient Giants

The name of England’s New Forest is a bit of a misnomer. It dates back to 1079, when William the Conqueror decided to turn it into a Royal preserve so he and his mates would have a private corner of the country where they could go hunting deer.

I guess that’s one advantage of being a conqueror – you can make up your own rules and decide which bits of the new territory to keep for yourself.

trees03It wasn’t an entirely successful move for the Conqueror’s dynasty though. Just 21 years later, the second Norman king – William Rufus – died in the New Forest after a fellow ‘nobleman’ shot him with an arrow rather than a deer.

It doesn’t sound like William II was that popular. His hunting companions apparently left his body where it fell and his death was described by some church chroniclers as an ‘act of God’ and an appropriate end for a wicked king.trees01Whether he was assassinated or killed by accident is uncertain, although there were many conspiracy theories (nothing wrong with them – fuel for many books).

However, one of the other members of the hunting party was William’s younger brother Henry. Things didn’t go so badly for him. He had himself crowned king a few days later and managed 35 years on the throne.trees02Whatever the truth of how and why William Rufus was killed, the decision to make the New Forest into an exclusive hunting ground has left its mark on this part of the world.

The forest remains as a patchwork of heathland, bogs and woodland. It’s not exactly wild – it’s been managed for centuries – but its depths contain some of the biggest and oldest trees in England. You could almost imagine Robin Hood appearing out of the greenwood… but sadly that’s a different forest in another part of the country.

trees04

Advertisements

Gods & Mortals

robert-plant-young-portrait-led-zepplinIn another life I would be a rock ‘n’ roll god. Ain’t going to happen in this one – I can’t sing to save my life.

Age isn’t necessarily a problem though. Robert Plant celebrates his 65th birthday and, while a little more haggard than when he was the poster boy for Led Zep, he’s still got what it takes.

Robert+Plant(And if just some of the accounts of his years of… er, living life to the full… are true then it’s only surprising he doesn’t look a bit more worn around the edges.)

Sadly, I never got to see Led Zeppelin perform – I’m not quite old enough for that. If he keeps going as he is, though, there’s still a good chance I’ll get to see Robert Plant one day.

Below is Plant performing at last year’s Grammies with Alison Krauss performing a medley of three songs from their 2007 collaboration Raising Sand:

Not bad for a man who – as a UK citizen – can today collect his free bus pass.

If you prefer the old stuff, though, here’s the 2 hour 17 minute film of their Madison Square Gardens concert from 1973, complete with interviews and one or two classic songs.

So, happy birthday, Robert – you’re looking damn good for a man who’s had more than 40 years as a rock god!

robert-plant-gal

No Dangling Or Squinting, Please

I used to think English was easy. I spoke it and I wrote in it. End of story.

Sure, there are some weird spellings but that’s because, as a language, it’s a bit of a mash-up. Some words come from Latin, some are Anglo Saxon, there’s a dash of French, a few words stolen from Gaelic, Hindi etc. But having this rich and varied vocabulary is what makes English such a pleasure to use.

It’s a language that can be extremely flexible and subtle. You can write one sentence in many different ways, with a wide choice of words and the end results may all say exactly the same thing – or all be slightly different. A lot of English words have many different nuances depending on how they’re used.

But that’s just vocabulary.

A few years ago, I retrained to teach English as a foreign language and realised I was only scratching the surface with my knowledge.

Apart from the difference between noun, verb and adjective, I wasn’t taught any grammar at school. At the age of 40-plus, I had never heard of past participles, let alone the workings of passive or perfect tenses, future conditionals or non-dependent relative clauses.

Now – having decided to teach this stuff for a living – I’ve got a much better grasp of the mechanics of English. However, the learning curve certainly isn’t over.

This week, I’ve been using a programme called Grammarly to analyse some of my writing – and have discovered even more esoteric terms to bandy around!

Grammarly flagged up a few of my sentences and questioned whether they contained ‘dangling’ or ‘squinting modifiers’. Huh?! I know what a modifier is but ‘dangling’ and ‘squinting’?

Anyway, I’m now a bit wiser so in case you want to know, here goes:

A ‘dangling modifier’ is one that isn’t obviously linked to the main clause in a sentence. For example:

Aged five, my parents bought a house.

Obviously, the parents weren’t five and this is a problem with context. The modifier ‘aged five’ relates to the person who is the main subject of the text as a whole, but isn’t mentioned in this particular sentence.

A ‘squinting modifier’ is one that could apply to either the part of a sentence immediately before it or the part that follows. For example:

‘Doing fifty press ups rapidly builds up your muscles.’

Does this mean you’re supposed to do the press ups fast, or are we talking about how quickly your muscles grow?

Whether a writer really needs to know and understand all these terms is a matter of debate. The good thing, though, is that setting Grammarly on my writing is making me look a lot more closely at my words. Am I saying what I want to say… and will others understand it how I mean them to understand it?

It’s an ongoing battle but one worth fighting. Even if you can afford to pay a professional editor, as a writer I’d say it’s still worth getting down to the nuts and bolts of the English language.  If I understand how my language works, that can only improve my ability to express myself and make me a better writer.

Time To Sit Back?

I’ve reached a bit of a hiatus with my current project – the first draft of my next novel is complete and I’ve sent copies out to my current team of beta readers.

So, now what do I do? Reaching the end of a novel should leave me with a great feeling of accomplishment but I also feel slightly empty.

I could get on with some editing work, using the Grammarly programme I wrote a post about recently. But I’m having trouble getting motivated. Besides, until I get some feedback from my betas, I’m not sure whether or not I’m going to be doing any extensive rewrites and it probably makes more sense to leave any editing until after that.

There’s only one thing for it. I’m going to have to get on with the job that I probably hate most – marketing my already published novels!

I’ve got plans – including a competition I’m going to launch properly next month. I’m also hoping to set up some author interviews and maybe some guest posts on other blogs, plus some price promotions. All necessary stuff – just need to get my finger out! On the other hand, it’s probably not worth rushing as so many people are still on holiday.

Anyway, in the meantime, here’s another picture of Mali – aka the Tasmanian Devil.mali snap

Curing Writer’s Block

I’ve noticed a few posts recently on the subject of writer’s block so – for what they’re worth – I thought I’d offer my ideas for how to overcome it.

Before you read any further, though, I’ve got to point out that I’m not claiming to have any miracle cure. These just happen to be things that work for me:

1. Write something different. Just because inspiration has totally dried up for your novel/story/poem, this doesn’t mean you can’t write anything.

Many authors – most of them far more famous and successful than me – will tell you that to be a writer, the most important thing is to write.

So, write a blog post, write an email to a friend you haven’t been in touch with for ages, write a real letter (remember them) to your grandmother/mother/old teacher. Alternatively write to the your local newspaper with a rant about something that winds you up. Write a diary.

Whatever you write, any kind of writing is an opportunity to practice useful skills – the ability to write proper like what I does, to stretch your vocabulary, paraphrase, summarise, etc, etc.

2. Edit. If nothing new is coming to you, don’t waste time getting frustrated but use it to go back and spend some time editing previous chapters/stories/poems.

Looking back at what you wrote six months ago might help you get back in the flow and stimulate new ideas. And if it doesn’t? Well, at least you might spot some of the embarrassing typos in your first chapters.

3. Get out and sweat! Personally, I find my best story ideas come when I’m running or cycling. There’s something about those kinds of exercise that I find extremely therapeutic.

I think one reason that it really helps to get up and going out for a run or a ride is that it forces you away from the problem. I’m not consciously thinking about much except where to put my feet or which way to go.

For me, if I’m suffering from writer’s block then sitting staring at my laptop screen trying to make my brain come up with something creative is the worst thing I can do. If I’m running or cycling then my conscious is pretty well occupied – giving my subconscious time to relax and let out all the ideas that have been bottled up.

4. Read. If the writing just isn’t happening then don’t force it. Go and read someone else’s work. A good read can take your mind off your own frustrations, help you relax and maybe even inspire you with some fresh ideas.

Any other thoughts? I also think that the worst thing to do is to get stressed about it. So, you’ve got writer’s block? Well, everyone gets it. It’s a phase, it will pass… but the more you worry, the longer it will take.

And, tempting though it may be, the answer is not more coffee/alcohol or other stimulants. They may get your brain buzzing but they probably won’t have much effect on your creativity.

That’s my thoughts. Any other cures or observations?

Random Acts Of Kindness 01

It was only the third day of our journey. We’d left Vancouver on Sunday and, so far, travelled the grand total of 116 miles.T10Can05Not really a big deal. Apart from the fact that we weren’t in a car but riding a tandem loaded with four panniers and a bar bag. Plus we were towing a big green plastic box on a bike trailer containing camping gear and other equipment.T10Can01

Still not really a big deal. Except that for us this was just the warm up. We’d flown from the UK with our tandem and the end point for this leg of the journey was Tampa, Florida.

I reckoned we had about 4,500 miles of cycling ahead of us and until just before Christmas to get to Tampa. All on our tandem. Now that was scary.

At this very early stage, we knew it was going to be an adventure but most of what lay ahead was a complete mystery.

However, getting to the end of day three was significant. We were camping at a small town called Hope. To get here, we’d ridden roughly east through fairly gentle terrain. Tomorrow, we turned north into the Fraser Canyon and some much tougher riding.

T10Can02Hope was also significant for another reason. It was where we experienced one of the first acts of random kindness that became such a feature of our journey.

We’d spent over a year planning this journey and tried to think of everything. But feeling pretty weary on getting to Hope, we didn’t think things through when we went shopping for our evening meal.

We were back at the campsite about to start cooking when we suddenly realised we’d bought tins without ring pull tops – and we didn’t have a tin-opener!

Not a major deal. I wandered around the campsite until we found some other campers who could lend us one.

After dinner, we turned in early, knowing we had a long day ahead of us. The next morning, we were the first up on the campsite and I started getting the bike ready for that day’s ride – which is when I found a brand-new tin-opener, still in its packaging sitting on top of our trailer!T10Can03

Now buying a pair of strangers a tin-opener might seem a pretty minor act of generosity to some but it made our day. We never got a chance to thank the people who’d given it to us – we wanted to get on the road and thought they might not appreciate being woken at the crack of dawn just so we could say thanks.

But we still remember that act of kindness regularly. This journey took place in 2010 – the first part of a year-long bike ride that also took us through New Zealand, Australia and a chunk of northern Europe – and it was the first of many such acts that we experienced, all of them helping to reaffirm our belief in human nature.

There are many good people out there, doing kind things that go generally unreported.The world needs such people. We should treasure them.

T10Can04

Life Is Amazing

We’ve come away for the weekend to see my sister’s new puppy… sorry, I should say to visit my sister, her husband and the new puppy!

pup0Mali is about as cute as an eight-week-old border collie pup can be. A bundle of fur with a fat belly, innocent eyes… and sharp little teeth.

pup2

Carolyn and Mali get to know each other.

One of the best things about a young puppy, though, is just watching it. Everything is new. The whole world is there to be licked, chewed, sniffed, pounced on, wrestled with and explored.

pup6Somethings, like garden hoses, are definitely dangerous and need to be subdued:

pup3pup4pup7Other new experiences – like her first bath – are a bit more traumatic!

pup5pup9But at this age, bad things are quickly forgotten. A moving leaf, a wriggling toe… or catching a glimpse of her own tail are enough to make her forget the nasty bath.

And when all the excitement gets too much, it’s time to crash!

pup1

It’s a wonderful life when everything is new. It’s a shame that as we humans get older we often forget how amazing the world is. Maybe we all need to discover our inner puppy (or kitten – if you really must) and get out there to explore the world anew with unjaded eyes.

Timely Intervention

I’m about to test a new stage in my editing process – using a programme called Grammarly to check my ability to construct ‘proper’ sentences. 

It’s good timing. A couple of weeks ago, I saw a post by Australian author Belinda Williams about Grammarly – which I must admit I’d never heard of before.

Anyway, the post she’d written made it sound interesting – and included a giveaway for a three-month trial.

Seemed like good timing as I’d almost completed the first draft of my next novel, which means the next stage is some extensive editing, proofreading etc.

Grammarly – despite the pretty ugly name – claims to be “the world’s most accurate English grammar checker” so I’m going to let it lose on Church of the White Rabbits and see what it makes of my new book!

They also say:

“Grammarly improves communication among the world’s 2+ billion native and non-native English writers. Our flagship product, the Grammarly® Editor, corrects contextual spelling mistakes, checks for more than 250 common grammar errors, enhances vocabulary usage, and provides citation suggestions.”

The first hitch I’ve found is that I wanted to download the programme onto my laptop and integrate it with MS Word. However, I’m running an older version of Word and that’s no longer supported by Grammarly.

So, it’s the online version for me.

Initially, I tried uploading the whole novel (about 300 pages) but that seems to be asking a bit too much. Grammarly says it takes a maximum of 20 pages so I’m going to have to do it in bits. Seems a bit of a pain but it will be interesting to see what the programme flags up.

Oh well, the programme’s claims all sound great. I’ll report back on progress!

NB. I’m not sure if Belinda has given away all her copies of Grammarly, so if anyone else is interested, it might be worth checking out her post

Avoiding Amazon’s Double-Whammy On Tax!

Yes, the title’s a bit of a mouthful but this post contains vital information for any non-US authors wanting to get ALL their royalties from Amazon.

Earlier this year I found out the hard way that – unless you’ve completed the right paperwork – Amazon withholds 30% of royalties from all sales on Amazon.com for anyone without an American tax exemption number.

There’s NO way round this. Even though, as a British citizen, my country has a reciprocal tax treaty with the US, the onus is on me to prove why I shouldn’t pay tax in the US. (Despite the fact I’ll pay tax in the UK anyway.)

It’s also worth pointing out that Amazon do NOT refund tax that has previously been withheld. They will only pay all your royalties ONCE you have a tax exemption number and they have received the relevant form.

Amazon do provide advice on this among the FAQs on the KDP publishing site but it’s not exactly obvious and the instructions on how to complete all the paperwork are pretty vague and confusing.

Don’t get an ITIN

As detailed in a previous post – Death & Taxes – the information provided by KDP made me think I needed to get an ITIN number from the American IRS, which would have involved taking my passport to the US Embassy to prove my identity!

Luckily, fellow author Samantha Holt set me right and the information below is a rehash of an extremely helpful post she made in November last year.

The most important point is that you do NOT need an ITIN number.

Instead, an EIN number can be obtained by making a single phone call to the US. (I estimate this cost me about £3 in call charges rather than the £35 it would have cost me to get to London on the train, not to mention taking a lot less time!)

Applying for an EIN

You need to apply for an EIN as a foreign entity and sole proprietor. Here’s the process:

1. Call 001 67941 1099 – bearing in mind the time difference and office hours! (I called at about 2pm British time.)

2. Select the right option for applying for an EIN as a foreign entity.  (It was #1 when I called.)

3. You may be asked if you have filled out an SS-4 form. This is not necessary – says so on the IRS website. (The person I spoke to said it might have been ‘helpful’ but it could all be done on the phone.)

4. Explain that you are a sole proprietor.

5. You will need to spell out your name, address etc very carefully and slowly – they will, however, read it all back to you.

6. You will then be given an EIN number over the phone. An official copy will come in the post several weeks later.

The whole process – including waiting on hold for ages – took about 30 minutes for me. Samantha got it done in less than half the time despite her Scottish accent!

What next

Once you have your EIN number you then need to complete a W8-BEN form. KDP provide an example of a completed form or there are detailed instructions for completing it here.

Now send the completed form, with a covering letter to: Amazon.com, c/o AP Tax,  PO Box 80683,  Seattle, WA 98108-0683, USA.

If Amazon receive your form before 10th of the month, you will get full royalties for that month. If it arrives later, it will only come into effect for the next month’s royalties. (I sent mine off last month and got an email confirmation from Amazon soon after so I’m looking forward to getting ALL my royalties from August on!)

Good luck.

Brutality Works

I was in the shrubbery today. Working with shears, secateurs and – for the really big bits – a pair of heavy-duty loppers that will cut through branches as thick as my wrist.

The first bush I tackled was a rhododendron. It looked quite good but hadn’t been cut back for years and was taking up too much space.

To begin, I was quite careful: just cutting away a few outer branches until I could see what was behind. Then I got progressively more brutal. There was lots of dead wood in the centre and not much life. Plus I realised the rhododendron was blocking out a hydrangea that was just coming into flower.

Half an hour later, the rhododendron was half its previous size. The thing is, though, it now looks better. The straggly, intertwined jungle is no more. Rhododendrons are tough. It still has plenty of strong growth at the base and will soon send out new shoots. In the meantime, the hydrangea can show off its blooms – and get a much bigger share of the light.

All of which is a good metaphor for how to edit a book.

Can't see the shrubbery for the rhododendron.

Can’t see the shrubbery for the rhododendron.

When I write, I concentrate on getting the story out. That’s the most important thing. I start at the beginning and work through to the end. (I have a rough plan, mostly in my head, but all sorts of things generally develop along the way).

But getting to the last page is only the end of the first step. Then it’s time to get the book ready for readers and less is nearly always more.

Stories take many forms. They grow from the seeds that are our ideas. Sometimes they grow fast and straight, sometimes they twist and turn into convoluted shapes.

But it’s essential we make sure they’re not full of deadwood, broken branches… or have simply grown too big. (I’ve just finished reading an historical epic by a well-known author; a great story in many ways but extremely over-blown and full of so many obscure words that sometimes the sense of the narrative was lost.)

So, when editing, it’s important not to be afraid to prune hard. All authors will have turns of phrase, bits of description, snatches of dialogue that we are loathe to throw away but it’s important to think about whether they really add to the story.

It can be a hard thing to do – and I probably should be more ruthless with my own work! – but sometimes being a bit brutal with our work can actually be the best thing for it.