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Read Carefully – Scam Warning

This has nothing to do with writing in general but is a warning to any fellow writers – and other self-employed people – who deal with their own tax affairs, particularly UK residents.

I just had an email purporting to come from HM Revenue & Customs to tell me I was owed a tax rebate of nearly £400.

Great! Just what I like to hear…

The email also looked authentic. It was VERY, VERY good. The message appeared to have come from an HMRC government address.

Except – ignoring my momentary enthusiasm for the Government giving me some money back – a couple of alarm bells began to ring.

Firstly, I was pretty sure I wasn’t owed any money! (I only recently completed a tax return and I haven’t paid enough tax to get that kind of rebate.)

Secondly, it was asking me to download a web form so I could claim my money back. (Why wasn’t it directing me to the HMRC website where I submit my tax return?)

Thirdly – and crucially – there were two minor but telling spelling mistakes that made me realise the email hadn’t been written by a native English speaker! (And, whatever you may think of the Government, their spelling is normally spot on.)

I won’t reveal what the spelling mistakes were as I don’t want to help these people. But there’s a clear message here – beware Greeks bearing gifts, always looks a gift horse in the mouth… and read everything carefully – particularly offers that sound too good to be true.

Have a good weekend and may it stop raining soon!

The Mystery of NASA

Here’s a New Year puzzler. Nothing to do with space exploration but on the vagaries of the English language.

I’ve been teaching a Polish student recently and was doing some work on the use of articles – a, an and the – when talking about ‘things’.

Some rules are easy to explain – we put a or an in front of singular nouns when talking about something that we’re introducing for the first time, when the thing is one of many etc. The goes in front of plural nouns or when the individual thing is unique or we know specifically what we’re talking about.

We also don’t use an article (often confusing referred to as the zero article) when referring to certain things, including countries, people, concepts, types of things and some geographical features.

For example:

Agreen-skinned man from _ Mars was discussing _ politics as he had _ lunch with thePope on _ Thursday, while sailing a boat across _ Lake Chad in preparation for his crossing of theAtlantic Ocean.

It seems obvious when it’s your own language but believe me it’s not that simple for people learning English for the first time. A lot of my students would probably put the in front of Mars, politics, lunch and Thursday.

(I got confused when trying to learn Portuguese as they put the in front of proper names!)

But what’s got me really puzzled is NASA (and FIFA). Normally, with acronyms for organisations we follow the same pattern as if we spelt the name out in full, e.g. the BBC and the FBI but _ IBM.

So far so good. But can anyone explain why we talk about the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (and the Fédération Internationale de Football Association) but not the NASA? I thought for a while it was to do with collective nouns but how does that work with the CIA and the RAF.

Answers on a postcard please…

We Have Not Seen Him…

There have been so many tributes to Nelson Mandela but this has got to be one of the most touching.

The Soweto Gospel Choir teamed up with the Woolworths supermarket in Johannesburg for a flash mob-style performance of Asimbonga – a song written while Mandela was in prison.

Asimbonanga [we have not seen him]
Asimbonang’ uMandela thina [we have not seen Mandela]
Laph’ekhona [in the place where he is]
Laph’ehleli khona [in the place where he is kept]

Asimbonanga
Asimbonang ‘umfowethu thina [we have not seen our brother]
Laph’ekhona [in the place where he is]
Laph’wafela khona [in the place where he died]
Sithi: Hey, wena [We say: hey, you]
Hey, wena nawe [Hey, you and you]
Siyofika nini la’ siyakhona [when will we arrive at our destination]

Just listen… and remember what the man achieved and stood for:

Final Chances

Want to support a great charity AND win Amazon gift cards, books and other prizes? If so, you’ve got five days left!

My ‘Unlock The Vault’ competition has been running for several months now but I’m declaring a deadline of Friday 13th December for final entries.

To enter, all you need to do is donate a minimum of £1/$1 etc to the disaster relief charity ShelterBox and answer three easy questions – I’ve been put clues on the competition page to make life easier for you!

I’ve actually had an embarrassingly low level of entries so far so anyone who enters over the next five days probably stands a very good chance of winning a prize!

haiyanShelterBox is aiming to rehouse 4,000 families left homeless by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines – as well as continuing to help victims of the ongoing conflict in Syria, people made homeless by flooding in the Sudan etc, etc.

Go on enter the competition… it’s the season of goodwill and giving. You know you want to.

Alternatively…

You’ve missed the chance to snap up my award-winning debut novel for £0.99/$0.99 but The Tale of Findo Gask is available on Kindle for $1.99 or £1.99 up until Thursday. (Normal price $4.90 or £3.99.)

Findo cover

This is the book that won the UK’s 2005 Undiscovered Authors contest and is – basically – a book about whether we should expect people to obey our rules if they don’t have a stake in society.

It’s also a roller coaster adventure, a book about young love and the story of a boy who becomes a thief because he doesn’t have many other options.

It’s got 4.2* on Amazon.com and 4.5* on Amazon.co.uk – if it sounds like your kind of thing, please click here.

Thou Art A Cottage Cheese, Fustilarian Bounder!

Ahh. You can’t beat a good insult. Shakespeare was definitely the master.

InsultsSome Shakespearean insults are short and to the point: Thou art like a toad; ugly and venemous. (As You Like It)

Others more of a rant: A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson, glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue; one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch: one whom I will beat into clamorous whining, if thou deniest the least syllable of thy addition. (King Lear)

Even when we don’t understand the exact meaning, we get the message from the general tone.

Of course, there have been other famous ‘insulters’ over the years. Winston Churchill was famous for his acid comebacks, as was Groucho Marx with lines like: “She got her good looks from her father. He’s a plastic surgeon.”

But while some insults depend on wit, others are to do with the words used. And, like other parts of the language, insults go out of fashion.

There was a feature on the BBC website a couple of days ago after former international footballer turned TV presenter Gary Lineker referred to a thief who stole his mum’s car as a ‘rotter’.

The word is a bit of a throwback to the earlier part of the previous century and the BBC feature looked at some other insults that have fallen out of fashion.

Some insults also depend on where you come from. I was re-watching series two of The Wire recently and had to blink when drug gang hard man Cheese yelled out at a rival: “You cottage cheese chest ass motherf***er!”

I’m sorry? What! I mean, ‘Cheese’ is a bit of an odd name for a hard man but surely he could have said something a bit less… bizarre?

Anyone got any explanations? Or examples of other inspiring or weird insults?

As an aside, for anyone else who believes The Wire to be the best TV drama ever made – they could run degree courses based on the writing in this series – here’s a treat. A 10-minute compilation of some of its (many) best lines. Enjoy:

Riddle Of The Not-Quite Free Sphinx

Hello again. Haven’t been around this blog much recently. Not really sure why – partly perhaps because I’ve been working on my Portuguese cycling site. (I’m a man of diverse interests).

No, not tombs but ranks of 'espigueiros' in northern Portugal. Traditional stores built for drying and holding maize cobs.

No, not tombs but ranks of ‘espigueiros’ in northern Portugal. Traditional stores built for drying and holding maize cobs.

Anyway…

Have to quickly mention that the Kindle version of my adventure novel Pagan’s Sphinx is on a price promotion. If you fancy an armchair adventure searching the deserts of North Africa for a lost ancient statue then this might be up your street. (4.4* on Amazon.com from 27 reviews.)

Pagan's Sphinx smThis one is written under the pen name William Webster – my inner Indiana Jones. A dash of history (real and possible), some intrigue, a hefty helping of romance and plenty of excitement. It’s on offer for $0.99 or £0.99 for the rest of the day – then goes up to 1.99 until Thursday. Get it here.

Fellow indie authors might have twigged that I’m trying out Amazon’s new Kindle Countdown Deal (KCD) option. Until recently, if you signed up to Amazon’s KDP Select, you were allowed to give your book away free for five days every quarter as a way of getting more readers.

The disadvantages of this option are: a) you make no money and b) free downloads don’t count as sales so do nothing for your ranking.

The KCD option lets you offer your book from as low as $0.99 for one week. The big advantages being: a) you make (some) money and b) your sales (presumably) do count.

I’ve seen some book promotion websites describing KCDs as ‘the new free’. Although £0.99 isn’t quite my definition of free, I understand what they’re getting at. So many authors are now self-publishing on Kindle that offering your book on a five-day free promotion is no longer enough to get you noticed. There are tens of thousands of others doing the same thing.

Which is why I decided to shell out a bit of money on a couple of these book promotion websites. I paid $50 for a feature on BargainBooksy (who boast an email subscriber list of 50,000) and $4.99 for a feature on PeopleReads.

The first promotion went out on Friday and generated a certain level of sales. Not huge but certainly an improvement. The second one began this morning – and will be followed up with a Facebook post and email to subscribers. If anyone’s interested in the details, I’ll let you know more at the end of the week!

In return, any advice on other effective sites for promoting KCDs would be most welcome.

(I’m one of those people who am on Twitter but still haven’t really got my head around how it works. Or – to be quite honest – the point of it. However, I’ve already had two tweets of my book from PeopleReads – and dozens of people have retweeted. I’ll be checking my sales figures…)

Competition link

What More Reason Do You Need?

Please... I need a home!

Please… I need a home!

Some of you might have noticed the competition I’m running. This little bear is one of the prizes on offer, along with boring stuff like Amazon gift cards and copies of my books.

It’s in aid of the disaster relief charity ShelterBox, which provides emergency shelter and other essential aid to families that have lost their homes.

With what’s happened in the Philippines, the reason for this competition is even more important.

ShelterBox was already working in the Philippines when Typhoon Haiyan hit – they’d been helping families that lost their homes after an earthquake wiped out thousands of homes in an area called Bohol. Below is a short report from one of their team members who’s currently on the ground trying to get aid out to the typhoon victims:

So, please, take part in the competition – all proceeds go to ShelterBox. (As do 50% of royalties from my book The Vault.)

PS. Whether you’re a fellow writer or just want to do your bit, you can also help by sharing this post or putting a link to my competition on Facebook etc!

Medicinal Failure

I’ve failed. I set out to go dry for a month and managed just three weeks without alcohol.

Isle-of-Jura-SuperstitionI’ve got an excuse though. A damn good one as far as I’m concerned too. I would like it known that I abandoned my attempt for medicinal reasons.

The background is that Macmillan Cancer Care were trying to encourage people to give up booze for October and donate money to them instead.

Me and Carolyn were going to Portugal on holiday for the first two weeks of October so giving up for the month was impossible. Obviously.

But, we decided that we would go teetotal for a month from the day we got back. No particular reason other than to see how hard it would be, maybe lose some weight, feel righteous (and dry out a little after the holiday). Oh, and give a bit of cash to charity.

Anyway, it wasn’t that hard. The worst part was ‘gin-and-tonic-time’ on Friday afternoon. Get through that without a drink and the rest of the weekend wasn’t soo bad.

Last week, though, I came down with a really filthy cold that my loving wife had passed on. Then Carolyn pointed out that she hadn’t lost a pound of weight even after three weeks with no booze. (Although it is just possible that the extra time we’ve been spending in the gym is to blame as muscle – so I’m told – weighs more than fat.)

But that’s when I decided enough was enough. I’d just had my first cold in about a year despite having been exposed to all sorts of sniffling students over the past 12 months and the weight loss factor didn’t seem to be working. Stupid, huh! I was healthier drinking alcohol!

So: experiment officially over. I have made a donation to Macmillan anyway… and can now look forward to next Friday afternoon and dream of those clinking ice cubes, the tang of lime, the fizz of the tonic and… ah… the joy of gin. To be followed by a glass or two of wine and, if I’m feeling really indulgent, a snifter of whisky to round off the evening.

In the meantime, I’ve got a reasonably busy week ahead – a combination of editing work at the newspaper and planting some trees for a gardening client. And I’m getting there with the re-edit of Thin Ice. Then I can concentrate on the new title and cover… and then let myself think about the next writing project. Maybe with a glass of something at my side.

Paper Books v Ebooks

Is this an argument against e-publishing? I couldn’t imagine anyone doing this with Kindles, Nooks etc.

(Click on the picture to see what’s happening.)

A Lullaby For Pain

Listening to the radio this morning there was an item about whether the sound of a lullaby can actually take away a child’s pain.

A study at London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital has showed that playing music to children waiting for heart transplants can actually reduce pain, slow heart rates and improve moods.

The BBC report included the following explanation:

One of the study’s authors, David Hargreaves, of Roehampton University, is a jazz pianist as well as professor of music psychology.

As he sits playing a jazz interpretation of My Funny Valentine, he says the piece calms him down and makes him happy.

He says that kind of connection with music is shared even by young children: “Lullabies are something that children are familiar with. They’re intended by parents to be used with their children to create relaxation and remove tension.”

It’s the kind of thing that intuitively makes sense but now researchers have some hard facts to back up the idea. (For the full BBC report, go here – apparently lullabies date back to Babylonian times).

Listening to the report, my mind went off on a bit of a tangent (as it’s prone to do) and I wondered if that ‘dealing with pain’ is another of the (many) reasons why teenagers spend so long listening to music.

Growing up can be traumatic and I certainly spent many, many, many hours shut away listing to ‘my’ music. I wasn’t in physical pain but angst and emotional confusion also need treatment and music played a big role in mine.

Music certainly affects mood. I used to love listening to dark, tormented tunes when I was feeling low – knowing other people felt the same way helped me deal my own emotions. Equally, there are some tunes that just make me feel good the moment I hear the first notes.

LouReed03PA090112On a sadder note, there’s been lots of coverage of the passing of Lou Reed. Now, there’s a man who’s music I’ve spent a lot of time listening to.

Though I do get a little bit annoyed by all the radio stations who play Perfect Day and Walk On The Wild Side – okay they were his biggest commercial hits but to my mind they’re not the important songs.

This is Reed and David Bowie performing the Velvet Underground’s White Light, White Heat – important to note that although Bowie went on to become (and remain) the global mega-star, in the beginning it was Reed that influenced Bowie:

If you want something a bit closer to the knuckle, here’s I Wanna Be Black from 1978. Recorded in Cleveland, there aren’t many people who could get away with these lyrics:

I love most of Lou Reed’s work but one of my favourite albums – and one that I was lucky enough to see him perform – remains Magic & Loss. This is Sword Of Damocles: