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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!

Title Dilemma

Why is it that one of the hardest parts about writing a book is also what should be one of the simplest?

I’m talking about titles. I can write thousands of words of dialogue or action without (too) much difficulty. But coming up with an effective, snappy title often seems a much tougher challenge.

Thin IceI’ve been working on a rewrite for my paranormal thriller Thin Ice. The book got a reasonable rating on Amazon (4*) after it was first published in 2012 but the original climax confused a number of readers.

As a result, I’ve decided to rework the ending – not changing it but explained things a bit more. (That’s another problem with being an author; just because everything makes sense to you that doesn’t mean it’s equally obvious to your readers – you’ve got to ensure that what’s going on inside your head makes it to the page in a way others can follow).

Anyway, I’m using the opportunity to give the book a thorough re-edit at the same time. And, as the new version will be a bit different, I’ve decided to also give the novel a new title.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Thin Ice but – apart from it being a new version – there are lots of other books (mostly related to ice skating) that use the same title.

Aaargh! Not only have I got to come up with an intriguing new title but I’ve also got to find one that no one else has used before. Not easy.

Oh. And then I’ll have to produce a new cover. Anyone know any good artists?

There’s A Bear Tap-Dancing

I love the English language. Partly for all those wonderful words we’ve got – ones like ‘rambunctious’, ‘disgruntled’, ‘fractious’ and ‘bellicose’.

But individual words are only part of it. Then there are all those marvellous idioms – some of which make sense (kind of) and some of which seem just plain mad.

It’s only since I started teaching English to foreigners that I’ve realised how confusing our language can be. Not only do my students have to cope with all those inconsistencies and weird spellings, they’ve also got to get their heads around phrases such as ‘like water off a duck’s back‘ and ‘as sick as a parrot‘.

Some idioms are fairly obvious – ‘it’s just a drop in the ocean‘ or ‘to get a taste of your own medicine‘ don’t take that much working out.

But what about ‘having a chip on your shoulder‘? Or ‘a back of a fag packet calculation‘? (You’ve also got to know the difference between British and American English for that one!)

With stronger students, I like trying to teach them plenty of idioms. A couple that always get a smile are ‘to kick the bucket‘ and ‘he’s pushing up the daisies‘.

But it’s not just us English speakers who pepper our language with strange sayings. There’s a post on the Oxford Dictionaries blog all about German idioms. Apparently, if you want to encourage someone to come along to a party, you tell them there’s going to be a tap-dancing bear there. Logical really. Who wouldn’t want to see a tap-dancing bear.

As for the video below, it’s got nothing to do with idioms but it appealed to my sense of humour!

I Told You I Was Ill

So, how would you like to be remembered? What words of wisdom – or wit – will pass your lips as you breathe your last?

SpikeYou’d think that writers, being people who work with words all the time, would have  the best last lines but it ain’t necessarily so.

Musicians, criminals, politicians – you name it – all kinds of people have had their approach to departing this world go down in history. And they show considerable range:

American boxer Max Baer’s final utterance could suggest fear or excitement: “Oh God! Here I go.”

By contrast, Winston Churchill’s last words are said to have been: “I’m so bored with it all.”

For a selflessly practical approach, Lewis Carroll went out with: “Take away those pillows. I shall need them no more.”

Unfortunately for some, their last words prove to be ones they might have regretted. Such as John Sedgwick, an American Civil War general, who – shortly before being killed by a sniper – announced: “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”

However, one of the pithiest responses to the Grim Reaper’s approach came from Alexander Graham Bell who just said: “No.”

Although not last words as such, I’ve always liked the epitaph on Spike Milligan’s gravestone, which reads: “I told you I was ill.”

It’s a bit of a morbid subject – hopefully none of us will have to worry about how we’re remembered for a while yet – but this post was prompted by a short quiz about famous last words on the BBC’s website.

The quiz was written in response to the last words of Irish poet Seamus Heaney who died very recently. I think I scored four out of seven. See if you can do better – click here.

I’m not sure what my last words would be. Probably, something along the lines of: “I can’t go yet, I’ve got a book to finish.”

Multiple Intelligences

As a teacher, one thing that’s drummed into you while you’re learning how to teach is that different people learn in different ways.

It’s an idea that I think could also be applied to readers – and used by authors thinking about how to target their books to a particular audience.

learning practical

Like all things to do with education, there’s a huge amount written on the subject – including a lot of jargon. (Educators just love complex theories that baffle the uninitiated.)

But the basic concept is pretty straightforward. For example, I like to learn through a mixture of reading, listening and doing. I don’t have a lot of patience with instruction sheets – I’m like the boy in the picture above, although I will look at the instructions when I’m not sure what to do next (or when it’s all gone wrong).

There are lots of terms that get bandied around but the important one here is multiple intelligences. This is the theory that the brain uses a number of different pathways to learn – and we each combine these ‘intelligences’ in different ratios.

The terms and number of intelligences vary. Some people list three main ones: auditory, visual and tactile. Others – like in the chart below – are more complex:learning multiple-intelligences-infographicBut the other day I started wondering whether we, as writers, can also apply the theory to our readers?

After all, everyone knows that literature is extremely subjective. Something that’s a work of art to me may well leave another person cold.

How much of that, though, is a reflection of our multiple intelligences? People don’t just learn in different ways, they also read in different ways.

Someone with a bias towards auditory (aural/musical) learning might well be the kind of person who verbalises a text – either literally reading out loud or hearing the words in their head. People who are logical/mathematical might like crime novels or anything involving a puzzle (as long as it makes sense and is properly explained).

A kinaesthetic (tactile) learner may reflect that preference in the way they read. Perhaps just it’s the fact they can’t sit still – or maybe they like stories that involve lots of action and dialogue. They’ll be bored rigid by lengthy expositions (like this one), whereas a finely crafted explanation will go down a treat with those of a verbal/linguistic bent. Likewise, readers of a visual inclination might enjoy a detailed description that allows them to really ‘see’ a scene.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple, as people don’t generally use just one intelligence but a combination. However, maybe we can use the theory to analyse our books and think about what type of readers we’re appealing to and using this to fine tune our prose to best effect.

I could go on but hopefully intelligent people like you will have got the general idea by now.

So, that’s my basic take on multiple intelligences. It might not be entirely how a textbook theorist would explain it but this is my version. (I doubt if I’m the first person to think of applying the multiple intelligences theory to reading but I’ve not come across it before.)

The question of whether authors can develop it to apply to readers – and how useful that would be – I’ll leave to you! Any ideas or comments?

Editorial Correspondence: More Answers I Cannot Send

Wonderfully insane sanity. Read, chortle and snigger.
I particularly love the conclusion to the one about words that are misspelt…

harm·less drudg·ery

Dear Sir:

Thank you for your comments on the etymology of “Lego.” Sadly, we cannot say whether “Lego” stems from the Latin legere, nor whether, in naming their plastic blocks, the makers of Lego intended to call to mind Augustine of Hippo’s conversion to Christianity, in which he hears a child’s voice calling “tolle, lege.” We are merely dictionary publishers–the very antithesis of beloved toymakers. I would, however, wager that Lego is not intended to call to mind St. Augustine, particularly since Lego is a Danish company, and you no doubt think Europeans are all godless nihilists (though you can’t beat their godless, nihilistic public transportation).

——————

Dear Ma’am:

We are sorry that you are having trouble accessing the Internet, but I doubt it is because our website killed the Internet. The Internet, as you may know, is a series of tubes that are cats all the…

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Let The Subconscious Steer

Personally, I’m not too hot on planning what I write. I’m too lazy/impatient/easily distracted by alternative story lines (delete as appropriate).

Esbjerg

Random image – Danish sculpture

In other parts of my life – when it comes to holidays or what’s for dinner for example – I’m happy thinking ahead. But spending hours (weeks) working out the structure for a novel? Nah. What’s the point?

I’m currently getting close to the end of my next book. Well, the first draft anyway. I reckon that I’m about four chapters or 25,000 words away from the finish.

But I’d come to a bit of a halt recently so I shoved it to one side for a few days while I got on with a different project (something non-fiction I’m working on). Then, the other evening, I decided it was time to pick up the novel again so I just sat down and started writing.

I had no idea what was going to come out and found myself writing a scene involving three teenage boys throwing a dead jellyfish around. I liked the scene but it had no obvious connection with anything that had gone before or that might lead the book forwards.

The next day, though, I was off on a bike ride and it suddenly came to me – for some reason I find my brain is at its most productive when I’m walking or cycling. The new scene leads neatly into a situation that needs to be resolved and also helps set up something else that I need to work into the climax of the novel.

Planning? Pah. Throw away all those self-help, ‘how to write a novel’ books. Just sit down and write. You might have no idea what’s going to come out but you might be pleasantly surprised.

When it comes to the final edit, the scene with the dead jellyfish might get cut (probably not) but that doesn’t matter. It got me moving and on to the next phase. To my mind it’s a lot easier to sit down, write and then edit. By that stage at least you’ve got something to work with.

To me, planning seems like going about it backwards. You’re editing the book and then writing. Where’s the fun and spontaneity in that?

I have ideas in my head but one of the best parts about writing a book is discovering how I’m going to get there. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it comes completely out of the blue. What would I do with a plan? What happens if I come up with an idea for a scene or plot line that just doesn’t fit in?

I may not be the greatest novelist ever but that’s not the point. I’m a writer because I love writing and I love imagining and I love seeing what happens. I say no to planning. Just sit down and let the subconscious steer.

Soundtrack For My Subconscious

My subconscious is a wonderful thing – it gets so much work done while I’m sleeping, relaxing and otherwise taking life easy.

Sometimes my subconscious is dogged and determined. Other times, though, it can be sneaky, devious, erratic… and downright distracting.

But as an author I couldn’t operate without it. However long you’ve been writing there will always be days when you feel your thoughts have turned to treacle. Sometimes it’s the words refusing to flow. Other occasions it’s more fundamental: something in the plot that isn’t or won’t make sense.

Which is when I turn to my subconscious for help. With stories that aren’t coming together my most effective approach is to simply ignore them. It might take hours or days (not often longer) but the solution will suddenly pop into my mind and I know my unsleeping, silent partner has been at work.

But there’s a downside. Sometimes I need to concentrate on what I’m doing. Which is when my subconscious can be damned annoying. There I am, trying to forge the next chapter in my new work and my subconscious is getting BORED!

Half an hour goes by and I suddenly realise I haven’t written a thing but have managed to play several games of cards against the computer, stared vacantly out of the window, shuffled some bits of paper, drawn a new map… you get the picture.

Generally I find the only thing to do is to have some music playing. (It soothes the savage beast!)

I know some people (like my wife) can’t work with music playing. Personally I couldn’t manage without it.

What do you think? Do you need silence to concentrate or do you need soothing classical strains/thumping techno beats to keep your subconscious from bugging you with that ‘let’s do something else’ niggle? (Or am I just showing signs of incipient – or full-blown – schizophrenia?)

NB. If anyone’s got a copy of Thin Ice you’ll get an idea of what I listen to while writing from some of the chapter titles!

Murder mystery for charity

Just a quick mention – The Vault is on free promotion for the next five days (8th – 12th Jan). If you want a free read or just to download a copy and help push me up the Amazon rankings then click on a link:

The Vault on Amazon.com

The Vault on Amazon.co.uk

Enjoy.

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!

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.