Thursday, 28 November 2013

Liqud Plastic Sea

[Today's snippet of new prose has seen the light of day before. In April 2013, I published an ebook called Parcels in the Rain and Other Writing. Tomorrow, I am publishing the print version. So today, here's a little taster, based on an wonderful evening I spent in Plymouth a couple of years back.]

They come in ones or twos at first. A trickle becomes a flood, then stops. They capture territory — on rugs or chairs, with food and beer. Barbeque wood-smoke scents the air. Children and dogs roam free as daylight fades.
The sea is liquid plastic. Yachts are cornflake packet models. A ferry hugs the coast, shy of entering port. The distant coastline glitters with fairground lights beneath the orange-striped horizon.
Flares hit the sky. The sea begins to boil. The liquid plastic ignites in rainbows, shooting skywards, before dropping back on anchored boats.  Smeaton’s Tower blazes through the smoke. Palm-trees bloom golden then fade away.
Faces turned towards the sky, they gaze with children’s eyes, wide open, smiling, in awe. They’ve seen this spectacle six or sixty times, but still it’s like the first. Their murmured praises lost beneath the waves of sound, they reach out and trace the glowing trails across the sky.
A faint smell of cordite lingers on the breeze. Ears are stunned by explosions: the bangs and whines of igniting dreams. The after-image burns upon their eyes.
They leave in ones or twos at first. A trickle becomes a flood, then stops. 

Monday, 25 November 2013

Too Busy To Write?

I am lucky enough to write for a living. It’s my full-time job. So that means I have at least thirty-five hours a week when I can be sitting at my lap-top turning out stunning prose with which to impress my readers, right? Wrong!

Firstly I have to make time for the other writerly activities like research, editing and reading (and yes, reading is definitely part of a writer’s working day). Then there are the business-related activities like writing proposals, preparing invoices, paying bills and doing the monthly accounts. There’s that huge millstone that is marketing and sales (one that all writers, especially indie authors, will recognise). And all this is before I even think about the personal, home-related and community-related activities on my monthly To Do list. If I manage to reserve twenty hours per week for new writing, I feel I’m doing well.

Please don’t think I’m complaining. I love my job; I love my lifestyle - and I know I have it far easier than anyone who’s writing while holding down a ‘proper job’. But I wanted to illustrate the importance of yet another aspect of a writer's Business Skills Toolbox: time management. I’ve talked about time management previously, but this time I'm going to discuss a specific tool: the Urgency versus Importance matrix.

When I was studying for my MBA at Cranfield, many years ago, it used to amuse us how many things could be expressed in the form of a 2 x 2 matrix. But it is a great way to illustrate concepts easily.

Like all organised people, I have a detailed To Do list (well, several actually) which rules what I do each month. However, sometimes the number of items on the list can become overwhelming and that’s when I turn to the Urgency versus Importance matrix.

All tasks can be categorised in terms of their degree of urgency and their level of importance to the individual. Something is Urgent if it needs to be done now; something is Important if it contributes to a long-term goal. The two are not necessarily synonymous. Once tasks have been categorised, the strategy for deciding in which order to do them is relatively easy to determine.

Urgent and Important: A call comes in from an editor looking for an article NOW to fill a hole that’s just appeared in this week’s paper. It’s a paper that pays well and could provide lots more commissions in the future. Strategy: Do It Now

Non-Urgent and Important: The corrections for the latest manuscript arrive with a request from the publisher to complete and return them within two weeks. A conservative estimate shows there is two days work required. Strategy: Schedule It For Later On

Urgent and Unimportant: A friend or relative makes a habit of phoning during the mornings ‘for a chat’ even though this is prime writing time: Strategy: Delegate It (in this case by use of an answering machine)

Non-Urgent and Unimportant: A new game is doing the rounds on Facebook and a number of writing buddies are sending invitations to compete with them / feed their cows / send them gifts. Strategy: Don’t Do It

This tool is variously attributed to Stephen Covey and to Dwight D Eisenhower. Covey certainly formalises the tool in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People but it is predated by the well-known quote from Eisenhower: What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.

There are a number of formal methods for employing this tool, including templates and apps; personally, I just use the spreadsheet on which my To Do list is prepared.

I'd love to hear how other people find their way through a To Do list that threatens to overwhelm and inhibit. What tools and tips do you use?

Thursday, 21 November 2013

As Easy As...

[Today's snippet of new prose comes from another of Morgen Bailey's writing exercises: this one featuring the keywords: France, tune, whistle, repetitive and none.]

I jump on my bike and set off down the road, looking for adventure. I think today I will try to reach France. I’ve only been cycling for a few weeks. To start with, I had very little confidence — well, none at all, if I’m honest. I sat and looked at the bike for three days, too scared to even touch it. Then I decided I had to be a little bit brave — so I took it out of the garage and wheeled it down the road. Well, it is called a ‘push bike’, after all. When I’d done that for a day or two, I realised I really had to try and ride the thing if I was ever going to be independent.

So, I took it out into the field, where no-one could see me, stood on the pedals and pushed off. The wheels spun around, the spokes played a gentle tune; I sailed along for a few yards — and promptly fell off. Standing up, I gathered what was left of my dignity and shoved it in my pocket, before climbing on and trying again. This time I stayed on for almost the length of the field before I hit a stone, wobbled violently and slowly sank to the ground once more, with my legs tangled in the chain. At that point, I gave up and pushed the bike home again, pursing my lips in a silent whistle and pretending I’d only intended to be out for a few minutes anyway, so that was alright, wasn’t it?
This went on for a few days, and to tell you the truth, it became just a little repetitive, until suddenly, last Wednesday, I got distracted by the sound of a thrush — a song thrush I think it was — and I was so busy trying to spot it in the hedgerow, I didn’t notice I was pedalling along, upright, without a wobble — I was actually riding a bike!
Well, what do you know? The saying is true: you never forget how to ride a bike. It just takes a little longer to remember when you’re seventy two and the last time you were on a bike was Nan’s old ‘sit up and beg’ when you were a teenager.
So here I am, today, out for a really long ride — and I think I’ll go to France. Not France over the Channel, as in Paris France; that would be silly. We’ve got tuna sandwiches for tea today (it’s Wednesday) and I don’t want to miss them. But there’s a nice little cafĂ© at the other end of the seafront called ‘Le Petit France’. They’ve got white tables and chairs set out in the sunshine and an awning of red, white and blue for shelter if the sun’s too hot. Yes, I think I’ll go down there and have a cuppa. Then maybe I’ll ride home the long way around — through the valley and over the hill.

Monday, 18 November 2013

No More Guilt Over Dickens

Like many other bibliophiles, I own a full set of Dickens novels. You know the ones: green leather, gold lettering, pale yellow ribbon bookmark, thin paper and tiny print [although the last one might be more to do with age than the publisher].

I bought the set many years ago, one volume per month, in an imitation of the manner in which Dickens fed his words to an appreciative world. I can’t remember how much I paid for them, and that’s probably just as well.
At the time, I opened one or two of them, even tried to read a chapter or two, but that was it. And they have sat on the bookshelf ever since, staring accusingly at me. I read the abridged versions we were given at school. I’ve watched every TV adaptation for the past fifty years. I can quote famous lines from one or two of the novels. I’ve even seen Oliver! at the London Palladium. But, I have to admit it: I have never read Charles Dickens as an adult reader. And it's always been a source of guilt for me.

 Until now.

A couple of months back, our local book group was choosing our future reading matter. Someone suggested we go for one of the classics. I admitted my Dickens-less state; and that was it: Little Dorrit became our October book of the month.

I was somewhat dismayed on taking it from the shelf to find I was holding Volume I and that the whole work was just short of 1000 pages long. Dickens published it in monthly parts between December 1855 and June 1857. Maybe trying to read it in four weeks was a mistake.

I tried; I really tried to enjoy it. After the first couple of chapters, I gave in to age and downloaded the electronic version on my Kindle, which made the reading easier on my eyes, but it didn’t make it any easier on my brain.  I kept going to the very last page, although that took more than six weeks and I hadn’t got to the most dramatic chapters by the time our book club met. I loved some parts: the Circumlocution Office rang so many bells, even today, and I would recommend chapter 10 to anyone who thinks the bureaucracy of today’s government is anything new. The characterisation was as wonderful as I knew it would be: I loved Mr Pancks and Flora; hated Mr Dorrit more than the obvious villains; and wanted to give Little Dorrit a good shake on more than one occasion. But I struggled with the detailed descriptions and with the archaic language; with the fact that nothing happened sometimes for whole chapters at a time. As someone said during our book group discussion: the ending was a real page-turner, but it took a long time to get there.

I do not for one moment dispute that Charles Dickens is one of the greatest writers this country, or indeed this world, has ever seen. But I have decided he’s not for me; not in the written form anyway. I will continue to watch or listen to adaptations and marvel at his story-telling abilities. There are another thirty-four volumes on my bookshelf; and I will probably not read any of them. There are just so many other good books out there which I want to read, both classics and modern publications. The book group’s going to tackle War and Peace next summer, but in the meantime, I’ve moving forward a century or so.
Does anyone want to buy a set of Charles Dickens novels, barely used?

Monday, 11 November 2013

Elizabeth Chats With...Curtis Jobling

[Anyone who read my Swanwick posts back in August will remember how I raved about Curtis Jobling. Originally best known for Bob the Builder, Raa Raa the Noisy Lion and other animations, he has recently turned to the written word with the Wereworld series of Fantasy and horror books. I am delighted to welcome Curtis as my November guest to Elizabeth's Page.]
Hello Curtis, great to have you on board. Let's start with an easy one: what is your earliest memory — and how old were you at the time?
Arriving at my new home in Warrington and meeting a neighbouring kid who was sat at the bottom of the street with a nosebleed. I'd have been 2 years old, and it's stayed with me.

What was your favourite subject at school — and which was the lesson you always wanted to avoid?
Always loved English Language and Art - hard to pick between the two of them. I especially loved it when my English teacher had no lesson plan and said "Write your own story!" Other kids were crestfallen and I'd throw myself into it. Chemistry always left me as cold as a sub zero H20...
Interesting. I'm with you on this one. I've been a chemist for the past thirty years; but now I've thrown it all in to write instead - and I know which I prefer.
Where is your favourite place on earth — and why?
Home. That's where my family are. It may sound like a cliché but it's true. Work can take me everywhere and anywhere but I'm invariably looking back over my shoulder wondering what my loved ones are up to. If you want something else, I'm going to have to go with York. Wonderful city, and some very splendid memories from throughout my childhood and adulthood.

How do you relax?
With my wife and children (when they're behaving). Downtime might be watching the various shows that are backlogged on our SKY+ and in need of viewing. These are usually programmes such as Dexter, Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. You know the deal - violent, bloody and more than a little adult. Who'd have thought he made preschool kids' shows, eh?
If you could change one thing about yourself or your life so far, what would it be?
That I'd started writing seriously sooner. I've left it quite late, I feel, having pursued my career in animation and illustration for so long. If I'd have known that writing for an older audience was going to be this much fun I would most certainly have started sooner!

If you could meet one person from history, who would it be — and why?
Eric Morecambe. Everyone's favourite imaginary uncle.

Watch a film, go to the theatre, read a book or talk to friends — which would you prefer?
Can I have a curry with my friends? We can talk about all that other good stuff while we chow down on a fine Special Balti Guri. Coming from Birmingham myself, I can't fault a good Balti.
Now, if you could take part in one television programme, which one would it be?
The Adventure Game. It's a blast from the past but the Vortex freaked me out as a kid, not least because Keith Chegwin was disintegrated by it - that would be a battle royale!
Curtis, I’ve set the earlier questions; now it’s your turn: Write the last question yourself and use it to tell us something about yourself, your life or your work.
My question would be 'Where would you like to be in ten years time?' And my answer would be: still writing, I should imagine, and having a whale of a time to boot. We'd be living off the regular royalty cheques from the Wereworld books, movies and tie-in lunchboxes, quilts and undercrackers, and I'd be wordling for giggles. I don't think I shall ever truly retire. Creative souls want to create. I expect to be creating mischief and merriment while they hammer my coffin lid shut.
Curtis, thanks for taking the time to come and talk to me.
If you want to know more about Curtis Jobling and his work, check out his website here. You can find all his books on Amazon UK, or on Amazon USA.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

The Chase

[I've always tended to write pleasant stories, with good characters who get what they desire - and deserve. In fact, I'm thinking of calling my next anthology Nice Stories with Happy Endings. Today's snippet of new prose was a deliberate attempt to buck the trend. Did I succeed?]
Her breasts heave as she struggles to catch her breath. The chase is long and hard. He starts running as soon as he sees her. They race up the hill, weaving between the trees, his heavy boots thudding through the dried leaves and hardened mud. Her sneakers make less noise and she is more agile on her feet.
The path splits; each takes a different fork, but the ways turn back together and then he's in front of her. Arms pinned down, a swift kick behind the knees and they fall to the ground together and roll under the bushes. Clothes pulled hurriedly away from hot skin, the action is savage and short-lived. A final thrust with a sharp blade mimics the coupling of moments before.
Climbing from her position astride the man, she utters a short prayer. Then, reaching into her pocket, she pulls out a cigarillo. And she smiles.

Monday, 4 November 2013

E-publishing: the Best Guides to DIY

OK, so you've finished your novel. You've edited it so tightly, you can't slip another word in without an unsightly bulge. Your beta-readers have done their stuff. You've decided to go down the route of independent publication. What do you do next?
You could approach one of the companies or individuals offering services such as formatting and uploading. I've not got any experience of that route, so all I'm going to say is some of them provide an excellent, cost-effective service. And some of them don't. Do your research carefully and, if possible, get a word-of-mouth recommendation from someone you trust.

But, what I want to talk about is the DIY approach, which is the route I take, and a couple of useful guides that I always keep close by.
I publish my ebooks on Amazon for Kindle and on Smashwords for all other reading devices. Both platforms offer guidance on how to prepare your manuscript and (like many traditional publishers), they require slightly different approaches, so it's worth being aware of both of them.
Amazon offers a book called Building Your Book for Kindle. It's free and does exactly what it says on the cover. Starting with tips on formatting, which it's useful to read before you start writing, it will walk you through the different stages including preparing the front matter (copyright, acknowledgements etc.), table of contents, file formatting and conversion of the file to HTML for uploading. This may sound daunting, but if you are comfortable using Word, you shouldn't have difficulty understanding the steps needed.
The Smashwords Style Guide is written by Mark Coker, the developer of the Smashwords software. Once again, this is a free guide. It begins with a very detailed exposition of e-publishing and the Smashwords model. This is worth reading at least once, if you are new to ebooks, but the real meat of the guide starts on page 20 with pre-formatting. The detailed instructions are accompanied by screen-shot illustrations, but I have to confess to finding these less than useful, and suspect they could be confusing if you happen to be using a different version of Word. Personally, I work from the text and find this easy to follow. Again, anyone comfortable with Word will be OK.
While on the subject of Mark Coker, it's worth keeping your eyes open for his other book (also free) on Secrets to eBook Publishing Success and any of the presentations he gives, based on the annual survey of ebook sales statistics. For example, I was fascinated to hear that there is a direct relationship between the number of words in a book title and the level of sales. But more of that another day.
What's been your experience of DIY publishing? Which guides do you find most helpful?