Can I have your autograph?

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Something really unusual has just happened. Mind altering. Astonishing. Gob-smacking.

Someone has asked for my autograph.

Let’s put that into context. I’ve been writing for my own pleasure for all of my adult life. I have been publishing books on Amazon since 2013. And no-one has ever … ever … asked me for an autograph before.

That’s the sort of thing that is supposed to happen to other people. I am a modest bloke. I am happy enough if people are reading my writing. I never expected that I’d need to get my pen out for autographs.

Okay, okay, I am not getting over-excited here. After all, it is my only autograph request. J.K. Rowling must get dozens every single day. And it might take me years to get my second. But still … it’s a 100% improvement in the autograph department, which has to be worth something. It’s a tick in the bucket list.

Then there are the practicalities. Writing these days is mostly electronic. How can you send someone an electronic signature?

I suppose I could scribble an autograph on a photograph of me and send that in the post. But that means asking for an address. And as I am officially the ugliest bloke in the world, I didn’t really fancy sending someone a photo. No-one deserves that.

So how can I reply to my very first autograph request?

And that’s when I had a brainwave. Instead of a pen and paper autograph, I would give my new friend a digital autograph. I would write him into my next novel – First Contact for Beginners, the sequel to Global Domination for Beginners.

Here’s the first draft. To set the scene, the first person narrator is our anti-hero Robert. He is a megalomaniac in the style of Blofeld or Dr Evil. In this book he has been appointed to meet and great the aliens who have been making first contact with Earth. Of course, it doesn’t go well. Near the end of the book, we have a scene where Robert is given a mysterious parcel which helps to move the plot along.

And this is where Paul comes in:

The white van pulled up next to us and a delivery hench-partner got out. He had a kindly face – the kind of kind face that you expect to find on a male nurse. I pictured him as a family man playing darts with his kids. There was a name badge on his lapel telling me that his name was Paul (Burgy) Burgess.

And then he said something which blew my mind.

I have had my mind blown before of course – sometimes figuratively and sometimes literally. There was that assassination attempt with the exploding headache tablet. The sight of Lump blowing up a volcano. The underwater sports car that did not turn into a submarine. But no-one had ever blown my mind simply by saying something.

“Can I have your autograph please?”

In all my years, no-one has ever asked for my autograph. Sure, I have been asked to sign for things. Tax demands. Death warrants. Approval to buy a mega yacht. But no-one has ever asked for the humble autograph.

My eyes started to well up with unmanly liquidity. After all the hard times and the pain, it was a boost to know that someone cared.

“You want my autograph?” I said. I did not know whether to hug him or burst into emotional floods of emotion.

“If you don’t mind.” He gave me a pad and a pen.

“What would you like me to say? Shall I say ‘To Paul’ or to ‘Burgy?’ Which would you prefer?”

He looked at me as if I had recently been released from a mental establishment. “There’s no need for anything like that. All I need is a signature for the records and then I can give you this.” He handed over a small parcel wrapped in brown paper.

The. Penny. Dropped.

“You do not want my autograph?”

Paul (Burgy) Burgess gave me a sardonic smile. “It’s a figure of speech, innit?”

I signed the piece of paper and took the parcel.

 

How does that look, Paul?

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Sizzling spam fritters

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It was an innocent question from one writer to a group of writers on the internet.

In a draft of his novel he had written:

“and a mess tin of spam fritters were sizzling on the stove.”

And she had questioned the word “were”. Surely it should be “was”? The mess tin of spam fritters was a singular mess tin. It should be “the mess tin … was” and not “…. the spam fritters … were”.

Hm. I’m not so sure. What do you think?

If I put my grammar Nazi hat on, I’d want to say “was”. The subject of the sentence is the mess tin with its meaty contents. A container of things is a container. The things are secondary to the unique one-ness that is the container.

But there’s a problem. It might be grammatically correct but it doesn’t sound right. Mess tins don’t sizzle. Oh, I suppose if you super-heated a mess tin in an industrial furnace you might get the metal to melt and do all sorts of fancy things in the vicinity of sizzling. But by then the spam fritters would have long since vapourised. Anyway, the reference to “the stove” tends to throw cold water on the industrial furnace theory.

No, it was pretty obvious that the spam fritters should have been doing the sizzling within the confines of said mess tin and atop the heat-giving appliance that was the stove. That sounds like a vote for “were”.

On our internet forum we had one vote for “was” and one vote for “were”, echoing the 50-50 split in the household of the author who posed the original question.

I have a different theory. As Hamlet may or may not have said, the question is not “to was or not to was”. It’s the other parts of the sentence that are the problem. “Was” and “were” are the innocent bystanders. The true culprits are the sizzle and the mess tin. They are both fighting over the spam fritters.

Two guys fighting over the same dame – ain’t that a universal truth?

You might think it doesn’t matter. Readers won’t notice or care. It’s close enough.

Well, yes, some readers won’t notice or mind either way. They would happily shoot straight through this sentence because they are so interested in who was going to eat the spam fritters and whether the murderer was the cook, in the kitchen, with the rat poison in the fritters.

Some readers will notice. A mistake in spelling or grammar can yank you out of the willing suspension of disbelief. All of a sudden we are no longer in an Edwardian mansion or a World War One trench. We are all too aware that this is a book and it was written by a writer who didn’t know his “was” from his “were”.

In situations like this, I have a sneaky authorly trick. It has saved me from many an awkward point of grammar. It is simply this:

You can nearly always rewrite your way out of any grammatical conundrum.

Let’s try re-ordering the sentence:

“Spam fritters were sizzling in a mess tin on the stove.”

All is safely gathered in. We have spam fritters (plural) inside a mess tin (singular) atop a stove (also singular). The verb is plural in honour of the stars of the show – the spam fritters.

I think we can go at least one better. We don’t always have to be literal or correct. I did quite like the original sentence fragment:

“and a mess tin of spam fritters were sizzling on the stove.”

There is something comfortingly familiar and cozy about “a mess tin of spam fritters”. It has a good ring about it – probably better than my prosaic “spam fritters were sizzling in a mess tin”. All things considered, I like the sound of “a mess tin of spam fritters”.

So how about this? We delete the “was” or “were” to give us:

“and a mess tin of spam fritters sizzling on the stove.”

I like this. It isn’t immediately clear whether the mess tin or the spam fritters which were sizzling. That gives the reader something to do. It leaves some blank space for their imagination.

Can we improve? I quite like:

“and a sizzling mess tin of spam fritters on the stove.”

I think my favourite (so far) would be the slightly tricksy:

“and a sizzle of spam fritters in a mess tin on the stove.”

It won’t be to everyone’s taste (no pun intended!) to turn “sizzle” from a verb into a collective noun for spam fritters. But in the right kind of book it could work. It shows a little invention.

We could add more detail, say to describe the mess tin, the stove or the colour of the spam fritters. The smell of the highly processed meat oozing in fat. But that might be overdoing it.

This, for me, is the essence of editing. We take a simple sentence and we create several different versions of it – each giving a slightly different feel or meaning. If we come across a grammatical oddity we draft around it.

Was or were?

Neither. Let’s sizzle instead.

One day they will write songs about you

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This is a true story.

There was a time in my life when 10.00 at night often meant being in a pub with friends. I’m not saying I was an alcoholic, but I will admit to the young man’s game of “going out”.

These days I’ve climbed the summit of a half century of years and I’m now skiing down the slope on the other side. And 10.00 at night has a different meaning. It generally means staying in with a nice single malt and the peerless company of my wonderful lady wife. Beers and curries have been replaced by a crafty nightcap and a decent widescreen telly.

That’s why I wasn’t really ready for the urgent knocking on the door at 10.00 yesterday evening. It was pitch black outside. The Mem had retired early with her kindle and a murder mystery set in Venice. I was in PJ’s, dressing gown and furry moccasin slippers. I’d cued up the latest episode of Game of Thrones. I was looking forward to an evening of Tyrion Lannister’s impish sarcasm and the delight of the Northern lass with ginger hair saying “Jon Snoooow”.

Knock, knock, knock on the door.

Should I answer it or ignore it? It is too late for door-steppers selling us vacuum cleaners or their version of the bloke who may or may not be upstairs. Our neighbours never knock this late.

It might be nothing or it might be a serious something. A very serious something.

So I open the door in my pjs and dressing gown. That is, I am wearing pjs and a dressing gown while opening the door. I don’t have a door in my pjs and dressing gown. The English language can be such a minefield, can’t it?

There is a youngish man standing there. Now, you have to appreciate that anyone who isn’t retired looks like a young person to me. I’d say mid twenties, slender build, floppy hair, casually attired, speaking with an Oirish accent and as relaxed as a newt.

“Ah, bless you sir, bless you. I was wondering if I could use your phone?” he says, waving a very large mobile phone at me.

He stares at the phone in surprise as if seeing it for the first time. “This? No power. Dead. You see I was with some friends and they abandoned me and now I don’t know where we’re going. Or where I am.”

Your mind races at a time like this. The pragmatic and calculating side of your brain is on high alert. We’re at DEFCON 3. Is this young man about to assault me or try to pull some clever confidence trick?

But the emotional and social side of your noggin is saying that it might be genuine. I ought to try to help.

On this occasion, the social side wins. We chat for a while and then I lend him my landline phone. I’m not letting him in the house. I stand at the threshold and he’s outside.

His first call is to his friends. The ones who have abandoned him. There’s no answer, so he phones his Mum.

“Hello Mum, it’s me. I’ve lost me friends. You don’t happen to know where I am, do yer? I don’t think I’m in Hull any more.”

Hull is more than 200 miles away.

“You’re in Godalming,” I say.

“Godalming?” This seems to be as much of a surprise to him as the existence of his non-functioning phone.

“Godalming. In Surrey.”

There is one of those awkward pauses. I don’t know how to help him find his friends and he is digesting the life-altering concept of being in Godalming.

“It’s okay, Mum,” he says into the phone. “This very nice man is helping me. Bye.”

He hands me back my phone. “So we’re in Godalming, are we?”

Just then the phone rings again. I answer it. An Irish lady’s voice says: “David, is that you?”

I hand him the phone again. “It’s your Mum.”

He takes the phone. “No, Mum. I’m all right. This very helpful man is helping me out. I’ll be okay.”

“Where do you live?” I ask.

He thinks about this for a little while. “Farncombe. I live in Farncombe.”

Aha. Now we’re getting somewhere. Farncombe is less than half a mile away as the drunk staggers, and conveniently it’s all downhill from here. I give him directions to Farncombe.

“You are a very good man!” he says as he departs. “A hero amongst men. One day they will write songs about you.”

My friends, there is something magical about a stranger with an Irish accent telling you that people will write songs about you. While you are wearing PJs, a dressing gown and furry moccasin slippers. It’s almost as magical as the ginger lass with a crush on “John Snooow”.

Barely five minutes later the doorbell rings.

I’m expecting my night-time visitor again, but no. There are two policeman on my doorstep. They want to know about my new friend, whether he had been threatening or tried to slip past me into the house. I tell them the story. I said I thought he was genuine.

I later find out that he had already tried knocking on the door of one of my neighbours. The neighbour had been a bit freaked out by this and he called the police.

The story leaves me with a puzzle. Was he genuinely lost and confused? Or was there some scam or trick behind it all? These days we are all on our guard for the unscrupulous trying to con us out of our hard-earned.

I like to believe his story. In these difficult times, it’s heartening to think of a bloke getting royally ratted and being confused about the difference between Hull and Godalming.

Besides, I have to believe his story if I’m going to have people writing songs about me.

The page has landed

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This writing business continues to surprise me. Just when I think I have seen and heard it all, along comes a phrase or a concept that I have never heard of.

It harks back to one of my childhood phobias – that everyone else was in on a joke but they hadn’t told me. I once heard a comedian joke that as a child he hated playing rugby. He imagined that everyone in the scrum was talking about him.

Then there’s a line in Sleepless in Seattle where Sam is worried that he has been out of the dating scene for so long. He has heard about this thing called Tiramisu and it’s worrying him:

“Some woman is gonna want me to do it to her and I’m not gonna know what it is!”

The thing that took me by surprise is called a “landing page”. Apparently every author needs to have one. Heck, apparently every business needs to have one too.

What the is a landing page? How come I’ve been writing for most of my adult life and never heard of it?

Apparently it’s a kind of web page. But not just any old web page. It’s the internet equivalent of a Game of Thrones dungeon. Our prisoner is not allowed out until you have done something. In most cases, the thing that the website wants the prisoner to do is give away their email address.

The ideal landing page does not have navigation buttons to allow them to get distracted. They can’t go wandering off to find more information. They are locked in room 101 until they have confessed.

There is nothing to click on apart from one very prominent big button, usually in the middle of the page. And usually lipstick red.

The trick, so I am told, is to make that button sound seductive. We should make it appear to be something that our victim really wants. That button is the answer to all their problems, the fulfillment of all their dreams. And the only way out.

Then I did what I normally do when I encounter something new. I googled “landing page”.

That was truly an eye-opener. I was astonished by the number of adverts for companies offering to create landing pages. Writing has been likened to the Klondike gold rush, where the only people who made money were the merchants selling donkeys, buckets and pick-axes. In writing, it seems that the people who are making money are the ones selling services over the internet.

I did find one useful definition:

In the purest sense, a landing page is any web page that a visitor can arrive at or “land” on. However, when discussing landing pages within the realm of marketing and advertising, it’s more common to refer to a landing page as being a standalone web page distinct from your main website that has been designed for a single focused objective.

This means that your landing page should have no global navigation to tie it to your primary website. The main reason for this is to limit the options available to your visitors, helping to guide them toward your intended conversion goal.

That left me feeling conflicted. On the one hand, I would like more people to read my books and to sign up for my mailing list. But I don’t want to twist anyone’s arm or to re-enact one of the torture scenes from Game of Thrones. At any one time in Westeros it seems that around ten percent of the characters are being held in captivity by the other 90%.

I think a full landing page is a step too far. For me. So I’ll direct folk to my website. If they feel like joining my mailing list, all well and good. But I’ve no intention of locking anyone up. Unless they ask very nicely.

 

A writing update

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My head is spinning.

The original idea seemed so simple. Write a best-seller, the world says “wow”, earn lots of money. repeat.

Buy an apartment in New York, a villa in the Med and a mansion in London.

Look forward to the moment when an up and coming writer is described as “the new Will Once”.

Of course, it doesn’t work out like that. Not for most of us. Amazon makes it easy to publish a book, which means that everyone can do it. Who can find my book when there are a million other books clamouring for your attention?

So I have been doing that marketing thing that I hate. You see, I truly dislike cold calling. I detest it when someone rings me up to sell me something. Or stops me in the street. Or when a Nigerian prince sends me an email asking for my bank account details. Or when google/ Amazon/ Apple/ whoever gives me adverts for something that I have been searching for on the internet.

It was research, I tell you. I wasn’t seriously thinking of buying one of those. Honest.

But if I want to get my books noticed I have to dance with the devil. I have to do that thing which I hate being done to me. That marketing thing.

So this is what I have been doing … (deep breath) …

I am giving away four (count ’em – four!) of my books. Absolutely free. All I ask is that people sign up to my mailing list. Oh, and hopefully take a look at the priced books.

The not-so-cunning plan is to offer the first book of a series for free. Then invite you to buy the second book, and the third, and the fourth.

And, yes, I know. That’s exactly what drug-dealers do. The first one is always free.

What I didn’t realise was just how complicated all this would be to set up. There’s a company called “Bookfunnel” who manage the book download side of things. I opened an account with them.

Then there’s the automated emails that you need to send to new subscribers. After a little research, I decided to use Mailchimp as it seems that’s what most people use. Mailchimp was even used by the Remain side of the Brexit referendum, which isn’t exactly a wonderful endorsement.

I needed a landing page on my website. I already had a website, but I had to remember how to use the bundled software (RVSitebuilder) to change the website.

Then there’s Amazon. And Facebook. And Goodreads.

All of which means that in the past week I must have navigated a dozen different software interfaces including WordPress right now to write this blog.

That’s why my head is spinning. Each interface is slightly different and has a different way of doing things.

Here is a fr’instance. I needed to drop a picture onto my website and then to resize the picture to the same size as other pictures on the same page. Sounds simple, right? There’s a button in RVSitebuilder to import or edit a picture. I vaguely remember there being a dialogue box where you can resize the picture. How hard can it be?

Importing the picture was a doddle. But how do you select the picture to resize it? I must have spent twenty minutes or more trying to work it out.

Click on the picture? Nope, that doesn’t do anything. Double click on it? No. Right click? No.

Grab the picture by a corner and pull it into shape? That would work in most other packages, but not this one.

Try “select all”? No, that didn’t work.

Look around the screen for a button to select an image? There isn’t one.

I finally found how to do it by accident. You hover your cursor over the picture. Press and hold the left mouse button to “grab” the picture. Then you move the picture ever so slightly in one direction before bringing it back to where you started from. And magically that selected the image. Now I could resize it.

Who on earth thought of that? You select a picture by starting to move it. No helpful arrows, no resizing bars at the corners of the image. That would be too easy and too standard.

I persevered and made it all work … I think. That means that the journey my book has taken looks something like this:

  • Written on a PC running Windows – thank you Microsoft
  • Written in Word – thank you (again) Microsoft
  • Cover from PixelStudio – thank you Fiverr
  • Sold via Amazon
  • Promoted on Facebook
  • Promoted on my website – thank you NetHosted.com and RVSitebuilder
  • Email management by Mailchimp.com
  • Giveaway by Bookfunnel.com
  • Also promoted on Goodreads
  • Blog by WordPress linked to Goodreads

Phew! That’s a heck of a lot more complicated than I thought it would be when I set out.

And that’s why my head is spinning.

Love, Death and Wyrds

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Nobody tells you what it’s like to press that little green button marked “go”. Publish that book I’ve been working on forever.

That’s when all the doubts creep in. Will they like it? Is the writing good enough? Have I winnowed out all the spelling mistakes? If it makes me a gazillion, what colour should I choose for my first Ferrari?

There is never a perfect time to press that button. There are always procrastination excuses. My website isn’t up to date. Just one more spell check. Is the cover exactly as I wanted it? Should I do some pre-marketing first?

The doubts gnaw on you like leeches. Or if that’s too gruesome, think of procrastination as being like those little fish that eat the dead skin from your toes. Come to think of it, that’s almost as gruesome an idea as the leeches.

But I can’t put it off any longer. So here we go folks … it’s time for a sequel to Love, Death and Tea. My new book – Love, Death and Wyrds – is a gentle romantic comedy about a woman fighting to save her relationship in the apocalypse. The end of the world shouldn’t mean the end of you and me, should it?

Expect more of the kind of humour in Love, Death and Tea, but this time told from Libby’s perspective. We get to see the world from under a witch’s pointy hat – magic cats, girls who can walk through walls, baskets of herbs and … ahem … Shakespeare.

Why Shakespeare? Because.

You can get your copy of Love, Death and Wyrds from Amazon.

Click here to buy it from the UK.

Click here to buy it from the US.

The ideal reading order is Love, Death and Tea first, followed by Love, Death and Wyrds. You can read Wyrds first if you really want. All that would happen is that some of the surprises would become spoilers.

Now I have to sit back and see what the world makes of my humble little offering. Will they like it? Will anyone care? Will it sell by the bucketload or the thimbleful?

Is the world ready for some witchcraft apocalypse comedy?

Crosses finger and press the “publish button”.

I’ve got the fence-post blues

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I think I’ve worked out what the internet is.

It has taken me several years, at least two keyboards and countless thousands of words. But I think I’ve found the secret. Or at least one of them.

Of course, I haven’t figured out all of the internet. There are huge bits I haven’t yet experienced, let alone understood. There is quite a lot of the internet that I don’t want to visit. As the old map-makers used to say about undiscovered lands … “here be dragons”.

The bit of the internet I think I’ve worked out are the chat rooms. The online debates. The comment sections of online newspapers, like the Guardian or BBC News or the Mail Online.

The best analogy I can come up with is that this part of the internet acts like a fence post for a community of dogs. And we’re the dogs, or as our transatlantic cousins might say, a dawg. We leave messages on the fenceposts with our wee.

Take Brexit as an example. This is a subject which has divided the nation. Some think that the EU is a big nasty organisation like Spectre and that the referendum vote to leave was our “independence day”. All of the UK’s ills would be solved if we could only kick all the foreigners out.

Others see Brexit as an unmitigated economic disaster. And every shade of opinion in between.

So what do we do with our deeply held opinions? We head on over to the Guardian website or Mail Online or Mumsnet and we sniff the fenceposts. We want to see what the other dogs have been saying. We spot a comment that annoys us, and we have to obliterate it with our point of view.

BigBoyTed had left a wee-mail saying that “Brexit is going to be brilliant”, so we have to wee all over it saying that it’s going to be awful. And vice versa.

Later, BigBoyTed sees our wee-mail and gets annoyed by it. So he wees all over our comment with another pungent wee of his own. You say Remoaner, I say Brexshitter. Let’s call the whole thing off.

And on it goes. Layer after layer of wee.

It’s not just Brexit. It’s also Trump, climate change, Boaty McBoatface, Corbyn, ISIS, austerity, building a wall.

It goes beyond politics into the things we buy. Pick any make of car or computer or watch or clothes … and there will be a group of people weeing about how wonderful it is and another group counter-weeing that it’s awful.

My car is better than your car. Splash. Oh, no it isn’t. Splosh.

I admit it. I’ve been a dawg from time to time. I’ve wee’ed (how do you spell that?) on a fair share of fence posts. Some things are just too damned important. Some statements are just too crass and outright wrong to let them stand.

So I’ve pounded the keyboard. Cocked a leg and splashed my opinion over someone else’s. Guilty as charged. Someone is still wrong on the internet.

I’ve been pee-ed on too. There have been a few occasions when someone online has tracked me back to one of my websites to see if they could dig up some dirt on me. One even found out that I was (a) male and (b) white, which they then used to argue that I was too privileged to have a view about sexism. Woo.

Bless. It’s a hobby for them, I suppose.

Then I had a revelation. I realised that we’re never going to change each other’s point of view. There is no piece of evidence, no finely crafted argument, no elegant bon mot, nothing that will induce someone to slap their foreheads and switch to your point of view.

That’s the problem with weeing on a fencepost. It might feel good at the time, but it soon gets washed off in the rain. Or covered over by the next dawg’s offering.

So I’m trying to ween myself off the fencepost weeing. It’s addictive, but the high is only temporary. It doesn’t solve anything. I’ve stayed away from particularly incendiary forums (including one that I set up). I’ve signed out of my Guardian account. Hit the ignore button to block one persistent troll.

I don’t know how long it will last, but it’s going well so far. Then again, don’t all addicts say something like that?

Keats had this inscription on his tomb: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”. It’s a great line, although a little ironic and too self-deprecating perhaps.

Perhaps the modern equivalent is “here lies one whose name was writ in urine” for those who spend a large chunk of their lives weeing on fenceposts.