Sunday 21 November 2010

Writing the right writings

I have always loved to write, perhaps too often enjoying the sight of my own words as well as the sound of my own voice. The idea of writing a book was always somewhere in my mind and I knew it would happen one day. However, as with many budding writers I had little or no idea what would happen once it was finished. Who to sell it to, how to sell it, where to promote it, how much money to throw at it? These and many other questions were things I never considered. Having completed it by Spring, my time was then reassigned to my day job, that and house renovation and gardening etc. So it was Autumn when my attention once more returned to the written word, 90,000 of them to be precise.
Firstly I picked out a list of agents from the internet and canvassed them all, possibly 50 or so, many of whom said they may not reply for up to 12 weeks. 12 weeks? What were these people doing, this was their job as agents to read material surely and I didn’t buy the excuse that they were just too busy? One or two agents were a bit more on the ball and the refusals started to arrive daily, mostly being apologetic that the current market was bad or it wasn’t their kind of stuff etc. One or two recommended other agents or even publishers, which was kind of them. A very helpful agency in Edinburgh actually replied in person, explaining a few basics to me which, once I digested the setback, were pretty obvious. In fact other people may have mentioned these earlier but back then I wasn’t prepared to listen as I was too arrogant to value any unprofessional opinions.
What I learned from this agent, I will not divulge their name at the point as I hope to go back to them again, was that book markets are very very specific. And the more specific they are, the easier they are to market to. Up until that point I had assumed that the wider the appeal, the bigger the market. No so.
My book, it seemed, fell between two stools, 3 or 4 possibly. Too grown up for children, too childish for adults, too flippant for serious readers, not funny enough for comedy, these were all things I heard despite not wanting to. It became evident that although many of my friends had enjoyed it, it wasn’t going to be a best seller. I possibly knew that already but to be told it was a bit of a shock. Ok, what to do? Well firstly I was aware that my book would appeal to a certain audience and it was too good to give up on. I picked a learned friend to edit it which was essential. I then chose the self publishing route which was, I have to say, a lot easier than I thought it would be, producing a paperback copy within a few weeks.  I then used online tools such as Facebook to gain some free publicity and awareness. With a continual effort and a bit of advertising investment the book started to move, especially as it was prior to Xmas. Low and behold the reviews I got back were very good. I had been quite correctly advised not to expect to sell it to all my Facebook friends, many who duly ticked the LIKE button without actually buying, others waiting for another time and possibly more recommendation than just from the author himself. I set myself small milestones to achieve and a basic plan. Living in France was a bit of a drawback as visiting UK events and making personal contact was not so easy and came at a cost. Spurred on by the small number of sales I was achieving, I decided to make those trips, to wander amongst people I knew and offer them a leaflet, so they could buy online. I also took a few copies with me and signed them personally. I even grew my hair in an attempt to make conversation and get me noticed. The first 100 sales is just on the horizon now and although far away from the thousands I was hoping to sell, it is encouraging enough to keep me at it.
What I also learned from that agent was that to be successful I had a lot to learn about writing too. I had decided to tone down the sequel to my first novel towards children, possibly 10-12 year olds. He directed me to a couple of books about writing for children which were invaluable and my next book became a totally different animal, literally. He also told me to read read read, especially children’s books, simple but effective advice. I then found myself writing two books simultaneously, one a children’s book, the other a biography. To add to this, I was reading three books at once. Writing two, reading three, selling one, a mission of missions and a tiring one at that. In between that I kept a diary, wrote a professional column once a month and a blog once a week. Who ever said writing was an easy way to earn a living? Well nobody, I don’t think, but it is a common misconception all the same. The biog and the blog were quite easy to write as I could write as me and this is something I have little difficulty in doing. Distractions were not really an issue, music on, dogs barking, Wendy on the phone, I could still keep going. The children’s one, that is far more difficult, because the only way to create a place, character or situation is to be there, right in amongst the action, seeing the colours and semelling the smells. It takes solitude and concentration. But hell, is it ever fun, I mean laugh out loud fun. To make others laugh is satisfying, to make yourself laugh out loud, that has to be the best of all. I have set myself a target to complete two children’s books in my trilogy over this winter. I have to admit it is a bit selfish, partly because it means me spending a lot of time on my own and partly because it is a job I love to do and I can’t really share it. But most of all, I have self belief and the drive that it takes to keep modifying the course in order to succeed as a writer and will not take no for an answer to that quest.

Friday 19 November 2010

Auction marts and blondes with attitude

A long while ago I remember having a conversation with John Thorley, secretary of the National Sheep Association about more and more animals being sold on the dead weight. At the time, an advocate direct sales, I defended the birth of the new on-farm stock selection system and ‘buying groups’ trading direct with slaughterhouses. John’s argument was that we should always maintain the use of the livestock auction system and that auction was the only true way of setting a market price. He also went on to wax on about how great the auction mart system was in UK and that we were the only country in Europe to have this benefit. At the time I argued that the auction system was outdated, with too many middlemen taking a financial cut out of the end product.
Some 20 years later I find myself living on a smallholding in rural France where they do not have the luxury of a local mart and I have to say that it one of the few things I miss about the UK. At the very least, it is a social gathering of like minded souls. Having been a pedigree sheep breeder all my life, I spent over year looking for our first sheep purchases. Eventually, through contact from friend of a friend we visited an old boy who had been breeding Charmoise sheep, some 50 kms away. He had little understanding of English and my schoolboy French, although improving year on year, was not up to translating the intimate details of gigot, muscle depth and bone ratios. We did a deal, me doing my best to keep the price down, but I have to say I had absolutely no idea what these animals were worth and am sure I paid over the odds.
Sadly, the sheep were killed a year later by stray dogs, a day we would rather forget. After a while, I was on the lookout again for more stock, but how? If I was back in UK, I would pop down to the mart once a week for a few weeks, to get an idea of prices, make some contacts and possibly pick up what I required. I cannot do that here and have ended up buying a mishmash of 3 ewes and a charollais ram from a friend who was struggling to look after them.
I am also on the lookout for a heifer, just something plainly bred but with a bit of shape. The farms around here are all stocked with Blonde d’Aquitaine and, at the risk of upsetting a few people, I don’t like them, with their long legs and bad attitude. I would prefer to pick up a Limousin from the region 3 hours up the road, which I intend to cross with imported angus semen to breed an annual cross calf for the freezer. I am finding this task virtually impossible. Yes I could go to their annual pedigree sale and buy one for a few thousand but that is not within my budget. My only chance is to go knocking on doors to see if they have stock for sale. As you can well imagine, an Englishman doing this on a French farm is not the most cost effective way of trading.
So, in reflection, John Thorley, you absolutely are correct when you say that the auction mart is the backbone of the UK livestock industry. From time to time, farmers in UK may need to be reminded of this.

Thursday 11 November 2010

Man on a mission, the potted version.

The self confessed statement of 'I grew up on a farm' is a condition that never leaves you: 'you can take the man from the farm but never the farmer out from the man'. And so, as a second son leaving the family farm in my late twenties and working my way through various agricultural careers, I eventually found myself involved in corporate business. I had an office in the city, commuted by train in a suit, rubbing shoulders with folks I neither knew, understood nor liked. I sometimes discussed with my peers the days gone by when I groomed champions, or flew a herd of cattle to Australia, but it only met with disbelief. Let’s just say, what I was doing I did for the money. I connived to find time to still enjoy breeding and showing a few livestock but fitted it around a day job, as I raised my flocks of texel and hebredian sheep. I managed to keep an active involvement in a few major shows too and was even deputy chief cattle steward at Royal Smithfield show for a while. But I was never free.
I am not sure what exactly made me snap, but one day, the moment arrived for me to say enough is enough; I always knew it would come. What I was left with was unemployment alongside a bag full of memories, experiences many folk could never even dream of. That and a new life, to do with what I pleased.
What I pleased to do was to do less, and enjoy more. That is what drove me to buy a smallholding in South Western France, with a big old house, 3 hectares of grassland and orchards, long sunny days and a woman I wanted to share it with. I now have only 4 sheep, one which has the horns of a Norfolk, the others just mediocre ewes serving a purpose. I collect the fruit to make preserves and this year hosted the first and highly successful Aquitaine chutney festival, a gathering of chutneyheads to compete for the coveted prize of pickle of the year. Although Wendy keeps a day job, we are more or less self sufficient. My summer days are busy with building and renovating the house and my winter days are busier still, filled with writing.
My first novel called on my experiences as a cattle stockman in search of that holy grail, supreme champion of the Royal Smithfield show. Seen through the eyes of the animal, it tells a unique tale of a calf overcoming adversity and setting out on a special journey towards her destiny. I was never exactly sure who would buy it, but buy it they have, and judging by the positive feedback I constantly receive, they have all enjoyed it, young and old. It is called the Right Colour.
I have since moved on to children’s fiction, again using my livestock experience to create a series of books about farm animals and their adventures. It is truly the best job anyone could ever have.

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Ranting for November 2010

November 2010

Is it me, or does time just go by in a whir these days? No sooner its Monday then the weekend looms. No sooner I get up than its time to think about bed. No sooner I write this monthly article than a copy of R&DN drops onto my doormat, signalling the end of yet another month, dammit. No sooner its January then old Scrooge here thinks of ways he can avoid Christmas this year. What to do this time? I have tried hiding, staying in bed, even being blind drunk, but none of these afford me the luxury of escaping those goddam annoying jingles that signify the arrival of the bearded bloke in the bright suit. No not Noel Edmonds, the other one.
Last year I gave a mention to some mysterious looking facial hair cropping up on the top lips of some celebrities and sportsmen around this time of year. This month I have gone one further and joined the Movember ranks myself and grown a ‘mo’ for the charity that raises awareness of men’s health issues. So if you see me around, or anyone else sporting an out-of-character moustache give them a few quid for their efforts. Thanks.
The late autumn at Chauffour brings us ripening apples. Louis, our (pointless) pointer, likes apples. In fact he likes them so much that he lies by the door and whines all day, a whine like a whistling kettle that goes right through you, until he is let out to go and eat as many as he can before we can stop him. An apple-a-day may keep the doctor away, but a crate-a-day can only involve some hefty vet’s bills. It did this time last year. He doesn’t just eat them either; he engages some sort of bizarre antic which involves him throwing them in the air and jumping about like a lunatic beforehand. I never have considered that he is quite the full-shilling, but it seems he has at last lost the plot altogether. A mad March hare is a sight to behold, but nothing compared to a crazy autumn sub-normal canine with a single figure IQ, doing an apple-dance. Maybe we should send a video in to ‘Animals-do-stupid-stuff’ or whatever that programme is called. Or possibly the X-Factor! Come to think of it, Simon Cowell would probably give him a record deal.
The time has come round again to give worming tablets to the animals. In the olden days this was always a tricky job as even the dimmest of animals wouldn’t eat a nasty tasting small pill. But nowadays it’s all changed as some bright scientist has realised that if you make the tablet taste nice, any animal will eat it. Except ours! Louis the pointless pointer, no problem, he will eat anything; but the scruffy one with the brains, no chance. She was suspicious from the off, noticing a packet being opened while we pretended not to look at her. First tablet she took outside and buried it in the garden. Next one, sprinkled in her dinner, persuaded her that she wasn’t hungry that day. Hold her down, shove it in, out it comes. Wrap it up in some tasty cooked meat, out it comes. A nightmare? Well, to anyone who has this problem, I can now reveal the solution. Simply give it to the cat. How dare the cat have something she hasn’t got? Dog stole it and wolfed it down in an instant. Job done. I really should charge for this ingenious information.
I note last week the announcement of the Lonely Planet awards, in which the Shetland Islands were the winners. Now there’s a surprise? You really couldn’t get anywhere much lonelier that there surely, with possible exception of Greenland or a summer day in the House of Commons. So what are these awards about? When reading in more detail, it actually says that this is one of the top regions in the world to visit next year, according to their new guidebook. Have these people ever been there? Underneath this statement is a description of the place which says, and I quote: “…a collection of mighty, wind-ravaged clumps of brown and green earth rising from the frigid waters of the North Sea…” Well, I’ll just go and pack then shall I? Should I take an overcoat do you think? My experience of Shetland is a complete absence of trees and vegetation, women with long grey hair, spinning wheels and goats. All from Yorkshire or Norfolk; except possibly the goats.
Does anyone get chance to watch Jamie Oliver’s 30 minute meals on early evening TV? We do most evenings. 30 minutes they may well be, if you happen to have all that stuff in your fridge and at least a dozen pots of herbs growing on your windowsill. 30 minutes cooking, but how long shopping first? And what about the cost? “Lets take some caviar, a whole lump of fresh parmesan cheese, some prime fillet steak and fresh guava fruit...and stir it up with this lovely spoon…”. 30 minute meals? 30 quid meals more like! And while we are at it, let’s use every pan in the kitchen, along with a few gadgets. What I want to know is who does the washing up? And how long does it take? A damn sight longer than 30 minutes I bet!
The time has also come round for the opticians. Our old French farmhouse is designed to be cool in the summer, by having thick walls and very few windows. This time of year it is not only cold but, in a word, dark. Reading by firelight may sound romantic to some, but as age creeps up on me, I find halogen is the only way to go. As I type, I have a set of spotlights arranged around my keyboard like some sort of studio film set. But sadly the eyes are still straining. So a trip to the friendly optician in the local French town was required. Friendly, well she was certainly smiling as she relieved me of 150 euros for a pair of reading glasses. She will probably send me a Christmas card now; I’ll pretend I cant read it!
For the last few months in this column I have banged on about the weather in this part of the world. More specifically, that we were expecting rain any day, and last month I gaily announced that it had arrived. Not so. We had one days drizzle and then back to the lovely dry days once more. If we were in UK I am sure this would by now have sparked a panic hosepipe ban, but here nobody seems too bothered, except our fish. With only half a metre of water left in a 4 metre deep pond, the thousand strong shoal are having a bit of a housing issue. Apparently, during such crowded times, they eat each other! There you go, Grant Shapps, your UK housing problems solved in an instant. I really should be in politics!