Thursday 29 December 2011

Confessions of a travelling stockman

Introduction to a book I may just write sometime next year   

“Wake up, ya wee runty English bastard!”
Sharp and excessive pain swirls around my already aching ribcage.
       “Urrgghh! Wh’t time is it?”
      “It’s gone nine thirty. Judging started half an hour ago!”
      Diving out of my makeshift bed of a tangled sleeping bag on top of sweating straw, my head pounds like a smithy’s anvil as I grab for my clothes and hop continuously on one leg whilst trying to coordinate a bare foot into the correct channel of a mouldy pair of jeans. An inevitable fall backwards into the dusty straw doesn’t deter my frantic determination to get dressed and run in the same instant. As though hurrying through a knee-deep swamp of leak and potato soup, I head towards the alleyway where a group of well respected, well dressed and well orchestrated men smugly groom their shiny animals with intricate attention to detail. Mine is where I left it, lying in night’s worth of filthy mire, its hair matted with sweat, still adorned with brown hessian halter, dark green patches on its one side.  Struggling to produce a needle-sharp comb from my pocket, I drag at the tufts of dark hair whist pulling on a once-white shabby smock that looks as though two tramps have worn it in an Olympic mud fight. Whilst the line of impeccable animals disappear into the distance, my hands shimmer with pain as I drag my bloated beast to its feet by the razor sharp rope, pulling it into the direction of the show ring like a fisherman dragging a net-full of flapping mackerel onto a trawler. Somewhere in the distance, someone, perhaps everyone, makes a disgruntled tutting sound, the same one my PE teacher used to make when I failed to complete that handstand on the gym-horse many years before. Yet, somewhere in the depths of my battle scarred mind, I still believe I can win.

     Does anyone else ever have a recurring nightmare such as this? Do you awake in freezing sweat at 3am, tugging the duvet from the bed and yelling: “Come-on, you lazy bitch”? If you do, the chances you are not married? Not for long anyway. If you do, it is very probable that, at some stage in your life, you have earned your living as a livestock showman.

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Starting over

    For years I always believed that I would eventually get around to writing books and, looking back, I realise that it took a quite a bit of subconscious planning before that became a reality. A starting block as second son of as a farmer with few qualifications is far removed from the modern ambitious novelist with their English A levels, degrees in creative writing, following a natural path through the media and honing their skills through a vocation. Mine, it has to be said, was something more of a struggle. In the past I have documented my interesting and unconventional path from farmer to city analyst, and subsequent revelation to give it all up in the name of sanity. Although a break-up of a long term marriage and move to a foreign country were never quite written in the road map, I think somewhere under the grey cellular matter, my life headed that way driven by a hidden desire to be writer. By a pure twist of fate (I do not believe in luck, only that one makes one’s own), a local UK publication accepted my offer of providing a monthly column about my exploits in rural France, which presented me with a spring-board to get some words in print and a chance to experiment with styles.
    Now, 2 years on since I started my first novel, I have a total of ten books in print, each of which is selling copies, although sadly not in their thousands, and getting good reviews. I am not quite sure how I evolved into being a children’s author, possibly because my animal stories are suited to that generation, probably coupled with the fact I have never really grown up. However, for once in my life, I feel as though timing has at last been my good friend. Within the next few years, the digital publishing industry is about to embark on the biggest and fastest revolution in its history since Gutenburg’s invention of the printing press and I am very excited to be part of it, directly from my own armchair.
    Over the last year or so, I have learned some valuable lessons about writing, editing and self promotion but, (there is always a but), many of them I wish I had learned the year before. You see, I didn’t set out to write what I have written and, although I have enjoyed every word of it, I feel that children’s novels may perhaps not be the easiest market to get into, digitally or otherwise.
    My father often refers to me as an entrepreneur and, although I have never accepted that handle wholeheartedly, I suppose I should take some credit for the chances I have taken during my life when the chips were down. Using a fearless sense of vision, the time has come again for me to change, to rethink, and to experiment. So, as from 2012, I am embarking on a mission, to become someone else.
    Creating characters is the greatest fun that a writer can have, so I am taking the chance to do it in real life! What fun? Profiting from a host of material that I have gathered from a variety of blogs and other sources, I am starting again, with a clean sheet of paper, with a new identity and a new direction. I will not divulge the pen-name I have chosen yet, although I have already brought this person into being through social networking. One of the reasons I need a new author identity is that not all the words that I am intending to write will be suitable for children and I do not want jeopardise my existing audience.
    For the past month, I have sketched out a new novel, plot, target audience, route to market and complete project plan, which are the very things I should have done first time around. The initial book in a series is well underway and I have to admit it is quite exhilarating, throwing off the shackles of conformity whilst teasing the adult mind. Before you ask, NO, it is not porn (or Erotica to give its politically correct genre), but humour. I have enjoyed making children laugh for a couple of years, now it is time to bring a smile to a bigger audience.
    The experiment will be documented as it moves along, with a goal of reaching a certain amount of sales within one year, whilst earning my living doing something else.
   A few close friends and followers of this blog will be the first to get sneak previews, updates and share in my new challenging experiences.
   Here’s to starting again. Cheers me dears!


Tuesday 13 December 2011

Hellfire publishing

      It doesn’t seem that long ago since Amazon was just a river in South America surrounded by receding rain forests, and kindling was something that was used to light a fire.
      Oh how they must be laughing at us now, missing all that irony, as the hottest selling product this Xmas will be called the Kindle Fire! Using a small fire to stop us burning a rain-forest? It’s as poetic as it is brilliant. You have to hand it to them, no wonder Amazon is destined to become the world’s largest company.
      But what of the meteoric growth of the Kindle market? Analysts are predicting upwards of 2 million Kindle devices being in our Christmas stockings this year (although Amazon themselves refuse to divulge actual sales figures). Don’t buy a book, buy a device for which they can choose their own books. Again, a great strategy that can only evolve into self-fulfilling world-domination by Amazon. Despite traditionalists helplessly clutching their treasured cardboard covers, not since Nazi Germany has the world seen the written word confined to the fireplace with such gusto, as we all eagerly embrace this change.
      So what does it all mean? Well, for one thing, it signals the end of the all powerful scathing literary agent, of whom all authors covet and despise in equal measures. With ebooks, the author, any author, now has a vehicle to take them to market without needing to hire the agent-taxi as a conduit.
      It almost certainly indicates a rapid fall, or at the very least a major contraction, of the publishing giant, without whom no author would have previously made it out of their own pipe-dream. Should we weep for these two long standing members of the literary community as they are thrown to the very pavements they used to strut in their spotted bow-ties, now to contemplate the Big Issue about which they once sniggered? Well maybe. A little.
      Will we survive without them, us mere writers? Possibly, but possibly not.
      However, as I see it, another seemingly unnoticed problem is emerging, and it is thus. The rapidly digitalised pronouns and verbs towards which we are frenziedly careering, lack just one vital ingredient. CONTROL.
      Before I elaborate on one of my trademarked opinionated theories, let’s just take a brief look back to the chain that originally linked the book industry together.
      We have the author, obviously; that literate, well educated person who writes glamorous words that we all want to read. Then there is the filter, a literary agent, who makes highly crucial decisions about what will and will not be allowed through the gate into the world of eager readers; we have already discussed her. But (I know, never start a sentence with BUT, it’s on page 10 of the manual), there are a few more links in the chain that have been slightly overlooked. Next comes the editor, usually but not always, appointed by the publisher, who goes through the work with a tooth-comb, finding not only spelling mistakes and typos, but making sure the words all gel together into something approaching coherent content. We then have the well-documented fat-cat publisher, the business brains who, along with experienced marketing executives, use their contacts to get the book out onto the correct shelves accompanied by some kind of publicity fanfare. That is, assuming they think it is good enough.
      So, back to my theory. The impatiently anticipated digital revolution can profitably function without the agent and publisher, we are all more or less agreed on that. Instead of the salesmen, we have the Amazon platform, although there are still a clever and sometimes expensive degree of publicity required if one wants to make any serious sales. However, (I couldn’t start two sentences with BUT!) the fundamental flaw in the spectacular digital literary revolution is….it's rubbish.
      Now before you hit the delete button on this post, hang on. I am not saying the industry is rubbish. I am talking about all the rubbish that is being produced, on an hourly basis, by people with no more writing skills than a dyslexic brick-layer.
      As an author, I frequently question my own work, you have to. If it was brilliant, wouldn’t every agent in the world have fought over it instead of arrogantly ignoring my submissions? Probably! Early reviews of my writing frequently told me it needed editing, and it did. Thankfully now, it has been, and it is a million times better as a result. (I know one thing for sure, a good editor would certainly have trimmed this post!)
      The problem the industry now faces is that the thousands upon thousands of rejected writers are now filling the main (possibly soon to be the only) high street cyber-shop with their trash, completely unregulated. Amazon is becoming the Pound-Shop (Dollar-Store) of the literary world and we all know what they mainly sell in those stores?
      Again, as an author, I follow the social network, gathering followers, reviewers, information and knowledge. I am always on the lookout for other author’s work, reading blogs, downloading ebook samples, and I have to say that some of the garbage that is out there is unbelievably bad. So many writers are (#am)writing, chasing daily word count, franticly racing towards the end of their manuscript, irrespective of its appeal to intelligent purchasers. As soon as the last two words are written, up it goes into the marketplace and, this is the worrying bit, people actually buy it, for 99 cents. Never since the days of the rag-and-bone man has so much rubbish been sold for profit.
     So, with that bombshell out in the open, where do we go from here? The answer has to be backwards surely? Just when does Bruce Wayne step in and clean up the streets, saving us all from the illiteracy of paranormally romantic proportions? Will the self-regulatory methodology, that has made e-bay such a phenomenally reliable place to shop, apply to Amazon? No it won’t, because we are all too frightened to put up a bad review, for fear of the backlash of a wounded author. If we like it we tell them; if we don’t, well we put it in the recycle bin and forget it, rather than wasting our time composing some sentences that requires effort, and possibly exposing our own uneducated writing skills in the process. Amazon doesn’t care, they just keep on selling the goods.
      When I had my first novel rejected, to start with I sulked for a few days, piqued at the thought of someone daring to pass judgment on me. Thankfully, what I did next was to relook at the work, take advice, rewrite, get more opinions, before submitting it again and subsequently self-publishing it. It stood me in good stead.
      Please, authors and readers everywhere I implore you, with the industry on the brink of the biggest revolution known to word-kind, each and every one of us owe it our fellow reader to encourage the bad reviews, from people we don’t know, so that we may keep the streets clean. If bad reviews stop us selling bad books then, quite simply, they are not bad reviews at all, are they?
      Now, is that ‘Good thinking, Batman?’

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Recycled cat

    Not only do the single years go by so rapidly these days, but it doesn’t seem five minutes since Sir Steve and Lord Coe were unveiling their plans for a 6 week London traffic jam for 2012. And now, it’s here. This year is not just an Olympic year but also a bissextile one, during which, come late February, unmarried ladies will be allowed to make indecent proposals to us poor unsuspecting chaps. Be warned, fellas. Go fishing on the 29th Feb!
    Having at last got my computer back together, some recent interactions through the modern conduit of social-networking websites have brought me together with a few old school-friends and, wow, what a scary thing that is. I have to admit that it is good to see old faces popping up online, including some very dated seventies photos with hairstyles that thankfully never came back into fashion. Come to think of it, they probably weren’t in fashion those days either! Sometimes it makes me realise how lucky we are in my generation that this level of technology has arrived just in time for us to rekindle some of this nostalgia, as long as it is not abused. At the very least, its arrival will allow us to document history from the common man’s perspective from this moment forward.
    This morning a new revelation arrived at our door in France. Yes, at last, after possibly twenty years of their existence in UK, we now have a wheelie-bin. Two wheelie-bins, in fact. To us, this means that we will no longer have to endure the inconvenience of heaving leaky bulging bin-bags into the back of the family car every day and delivering them to the stinky communal receptacles 500 yards down the road. But, more importantly than that, it means that, after hosting a few world eco-summits and patronisingly nodding their heads, France has eventually complied with EEC rulings of environmentalism, and is starting to recycle. A nice man also delivered us a pamphlet advising us of what we must put in the bin that will be of use to the environment, although we have to wait for a separate letter to tell us when said bin will be collected, also possibly informing us in advance of which days the collection staff will be on strike! I deduce from the picture on the glossy leaflet that we must now recycle plastic, paper, tin and cardboard. This brings me around to wondering what else will be left over for the ‘couvercle gris’, and then I note, for some reason, that yoghurt pots are non-recyclable. That and dog pooh. Well that will be a weekly bin-full then, won’t it? It’s rather a shame they couldn’t leave us our own bottle-bank too, to save those embarrassing monthly trips with all the empties, which we now have to make under the cover of darkness to avoid awkward encounters with our gossiping neighbours.
      Whilst on the subject of recycling, and I am not sure if this is the same in UK, I have just discovered that our large Xmas tree, which has currently taken over most of our sitting room, is not only recyclable but refundable too. It appears that when it has served its purpose, we can take it back to the shop from where we bought it and get our money back, despite its toothless state. How brilliant is that?! Do you think I could try that with the dishwasher? Or the cat, perhaps?
      Following four winters of relentless shivering (and moaning about it, apparently) inside our draughty old house, we have this year invested in a log-burner. After a few weeks of speaking to local firms and hearing horror stories of ex-pats being ripped off, we eventually bought one off the internet from a firm in Scotland. Let’s face it, if it can keep them warm up there where it snows all the time, then it has to be OK? I have to say I am astounded by the level of heat this thing chucks out. I don’t think this house has ever been as warm in its 300 year history, with the possible exception of when it burned down in 1854. We can now watch episodes of The Frozen Planet without actually getting frostbite ourselves. In fact, were we so wanton to do, we could probably watch TV in our underwear. Perish the thought.
      Some of you may recall that, earlier this year, a new kitten joined our happy throng of pets, for the sole purpose of keeping the vermin down. To be fair to young Spike, he does seem to have got the hang of catching small mice and voles. Unfortunately, he also seems to have found another purpose, that of an alarm clock! One that goes off 15 minutes before daylight, every morning, without fail, without a snooze button!  The horrific noise he makes is like an unyielding cross between a police siren and a Susan Boyle record; it is completely unbearable. In the winter, this behaviour is slightly more acceptable because I am usually up by that time, but what about next summer, when it gets light at 4.30am? The thing is, I am not even sure why he makes this ghastly din, save for the malevolent purpose of waking us up. It’s not like he is hungry? The dam thing is as fat a bronze turkey, and whenever he does come in the house, the dog beats him up. We even went so far as to have his testicles removed last week, but that didn’t seem to stop his morning chorus one bit, apart from making him sound more like Justin Bieber! So how do I stop this problematic intrusion? Any ideas? Maybe I could utilise that empty wheelie-bin, they are pretty soundproof aren’t they? Especially with a couple of breeze blocks on the lid!
      So, a new year brings new plans, new challenges and new ambition. Will this be the year that the economy lifts out of recession, newspapers become honest, world weather patterns steady down and Bruce Forsyth finally gets put out to pasture? Well, one could hope for all of those things, but above all please, please, no more ITV documentaries about expats living happily in the Dordogne. Were the dreadful people depicted on that program as commonplace as it makes out, I, for one, would be leaving before the year is out!