The Trick is to Keep Reading

I remember reading ‘The Baader-Meinhof Complex’ by Stefan Aust and wishing I could somehow speed things up. Of course, I wanted to enjoy every word and not miss anything, but the book was so damn heavy and unwieldy, I sometimes felt like I was preparing for battle, instead of settling down for a good read. It was two years before I finally finished it. Phew.lateststoryBooks copy

Which is one of the many reasons I finally got around to acquiring a Kindle. Oh, the joy!

Weighty tomes wasn’t the whole story, though – it often used to annoy me that everyone I knew seemed to be able to read quicker than me. For years I assumed I was a slow reader, but now I know what the problem was – I simply wasn’t reading often enough. Whenever I picked up the current book, it’d take me a while to get back into it, and the longer the time between each ‘fix’ the harder it became.

Now, I read every day – two or three times a day if I can – and the difference is palpable – my attention span is greater, I take in information more easily and I get more satisfaction out of it. Or maybe it’s just that I’m getting old.

Though I love my Kindle, I can’t give up ‘proper’ books – I love the smell, the feel of them, the different fonts and typefaces and (since most of those I buy are second-hand) the sheer ‘history’ of the things. Put another way, as Rogers and Hammerstein didn’t say, ‘There is Nothing Like  a Bo-o-o-ok…’

So these days I have a pile of the physical entities by my bedside and a Kindle in my work bag. It’s amazing to think I used to while away my lunch breaks sitting at my desk surfing the Web and skimming through all the bad stuff that’s happening in the world. Now I read.

In the doctor’s or dentist’s waiting room I used to feel a little exposed if I was the only person there with a book in my hand, but if I read on my iPhone it’s fine (after all, I can pretend I’m surfing the Web, skimming through all the bad stuff…)

And amazingly, I’m getting through a lot more books. I don’t really know why I’m surprised at this, but notching up another literary tome on my figurative bedpost feels pretty good. And since I joined Goodreads, I’m actually writing reviews too! Mind you, they’re not great reviews. I’m not really a review sort of guy, but I’m sure they’ll take on a more substantial role as time goes on. Maybe they’ll even turn into stories or novellas in their own right, epic novels, whole series… Okay, I’ll stop now.

And as Stevie King says, if you want to be a writer, you have to do two things: read a lot and write a lot.

‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ by George Orwell

Nineteen Eighty Four
Nineteen-Eighty Four
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George Orwell’s fusion of political and creative writing reached its climax with the dystopian future world of his final novel. Many of the ideas and concepts he created in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ are now a part of our language – Big Brother, Room 101, Newspeak and others are classic references to the authoritarian state that Orwell’s hero Winston Smith finds himself in.

Winston Smith works in the Ministry of Truth where he rewrites documents to match Big Brother’s latest version of the truth. He begins to investigate what the real truth is and meets a similar-minded individual in the shape of Julia. Naturally, things start to go wrong and Smith is arrested by the Thought Police…

‘You are afraid,’ said O’Brien, watching his face, ‘that in another moment something is going to break. Your especial fear is that it will be your backbone. You have a vivid mental picture of the vertebrae snapping apart and the spinal fluid dripping out of them. That is what you are thinking, is it not, Winston?’

‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ is Orwell’s scariest book and has arguably had the most impact of all of his writing. Concepts such as Big Brother are all around us: CCTV, hidden cameras, phone tapping etc are commonplace now. Even the good old Internet, with its constantly updated and changing facts, figures and information, sounds suspiciously like Newspeak.

Diagnosed with tuberculosis, Orwell wrote much of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ at Barnhill on the island of Jura. It was published in June 1949 by Secker and Warburg. Less than a year later, Orwell was dead.

There are sections of the novel that I found a wee bit tedious (the text of The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism does go on a bit longer than I’d like), but at the same time, it’s an absolutely fascinating read and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

 
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Dipping a Toe in the Mighty Amazon

When I first started to look at putting my scribblings out as eBooks, Amazon wasn’t anywhere on my list of possibilities. However, having had a chance to see how things work at Smashwords, I thought I’d conduct a little experiment to see how the Amazonian experience differed.

KDP UnSelect

One of the reasons I’d been initially reluctant to go down the Amazon route is their constant and  irritating promotion of the ‘Select’ option. Joining KDP Select is, of course, a great thing to do if you’re happy to stick with one company and one company alone, and as Jane Friedman says, if you only have one book out, it may well be a great way of building your audience.

That said, being an indie author, by its very nature, suggests an independent attitude to publishing (which of course I have in spades), so there was no way I was going to sign up for KDP Select since its exclusive nature would prevent me from exploring other options. (I realize I’m probably being a little stubborn here, but I like to make my own mistakes, so if my choices turn out to be the wrong ones, that’s all good).

Free, or Not to FreeHow the World Turns and other stories COVER 4 150x

I’m a great believer in giving away books for free, since it allows readers to try your work without forking out their hard-earned spondoolicks. (The first books in each of my children’s series will always be priced at free). Strangely, Amazon don’t seem to like this idea and go out of their way to throw obstacles in the way of freebies. It’s not set in stone – Smashwords founder Mark Coker suggests  a way around the problem, though I’m not convinced that playing fast and loose with the big boys is going to make life easier.

Testing

So now I’ve got one book (How the World Turns) on Amazonia as an experiment. Priced the same as on Smashwords, iBooks, Barnes & Noble et al, I’ll be interested to see what happens. If anything.

Watch this space. Or not.

How to Not Write

Whether you’ve got a deadline to meet or not, the act of sitting down and writing every day isn’t the easiest of routines to stick to. And while the reasons we come up with for not working on that novel/play/story/poem are pretty much limitless, there are a few that always seem like a good excuse:

Excuse 1

I’m actually working on the cover for the new book so it’s like really important, man, and you know, I need to get it out there and stuff.

Love Song cover 150x

Yeah, right. Of course the cover is important, since for most readers it’s the first thing they’ll see, but do you really need to spend three days playing around with Photoshop before finally committing yourself to an actual design?

Well, maybe you do, maybe you don’t. If you’re anything like me, you’ll know that the design for your book cover is essential, but experimenting with images maybe isn’t a great way to spend the time you should be spending on the design. Of the 20 theatre posters I created back in my WACtheatre days, I found the best ones (ie those that had the biggest impact) where the ones that took the least amount of time, like an hour, tops.

Moral: Experimenting is important, but don’t let it drag you away from the task in hand.

Excuse 2

I really need to re-read the first book in the series I’m working on, to like, get in the mind-set.

Of course you do. But reading is something you should do at a time you wouldn’t normally allocate to writing. For instance – in the dentist’s waiting room, during your lunch break, in bed, on the train. You do not have to read between 8.00 and 10.00pm if that’s the time when you need to be working on your book.

Moral: Prioritise your time. Properly.

Excuse 3

I really need to spend some quality time with the kids.

Okay. So reschedule your writing time so it doesn’t interfere with your family time.

Moral: get up earlier.

Excuse 4

I really can’t be bothered.

Fair enough. There’s lots of times when we simply don’t have the energy to focus on our prize projects, but then again, there are things you can do that don’t demand so much attention. If I’m not really in the mood to work on the next chapter, I’ll look at re-writing the one I did yesterday, or work on my chapter headings, or check I’ve got the chronology right – after all, these are things I’m going to have to do at some point, so why not do it now? Sometimes, easing myself into it like this will get me all fired up and I’ll end up writing the next chapter anyway.

Moral: there’s always something you can do.

Excuse 5

I’ll do it tomorrow.

This is a good one, cos we’re only talking about 24 little hours, so that’s probably fine. But what happens if there’s some family/work/personal crisis tomorrow that prevents you from writing? What happens if ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’ turns into ‘I’ll do it on Thursday/next week/next month?’ Putting things off is a great way to build up a resistance to ever doing it – I know, I’ve been there.

Moral: Do it now.

If you’re lucky enough to write for a living you’ll know that there’s only so much time you can spend not writing, but for the rest of us, it’s pretty much buckle down and get on with it.

“I firmly believe that you get better at whatever you do in life, the more you do it.”

Michael Connelly

How to Make Time to Write Every Day

As all writers know, one of the major things you have to do to succeed as a Writer is to write. All the time. Every day. But as many of us (in the real world) also have ‘proper’ jobs that we sort of have to do in order to stay alive, making time to write every day isn’t always easy.

So here’s a few ideas that might help:head thinking words

Stop Watching TV

Okay, so maybe that’s an obvious one, and I know lots of people who would never consider this to be an option. But let’s face it, most of us spend around four hours a day watching the goggle box (according to the BBC) and that’s a fair stretch of time. Even if you’re a slow writer, you should be able to knock out at least 500 words in four hours.

Admittedly, I don’t actually have a TV, so it isn’t such an issue for me. However, I’m not claiming to be Saint Colin, since I do watch stuff on BBC iplayer. The difference is that because of the way I watch (choosing specific topics rather than just sitting in front of the TV), I only actually see one or two programmes a day, so my viewing time is probably about 60-90 minutes in total, which I don’t think is bad. I also have days when I’m so engrossed in writing that I don’t think about TV at all.

Give Up Your Social Life

Don’t panic, I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t have fun occasionally, but if you’re the sort of person who spends more than three nights per week out of the house, then maybe it’s time to cut back, I mean, how much drinking/eating/partying can one person do? Look at it this way – if you have say, three evenings a week with dedicated (ie uninterrupted) writing time, even if it’s only one hour, that’s already three more hours than you had before. And of course, if you put in the time now, it’ll pay off later, cos when you’re a famous novelist you’ll get invited to loads of great parties. Apparently.

Be an Early Riser/Night Owl 

I always wake up early so it wouldn’t be a bad plan to get up and write for an hour before getting ready for work, since I’m already awake. If you’re more of a night bird, the same goes for going to bed a little later, thereby creating a little bit of writing time for yourself. Again, it doesn’t have to be several hours, just enough to keep things ticking over.

Write Every Day

It doesn’t have to be a mammoth task. People who write every day – whether it’s work on their novel, blogging, Twittering or whatever – tend to find it easier to write on a regular basis. It then becomes a routine and like any exercise involving regular workouts, the more you do it, the better (and easier) it will get.

Give Yourself Deadlines 

I’m not talking about the I’ll-finish-this-damn-book-by-Christmas deadlines, but more the sort of thing you can reasonably stick to. Like completing a chapter in three days, a week or whatever. And the great thing about making your own deadlines is that you can break them! Not all the time, obviously, but if you have a particularly creative spurt one day, maybe you don’t need to go the whole hog the next day.

Essentially, all I’m saying is that those amazingly successful writers who we all admire, got to where they are by writing, instead of doing other things. So go fish. I mean write. You know what I mean.

 

Book Covers Aren’t Us

It’s always useful to get a bit of a knock-back and realize that what you thought was fantastic isn’t so fantastic after all. But that’s fine, since it helps keep things on an even keel, provides a bit of the old sense of perspective and such like.

My current cover for me eBook ‘The Architect’s Apprentice’ was (I thought), reasonably good, but apparently it doesn’t pass muster with everyone. Those nice people at ‘They-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named’ reckoned it was a bit lacking in ‘quality’. Okay.

So what now?

I used to think I was pretty good with Photoshop, but (as in this situation) it’s becoming more apparent that I need to up my game a bit. There’s a great set of vids on YouTube by Phlearn, who cover all those funny little tricks that can make a world of difference to an image. Yesterday I finally got the hang of the clone stamping tool, which is definitely the neatest trick I’ve learned this week. Now I can get rid of anything I don’t want in my images as if they were never there.

So now I’m working on a new cover for the aforementioned book and hopefully by this time next week I’ll have it uploaded to Smashwords et al. According to Smashwords founder Mark Coker, changing a book’s cover can make a boatload of difference to the number of downloads it gets. So we’ll see.

 

‘Burmese Days’ by George Orwell

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Burmese Days
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Based on Orwell’s time in India, the hero of this tale is John Flory – a rather melancholy figure whose work involves overseeing timber excavation. Set in the fictional district of Kyauktada, the plot revolves around the humdrum existence of British ex-pat regulars at the British club. When the dreary regularity of their lives is disturbed by the arrival of a young woman, Flory tries to win her over. Local government corruption, however, and the newcomer’s distaste of Flory’s apparent love of Burmese culture, only serve to drive a wedge between them:

Elizabeth watched the dance with a mixture of amazement, boredom and something approaching horror. She had sipped her drink and found that it tasted like hair oil. On a mat by her feet three Burmese girls lay fast asleep with their heads on the same pillow, their small oval faces side by side like the faces of kittens.

There’s more than a hint of racism in a few of the characters and Orwell was chastised in some quarters for his depiction of the ‘old colonials’, but he maintained that while parts of the manuscript were complete fiction, much of it was based on simple observations made during his stay in Burma.

Orwell’s publishers (Gollancz) wouldn’t touch the book for fear of libel charges and it was eventually published in the US with some changes to the typescript to avoid possible identification with actual living people. Some years later, several ‘characters’ from the book were nevertheless identified via the Rangoon Gazette, but by then, Gollancz had brought out a British version of the novel.

Though highly enjoyable, and in parts quite fascinating, ‘Burmese Days’ is a bit of a sad book – it tells of a time and place when respect for the common man is at a low ebb. And without giving too much away, Orwell’s hero does not come out of it very well.

 
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‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ by Arthur Conan Doyle

Hound of the Baskervilles
The Hound of the Baskervilles
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When a visitor leaves a walking stick behind, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson ponder on who their unseen caller might be. As usual, Holmes is able to describe the visitor in great detail, remarking on the man’s profession, his pet dog, his age, poor memory and even where he might live and work. When the owner of the stick returns to collect it, Holmes is of course proved correct. The man introduces himself as Dr Mortimer and confirms that he recently moved from a post in a London hospital to one in Devonshire. His new post however, has brought him into contact with an ancient family curse, detailing a gruesome and murderous legend.

Sherlock Holmes is initially not impressed and waves Doctor Mortimer’s tale aside as only being of interest to “a collector of fairytales”. However, his interest grows when Mortimer reveals details of the recent death at Baskerville Hall of its owner, Sir Charles Baskerville. Mortimer is convinced that the Baronet’s death cannot be due to natural causes and mentions the footprints found near the dead man’s body. Holmes is still not convinced, until Mortimer utters those immortal words:

“Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound.”

If Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing career had gone the way he expected, we might never have heard of ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. Doyle wanted to leave his famous detective behind and move on to other novels (such as the Professor Challenger series), but the popularity of Sherlock Holmes got the better of him. The ‘death’ of the great detective at the hands of the evil Professor Moriarty (under the magnificent backdrop of the Reichenbach Falls), was a step too far for Holmes’ fans and Doyle eventually succumbed to public opinion. Finding a way to reinstate his illustrious hero however, took a little longer – Holmes eventually returned in ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’. In the meantime Doyle penned one of his most thrilling tales. Set before the events in ‘The Final Problem’ Doyle pits his hero against an unusual foe.

This classic tale of murder, mystery and spectral hounds on the sinister and ominous moors will keep you reading till its thrilling climax.

 

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