How low can you go?

Wordcount, that is. The 100 word One Tight Write competition, run by A Word with You Press, is going great guns. It's remarkable how much you can fit into such a small space, like the literary equivalent of the joke about fitting four elephants in a Mini.

There's still time to enter - the competition, not the Mini (because it's full of elephants, silly) and win the $100 - details here:

I've written 50 and 60 word stories in the past, but the most celebrated short story is surely Ernest Hemingway's masterpiece: For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.

The Arvon Foundation ran its own six short words competition earlier this year and these were my entries (with thanks to fellow writer Susie, who is better at archiving my emails than I am):

One survives, one dies; now choose.

Last human, online; then instant message.

Congratulations! I blanch, knowing I'm impotent.

Good to see you again, Lucifer.

Published at last and no one suspects.

Till death us do part... goodbye.

Pro Temp

Every freelance writer is in effect a working temp - and sometimes just a temp. And when work is slow, the only thing to do is follow Dolly Parton's mantra and work 9 to 5 for someone else, using whatever skills you picked up before the writing zephyr swept you out of the conventional jobs market. The sensible approach is to sign up with as many agencies as possible and to not make too many comments about how this is just a stopgap until your real work picks up.

I received a phone call not so long ago from an agency I hadn't realised I'd signed up with. Partly because I hadn't. It's a little complicated so I'll fast-forward. Eight days' work, office admin: keyboarding, some telephone work and some data input. An 8am start for a 9 hour day and less than a quid above minimum wage, which I'm not knocking in any way because that's what I signed up to do. Of course, I didn't know it was only half an hour for lunch or that minimal training referred to what we'd receive as opposed to what we'd need to do the job effectively. Or that the term DSE break could be an exotic inclusion in a conversation. Some of the staff were brilliant - helpful, warm and welcoming. Others took their cue from the work of Dickens.

Day 2, having spent an entire Day 1 in front of the screen, we were informed we had to also answer the phones by the third ring, naturally then having to ask the permanent staff what to do with the call. This made us as popular, it seemed to me, as a Conservative MP at a student bar. Or an angry student at a Royal Variety Performance. Day 3 I like to think we temps were getting in our stride and, taking encouragement from our supervisor, chomping at the bit to clear the backlog, answering the phones (all crisis calls of one kind or another, requiring information, a decision or action) with increasing confidence and looking forward to the following week to see what we'd be allocated to do.

Five minutes before the end of the day, we were called into an office and thanked for the sterling effort we'd put in and the work achieved. The pride in the room was palpable. Then, in a much less confident voice, the supervisor told us that unfortunately, the management had now decided our services could be dispensed of that night instead of the end of the following week. The blow was slightly softened for me by knowing I had something to go back to, albeit a week earlier than planned. But everyone was pretty shellshocked, including the supervisor who had to deal the dolorous stroke. A temp's working life is a precarious one, when you consider the job insecurity. the money and the prospects once you get there.

And speaking of money...

In writing professionally, there are different models for success. Hourly rate or payment per word are but two ways of determining how well you're doing. There's also the kudos of getting a piece into a national or a hallowed column or a much longed-for novel in print, regardless of the financial benefits. It's also a movable feast (and famine). Since I gripped the pen in earnest, I have earned minimum wage for writing and occasionally scribed for free; at the other, more comfortably seated end of the scale, I have written for over £100 per hour. It all depends on the work.

Now, if you're keen to try your hand at a really short story, why not check out A Word with You Press's One Tight Write competition (or contest, for our American friends). 100 words with $100 for the winner - that's a pretty good rate of return by anyone's standards: time or word count. Go get 'em tigers.

After a flurry of activity

Thanks to the encouragement of fellow writers Susie and Kath, I signed up to the National Novel Writing Month, which takes place every November. If you've got a novel that's stuck in you - or even if you only think you have - it's a great way to focus on that all-important first draft. Sure, a lot of what you produce will be pants; the object of the exercise is quantity rather than quality - you can worry about the editorial scalpel later on.

I managed 42,500 of the target 50,000 for the month and an 85% success rate is good enough for me. I had already written 19,000 of Scars & Stripes so I'm now somewhere around the two thirds mark. Keeping to a schedule (most of the time) has produced new scenes, unexpected character interactions and put me in a better position to complete the first draft by mid January - allowing for the festive season, the usual rollercoaster of motivation and slacking off, and anything else that gets in the way.

Writing a novel that's loosely based on personal experience has another dimension to it, in that you're borrowing from real events and real people. Once the first draft is done, there'll be a cover-up exercise that would make WikiLeaks blush. But for now, I'm happy just to have got past that difficult halfway mark, having wriggled through the tunnel of self doubt.

And best of all, I tell myself, when the first draft is done, in keeping with time-honoured tradition, I can put S&S to rest for a while and either get back into editing Line of Sight or start another new novel. Or maybe I could leave that one on the backburner until next November.



It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to see that we’re in difficult financial waters because the signs are staring us in the face. Whether it’s the tragedy that has befallen our nearest neighbour, Ireland, or gits like Lord Young telling us we’ve never had it so good, times are definitely hard.

So you can understand that banks and building societies (unless they’re the same thing these days – I forget) are now doing everything in their power to get new business. And I do mean everything. One building society has identified a market that has been largely untouched. I’m talking, of course, about the dead.

If this sounds like a sick joke, believe me it’s nothing compared to the letter I got last week, addressed to my brother who died 5 years ago. And they’d helpfully put ‘Dec’d’ after the name, just in case I’d forgotten. But to give credit where credit is due (no pun intended), they also remembered that I’d been the Administrator of his estate. Good to know that their records are up to date, after a fashion.

Apparently, he still has zero shares, presumably on account of still being deceased. Owning shares while in the afterlife is against the rules, I gather. But all is not lost; there was a handy shares application form prefilled in my late brother’s name, plus the legally required Dec’d. They think of everything, these customer-driven financial services.

I phoned the 10p a minute number to inquire what the flip they thought they were playing at, quoted the shares account reference and was asked to confirm my name. “I’m the living one on the letter,” I identified myself.

The poor soul on the other end of the line apologised and explained that some bright spark – my words – had ‘run a script’ based on anyone who still had money in the BS (and for now, let’s take that to still mean Building Society). So, not only do they want my brother to buy shares, they’ve also been holding on to £5 of his money for the last 5 years. And then they wonder why people don't trust banks any more.

July 2011 update

The issue hung in the air for months, my response email and follow-up letter ignored. The longer it went on, the more it bothered me. And I mean REALLY bothered me.

I wrote again to the Head of Quality, who again passed it down the line like a lead paperweight. And even though they've apologised - twice - and now reviewed the matter, and 'taken steps to ensure this doesn't happen again', and finally made a donation to Macmillan Cancer Nurses, I came to realise that six months of outrage can be a difficult thing to set aside.

So I wrote and thanked them for their resolution and explained that, in order to draw a line under the matter, I'd now sold my few shares. Today I received a gift hamper from the Executive Complaint Team, which was a kind gesture. In a no-win situation, I think we've at least reached a no-score draw.

Gym Nasty

I have a friend – let’s call him Zak for anonymity – and he’s exercise-a-phobic. Even the thought of going to the gym brings him out in a sweat. Which he accepts is useful as he could afford to lose a few pounds.

The way he figures it, the gym is just a way for fit people to feel good about themselves. Anyone who is slightly misshapen – by media standards – had best keep away.

For starters, he has to use the lowest weight settings, which is like using a loudhailer to announce to the world: “I’m weak.” The last time he tried an exercise bike, he got so saddle sore that his face wasn’t the only part of his body that ended up bright red. And rowing machines? Like Zak says, he’ll wait until global warming makes it necessary to learn how to row a boat. Because at that point he’s confident he’ll figure it out in no time at all.

“What about exercise classes?” I asked him. “You know, a gentle stretch and tone, just to start you off?”

“Believe me,” he said, “I’m stretched already. And I have the stretch marks to prove it.”

Zak gave up sports after college, apart from the very popular sport of drinking beer. Maybe that’s why one of his biceps is quite well developed; I’m hoping that’s the reason anyway…

So what’s a guy to do? Well, step forward our forever friend, the Internet. I did some trawling on his behalf (it was a Friday night and Friday night is beer night) and found the perfect solution for him – an elliptical trainer. With one of those babies, he has no excuse not to get as fit as he tells me he plans to be.

And Zak says? He says thanks a lot, but there are more machines out than suspect politicians and he’s not really into reading unless it’s beer bottles or ingredients. So back to the web I go, in search of a site that has elliptical reviews.

And thanks to a nifty site - - Zak can find the perfect machine for his frame and his wallet before he commits himself, by reading their consumer reports and ratings.

Then he can get the right machine and exercise at home and at his own pace, which is what he says he wants to do. And to help him along, I’ve promised to do something for him too – stop writing about him!

Check your notes

Every book on writing I've ever tried to read in a shop and every workshop I've attended have all had the same piece of advice - carry a notebook with you at all times. That's fine for recording what's going on around you, but it takes on a different dimension when you're writing about your own experiences as they happen.

I can't say that a writer's dairies (or journals) are any more honest than those people who don't write - mine certainly weren't in days gone by. But I did note little details which, with the passage of time, now surprise me. In the course of writing Scars and Stripes I dug out my chapter outlines and a faded print of 'American Adventures', a set of monologues that never saw the light of day. Some of it makes interesting reading. I didn't recall, for example, that while in hospital after a car accident, someone in the next cubicle was being given the Last Rites. Or that I'd faithfully recorded a phone conversation on paper with a Mr Wank, a man randomly assigned to me for a market research call.

The notes aren't exhaustive and they're inevitably biased. But I have another treasure from the past. I rediscovered - in the attic this very day - a cassette tape that a 21 year-old me sent home from New York. He rambles a little and his concentration after the blow to the head isn't brilliant. And he's a little full of himself when he speaks, as all twenty somethings ought to be. And he's every bit as sinusy as I am now. But when I hear him speak, I can also hear his isolation and his dreams and I suddenly have a hot line to all the things he didn't want to say.

Then suddenly I glimpse a truth both powerful and daunting. This novel I'm writing is about real people, whose lives briefly intersected mine. And while it's fine to use my experiences as source material for the plot and characterisation, I owe it to all of us, the heroes and villains and every shade in between, to do it all justice. I need to make it a good book that doesn't trivialise the emotional journey or lessen the impact of the loss of innocence - the same loss we all go through when we realise that life doesn't bend to our exclusive desires and that sometimes we're just dealing with circumstance.

I have to make good on that journey because I owe it to the people who aren't around any more.

"To err is human, to forgive is divine. And to forget is folly."

Post Script

I'd like to add that, awkward as it was to hear my past on tape, I'm really glad I stuck with it right to the end. And that I kept the tape all this time. What he doesn't say is as powerful as what he chooses to share. And it all helps me understand where the protagonist's character needs to veer away from what actually happened, even if it still draws upon those events, people and emotions. And hopefully I understand myself a little more too, which is one of the happy byproducts of being a writer!

Right to (a) Reply

I don't often do requests, but a fellow writer who has browsed this blog recently took me to task. He said I was being less than honest about those agents and publishers which have been a little tardy, neglectful or outspoken with their communications.

I maintained - and still do - that it's not only unprofessional to name names, but it's hardly a proven employment strategy. However, as a halfway house - and to provide a little amusement - here's a little update of my recent writing adventures, presented as.... The Face Slap awards 2010,

THE 'YOU MATTER TO US' AWARD - Novel submission 5th Feb 2009. I contacted them for an update four months later and a month after that I got an email from 'slushmaster' to say they'd accidentally deleted my submission. Seven months after my submission, they rejected it because, 'They liked it but didn't love it'.

THE 'CONSIDERATE AGENT' AWARD - Novel synopsis Jan 2009. Phone message left four months later. I subsequently sent them in three chapters and, over the eight month hiatus, left a phone message and subsequently sent a registered letter. At this point I got an email back to say they'd sent my material back months before. Needless to say, I never received it.

THE 'FRUGAL STATIONERY' AWARD - Novel submission - rejected two months later with a badly photocopied strip, about an eighth of an A4 page, that began 'Dear Writer'.

THE 'RIGHT IN THE KISSER' AWARD - Novel submission - rejected three months later with: "...we regret to inform you that it's not what we would consider publishing. We are looking for refreshing new writers who can deliver new and exciting work. We felt that your novel was an old take in a genre that has been stale for a long time." Ouch!

THE 'ECONOMIC DOWNTURN' AWARD - Novel submission query Nov 2009. Feb 2010 reply to say they're starting a fiction imprint, but the author has to purchase 150 copies- I ask for more details of their projected sales and distribution, etc. Two months later, without a response, I send in three chapters and my original queries. Three months later I leave them a phone message. Three months after that, I send a registered letter requesting the return of my material. A month later, still no response - they're obviously in need of my stamps.

And finally, as recently as today...

THE 'SHOULDER SHRUG' AWARD - Humour submission by email 24/03. Phone call four months later - they found the email and realised it hadn't been opened. Four months later, emailed for an update. One month later, phoned and was told 'We only publish three humour books a year so... like... we've already got our quota..."

Congratulations, it's a... book

I'm pleased to announce that The Coffee Shop Chronicles, Vol 1, Oh the Places I have Bean is now available for purchase and adoption.

This is our first anthology at A Word with You Press and evolved from a writing competition themed around coffee. We had a whale of a time putting the anthology together and we're still in the aftermath glow, smoking cigars and looking down at junior with a sense of pride and happy fatigue. There's a wide variety of material in the anthology including fiction (of many descriptions), true tales and poetry. A short story of mine, Diner, can be found within.

Here's the link to splash your cash:

The long and short of it (or Going for Bronze)

I heard over the weekend that my entry into the Kate Nash 'Great Novel Openings' competition did not progress past the long list.

I was thrilled to make it to the final 29 out of 500 entries, but although bronze is still a medal, it's not the silver of the short list nor the gold of the winner.

Whenever a work gets rejected there's a temptation to create your own TV programme: CSI Manuscript. A flotilla of unanswered (and, frankly, unanswerable) questions bob up and down before you, with the misguided notion that there is a guaranteed system to ensure a contract and, ultimately, publication.

What you can do is write well, gain experience, get writing credits, do your research, present your work in the best possible light and persevere. What you can't do is complain, assume the agent / editor has made a terrible mistake (and worse, tell them so), stop writing or afford to spend too much time frowning into your flatscreen.

Feedback is invaluable in these circumstances, but again, one must remember that literary agents and editors have a business to run and sometimes, however well written a book is, it just doesn't fit the list or something better has come along. If in doubt, write something else.

It has been said (by me) that the staple diet of most writers is jam tomorrow, humble pie and hard cheese - with lemons to follow. And as the saying goes, when life gives you lemons.... suck 'em up!

Taking stock

There's a mixed bag of emotions whenever my co-writer David French and I get a magazine to print. We produce two a year - on a good year - and it's very much a labour of love. Ideally, it would be a labour of wealth and recognition too, but that's never been the main consideration.

Every writer knows, or yearns to know, the singular joy of seeing something you've created right there in print, in your hand or on a shelf. You feel like you've accomplished a great journey and indeed you have. Along the road from initial ideas to writing and rewriting, you'll have learned a lot and probably suffered a little too.

But for the independent or self-publisher, there's an added dimension to the puzzle. Because now you have to sell your wares, which is a whole different set of skills. Marketing, sales and even that battle cry of the modern age, customer service, are all required. You need to know your market and, unless you're fabulously wealthy or fabulously indifferent to money, you need to run at a profit.

The conversations we're having at the moment though centre around whether you can judge a magazine by its cover, or by its sales figures or by the enthusiasm of its supporters.

Like the wind

As far as I know, Albert Einstein and I have three things in common.

1. We both enjoyed daydreaming at work.
2. We both worked in a Patent Office at some point
3. * We both came to believe that time is relative.

Our external experience of time seems to be influenced by our individual perspective and by our internal experience. Try waiting for a bus in the rain, or for a phone call about a loved one in hospital.

For writers, who – to really stretch the scientific metaphor – are usually the centre of their own universe, we could multiple this effect by ten.

Now, the general rule of thumb for submissions to literary agents and publishers is that a 12-week turnaround is standard. That’s with a strong prevailing wind, the reply email not falling into the black hole that is the spam folder and / or the posted reply actually making it to your letterbox.

But is that realistic in this day and age?

My own experiences tend to suggest that either:
a) I’m peculiarly unlucky where time is concerned – unlikely, but darkly amusing all the same
b) The sheer volume of people who want to be writers and the incredible competitiveness of the industry right now make a 3 month response time at best aspirational.

Readers of previous postings will recall that I waited over a year for a proof edit of one of my novels, only for the publisher to then go out of business. I’ve also emailed publishers and agents alike, only to wait up to 9 months to get a reply, which often runs to ‘Yes – please submit something’ or ‘No’.

Writers write in a vacuum and it’s easy to assume conspiracies or incompetence when the plain truth is that people are busy and / or things go missing.

Recently, after waiting 8 months for a response from one person, having sent in an email, a query letter, sample material and – that most cardinal of sins - having left a telephone message, I got to the point of no return. I sent them a registered letter and politely asked for my material back. There swiftly followed an email from an assistant, assuring me my submission was posted back to me at the end of July. I have not only never received anything, but I actually left the phone message in August (indicating that I haven’t had any response). As fellow blogger Monika (at Mother Road) might say: go figure.

At the other end of the scale, I know of a literary agent who generally answers emails within two days, personally. My beef isn’t with the time it takes, it’s about managing people’s expectations. When I worked in Corporate-ville, the email rule of thumb went along the lines of:
1. All emails will be responded to within 48 hours, even if that response only consists of a more realistic timescale for a meaningful response.
2. If you genuinely hadn’t answered an email for five months, someone would bounce you around the foyer with the flat end of a keyboard.

It never did us any harm, I assure you.

* Obviously, I’m no scientist so I may have misunderstood his premise entirely, but hey, this is a blog and generally blogs are pretty flaky.

Perception is everything

I saw this item in a shop in Penzance and was so surprised that I had to look it up on the web.

I'm pretty sure, when they all sat around a table and came up with the branding that they saw things very differently to me.

As it happens, my bum is pretty flat so maybe it would benefit from having pits added.

Out to Lunch or on to something?

Every writer knows what it is to create in a vacuum, producing material that few people may ever see. One way around this, to paraphrase Mickey Rooney, is to go and put on a show yourself.

Kathrin Smirke (I know, neat name for a comedy performer!) has taken this to heart by creating, writing, starring in and producing her own web series (two on the site and another in development).

Check out and you'll find two films: The Pot Brownie and Pink Toilet Paper.

I won't spoil the plots, but I will say what I like about the episodes. The production values are great, the pieces are a little quirky, there are some laugh out loud moments and it makes a nice change to see something on the web that isn't just a swear-fest. (And yes, I know that comes across as a little ironic to anyone who's ever been stuck in traffic with me.)

And most of all, it's great to see someone getting out there and actually doing something creative, unlike some of the bitter and twisted bastards I encounter in the more run down parts of Netville.

Now, how can I make a sketch out of that?

Flip side

A little while ago, I was asked to be a judge in a writing competition (or 'contest' for our American friends). I'm by no means an expert, but I know what I like. The trouble was, there was an awful lot of what I liked. Some stories challenged me, others amused me (always an easy route into my psyche) and some just nailed a sentiment or an idea.

How do you choose though? The answer, you'll be pleased to hear, is 'with great difficulty'. Different things can put you off a piece of writing (and we're skipping font, size, sticky finger marks and the other usual culprits - lavender oiled paper person, you know who you are). The process is highly subjective and it pays to continually remind yourself that you're looking for good writing. Not necessarily the way you'd write - I'd go further and say that different is better.

But... time and attention span are finite and inevitably little filters start applying. If a lot of the spelling is bad, it makes you question whether that's the tip of the iceberg. If the word count is beyond the competition limit, that's another strikeout. If the competition subject requirement has been ignored or is such an obvious shoe-in for a previously written piece of work which barely mentions the theme that you want to shout FOUL, that's a strikeout as well.

Then it's crunch time, when I and my fellow judges weigh up the respective merits of the finalist entries. It's the time when you offer up your favourites and find out other people rated them too (arguably, a good sign) or hated them (arguably, also a good sign).

And the creeping idea that won't go away, as you eventually make some person's day (because, like Highlander, there can only be one) and shatter a few other people's hopes, is that this must be a lot like being a literary agent. And when some of the other entrants, not unreasonably, ask for feedback so they can improve next time - or try and retrospectively argue their case - you realise you're treading on other people's dreams (of being a writer) and everyone's as vulnerable as WB Yeats.

A Bug's Life

Today I discovered three things:
1. Ebay ads don't live forever - they get sent to the internet Knacker's Yard.
2. My CV / resume has still been referring out to a link that's been knackered, which might explain why there hasn't been a flurry of similar ad work hitting my inbox. (Well, that's one explanation...)
3. A blog is a good place to archive old material where it can live out its dotage without fear of extermination, at least until the internet reaches meltdown. (Come back Arpanet, all is forgiven.)

The following is an ebay ad I wrote for Kyle, who had decided to part company with this, his much loved vehicle. His brief was for an ad that was original, witty and memorable. I went for a character piece and, with a little tweaking, here's what the finished article looked like. He received inquiries from across the US and sold his Beetle - everyone loves a happy ending.

2001 Volkswagen Beetle- New, Burberry

If you’re looking for a car that makes a statement, then look no further. Yep, this is it – the vehicle of your dreams – a classic 2001 VW Beetle with Manual Transmission. Nothing short of showing up to your destination in an Iron Man suit will get you more attention than being in this car. James Bond may have his Aston Martin, Batman his batmobile and the Scooby Doo gang their mystery machine, but you, my friend, you can have a designer car that will never go out of fashion. Because it’s never been in fashion – no, it’s in style.

I know, I know, it’s not what you’re used to. And people will point and stare, right? Let them gaze on you with envy. Your *sshole neighbor, the douche bag at the lights in his 911 Turbo and every John and Jane on the milk and eggs run to the 7-Eleven. This car makes all other vehicles seem like they have attention deficit.

But it’s not just a pretty face (okay, bodywork then). You want amazing gas mileage? This car has it. Point B from Point A, this car gets you there comfortably and in style. And yes, this kind or originality takes some getting used to. But it drives really well.
Which is great because you'll want to pull away quickly at intersections before the crowds gather. There’s only so many times you want to appear on your local news channel: cool car holds up traffic again; owner of most awesome car in world hassled for autographs in 50mile traffic jam. You get the idea.

So how did I end up with a car like this?
Was it a bet, a creative girlfriend who thought she knew better, or the last VW model in the showroom? It's a long story. Let's just say that I lost the bet, my girlfriend dumped me - for some *sshole conceptual artist - and I worried that all my angry tears might damage the interior.

It was a great car for me, with many happy memories of my two-faced ex, including the tear-stained night she left me, and the time I parked outside a retirement block and the residents all thought they'd developed vision problems. This car will tell you who you're friends are. Chicks love its originality and, by extension, yours (even if you don't have any).

In fact this VW is everything my girlfriend wasn't - it's economical to take on the road, a pleasant ride and handles well. You won't regret it. So why am I selling it? Well, let me say three words to you: Vegas, Road Trip. That’s right, this dream of a car will not only make you happy but the proceeds of the sale will enable me to fulfill a long held ambition to get wasted in the capital city of planet wasted.

Wanna know more? Then here are the specs:
1. 2001 VW Beetle Manual Transmission – so you can play at being in Herbie, only without Lindsay Lohan for company.
2. Roll up windows – kinder to the environment and good exercise for arms.
3. Hardly any "luxury" options – because with a car this good, every drive is a luxury experience.
4. Gets ridiculous, unbelievable gas mileage - honestly. You’ll be laughing all the way from the bank.
5. Runs great – renowned VW engineering.
6. Has tinted windows - otherwise known as counter-paparazzi intelligence. And great for looking mysterious at the lights.
7. Neuspeed Air Intake – yeah, like either of us know what that means! Just know that it’s great for the car’s performance.
8. Cloth interior, no rips or tears, a few coffee stains – lived in but loved. Kinda loved in.
9. Original owner – yes, I was its first and it’ll always respect me.
10. Clean title and title in hand. Sir VW.
11. Only 134,000 luscious and affordable miles on the clock.

The wrap can be removed, but I can't imagine why you would ever want to remove it, you might even make it angry. And you won't like it, when it's angry.


As the picture shows, a little foraging can remind you why living in the countryside is such a pleasure. The onset of autumn is a time of reaping what was sown both literally and metaphorically - the things that grew, anyway.

One glance at my trusty spreadsheet tells me that it's been a mixed harvest. I have lost business for the first time, but learned valuable lessons in the process. I have done spec work which led to nothing. I have narrowed my focus and drawn back from the scatter-gun approach. And I've fallen a little out of love with Craigslist. Not the site itself, which is as entertaining and thought provoking as ever. But the return on my investment of time and effort there is decreasing so it's time to adapt and seek new markets.

As you may have noticed on this blog, I'm in the early stages of a new novel and enjoying the process immensely. This book is different in that I already had the chapters plotted out at the start and now I'm weaving in new and alternate story lines. It should also be a standalone work.

Meanwhile, in another part of town, I was delighted to have made the long-list in literary agent Kate Nash's first 500 words competition:

And a short story of mine will shortly appear in the first A Word With You Press anthology - - and I'm waiting to hear (that phrase is surely the writer's constant companion) about some short fiction appearing in two other publications.

I'm heading in the right direction, but I could still do with a few signposts.

Don't bank on it

I think I must be the only person I know who keeps a bank account as a keepsake. It's a little connection to my late brother - it was his account, before it became our account, before it became my account - and it's also to remind me of possibly the worst customer experience I am ever likely to have.

If you read this blog regularly, you may know that my brother and I had a close if contentious relationship. One thing I will say for him though is that he was a meticulous planner. So, when he became seriously ill, he added my name to his staff account at the bank. That way, when the inevitable came, the funeral arrangements could be made without a fuss. Once it was done, we didn't discuss it again, except when he saw that they'd printed my name before his on the chequebook and got it changed, or when he told me that he'd received my bank card at the flat and had cut it up. Life can be complicated for brothers.

After David died (and even now, those three words have a crushing finality about them), I went through all the processes like an automaton, guided by a close friend of his. Living in Cornwall, she kindly arranged some flowers for me for the service and I wrote her a cheque from 'the account'. You can imagine her distress when her bank bounced the cheque and returned it as 'Account Holder Deceased'. I ranted at the bank and they explained it was procedure, even though it was a joint account and I was not only alive, but seething. I was also told that I'd have to go to his local branch to deal with it, which I did after collecting the ashes - I have to say, not my best week of all time.

In the branch, the manager spoke to Supplier Liaison and determined that not only had the cheque bounced, but the account had been frozen. Supplier Liaison don't make mistakes, apparently; and neither do they write to account holders when they've frozen their accounts like this. The branch manager, to her credit, raged almost as much as I had and the account was reinstated with the promise of a written explanation within two weeks. I'm sure you all know the banks well enough now to realise that the letter never arrived.

So far so bad. Well, David had three savings bonds which he'd taken out less than a year before he died. Each was for a different term and, naturally, these all had to be redeemed as part of the resolution of his estate. Bonds 1 and 3 were closed in a timely fashion, but I had to chase the middle Bond for another two weeks because, ' seems that the paper got stuck to the bottom of the first sheet and was mislaid or forgotten.'

The final insult came when, having dealt with most of the bureaucracy which has to be attended to in such circumstances, the bank contacted me to offer their services, in the processing of his will and effects. And, lucky me, because he'd been an employee of the bank, they could do it all for a mere £4000 or thereabouts. This, for a single man with a flat and few complications. Generous to a fault, the bank even offered me an extra discount on the day (they sent a representative to my home, on a no obligation basis), when I was walking said rep back to her car. Consistent to the end.

And now, every time I go to a local branch, they look at the account and see that I'm 'staff' and ask me if I'm retired (a London division banking sort code) or on holiday. I smile sweetly and tell them I've never worked for the bank and that the bank has never worked for me.

Shades of grey

Usually, when I start a post, I have a clear idea of what I want to say or at the very least some semblance of a point I want to make. Not so today. I haven't even figured out where I stand on the following situation, but it grabbed my attention and now it's all yours.

On Radio 4 today, there was a short piece about cuts to the Arts Council's budget. I missed the beginning, but I gather from other sources that the Arts Council has to reduce its overall budget by £19m. This will mean a direct cut of £1.8m of funding, affecting around 800 arts organisations.

The radio interview was with one of the owners of Flambard Press ( - I'm afraid I didn't catch her name. Flambard Press has a reputation for innovative authors and I've submitted material to them this year without success. That's not relevant to this post; it's just some context.

So, the owner explained that Flambard Press has been going for 20 years and has received Arts funding since its inception, and currently receives £21,000 a year. She made a convincing case for the importance of independent publishers like Flambard and that £21k is a small sum in the great scheme of things. (I was reminded of the £78m of National Lottery funding given to the Royal Opera House, back in the 90s.)

I came to the arts arena after leaving my corporate job, with two unpublished novels in hand and the promise of publication within a year. Over a year later, I'm come to see the arts world in an entirely different light. Different rules apply and it is a hand-to-mouth environment. Success, it appears, is judged by other criteria. It seems to be more about fulfilling a niche need and it definitely helps to tap into the right networks. Some things have changed though. There are people will go out of their way to help you while there are others will smile as they pull up the ladder behind them and make sure that window of opportunity is securely locked.

So the idea that a publisher can be funded for 20 years was something of a revelation. I wish them every success and I'm flabbergasted, all at the same time. Mainly, I started to wonder. Could a writer get that kind of patronage?

Number 8*

As many of you will know, I've been reporting on the growing backlash against opportunities for writers which offer no pay but promise exposure and a writing credit. There's a lot of debate over what constitutes an internship, where a website or printed publication offers a reasonable prospect of developing a readership and when someone else is just earning at your expense.

In all of those discussions and ballista exchanges, the common feature has been that the owners of these websites and publications have been upfront about the lack of paid prospects at the outset.

Today, in a quiet moment when I needed a break from editing Line of Sight, I did a plagiarism search using

Imagine my surprise to find my writing repeated on this link - without any permission on my part or crediting me with the authorship. I've written to with my own version of a Cease & Desist email so watch this space.

How and why did this happen?
A good question. It all seemed to start when I answered an add to write a blog post containing the name E-r-k-i-n B-e-k-b-o-l-o-t-o-v. And they paid me, too. The blog-thief (a novel title if ever I heard one) only appeared after my E-B posting so maybe it was a sprat to catch a mackerel, or in this case, my content. It could be completely unrelated though. Whatever the case, it's made me more vigilant about my content and where it ends up.

* Number 8 = thou shalt not steal.

Character forming

I've been editing my second thriller, Line of Sight, a work in progress. Perhaps because I know the characters better (from Standpoint), I find it easier to get swept along with the manuscript as a book and sometimes have to pull myself back to the editor's chair. One thing I have observed is the way in which small details illustrate character. The way Thomas irons his tie for a funeral or the way Karl cracks jokes when he's aware of tension. Or the way Miranda bursts the bubble of intimacy with a well aimed crude comment or two.

I've also turned that lens on people I met upon life's journey. Small details, and each one of them a billboard of the soul.

Mick, who made a key ring made from a dead dog's ear, supposedly as a mark of respect.
Michael - no connection - who spent a whole weekend turning my angst ridden teenage lyrics into songs and recorded them for me.
A nameless former colleague who put on the lingerie that his wife refused to wear (once she'd gone out of the room).
The man who put a cold hammer against my temple and demanded money.
The woman who thought it'd be funny to share an intimate secret, just to see what would happen.
A landlady who lowered the rent just because we got on so well.

Maybe character is best revealed by those things we do when we have freedom of choice and there's no one else around.

Hogwarts Lives On thanks to Erkin Bekbolotov and his friends

First came the books.

Then came the film.

Then came the merchandising.

Then came the other films.

Then came more merchandising.

Then came the theme park.

And now there's... Mugglespace.

I checked out a sample member - Erkin Bekbolotov is an MBA graduate with a self-confessed HP obsession. Then I remembered that I've still got all the books and - like Erkin - my favourite book is Chamber of Secrets.

Now if I could just drum up some publicity (and a publisher) for my own books, I'd be a happy man!


Kipling may have written: ‘… If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same…’ but I’ll bet his novel hasn’t just been declined by a major UK publishing house. Of the two imposters, I know which one I’d like to write to me!

There are several positives, despite their decision. The editor in question had generously allowed me to resubmit an excerpt from Standpoint after a full edit. And she'd passed it to one of their senior commissioning editors, who specialises in crime and thrillers. So I can’t say my manuscript hasn't been given a fair opportunity.

There was some useful feedback as well: ‘…although she thinks you write well and clearly have potential in this area, she did not think that the material was strong enough yet since it is extremely tough to break out a new author in the thriller market. She complimented the pace of your writing, but felt that the beginning of the novel was confusing and that Miranda’s role did not flow naturally.

Her advice would be that, rather than submitting direct to publishers, which is a notoriously difficult route, you should find an agent to represent you and to work with on your writing.’

Naturally, I'll heed the advice of the professionals. I'll take a fresh look at the opening scenes and ponder what could be done about Miranda, and what she'll let me do. And of course, I'll review my trusty spreadsheet of thriller literary agents; I might even chase up the one who's taken 5 months to not respond to me so far.

And I'll do all this with a clear sense of purpose, trying to ignore that inner critic's voice, which whispers, 'What if your novel just isn't good enough, whatever you do to it?'

Right this minute though, having waited six months for news, I can't help feeling like the contestants in Bullseye who lost out in the final round, when Jim Bowen puts a fatherly arm around them and says, "Come and have a lot at what you would have won."

Meantime, if you know of any literary agents looking for thrillers, point them in my direction.

Newsletter from afar

Show me a person who doesn't like the smell of money and I'll show them to an Ear, Nose & Throat specialist. And that still holds for American money. So, without further ado, here's a newsletter from a writing community that I frequent on the other side of the Atlantic. I've mentioned them before and I present again, the latest adventure from

News letter

Subject Line $100

We’ve come up with another contest and another chance for you to win a wallet-sized portrait of Ben Franklin.
The chance discovery of a 1929 edition of Literary Digest in the insulation of an old clap-board house inspires our current contest “Ain’t that Quaint.” An advertisement within the faded covers lists twenty truisms of the day, including such gems as “All bootleggers own high-powered cars” (well, don’t they?) or “Eating ice cream after eating lobster is fatal”. These and other words of wisdom are the prompts for the competition. Write about three of them and win a hundred bucks. Details here:

Congratulations to Juan Vandendorp, $100 winner of our previous contest The Coffee Shop Chronicles for his extraordinary piece, which beat out a hundred and fifty other entries. Read his prize winner here:

In other news, starting on June 27th, we will have two new features, The Artist Alcove edited by the talented and lovely Kristy Webster, which will expand our services to do for visual artists what we currently do for writers—contests, blogs, interviews, and an on-line gallery with a chance to show, sell, and buy original works of art. Sneak preview of what it’s all about? Check out Kristy’s greeting to you here:
(did I mention talented and lovely?)

This Sunday also marks the debut of Wuss n’ Boots, two felines currently residing in the UK who will appear as a weekly cartoon feature courtesy of their personal assistant, Ruth Joyce. The boys will dispense their wisdom to all you cat fanciers who just don’t understand kitty-hood. Read the strip, and send in your comments and questions and personal complaints about your kitties, and let Wuss n’ Boots resolve your issues and dissolve your worries. The cat is let out of the bag the 27th of June.

And our final bit of news, for those of you who are San Diego centric, A Word with You Press will host its first open mic night on Saturday, the 26th, the event a triple header-not only open mic but also a bar-b-que and surprise birthday party for the editor-in-chief (that would be me). Details here:

We’ve got tons of stuff going on, new features and a growing staff. Check out our new calendar of events, and our team bios when you come for a visit at
Next newsletter we’ll tell you about our non-profit program KidXpress that pairs at-risk kids with a writing mentor. We’ll crank up their abilities with the written word, and we’ll turn a dozen kids a month who hide in the back of English class hoping they are not called upon into published authors, in an anthology of their own. We’ll have a book signing, press alert and…but that in the next newsletter, along with an invitation for a roof top party at the 1010 Building on July 17th to watch the sun go down over the pier in Oceanside, California

Bye for now!

Thorn Sully

England 1 USA 1

When it comes to writing short fiction, there are two narrative voices in my head.

One is British and varies in tone and class; the other is American, either East Coat or West Coast. It's a combination of past history and the fiction that seems to grab me.

Several times, I'll just hear a voice and an opening line. Then I turn detective and identify its source and what the room is like. Sometimes I see faces but not always. The voice, though, is key because it reveals character and influences behaviour.

Not so long ago, I read a Raymond Carver anthology and his voices leapt off the page. They reverberated inside my head until, once I'd finished the book, I could still hear echoes.

One of those echoes became Saturday Night and is featured in the latest edition of Molotov Cocktail magazine:

Stranger than fiction

It’s said that one of the main appeals of murder mysteries is the sense of order that’s uncovered, thanks to the brilliant detective work. It’s also said – although I haven’t seen any hard evidence – that in times of economic recession and war, murder mysteries are more popular than ever.

But sometimes, life’s little incidents can be every bit as mysterious, if a lot less orderly

Picture the scene.

I’ve just come out of the temping agency where I’ve learned two things:
a) I know far less about Microsoft Word than I ever realised – it’s like a whole software package and not just for writing!
b) As a touch-typist, I can do sixty words a minute, as long as the word is ‘a’. Failing that, I can hammer out forty-five words a minute, using three fingers (no idea why), hampered by a four percent error rate.

Neither fact is relevant to what happens next, but I wanted to paint you a picture of my mental processes. Also, on my mind, is the possible find of a Neolithic or Medieval arrowhead, which I’m taking to the museum for verification.

Anyway, as I amble along, juggling thoughts of history with my inability to successfully merge documents, I hear a woman calling out to someone. I stop and turn towards her; she’s standing across the high street, holding a child’s hand, at the bus stop.

She waves and starts a one-sided conversation, of sorts. I naturally assume she’s talking to someone behind me because I’ve never seen her before. But gradually it dawns on me that she’s talking to me. She beckons me over, through the traffic, and immediately starts up like we’re old pals.
“How are you? What have you been up to – it’s been ages.”

Strangely, the kid beside her doesn’t make a sound. And no eye contact either. So now my cynicism comes to the fore and I’m waiting for the inevitable, ‘can you spare me a quid for bus fare,’ followed by a lengthy explanation of the dire emergency that necessitated coming out in a rush.

But no; she opens her purse, pulls out a mangled fiver and says, “Could you go to the chemist and buy me some Chesteze? I have to wait here for the bus.”

So, being a good if slightly bemused citizen, off I trot, fiver in hand. The chemist, three doors up, doesn’t have any, so I hurry back to return the fiver. The woman thanks me anyway, adding, “Would you like to buy a lucky charm?” I decline, she says ‘God Bless You,’ or something similar, and I go on my way.

Later, after the museum (who will let me know in four to six weeks), I’m having a belated birthday lunch with some friends I used to work with, and out the window I see the same woman and child. They evidently had second thoughts about that bus they needed to catch. And they’re still peddling lucky charms.

So what has gone on here?

My first thought was that Chesteze could be mildly addictive and the woman had bought there recently. My second thought, and one more plot driven, is that the fiver was counterfeit – and she wanted some Chesteze as well.

If it were fiction, the Good Samaritan (me, temporarily) could have been caught with the fake fiver and obliged to pay for the Chesteze himself, only to have the woman protest innocence afterwards. Or maybe the Chesteze had some calming effect on the child?

Anyway, it will have to remain one of life’s little mysteries. Except… except, the trusty internet tells me that Chesteze has been abused by partygoers and bodybuilders, so there are now restrictions on purchase and supply.

Finally, perhaps strangest of all, Chesteze is made by Do-Do. Whichever way you pronounce it, it’s a little odd, don’t you think?

Creativity, illness and The Silent Hills

A recent piece on the BBC website by Health report Michelle Roberts, caught my attention. Headlined 'Creative minds mimic schizophrenia', the article cited a conclusion drawn by scientists at Sweden's Karolinska Institute.

In essence, brain scans of highly creative people and those who suffer from schizophrenia show striking similarities.

You can read the BBC piece here:

We are, of course, used to the notion of the tortured genius, and it may be worth noting that a popular creative writing technique is to just close our eyes and listen to 'the voice within'. I have used this approach to good effect, on occasion, when a clear voice will come through and tell its story. In my opinion, when this does work, the stories themselves have a different quality and arrive whole, with little plot or narrative editing required.

I used to travel regularly between the West Country and London; so regularly that I'd trained myself to see travelling time as writing time. One time, I looked at the cover of a train mag and saw a tiny photo of green fields. From there, I hopped from Green Hills to Silent Hills. Then I closed my eyes and listened for that elusive voice from the depths of my imagination. I didn't stop to question what was coming or from where it had been influenced, I just waited and listened, as my pen hovered.

The Silent Hills arrived over the course of the journey, in free flow. The protagonist's voice was there from the start and my only real effort lay in keeping pace with him and writing down his words. When we pulled into Paddington, I ran to the Underground so I could sit down again and pick up the thread.

The story was published in Issue 2 of the Black Market Review and is available online:

The Silent Hills was also published by Musa Publishing as an ebook Oct 14th 2011 - Oct 13th 2014.

Thieves, Betrayers and Liars!

Thieves, Betrayers and Liars. No, not politicians; I am of course talking about writers.

We take whatever’s useful from the world around us. A line of dialogue heard at the bus stop, the core of a tragedy from the news, a scene that plays out before us in everyday life – we observe, we listen and we remember. Then we steal it away without anyone suspecting who we are and what we are.

Theft from strangers is one thing but we go a step further. We are betrayers of those we love, those we hate and even ourselves. We prise open the vault of the past and whisper its confidences to anyone willing to listen. Secrets and skeletons are our traded goods; anything for a line of text that ensnares the reader. Friends and partners tread warily around us once they know that our true loyalty is to the page.

Betrayal and stealing carry dire consequences - if we get caught. So we resort to lying, swearing that up is down, on the printed page; or that he was a she. We offer silver-tongued assurances that it is all just a coincidence, a similar event with no connection to something we were told in trust. Purposefully, we smelt the truth down and fashion it into new forms of our own design, revelling in our creations and the attention they bring.

Except… except, sometimes, in creating these works of fiction, we lose touch with the reality that was.

Recently, a kindly blog reader contacted me about my little American flashback ( and the novel I’m still picking at, which draws on personal experience to create drama and (I hope) comedy.

‘How do you think,’ my wily reader said, ‘the other people would write the story – how would they see you and everything that you depict.’ In other words, how was it for them? I have to confess that the notes I’ve put together don’t dwell too much on other people’s perspectives. But maybe, taking another person’s viewpoint and working with that as the starting point, opens up a much broader canvas.

Freelancers beware - a guest blog

Taking inspiration from the excellent Strictly Writing blog (available at, here is a guest blog from a working freelancer, with a cautionary tale to share.

With the enthusiasm of the novice freelancer, I was thrilled to win a new ‘contract’ with a specialist web site. (Although, actually, I never signed anything, nor did I receive anything in writing.)

The deal seemed straightforward enough. The site expected three or four articles a day on the areas it covered. Each piece was to be between 250 and 400 words long, and I was to receive the princely sum of £8 for each one. (When you’re freelancing, any scrap of work seems a godsend, and £24 a day adds up over time.) I would not be paid for any articles which were not used.

With hindsight the instructions were, arguably, not as clear as they might have been, with only a vague indication that the pieces should be ‘freshly written, and not regurgitated press releases.’ I was to go to two or three sources for each story, rather than relying on just one.

For a few months, it was an arrangement which, broadly speaking, worked. The site got its articles, I got my money. The work was enjoyable and regular, and I was paid on time. What more could any freelancer ask for? It also gave a framework to an otherwise unstructured day, a reason to get up and log on in the morning, and a guaranteed source of income each month.

When I first began writing for the site, I was given a bookmarked list of sources to trawl for stories. The site was read by employers, who used it mostly for the daily updates on changes to UK and EU law. So the bookmarked sites included the Confederation of British Industry, the TUC and other news sources.

As the weeks went by, I went through these stories every day, mindful of the need to demonstrate balance, such as representing both the trade union and employer sides of a particular story.

But I was also very aware that, at £8 a pop, each story had to be churned out quickly to remain worth my while. Too much time on each one would have left me almost in minimum wage territory. Some days, I just had too many things to juggle.

I relied heavily on my sources to hit deadlines, while following the initial advice to use more than one source per story. Where possible, I spoke to organisations directly for quotes, but, given the timescales, people rarely came back to me in time.

I tried to alter the wording, rather than doing a straight ‘cut and paste’ job. I certainly believed that I'd changed the wording enough. While it vaguely crossed my mind that plagiarism could be a potential issue, I had a naïve idea that Internet articles were in the public domain and therefore not subject to any copyright laws. How wrong could I be?

Out of the blue, one Monday morning in February, came an email from the website’s editor, explaining that a national personnel magazine from a large London publishing company (a competitor), had complained that our site had been plagiarising its content. The magazine cited three instances of copied articles, going back to December. My editor added that, while I could continue writing for him - at least for now - he had ordered a full investigation. The email included a warning that I could be the subject of legal action as a result.

All week, worried sick, I thought about little else. The Citizens’ Advice Bureau could only gulp that I should get myself a lawyer. A law centre offering help through Legal Aid promised to call back but never did. The NUJ couldn’t help as I wasn’t a member at the time.

A contact, a former lawyer, assured me, rightly, that I couldn’t personally be charged with plagiarism, or breaching copyright, only the website - as the publisher -could be. He reckoned I could mount a robust defence. When I heard from my editor again a few days later, confirming several incidences of plagiarism, my friend advised me to tone down my response, telling me I didn’t have to be so grovelling. I pointed out the problems with time, and stressed, truthfully, that the ‘plagiarised’ stories were the minority of my total output for the site. I was guilty of naivety, foolishness and downright carelessness, though not deliberate malice or knowing deception.

My editor telephoned me at the end of that week, and we thrashed out a resolution which did not involve legal action. Inevitably, it did mean I could no longer work for the site, and I agreed to write off what would have been my final invoice - worth over £500.

I also agreed to go back over every single story I had written for them (dozens and dozens, over the weeks) and cite the sources I had used for each. This took me at least a full day, and was, of course, unpaid. At the same time, the site reserved the right to take legal action in the future, should any further allegations arise.

The impact on my fledgling business was huge. And personally, I was left feeling not a little ashamed and embarrassed. I'd always wanted to work ethically and within the law. Yes, the site could have been more rigorous in some aspects of its approach. It didn’t help that I worked for several different editors during my time with them. Certainly my last editor took the issue seriously, but, then again, this was his business, established by his own hard graft, and his reputation, too, was at stake.

But, in the end, it came down to me: my mistake. I know things could have turned out far worse. And, as a trained journalist, I should have known better. I also know that it will never happen again.

What the Law Says

High profile cases always hit the headlines, such as that of New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, alleged to have plagiarised a quote for an online column from another writer’s blog. And TV psychiatrist Raj Persaud was suspended from practising a year ago for bringing his profession into disrepute after copying extensively from academic colleagues in articles and a book.

But what exactly is plagiarism, and how is it different from copyright?
In his article, Plagiarism and the Law, Joss Saunders, a partner in law firm Blake Lapthorn Tarlo Lyons, plagiarism covers a wide spectrum – from verbatim copying to reproducing ideas and arguments.

The golden rule, the one which got Dr Persaud into so much trouble, is, of course, to acknowledge your sources. As Joss Saunders says:

‘If you quote from another author, and provide the citation, then in general you are not a plagiarist.’

But even providing an acknowledgement doesn’t mean you can help yourself to whatever you like, especially with material which may have an economic value.

To establish copyright infringement, copying must have taken place, and it copying needs to have been substantial. Generally speaking, the question of acknowledgement is irrelevant in terms of copyright infringement.

If you take an idea and express it differently, in a new article, then generally this does not constitute a breach of copyright.

As Saunders points out, it’s an odd fact that:

‘An author may be a plagiarist, but not an infringer of copyright, while another
author may infringe copyright, even though he is not a plagiarist, because he or she has provided an acknowledgement.’

Plagiarism remains a minefield, a huge issue that is unlikely to go away anytime soon. The Internet may have made it easier to copy work, but sites like Copyscape make it easier for plagiarists to be discovered.

The message is clear. Don’t do it. Don’t think it’ll be OK, that you won’t get caught. And if you do have to copy someone else’s work, at the very least acknowledge your sources.

Well don't just sit there, people!

The more observant among you may have noticed that this is a brand new dawn. No, not the political shenanigans, I'm talking about this blog.

Following creative negotiations, a Skype call that was so pun-filled that the transcript has been impounded and a meeting of minds, Mr Thorn Sully and I have embarked on a collaborative endeavour to link up British and American writers. We promise you a platform for free speech, flippancy, bonhomie and opinion. What's not to like?

You can find the link to the right hand side of the blog page.

The first item for discussion concerns the 'special relationship' between Great Britain and America, what we share and where we differ. Don't just sit there, sit there and click on the link. Thorn and I want to know what you think, especially the feedback that British accents are sexy and that we're to blame for the 1812 war (which I dispute).

If you can't find the link on the front page, here it is again:

the power of words

In the cut and thrust of writing, especially where there’s a living to be earned, it’s sometimes easy to forget what writing is really about. The words on a page (or a screen) convey ideas, imagination, emotion, information and much more besides. Sometimes they reach out to us, sharing someone’s story and touching people that the author themselves will never meet. Words can also convey the shadow side of life that might otherwise unknown and unchallenged. Sometimes, even in tiny ways, they change lives.

'Words of a Wolf - Poetry of a Veteran', is a book written by a friend of mine, which lifts the lid on his experience of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I was asked by Wolf to write a foreword to his book and I'd like to share that with you now. Details of how to purchase the book can be found at the end of this blog.


The thing that stood out for me, from my very first meeting with Wolf, as he walked around the room in his baggy shorts, was an intensity that bordered on unsettling. It was as if he was struggling with some inner turmoil that he couldn’t describe. What drew us together – then and now – was a desire for social justice. I didn’t know at the time just how personal a mission it was for him or what lay at the heart of it. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was just something I’d vaguely heard of and associated with the two world wars.

He can be a man of extremes – insightful and wise one day, brooding and defensive the next. What you see is what you get – there’s not much filtering going on. I’ve seen him in good spirits when his laughter shakes the room. And I’ve seen him in difficult times, pacing up and down like a trapped animal, unable to express the pain and pressure that bursts through in aggression or confrontation or hopelessness. I’ve watched and felt inadequate – not knowing what to say or what to do. So I’ve learned to listen without judgement – as he’s revisited old wounds or asked questions that neither of us could answer. In those times he’s always anxious to understand why situations have recurred or unravelled, and even more anxious to avoid those same experiences in the future.

But, as Villayat has told me himself, knowledge will only get you so far – it doesn’t change the instincts, moods and thought patterns that govern much of our behaviour. The kind of healing that reaches that deep takes time, space and professional care. It’s something only the sufferer can instigate by daring to reach out and trust. This book is part of that process for him and I salute his courage.

In his writing you’ll find a rawness and honesty that we’re not used to in society, as well as some uncomfortable truths. Stick with it though because the reward is a deeper understanding of the lives of ex-servicemen and women – about what can happen when the parades are over and the uniform comes off but the damage is still there. It will give you an insight into their relationships and family dynamics too, and maybe why so many of them fall apart.

Villayat’s quest for meaning, healing and peace of mind has led him to the traditions and practices of Native American culture. It may not be your path but you are welcomed here as an honoured guest, without judgement. I trust you’ll treat my friend’s invitation and his personal truth with the same open-mindedness and respect. And I hope you’ll remember that – like so many other sufferers – PTSD continues to affect his life and his relationship with family and friends on a daily basis.

Derek Thompson 2010
Copyright 2010 Villayat SnowMoon Wolf Sunkmanitu
Words of a Wolf - Poetry of a Veteran ISBN: 978-0-9564885-0-3


A while back, Brian Keaney left me a comment about applying skills that have been honed in the world of business to the craft of writing. At the time, I nodded and filed it in the back of my mind. I look upon Brian as one of the voices of sanity because he's already ploughed a significant furrow with his books.

So what's with the letters TCQS? I'll tell you. Collectively, they are one of the building blocks of project management, representing as they do, Time, Cost, Quality and Scope. Recently, I've had a couple of editing jobs where these four letters have returned to haunt (and hopefully, educate) me.

Editing someone else's work for pay is a strange dance between the art of the possible and the unyielding reality of those four letters and the dynamics between them. To put it simply, if something changes part way through the edit (or any kind of project), it will either be one or more of those factors or it will affect one or more of those factors.

If you agreed to take on a job, make sure you agree when it needs to be completed (Time), the budget (Cost), what constitutes an edit (Quality) and the number of pages to be worked upon (Scope). If any of these beauties starts to drift away from your agreement, you need to identify the culprit as quickly as possible and take remedial action.

You can extend the deadline, adjust the payment for the total job / hourly rate / price per page , renegotiate if the word count or page total changes, or revise what kind of edit you can do without losing the client or losing the project's economic viability. The same applies when it's your own material that you're working on.

TCQS - it's worth a whole lot more than you think.


Many writers suffer from promo-phobia - an inability to promote their work. Once thought to be a peculiarly British disorder, it is increasingly becoming a worldwide phenomena. For afflicted writers, faced with the prospect of impoverished obscurity, there are now treatments available. Private clinics can provide regular injections of 'shouty bastard' serum along with a free online sales account. Or, for the more holistically minded, there are courses such as 'feel the fear and sell the book anyway'.

Luckily, for new author Thorn Sully, he won't ever need any of it. This San Diego writer has not only unleashed his debut novel, The Boy with a Torn Hat, on an unsuspecting world, he's also embarking on a book tour across the US. And there's every possibility he'll 'do' Europe too if he has a few days to spare in his busy schedule.

The cover image he chose for the novel is a story in itself - painted by Thorn's great great grandfather, Thomas Sully, as a portrait of his son. Though not in anticipation of the book (which, let's face it, would have been a bloody good trick).

But back to the book. According to James Joyce (yes, he lives - go to this degeneration is about "Bohemian love and life as performed by various misfits in 1970s' Hedidelberg. Watch the show as a mess of foreigners meddle with Germany's new generation. There is music and beer, art and beer, laughter and beer, alcohol and beer. And there's not a lurid sex scene in the whole damn book. You want that stuff, try the Bible."

Read the excerpt below, buy the book and make Thorn a happy man! Afterwards, you can post your comments here or on Thorn's website - - where he'll also be delighted to sell you a copy. Well, what are you waiting for?

Chapter One

“Are you sure? I’m just around the corner.”
“Thanks. I’ll pass.”
“Winter rates?”
I can’t help but smile. Convenience and a discount. We exchange apologies as strangers do for bumping into each other, but I decline her generous offer. I regain my stride after our little sidewalk samba, and I reach intuitively to check the breast pocket inside my overcoat. Still there.
I really should have been watching my step, and yet, how can I not have my head in the clouds? Though the air is crisp my chest is still warm from a superb cappuccino that left me daydreaming of the cafes of Europe. I could book out of JFK tonight, if I liked. My agent tells me he’s firmed up another West Coast show and is asking me for inventory. I’m bulletproof in the age of Uzi economics. (Did I really let him call my stuff inventory? I make a note to be offended the next time I see him.)
And oh, my god. Money in my pocket. Enough to insulate me from just about everything unpleasant, and enough to self-medicate with just about any vice I choose. A half a dozen American wars have been fought, won and lost since I first walked these Lower East Side streets. There have been more presidents than I have enemies, and I can’t recall, except with effort, who their vice-presidents were. Women have come and gone (mostly gone—irreconcilable similarities), and perhaps they were never really there at all. My children are old enough to adore me once more, after the obligatory rage of extended adolescence. We’re still in touch. I am oblivious to the beggars and indifferent to the hookers who are positioned on the sidewalk like random stones in a stream, but I’m as unperturbed as water as I flow by them. Life is good.
Some of the shops are only now rolling open their awnings. The smoke shop on one corner is aflame with anticipation of the return of Cuban cigars now that Fidel is retiring and moving to Florida. On the opposite corner, smoked ham sways on meat hooks at mortifying eye level in the window of a less-than-kosher deli, while next door Einstein Bagels retaliates with a schmear campaign. And lest there be any doubt that life has been neutered here, Kinko’s and McDonald’s each offer facsimiles on the same side of the street. I stroll past them.
Like many people who have no intention of buying anything at all, I linger by the fruit and vegetable stand that seems so out of place. Fresh fruit in this city seems as improbable as a tree that has been spared the dog on a leash. I fight the temptation to fondle an apple. This Manhattan mix of stores and stands includes bars that never close, and banks, it seems, that are never open. Except of course, for the poor man’s bank, the neon-windowed pawn shop, like the one adjacent to the grocer. Always an intrigue, and all those presidents in my pocket are talking to me. I peer through the glass. Something on the far wall catches my attention. I can’t resist. I never could.
I am immediately charmed as I enter. There are actually little brass bells disturbed by the sway of the door to announce my entry. How quaint! I smile for the surveillance camera—Rod Steiger is preoccupied behind the glass counter. He gives me only a furtive glance to assess if I am lethal. I remove my doe-skin gloves and prod them into my overcoat. My glasses have steamed up, and I loosen my flannel scarf to dry them off, but that does nothing more than chase the moisture around the lenses. I have a paper napkin from the coffee shop that I used to jot down something vitally important, which I now come to realize is not quite so vital or as important as drying my lenses, and it is sacrificed to the cause. I position the glasses back on my face, and then, as the world comes back into focus, the small miracle begins to unfold.
“That guitar.”
The proprietor cocks his head.
“May I have a look?”
“It’s not available.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean it’s not available. The owner still has three days to redeem it.”
Nobody ever redeems things, once they’ve passed through portals such as these. I never did. This is the funeral home of abandoned heirlooms and Makita power tools. We are negotiating, and he’s telling me the fruit is forbidden. He has, of course, whet my appetite. The game is on.
“Would there be any harm in taking a closer look?”
He has yet to look back over his shoulder, where the guitar hangs on a hook on the pegboard, with a tag wired to its big toe. The proprietor pretends indifference very well, and I admire and respect him for it. A credit to his profession. He closes whatever catalog or ledger he was studying (or pretending to study), and turns to the wall behind him and removes the guitar. He hands it over the counter, and just when I think I have possession he tightens his grip to remind me it’s still his. “It’s a Martin, you know.” And then, with equal showmanship, he releases his hold, having cautioned me that this is expensive, or delicate, or both.
“Really?” Of course I know it’s a Martin. I, too, feign indifference. If I decide to make him an offer I’ll need to appear less knowledgeable than I am—(Stradivarius? What’s that? I thought it was a fiddle!). But I’ve already sighted the neck, seeing how close the spacing is from the strings to the frets. Rookies don’t do that. He’s taking all this in. I momentarily hand it back and remove my bulky overcoat and scarf, draping them over the counter. I look for someplace to sit. There is none, but the guitar has a strap. There was a time when I always stood when I played, but now that seems awkward. No matter. I tune the guitar.
I give the lower and upper strings a squeeze, to see how long they resonate, and to see if equal pressure gives each string an equal life-span, or if one drowns out the other. Clearly, they’ve been singing together for a while. By the end of eight counts, the dust in the sunlight is swirling in cyclones, and something I don’t quite understand is happening. The guitar feels warm, and has a pulse. My hands and my heart thaw quickly after thirty-five years of winter. Blood surges through me like the D train, rattling windows and plates on the shelf. The manly, baritone voice of this guitar starts filling up the room like a genie let out of a lamp, and memories that I thought I had neatly manicured begin clawing through the lining of my heart. I can see it in the old man’s face, but I just don’t care. And I don’t care if he knows about all those founding fathers in my breast pocket. I can afford whatever ransom he demands, which will be exorbitant, and more so now that he knows he has me. This becomes dead serious, even before I know why.
The vigor in my fingers has returned, but I restrain myself and pluck only a few, simple chords, not even a riff for my audience of one. The two or three chords that I have strummed are luscious, erotic and cerebral—the triad of seduction, and I’m swallowed up by this unexpected find. I feel my whole body resonate, as if the guitar were a tuning fork. A seasoned Martin guitar can do that. I close my eyes—this is a private affair. In the dark, my rambling fingers stumble upon the trail of an old Irish ballad. They’ve got the scent, and when they run with it, I can’t rein them in. The words come back as well. I have a first cousin, named Arthur McBride. He and I took a stroll on down by the seas-side... Jimmy taught me that song. It’s the one he usually opened with. He never liked playing alone either on stage or busking on the street, so one day he just started referring to his guitar as Arthur when he would banter with the crowd between sets.
And suddenly, my eyes flash open. The tone that rises from the Martin is not only irrepressible, but familiar, and stinks of Guinness. My fingers get tangled in the strings and can’t recover.
I worm out of the strap, and hold the guitar at arms length, to confirm with my very own eyes what my heart already knows. The remarkable sunburst pattern, the deep mahogany color and deeper, richer sound. I know this guitar, this guitar, from half, no, more than half my life ago, and a continent away, when youth was not an embellished memory but a lily-white neck into which I sank a full set of fangs, before passion turned to pabulum, wine to water. My god. Renate predicted this, all those years ago. “It’s gonna find its way to a pawn shop,” she said, when all of us hunkered down that night to console Jimmy with theories of how to recover it, and what we were going to do to that thieving I.R.A. bastard who betrayed us, if we ever caught him. The guitar—this guitar—it’s Arthur McBride, himself.