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.

Writing environmentally

I'm very keen on green living. And it seems to me that the three tenets of living in harmony with the environment are just as relevant to the writer at large. Let’s say them together: REUSE, REDUCE and RECYCLE.

No good idea lives but once and every technique learned should be applied where it’s applicable. ‘Show don’t tell’ is a good example – a mantra to be intoned daily and not treated as a helium balloon that’s treasured once and then released.

My theory of the week is that every good piece of non-fiction (and maybe fiction too?) should have three specific uses.
1. You should get paid for it.
2. You should use it as a showcase example of your work, referring to it in a CV or resume (for our American writer friends present), on a blog or in pitch letters.
3. If the rights have lapsed, you should look for other markets for the same piece or for an abbreviated version of it.

Cut away the deadwood, prune back the adverbs, similes (guilty as charged) and strip aside anything that doesn’t add value to your work in progress, whether it’s an article, a short story or a novel. When it comes to the edit, less is more. And while we're reducing, work on eliminating the time wasters and distractions that prevent you from reaching your writing goals. Some blogs don't count!

Just as aluminium cans can be made into new cans and a jar can live again as another jar or a bottle, so a good piece of writing can be reincarnated in different ways. If it’s non-fiction, it can be rewritten in a different style, with a fresh angle or for an entirely new market.

The original piece may also be a jumping off point for completely new work. If you’re stuck for ideas, go back through your work folder and see if there are any glaring unanswered questions. Get inspired by your own work.

An example of my own, which I may have commented on in the past (see, I’m recycling already!) relates to comedy writing. I answered an ad in Private Eye and that led to writing gags, sketches and songs for The Treason Show. That gig led me to me writing for The News Revue. I then tried to branch out into TV and corresponded with two producers. It didn’t work out but I got some radio work as a non-commissioned writer and since then I’ve done a little more on BBC Radio. Needless to say, any ideas that didn't work for one outlet were soon reworked to make them suitable for one of the others.

Ruth lives the dream

The writing world has been all a twitter (literally, in some cases) about the success of Ruth Saberton's debut novel Katy Carter Wants a Hero. While the book itself has received positive views and scaled the Amazon rankings like a Sherpa, it's the tale of the book's birth that has been capturing the headlines.

The Sun newspaper declared that the author had left her manuscript on Richard & Judy's doorstep, at their Cornish country house. The BBC offers a slightly more plausible version, that Ruth Saberton's mother runs the village shop and passed the book to R & J at the till. What followed is the stuff of writers' dreams. The couple read the book that day and loved it. So much so that Richard Madeley recommended it and Orion snapped it up and brought it to print.

Some would call Katy Carter Wants a Hero contemporary fiction and others would label it chick-lit. And no doubt there'll be a chorus of 'it's not what you know but who you knows' around the writing community. But the salient points here are that Ruth has written a book which, whether celebrity endorsed or not, Orion thought was worthy of publication.

Personally, I wish Ruth Saberton well. She has played a good hand - firstly in writing a commercially viable book and secondly is using the resources and opportunities at her disposal. And it has all paid off beautifully. It's a timely reminder that life is a competition and the arts especially so. Finding a competitive advantage is just part and parcel of the game.

Many writers I know shy away from the business end of the writing experience. Or maybe it's a peculiarly British thing, like the tendency to play down any success. "What, this old masterpiece? Well I suppose it could be a good read but let's talk about something else." Aside from being a maddening trait, it serves little useful purpose other than to protect us from the severity of critics.

And yet, W H Auden was critical of Tennyson, Elizabeth Bowen of Aldous Huxley and George Eliot of Charlotte Bronte. It didn't stop any of them writing and it doesn't appear to have blighted their literary success. We writers need to be brave boys and girls; we need useful feedback about how to improve our work and what already works well. And we need to make use of any leverage we can lay our hands on. Now, where's the address of that TV producer I used to know...

The wisdom of fools

Every writer knows that 'standing on the precipice' moment, with the wind on your face and an open chasm below you as you stare at the waiting screen or page. It's a moment of great courage and folly as you whisper to yourself, 'I'm going to write something.'

All that stands between you and the finished piece is your desire to see it through, a truck load of personal baggage and everything that life can throw at you. But that magical and decisive first step, declaring that you are indeed a writer, is an immensely powerful one which can lead to the creation of something that might never otherwise have been.

In committing to a piece of work or a submission or an edit, we face not only our own internal critic but the imagined ridicule of others if our plan of action doesn't work out. Or perhaps worse, we follow through on our intentions but it still doesn't lead to print, publication or public acclaim.

Well, nuts to that! I invite you all, dear readers, to commit to the screen something which you intend to write / edit / submit in the next 8 months. Here's my list for starters:

1. I'll complete the high level edit of the first draft of Line of Sight.
2. I'll write the synopsis and first three chapters of Scars & Stripes - Memoirs of a Failed American.
3. I'll write four new short stories.

There now, didn't hurt a bit. Join me in a little literary foolishness - the comments box awaits.