Saturday, 23 May 2015

Books - A Journey

Look into the Future
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This is all totally irrelevant to anyone, anywhere, ever, but I thought I'd take the chance to document some stuff now I've finished another book and have a little time before I can face editing it.

My first completed novel was a rather silly affair called Space, which I reckon I started back in 2001, but probably only really started in the spring of 2002. The oldest archive files I can find for the book only date back to 2003.

The oldest book files I have are actually a backup of an unfinished novel called Booze - those date back to September 2001, so I must have started Booze then put it to one side to work on the the less controversial Space.

When I'd finished Space and shopped it to agents, being rewarded with a remarkable tally of rejections (by the time I gave up, I had over a hundred), I started back on Booze, a rather scurrilous tale about a Kuwaiti buying a monastery that holds the recipe to an aqua vitae that tastes like angels' tears and is as addictive as crack cocaine. I began to get messages back from agents that said things like 'Humour doesn't sell dear boy' and so the work in progress that was Booze got shelved and, indeed, lies gathering dust even now.

I'll finish it one of these days, it was great fun. Let us remember that I still think Space is funny - it made me laugh enough, re-reading it after all these years, to put it up on Amazon for sale at a princely £0.99. Its first review on Amazon pointed out that "...it just isn't very funny."


So I wandered off and decided to write a serious book. The result, Olives - A Violent Romance, was originally written in September 2004, pre-dating - I always thought rather presciently - the 2005 Amman bombing by a year. However, the bombing in the original manuscript was a dream sequence.

The original MS starts...
The first day of my new life started out in the dark, dreary sodium wetness of Heathrow Airport and ended in a cell. Let’s just say things didn’t go according to plan. Now, months later and looking back to the start of my time in Jordan, I wonder that I stayed there at all. Part of me bitterly regrets not leaving the second I was released. But there’s a tiny glimmer of hope in me that won’t go away, although now I’ve run out of choices and the consequences of my actions are written in the wreckage around me. 
And was considerably improved by the large amounts of editing and rewriting that went on between then and 2011 when it was finally published. Most of these took place post-2007, when I discovered Harper Collins' Authonomy and met other writers who taught me how to write better books, principally Australian Italian novelist Phillippa Fioretti. Other than that, the whole Authonomy experience was, as I have documented extensively in earlier blog posts, pretty pants.

Beirut - An Explosive Thriller was started in Autumn 2009 after the 'reader' for an agent called Eve White, who had requested a 'full read' of Olives had finally responded that it was all 'A bit too low key' for them. I was in a fury. The book's crammed with spies and bombs and shit and it's too low key?

That was it. The final straw. I was going to write a mad book and it was going to be based in Beirut. The first versions of Olives had Paul moving to Beirut, looked after by Gerald Lynch (who at that time was called Nigel Soames, a character who nagged at me because he wasn't 'working'), who felt guilty at the way things had panned out for the feckless young journalist. Beirut just made all sorts of sense as a location. I chucked Prague, Hamburg, Spain, Malta and the Greek Islands into the soup mixture just to be sure.

Work on Beirut - An Explosive Thriller actually started with 'The Muezzin Cried', a short story I posted here on the blog, derived, as usual, from a dream memory.

By December 2009 I had realised I was actually going to have to go back to Beirut if I was going to pull this one off. I had been travelling there since the '90s, but hadn't been back in a few years. I needed to refresh my memories and impressions of that sexiest of Eastern Mediterranean cities.

At the time, I had been involved in running a social un-event for online people in Dubai called GeekFest. I called a friend in Lebanon, Alex Tohme, and asked her if she'd be up for running GeekFest Beirut? Of course, she was totally up for it. And so I had my ticket to Beirut sorted!

On the 6th February 2009 GeekFest Beirut took place and I spent a few halcyon days striding around the city often in the company of old friend and partner in crime Eman Hussein. Thanks to GeekFest, I had 'my' city in the 'can'. I went back again for ArabNet with colleague and friend Maha Mahdy, discovering Barometre in the process thanks to geek and blogger Roba Al Assi. And again for GeekFest 3.0. And again, and again. The gorgeous Paul Mouawad Museum, the model for Michel Freij's own private museum, I discovered for myself.

It was with Maha that I went in search of Shemlan, the village nestled high in the Chouf that was home to the 'British Spy School' MECAS - The Middle East Centre for Arab Studies. I was to go back time and again, with the lovely Micheline Hazou and then also with friends Eman and Sara Refai. This village and an inspirational gentleman called Barry were to combine in the person of one Jason Hartmoor, the anti-hero of Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy.

Work on Shemlan actually started back in 2011 but was postponed because I decided to self-publish Olives and that took 110% of my time, back in November 2011. Beirut followed in September 2012.

By early 2013 - having visited Estonia, the location of the book's finale - I restarted work on Shemlan and it went like a rocket. I raced to the mad, climactic and rather unusual end of the book, propelled by death metal and much musical mayhem. I sent it off to my agent and when he responded, weeks later, that he wasn't even going to try shopping it to publishers, I terminated our relationship.

Boy, did that feel good.

Shemlan was published on 1 November 2013. I didn't publish a book in 2014, I spent the year wrestling with A Simple Irish Farmer and quite a lot of existential self publishing angst. Olives and Beirut have sold quite well, but Shemlan - easily the best of the three books - was plagued by the fact I didn't do a UAE print run and was too exhausted by the whole farrago of promotion to actually get out there and market the thing. Shemlan has been terribly - and unfairly - neglected as a consequence.

Seriously. I can't even look at a book blog now. If I see the words, 'I love books and...' one more time, I'll burn the puppy. Big brown eyes or no big brown eyes...

I've written a screenplay for Olives since. I just don't know what to do with that, so it's in a desk drawer. It was fun to do!

So here I am, fifteen years into my journey as a writer of books. I have one more book now finished, being steadily rejected by a number of agents. That's taken, as I have documented earlier, a year to write. And I have another new book to edit now, which took about a month to write. If traditional publishing turns both books down, as I confidently predict they will, I shall self publish them in September this year (A Simple Irish Farmer) and March next year (the newnew book) to coincide with the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.

And after that, I reckon, I'll be hanging up my literary shoes...

Friday, 22 May 2015

I Just Finished A New Book

Small Craft on a Milk Sea
Small Craft on a Milk Sea (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It's a bit mad, but I've written another book. I finished it today. It's going to need some editing and tweaking and stuff yet; it's just a first draft, but it's done. 80,000 words of it. And it feels right.

Agents haven't finished rejecting A Simple Irish Farmer (almost certainly to be re-titled) yet and I haven't even had final feedback from beta readers preparatory to getting it edited and proofed, let alone published it. And I've gone and written another one!

It's been an amazing roller-coaster of a journey. As usual with my books, it all started with a dream, one I had years and years ago. And it ends with another dream, one which recurred for a while a few years back, enough to become an enduring memory. The two dreams became conflated in my mind a long time ago, I sort of knew this book was going to happen like this but ASIF sort of pushed in.

I've been blasting away for the last month, managing a good thousand words on most days, frequently more. Unusually for me, I took a good couple of weeks to outline the plot, pretty much chapter by chapter and scene by scene. That framework meant I was focused on making the writing work, setting and building the scenes more carefully rather than worrying about plot development. The plot still changed, of course, with scenes suggesting themselves and, in one case, two of my characters doing something I had most definitely not intended them to! I only turned my back for a second and they were at it like rabbits. But in general, the book follows the structure I had originally intended, with a few unplanned twists and curves and one major refocus of the plot later on because I was being lazy and that shows through when you write books.

I haven't written a book this quickly since Olives - A Violent Romance, which took four weeks. And this one won't take seven years of editing, I can tell you!

FWIW, Deadmau5 has been a major musical inspiration, with lots of Brian Eno and Harold Budd, perennial favourites Silence and Sigur Ros, a goodly dollop of David Holmes, some Nine Inch Nails and quite a lot of Professor Kliq, Rim Banna and a few slices of William Orbit.

And now, to celebrate, a visit to Bombay to celebrate its lovely Sapphire...

Tomorrow, it's edit time...

Friday, 15 May 2015

Al Nakba

Nakba 1948 oldman and baby tent
Nakba 1948 oldman and baby tent (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
She talked to the table, her voice low. ‘My father was born on a farm in Palestine in 1946, outside a village called Qaffin. It’s the farm we have today. My grandparents left during the troubles in 1948, what we call the Nakba, the disaster. You know this, right? The Nakba?’ I nodded. ‘When the Zionists threw my people from their land and declared Israel a state. They had a saying, you know, “A land without a people for a people without a land.” But it was a lie.’

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Of Arab Media Forums

English: P icon with a newspaper
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It was the Arab Media Forum back in April 2007 wot started me off blogging in the first place. With this here post, in fact.

This came to mind as I stood in the Madinat Jumeirah conference centre, attending the 2015 Arab Media Forum.

I'm getting very bored indeed with the 'Social media vs journalism and 'social media is important' conversations, I must say.

That's probably my key insight for you, people. I think I might have Lebanese takeaway tonight to celebrate.

No post in three weeks and then this? I know. But you know my mantra by now...

No Refunds.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Book Post: Submissions. Oh joy.

The Rubber Band
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A Simple Irish Farmer, which I am assured is the thriller working title from hell by people who know better than I, is going out for a round of submissions to UK literary agents. Here's a handy Q&A for anyone interested in the whole area of novels and the process of submission. And no, there's no BDSM stuff going on here beyond perhaps a slight queasy feeling of impotence and pain the whole process engenders.

Why are you submitting your novel to agents?
Most publishers worth talking to won't talk to an un-agented author. If you want to get your work in front of an editor, the person who decides to take a book on within a publishing company, you'll need an agent. Agents are also useful further down the line for things like contract negotiations and a number of other things that make them worth the 15% of your income they'll charge.

No, I mean why are YOU submitting your novel to agents?
Mr Self Publishing, you mean? I've always sent my novels to agents. About 100 rejected Space, about another 80 rejected Olives - A Violent Romance, another 80 or so rejected Beirut - An Explosive Thriller before one signed me up and then 14 publishers rejected that book. Shemlan - A Deadly Tragedy was sent out to a small number of agents, 3 or 4, including my own. When HE rejected it, my own blasted agent, I terminated our agreement. And when the others did, I self published it. Believe me, I am very, very good indeed at rejection. I can, we can safely say, handle it.

Why only a few agents for Shemlan?
I was weary then, (and I'm even more weary now) and was pretty much going through the motions before self-publishing the book. Shemlan didn't even get the promotion it deserved because of that weariness, which is a shame because it's probably (IMHO) my best work so far. I reckon if you pick up 10-25 rejections, you're self publishing or sticking it in a desk drawer.

Submitting to three million agents won't change your chances. Don't ever waste your hopes and talents on a desk drawer. Self publish. Hell, what have you to lose? Amazon, Smashwords et al don't cost a penny and if you earn $10 from that book, it's a) $10 more than you had b) been enjoyed by several more people than it took to write.

So you want a publisher?
Yes. I need a UK publisher to get some scale and traction into that market and beyond. With Olives and Beirut selling out their print runs in the UAE, a very small market, and all three books getting positive reviews from media reviewers as well as Amazon and Goodreads I still haven't managed to drive any scale. I need help to do that.

What if they all reject you?
Self publish. I've said this all along at workshops and things: don't do what I did and collect 100 rejections. Submit to a number of agents who are open to submissions and willing to look at work in your genre. If they all pass on it, self-publish rather than get caught in iterative Sisyphean loops of polishing the work and resubmitting it. In my experience the issue isn't necessarily quality.

What is it, then?
Serendipity. Is your book the kind of thing they're looking for? Does it press the right buttons? Does it deal with issues they don't think the market will buy, either for reasons of squeamishness, sensibility or ignorance? Is it in a genre that's selling, with a clear standout 'hook' that makes it a powerful book to market? All these things are commercial decisions agents take.

Being able to write well doesn't mean your book will sell well and knowing what will and won't sell is where agents pretty much stake their livelihoods. 15% of the author's 10% cut of the cover price of a book that doesn't sell is hardly going to send young Clarence and Philomena to Repton, is it?

What do you send them?
A query letter that clearly states who you are and what your book's about, a synopsis of the book as a one page document, a bio of yourself and 10 or 50 pages of the manuscript, depending on their guidelines.

It's very, very important to visit each agency's website, make sure they're working in your genre and that you identify an agent who would be interested in you. Make your submission to that agent, ideally explaining why you think you might be interesting to them. And then you sit back and wait, for anything up to a couple of months.

Do they ever give you helpful feedback?
Almost never. Getting feedback from an agent is quite a deal. An average UK agent gets about 40 submissions a day, an American one anything up to 200. Nobody in their right minds is going to give 40 free writing a book sessions every day. And if they did, they wouldn't be in their right minds for long.

A high percentage of those submissions will be way off the mark, so the winnowing is quite harsh. Very few will have enough spark to merit a closer look and a read of that 50 pages. And very, very few will get through to the next stage, which is a request for a 'full read'.

I've heard that term before. What's a 'full' vs a 'partial'?
There are three stages, really. A query, which is a letter saying I've written a book in this genre, it's about this and that, do you want to take a look? If they say yes to that, they'll ask for a partial read. Many will take the partial as part of the original submission package and, if the book's in a genre and has a hook they can see is commercial, they'll dip into the writing sample you've sent.

A 'partial' as I noted above is a sample of 10 or perhaps 50 pages which demonstrates to the agent that a) you can string two words together b) your plot and characters are developing as per the synopsis. Now, if they think your book's in a commercially viable genre (and they don't already have full complement of writers already working in that genre/area) and stands out within that genre AND you can write and your book seems to be delivering the goods, they'll ask for a 'full read' - that's the whole manuscript.

At this stage you'd better really have finished the manuscript and not be winging it in case someone says yes to it. You send 'em the full MS and they will read or, typically, pay a reader to look at it. Very few get through to the 'full' stage precisely because at this stage an agent is putting a lot of time or a little bit of skin in the game.

So you're almost there!
Yes, you are. But not for sure. I've known full reads come to nothing (and yes, it sucks), so don't go getting all puppyish about it. If the agent thinks the whole thing smells of roses, they'll sign you and go on to represent your books to the publishers they deal with. In an ideal world, loads of publishers will fight to get their hands on your brilliance and the agent will conduct an auction, getting your book into the hands of the highest bidding publisher.

Sounds exciting!
It doesn't happen so much these days, although it does still happen. Large advances are not so much a part of the publishing landscape. Agents like advances, because they pay for Tuscan holidays in nice, satisfying single transactions. Authors have to earn back their advances, so it's a bit like having a mortgage.

Can you play one agent off against another?
No! If you get an offer of representation, take it. Don't go playing silly B's at this stage, just take it. If you have two offers, take the agent you think you can work with - who will do the best job for you and with whom you could bear working. Sign and then sit back and let them get on with selling your book.

If agents aren't buying the kinds of book you're writing, why not write what they do buy?
I'm not really very interested in writing to order. I write what I do because the situations, locations and characters interest me. As a life-long voracious reader, I like the idea of different, intelligent thrillers. And if nobody's buying Middle East thrillers, or editors don't like books about people with cancer or retired IRA bombers, that's my tough luck. That's what interests me - and in my experience so far - has interested readers. I can't write Scottish romances. Not only would it bore me to death, I'd probably be really bad at it.

So what happens next?
You sits back and you waits to hear from 'em. You NEVER ever call 'em up. Just leave it with them. Welcome to your first taste of the passivity of the book industry...

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Authors Bleed For Art

Value for Money
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The BBC ran a neat piece yesterday, exploring the money British authors are making. Pal Taline shared it, which was kind of her. When I had finished wiping the tears from my eyes, I got past the headline and started to read the actual piece.

It's not pretty.

The top 5% of authors earned 42% of all the money authors earned. And they pulled, on average, £100,000 each. That's as good as it gets. The big time. Tickertapesville. Yay.

Now, I'm not saying we should be turning our pretty little noses up at £100k. Far from it, let the 100k's flow like the very rivers I say. But it rather reinforces the warning I give whenever I do book writing workshoppy things: chances are, overwhelmingly, this book writing thang isn't going to make you rich. If you think the road to Scrooge McDuckness is paved with words, you are about to get a gilt-edged wake up call.

I have quoted it so often, I've forgotten the source of the statistic: 98% of books in print sell less than 500 copies. And that - as the BBC points out in its piece - is getting even worse as a flood of thousands of writers washes around in the market. It's hard to build a stand-out position in this tide of relentless 'read my book' imprecation. Only a very few 'break out' - and while the average full-time writer earned £11,000 according to the Beeb, the vast majority self-published authors won't make one percent of that.

For myself, I don't care. I still prefer getting emails from Amazon with royalties to getting cut and past rejections.

But it's another reminder that you'd better be in this book thing for the love of it...

Monday, 13 April 2015

The Long And Short Of Stories

Photograph of Ernest Hemingway as a baby.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I have been asked once again by the Canadian University of Dubai to be a judge of their short story competition, '100 words'. This statement is laced with mild surprise that any reputable academic institution would repeat the same awful mistake: I was a judge last year, too.

It's a fascinating task, weeding through submissions from three groups, Under 12's, high school and university level entrants. For a start, you wouldn't necessarily be able to divide the submissions if all three groups were mixed up. Birth and death are themes that run through a number of the stories. Some chose not to send in a story at all, but an essay. Quite a few tried the old trick of setting us up for a punchline ending: a couple delivered with quite astonishing verve.

I always feel a bit sorry for them: while 100 words may not seem too daunting a task - 500 or 1,000 words seeming too much like 'real work' to encourage entries - 100 words puts us in the realm of 'flash fiction', stories of extreme brevity - it's actually quite hard to pull off well. For a start every single word counts and lazy habits like redundancies, filters and adverbs stare out of the screen accusingly at every turn.

She screamed with her mouth. Suddenly the gun fired. She cried deeply and agonisingly, her soul bared for all the world to see her pain. He laughed with joy, the sound of her lovely, golden voice reaching him across the wide yawning gap of the ages. The trophy dropped down to the floor and landed with a bang.

These are all remarkably common occurrences and when you've got 100 words to play with, you can't really afford them. Actually, I'd argue you can't afford them even when you're playing with 90,000 words - I'm currently reading one conventionally published author's second book and his publisher seems to have decided it wasn't worth hiring an editor this time around. I'm actually finding it hard to wade through the text at times, there is so much of this sort of thing going on. So it's no surprise to see them creeping into students' short stories - but they needn't be there. They're cuckoos, stealing space that other words deserve to occupy.

I find Twitter one of the most useful editing tools of all time. Expressing yourself in grammatically correct English using 140 characters (no 'text speak', please) can work wonders in encouraging the habit of actually constructing sentences as elegantly as possible. It's a skill I think we lose when we sit down to type stories on a word processor rather than a clackety typewriter or even, saints preserve us, grabbing a pen. Writers like Durrell, Waugh, Greene and Hemingway had time to think about every sentence, to roll it around in the mouth and savour it before committing it in inky scratches to that sheet of fine vellum. When they weren't busy beating their women or carousing in low bars, of course.

The perfect example of a short short - probably about the flashiest flash fiction you'll find - is often attributed to Hemingway, but sadly it's apocryphal and there's no proof it was Ernie at all...

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

There we go: six words and it never fails to punch way beyond its weight...

Friday, 10 April 2015

IzaKaya Dubai: Of Japanese Times Gone Bi


This delicious image was brought to my attention courtesy Mr +Gerald Donovan*, whose laconic 'Was she indeed?' on Twitter opened up the new worlds of alternative meaning caressing this otherwise unremarkable attempt to breathe life into a daft advertising-led 'social media' campaign for the Izakaya Japanese restaurant at the JW Marriott Marquis in Dubai.

Launched, in time-honoured ad-agency style, with a press handout highlighting that most tremulously newsworthy of events, the launch of a Dubai Taxi bumper sticker campaign, the campaign will now delight many people in ways its instigators had - we can only presume - never imagined.

And of course now we enter a whole new - and infinitely more entertaining - world of extrapolation and exploration. From being a side salad to a Dubai taxi, Iza Kaya is now elevated to the status of a little avocado mystery. She was, but is no longer. Its all rather fascinating - what happened to change her? Was it a slow jading of the palate or a bite of life's bitter lime that transformed her? And while she might not be of that shade any more, there's a certain colourful 'frisson' about her now. Would she go back? Or are her emerald charms now set firm only for the less gentle sex?

We are all schoolboys...

*(He's @gerald_d on Twitter, but Google+ likes to intersperse itself and suggest G+ links when you start throwing Twitter's trademark @ signs around.)

Thursday, 9 April 2015

The Hatta Track Is Closed

English: 18th cent watch-tower, Hatta, UAE
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We tootled off into the Hajjar mountains, a merry little party of merry-makers and nieces on our way to take a whizz up the Track Formerly Known As The Hatta Track. As eny fule no, that track has now been transformed into a metalled road, the bumps evened out and the surface a ribbon of blacktop threading through the arid and majestic moutains.

The Hatta track takes you to the famous Hatta pools, a series of pools in the wadi bed, long strewn in graffiti but still beautiful. It takes you through the mountain villages of Rayy and Shuwayah, past the lovely Oleander Waterfall (now only accessible if you really know what you're doing, the original gatch track that led right up to it having long been washed away in a winter spate) down onto the plains that will take you to Al Ain and Buraimi.

Only now it won't.

We got to the UAE border point on the track, formerly only a sign on the open road and then a police post where your ID would be requested and glanced at before proceeding, only to be told that this time round, it would be as far as we were going. There had been trouble with the inhabitants of the village beyond the border point and people had been 'angry', the Omani police had been involved and there was a vague mumble about too many Europeans.

So that was it. Turned back. No Hatta track. Not even the NoFun OneCal blacktop one.

First Wadi Bih and now this. Pants.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Meeting Mr Fox


The shell which almost killed them all had come with no warning, sounded no different to the thousands of others scudding around the blue summer skies like little birds. Baba was reading a newspaper, his shirt sleeves rolled up. Ahmed was sitting under the wooden kitchen table. The shell exploded and suddenly Ahmed wasn’t under the table anymore. There was a lot of dust and smoke. Baba looked asleep but mother was holding her head in her hands and crying. Ahmed wanted to go to her but his legs wouldn’t work. Baba had eventually woken up and Ahmed had walked with a limp ever since.

After the shell, they had a big piece of orange plastic sheeting over the hole in the wall. It stretched from the floor to the roof. Now winter had come, it let the cold in. Finding wood for the fire had become very difficult. The winter took everyone by surprise. This proved, Ahmed’s father growled as he hunched over the mean fire in their damaged kitchen, they were all donkeys. Winter always came, this year was no different. Except this year they were distracted as the fighting became worse, the houses shaking with relentless concussions.

Ahmed didn’t go to school anymore, so he was at home when the soldiers came. His mother was making bread, the bakery having been shut by an explosion that took away ovens and bakers alike in a single savage moment. Baba had salvaged a sack of flour from the ruins before the flames took hold and the stock room collapsed on the heads of some thirty men trying to do the same. They ate bread every Friday to try and make the flour last.