If You Like This, You’ll Love That

A couple of weeks ago, I received two copies of Is There a Book in You? by Alison Baverstock through the post. However, I have no memory or record of ordering them. They were professionally packaged in a grey polythene envelope with a printed address, but had no other identifying features.

Did you send me these books, or do you know who did? None of my friends have claimed responsibility, even the ones who are liable to such jolly japes.

There is one possible explanation. I’m a subscriber to Writing Magazine, and I ordered two extra copies of the September edition because it featured my release The Purple Spotlights EP. Perhaps whoever put the order through accidentally marked it as a new subscription and it triggered off a welcome gift. If it is, they’re not getting them back, because it’s a lovely surprise, and when I’m ready to edit my novel again, I’ll be sure to dip in.

This year alone, I’ve really enjoyed books I’ve been lent by friends. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro was a prime example, and the similar The Girl with All the Gifts by M R Carey. I would group these two books thematically with the P D James classic The Children of Men, although I bought that one for myself and didn’t find it quite as entertaining as the other two.

English: Stack of books in Gould's Book Arcade...
English: Stack of books in Gould’s Book Arcade, Newtown, New South Wales (NSW), Australia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Girl with All the Gifts has now been turned into a film, and I’m curious to see how well it’s been done. Ditto the Paula Hawkins novel The Girl on the Train.

Poetry-wise, it’s been a strong year of lending as well. I was given Tonguit by Harry Giles and What They Say About You by Eddie Gibbons. The former collection gave me lots to chew upon, especially in the poems Piercings and Your Strengths; the latter volume had me laughing right past the poems to the endnotes.

Word-of-mouth is always a strong marketing tool. The people who recommended all these books are good friends, and by extension, I trust what they recommend. By and large, this trust is well placed.

In fact, there has been only one recommended book where I didn’t enjoy it: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. The main character is Don Tillman, a professor with autism, and that’s shown extremely well through the narrative. However, he’s at the peak of his career with a packed schedule that’s timed to the minute, so I felt he lacked a strong motivation for wanting to find a partner. There was a time I would have persisted with a disappointing book, but I stopped reading at page 41.

That said, I’m a strong believer that people should make up their own minds about which books they like and don’t like. Plenty of people love the novel, but it’s not for me. By the way, that referral came from my boss, so you can’t tell anyone I’ve admitted all this.

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Publishing an Entire City

I’m pleased to report I’ll have two poems published in the forthcoming Seagate III anthology. The title is a reference to the oldest street in Dundee, Scotland, as each poet in the book has a connection with the city.

And what a line-up. I feel privileged to appear in the same volume as local poets that I know and admire. But what happened to Seagate I and Seagate II? The former was published in 1975 and the latter in 1985, so the trilogy has taken more than 40 years to complete. Yet in some ways, its timing couldn’t be better.

The Dundee waterfront is undergoing a major redevelopment that has brought in investment such as a new railway station, a five-star Malmaison, and the Victoria & Albert Museum. This sense of willingness has also seeped into other areas, including the literary scene.

2016 marks the tenth year of the Dundee Literary Festival, featuring poet Liz Lochhead, and X-Men actor Alan Cumming. But I believe you can have a richer experience at any festival by taking time to support less well-known authors and even taking a gamble on something you might not like. I can think of only two disappointments out of the dozens of events I attend each year, and neither of them were unknowns.

Most of the Dundee events take place in the Bonar Hall. No laughing at the back – it’s pronounced bonner. But an appropriate location can really bring out the flavour of the topic.

Yesterday, for instance, I was up a hill with a fantastic view of the city hearing poetry about the places we could see. And on Wednesday, Sandra Ireland went to Stockbridge in Edinburgh to launch her debut novel Beneath the Skin since that’s where it’s set.

's in the Antarctic
The RRS Discovery in the Antarctic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And on Friday, I attended the launch of The Voyage Out, containing narratives of journeys, and featuring some of the Seagate III poets. The event was held on board the RRS Discovery, the ship which took Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton to the Antarctic.

But the most unusual event I’ve heard of is Wendy H Jones who signed her latest crime novel in a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Here’s where you can pre-order Seagate III, and here’s the Dundee Literary Festival programme.

An Empty Tank

In preparing this week’s entry, I struggled to choose a topic: the singular ‘they’, ‘because’ as a position, past neologisms we now take for granted, the work-life balance, even the events of 11 September 2001.

I managed to start writing a couple of these topics, and I couldn’t even begin on the others. Either I ran out of material or lost my enthusiasm halfway through. I hesitate to use the term ‘writer’s block’, because I didn’t have trouble beginning these entries, only carrying on to form them into the shape of a coherent blog post.

Русский: Это мои коты
I also couldn’t decide which picture would best illustrate my point, so here are two cats. I hear felines are perennially popular on the Internet. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my experience, there are two main strategies for overcoming this difficulty. Strategy 1 is for when a deadline isn’t looming: I’ll leave it aside and go for a walk or do something else while the idea sorts itself out in my head.

However, I’m writing this on Sunday with the time fast approaching 3pm. Although it’s more than 24 hours until I publish, eight of these will be spent in bed, another eight will be spent at the office, and I would like to leave some time to proofread the text before it goes live. So Strategy 2 involves writing and writing until something usable appears on the screen. Just as you’re more likely to win a raffle prize if you buy more tickets – although it’s never guaranteed – you also have more chance of finding the right words when you write more of them.

As for the topics listed in the first paragraph, I’ll leave them aside for the moment and I might come back to them for a future entry.

A Long Stretch

Exactly 39 years ago today, the Voyager 1 spacecraft was launched; its twin, Voyager 2, had a 16-day head start. Each craft was built to last five years and return data only about Jupiter and Saturn. But incredibly, both of them continue to send useful data back to Earth.

Similarly, our words as authors will likely hang around long after they were written.

Most of The Pilgrim’s Progress was written in Bedford county jail; the author John Bunyan having been arrested for his beliefs during the Great Persecution. Although published in 1678, it’s still in print more than 330 years later, longer than anyone of the time could have imagined. The language has changed in this time, of course, but I find 17th-Century English quite accessible with the aid of a few footnotes. That’s if you have time to read the 108,000 words.

John Bunyan
John Bunyan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yet there is never a guarantee of longevity. George W M Reynolds was a contemporary of Charles Dickens who outsold Dickens during his lifetime, but whose readership disappeared after his death. We simply don’t know why, or indeed why some authors capture the public’s imagination at all, or why some never do.

Probably the closest modern equivalent we have to either of these writers is Jeffrey Archer.

Like Bunyan, Jeffrey Archer wrote a lot of material while serving a four-year prison sentence for perjury. Like Reynolds, he sells a lot of books but is not generally regarded as a top author. My feeling is that the coin could land on either side for Archer: revered or forgotten.

In light of this, I used to wonder whether to make a particular story timeless, or set it in a definite year or decade. While a contemporary reference can make a piece seem dated, I also feel the reader will often take into account the era in which the story was written: the killer that’s caught by a fingerprint rather than a DNA sample, or the science-fiction prediction that’s now yesterday’s news.

On balance, I reckon it’s not worth worrying too much about whether or not a particular piece needs to be accessible to people of the future; after all, your audience is alive right now. If your words remain in print when you’re no longer around, that’s a bonus.