Not Raining, Just Pouring

It sometimes happens that a number of writing projects need to be completed at the same time, and that’s exactly what’s happened over the last week.

Some of these are self-imposed, like two job applications and writing a private blog entry for a closed group. But the others have been opportunities like supporting a funding application for an Edinburgh poetry organisation, and an invitation to write a public blog post for Creative Dundee.

This deluge has been a prime lesson in prioritising, some pieces due on sequential dates. I’m making headway, with only the Creative Dundee post still outstanding, but at the time of writing, I haven’t been given a definite submission date.

It does, however, pay to hit a deadline. Just yesterday, I heard I’ve had a piece selected to appear in Poetry Scotland and I can’t wait to see it in print.

Ahead of the Curve

This blog is updated every Monday at 6pm. To the reader of any regular publication, it should seem as though the content trickles out on a predictable basis. But that rarely happens in practice.

English: Question Mark
English: Question Mark (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my case, I’m sometimes able to plan two or three entries ahead, or I have difficulty deciding what to leave out. Other times, I’m still deciding on a subject or writing an entry a few hours before it’s due to be published.

This week has fallen firmly into the second category, bringing little writing news, other than a rejection e-mail that simply said: ‘Gavin. Clever, but not quite what we are looking for.’

So rather than swerve off-topic for the sake of making an entry, I was going to leave this one here and think about next week’s content.

That was until I learnt that my friends at The Beans Podcast had a worse week than I did. They’ve lost an entire episode.

A Launch at Long Last

Anyone who routinely submits work for consideration can tell you how long it often takes to receive a response, let alone see your words in print. Right now, for instance, it’s too late to plan for summer; publications will shortly be looking for Christmas-themed material.

In October last year, I heard that my poem The Executive Lounge had been accepted for the local publication Dundee Writes. However, the launch only took place on Thursday of last week. Nonetheless, it was worth the wait because my piece is alongside some excellent work from students and alumni. There is also a focus on one of the creative writing tutors who died around a year ago.

The style of the pamphlet tends towards the less mainstream and more experimental and wistful. My poem describes an object without naming it. Instead, the reader is presented with a list of statistics about the item, with the most telling stats placed near the end.

It’s a favourite of my own work, and it seemed to go down well with the audience, but it is primarily a page poem. On this occasion, audience members could follow the text in the book; but when I read a loud it a couple of years ago, it received no reaction at the end, not even applause.

Here’s the piece:


It’s Fun to Stay at the ALCS.

Some time ago, On the advice of Writing Magazine, I joined the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS). If you’ve ever had an article, script or book published, or if you’ve made a contribution to a book, this not-for-profit organisation collects and pays the secondary royalties. Two-thirds of the money is generated by photocopying, scanning and digital copying.

English: A small, much used Xerox photocopier ...
English: A small, much used Xerox photocopier in the library of GlenOak High School in Canton, Ohio, USA. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lifetime membership of the ALCS costs a one-off fee of £36, but you don’t have to pay anything upfront as it’s deducted from your royalty payments. Likewise, you won’t pay anything if they don’t collect any money for you.

The payments are sent out twice a year, and the March one arrived last week. I was surprised to find I was in profit from the three works I’d registered up to that point.

I debated whether or not to reveal the actual figure. I’ve decided to do so on this occasion by way of encouraging others to register. After the £36 fee was deducted, I was left with £84.12. This isn’t a massive sum, but it’s money that would otherwise have been given to someone else or never have been paid. By contrast, The Purple Spotlights EP has only earned me a total of £7.10 from sales, most of that from the first month after release.

I therefore urge you to join the ALCS today and potentially start receiving those missing payments for your work.

Keep on Moving

When I started writing, I needed to go to a class to begin any stories. When someone gives you five minutes to write a passage containing the words stapler, Wednesday and aquiline, it starts the creative process in a way that sitting alone with a blank page doesn’t.

I can’t remember exactly when I began to write pieces without any prompting, but it was around then that I felt more comfortable calling myself a writer, then later a poet. These days, stories and poems tend to bite at me until I write them, although attending a class is still my prime inspiration. Yet even now, there are times when I can’t seem to start moving. I hesitate to use the much-debated term writers’ block because it’s not that I can’t write, it’s that I don’t have enough of an impetus.

English: San Ginés bookshop in Madrid, Spain E...
English: San Ginés bookshop in Madrid, Spain Español: Librería San Ginés en Madrid, España (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many writers worry about balancing the need to write and the time to read. So when I don’t have said impetus, that’s the perfect time to pick up a book. My current novel is Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger, from which I’m learning a lot about structure.

Better yet, I like to visit bookshops. A few days ago, I was in St Andrews visiting Bouquiniste, and Toppings & Co – both small businesses – plus a popular chain store. As I browsed, I found myself thinking about the excitement all these authors must’ve felt on hearing their books were to be launched; thinking of them stopping by to check it wasn’t one massive hallucination.

I also imagined my own novel on its own table with a cover boasting Sixty Million Nicker – now a major motion picture above a gushing quote from The Guardian. And that inspired me enough to pick up the manuscript again that evening. After all, there’s no launch if it’s never written.

One day, I hope I won’t have to imagine, and I wish you all the best with your own work, however you become inspired. And if you’re not, why don’t you start with the words staplerWednesday and aquiline? You have five minutes.

Buy my book! Buy my book! Buy my book!

I enjoy having people follow me on Twitter. If you’re so equipped, you can do so at @LadyGavGav.

As you might imagine, a number of writers follow me, plus those in other creative fields such as music or visual arts. However, there are a significant minority who do nothing but sell sell sell. If you type the words “Buy my book” into the Twitter search bar, you’ll see plenty of examples.

I understand the temptation. It was September 2013 when my first story was published in an actual proper actual book on an actual shelf somewhere. All I wanted to do was fill my 140 characters with Buy My Book! 50 times a day. But there’s a word for that, and that word is spam.

Spam is everywhere, and has been since the earliest days of the World Wide Web. Regular Web users have long learnt to filter out advertising—legitimate and dubious—to the extent that we can concentrate on genuine content. So when someone comes along with a wall of identical messages, the average user will hit the Back button like Billy Whizz.

Targeting your audience so directly also potentially discourages people from interacting with the user. How often have you been in a shopping centre when somebody at a stall enquires, “Can I ask you who supplies your gas and electricity?” I’m by no means a shy person, but I ignore that as it’s so confrontational.

Twitter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So how do you use Twitter without coming across as a complete pillock?

One Twitter user, in my opinion, achieves a great balance. Rayne Hall is an author and editor of fiction and factual books. She intersperses promotional material with writing tips and pictures of her cat. Sometimes the feline even ‘promotes’ her books. This approach encourages people to interact with her, particularly if it’s agreeing (or disagreeing) with a writing tip or commenting on a picture, and she makes a point of responding to messages.

For my own part, I like to crack a lot of puns, mostly because they come naturally to me but partly because people bond over a bad joke in a way that they don’t over good material, according to Professor Richard Wiseman. At least then someone can say how much they liked or groaned at it. And then, when I do have something to promote, it stands out from the jokey messages.

PS, buy my books. My stories are in the following anthologies:

Bang for your buck.

I realised recently that I hadn’t sent off any work to publishers for rather a while, and now I’m beginning to make up for it.

When you submit short stories or poetry on a regular basis, you quickly realise there are two broad types of market.

  1. Directly to publishers. This is where an publishing house invites submissions of single poems or stories for an anthology, often on a set theme, and an editor decides what’s included. There are usually no charge to send in work and the author is often paid a flat fee or a rate per printed word.
  2. Competitions. This is where an organisation invites submissions, often on a set theme, and a judge or panel of judges decide who wins. There is often a charge to send in work, and the winner usually receives a cash prize along with publication.

English: Wil Wheaton at the 2011 Phoenix Comic...
English: Wil Wheaton at the 2011 Phoenix Comicon in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At least that’s how it should work. However, I’ve been involved in more discussion of late about places that aren’t giving a fair deal to their contributors. This includes Star Trek actor Wil Wheaton, who was asked to write for the Huffington Post in return for ‘exposure’.

I’ve heard anecdotal evidence from a couple of poet friends that a popular magazine follows a similar ‘exposure’ model with the claim that they’re a small press and are unable to pay. At least one of these friends has been professionally published elsewhere and will no longer submit to this magazine.

I’ve also recently spotted an advert for a competition with a £10 entry fee or £11 if submitting online, and the prize is to read your work at their event. To me, there’s a lot wrong with this.

Firstly, the price difference is not explained; contributors appear to be penalised for not wasting paper. Secondly, it’s still around double what you would expect to pay to enter a competition. Thirdly, there’s not so much as a nominal cash prize offered, nor any mention of a contributor’s copy.

My advice is to be clear about your reason for sending your work to a particular place. Ask yourself whether the reward is proportionate to its quality and to the financial position of the publisher.

That principle still applies to charity or fundraising work. This year, for instance, I’ve been invited to perform at local landmarks to raise funds for the maintenance and restoration. As I know the organisers, I’m clear that I’m donating my time and work to these causes. One of them even offered me travel expenses, which I declined.

But don’t think everywhere is out to get you. Gutter magazine offers a two-year subscription rather than cash payment, which I consider to be fair, while feminist zine Artificial Womb is a tiny operation but makes a point of paying every contributor.

And a final piece of advice: Wil Wheaton wrote that the exchange he had with the editor wasn’t unpleasant, and that he didn’t blame her for company policy.

Echoing this, it’s always a good idea to be civil to editors no matter how the conversation ends. We’re used to reading about authors and other celebrities who act like divas, but if you develop a reputation for being difficult – especially at the start of your career – word will get around quickly and potentially close off avenues you hadn’t yet explored.

An Abundance of Apples (Part 5 of 5).

For the five Mondays in June, I’ve been taking a break from my usual subject to make one of my stories available free online. We’re now up to the final part of An Abundance of Apples.

In part one and part two, we meet an orchard owner who starts to trade items in alphabetical order. In part three and part four, he keeps moving up the alphabet. Can he still reach Z?

West Hollywood Hotel

Naturally, a lot of my e-mails were coming from the US, and one in particular caught my attention: a four-night stay at the West Hollywood Hotel in return for the Beetle.

We spent evenings on the phone negotiating delivery of the car. We’d read up thoroughly on international deliveries since the Australia incident and we had arranged to pack it off, when by chance, Kelly spotted a news article.

A group of criminals had been passing themselves off as representing prestigious hotel chains and airlines, and they would take payment for stays and flights that never happened.

We’d been so swept up in trying to find a swap that we’d failed even to check their quoted phone number against the one listed on the real hotel’s website.

We felt like prize idiots. I made an online post to that effect.

My parents talked to me like I was five years old and told me this was a wake-up call, that I’d had a good run and I needed to stop now. Kelly had supported me unwaveringly so far, but even she started to express her doubts. I remained as determined as ever to see this through to Z.

Only Daniel didn’t care one way or the other. He’d forgotten his football obsession thanks to his new girlfriend, some little brat from his class.

While the flood of messages had slowed sharply, I still had a number of contacts willing to swap. I learned my lesson and no longer considered foreign offers but I found someone who wanted to swap my Volkswagen.

Wurlitzer Organ

We only played it for five minutes before the sound really started to grate.


Jeez, do you know how much a new xylophone costs?

I thought a few hundred at most, but even a second hand one can go for over a grand. I know this because the instrument dealer who inspected the Wurlitzer through thick glasses talked me through the entire history of the organ and current market values.


“Yngling? That’s not even a word,” exclaimed Kelly. “Don’t you mean yacht?”

“It’s not a yacht,” snapped the outdoorsy type as he unstrapped the thing from the trailer. “a yacht is a completely different class of boat. This beauty competed in the Beijing Olympics, you know.”

“All right,” I concluded. “Leave it here. I’m sure we’ll get it swapped somehow.”

“You mean leave her here?”

I made a You & We post that night, asking if anyone could swap us for something beginning with Z. One more push, just one more, and I would have completed the alphabet. We waited a whole week for something suitable.

Zurich holiday

A local travel firm called Sea the World came to our rescue, offering a holiday for two to Zurich. We checked it out, and it was genuine enough. They wouldn’t take the Yngling off my hands, but their staff had been following my swaps, and I was prepared to treat it as one.

With no further swaps scheduled, only one question remained: who would use it? Daniel and his bratty other half threw a strop when they found out they weren’t getting it. Mum and Dad hadn’t taken a holiday for years, yet wouldn’t consider it. I asked Kelly but she’d used up her annual leave until after the voucher’s expiry date.

I turned to You & We. I wrote a summary of how this whole project had started with a few apples, then blackberries, then carrots, and so on, and now we were stuck at stalemate with our Z.

I received an urgent reply from the dealer who had tried to swap me for the iPhone. He told me to come down to his shop at the double, and he would, “complete the circle.”

He looked at the value of the voucher, ran some figures through a calculator and I arrived home with my final swap.


Last year, we ended up with too many apples. This year, we ended up with two Apple iPads.


The usual angst and introspection returns next week.

An Abundance of Apples (Part 4 of 5).

For the five Mondays in June, I’m taking a break from my usual analysis to make one of my stories available free online. We’re now up to part four of An Abundance of Apples.

In part one, we meet an orchard owner who trades apples for other items, each one letter higher in the alphabet than the last. Part two sees him trade four more items beginning with F, G, H and I, while in part three, he trades a jigsaw. Now he has a power supply unit. Who will take it, and in exchange for what?

Qantas air tickets

“Well, mate,” said one of the DJs, “if you send us your power unit we’ll send you two hundred dollars’ worth of Quantas air tickets. What do you say to that?”
I had no idea what that equated to in pounds, but I stutteringly agreed. When our exchange ended, I checked the postal rates to the other side of the world.
You don’t expect the police to come and question you when you don’t know you’ve done something wrong, but I sharply learnt that it’s against the law to send certain types of battery though the post.

I told them that the Post Office assistant asked me what the package contained, wrote it on the Customs label, then sent it, no further questions asked. Fortunately, I’d kept the proof of postage and the receipt because the radio station promised to reimburse me for the cost of sending it.

The police accepted I’d posted it in good faith and returned the unit to me, but warned me, “Don’t do that again, son.”
I immediately informed the radio station. They arranged for me to go on air the following morning, when the DJ apologised for not realising the legal implications, and agreed to give me the Quantas tickets–actually a discount code to be used on their website–on condition that I gave the power supply to someone, “deserving.” I found a charity shop that accepted electrical goods, and the station sent me the code.

The publicity had generated dozens upon dozens of e-mails. Naturally, most of them originated from Down Under, but a few arrived from Britain and the rest of the world. I had my pick of the next item.


Kelly and I looked down the list of offers: a rowing boat, tickets to Riverdance, roast beef dinners for a year, even a rabbit hutch and occupant. But the case of vintage rum caught my attention.
I found out that 200 Australian dollars is about £118, and its value exceeded that of the Qantas tickets. Also, I reckoned it would be an easy thing to swap.
About the same time, I received an invitation to appear on the late-night Jerry Jakobson Show in New York. Not via video link; they wanted to fly me over there. They had a intriguing proposition for me. Naturally, I discussed it with my family before making any decisions.

It caused an argument. Mum encouraged me to go, while Dad said he needed me in the orchard. Daniel, meanwhile, went into another huff as he wasn’t going. Kelly gave me a shopping list of designer labels to buy in New York.

I went.

I had a hairy moment at Customs, when they kept me waiting to check it was all right to bring the case of rum into the country. Those two hours gave me the chance to contemplate how many people would be watching me. I got the jitters speaking to half a million Australians; the prospect of speaking to 4.2 million Americans made me want to step on a flight home.

Jerry helped me feel at ease off-air, then interviewed me on air for five minutes about the project, before pulling out the envelopes and explaining his proposition.

“We’re going to swap you for something beginning with S. One of these envelopes gets you a bespoke suit courtesy of one of New York’s finest tailors. A pretty good prize, huh? But one of them contains a subway ticket and the other one wins you a steak sandwich. I’m going to get a member of our audience to mix them up.”

I tried to keep my calm. A suit, a subway ticket, or a sandwich. Jerry held them out in front of me. “All right, buddy. Your choice.”


A camp man with a tape measure took every one of my measurements over the course of a morning, while a camera crew captured his comments, around the general theme of, “fabulous.”

Jerry had opened the other envelopes on camera. I genuinely could have walked away with a subway ticket. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to have another Dolce & Gabbana suit again, and it disappointed me that I’d eventually have to swap it.

But I’d officially gone stratospheric. I threw myself into my orchard work by day, but Kelly became my unofficial agent by night, ruthlessly sifting through my scores and scores of e-mails.

Listening to the TV one night, I found my story had even made it into a sketch show.

You can’t hurry quality tailoring. I waited weeks for it to be delivered, but I had enough time to arrange not just the next swap but to plan for the next three exchanges.


Stage one involved the wealthy-looking man, who got back to me with a classic Ford Thunderbird.

Underground carriage

When Transport For London said they would give me an old Underground train carriage, I asked how I would take it home with me.

But the deal they had in mind for stage two wouldn’t involve it physically moving. If I could take the car to their depot, they would swap me for the paperwork to the carriage. I would then give that back to the Thunderbird owner.

Volkswagen Beetle

At stage three, I swapped the Underground paperwork for a Volkswagen Beetle.

I tried asking him some friendly but probing questions about how he could swap the Grand Prix programme, the film stills, and now two cars, all so casually. But he wouldn’t say anything, other than they were both rusting and needed a lot of work.


Next week: West Hollywood Hotel.

An Abundance of Apples (Part 3 of 5).

For the five Mondays in June, I’m taking a break from my own angst and introspection to make one of my stories available free online. We’re now up to part three of An Abundance of Apples.

In part one, we meet an orchard owner who starts off with too many apples, and begins to trade them for other items, each one letter higher in the alphabet than the last. Part two sees him trade four more items beginning with F, G, H and I, while his bratty younger brother constantly stands in his way. In part three, below, he’s now in possession of a jigsaw.


The publicity generated by the paper showed little sign of slowing down, so in quick succession, I received a jigsaw from another well-wisher.

Not a jigsaw puzzle, an actual saw that’s used to cut the pieces.

King Kong stills

The wealthy-looking man who offered me the Grand Prix programme wrote back, offering to swap the jigsaw for some rare stills from the classic film King Kong.

I decided to start photographing the items, starting with the saw, as they were becoming more interesting.

Around the same time, a woman called Kelly, around my age, requested to be mutual friends on You & We. We had three people in common and I recognised her face, although I couldn’t remember where I’d last seen it.

Laserdisc player and discs

The things people keep in their attic. Someone swapped me the King Kong stills for an obsolete laserdisc player and four Jean-Claude Van Damme films on discs the size of bicycle wheels. What’s more, it still worked, and we spent the evening watching Universal Soldier.

For the first time since being in the paper, I had a little trouble finding a trade. My inbox still filled up daily, but only with offers of cheap items, including a map, a family bag of M&Ms, and half-a-dozen marbles.

Mink coat

I finally traded my retro technology for a mink coat. A fake one, of course.

I stood back and took stock. I’d come so far in less than a month, and all after an off-the-cuff observation. All my life, I’d been a trader in one sense or another, and I still saw it as an achievable challenge.

The national British newspapers ignored me, except one rag who reported that Margaret Jeffrey had given me the idea. Then I received an e-mail from a researcher at an Australian radio station asking me to contact them. They wanted to speak to me live on air when I reached the letter P.


Just as I celebrated reaching the halfway mark, the mysterious Kelly wanted to see the coat, and offered a sterling silver necklace in return. After a few minutes’ online conversation, I realised her true identity: Irene’s daughter.

I asked why she wished to get rid of the necklace. She told me her father had given it to her one birthday. I didn’t ask directly, but I came away with the distinct impression that she and Irene wanted nothing more to do with the man.

I couldn’t stay angry at Daniel forever and I brought him along when I went round to complete the exchange. She tried on the coat and it fitted her neatly. We chatted for ten minutes, which turned into an hour, which turned into a very bored little brother.

I’d driven nearly all the way home when he said from nowhere, “Did she ask you out?”

“No,” I replied.

“But she asked you if you wanted to have dinner with her some time.”

I’d dismissed it as a rhetorical question, but thinking back, I realised she’d been serious. For a selfish brat, he could be astoundingly perceptive. I rang up to accept when I got in the house.

I thought a necklace would be snapped up, especially as it bore a hallmark, but I hit a wall. The effect of the newspaper article had almost worn off. I began to doubt my ability to reach O, never mind Z.

Obsidian pig

It took nearly a week, but I arranged to swap it for a decorative pig made from obsidian.

The snag? Kelly and I had already booked a table at a popular restaurant for 6:30pm, but the swapper could only meet me at 7pm. Kelly understood the magnitude of my project, but the other diners thought I’d run out on her.

Another week passed, and another date, but nothing to swap for this pig. I sat down and wrote a plea on You & We. I read it back the next day, and it sounded quite desperate, but Kelly had passed it onto her friends.

Power supply unit

In less than six hours, a hire shop in town swapped my obsidian pig for an ex-rental industrial battery, designed to provide emergency power in the event of an electricity failure.

“That’s my mum’s birthday present sorted,” commented the manager, examining the pig.

I immediately notified the Australian radio station, who arranged to make a voice call to me over the Internet as it would be higher quality than a normal phone, and free of charge. Daniel set it all up the previous evening, and bored me stiff with the technical details.

Evening drive-time in New South Wales is breakfast time in Britain. I’m accustomed to getting up at that time, in fact I’d kept working in the orchard all through the project, but I was not accustomed to having my voice broadcast to half a million listeners from my kitchen.

I honestly can’t remember a large chunk of our conversation, and wouldn’t let anyone play me the recording, but I gave out the You & We address and they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.


Next week: Qantas air tickets.