Tuesday, 8 November 2011

NaNoWriMo #07: a message from deep in NaNoLand

Just a quick update on my NaNoWriMo progress, because, as anyone who is taking part knows, every word I write here is a word that doesn't go into my novel.


On the whole it's going quite well, all things considered. By way of inspiration only (and nothing at all to do with embracing the opportunity to gripe), I'll share with you the sort of month November is for me.

I work more or less full time as a high school teacher and part time for the Open University, lecturing on two courses. For one of these, the first and second assignments come in for marking in November; the other starts in November and in both cases I have tutorials, day schools and etutorials also happening - in November! Along with this, I'm moderating a three week online staff training course.

Meanwhile in school we have sixth form parents' evening this week and a music concert next week. We've also had an extra 'twilight INSET' as well as the usual run of meetings, all on top of the day-to-day planning that goes into the hours spent in the classroom.

At home, the DIY is doing its best to get the better of me and it's Nigel's birthday - on a related note, he's engaged in the (somewhat easier but far less tasteful) task of growing a moustache for Movember - you can view his page / sponsor him here: http://mobro.co/nigelpaice/

Anyway, I'm happy to report that I am on track with my NaNo novel, in that my word count is where it should be by this point in the month, although I'm aiming for a little more than 50,000 words in total, so much work to do.

As I said earlier, I tell you all this by way of inspiration; if you've fewer excuses than I have and you're still lagging behind, then you need to get your **** in gear pronto!

It's worth it, I promise.

[Message Ends]

Friday, 28 October 2011

NaNoWriMo #06: Back Up, Back Up, Tell me what you're gonna do now!

It was 1983 when I chose my options for O' Levels in third year of high school (for younger readers, I was in year 9 and they were more or less the same as GCSEs). 1983: the year before Mark Zuckerberg was born and a whole 12 years before Larry Page and Sergey Brin met at university. Of course, there were lots of other (more significant) things that my O' Level choices preceded. However, I opted for Computer Studies, so these seem the most pertinent.

I don't want to get bogged down in techno-babble here, so I'll just point out that when I was finishing my O' Levels (May 1985), computers didn't have hard drives. True enough, Commodore released the 128 PC that year, which came with a MASSIVE 128K of RAM and a ROM slot, but you know what school budgets are like. We couldn't afford new computers, or even such luxuries as floppy disc cloners. We could only just afford a floppy disc each and our computer room was equipped with 8 mismatched, ancient computers (an Acorn, a BBC, a couple of Commodore 64s, a Sharp MZ something or other and 3 Sinclair ZX Spectrums).

For my Computer Studies coursework I created a searchable recipe database - you know the sort of thing - you tell it what ingredients you've got and it finds recipes that include these:

banana AND baked beans AND egg NOT soap

It's a simple Boolean (logical) search which scans the data entries looking for those containing all three of banana, baked beans and egg, but not soap and, let's face it, most recipes don't, but then I haven't yet seen one with banana AND baked beans in it either.

Sounds easy, doesn't it? The current OCR National Level 2 (GCSE equivalent) in ICT includes a database task within it - one miniscule task! Nowadays we have Microsoft Access, MySQL etc., all nicely pre-programmed, idly awaiting our inputs and queries. And we have hard drives. And pen drives. And 'The Cloud'. And email. And wireless transfer. And...

Cut to the interesting part: my recipe programme worked perfectly, although I couldn't tell you a thing about how I managed it, considering that nowadays my knowledge of BASIC extends to little more than this:

10: Print "Hello world";
20: Goto 10;

It was the final week before submission and I booted up the Sharp MZ whatever, my favoured computer, ready to do one final tweak and tidy. I inserted my floppy disc and turned to my pages of handwritten code, glancing over them whilst I waited for the disc to load.

Except it didn't.

I tried another machine (the C64s were OK - we had one at home and it was fun to play on, after the 10 minute wait for the game to load), then another and another, but to no avail. The disc was corrupted. My coursework was lost. Forever.

The only backup I had was the hard copy - pages and pages of pencil scrawled BASIC, scribbled out, arrows all over the place. Even if I'd had a full complement of code monkeys at my disposal, there was no way they'd decipher that lot in time to save my O' Level. In the end it was all I had, so that's what the exam board got and in return I got an E. Pathetic.

It's little consolation to look back and know there was nothing I could have done. And yet, whilst it would have been nice to get the O' Level, it was the best lesson I ever learned about computing: back up everything.

You'd be amazed how often students tell me they've lost their work, because it's no longer on their user drive, pen drive or other singular location to which it was saved. Sometimes it's an excuse, but often it's not and there really is no excuse for that, not with pen drives, hard drives, CD burners, Google Documents and so on. You can even email it to yourself at a different account (or the same one - it'll be in your 'sent' mail then). This isn't intended to be an exhaustive list of backup options, which would be lengthy enough to win NaNoWriMo and then some.

That's an awful lot of preamble to make a simple point, I appreciate, but picture this: you're well into NaNoWriMo (or any other writing project), with thousands of words under your belt already. Suddenly your document corrupts or simply vanishes.

"Phew!" you say, "I'm glad I saved my novel on my pen drive too!".

Back up your novel, at least once a day and preferably in more than one location. Also Save regularly - CTRL+S / cmd+S should be second nature to a writer. You really can't overdo it; even losing 100 words is 100 words too many. Do you want that A*? Or will you settle for an E?

I thought not.

10: Backup "novel";
20: Goto 10;

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

NaNoWriMo #05: time to fatten the word count

By way of preparing for this post, I was perusing the discussion in the Down and Dirty Tricks for reaching word count thread. It didn't turn out well, which is why I'm going to start with the biggest, bestest tip for succeeding in your writing:
Later I will share with you precisely what distracted me, because it is superbly funny, but also contains many excellent examples of how you can boost your word count this November.

However, as regards the 'Down and Dirty Tricks', there are two schools of thought here:
  1. Do everything you can to boost your word count;
  2. Write sensibly and produce 50K+ of decent fiction.
I wouldn't be the first to point out that the two are NOT mutually exclusive and there is a tremendous amount of middle ground here: the main criterion will be what you personally intend to achieve through NaNoWriMo. Do you simply wish to make it to 50,000 words? Do you want to finish the story? For me, it is about finishing a half-decent novel, i.e. something I can later regard as a good rough draft, which will of course need some rewriting, reorganising and a lot of editing, but is basically 'there'.

Whatever your motivation, there are pros and cons to artificially 'enhancing' your NaNo novel.

Do Dares
Other than starting and joining word wars in the NaNoWriMo IRC chat, I have to say that the only other trick I've used came from the 'Dares' discussion. Dares take the form of including a specific thing in your story, with bonus points (single, double, triple) for how far you go with the dare. The one I opted for was to include an instant messaging dialogue in my novel, where one of the characters didn't know how to use it (bonus points), involving a character that appears nowhere else in the story (double bonus points) and a secret relationship between two of the characters (triple bonus points). I should get quadruple bonus points for also managing to involve a horse (not a Mister Ed type, hoofing away at a custom-made keyboard, I should add), but anyway...

I'm not generally in favour of including random dares just for the sake of it. However, thinking carefully about how to include them coherently has the obvious immediate effect of adding words, but can also spark the imagination. From the instant messaging 'chat' between my characters, I developed a whole new sub-plot, so whilst the chat itself was only a little over 1,000 words, I estimate it added around 5,000 to my novel overall.

For this year's dares, visit the Dares 2011! topic.

Do not use Contractions
In the long term, avoiding contractions is probably one of the most pointless tricks for adding unnecessarily to your word count, assuming that you intend to do more with your novelling output than merely declaring you won NaNoWriMo. For example:

With Contractions:
"Let's go and eat ice-cream."
"Can't. Not allowed."

Without Contractions:
"Let us go and eat ice-cream."
"I can not. I am not allowed."

By removing the contractions, I can add an extra 8 words, which, over the course of a whole novel, would be a significant increase. For the purposes of NaNoWriMo (especially if you sign up to the regional word wars), this is an excellent device, but as far as the authenticity of dialogue is concerned, it doesn't have any at all. Making characters believable requires them to talk like real people, which means they will use contractions. If you get it right, this also means they will be unique and identifiable from each other, because they have their own little nuances of speech.

To illustrate: no-one could have been more surprised than I was myself to find the 2009 Star Trek film threatening to boot Ghostbusters off the number one spot in my all time favourite films, where it has stubbornly remained since its release in 1984. I've watched Ghostbusters too many times to know how many for sure, so I know there's nothing deep or meaningful in the dialogue or storyline and the actors are pretty much hamming it up all the way to the sticky marshmallow-coated end. Yet not once have I questioned the authenticity of 'The Boys' and that, more than anything, is down to the script-writing.

On the other hand, Star Trek XI has some incredible dialogue and characterisation: in all cases, the re-casting of the crew of the USS Enterprise 1701 (Kirk et al) is perfect and I could amble on at length here in praise of the casting director and the actors, but for one little bug-bear. At the end of the opening scene, where the Kirks are discussing names for their soon to be infamous son, his mother suggests naming him after his paternal grandfather Tiberius, to which his father exclaims "You're kidding me". Later James T. Kirk uses the same phrase, at which point I fleetingly registered that this was a nice touch, a subtle demonstration of how like his father he really is. Alas, a bit further on McCoy also uses it and it grated.

Perhaps only I noticed and it really isn't that important. After all, 'you're kidding me' is a common colloquialism, so why shouldn't three different people use it, especially as they're all part of the same starship officers' micro-culture? The problem is that in fiction, such idiosyncrasies are magnified by the context, because the reader / viewer needs them in order to truly believe in the characters. For this reason, Ghostbusters remains as my favourite film, with Star Trek XI coming in a close second.

In summary, if you're short of words for NaNoWriMo, avoiding contractions can help, but you'll need to change them later.

Use (Stupidly) Long Character Names, et cetera
Another popular method of adding extra wordage is to give all of your characters titles, middle names and double-barreled surnames, something like Madame Carole-Ann Elisabeth de Bovoir The Second, CBE. A further tip here is to abbreviate this to something unique as you type, then do a 'find and replace' before submitting your novel for word count validation before the end of 30th November. Here again, it's a great false boost to word count, but in the long run this would really irritate your readers. Let's face it, even if your character was called Madame Carole-Ann whatever, you'd introduce her as such, with an explanation that she was known as 'Carole' to her friends.

Likewise, you could use 'that is' instead of i.e., 'et cetera' instead of etc. and so on - all very proper and really pushing up that magic number, but keep in mind the editing this will require later. For this and other reasons, these are not techniques I would advocate. In my view, you might as well write a single sentence and copy / paste it until your word count is where you want it to be, although again, I am assuming that you are doing NaNoWriMo for more than the chance to see 'winner' on your profile page.

The Department of Redundancy Department
From Joel Stickley's 'How To Write Badly Well':
Kevin entered his PIN number into the ATM machine at a rapid rate of speed. He had a preplanned date arrangement with a female woman and didn't want to be delayed by lateness. If he compared and contrasted Olivia with previous girlfriends he'd dated before, she was universally superior and better in every way.

'Hurry quickly,' he whispered under his breath, his hand advancing forward towards the cash slot where money would come out. He glanced at the LCD display, which was showing an advertising commercial. 'I'm in too much of a rush to have time for this,' he muttered. 'You can keep your added bonus free gift.'

Finally at last, his cash money emerged into view and he grabbed it with his hand. Irregardless of this delay, the end result of his date arrangement would be a new beginning at this moment in time. Little did he know or realise, but his goals and objectives were about to be completely and utterly met in a way and manner it was impossible to over-exaggerate.

As the above demonstrates, repetition and redundancy are the friends of the word hungry. It doesn't make for serious good reading, not 'in the context of your story' good at any rate, although it's hiarious in its own right and there's even better on Joel's blog - the distraction I mentioned earlier.

To cut to the chase (the exact opposite of what you'll be needing to do from next week), there are many ways to add words to a novel and in fact when I say 'do not get distracted', I actively encourage you to get distracted - within your story. Follow tangents to their logical conclusion, for they make excellent sub-plots. Above all, keep writing: use dares to prompt your imagination; explore characters' feelings and motivations and describe everything. You can worry about any redundancies later, after NaNoWriMo, maybe in December, when it's no longer November... any more.

Image from https://snukes.wordpress.com/2008/11/10/writing-is-joy/.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

NaNoWriMo #04: Calendars for your Desktop Wallpaper

Every November, I change the background on my desktop so that it displays NaNoWriMo calendars. These display what your cumulative word count should be on any given day if you intend to hit that 50,000 word goal. This is by far the easiest method for tracking your progress on a daily basis.

Below is a slideshow of the calendars I've collected, plus a Beaten Track / NaNoWriMo calendar in various sizes. Some of the 'third-party' calendars relate to a specific year (mostly 2009) either by mentioning it in the image somewhere, or including the days of the week as well as the dates. Most provide cumulative word count based on a 50K target; the Beaten Track calendars and a couple of others include word counts for 50K, 70K and 100K goals. I've also created various sizes of the Beaten Track calendar, some with a margin on the right / left for Mac / PC layout accordingly.

I don't know who made some of the calendars (to my shame), so if you recognise your own work here, let me know and I will duly credit it / remove it accordingly. Otherwise, here are the links to the sites of the calendars' creators (all found on DeviantArt.com):

Saturday, 22 October 2011

NaNoWriMo #03: to plot... or not

So, it's 9 days until November 1st - the start of National Novel Writing Month - and I don't have any idea what I'm going to write about this year, but I'm not worried. Well, I am a little, but in a good way. I'm getting that low level stress response - the one which registers as the first twitches of chrysalises rather than fully fledged butterflies in the stomach. It's the same feeling I get when I realise it's close enough to Christmas to start being overtly festive and good-willish - probably around 25th November (this year), thanks to my NaNoWriMo buddies in the US.

I'm not too concerned about the lack of plot or characters (I haven't even decided on a genre) for my novel because I've discovered that this approach works best for me and it's the one advocated by Chris Baty in 'No Plot? No Problem':

"From that first NaNoWriMo, I learned that you are allowed to begin a novel simply by turning on the nearest computer and typing. You don't need to do research; you don't need to understand anything about your characters or plan out your setting. It's fine to just start."

My first NaNoWriMo (2007) was exactly this experience: I signed up on November 2nd and started writing straight away - the first thing that came into my head, all the while knowing (and ignoring the fact) that whatever went down on that page was staying there for the next 28 days.

It went like this:

"Josh didn’t like heights, a fact he was more acutely aware of in this context than in any other, in part because this was a very high platform over a body of water that did not appear vast or deep enough to cushion any fall. This, he had concluded long ago, is not phobic, in the sense that phobias are irrational fears: this was based on the only possible outcome of falling from a great height, which at the very least would involve a certain level of physical injury."

As I typed, the questions kept coming. Where was I going with this? Who's Josh? What on earth is he doing up there? Where is 'up there', exactly? The human mind is an extraordinary piece of kit, for as quickly as the questions formed themselves, the answers appeared like sharp little pins, popping balloons full of ideas so numerous I could hardly keep up. As Chris Baty says:

"If you spend enough time with your characters, plot simply happens. This makes novel writing, in essence, a literary trapeze act, one where you have to blindly trust that your imagination and intuition will be there to catch you and fling you onward at each stage of your high-flying journey."

And trust it you must.

Four years on the finished product, a novel of around 110,000 words, is... erm... not really finished at all, to be honest. For instance, I know there are too many characters, but I can't just cut them from the story, because it is theirs as much as it is mine. Each time I re-read 'Hiding Behind The Couch', I try to convince myself that THIS is the very final pre-print proof-read. Then I start fiddling with it, finding more things to tweak and tidy. Thus, I've recently come to the conclusion that the best thing to do is just publish the thing as a free ebook and move on.

I entered the November of my second NaNoWriMo in much the same spirit - write whatever springs to mind, although this time I did have a back-up plan. If all else failed, then I'd sequelise 'Hiding Behind The Couch'. So I started writing:

"Not the typical murder scene. No dark, rainy street filled with concealed doorways and nooks where dangers lurk, imagined or real. Not even a place devoid of other people that would witness such grisly events with relish. This, an average office in a busy multi-storey block, in the middle of the day, a bright, warm one at that, and the usual staff milling around, mostly temps, armed with reams for photocopying, or otherwise glued to the nothingness of their computer monitors. No-one heard, saw, suspected anything out of the ordinary."

Now here's the thing. I evidently started out with some unconscious intention of writing a murder mystery (something I've not done before and might perhaps consider for November 2011 - I'll see when I get there), but that sequel I mentioned? It was never far from my thoughts. Indeed it was a mere chapter away, although to call it a 'back-up plan' is overstating the case somewhat. It was an idea, nothing more, but once again I had no advanced plot and it still turned out OK in the end. That said, I haven't read it since 2009.

On to year three then: this time I did have some clearer thoughts on the starting point (i.e. I knew that a cliff was going to collapse in the opening chapter) and a couple of ideas about the plot (it was something to do with perception-based time travel), but I still didn't plan ahead, essentially due to lack of time. As a consequence and in contrast to the previous two novels, I made it through November with only 18,000 words to spare, which is no mean feat, but not on par for me personally. Nonetheless, I am told it is a decent story, so it became my first self-published novel 'And The Walls Came Tumbling Down', but it made me question whether a detailed plot and chapter outline would improve my next attempt / make it easier.

November 2010: 'The Dream Police' was ready to go. I had a plot, character profiles, chapter outlines - everything I needed to steer my writing through the next 30 days. There was direction, purpose, suspense, mystery and plot twists. The hero had morals and faced tricky moral dilemmas; the narrative offered a social commentary (in response to a prior accusation of class treachery) and the author...

The author was rendered creatively catatonic by boredom, despair and eventually apathy. I faced a new problem: I knew exactly what to write, but did I want to? Not even slightly! For three days, I tried to muster the enthusiasm to continue, all the while adding the missed 1,667 daily words required to my existing overdraft. I was 5K behind by the time I decided that I couldn't just walk away from this.

Contrary to all of the NaNoWriMo advice out there, I binned the lot (or at least I kept it for my word count - regional word wars need us foot soldiers) and started again more than a week into November, so it's no surprise that 'No Dice' limped in with less than 58,000 words and is noteably simple in plot; it had to be to ensure I could finish it in time.

For all of this, I am proud to declare that I have participated and won four times. This year will be my fifth on both counts, because failure is not an option and I will sail to success on this wave of self-belief, with or without a plot. I don't have a secret key, but what I have learned is this:
  • whatever happens, start writing and try not to delete anything;
  • one month does not a good novel make;
  • planning might work for others, but it definitely doesn't work for me;
  • whatever happens, keep writing - every day is best, but catch up if you miss a day;
  • 9+ main characters is at least 6 too many;
  • 50,000 words in 30 days is achievable - possibly even easy;
  • 100,000 words in 30 days is a bit trickier;
  • whatever happens, you must keep writing until you reach your goal.

If it's your first time, it might help to read about other authors' experience, but it might not and I share my experience as an example, not a model. The only wrong way to do NaNoWriMo is to ignore what works for you, which is why it's only 9 days until November 1st and I still don't have any idea what I'm going to write about this year, but I'm not worried.

Friday, 14 October 2011

NaNoWriMo #02: what has it ever done for us?

Try a quick search for 'What NaNoWriMo means to me' and you'll find a mass of evidence that can only lead to one conclusion: there are far more reasons to do it than there are excuses not to. This does, however, come with a prerequisite - that you are considering having a go in the first place.

Many people know straight away that NaNoWriMo is not an event that interests them, although this opinion may be subject to change in later years. The rest of us either fall into the 'I definitely will' or 'I might' categories. To aid your decision, I present here some of the things other writers have said about taking part. I've tried to offer a positive, yet balanced, selection of views, as ultimately NaNoWriMo is not for everyone.

Overall it means getting back together with close friends that you may have drifted away from since last NaNo. People you keep a special room in your heart reserved for, and even though you haven’t seen them for up to eleven months, you pick right back up where you left of. Because these people understand you in a way most don’t.

I think the most important lesson NANO taught me is how to make and keep promises, not to other people, but to myself and only myself.... So when I say that I am going to write 50,000 words in one month NO MATTER WHAT...well, that just gives you an insight to what drives me. How can I believe anything I tell myself if I never follow through with it all the way? Because I think it's possible to lose credibility with yourself.

NaNo has shown me that I can not only write a book in a month, I can write two and even three in a month. I can write scripts and even a musical. It has given me the drive to push myself to limits I never thought was possible and then repeat.

Don’t stop on November 30th. You want to do this thing, do this thing. Your energy and effort can turn NaNoWriMo from a month-long gimmick to a life-long love and possibly even a career. Let this foster in you a love of storytelling made real through discipline — and don’t let that love or that discipline wither on the vine come December 1st.

I love NaNoWriMo. I love the competition with myself. I love the competition with friends. I love the pure abandon of putting writing first. I love writing rough drafts, so this exercise is great for me. I’ve participated for 4 years now. The first year was so much fun. I wrote a book that will never see the light of day. The guy I planned to be the hero isn’t, and the guy I planned to be the villain became the hero. The story would wake me up in the morning, and I reached my goal a week early. I loved writing that book, but it’s a mess.

As for National Novel Writing Month, they seem to care more about making you feel good than about anything having remotely to do with storytelling. And you'll excuse me if I find that just a little depressing.

But then...
The irony is this: I've just been laid off from my day job, part of the process of outsourcing my entire group and most of my department to cheap contractors in India. Which means that this month I'm going to be writing full time, and after my own experiments with speed writing I hope to write considerably more than 50,000 words this month, and complete the first draft of my own unfinished manuscript. So, in a way, I will be actually participating in National Novel Writing Month, though I won't be registering at the website or anything.

Funny how things work out.

NaNoWriMo gets you into the habit of writing every day, which, hopefully, you can continue beyond the month of November. It forces serial restarters such as myself to keep working on the same damned project, and keep moving forward with it (rather than writing fifty different openings, as I seem to have done this last year.)

If you find yourself writing because you have to write or you will fail, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re writing because you have to finish NaNoWriMo, because you have to win, because quitting means you’re a loser – your attitude needs tweaking.

If you’re writing because you love writing, because writing fuels you, because writing is what you want to do – well, you’re already a success in my book.

If you’ll pardon the pun.

Kyeli Smith - Guest post on http://menwithpens.ca/nanowrimo-failure/

My thoughts? I agree with much of what Kyeli Smith says - if you start NaNoWriMo and find yourself hating every minute of it, then you're doing it wrong, or at least for the wrong reasons. It is meant to be fun, but it's also meant to be challenging, so there are times during November when it isn't fun; nonetheless, the good times should outweigh the bad. However, if you plan on making a career out of writing, there will be deadlines and word counts and occasions when (as in all jobs) you don't feel like working, so don't quit just because you have a bad day.

And if you end up wishing you'd never started NaNoWriMo, but know you can write - indeed, have had some success with writing before - then you can give up without feeling that you've failed. Even if you don't make it to 50,000 words, but you truly gave it your best, then who else can judge your achievements but you? Maybe NaNoWriMo is not your thing - maybe writing isn't either. The only way to know for sure is to try it and see.

Friday, 7 October 2011

NaNoWriMo #01: November is National Novel Writing Month

This is the first of a short series of pre-NaNoWriMo posts, in which I explore people's experiences of taking part in National Novel Writing Month, offer tips and tricks for succeeding, what to do once you've finished your novel and so on.

But first a brief introduction...

For those readers who've not come across National Novel Writing Month before, this annual event was brought into being by Chris Baty, back in July of 1999, when he and 20 of his friends set about the seemingly arduous task of writing a novel in one month. As he explains on the History of NaNoWriMo page, the outcome surprised them all:

"...our novels, despite our questionable motives and pitiful experience, came out okay. Not great. But not horrible, either. And, more surprising than that, the writing process had been really, really fun.

Fun was something we hadn't expected. Pain? Sure. Embarrassment? Yes. Crippling self-doubt followed by a quiet distancing of ourselves from the entire project? You bet.

But fun? Fun was a revelation. Novel-writing, we had discovered, was just like watching TV. You get a bunch of friends together, load up on caffeine and junk food, and stare at a glowing screen for a couple hours. And a story spins itself out in front of you."

Over the past 12 years the event has expanded exponentially, from those initial 21 friends in San Fransisco in 1999, to 32,000 authors from around the world in 2010 (the official number of participants who 'won', i.e. wrote 50,000+ words by the end of November, out of 172,000 who registered). Needless to say, the NaNoWriMo website can often be heard creaking under the strain of so many authors simultaneously updating their profiles and daily word counts, chatting in the forums and sending each other messages, so there is much excitement for the all-new website, which launches next week.

However, the website is really just a hub that connects the diaspora of participants who also seek out their own local writing groups, log in to the various chat rooms (including the unofficial #nanowrimo chat on irc.goodchatting.com), attend write-ins and so on. There are official 'Municipal Liaisons', charged with co-ordination of local / regional events, answering participants' questions and giving press interviews, as well as submitting the total regional word counts as part of the friendly regional word wars. It really is incredible to think how NaNoWriMo has taken the isolated, pained experience of writing a novel and turned it into a shared community experience. Of course, the novel writing itself is still an individual exploit, but everything about NaNoWriMo is designed to support authors through that process.

Almost half of the funding for NaNoWriMo comes from individual donations, which participants can make via the Office of Letters and Light website (the charity which runs NaNoWriMo and Script Frenzy). Aside from benefitting authors directly by supporting their writing, donations are also used to fund the Young Writers' Program, which provides a safe online community for young authors and resources for educators, amongst other things (a summary of accounts / donations can be found here: http://www.nanowrimo.org/eng/wheredowebnationsgo).

So that's the facts and figures in brief. Now I suppose I should tell you why you should participate in NaNoWriMo.

First of all it's an entirely different way of writing. If you've ever written any flash fiction, then you've had a taste of what it's like to write quickly for 30 days without editing, back-tracking, re-reading or doing anything else which might jeopardise your word count. The main goal is to get those 50,000 words written and worry about the rest later. This approach is especially useful if you've written before, but are in middle of an extended hiatus of some sort, as it only allows you time to think and write. There's no room for doubt and ultimately there may only ever be you who reads what you churn out, so you don't need to worry what anyone else thinks. It's equally helpful for first-time novelists, who perhaps have started a few books, but got no further than the first 15-20 pages.

Secondly, it's a great way to get a first draft together. Many 'WriMos' like to plan in advance and arrive at November 1st with a full chapter outline, character profiles and a clear idea of how the story will conclude. Others might have only a basic plan in mind and prefer to see where the story goes. The first time I took part in NaNoWriMo, I started a few days into the month, with no plot and absolutely nothing in the way of characters. By the time I was 15K words into the novel I still had no idea where the story was heading and the conclusion only happened upon me about halfway through (the final novel is 106,000 words in length - about 350 pages in paperback form). I've also tried working from a plan, but rather enjoy flying 'by the seat of my pants', with my characters being far less surprised by their circumstances than I am!

Finally (for this post at any rate - there are many more reasons than three for taking part), if you do 'win' and reach 50,000 words by the end of November 30th (you need to submit your manuscript via the website to verify this), you will have such a tremendous sense of achievement, not to mention collecting 'Winners' Goodies', which include a free proof copy of your novel from CreateSpace (you don't have to use this for your NaNo novel). As part of this 'prize', your novel is assigned an ISBN and distributed via Amazon.com.

What to do next:
  • After Monday 10th October 2011, you can sign up for NaNoWriMo (if you sign up before, you will get lost in the migration of information from the old to the new site).
  • If you decide to plot in advance, start plotting. If you're like me and don't want to plot in advance, jot down any ideas that come to mind, but otherwise leave them alone until November 1st.
  • Read our follow-up posts over the coming weeks - I'll also post the NaNoWriMo desktop calendars I've collected over the past four years - these serve as a very handy reckoner of where you should be in your word count, compared with where you are.
  • Once you've signed up (or indeed if you're already a member of NaNoWriMo), please feel free to add me as a friend - deb248211 - I'd give you the link, but it looks like the migration is underway as I type!

Later in the month I'll also tell you about the Beaten Track pre-publication / e-publication offer for NaNoWriMo authors. And if you already have NaNo novels available from previous years, let us know and we'll add them to the Beaten Track website.

NOTE: it is possible that the links to specific NaNoWriMo pages will no longer work after the site update, so I will come back and fix them next week!

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Surrealism, Erotica, Burgers and Cyberpunk - Updates and Latest Additions

You've no doubt heard the old London bus adage about waiting for ages, only for three to turn up at once. Well, it's been a bit like that here lately - not with buses, you understand. This week we've added no less than four new authors and nine new publications.

One of these is No Dice, which I've already posted about, so I won't say any more on that, other than recommending that you buy it - just 86p for the Kindle Edition? What a bargain!

Anyway, on with the task at hand:

As suggested by the title, this collection of "nine sizzling tales of love and lust" is one for the adult audience (specifically: those who enjoy erotica). A quick visit to Sharazade's blog finds her participating in a 'Hands-on Kink' workshop at the recent Erotic Authors Association conference - confirmation that the author has a firm grasp (ahem) of erotic fiction and takes her research very seriously!

Transported is available in a variety of formats (Paperback, Kindle, ePub, RTF, PDF, PDB and Plain Text), from around 5.00 USD (3.50 GBP) for electronic versions and 7.93 GBP (Amazon UK) / 10.07 USD (Amazon.com) for the paperback.

I'll confess straight up that I haven't read this yet, as I've been reviewing Automatic Assassin (see below), but I have just bought the Kindle edition, based on the reviews on the Amazon.com page for the paperback edition. Needless to say (as I wouldn't have added it to the site / bought it otherwise), the reviewers are unanimous in their opinion that this is an excellent debut novel from 'an author to look out for'. Some even go as far as to say that it doesn't read like a debut novel at all.

"A largely forgotten and apparently ordinary street, Ivetha has a strange, unexpected effect upon the people who happen to encounter it...": this intellectual, surreal compendium of characters' encounters with Ivetha is literary fiction, which is a refreshing change, especially as it's priced within the pop fiction bracket.

Ivetha is available in both Paperback (11.99 USD - Amazon.com) and Kindle editions (1.40 GBP - Amazon UK; 2.29 USD - Amazon.com).

These two novels constitute the first two parts of the Truxxe Trilogy, following the adventures of Tom Bowler, "young, polite and intelligent" and recently employed burger boy in an intergalactic fast food restaurant.

The Truxxe Trilogy is a humourous space adventure, aimed at late teenage - adult readers, with part 3 currently underway. If you're quick, you can also get a signed copy of parts 1 and 2 for a mere 9.99 GBP each!

All Aliens Like Burgers:
Signed Paperback Edition (Amazon UK)
Audio Book (SpokenWordAudio)

Do Aliens Read Sci-Fi:
Signed Paperback Edition (Amazon UK)

Automatic Assassin (plus 3 other titles and a freebie) by Marc Horne
Marc Horne claims that he "slowly writes novels and then gives them away", which isn't strictly true, although the first contact I had with Marc did involve him pointing me in the direction of Nervous Teeth Drink All The Poison - a collection of short stories that is indeed free. I'd also contend that he doesn't write slowly either, given that all of the titles available were published in the past 4 years.

Regardless of the (at least partly) misleading self-description, it's absolutely true to say that Marc Horne is a very talented and diverse author. Nervous Teeth is an utterly bizarre and subsequently hilarious collection of short stories, with the pre-requisite and much needed disclaimer about characterisation. Look out particularly for 'Morrisey Under Pressure: A Science Fiction Adventure' - and yes, that is our gladioli flinging Brit icon in the flesh, more or less.

Notwithstanding Marc Horne's capacity to give away his toils for free, he deserves to make a bit of money along the way, so I recommend that you buy yourself a copy of Automatic Assassin, which Horne describes as "A cyberpunk space opera about Xolo, a man who replaced his conscience with a machine". This time he's telling the truth, yet there is so much more to this book, due to the author's ability to coherently weave social commentary, humour, philosophy and zombies into a single plot (full review on Amazon.co.uk).

Automatic Assassin:
Kindle Edition - 1.71 GBP (Amazon UK); 2.76 USD (Amazon.com)
Paperback - 9.99 USD (Amazon.com)

Also by Marc Horne:

I've finished the Free Reads page on the Beaten Track website and populated it with a few classics, courtesy of Project Gutenberg.

If you would like to recommend your own or other work that is available for free, just send us the details via this link: Free Reads Form.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Review of A1CS X220 Tablet


I wanted a tablet. I really, really wanted a tablet. But I couldn't afford to buy one, so I wandered the internet, lost and aimless, coveting all the lovely tablets I couldn't have, knowing that my life would remain meaningless until I made one mine.

In my determination, I toiled hard, saving up points on market research sites and converting them to Amazon vouchers. I implored my family to give me vouchers for my birthday and finally, as the month of August relented on its struggle to keep back the autumn, I gathered together all that I had accumulated and returned once more to gaze upon my beloved.

Yes, well... suffice to say, I've spent many months researching tablets, trying to find the one that best suited my requirements and I'm absolutely sure I made the right choice when I opted for the A1CS tablet. What follows is a full review based of my usage of the tablet so far (2 weeks) and my contact with A1CS, whose customer service has been exceptional. However, I will start with a brief explanation of why I chose this particular model.

The first decision anyone intending to purchase a tablet makes is whether to go for Android, Apple or another operating system (OS), although I mention Android and Apple specifically, as they are the market leaders and for good reason: Apple are famed for their slick designs and ease of use, making the iPad a safe choice for many who want the plug and play straight out of the box experience. However, Android tablets are available from many of the best-known mobile device manufacturers (Samsung, Motorola, HTC, Acer, to name a few) and also ship with a variety of applications pre-installed (more on this later), including those that come as standard, putting the two devices on a level footing (at the very least) in this regard.

My previous experience with both Android and Apple's iOS also influenced my decision: I own a Motorola Dext - an Android phone, which runs 1.6, so is a bit out of date and can be quite slow, but it is reliable, straightforward and, like most Android devices, can be customised to suit the individual's requirements. The reason I say 'like most Android devices' is that many of the less expensive tablets have limitations (lack of access to the Android Market, for instance) - this is NOT the case with the A1CS tablet, although it is limited to free apps only, which I didn't realise until I read the product information and I've been downloading apps throughout the time I've had it.

Before I go any further, I feel I ought to clarify that I'm not anti-Apple. I've used Macs (desktops and laptops) since 1993 and they really are excellent machines. I don't personally own any of Apple's mobile devices, so can't really offer a fair comparison of the iPad to the A1CS tablet, although I have borrowed the occasional iPod and iPhone and I've had a play on a friend's iPad. There is no denying the excellent touch responsiveness of this device, but in terms of costs (both financial and Apple's Big Brother approach to user autonomy) I simply couldn't justify shelling out that sort of money.

Thus, I decided early on that I would opt for an Android tablet, so it was merely a case of finding the right one and I had a number of important criteria in mind:
  • ratings and reviews
  • customer / product support
  • price
  • potential to upgrade the OS
  • ease of operation / responsiveness
  • access to Android Marketplace
  • connectivity / build quality
Needless to say, I plumped for the A1CS tablet and I've outlined each of these aspects below, in relation to this model and with comparisons, where appropriate.

Ratings and Reviews
Amazon offers customers the opportunity to provide a rating of up to 5 stars, along with a written review, both of which make for a good indication of whether the product is up to scratch. A product with a substantial number of reviews which maintains a high rating is a good indication of product / customer service quality. At the time of writing, this is how the following 10.x inch Android WiFi tablets fair:

Price (GBP)
No. Reviews
Rating /5
(including this one)

*This is the same tablet as reviewed here, but with a resistive, single-touch screen, rather than capacitive, multi-touch screen.

So, having read all of the Amazon reviews for all of the tablets listed above, then searched the internet for 'professional' reviews (which essentially agreed with Amazon customers), I purchased the A1CS tablet with resistive screen. Alas, after a few hours I realised that it was the wrong tablet for me: I have carpal tunnel syndrome and whilst the pressure required to operate the screen is not great, it was too much for me, so I contacted A1CS and explained my situation. They offered me an unconditional refund, but also informed me that the capacitive model was due to be released imminently. Given that I couldn't fault the tablet in any way other than the screen (and this isn't a fault with the machine), I was more than happy to pay the extra for the capacitive version.

It's well worth reading at least some of the reviews yourself, but in short, what you will find is that the A1CS reviewers consistently cite the excellent speed, responsiveness and connectivity of the device, as well as the outstanding customer service. I've used both the resistive and capacitive versions and can confirm that these strengths apply to the capacitive version.

Customer / Product Support
At this point, I am struck by an overwhelming urge to gush forth excessive praise for A1CS, because my experience of their customer service is that it is by far the best I have ever received. The first tablet arrived within 2 working days, well packaged and exactly as described; the subsequent return was handled professionally, with confirmation that the product had been received at their end; the replacement tablet arrived within 24 hours of my additional payment. I also contacted A1CS for support with a WiFi issue and they responded very quickly, suggesting router settings which instantly fixed the problem. I've communicated with them several times on other matters not of direct relevance to this product or review and they have been prompt, polite and helpful, without exception.

There's no need to pass further comment on this - as the list above shows, the A1CS tablet (V1) is the cheapest, has the most reviews and the highest rating. This is true value for money.

OS Upgrades
At first I was concerned that this tablet only runs Android 2.2, potentially making it obsolete already. However, a discussion thread elsewhere on Amazon indicates that A1CS are working on an upgrade to Android 3 and there is also information out there for an (unsupported) root installation of Honeycomb. Personally, I'll stick with 2.2 for now, as it does everything I need it to and Android Market is still predominantly geared towards Android 2.x.

Ease of Operation / Responsiveness
The tablet is quick and responsive, although there is one (avoidable) issue I've experienced here: when I first got the tablet I attempted to use it whilst it was charging and it appeared that the screen wasn't calibrated. I opened the 'Calibration' tool under 'Settings' and after several failed attempts at hitting the cross, resulting in a 'Try Again' message, the tablet locked up and I had to reset it (press and hold the power button for about 5 seconds).

I have since discovered that the calibration is fine, but it is affected by the power cable being connected. However, the battery life is excellent (3.5 hours of video playback, 2 hours of which were via YouTube; 6-8 hours reading ebooks on the pre-installed eReader), so it generally isn't necessary to operate the tablet with the power connected.

The only other lag I've experienced occurs when viewing web pages loaded with YouTube videos - again, the workaround is to use the YouTube app rather than the built-in browser and in fact Dolphin Browser copes better with videos and comes pre-installed.

It took me a few days to find out that the tablet is multi-touch, as I don't use this feature: it does work for zooming in and out of webpages etc. - I don't think it does anything else, but I'm still exploring.

As far as multi-tasking goes, the tablet copes exceptionally well and if it starts to hiccup (which takes some doing), then the pre-installed Advanced Task Killer can sort this out in an instant. This app lists all currently active tasks, which can then be selected and 'killed' - it also gives a good indication of how many apps are running in the background, so you can adjust settings to suit your needs.

Applications / Access to Android Market
The tablet comes with a good range of apps pre-installed (on top of the standard 'system' apps):
  • Dolphin Browser
  • Apk Manager
  • ADSL Dialer
  • Skype
  • Facebook
  • HDMI Setting
  • Ilitek Touch Utility
  • Advanced Task Killer
  • Quickoffice
  • eReader
  • Amazon Kindle
As I'm an author, I've installed a few other ereaders and document editing apps to test formatting. The pre-installed eReader is excellent, although CoolReader is equally good and has a few more features. Likewise, QuickOffice works well for viewing documents created in Microsoft Office, but I also downloaded Doc Converter and Jota Text Editor, so that I could convert MS Word documents to text, then edit them using Jota - for free.

The EasyPrint app, used in conjunction with Google Cloud Printing, means you can also send documents 'over the cloud' to a printer connected to your desktop / laptop computer.

As mentioned in the product information, the tablet only lists free apps in Android Market, but this is mostly an advantage, as it saves unnecessary expense on apps you later decide you don't want / need.

Connectivity / Build Quality
The tablet comes with 2 USB ports, 2 micro SD slots, 1 HDMI slot, stereo minijack (headphones) socket, Ethernet port and power supply socket. It also ships with headphones, power supply and a USB cable. Regarding the USB cable, the product information states that this is "only useful for firmware updates, not for transferring files". However, I installed the USB Mass Storage app, which enables mounting of USB drives and SD card readers, so the USB ports can be used for transfer of files from portable devices.

The speakers aren't fantastic, but the sound quality via headphones is very good and loud enough to hear without annoying other people. The camera is also reasonable for webcam-type usage, but don't expect super-duper hi-res images.

I recommend purchasing the keyboard case, which is sturdy, feels very much like a Mac keyboard (including layout) and puts the A1CS on a par to the Asus Eepad Transformer (which comes out well in the reviews / ratings mentioned above, but costs more than twice as much). However, be aware that the tablet is only held in the case on three sides, so there is a risk of it slipping out, if the one end without a clip is facing downwards - I learnt this the hard way! Fortunately, the build quality of the tablet is pretty good, so it survived a 3 foot drop onto a wooden floor with no damage whatsoever.

I have absolutely no regrets in opting for this tablet. I tried the Motorola Xoom in a local phone shop and the A1CS tablet is a match on speed and responsiveness - indeed it's close behind the Samsung Galaxy S2 and iPad in both regards and is around half the price (or less). With the additional apps I've installed, I can print documents and images, copy files to and from USB, read ebooks in any format and edit documents - perhaps not your requirements, but evidence that you can set the tablet up exactly how you want. On top of this, the video and music players will play almost any format you throw at them and the screen is bright, clear and visible from almost all angles. The additional keyboard case turns this tablet into a netbook and is a further great investment.

Ultimately the greatest strength of this tablet is the support behind it. If A1CS isn't a deliberate acronym for 'A1 Customer Service', then it should be.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

No Dice - Paperback Now Available (plus free fluffy dice!)

No Dice by Debbie McGowan is on sale from today: electronic versions to follow.

Fancy some free fluffy dice?
(or 'fuzzy' dice if you live on the other side of the pond)

To claim your free fluffy dice
(you know you want some)

- Either -

Be one of the first 10 people to purchase a copy of No Dice.

- Or -

Write a short review of No Dice.

In the mean time, here's a little background info about the book.

No Dice started life during NaNoWriMo 2010 and it was my second choice, hastily imagined a week into November, when I was already a good 10,000 words into the 50,000 required to 'win'. Fortunately, the general plot came together quickly, so I was able to churn out a basic outline by the end of the month and claim my 'winners' goodies': needless to say, the book was a long way from finished.

I've posted about anti-NanNoWriMo snobbery before, so won't repeat myself here, other than to say that the excuse to write is vital to getting me started. Until my recent decision to reduce my hours, I was a full time high school teacher, as well as working part time for the Open University on two different courses and building the occasional website on a freelance basis. On top of this I have two teenaged daughters, a husband, two dogs and a house to look after. Fitting in authorship along with everything else is a luxury I can afford in November only, when the ludicrously tight deadline forces me to keep writing; the rest of the year I must stop to plan lessons, cook meals, write reports, walk dogs, analyse results, clean bathrooms, mark assignments, dye daughers' hair, mow grass, mow husband's hair... et cetera ad nauseam (or, in English: and the other things, until I'm sick - quite often literally).

If you'd asked before today where the ideas for the story came from, I probably wouldn't have been able to tell you. However, whilst talking to one of my students about the release today (he's going to star in a No Dice video trailer - if we can pin down a white XR3i), it dawned on me that he was in fact the inspiration for one of the two main characters. Of course Saul Smith (the character) has evolved somewhat since his arrival in the story, taking on his own unique identity - one of the joys of writing fiction is that you get to give birth over and again, but without the labour pains. Then again, self-publishing is a long, hard slog: the proofing and preparation for print can take as long as the writing and editing. Nonetheless, I've given birth twice and self-published twice, so can state with some qualification that the former hurts a lot more.

The other main character is perhaps less directly traceable to a single individual. Ryan Forbes is an average, working class semi-geek with the usual smattering of gaming and techno pursuits defining his existence. He's an amalgam of every geeky teenager I've ever met, thrown into a situation that he finds terrifying, yet it galvanises him into employing his aptitude for logic and problem-solving in something other than hunting down zombies.

As for the plot itself, I can't really say much without risking spoilers, but it will likely be apparent to readers that certain 1980s Hollywood films play a part in there, mashed up with some very basic quantum theory - a deliberate move, because this story is intended to be accessible and fun.

Being an author and working in a high school can be a dreadful ordeal. I struggle to comprehend how young people (in general) cope with no creative outlet, be that writing, reading, making or listening to music (proper music, that is), painting, photography or something else. It really doesn't matter and I don't think it's being old-fashioned or stuck up to suggest that computer games are not a worthy substitute, even if they do involve creating and managing your own Premier League football team or commanding an elite force of highly trained badger ninjas (that last one has some potential though - © Nige).

And so it came to pass that I wrote a book aimed at the people I work with day-in, day-out. Quite frankly, I have the utmost admiration for educational psychologists and their ability to discern the difference between a real attention deficit disorder and the proverbial couldn't out-think a goldfish attention span of most teenagers. Indeed, reading an entire 199 page novel proved to be almost too much for one such individual I cajoled into reading No Dice, who, by his own admission, spends far too much time playing fast-action video games and never reads, which is a shame, because he has the potential to be an incredible poet. Still, he made it through the entire book, so there's hope for him (and me) yet!

This is not to say that the book is exclusively aimed at the 13-17 demographic: hopefully I've crammed in enough eighties nostalgia to appeal to their parents too.

And on that note, I'll leave you with the first full review - I'd best stock up on fluffy dice, quick!

"Firstly, may I say that at the age of 45, I did not expect to enjoy this book. The fact is, I did, which I find strange, bearing in mind it was written for an age group that is about a third of my own. However, this paradox can be answered quite simply by the way the work was written and the subject matter. Every one of my age will remember someone with an XR3i and those who do not will have undoubtedly seen one screaming up a street nearby. One could say that the Escort was the epitome of the eighties culture.

However, this is not what makes the book work for today's youth. That is down to character formation and involvement of the reader, something I found in spadesful whilst reading this book. Each character was carefully mapped and meticulously formed, giving the impression that the author knew each one personally, which is a rare quality in modern youth literature. It's not unfair to say that "No Dice" also included a very well-crafted history lesson!

One could argue that the use of a car as a "time machine" has been used as a hook before but in this scenario, the lessons learned are harsh and appear real to the reader leaving one with food for thought on many levels.

On a personal note, "No Dice" took me back into my youth. It is well written and is able to work for a variety of readers. For me? Nostalgia holds the key!"

Jason Piggin - Author and Philosopher.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Butterfly, Primacy and Jack - Previews and Latest Additions

I'm unofficially beta testing an Android tablet (it's cheap, due to go on sale in October and all good so far - more on this in the near future), so today's post is a quick update on some of Beaten Track's upcoming / most recent additions.

Coming Soon(ish)
Butterfly - A True Story (working title) by Sarah French (Beaten Track)

'Butterfly', currently in the very early stages of editing, is a raw and honest autobiographical account of the author's experience at the hands of her abusive step-mother and, to a lesser extent, her father.

In the earliest draft, penned at the age of 17, Sarah writes:

"I wrote this book because I want to open society’s eyes to what can go on behind closed doors. I want you to see the effects my abusive childhood had on me, as a child, a teenager and an adult, so that you the reader can look a little closer at a child who seems withdrawn, lonely or afraid.

In my case my abusers were my father and stepmother. I may never know what drove them to act the way they did towards me."

The book's candid narrative is intriguingly dispassionate and as such holds a definite advantage over other accounts, with their tendency towards glamourisation, as if emotive, exaggerated description of events that are truly horrible in their own right is somehow a pre-requisite to the empathy and action of onlookers.

French successfully avoids the trap of sensationalism, instead providing the reader with a genuine and unique insight into her childhood and how this shapes the woman she is today. As a consequence, this is a story with far greater potential than any that has gone before to challenge the multitude of social taboos and misunderstandings that allow child abuse to persist unnoticed and unchallenged.

Most Recent

From Verbitrage:
"Primacy by J. E. Fishman is packed with suspenseful drama, subterfuge, and incredible demonstrations of man's inhumanity to men/women and animals. Yet, it is a shot of adrenaline into the advocacy of animal suffrage. Fishman successfully utilizes techniques of the objective reality of journalism, and the subjective reality of story-telling."

Excusing the pun in advance, but having been bitten by The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams, this is a book that I won't be reading myself. However, I should clarify that this is down to my personal preference for a pain-free reading / viewing experience (you won't ever find me watching Marley and Me, for instance), as opposed to any inadequacies on the part of Joel E. Fishman.

Released just over a week ago, Primacy has already reached the point where it would be appropriate to refer to it as 'critically acclaimed'. Without spoilers, the novel follows the work of Liane Vinson, animal researcher, and her quest to return a bonobo to the wild. Variously described by reviewers as provocative, captivating, intelligent and a must for animal lovers, Primacy is a thriller with morals and is Fishman's first novel.

As an added bonus, all purchases of the hardback come with a free ebook (as per Verbitrage policy) and is priced at 13.78 GBP (Amazon UK) / 18.96 USD (Amazon.com).

"A dog (Jack) and his person (The Tall Guy) decide to write a book, mostly about the dog. But don't worry, no dogs die at the end of THIS book! (Unlike some other books about yellow Labs)

Aren't you tired of reading books about vampires? Wouldn't a book about a zombie puppy be more interesting? Yeah, I thought so too. I guess I'll have to work on that for the next book. In the meantime, here's a book about a dog named Jack."

By way of contrast and much more to my liking, Ray Braswell offers up a wholly feel-good biography of his golden labrador, Jack. Also worth a peruse is Jack's blog - dailydoseofjack.blogspot.com, always written from the dog's perspective.

'Jack' is available as a Kindle edition, very competitively priced at 2.14 GBP (Amazon UK) / 2.99 USD (Amazon.com).

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Lost and Found

I noticed a student reading a book today, worthy of comment for its unusualness. I asked what he was reading and he held up the cover rather than tell me - it took a moment to decipher, but it was Scar Tissue, the autobiography of the lead singer of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.

"Have you ever heard of Nineteen Eighty-four?" he asked, then added by way of clarification, "By George Orwell."

"Yes," I replied, stifling a chuckle. How lovely that new readers believe themselves to be pioneers of literature new and old. I suppose, to share Roland Barthes' perspective, this might be true.

The conversation that followed switched back to discussing recording artists such as the aforementioned band, The Doors and various others who have long been held in high esteem, but my thoughts wandered elsewhere, to Nineteen Eighty-four and other books I have lost over the years.

When I say lost, I mean loaned to friends; the contradiction resides in these being the books I value most, thus they are the ones I want to lend out least, yet wish others to have the opportunity to appreciate them also.

So, Nineteen Eighty-four is missing, presumed loaned. To whom? I do not know, but it was the copy I 'borrowed' from school when I was doing my O' Levels, so it is only right that I should no longer possess it, I suppose. However, its absence reminds me more of its specialness and this intrigues me. If it were still on my bookshelf I wouldn't think of it at all; instead, I recall the hours spent sitting behind the counter of a windswept icecream kiosk in mid-November, clutching at the pages until my fingers turned grey, imagining Winston's world to be a whole lot more pleasing than mine was during those times.

"It was curious to think that the sky was the same for everybody, in Eurasia or Eastasia as well as here. And the people under the sky were also very much the same-everywhere, all over the world, hundreds or thousands of millions of people just like this, people ignorant of one another's existence, held apart by walls of hatred and lies, and yet almost exactly the same- people who had never learned to think but were storing up in their hearts and bellies and muscles the power that would one day overturn the world."

It's a terrible shame I no longer have this particular copy of Nineteen Eighty-four in my possession. Buying another just wouldn't be the same and I would more than likely end up loaning it out again, if only to remove the perceived need for clarification on the author in future interludes.

I also 'lost' Nights At The Circus, by Angela Carter (originally published in 1984, strangely enough) - a brilliantly comedic and moving tale of a woman called 'Fevvers', so named for her wings. My choice of lendee on this occasion was a young actor who, now in his forties, persists in his engagement with outrageous fashions. He often fell victim to the inaccurate judgements of others in relation to his uniqueness. I hope this is no longer so, but imagine that this was part of my reasoning for offering him the book in the first place and I like to think that he treasures it.

"Outside the window, there slides past that unimaginable and deserted vastness where night is coming on, the sun declining in ghastly blood-streaked splendour like a public execution across, it would seem, half a continent, where live only bears and shooting stars and the wolves who lap congealing ice from water that holds within it the entire sky. All white with snow as if under dustsheets, as if laid away eternally as soon as brought back from the shop, never to be used or touched. Horrors! And, as on a cyclorama, this unnatural spectacle rolls past at twenty-odd miles an hour in a tidy frame of lace curtains only a little the worse for soot and drapes of a heavy velvet of dark, dusty blue."

Most recently, I 'mislaid' Booky Wook 2 by Russell Brand, lent to someone I used to see on a bi-weekly basis, but due to their change of employment, no longer have any contact with. In this instance, the book is too modern and popular to be special in the same way as Orwell or Carter, but it is a good book nonetheless. Russell Brand's style is eloquent, humble and humorous in equal measure, with some truly beautiful prose on occasion, including my favourite passage (not necessarily for its religious imagery):

"God is in the mountains. Impassive, immovable, jagged giants, separating the celestial from the terrestrial with eternal diagonal certainty. As if silently monitoring the beating heart of the creator from the universe's perfect birth. Stood in the thin air and the awe, one inhales God, involuntarily acknowledging that we are but fragments of a whole, a higher thing. The mountains remind me of my place, as a servant to truth and wonder. Yes, God is in the mountains. Perhaps the pulpit too and even in the piety of an atheist's sigh. I don't know; but I feel him in the mountains."

Three books: so different in style and genre and yet they share the same talent for dishing up the ugliest features of humanity with beauty and splendour. This is why I loved them, why I lost them and why I will continue to find them at the forefront of my mind. To lend a book is essentially to offer it as a gift. Will I ever get them back? I can only hope, although given that my gregarious actor friend now lives in Australia, unless Nights At The Circus sprouts some 'Fevvers' of its own, I doubt I will be seeing it again.