Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Dear author, you suck!

I receive regular emails from readers of my books, which is a delightful experience, and I always try to reply. But sometimes what they ask for is not very practical.

I have had the 'I have this assignment from school on light, will you write it for me?' type of email, for instance. To these I very gently point out that they can find out the information here and here, but it's up to them.

I also get emails and letters asking me to explain something in one of my books in a different way or in more detail. These I feel more sympathy for - at least part of me thinks that this implies that I didn't get it right the first time. If it's a quick query, I will do my best to answer it - but if it implies re-packaging the material of a whole chapter, say, I'm afraid I do give a fairly unhelpful answer.

I recently had one of these emails about a book I wrote 5 years ago, basically saying I don't get chapter 13 and 14 and as I like to understand each chapter as I go, can you explain it to me so I can read on? I replied that I could only really advise keeping going and hoping all will become clear. This is a common problem with science and maths subjects - you sometimes have to take bits on trust and go with the flow. It's certainly what I found when at university. In this case, we were dealing with infinity, a subject that is never going to have clear and absolute answers anyway.

Unfortunately, the email writer was not happy. He told me off for giving him a lame excuse. I find this quite upsetting. I wasn't trying to give a lame excuse - but the fact is, I can't write a new book for every reader to put the information across the way they want it. Many people have enjoyed that book - I know that from their emails. In this case, I failed. Half of me wants to go back and apologise - but I know it's the road to disaster. There are some conversations that aren't ever going to succeed.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Agents aren't gods

Over on that excellent forum for writers, Litopia, there is often discussion of how difficult it is to get an agent. Sometimes, it seems almost like a hunt for a dangerous wild beast - trying to capture this most elusive and powerful creature.

And I don't want to underplay the importance of a good agent. They are an author's best friend and fiercest critic. They pursue your business interests with the publisher, while privately telling you exactly what's wrong with your new book idea. More than one of my agent's clients dread his verbal feedback more than a visit to the dentist - but recognize it as equally valuable.

However, it's well to remember that getting an agent isn't an end in itself. I know writers who have got an agent and still not got published. Even with the best agent in the world it's possible to have a project that you know is brilliant - and your agent knows is brilliant - and still not manage to convince a publisher to invest in it. I hate to say it, but sometimes publishers are fallible and short-sighted, and even having an agent won't change things.

Someone I know, a first time writer, finally managed to get an agent for her non-fiction project. It was brilliant. An expose of the dark machinations behind a world famous building project. There was politics. There was human drama. There were tantrums and celebrities. It was a heaven-sent book. And not a single publisher wanted it. Said first time writer retired hurt. Having an agent hadn't suddenly opened every door.

Of course, if you are looking for an agent, it will be different for you, I'm sure. Yes, seek an agent with great enthusiasm. Treasure him or her when you get one. But don't think that getting an agent means you can relax and lose that drive to succeed. It's just the next step on the road.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Help! The Post Office is turning me into Jeremy Clarkson

I am, on the whole, a 'live and let live' kind of person. But this weekend the Post Office managed to turn me briefly into a Jeremy Clarkson clone.

(For non-UK readers, Jeremy Clarkson is a broadcaster on the popular British car show Top Gear, famed for ranting on about anything and everything, for having a viewpoint slightly to the right of the typical fascist dictator, and for getting up everyone's nose, while still managing to be highly entertaining.)

I had a piece of urgent post to get into the mail, so rather than pop it in the village postbox, I drove over to the Swindon sorting office. It was 2pm on Saturday. Plenty of time, I thought, for my letter to arrive promptly in the mail on Monday morning. After all, on a weekday I can post something in the village at 4.30pm and have it arrive next morning - here I was sticking the envelope straight into the mighty sorting machinery.

But when I arrived, the helpful 'last posting' notice told me that the latest I could send something for Monday morning was 1pm on Saturday. I'm sorry, but to take from 2pm on Saturday until Tuesday to arrive - when I posted it at the sorting office - is a joke. And not a very good one. Just pass me the frizzy Clarkson hair wig, hand me the keys to a 4x4, and give me a ecologicalist to torment. I'm not in a good mood.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Hypothesis on teenage bedrooms

In a thick mental haze of heavy cold and cough that started neatly on Christmas Eve, I have come up with a hypothesis on teenagers' bedrooms. (Apologies to any purists, but 'an hypothesis' is outdated. 'An' with h-words was fine when the H wasn't pronounced, but not now.)

Everyone know that such bedrooms are messy. It is a biological imperative. But the assumption has always been that it is the teenager that causes the mess. My hypothesis shifts the blame elsewhere.

We have a little room with a conservatory tacked onto it, were teenagers can be tucked away in the daytime to avoid them scaring the horses etc. Generally speaking, despite being occupied by teenagers, it is quite tidy. However there is one exception. The couch is a sofa bed, and when we occasionally, in a fit of generosity, allow the offspring to open up the bed to lounge around on, suddenly the place becomes a cross between a council rubbish tip, a laundry and an industrial kitchen washing up area.

So, my hypothesis is this. It's not teenagers that cause the mess in their bedrooms, it's the beds. If we took the beds out, everything would be nice and tidy.

Okay, maybe there's a flaw in the logic there somewhere. If so, let me down gently. Blame it on the cold and flu medication.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Civilized breakfast

For our traditional (well, we did it last year) pre-Christmas treat, my wife and I headed off to one of our nearest shopping towns, Marlborough in this morning's mizzle, with low cloud crowning the downs.

This was partly to stock up on those little edible extras for the festivities, but mostly to indulge in a proper cooked breakfast at the Polly Tearooms. We're talking real fried potatoes here, none of your second rate hash browns. This is Breakfast with a capital 'B' and suitably hushed tones. This breakfast in the sense of 'I don't think we'll bother with lunch.'

Groaning slightly at the seams, we went on to do that essential food shopping. Not the boring stuff like sprouts and parsnips - the exciting nibbles and oddities you'd never consider buying any normal time of year.

There's a lot been said about class in Britain. In Marlborough, one of the subtle indicators of the sort of clientele it attracts are the supermarkets. Forget Lidl and Aldi. All that's on offer is Waitrose or M&S Food. Too extravagent for every day, but, hey it is Christmas.

It was surprisingly quiet, apart from the crowd of vultures stripping the last of the meat from the bones of Woolworths. A pleasant start to a no doubt hectic day.

It's that time of year...

... when blog posts become mystically hard to concentrate on. Normal service should be resumed shortly after the New Year, but between now and then things are like to be sporadic.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Singing science

Off to Oxford yesterday to sing at the Oxford University Physics Department carol service. The tightwad in me was delighted to discover Oxford's park and rides now have free parking.

I found the location, the University of Church of St Mary the Virgin, to give it its full title, with ease - a rather strangely squashed church in the High.

I’ve no connection with the physics department, but fellow Redhammer author M G Harris snuck me into the choir. She’s a biochemist, but at least she’s Oxford-based.

We sung some stunning music to an impressive standard. My surprise like was Carol of the Bells by M. Leontovich – surprise because I hate it as the music for an irritating advert for Garmin satnavs on commercial radio. But in the original form it’s quite fun. It apparently featured in the movie Home Alone – hence this being available to listen to it in full glory.

The real gems, however, were two modern British pieces. They remind me why I love good modern church music as much as the Tudorbethan stuff. I ought to stress that by modern church music, I don’t mean guitars and watered down pop songs, I mean modern serious music. The two carols, neither of which I knew before, are Remember, O thou man by Arthur Oldham and Lully, lulla, thou little tiny child by Kenneth Leighton. Just listen to the start of the Oldham piece here (It’s track two in the full list. Click Preview alongside Remember O thou man) Utterly scrumptious.

Some find it rather odd to have music and science linked, but in my university days a higher than average percentage of the college musicians were taking science subjects. Whatever - beautiful music.

Lessons from rejection

If you hate being rejected, don't try to be an author.

Actually, if everyone took that advice, there wouldn't be any authors - I don't know anyone in this business who doesn't hate that horrible sensation that an agent or publisher could turn down your work. There are a few notable exceptions who went straight into being published without a single rejection, but the vast majority of even the greats, let alone us humble scribblers, have a satisfyingly thick pile of rejection letters, each one a slap in the face that really hurt.

Inevitably, once rejected, we try to justify and explain. We search for every ounce of meaning in those few terse lines. Perhaps they said something that suggests they quite like my book. But did they really mean it, or were they being polite? Is it a form letter, or is it personal? Does it tell me something that can help me make my book more marketable elsewhere?

It is impossible not to do it, but there is limited benefit to poring over the entrails of a rejection letter. It's a bit different if you have an agent. A rejection from a publisher to an agent is often a communication between two people who know each other. It is much more likely to explain why they rejected your book and mean it. But even there the evil missive can be quite brisk and uninformative.

The only advice I can offer is the old, old idea of getting back on the horse immediately. Don't dwell on rejection. Send out a copy of your submission to another publisher or agent. If you've run out of places to send your book, start work on the next. The only way to cope with this visceral kick in the ego is already to be working on future success.

Of course, you may say that this sounds too much like hard work. It is. No one sane would do it. But remind where anyone said that writing was an easy life?

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Should chocolate buttons be legal?

I have a very serious matter to consider here. Since it's almost Christmas (sorry, that robin's out there again. Honestly.) I have to consider the suspicious addictiveness of Cadbury's chocolate buttons. (Especially the giant ones.)

Why are they so irresistable? Surely we need an investigative journalist to look into this. They must be putting something naughty in them.

It's also highly important you eat them the right way.

For me it has to be two at a time, with at least one curved edge facing the other button. That way, when you bite there is an irresitable crack of thin chocolate planes fracturing against each other in the mouth.

Forget your 70% cocoa solids rubbish. Ditch your oozing-with-milk Swiss confectioners' frippery. Dispose of anything that has had sight of a 'chocolatier'.

Give me Cadbury's buttons every time.
Sigh.

Normal service will be restored tomorrow.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Fiction with science that isn't science fiction

The title of this post sounds like a tongue twister, but that's not the intention. I've just read a novel with science at its heart that claims not to be science fiction. It's Experimental Heart by Jennifer Rohn.

It's kind of a romance, with a dark subplot, taking place in a laboratory setting. There's lots of realistic sounding science, and as far as I can gather (never having been a practising scientist) a strong sense of the atmosphere in a real lab. (If this is the case, I'd hate to work in a lab as they always seem to have a CD on, and I can't concentrate with music playing.)

It was a delight, as is often the case when I read a book of a kind I wouldn't normally pick up. Although to begin with not much happens, it's written well enough that you are sucked into the story and want to know more. Later on, things get positively page turning as the plot thickens.

But what of Lab Lit, the term Dr Rohn gives to this style of book? Does it work as a genre? I didn't find the quite heavy dose of scientific content to the story a problem, even though once or twice I lost track of the different biological labels. (To be fair, Richard Feynman complained of the same problem with biology, so I'm in distinguished company.) Rather it enriched it.

The only problem I had with the scientific content is that it was almost too real. In normal science fiction, I just assume all the science is made up. Here, because it was so close to reality, I wanted to know which bits were real and which were fictional constructs. It would have been really nice to have had a postscript for geeky readers that made it clear which bits were real science.

The other small problem I have is with the division between lab lit and science fiction. As a long time science fiction fan, I know that quality science fiction (as opposed to sci-fi) isn't necessarily about spaceships and monsters - it's about how real human beings react in the face of some difference from normal life that comes out of science, and as such I would humbly suggest that lab lit is a sub-genre of science fiction.

Whether or not you agree - I'm sure Jenny Rohn wouldn't! - what is certain is that this is a fascinating, very readable novel. Knowing the author is American, it was interesting to compare it with Elizabeth George's detective novels featuring Inspector Lynley. In those, the American author always manages to get something not quite right about the UK, but Dr Rohn kept it spot on. What can I say? Get a copy!

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

What do authors want for Christmas?

Apologies that Christmas seems to be cropping up rather a lot at the moment. Can I help it that there's a robin sitting on the branch outside my window at the moment?
Sorry about the shaky photo - it's too dark really, and taking through glass I couldn't use flash, but I wanted to prove it really is there.

As it's all the robin's fault (the robin made me do it), I feel quite happy telling you about a rather nice series of posts appearing on the Transworld blog, Between the Lines. They've asked various authors what they would like for Christmas. Here's Monday's entry, which includes Andy McNab, Joanne Harris, Jilly Cooper and John O'Farrell. Watch out all week for more of these entertaining musings.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Christmas = Books

There's quite a buzz in the book business at the moment to encourage people to buy books for Christmas. This has even resulted in this video being produced:


For what it's worth, I'd like to add my voice to the call. You can buy one to suit anyone, they're great value for money, there's more pleasure in them than most presents, they're easy to wrap... and you'll make an author somewhere have a warm glow. I'm not saying you have to buy my books (though it would be nice - A Brief History of Infinity's a good present choice) - just buy books. Please!

Saturday, 13 December 2008

What do you Vennt for Christmas?

Something I'll be giving as a present this Christmas is Andrew Viner's excellent book Venn That Tune, which presents well-known songs in Venn diagram form (and as other plots). It's great fun and ideal gift book. Here's a Christmas one for you to try:

You can buy Andrew's book from Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com.

(I should stress most of the songs are pop songs, the example here is a Christmas special.)

Friday, 12 December 2008

Shivering at Clegg Towers

Why is it that the central heating waits until it's really cold before breaking down? (Okay, you Scandinavian types, I know circa freezing isn't really cold in your parts, but it's cold enough.) The signs were there when it shut down one night with a dramatic fading wail, like the dilithium crystals giving way on Star Trek, then gave off a series of loud bangs and clonks in the pipes that made it seem we were under heavy attack by militant plumbers.

After waking to cold radiators and a baleful red light on the control panel, several resets later it is running, but seems to be very confused about when it's hot enough, cutting out every few minutes when the radiators are only lukewarm. To make matters worse, it's now intermittant - it can suddenly remember how to work for an hour or two, then give up again. This means, inevitably, that when the boiler man comes tomorrow morning it will purr away and behave perfectly. Oh, joy.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Who says scientists ain't got no culture?

Scientists are often accused of being limited culturally. When I recently mentioned I was hoping to sing at the Oxford University Physics Department carol service, it caused amusement and surprise. Yet when I was at college, about half of the active musicians were scientists. And I'm currently reading an excellent novel by an active scientist, of which more later when I've finished it.

However, I recently threw down a challenge on the science online network Nature Network by giving the opening line to a poem:

'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the lab

... I have to say I'm delighted by the response. You can watch this monster growing live (including an animated reading of part of it) at this blog entry. To give a feel for the progress so far, I've accumulated the lines below. Bearing in mind the way it has been assembled, and overlooking the inevitable in-jokes (including the intentionally mis-spelled girrafe) and the need for a little editing to make it scan better, I think it's going rather well:



’Twas the night before Christmas and all through the lab
Not a Gilson was stirring, not even one jab.
On the bench, ’twixt a novel by Jennifer Rohn
And the paper rejected by Henry’s iPhone
Lay a leg, still trembling and covered in gore
And Frankenstein sighed ‘I can’t take this no more’.

He exclaimed panic struck, as he took in the scene,
of horrendous results from NN’s latest meme.
‘having one extra leg wasn’t part of the plan
to create a new species, 'anatomized man’.
And then out of the blue, ‘twas a bump in the night
A girrafe ’pon a unicycle, starting a fight
Held back by a keeper smiling with glee,
It was then that I knew it was Santa Gee.

His iphone, how it jingled, his crocs how pink,
It was all I could do to stammer and blink.
‘There you are’ cursed old Frank’stein, approaching the Gee,
‘Call off the girrafe, and hand over the fee’
“The Beast” then leaped up, from O’Hara’s new leg
Attacked Santa Gee and his elf, Brian Clegg.
One sweep of the sack and the beast was laid out
When the hoof of the girrafe gave a terminal clout.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

OUP in dictionary purge scandal

Thanks to Donna's excellent Write Report, I am alerted to the apparent fact that Oxford University Press has removed a list of words from its children's dictionary to make room for more trendy ones. The purged words include aisle and bishop, empire and monarch, allotment and willow. Apparently we are now so multi-cultural, modern and urban in the UK we don't need words relating to Christianity, history or nature.

Now, I have to put a word of caution in here. The story is in the Daily Telegraph, second only to the Daily Mail in conservative paranoia. However, assuming the facts are true, and the Torygraph is usually quite good at facts, this is appalling. We are desperately enthusiastic to support the cultural heritage of everyone except the British - what about our heritage, guys? (Or have you taken heritage out of your fictionary too?) Fictionary was a typo, but I've left it in as it seems apt.

I admit some of the new words ought to go in, but not all - and the cull is horrendous. Here, according to the Telegraph, is the in and out list. Choose for yourself. For some reason the one that strikes home most to me is aisle. I mean, they have aisles in supermarkets, OUP. Get with it.

Words taken out:

Carol, cracker, holly, ivy, mistletoe

Dwarf, elf, goblin

Abbey, aisle, altar, bishop, chapel, christen, disciple, minister, monastery, monk, nun, nunnery, parish, pew, psalm, pulpit, saint, sin, devil, vicar

Coronation, duchess, duke, emperor, empire, monarch, decade

adder, ass, beaver, boar, budgerigar, bullock, cheetah, colt, corgi, cygnet, doe, drake, ferret, gerbil, goldfish, guinea pig, hamster, heron, herring, kingfisher, lark, leopard, lobster, magpie, minnow, mussel, newt, otter, ox, oyster, panther, pelican, piglet, plaice, poodle, porcupine, porpoise, raven, spaniel, starling, stoat, stork, terrapin, thrush, weasel, wren.

Acorn, allotment, almond, apricot, ash, bacon, beech, beetroot, blackberry, blacksmith, bloom, bluebell, bramble, bran, bray, bridle, brook, buttercup, canary, canter, carnation, catkin, cauliflower, chestnut, clover, conker, county, cowslip, crocus, dandelion, diesel, fern, fungus, gooseberry, gorse, hazel, hazelnut, heather, holly, horse chestnut, ivy, lavender, leek, liquorice, manger, marzipan, melon, minnow, mint, nectar, nectarine, oats, pansy, parsnip, pasture, poppy, porridge, poultry, primrose, prune, radish, rhubarb, sheaf, spinach, sycamore, tulip, turnip, vine, violet, walnut, willow

Words put in:

Blog, broadband, MP3 player, voicemail, attachment, database, export, chatroom, bullet point, cut and paste, analogue

Celebrity, tolerant, vandalism, negotiate, interdependent, creep, citizenship, childhood, conflict, common sense, debate, EU, drought, brainy, boisterous, cautionary tale, bilingual, bungee jumping, committee, compulsory, cope, democratic, allergic, biodegradable, emotion, dyslexic, donate, endangered, Euro

Apparatus, food chain, incisor, square number, trapezium, alliteration, colloquial, idiom, curriculum, classify, chronological, block graph



Tuesday, 9 December 2008

On the pod

Having some fun this week appearing as guest on the Litopia podcast, talking about being a writer, time management, life, the universe and everything. Yesterday's is here, today's here and Wednesday to Friday's will appear on the main site as and when released.

It's very enjoyable to do - less pressure than a regular radio interview, which became obvious when I failed to undertake that standard precaution for being interviewed - make sure all phones in the vicinity are switched off.

Monday, 8 December 2008

I love W H Smith at Paddington

I have, in the past, been a little harsh on the W. H. Smith's store at Paddington Station in London, as their popular science section has now shrunk down so small that it's only one, narrow shelf.

However, last time I was there, that single shelf featured (as it often has in the past) a copy of my book A Brief History of Infinity - so forget the moans, what a lovely shop it is. Go and buy! Especially from the popular science section...

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Grumpiness is officially suspended

A bright, crisp, sunny and frosty morning has pushed me over the edge. The MP3 player has been loaded with Christmas music. Car journeys will be jolly for a few weeks. Even the wait at the road works on the way to Sainsbury's brought a forgiving smile rather than an angry mumble. It's that time of year...

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Manipulated by the author?

I've just finished reading a book and briefly I was upset. I felt manipulated by the author - cheated. At first sight, this is a pretty feeble reaction. The whole business of writing fiction is a matter of manipulation. To transfer the reader from their comfy chair to a different place, into danger, into someone else's head - it's all manipulation. But the good author does this in such a way that you don't notice. You mustn't ever see them pulling the strings.

Now in this case it was puzzling that I felt like this, because it's a very good author indeed. So what was happening? I won't tell you who, or which book, or this will turn into a spoiler. But it was a crime novel. When I'd bought it, Amazon had splashed after its name 'an X Y crime novel', where X Y is the name of the writer's detective. Yet by the time I got 3/4 way through the book it was very obvious that X Y only had a bit part - another detective was the main character.

Here's where the strings become visible. If you say it's an X Y crime novel, but the main character is a colleague of X Y's then it's almost inevitable that main character is going to be killed. Otherwise, why isn't it an A B crime novel instead? And sure enough, she was. My immediate response was irritation. I had been manipulated into getting into the head of A B, so I would be more shocked when she died.

Yet after some thought, I realized it's not the author's fault. Taken as a standalone book, this is a very effective plot device. And it was brilliantly handled - I literally had a tear in my at A B's funeral scene. It's only because I was expecting an X Y crime novel - because Amazon told me that's what it was - that I felt manipulated.

I think there's a lesson in there somewhere about the difference between an exciting plot twist and something that irritates the reader. Not in the plot but in the way just that simple sentence 'an X Y crime novel' could so alter expectations.

Friday, 5 December 2008

In a dark space

It takes quite a lot to get me angry (stop sniggering at the back), but they've done it now.

Why is it that people who design web forms often make them so they can't cope with spaces in phone numbers? Real phone numbers have spaces in them. They do. So there.

What really winds me up is the error message. I type in a phone number. With a space, like it should have. And it goes to the trouble of telling me 'Phone numbers must be digits only with no spaces.' Why did you do that? If you wanted it without a space, why tell me? Why not just remove it? It's the most trivial thing in C or practically any other sensible programming language to remove spaces from a string of text. It's about a second's work. A lot less than putting in a prissy warning message.

Someone out there needs a radical working over with a heavy programming manual. Be warned programmers. Be warned.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Bookshops are people

Well, obviously they're not. But before you dismiss this as total drivel, let me explain. Like people, bookshops - even chain bookshops - have individual personalities, and though there is central pressure on appearance and the core books they stock, in the end each shop can be hugely different in how they choose their discretionary books - and in how they deal with authors.

Take a case in point: Waterstones. Our local Waterstones seems to hate authors. (Well, me.) Every time I've had a book out, I've contacted them, asking if they'd like me to sign their copy(ies) or do ANYTHING to help sell books. I've never had a reply. Once, one of their staff put a positive-ish review of one of my books on their website. I thanked him via email - I got no response, but immediately my book disappeared from the shop, never to be seen again.

Now contrast this with the Waterstones branch in the Science Museum in London. Admittedly they have a natural affinity for science writers, but they could have been equally stand-offish. They weren't. Their superb manager has been very friendly, arranged a signing event and keeps in touch. She makes it seem like they're a bookshop that likes authors. And surely that can't be a bad thing?

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

The milk is talking to me

Sainsbury's supermarket, in a moment of madness, has introduced what I can only call semi-demi skimmed milk (musical reference). It comes between skimmed and semi-skimmed, for reasons I really can't imagine.

But the interesting thing is the signal it gives off. Semi-demi skimmed milk has an orange top. At first sight this is highly logical as it fits between red topped and green topped milk - just like traffic lights. Except in every other colour coding of this sort, green means better for you and red means worse for you. But with milk, the colours are:
  • Red - best
  • Orange - not quite as good
  • Green - okayish
  • Blue - watch out arteries
It's a nightmare. And, of course, while it would be logical to reassign these as green, blue, orange and red respectively, they presumably never can, because the buyers are already used to them.

Sigh.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Spotting authors in bookshops

Our local Borders has the inevitable Starbucks up on a balcony that gives you a magnificent commanding view of most of the store (sadly both science and children's books are out of sight, but you see everyone coming in). When I occasionally sit up there with a coffee I like to play the 'spot the author' game. I've never seen any, but from personal experience, I know what the signs should be.

First, the frenetic scan. Looking through the relevant section for your book. No it's not there. Better look again. Perhaps someone has put it back in the wrong place. No, still not there. At this point there will often be a terrible cry of pain.

Second, should the book actually be present, the author goes into cunning mode. (S)he removes one or two books from the shelves, scans the backs and replaces them. Approximately the third book to be scanned will be her/his own book. This is then put back face forward on one of those piles of some irritating book that no one wants to buy that are very near the author's own. Face forward books apparently sell faster than spine-out, which makes sense. To complete the illusion, the author now takes out one more book, scans it and replaces it before wandering away with highly suspicious nonchalance. Face forwarding is a must, even if there aren't books already face out - the author's book then has to cover up a section of others. The author feels guilty at this point - hiding other people's books - but this is a dog-eat-dog world.

Just occasionally an author can be lucky enough to see someone pull out their book, or ask a member of staff for advice about that section. This has happened to me once. The member of staff recommended something by Bill Gates (what?) I ploughed in 'Hmm, I've read that - it's a bit dull. This one really impressed me, though.' (Pulls out own book.) 'Oh, right,' says the potential buyer. But she is put off by the title, which doesn't sound serious enough for a present for her boss. Oh, well. I retire, feebly pointing that it's still very good.

If you can't be bothered with author spotting, could I at least ask that you check out the Popular Science section. If you see any books by Brian Clegg, feel free to give them a quick look over and pop them back - face forward, of course.

You're very kind.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Southend sojourn

An interesting time on Friday as a speaker at St Bernard's School in Southend. It started a trifle worryingly. The trusty SatNav took me to the door, but there was no car park - no way even to get into the school grounds for a car - and the adjacent street was absolute space free. Luckily, there was an associated church next door with a small car park, and though I was told that parking there unannounced risked the considerable wrath of the priest, he was apparently placated on my behalf.

I had a couple of hours in the morning with sixth form English students, who were a pleasure to talk to - though it seemed one group of four out of around 35 had a lot more to say than the rest.

Most of lunchtime (over a surprisingly good packed lunch provided by the school, including fresh melon and pineapple) I was chatting to a supply teacher who was an actor before coming into teaching, and still does some walk-on work - the parallels between being an actor and a writer (bad pay for most, submitting your work for scrutiny, rejections, indigestion) were considerable.

In the afternoon I had two groups of year 9s (that's 13-year-olds), in the not-entirely-suitable dining hall. The space was fine, but it took quite a lot of projection to be heard (I could have done with some advice from our acting friend). The first group of around 90 proved considerably quieter than the second group of 50 (though I was assured this was because it was last period on a Friday - indeed, what could you expect?)

I also almost fell for a classic schoolgirl prank. 'So-and-so wants your autograph, but she's too shy to ask.' Yeh, right. As if to compensate, though, the second group was absolutely great on the questions - I almost had to slow them down, rather than having one of those embarrassing 'er, any questions? No, well…' moments. And the head of English, who was supervising that session even said she'd nearly bought one of my books the other day, and would be going out to get some now - so it can't be bad.

Despite a three hour drive back, where the GPS kindly recommended I took a detour through Marlow to avoid congestion on the M25/M4 (it worked and I saw Marlow's Christmas lights), and despite being shattering, it was a really good day.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Writing triggers

One of the marks of a great author is the ability to use a sparse few words that trigger off a whole gamut of feeling and memory. However good, though, these generic triggers are but a pale imitation of the personal memory triggers. I had a good example of one of these today. On the radio, someone mentioned Strawberry Studios, and all of a sudden I was 14 again.

When I was at school I was a stalwart of our very accomplished school choir. We sang a number of times with the Halle Orchestra, both at the sadly demised Free Trade Hall and at the Festival Hall in London. But the outstanding memory, imprinted on my brain, was singing in Strawberry Studios, Stockport - 10cc's own studio!

We'd been hired to sing on a record being put out to celebrate some anniversary of Stockport Social Services. No, really. It was, arguably, the most inane song known to man. I still have etched on my brain from nearly 40 years ago the opening lines: 'The Council for Social Service is/a big umbrella shield./It helps groups grow/and lets them go/into far reaching fields.'

Umbrella shield? Hold the sick bucket, please. Even back then I knew this was garbage. And yet. And yet we were performing in the very studio 10cc used. We had headphones and everything, just like a real recording, to hear the instrumental part of the track. For those long minutes, our bunch of schoolboys were stars.

So that's all you need to do to be a great writer. Use a handful of words to conjure up that sort of response. Go on, what are you waiting for?

Thursday, 27 November 2008

How to confuse an agent

I attended a lovely dinner the other night - five writers and their agent. It was worth it for our agent's reaction alone. It was only afterwards that I got a feeling for how strange it seemed to him - meeting up with five clients, each of whom he works with closely individually, but each normally in their own compartment.

That it was a roaring success was down to the superb characters present. I was like a kid in a sweetshop with conversational partners like these. Not just the most remarkable agent in the business (Peter Cox of Redhammer Literary Agency), but three successful children's authors - alphabetically M G Harris, responsible for the wonderous Joshua Files books, Amanda Lees who is about to follow her Kumari series with something that seems to involve getting up close and personal with the SAS, and Sarah Mussi, author of the exciting African adventures The Door of No Return and The Last of the Warrior Kings - with last, but not least, David Yelland, former editor of the Sun and soon to have an exciting-sounding book project of his own out there.

There are times when it's fun being a writer.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Do Outlook programmers think in binary?

Like many people I use Microsoft Outlook for my email and diary, and in many respects it's quite good. But there's one thing I just don't understand. If you decide to print, say, the first page of a 20 page email, you can't. You get 10 pages printed. Every other program known to man, you can select how many of the pages in a document you want to print, but noooo, not Outlook. It gives you the choice of all pages, odd pages or even pages.

What's that all about? If it's not that the programmers think in binary, maybe they can't manage to count past two...

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

ABBA and the perils of being British

As I entered Sainsbury's my stomach curdled. There by the door were two of the staff wearing glittery ABBA T-shirts. I drew near as one of them switched on a ghetto blaster, which started to churn out an ABBA backing track. They were promoting Mamma Mia's publication on DVD, which is fine, but suddenly I felt a terrible urge to run from the shop.

In my head I was saying over and over again. 'Please don't sing. Please don't sing!' I just knew it would be so painfully embarrassing if they started singing when I was anywhere near them.

I'm sure it's something about being British. If I was American I'd probably have stood there and cheered them on, but I couldn't have scuttled into the store faster...

Monday, 24 November 2008

Pity the poor commissioning editor

By the time a writer trying to find a publisher receives their twentieth rejection letter, they are about ready to make voodoo dolls of commissioning editors - those brave folks who have to decide whether or not to take on a new book. To be frank, this is an entirely understandable emotion, but it's not really fair to the editors.

Firstly commissioning editors are human beings. Really. So you have to make allowances. Secondly, although your manuscript is superb, they do receive an awful lot of rubbish, so you have to expect that they may be a little curt. Finally, and most importantly, they aren't all powerful.

In most publishers - certainly all big publishing houses - the commissioning editor will also have to do a pitch. They can't decide themselves whether or not to take on a particular book. If they love it, they then have to sell it at a meeting - and it's only if they can convince their hard bitten colleagues that your masterpiece is worth publishing that you will get that longed-for green light.

So two lessons. One, don't be too hard on the editor. Two, give them every bit of ammunition they can use in making that pitch. Ensure that your submission is superb before you send it. Of course they may still hate it, but if they love your work, they need all the help the can get.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Hole punch drunk

Why is it when I receive seven pages of statements from the bank, the holes don't line up? So to file them I have to wobble them around in a tedious fashion until they fit on the binder's rings. All that technology, all that automation, yet they clearly have grannies punching the holes by hand with knitting needles. How else could they be so badly aligned?

Saturday, 22 November 2008

I'll just...

I don't know anyone as good at prevaricating as a writer. You've got a book to write. You want to get a good, solid 4,000 words in today. So you check your email. Read those interesting new blog entries that have popped up in Google Reader. Better check your bank account online, just to make sure. Oh! The post has arrived.

Technically starting work around 8.30, I can easily get to 10am before a single word is written. But then I like to take the dog for a walk down to the Post Office around 10 so I can catch the outgoing mail collection. That's another half hour...

The sad thing is, once I get started, I love it. I'm no Douglas Adams (yes, yes, in many ways), having to be locked in a room to produce because he hated writing so much. I have a great time. Then I'll stop for an essential break. Check my email... and even though I know I was having that great time a few minutes before it's hard to get started again.

In one of his recent podcasts, literary agent Peter Cox pointed out that writing is actually much harder work than most people think. It's enjoyable work for me, but it is hard. It's not like writing an email or even a blog. And I think that's what underlies the ease with which prevarication comes.

Now I've done my blog post. What else can I do before I get down to writing?

Friday, 21 November 2008

Get off your reviewing high horse

Recently, a mid-sized publisher (Thomas Nelson Books) offered to send free review copies of their books to bloggers in exchange for a review. The review could be positive or negative, but they had to put it on their blog, Amazon and the like.

The reaction from some of the bookerati has been swift and damning. According to posts like this and this, bloggers who signed up for the reviewing deal were selling out by agreeing to give a review in return for a free book. So 'real' book reviewers pay for their copies, do they? I think not. This is simple case of 'only the special people can do it'. While I have mixed feelings as to whether or not most of these reviews will have any value as guidance for potential purchasers, I think to suggest that bloggers are selling their souls for free books is condescending and unpleasant.

I don't doubt that this is a marketing ploy - but so are all reviews from the publisher's viewpoint. It's unusual (and quite cunning) in the requirement to post the review on Amazon. But the reaction has been totally out of proportion to the action.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Farewell, PC Magazine. I haven't read you for years, but I'll miss you

I gather from Martyn Daniels' blog that PC Magazine is to cease publication. I find this sad, as I started my professional writing career doing pieces for computer magazines, and PC Magazine was the daddy of them all.

I had already had one sad moment when PC Week died. Although not my very first publication, PC Week was where I started writing regularly. This free weekly survived on advertising and job ads - it was the rise of IT job websites that killed it. Now PC Magazine is moving to be web only.

Although I never wrote for it (though I did have a column for quite a while in its UK home-grown rival, Personal Computer World), PC Magazine was the authoritative source when I first became involved in PCs back in the mid-80s (yes, children, we had PCs in the 1980s). Back then, I couldn't have done my job without it. Now it has virtually gone virtual.

What's in your inspiration?

A recent article in the Times featured children's books that inspired various people who write for that newspaper. As always with such things you get the impression that some are only putting something down because they 'ought to' - they are the ones who you know secretly read lots of Enid Blyton. To be fair, someone does admit to Blyton-inspiration, but only chooses that unfairly derided author's most obscure titles.

A good example of a suspicious selection is the very first entry in the article. After saying that his inspiration was Winnie the Pooh, he tells us that the book is okay as a child but really it's best appreciated by adults. While I agree that its subtly is wasted on children (my mother thought it was too pretentious and I didn't come across it until I was at university), it makes you wonder why Daniel Finkelstein put it down as the work that most inspired him as a child. It's hard not to imagine the editor yelling 'Someone's got to have bloody Winnie the Pooh!'

However, suspicions aside it's a great exercise. For me it was, without doubt, Alan Garner's books. They aged as I aged - he brought out books for older and older children just as I reached the right age and he kept my later childhood alive with his brilliant writing. It helped that he had been a pupil at the same school that I was attending and regularly came in to give talks to star struck readers. For what it's worth, my favourite is The Owl Service, but they're all brilliant.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Is there a difference between art and craft?

I've just finished reading Emma Darwin's excellent novel, A Secret Alchemy and very much enjoyed it, perhaps even more so because it's not the kind of book I would normally read. If you give it a try it's important to persevere - I got a bit confused to begin with by a combination of multi-threading and a whole host of historical characters whose names meant little to me, but if you go with the flow and give the author a chance, it's well worth the effort.

One small segment in it particularly caught my eye: Craft is art made possible, I think suddenly: possible and functional. Art that feeds and clothes and houses. This really interested me. When I'm not taking a modern view of art (mostly worthless rubbish), I tend to the medieval, when the question with which I started this post was meaningless. Art was the output of artifice. It was anything man made as opposed to natural. So when on Top Gear a while ago they tried to present a car as art to a bunch of art professors, and the academics dismissed it because it had a function, I have, with my medieval hat on to shake my head sadly. Of course it's art. It hardly grew on a bush.

What's interesting if you do take the 'craft is art with a function' view, then it seems logical that art does not have a function. And maybe that's where art has gone so wrong in the last 100 years. It always used to have a function. Medieval art either did something practical, pleased the eye or was to the glory of God (or any combination of the three). Some modern 'art' does cover one or more of these functions but much of it doesn't. In reality, I would suggest, there are two categories of unnatural product. Not art and craft, but art and garbage. Both are made by human beings. One has a function, the other doesn't.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Beyond Words in North London

Spent yesterday at the Beyond Words festival in North London. Good fun in a packed festival (they have over 100 events over the week) with an audience mixing the school it was held at and the local community.

I gave talks accompanying my books Light Years and A Brief History of Infinity. The latter was rushed - it's normally over an hour, but I cut it down to 45 minutes to allow time for questions (though, unusually there were hardly any). I was a little concerned no one would come to Infinity, because it was scheduled at the same time as a talk by journalist/MP Martin Bell - but I was reassured when I mentioned this to a couple of the sixth form students who hosted me for lunch, and they had clearly never heard of him.

Lunch was surprisingly good for a school, apart from being shouted at by a dinner lady. The students had abandoned me briefly, scared of being in what they thought was the staff section, but apparently no one was supposed to be using that bit of the canteen, and I nearly committed the crime of helping myself to food, when I was supposed to be served.

Perhaps the best bit of the event for me was meeting as real people three individuals I had only known electronically or via their writing. One was a fellow member of the excellent writers' website Litopia - it was particularly good to put a face to someone who had only been a nickname on a forum. Then there was the writer Piers Bizony, whose books The Man Who Ran the Moon and Atom (the subject he was talking on) I had enjoyed reading to review for the Popular Science site. He proved an excellent conversationalist in the gap between sessions. Finally there was a book PR.

These are the people who have the thankless job of trying to get the world interested in books. Because of being editor of the Popular Science review site I have lots of email contact with book PRs (and of course I've had my fair share of dealings with them for my own books), but in this case it was one of the most helpful people I've dealt with at two different publishers, who was at the festival to support a number of her authors, so again it was great to put a face to an electronic contact.

All in all, a fun event, if not always for the expected reasons.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Is my brain in the minor key?

My favourite music is Tudor and Elizabethan church music. This was written before the idea of music having a key signature, but a lot of it has a minor feel. Also, whenever I try to indicate what a tune sounds like by singing it off the top of my head, my wife accuses me of singing it in the minor.

I was wondering, is it possible to have a brain that works in the minor key? What would be the implications?

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Covering the Big Bang

It's cover sneak preview time again. Before the Big Bang is my new book for St Martin's Press, due out in Spring 2009. And here it is, at least in current incarnation:
The subtitle isn't quite right yet, but it gives the general impression. I think it's striking - I was a bit worried to begin with that a lot of astronomy/cosmology titles have black covers, but I'm told it really stands out at a distance on the mock-up, so fingers crossed for next May or thereabouts.

Friday, 14 November 2008

To age band, or not to age band, that is the question

There's something of an unseemly struggle going on in children's publishing in the UK, usually a very civilized place. Most of the children's publishers feel it would be a good thing to put an age label on the back of the book, along the lines of 9+, 11+ or whatever to indicate the target age range. A large group of authors, including big names like Philip Pullman, plus many librarians, are dead set against it.

You can see the anti-banding concerns at their website. In essence the argument is that many people either to match their ability or for fun like to read books that technically aren't aimed at their age group. Putting suggested limits on a book would stigmatize those who like to read a 'younger' age book, and put young people off stretching their reading beyond their age band.

The publishers, genuinely bewildered by the reaction, I think, don't see the problem. It will just be a little label on the back. Many books are bought by an adult for a young reader, and this will help them choose something appropriate.

I have to admit I can see both sides of the argument. I know just how sensitive children are - anything that suggests they are reading something for a younger child will put them off, and the last thing you want to do is put children off books. On the other hand, it can be difficult to know what will work for your friend's eight-year-old when buying a present. Some kind of guidance in the shop is handy.

In the end, I signed up with the No to Age Banding site because I think the labelling misses the point. Labelling on shelves already directs people in bookshops and libraries to the right kind of books. But by not putting the label on the book itself, there's no stigma to being seen with a book that's 'too young for you'. There is simply no need for age banding, it could put some youngsters off, so let's do away with the idea and move on.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Is this the worst customer service ever?

Ever since my time at British Airways I've been passionate about customer service, and in the dim mists of the past I wrote a book on the subject called Capturing Customers' Hearts - still available, and dare I say it, still rather good on the subject.

This being the case, I have a sad tale to relate that I suspect is about the worst example of customer service I've ever come across. It's all down to a company called Anglian Windows. Look away now if you can't stand pain.

Despite a couple of letters pointing out what they've done, Anglian hasn't even apologized for the sorry tale that is about to emerge. Remember as you read it that each time there was an appointment I had to spend half a day waiting for these people.

A few years ago we replaced some old patio doors with shiny new ones from Anglian. After only a couple of years, both panes of glass - big panes - had condensation inside them. Because we have something of an upside down house, these patio doors are upstairs. I first contacted them in September 2006. They said they'd ring me back. Now it begins.
  • Booking 1 - 20 November 2006. I had a call to say they couldn't make it because the engineer had injured his hand. But he would come out to me before Christmas. I heard nothing, so finally called them on 9 January 2007, and had a booking made for 20 February. I was told they already had the measurements, so this would be the fitting.
  • Booking 2 - 20 February 2007. The engineer arrived. Hurray. Just to measure up. Boo. I wrote to complain, got a letter saying 'we're looking into it' and never heard anything more. I rebooked.
  • Booking 3 - 3 April 2007. When no one came I rang them up. The engineer was off sick, and they had had to re-order the glass, as they couldn't find it. I was rung back to say now they had found it, but the engineer was sick and they didn't know why no one had called me. I wrote again to complain. No reply ever.
  • Booking 4 - 16 April 2007. Guess what? No one came.
  • Booking 5 - 20 April 2007. Yes! They came. AND fitted one pane. But the other was too heavy for two of them to carry up the stairs. They needed a third person.
  • Booking 6 - 6 July 2007. Got a call that morning. They had three engineers, but the glass wouldn't fit in the van they'd been given. I was told the customer service manager would ring me. He didn't.
  • Booking 7 - 5 September 2007. Deja vu. I got a call to say the glass wouldn't fit in the van they'd been given. I would get a call from the customer service manager, one Nick Sugg, (but they made the mistake of giving me his mobile number). I rang him on 11th, 12th and 17th of September. After the last call he rang back and said he would fix a date within 24 hours and this time it WOULD happen.
  • Booking 8 - 31 October 2007. I got a call to say one of the engineers had gone sick. They would call back and reschedule within 24 hours. I left a message with the manager, who called back, apologized and said I should expect something in a day or two. I didn't hear anything. Left messages on 15 November, 28 November, every day from 30 November to 6 December when finally he rang back. He said he had been to the local Avon branch (I think he meant the branch in the area called Avon, not the local door-to-door cosmetics firm), and would have a team round tomorrow morning. I emphasized, and he noted, that it would take three engineers.
  • Booking 9 - 7 December 2007. No one came. I left messages with the manager, but he was out of the office until 24 December. I spoke to his office - they had no record of the promised booking on 7 December. The earliest they could fit it was 9 January. The supervisor would call me back. They didn't. I called again 2 and 4 January, emphasising the need for a big van and three engineers. They said they would ring back, but didn't.
  • Booking 10 - 9 January 2008. THE SECOND PANE WAS FITTED.
Beat that. The address I was given for complaints was Anglian Home Improvements, Customer Services, P O Box 65, Norwich NR6 6EJ.

At the time of writing I have still to get an apology.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Sale or return

The prolific US blogging editor who writes anonymously at Editorial Ass makes a valuable point: the biggest chain around the necks of book publishers, is that almost all bookshops operate on sale or return.

This leads to bizarre accounting practices and business difficulties for publishers. It means, for instance, that an author can get a negative royalty statement, because the publisher has had more returns than books sold (and it has to pay the bookshops back for those returned books). Thankfully the author isn't expected to pay back negative royalties, but it's still quite a blow to the ego.

Many publishers now hold back a portion of a book's earnings to cover the initial returns before handing these over as royalties - again, more accounting confusion.

The blog mentioned above reckons sale or return is why some publishers seem to be in financial difficulties despite sales holding up - because booksellers did a much larger than usual return of books to be able to stock up with shiny new stuff for Christmas.

Bookshops argue that sale or return is essential - without it, they say, they wouldn't be able to take a risk on new writers. But to be honest the chains don't take many risks anyway, and it's a system that makes the whole accounting system much more complicated, and can endanger publishers' business survival.

Should it be scrapped? To an extent it's academic. Publishers can't see a way out of it, because anyone who dropped it would be ignored by the booksellers, and they aren't able to act in unison (even though they seem to be able to do this over age banding, an issue I'll come onto another time). It probably won't change any time soon.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

I'm a writer, get me out of here

A recent piece in the Guardian runs together two dangers for popular writers - celebrity and commercialization of their work through merchandising. Frankly, it's a load of bunk.

Very few writers are in any danger of becoming celebrities (I've never even heard of the Michael Faber mentioned as someone who 'doesn't enjoy the public figure thing'). Of course their fans will have heard of them, but they aren't in any danger of pushing TV and movie celebs out of the limelight. Even J K Rowling manages to keep a relatively low profile compared with the latest reality star's moment of glory.

As for the 'dangers' of commercialization, do me a favour. This is the literary old guard in their death throws. These are the people who could never really see books as a business, prefering to consider it 'art'. Publishing is commercial. Writers and publishers sell books; readers buy them. If you don't want to be commercial, give your writing away. It's easy to do on the internet. I'm doing it right now.

If readers are so enthusiastic they want to buy Harry Potter games or Golden Compass, erm, compasses, then why not? The very fact it was felt necessary to raise this as an issue verges on the pathetic.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Judging a book by its cover

Book covers can be a delight or a subject of horror to an author - I'd like to explore the good, the bad and the ugly of the book cover business.

An author's involvement in choosing a cover design can range from nothing at all - not even being told that the cover design has been established - to being asked to comment on different designs, or even making a suggestion that ends up on the cover.

There is also the interesting aspect of different editions. Sometimes, when a book is published in a different country they will take the cover wholesale from the original design. Others will be subtly changed... or the cover will bear no relation.

Here's one book that incorporates several of the issues in a single title. It's The Man Who Stopped Time, my biography of motion picture pioneer Eadweard Muybridge. It was originally commissioned by a publisher who will remain nameless. This publisher panicked when another book came out with Muybridge's name in the title (it was only tangentially about him) and didn't publish it.

However they had already produced the cover without telling me - I only realized when I came across it on Amazon. To be honest, I'm glad it was never used.

The book was then picked up and published (in improved form) by Joseph Henry Press in the US. Their cover was modified after some comments by me. It wasn't bad, but to be honest still didn't entirely work for me.

Finally, it came out in the UK.
Here the publisher used an approach that was clearly influenced by the US cover, but made a significant improvement on it.

It's what I consider the best job of the lot, a cover that really does justice to the title and looks elegant and attractive. Of course that's just my opinion... which is always the problem with this business.

I'll come back to this some time in the future to look at some other cover variants and how a title has been interpreted when a covers had to be provided in translation in another language.

How much fun can you have in 30 words?

Whether you are a budding writer or an experienced pro, I recommend the Your Messages exercise that's going on at the moment. If you pop along to that site, each day in November there's a prompt, a short piece of text. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to write something in response to the prompt, exactly 30 or 300 words long.

When I heard about this, I wasn't entirely sure about it, but once I had a go I was hooked. It doesn't have to take long at all, and some of the results are great to read. Give it a try. (But don't read the others until you have submitted your own).

Saturday, 8 November 2008

What's on?

The rather interesting site about writing and writers, Bookarazzi has a monthly update on opportunities to see authors in action and news of what they're up to - see the site for details.

Highly illustrative

In looking through the copy edit of Before the Big Bang (see the previous post) I noted with mild horror that I had forgotten to source an illustration.

It might come as a bit of a shock if you don't write non-fiction books, but generally it's down to the author to find the illustrations and (here's the nasty bit) pay for them if they need to be paid for.

The worst example of this was my book on the Victorian moving picture pioneer, Eadweard Muybridge. I could hardly write a book about a photographer without including a fair number of photographs, but the amount I was being quoted would have eaten up most of my advance.

Because this was a biography rather than a book about his pictures per se, I didn't need anywhere near as many photos as a true illustrated book, and I persuaded the sources (mostly universities) that I was an impoverished writer and couldn't afford to pay much (it helped that the book was published by the US National Academy of Sciences press, the Joseph Henry Press). Even so, it was quite a strain on the finances.

Luckily I only needed one photographic illustration for Before the Big Bang and that was courtesy of NASA who, bless 'em, don't charge if you credit them appropriately. But I was worried for a moment there.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Copy copy

Only a month ago I was reading through a copy edit of Ecologic - now I've the copy edited manuscript of the subsequent masterpiece, due out in May 2009 from my American publisher, Before the Big Bang.

Rather daringly, to my mind, the publisher has sent the original, in all it's colour markup glory, across the Atlantic for me to peruse and add yet another coloured set of comments. (Traditionally these are in red, but the copy editor has already used this, and there were also pencil and blue pen markings. As black doesn't show up well, after a hurried search of the house for a different coloured pen I have had to resort to green, trying to ignore all the implications of writing in green ink.)

The copy editor has commented how much she enjoyed reading the book - my estimation of these wonderful people goes up even more. Partly because she liked my book, partly because they can work at such detailed level of checking, yet still be able to read the thing and take it in as well.

Now all I have to do is get the now rather dog-eared pile of pages back to them undamaged, without resorting to the extortionate courier charges they must incur getting it over here.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

A feast of colour

I'm not sure why, but I felt a strong urge to show you my veg box, just arrived on the doorstep, so here it is:

Apart from being interestingly colourful, I wanted to demonstrate that despite the fact I'm a little hard on organic food in my next book Ecologic (out in January), it's not because I've anything against the food itself. Admittedly I only get an organic veg box (from the excellent Riverford) because I want a nice box of fresh local vegetables (very different from some of the stuff in the supermarket) delivered to my door - I really wouldn't be bothered if they weren't organic, but there don't seem to be non-organic veg boxes. Even so I've nothing against the food, just the antiquated, anti-scientific organizations that go along with the label.

There is one downside to getting a veg box. Whenever I go to the supermarket I feel really guilty, because I hardly buy any vegetables, and the people on the checkout must think 'what an unhealthy person'. Sometimes you can't win.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Google roulette

I don't think I should be too embarrassed to say that I have occasionally put "Brian Clegg" into Google. I think most people have tried searching for themselves occasionally. (I seem to remember Russell Brand (who?) saying that his name was the only thing he'd ever put into Google.)

When I do, I usually respond with a gentle sigh. Because once again I've missed the top spot. There's another Brian Clegg from my home town of Rochdale who sells art products for schools, and he always seems to beat me. A less generous person might suspect that he pays for this privilege, but I have to believe that one day I will beat him in the Google race. I can dream, can't I?

Phew. Made it through the post without mentioning Barack Obama's victory.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Beyond Words?

I'm appearing at 17 November at the Beyond Words Festival in North London. It's called this because it's 'not just' a literary festival, incorporating everything from dance to cookery, but books are still very much at its heart. There's a good line-up from Martin Bell to Michael Wood, and plenty going on every day from the 17th to 21st November.

I'm doing two sessions - Light Years, on the history of humanity's fascination with light at 11.20am and To Infinity and Beyond on the most fascinating and mind-bending subject in maths at 2.15pm. Entrance is free to most day-time sessions, including my own, but it's best to secure your ticket by calling the box office on 020 7433 2219.

The festival takes place at University College School - see the Beyond Words website for more details. I hope to see some friendly faces there.

Monday, 3 November 2008

It's not easy being green

The whole green agenda is a confusing one, and I think I know why. Saving the planet is a concept that is all black and white. Saving it is good. Destroying it is bad. End of story. But when it comes to taking actions to make that concept a reality things get more complicated. It's not black and white anymore. Many actions with green consequences are frowned on by environmentalists. It's shades of grey.

Take wind turbines. Great for helping prevent climate change. Clean, green energy. Only people don't like the thought of them on the pretty landscape. Oh, and maybe they'll kill a few birds. (Never mind that cats kill millions more.)

Here's another example of this kind of green greyness in a story from the excellent site the Register (though I wish they weren't so busy being ironic they had to use the 'boffin' word). There's a simple technology that will reduce plane fuel consumption and emissions. But the price is that planes are noiser. Difficult one. Worthy of debate. And the story is doubly interesting because it shows how the media can't cope with this kind of thing. What do they do with this important story? Pick up on a passing reference to atomic powered planes that's almost irrelevent and make that central point. It's not.

The real story is this grey nature of doing the right thing. Yes you'll help save the planet from climate change, but you'll make it look less pretty or noisier.

Kermit was right.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

PR news and witches

There's a whole industry these days that you could label PR news. Stories dreamed up by someone with something to sell, which the news media pick up on and present as straight news. There are companies, for example, that produce surveys specifically so they can be used as a tag to get the newspapers interested in a product. And, as Ben Goldacre points out in the excellent Bad Science the PR people also pull in scientists and universities, for instance trying to find some academic who will come up with a 'formula for the best night's sleep' for a mattress company, or some such thing.

However this technique is not just the preserve of the PR agency and survey companies. I have to confess I have myself got the occasional story in local papers by sending them a 'press release' about the Popular Science website. And now a shop that sells Halloween costumes has got in on the act. Last Friday they hit the news because they had arranged petitions trying to get retrospective pardons for the people put to death for being witches, hundreds of years ago. (What was distinctly shocking was the witch-killing scoreline between England and the much smaller Scotland. In Scotland they killed five times as many 'witches'. What does this say?)

This was a superb piece of PR. When I first heard the story on the BBC news they gave it as straight news. Then later they said the costume company was behind it, 'but was still serious about it'. Of course they were serious about it - wouldn't any business be serious about getting free publicity in the national media? It even made the News Quiz.

As for the request itself, it's ludicrous. You can't retrospectively apply today's laws and morality to a different age. You would probably have to give pardons to 95% of those put to death or transported for crimes we either wouldn't recognize or wouldn't punish that way (or at all) today. It's a pointless exercise from that point of view. But what a great publicity stunt. I take my hat off to whoever dreamed it up.

Friday, 31 October 2008

Don't go trick or treating, open a book

For some, Halloween is a day for running around the streets dressed in silly costumes. This whole Halloween schmozzle works well in parts of the US where this time of year is mild and pleasant. Here in the UK, by early evening temperatures will be close to freezing - which is why our own festival-of-this-time-of-year, bonfire night on November 5, is much more appropriate for being outdoors.

Don't get me wrong, though. I've nothing against Halloween itself. But rather than going out (or encouraging your children to go out) and freezing your toes off, I'd recommend staying in the warm and curling up with the traditional good book.

What to pick? If you haven't read it, my ultimate Halloween treat would be Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes - a superb evocation of the chill of fear. I re-read that pretty regularly, but my Halloween reading this year with be Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. It was a good TV series, but in book form it is much better. Pass the bat's blood.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

The quiet despair of the TV audition

If you write enough books, eventually someone will ask you to come and talk to them about appearing in a TV show. This has happened to me three times now. In none of the cases did I get offered the spot - but then I don't think any of the TV shows have been made either. It seems part of TV's creative process that they take lots of ideas as far as talking to people about appearing in them, then don't go any further.

I suppose I should moan that I've wasted a day and a trip to London each time, but it has been a fascinating experience. The most unnerving was one company that invited me in for a chat, but then videoed that chat to see how I came across. But the most hilarious was one for a Brainiac-like show where I was sent a script to learn in advance.

After a conversation with the potential producer, we went up onto the roof of the building and I had to deliver to a camera, often stuck inches away from my face, an enthusiastic explanation of the infamous Mentos/Cola reaction, waving around a pack of Mentos. If you've never seen it, this is what Mentos and Cola do:



(I didn't have to do the experiment itself, that was going to be cut in later.)

Now, there seem to be two kinds of TV science presenters. Very attractive people and loonies. As I couldn't possibly qualify for the first category, I must admit I did ham it up a bit, becoming remarkably excited about this reaction. To be fair, they did say 'not for this show, but we' d like to consider you for future programmes.' Unfortunately, I suspect this is a variant of 'don't call us, we'll call you.'...

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Raider of the lost nuts

As I was typing my blog entry on Mondex a squirrel tried for a smash and grab raid on the bird feeder outside my window. Unfortunately because my office has a window behind me, the reflection meant that the camera focused on the glass rather than the squirrel (the apparent ghost is one of my daughters towards the back of the room, watching the evil food burglar at work), and I didn't have time to correct this - but here are my fuzzy entries to Police, Camera, Action.

Do you recognize this squirrel? If you get offered any dodgy peanuts, please let me know.

Who needs money?

Pretty well everyone needs money really, I guess, but what I meant was 'who needs cash?' The irritating chunks of metal that mean I rarely have a pair of trousers that last more than a year without holes appearing in the pockets (hint, trouser designers - stronger pockets, please). And you always accumulate all those copper coins that you can't be bothered to bag up and take to the bank, so they end up in a charity box or gather dust in a big jar.

Now, when I first moved to the Swindon area a little over 12 years ago, I arrived at the tail end of an experiment that held out hopes of changing all that. It was called Mondex, and it was brilliant.

You got a chip and PIN style card and you downloaded money onto it. Then you used it for all purchases where you'd normally use cash. Of course that's not so different from a debit card, but this was more controllable, and you could use it at lots of places that wouldn't have a debit/credit card reader. Where merchants get stung for accepting a credit card in a way that makes buying a bag of sweets that way inacceptable, with Mondex it was fine. Even the street newspaper vendors in Swindon had them.

Perhaps the biggest advantage it had over cash was you could get money at home. With a card-reading/writing Mondex phone, you could put cash on your card whenever you liked.

Now Mondex is a museum piece (check out the history website) but Barclays has recently announced the OnePulse a credit card, Oyster Card and payment card usable in over 1,000 shops in London for purchases under £10 (though payment does come from the credit card, not loaded cash), which may see the resurrection of the concept. I'm very tempted to get one.

However, I suspect the next generation of cashless payment will be subtly different. The best contenders at the moment are either expanding debit card use so it is acceptable for a 20p purchase (and everyone accepts them, which means slashing the cost to merchants) or using something else like a mobile phone to initiate the payment.

Admittedly we already have this to an extent in those car parks where you can pay by phone, but they are too low tech and desperately slow. With mark II phone payment I would imagine typing a number from the car park (or newspaper vendor or whatever) into my phone (or more likely scanning a barcode or reading an RFID chip), entering the amount I want to pay and paying instantly.

Whatever the technical solution, I just can't wait to get rid of cash!

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

The proof is in the post


My upcoming book, Ecologic, has reached the next stage of its development - proofs. I gather that back in the stone age, when books were set by hand, these were often in galley form, long sheets of paper with multiple pages on, but now they're just like any other output from a standard laser printer, with the properly laid-out contents of a book page centred on the A4 or letter sized sheet.

It might seem a tedious task, going through a book page-by-page, looking for errors, but I enjoy it, normally get through much quicker than the two weeks that publishers typically allow for it. I have to confess to having a special red pen I only use for this - in a childish way it makes it more fun.

By now it has been long enough since I last read the book that I can come to it almost fresh, and there's a sense of surprise along the lines of 'hey, this really isn't bad.' Embarrassingly, I enjoy reading my own stuff at this point, because it's pretty well always better than I imagine it's going to be.

The biggest problem is making myself slow down. I tend to read very quickly, which is fine to get the idea of the book, but not to check every word. I have to pretend I'm reading it aloud to find as many of those slips as I can. But despite my efforts and two other proof readers, something will slip through. It always does.

(Left, proof of Ecologic, first page of chapter 1)

Monday, 27 October 2008

Shock, horror, not a lot of flying

I recently spent a very enjoyable hour being interviewed by Dr. Doug Beck of the American Academy of Audiology (you can see an 'edited highlights' transcript here). In a subsequent exchange of emails Dr. Beck was surprised to discover I've only flown once in the last 15 years.

I put that down to two things. First, I spent a good few years working at British Airways, during which I did more than enough flying for a lifetime. And second I have increasingly been writing on green issues, and I think there's something worrying and possibly hypocritical about someone who encourages people to be green, then flies everywhere at the drop of a hat.

It is a difficult decision if you want to write about climate change. In his enjoyable book Confessions of an Eco-Sinner, writer Fred Pearce tries to justify the fact that he flies thousands of miles a year with the defence that he's doing it in a good cause. I think increasingly that excuse doesn't wash. With Skype video calls, all the power of the internet and more, I'd suggest that nine out of ten research jollies could be avoided now, but the fact is people haven't got out of the habit of easy flight and are prepared to fool themselves that it doesn't matter what they do if they're doing it in a good cause. They're wrong.

Now I'm not saying I'll never fly again - and if I do, the chances are it will be for work. But if people writing about green issues can't keep down their flying to below the national average and make a point, who is going to bother to change?

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Waiting for Edito(r)

They say that moving house is the second most stressful thing after bereavement. 'They' don't know any authors.

The wait after you've sent your non-fiction proposal or your novel to a publisher is even worse than the house thing. With house sales, it's not the actual move that's so stressful - you can turn that into an adventure - it's the waiting, the uncertainty. And it's even worse for authors.

At the moment we're trying to sell the house and I've a proposal in with a publisher. All sympathy warmly accepted.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Someone shoot the double-you man

Some aspects of technology are quite well thought out - others are brainless. The web is something I use every day I'm writing, and I treasure it, but I would happily agree to the disposal of whoever it was thought of putting www. at the start of every web address. Why? It's just a waste of typing energy. Think of all the unnecessary bandwidth taken up by all those billions of redundant www.s floating round the net.

But the direct burden on using the web is as nothing to having to say the thing. How clumsy. Double-you, double-you, double-you - a bit of a tongue twister at best. Nine syllables of your life you will never get back every time you tell someone a web address.

Of course, we could be more efficient. We could say 'triple double-you' (just five syllables) or the even more compact 'three double-yous'. But we don't. For some reason, our naming conventions don't stretch to triple. When you read a number out, it's okay to say 'double six' (or whatever) but 'triple six' feels wrong, and not just because it's the number of the beast. We're not comfortable with triples. (Having said that, think yourself lucky Tim Berners-Lee didn't call it the World Web rather than the World Wide Web. Imagine the horror of double double-you.)

But the ultimate effeciency is to return to childhood. I saw a re-run of Top Gear on Dave the other day (what else can you see on Dave?), where clothes bullies Trinny and Susanna were the guest drivers and were emphasising the need to put 'VW' on their lap times to indicate 'very wet'. But they didn't say 'Vee double-you.' In a bid to appear non-intellectual (or possibly, heaven help us, cute) they kept saying 'vuh wuh', giving the letters the pronunciation very young children are taught.

And that's the answer to www. No more 'double-you, double-you, double-you dot brianclegg dot net' you can just say 'wuh wuh wuh dot brianclegg dot net.' Why not? Three simple syllables, as compact as you can make it. It's obvious what you mean. And I just can't wait to hear John Humphreys saying it on the Today programme.