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.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Want to organize a murder?

With Halloween fast approaching, thoughts turn to dark deeds and slightly strange parties. I gather murder mystery parties are very popular at Halloween. In case you fancy that kind of thing, I thought I'd mention my ebook of mystery events, Organizing a Murder.

Organizing A Murder contains twelve different mysteries to solve with your friends. It's a downloadable ebook, so you can get it straight away - ideal for those last minute parties - and it makes a great resource because you can print off elements like answer sheets and clues straight from the 118 page ebook to set the scene for your crime.

There's huge variety. Not all the mysteries are murders, and the events are graded on three different levels, from those suitable for children from around 9, up to complex mysteries that need all the cunning of an adult player. Settings vary too, from a traditional country house to a starship in deep space.

Also unlike the party kits, there's a lot more variation in the way the each mystery is played out, from a simple treasure hunt, to a complex mystery with witness statements, clues and evidence to sift through. And because the players are all detectives, as individuals or teams, it's much simpler to organize as there's no need for costumes and embarrassing play acting. This approach means that any number of players can take part in one of these events.

Want to see what it's like? You can download the contents, introduction and part of one of the simpler mysteries for free by RIGHT CLICKING HERE and selecting "Save Target As..." or "Save Link As..." to download.

You can buy it at £10.99 (or $22.99) from the Organizing a Murder website, but as you've been kind enough to read my blog, you can buy it at a discounted rate of just £10. Just click here to go to the discounted page.

Sales pitch over - and have a suitable maniacal Halloween next week.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Science Friction

There's something of a debate going on over at the Nature Network as to whether or not the science in science fiction has to accurately reflect reality.

Extremes range from 'obviously not - the F word tells you it's made up' to 'yes, it should, otherwise the public are being led astray.'

Somewhat predictably I prefer the middle ground. I think it's important not to go against the basic tenets of science as we now hold them. I recently watched a Star Trek movie where two ships had collided and one was embedded in the other. The Enterprise went into reverse, and with much creaking and groaning, pulled itself out of the other ship. This is simple violation of basic physics - all that would have happened is both ships moved backwards - and is a no-no.

However, as long as what's written about (or shown) doesn't run counter to everything we know, I see no reason to worry about it. So I have no problem with non-existent nanotechnology, faster than light travel (perfectly feasible, but first catch your wormhole) and time travel, as legitimate scientists have speculated about how all of these could be achieved. I even have no problem with using a 'thrust matrix inverter' and never explaining what this is, as long as the way it's used doesn't involve something that could never even hypothetically be possible.

Anyone insisting on more purity misses the point. Science fiction is speculative. It's pushing the boundaries. It should stretch the mind. And to suggest that science in science fiction should be like science in a real lab misses the point of a novel. I would no more expect that, than expect a crime novel to be like real police work - mostly extremely repetitive and boring.

Fiction isn't a mirror for reality, that's what non-fiction books and documentaries are for. Fiction is more than reality.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

The naming of names

When I was at school and first discovered I had to write (it can be a bit of an obsession), I mostly wrote fiction. Though I'm now primarily writing non-fiction, I'm still working on that fiction side. One thing I find particularly tricky is the names of characters.

It should be easy. Just pull a few random names out of a hat, perhaps pick a few surnames out of the phone book and you're away. But somehow, it doesn't work like that. Apart from anything else, some names have a particular resonance.

I've just finished re-reading The Difference Engine, William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's excellent steam-punk what-if about a Victorian Britain run using Babbage's mechanical computers. Apart from a rather hasty, tacked-on ending, it is brilliant, and I love the fictional Victorian names, often attached to products. There's something solidly of the period about a Cutts-Maudslay carbine, for example.

Of course, it's partly association. If you take a modern product-linked name like Dyson, it might seem this couldn't seem at all old fashioned, even though it has some earlier connections. (Is James Dyson related at all, I wonder to the physicist Freeman Dyson or Freeman's dad, the excellent church composer George?). But if you detach 'Dyson' from its modern connotations and attach it, say, to the 'Dyson Patent Steam Eradicator' or whatever, it does take on a period feel.

Even so there are definitely names that work for a particular book and names that don't. I'm not sure if there's any magical technique for determining the right names, or just trial and error. I know, for instance, that for me, whimsical names really don't work. I hate it in Dickens, it's the worst part of J K Rowling's books and though they both get away with it because of other aspects of their writing, it's an unnecessary irritation.

Without doubt, the naming of names has and always will have a certain significance, and should never be underestimated as a challenge.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Releasing scissors into the wild

Douglas Adams referred, I think, to all the lost biros that went missing, suggesting they all migrated to some biro planet where they lived a fulfilled life. My office has a similar problem with scissors. I start off with two pairs on my desk and within forty-eight hours I have none.

I've tried searching the house - I do sometimes find them, but more often than not I'm lucky if I can unearth a pair of kitchen scissors or nail clippers.

So a while ago I bought a whole batch of scissors from my supplier and now I keep replacing them as they disappear. I have the theory that if I inject enough into the system, eventually we'll hit saturation and they won't disappear any more.

I haven't made it yet. They still keep disappearing. But the act of opening a fresh packet has started to take on a new significance. I feel like a naturalist, releasing an animal bred in captivity back into the wild. It's strangely satisfying.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Domain dangers

These days most authors have websites. I have to confess to a mind-splitting eight (though to be fair, they aren't all about me and my work). I'll take a look at them here someday, but that's not what this post is about.

This morning in the mail I received a nice, offical looking document. It starts like this:

Harmless enough. However plenty of people would take up their offer to renew. And here's the snag. They aren't the people who handle my domain name registrations. They are just taking advantage of the public information available with any website to try to fish for business. They may well legitimately re-register the website for me (though there's no guaranteeing this)... but they aren't the people who actually register my site.

What were the give-aways? The postmark was Jamaica, which seems a little odd for a company that expects you to send your payment to a UK address. The company appears to be American - yet my domain is registered through a UK company. Oh, and unfortunately they got the renewal date wrong, using out-of-date records. If you get a request to renew that isn't from your ISP, or whoever handles your domains, don't pay it - query it with the people who handle things for you. It may well be a scam.

Friday, 17 October 2008

There's nothing like a challenge

I love science, but I recognize it has its limitations, and one is that, Large Hadron Collider apart, it lacks a certain glamour. So I am looking forward to this morning's work with a certain sense of awe.

Someone has asked me 'Can you think of a way to, say, sex up the sound of physics.' Hmm. Nothing like a challenge to make a Friday more interesting.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Welcome to Clegg Hall

I get quite a few emails from people who have read my books, which are always very welcome, but occasionally I receive more random contacts, like the people who are researching their family tree, and want to know if I have any information about Tobias Clegg of Wardle b 1738, or something similar. Sadly I never do - I've haven't caught the genealogy bug. I don't even know the names of my great grandparents.

But there is one aspect of my name/local history attached to it that I do know something about. Near where I was born is a ruined manor house called Clegg Hall. This fascinated me as a child, particularly with its well-embellished ghost story, and I've researched the Hall a little since - you can see the details in the article I wrote on the subject.

This quite regularly results in my receiving emails about the Hall, though I am afraid practically everything I know on the subject is in the article.

One recent correspondent seemed convinced I owned it and was in the process of restoring it. Delightful though the idea is, sadly I've nothing to do with it - I don't even know if it's being restored. I hope it is, though. It would be a shame if it were lost forever.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Which to put off first?

A lot of writers wish they could write full time. It certainly has a lot going for it - the freedom to choose when you do what, the time to think. But bear in mind it also means being self employed. Of itself, this isn't a bad thing either. I've been working for myself (technically for a company of which I'm the managing director) for over 10 years now, and you won't find me volunteering to go back to a 'real job.'

But it has its downside too. At the moment I'm trying to decide which to do first. The VAT (sales tax) or the company accounts. Or rather, which should I put off first. After all, I've a telephone interview this afternoon. That clearly needs preparing for. And I've some editing work to do. Maybe I can get away with just starting the accounts... Sigh.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

A Wordle to the wise

A while ago I was pointed to a superb website called Wordle ( which takes any text you like, counts up the words in it and presents it as a word cloud - an array of words where the size of the word reflects how often it occurs. You can tailor the output to use different fonts, vary the layout and so on.

I have found them very effective for getting a feel for a whole book. Here's a look at my latest book, Upgrade Me:(Note that the image is significantly bigger than this in the original!) And here are two more, of Light Years:

And of The Man Who Stopped Time, my biography of... I suspect you can guess who:

Monday, 13 October 2008

Checkout hell

On the whole, I don't like supermarket checkouts. Not the queueing - as a Brit this is second nature - but they seem to pile on extras designed specifically to make me snarl.

First there is this ludicrous greenwash of no longer giving out free carrier bags to 'help the environment'. Sorry, it's to help the supermarket. Not only do they lose the cost of providing all those freebies, they also gain profits from selling us the bags we now need to replace the carriers. Not just the 'bag for life' - everyone I know reuses carrier bags as rubbish bags, dog poo bags and more.

Only the other day I was watching a TV show where we were encouraged to put chicken carcases in double bags to minimize risk of nasty things happening in the wheelie bin. Now we have to buy all those binliners and dog poo bags - which means more cash for the supermarkets. What's most irritating is the way they label this action as green. It forces us to move from using bags twice to single use. Hmm, very green. When Ireland enforced this a few years ago, the country consumed more of the film used to make plastic bags, not less.

Still, I grin and bear it and wheel out the Leclerc/Waitrose bags for life (that'll show them in Sainsbury's), and then I see it. That most dreaded of sights at the end of the checkout. Girl Guides doing a bag pack. Someone ban it, please - it has to be bad for the evironment. I do not want youngsters pawing through my shopping and putting all the wrong things together. If only they would ask for payment not to help.

And then the final delight. Because I have used my bags for life, Sainsbury's will reward me by giving extra points (or something) for each bag I've used. 'How many bags?' asks the checkout person. Sadly, I am too slow in thinking to look her in the eye and say 'Five hundred and thirty-seven' with a perfectly straight face. I just mumble 'Four.' But remind me to bring at least one bag per item in next time.

Arggghhh! Rant over. Normal service will be resumed with the next post.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Writer's Toolkit #1 - The Dog

There are many things that are useful to a writer in their craft. One that is not as obvious as many is a dog. You might wonder what possible benefit a dog can bring - in fact there are several.

The first is company. If you are a full-time writer, the chances are you will spend a lot of time alone. Dogs give just the right amount of presence without getting in the way of the writing process.

Second is exercise. Writing is, inevitably, something of a sedentary occupation. Having a dog about the place forces you to get out of your chair a couple of times a day, come rain or shine, for a walk. This might not seem so welcome when it's pouring down (the last few days we've had sun and it has been glorious), but the dog's great strengh here is that it forces you to get past the 'can't be bothered when it's so miserable' syndrome. You have to take that walk.

Finally, there's creativity. The dog itself doesn't do a lot for this, but it's a side effect of those regular walks. I'd say at least half of my best ideas for books and things to put in them have been dreamed up while out walking the dog. It's essential for this to work that you don't take a mobile phone, that just causes distractions. With either a notebook or a recording MP3 player to jot down any thoughts you've got yourself an idea factory.

Of course, a dog is for life, not just for writing - but they genuinely help.

Friday, 10 October 2008

How do you keep track?

I was talking about writing (anyone know a way to stop me?) with a school teacher the other day, and he asked how I kept track of what I was doing, especially as I might be researching one book, writing another and putting together a proposal for a third all at the same time.

Writers have many different ways of keeping stuff organized, from the traditional big notebooks to high tech databases. I use a compromise between the two - a high tech notebook, namely Microsoft's OneNote software. For me this has proved ideal. You can use as much structure as you want in terms of different tabs and sections... but then you can just pour bits and pieces onto a page wherever you want it. Text notes, pictures, web links - all slapped on as you would in a paper notebook, but with the advantage that notes are searchable, pictures can be pasted back elsewhere and weblinks are live. I also embed copies of documents, up to and including full manuscripts, so everything is kept in one place. Oh and checklists - it does great checklists.

It might not work for everyone, but for me it has been absolutely brilliant. You can find out more at or - worth taking a look.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

In praise of barbers

I went to the barber's yesterday, in need of a trim. (Several people have asked if the photo on my book cover (see previous post) is me. No. Really, no.) I'm lucky I can do this, as just a few minutes drive away there is a village with a genuine, down-to-earth, none of that fancy appointments business, barber shop where you turn up unannounced, sit and read the paper, then take your turn to be shorn.

It's a very strange village, if you didn't know what was causing the oddity. Despite having only two to three thousand inhabitants, it boasts two hairdressers, the barber's, and two Indian restaurants. This can only be down to the well protected compound down the far end of the high street that is the Royal Military College of Science, with students from all over the world in need of haircuts and curry.

In the end, though, the 'why' doesn't matter so much as the fact that the barber's is there. And long may it remain.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Over Here

My latest book Upgrade Me is now available in the UK.

It's a strange business, the international book market. Putting translations aside, just the different English speaking markets are downright confusing. Upgrade Me is published by St Martins Press, a US company. They have world rights, which means they can sell it in any country, but what they would normally do to sell in the UK is set up an arrangement with a UK publisher and have them produce a version. This time, though, they are selling direct into the UK. Confused? I certainly am.

I'm really pleased with Upgrade Me. It's based on the idea that, though human beings haven't evolved biologically in 100,000 years, we have transformed ourselves into something that is functionally entirely different to the basic, non-upgraded human. I suggest this originates from our self-awareness. When we became able to think outside the here and now, to think 'what if?' and to consider the future (and our future mortality), it gave us the spur to begin transforming ourselves, something that really defines what it is to be human. These upgrades go from the very simple - wearing clothes, carrying a water bottle - to the sort of sophisticated hi-tech upgrades available through performance enhancing drugs and the implantation of electronics.

If you'd like to read more about Upgrade Me or buy a copy, see its web page.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Do you copy, Houston?

The next book, Ecologic is now in the copy editing phase. Some poor soul has gone through the whole thing in exquisite detail, checking for my manifold grammatical slips, and Just a Minute problems (repetition, deviation or hesitation).

Different publishers play the copy editing game subtly differently. Some just send any queries that the copy editor has ('did you really mean to say this???') without revealing just what is being done to the text, others give you the whole manuscript marked up along with the editor's detailed changes. The latter is the approach taken by Transworld, the publishers of Ecologic and I am currently working through this as quickly as I can, because (to be honest) it's a mind-numbing task.

It's very rare that I change any simple edits, and even most of the queries from the copy editor make total sense, and I leave them as they are. But occasionally something will need a tweak. For example (s)he picked up on my use of the term 'speech radio' saying 'odd phrase - unless it's music all radio is speech.' I think this reflects the rather cloistered world that copy editors live in. (I imagine publishers keep them in a cupboard, rather like the bank managers in a very old TV ad I seem to remember.) Speech radio is a common term used to distinguish dedicated-to-speech stations like BBC Radio 4 from music stations (which also have plenty of speech) like Radio 1 or Classic FM. As it happens, I found a better wording that suited both of us, so that was okay.

Tomorrow it will be over - corrections emailed back to be incorporated before the manuscript moves down the production line to be given the layout of a real book.

Monday, 6 October 2008

Where do you write?

I'm taking up the challenge posted by Stephen Curry on the Nature Network to give a quick illustration of my working environment.

I love the curved desk (thanks, Ikea) and also having a window looking out on green stuff. A small prize to the first person who can work out what my favourite painting is (there's a print above and to the right of the monitors).

Unlike Stephen, there is no stereo - I do have a lot of music on the computer, but hardly ever listen to it when working. I have to be doing something really dull and mechanical (my accounts, say) before I can have music on without it being a distraction.

The books go with the job, I guess (though more than half of those on view are fiction). I tend to have a couple of shelves of books on the subject I'm writing about at the moment, as well as the usual references (though my favourite, the OED, I use online thanks to our local library).

The row of books at the top right are my 'I should throw them away, but...' books - they are spare copies of translations that I keep on the off-chance I will one day meet someone who is interested in a Czech book on creativity (say). This has once paid off, when I did some work with the University of Westminster with a group of Chinese speakers and managed to offload all my spare books translated into Chinese, but so far the rest are reluctant to shift.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Is the blog the missing component of the new newspaper?

I've never regularly subscribed to a newspaper. Most of my news I get from the TV or online, but what that doesn't provide is the entertaining comment part of a newspaper - now I read a wide ranging collection of blogs (you'll see the current list right down the bottom of my blog) it's as if I've filled in that missing piece of the jigsaw.

Don't get me wrong. I still love reading a real newspaper if I'm having the occasional treat of a cooked breakfast at the supermarket, or over a coffee waiting to pick up my daughters from a dance lesson. But for the everyday fix of comment it's a great substitute.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Manchester Grammar School 4 October

Yesterday I had a record journey time for a talk - 13 hours - but it was by train, so plenty of opportunity to use those hours. I speak at schools once or twice a month, but this was that most strange speaking engagements, going back to my old school.

The route provided by the railway company was a trifle eccentric, taking me via Bristol Parkway (a new and exciting station stop for me) and Birmingham on the way, and via Newport on the way back. I was struck as I waited for the first train of the day how much I hate those automated announcements for slow trains that end with the recorded announcer saying 'I'm sorry for the delay.' It wasn't my train that was late, but even so, who was sorry? The computer that was playing the announcement? The announcer when she recorded the message years ago? Did she have a concentrated bout of compassion, bursting into tears for all the late trains she would apologize for in the future?

Manchester's Piccadilly Station was very different to the way I remembered it - more like an airline terminal than the grubby station I expected - and Manchester itself has changed a lot since those many years ago.

The school itself is more subtly different. I could still find my way round many of the classrooms, and the corridors particularly are as I remember, but there are new buildings, renovations, a place that is simultaneously the same and transformed. I was hosted before the talk by a charming sixth former and had a good sized audience in a lecture theatre that was one of the few places where my memory let me down. I'd been in it many times for choir practices, lectures and the like, but it was noticably smaller than I remembered.

The reception was good for Faster than Light, and it was great to see a contingent from two local girls' schools.

Of all the talks I do in schools, this is the one I'm least happy with - each time I do it differently and one day I'll get it the way I want it. Afterwards some nice questions and a few books signed before a lift back to the station from a long-serving physics teacher. (Not quite long enough to have been there in my time, though my old maths guru Neil Sheldon still is, and very popular I would guess from the questions about him 'back then' from the audience.)

As always the journey back dragged a little, apart from the excitement of a five minute connection at Newport where we arrived 2 minutes after the other train was due to depart. Thankfully they held it. Nothing personal about Newport, but an unplanned night there wasn't a happy thought.

Friday, 3 October 2008

How long does it take you...

There are some questions that all writers face on a very regular basis, and one of those is 'how long does it take you to write a book.' (For what it's worth, my answer is nine months to a year, but I typically have two on the go at once, so I can mix some research and some writing.)

That doesn't come as much of a surprise. But what does often raise some eyebrows is how long it can take from submitting a shiny manuscript to the publisher to the finished book hitting the shelves. This is typically another nine months to a year. Of course it doesn't have to be. You will see books rushed out when someone famous dies in weeks - but that's a special case, far from the norm.

There is a lot of work behind the scenes before there's a physical book you can buy. Once the manuscript leaves the author's hands, it will typically:
  • Sit around for a month or two - books are always written to a deadline, but it's rare that there is then any urgency when the manuscript is delivered
  • Be read and have a preliminary edit by your editor - this is the worst bit, the point where the editor might come back and say 'this is rubbish' or 'we need significant re-writes'. If you are lucky you get 'I love it, and there's very little to do'
  • Be copy edited - this is the work of a different person who irons out as many of your typos and grammatical quirks as they can, plus queries anything that doesn't make sense. The copy editor may also mark up the book for proof printing
  • Proof reading - a very first cut of the book as individual sheets comes back to you and a professional proof reader. It's amazing how many little errors will still have slipped through
  • Production of bound proofs - with some but not all books an almost-paperback version is produced to send out to reviewers who take a long time reading it, or write for a publication with a long lead time. Personally, if possible, I much prefer reviewing from the real thing.
  • Production of the book - and perhaps a month ahead of publication you have the first real example of your book in your hands
A lot to do, then - but these processes are all fairly short and don't justify that nine to twelve months. It doesn't come from production requirements, it's for sales and marketing. Publishers typically produce catalogues twice a year, so there needs to be plenty of advance warning for that. The word has to be spread. The complex sales process, where your editor effectively sells the book to the in-house sales team, who then sell it to the bookshops has to be undergone. Key times of year have to be considered. (Is this a Christmas book?) All in all, it is sales and marketing that drive the timescales after you produce your masterpiece, not physical production.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

The danger of writing from memory

When writing it's easy to rely on what you already 'know' as fact - but it can be dangerous to do so. As we'll see it's not just a problem for non-fiction writers.

Having said that, it is particularly dangerous when writing on a subject like science. There are several scientific 'facts' and explanations that you will still see regularly referred to that were binned some time ago. A couple of years ago, I was writing a book on science for primary school teachers (Getting Science) and initially relied on a fascinating 'fact' that was tucked away in my memory, that despite appearances, glass was a liquid, not a solid, at room temperature. The evidence usually given for this is that medieval windows are thicker at the bottom than the top, because over the years the glass has very gradually run down.

Unfortunately it's now known that this isn't true. Those medieval windows are thicker at the bottom because they weren't very good at making perfectly flat glass. Sensibly, when they put an uneven pane in place, they put the thicker part at the bottom, as that would be more stable. Yet very recently I have reviewed a book by a respected scientist who repeated the 'glass is a liquid' myth, presumably because he too was relying on memory.

Another example of this is the explanation of how we see a moving image when we watch a movie or TV, even though it actually comprises a sequence of still pictures. When I was writing my biography of moving picture pioneer Eadweard Muybridge, I initially relied on memory and wrote about persistence of vision. It was only later, when I researched in more detail, that I found out this was a Victorian idea with no scientific basis, bearing no resemblance to the way this effect happens. Even so, to this day, you will find persistence of vision given as an explanation in many places.

It might seem this is purely a problem for non-fiction writers. After all, writing fiction we are creating art. It doesn't have to reflect reality. And to an extent this is true. Write about a fictional location, and you can do whatever you like. However, if you do write about real places in fiction, I believe it is only fair to your readers to get as much right as possible.

One example of this I have seen a couple of times is in crime novels, referring to the blindfold statue of justice on top of the Central Criminal Courts (the Old Bailey) in London. The problem is that this statue of justice isn't blindfolded. Some are, it's true. But this, probably the most famous such statue in the world, isn't. Get something like this wrong and it will irritate and nag at any reader who knows the truth. I believe it's better, if possible, to get it right.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

The Ghosts of Departed Books

When you're writing a book it's very clear in your mind. It's with you all the time. And then they're all too present when they're being edited, a process that carries on after they leave your hands when first the editor, then the copy editor, then the proof reader all force your attention on the text. Finally, your book has to be very firmly present when it hits the bookshops. There might be interviews or readings or talks - it's essential to know your stuff.

But after that the books drift into a sort of literary twilight. You never lose them entirely, but they fade, displaced by the new project, the new enthusiasm. Some stay alive for me because I give talks based on them, but others have no such life support.

And that's where a dissonance creeps in. When a reader buys your book, however many years after you wrote it, it is still fresh and new to them like a hot loaf straight from the oven, where to you it may have become a ghost in the autumn mists of the creative act. (Apologies for coming over a touch literary, I have just been reading Ray Bradbury, and it's hard to shake it off.)

This morning I had an email from the a reader of a book I wrote back in 1999 and really had to work back mentally to reach that book. It wasn't a bad experience - it's great hearing from readers - but it was still a shock to the system, a sort of 'did I write that?' moment. Then it all came back and I was able to answer her question. But for that brief period of time, I did feel visited by a ghost.

PS Five meaningless points to anyone who can spot the mathematical reference involving a philosopher/bishop in the title of this post.