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.

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 or

(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.


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.