Monday, 28 February 2011

E-book pirates - they're curious, horny, nerdy, and they want to be liked.

It's a serious business, ebook piracy, but there's something hilarious about the list of top ten pirated books just revealed in Writer's Digest.

1. 1000 Photoshop Tips and Tricks
2. Advanced Sex: Explicit Positions for Explosive Lovemaking
3. What Did We Use Before Toilet Paper?: 200 Curious Questions
4. Photoshop CS5 All-in-One For Dummies
5. What Rich People Know & Desperately Want to Keep a Secret-
6. 101 Short Cuts in Maths Any One Can Do
7. Touch Me There!: A Hands-On Guide to Your Orgasmic Hot Spots
8. How to Blow Her Mind in Bed
9. 1001 Math Problems
10. How To Make People Like You In 90 Seconds Or Less

Quotes about Achievement

Here's the next section from my book 1000 Great Quotations for Business, Management & Training.

Lord, grant that I may always desire more than I can accomplish.
Michelangelo, Italian sculptor, painter, architect, poet (1475-1564)

Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice; it is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.
William Jennings Bryant, US statesman (1860-1925)

You cannot do anything better in this life than run your own perfect race.
Roger Black, British athlete (b.1966)

The moment of victory is much too short to live for that and nothing else.
Martina Navratilova, Czech-born US tennis player (b.1956)

The greatest pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do.
Walter Bagehot, British author, economist (1826-1877)

Most of the things worth doing in the world have been declared impossible before they were done.
Louis Brandeis, US supreme court justice (1856-1941)

It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.
Sir Edmund Hillary, New Zealand mountaineer and explorer (1919-2008)

In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.
Harry Lime, character in ‘The Third Man’ by Graham Greene (1904-1991)

When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.
John Ruskin, British writer, art critic (1819-1900)

Too low they build who build beneath the stars.
Edward Young, British poet, dramatist, literary critic (1683-1765)

Some of the world’s greatest feats were accomplished by people not smart enough to know they were impossible.
Doug Larson, US marketeer, writer (b.1926)

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Quotes about Ability

Here is the first selection of quotes from my book 1000 Great Quotations for Business, Management & Training.

Whether you believe you can, or whether you believe you can’t, you’re absolutely right.
Henry Ford, US automobile manufacturer, engineer (1863-1947)

Every man has one thing he can do better than anyone else – and usually it’s reading his own handwriting.
J Norman Collie, Scottish mountaineer (1859-1942)

If a man is to called to be a streetsweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven played music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lived a great streetsweeper who did his job well.
Martin Luther King Jr, US civil rights leader (1929-1968)

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, programme a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialisation is for insects.
Lazarus Long, character in a novel by Robert Heinlein (1907-1988)

Talent never asks, ‘Will they like it?’ Talent pleases itself. That’s the difference between talent and ordinary.
Larry King, US talk show host (b.1933)

People’s beliefs about their abilities have a profound effect on those abilities. Ability is not a fixed property; there is a huge variability in how you perform. People who have a sense of self-efficacy bounce back from failure; they approach things in terms of how to handle them rather than worrying about what can go wrong.
Albert Bandura, US psychologist (b.1925)

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Thoughts of a quote collector

Prompted by a reader who made some kind comments to this blog about my book 1000 Great Quotations for Business, Management & Training, I have decided to embark on a project. Every day from tomorrow I am going to publish here a set of quotes from the book until I have reproduced them all. I will continue with other postings too, but the quotes will be the mainstay of this blog for the next ninety days or so. By way of introduction I'll say something  about why I wrote the book and what it has in it.

I compiled this collection originally because I needed it myself. That is to say, my mountain of notes, cuttings and print-outs was threatening a landslide in my store cupboard. I could lay a hand on an appropriate quotation just when I required it, provided I had two days’ notice of the occasion and nothing else to do but sift through the pile built up over several years.

The project to create a book of quotations from the best of this random collection put a semblance of order back into my life and on the way provided me with a great deal of pleasure as I rediscovered some of the wise and witty observations that stirred me enough to write them down at the time, only to bury them under my own disorder.

One of the most difficult tasks in selecting material for the book was deciding what to leave out. It is a highly subjective choice, one which is bound to reveal my own slants and prejudices. I have tried, however, to keep the reader constantly in mind. I hope you will find among the thousand odd quotations that appear over the next few weeks many that apply to your own experience in the world of business, management and training (or any other walk of life), even though many stem from seemingly unrelated disciplines such as sport or mass entertainment, and may have been originally spoken or written in an age quite different from the one we know today.

Although I have tried to ensure as much variety as possible and offer a wide range of authors, some names do crop up again and again. The American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, is a notable quotable. Ironically, he is the man who once famously said ‘I hate quotations’.
Albert Einstein
The astonishing Albert Einstein is another I keep returning to, especially for his comments on creativity and learning. Motor manufacturer Henry Ford was a master of the memorable aphorism, as was author Mark Twain.

I have tried to reflect modern management thinking with an assortment of observations from contemporary ‘gurus’, especially those I most admire and in some cases have worked with – Tom Peters, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Warren Bennis, Peter Drucker. I do hope that the tiny nuggets of business philosophy I have chosen will inspire you to discover or renew acquaintance with their stimulating books or, in the case of those who still tread the conference platforms, go along to one of their electrifying presentations.

Not everyone represented in the selection is well known. Biographical details on the less than famous has been difficult to come by, which is why some dates are missing. In a few cases I have not been able to say with certainty what they do or did for a living, but I have been reluctant to lose some of my favourite quotations for want of a little information. Not that I would go as far as author Anatole France who wrote:

‘When a thing has been said and well said, have no scruple; take it and copy it. Give references? Why should you? Either your readers know where you have taken the passage and the precaution is needless, or they do not know and you humiliate them.’

One of the difficulties that attitude causes the scrupulous researcher is pinning down a quotation definitively to an original source. Some of the greatest orators (President John F Kennedy for one) thought nothing of slightly altering another’s observation or simply importing it wholesale into their own ‘original’ speeches and writings. Others may have done it unconsciously.

As a British writer one thing that struck me forcibly while I was researching attributions was how many of these quotations come from American mouths and pens. This is not entirely explained by the sheer size of the country or its position as the world’s most powerful nation. There is something cultural at work here too.

My contention is that Americans learned the value of the ‘soundbite’ long before the advent of mass media. The relentless presence of TV images across US society today may have developed their habit of packaging speech in exploding parcels, but the tendency seems indigenous. Even a casual comparison of US and English language patterns up to 200 years ago shows the Americans to be far less inclined to the elaborate verbal courtesies and locutions that characterised English opinion-formers of a past age. Vestiges of that linguistic difference (steeped, as it is, in class, education and tradition) persist today, though they are steadily being  eroded by the forces of globalisation.

I have wreaked my revenge on this horde of quotable Americans by ruthlessly anglicising their spelling. The Empire strikes back. As the critic James Agate wrote:
‘Your Englishman, confronted by something abnormal, will always pretend that it isn’t there. If, however, you force him to look into it, he’ll at once pretend that he sees the object not for what it is but for something he would like it to be.’

I have sorted my selection of quotations alphabetically into themes and subjects that I trust readers will find appropriate. Some of the distinctions are quite subtle; there are obvious links between Achievement, Success and Winning, for example, and between Failure and Mistakes. I recommend ‘surfing’ around associated themes for the best results.

I hope I have succeeded in avoiding the predictable and over-familiar. I want you to be surprised by unexpected gems, to experience the same pleasure I felt when I first came across them, to nod your head at succinct sagacity, smile at truths eloquently revealed, have your mind expanded by insightful observation and your heart lifted by inspirational thoughts.

I have tried to sow a little wit among the wisdom – a seedling from Groucho Marx here, from Woody Allen there.

Anyway, it all starts tomorrow. Let me know if you enjoy the offerings.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Fat words and lean words

When I was in management development, I often devised games and exercises for workshop groups to reinforce learning points. One of these involved giving out randomly to each participant a word on a card – everyone had a different word. They then mingled in an open space, showing their cards to each other, trying to answer my challenge: Can you sort these words into two distinct sets?  I gave them a couple of minutes for this exercise. At the end of it, they had to stand back-to-back in two rows –  each row displaying a distinct set of words. Each group had to explain to me what was distinctive about their chosen set.

The number of words varied according to how many were attending the workshop, but here is a typical list. Can you sort them into two distinct sets?


Have you managed to sort them out? No? Well the workshop delegates found it difficult too, so I gave them a little clue on the cards I gave out. The words did not look like they do above – they looked more like this. Does this help?

You’ve probably guessed by now that the clue lies in the typography. Ignore the colours – they’re just a red herring (or yellow or green herring) – look instead at the two different fonts used. Excuse the non-PC language, but what we have here are lean words and fat words. You should now be able to sort out the two distinct sets as follows:


are the lean words. Here are the fat words:


At one level, you could see this exercise as one in lateral thinking or perception - ‘thinking outside the box’  - as the players can work out the answer by looking at the  visual form rather than the meaning of the words; but the learning point goes much beyond that, because there is a clear distinction in meaning as well as look between the two sets of words, and their respective leanness or fatness is semantic as well as visual.

Look again at the lean words. I call them lean because they are spare in definition. Each of them is specific, concrete, unambiguous, pared down to one meaning. Each of these words can be measured to prove its claim to be what it is.

This can’t be said of the fat words. They are fat because they have several layers of meaning. They are abstract, non-specfic, ambiguous words, difficult to pin down, impossible to measure.

The lean words are the words of the scientist, the precisionist, the objective reporter. There is no wriggle room in them, unlike the fat words, which are the words beloved of politicians.  Using them you can avoid being pinned down. But there is another reason why politicians, along with campaigners, coaches and evangelists often turn to fat words; precisely because they can be interpreted in different ways by speakers and listeners, they can be used to motivate, to inspire wishes, hopes and dreams. There is more resonance in fat words than in the dull, proasic lean words.

Listen, for example, to Martin Luther King’s famous ‘I have a dream’ speech, and note the immense number of fat words employed.

It is important to remember, however, that fat words can equally be used to evade, deceive and influence for malign purposes.

This distinction between lean words and fat words is an important one for any writer of non-fiction or fiction, of reports or speeches, of stories and plays – as important as the thickness of paint on a brush is for the visual artist. It is a key distinction, part of the thoughtful writer’s lexicon of choice.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Dull as Ditchwater: a dozen interesting things about clichés

1.    I asked 100 people to complete the phrase, ‘As blind as a...’. There were no surprises.

2.    Bats are not blind...

3.    But bees do have knees.

4.    These...
            As dead as a doornail
            A fool’s paradise
            A foregone conclusion
            A tower of strength
            As white as driven snow
            Bag and baggage
            Bated breath
            Cold comfort
            Come full circle
            Dog will have its day
            Give the devil his due
Hoist with his own petard
I have not slept one wink
In my heart of hearts
In my mind’s eye
Love is blind
More in sorrow than in anger
More sinned against than sinning
Neither here nor there
Not a mouse stirring
Play fast and loose
Stood on ceremonies
Sweets to the sweet
The be all and end all
Till the crack of doom
To make a virtue of necessity
To the manner born
Wear my heart on my sleeve

...were all coined by William Shakespeare.

5.    Bored business people at conferences have fun with Cliché Bingo, ticking off the clichés as they roll off the boss’s tongue until someone shouts (or whispers) ‘House!’

6.    Bob’s your uncle – The original ‘Bob’ was Conservative Prime Minister Robert (Bob) Cecil who made an unpopular appointment of his nephew Arthur Balfour as Chief Secretary for Ireland in 1900.

7.    A proper Charlie – meaning someone made to look a fool. The original ‘Charlie’ was the English jockey Charlie Smirke who name was used as Cockney rhyming slang for ‘berk’. But the story doesn’t start there; ‘berk’ was itself a shortening of ‘Berkley Hunt’, used by Cockneys as rhyming slang for a rather more offensive insult.

8.    What the Dickens...! has nothing to do with Charles Dickens – ‘dickens’ is an old name for the devil.

9.    But Dickens is responsible for giving us red tape meaning obstructive bureaucracy. 

10. A pig in a poke and Let the cat out of the bag both refer to the old country fair con of secretly switching a cat for a suckling pig before handing it over to the unsuspecting customer.

11. Pigs might fly probably has its origin in Lewis Carroll’s poem from Through the Looking Glass:

      'The time has come' the walrus said, To talk of many things: Of shoes - and ships - and sealing wax, Of cabbages - and kings - And why the sea is boiling hot - And whether pigs have wings.'

12. Famous American producer Sam Goldwyn once demanded to ‘have some new clichés’.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

The Writer's Journey

I have just finished reading and reviewing The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler. Here's the review I wrote for Amazon.

Christopher Vogler readily acknowledges his debt to Joseph Campbell, whose 1949 seminal work on comparative mythology The Hero with a Thousand Faces  is the source of the Hero's Journey that Vogler uses as his template for an effective screenplay. Vogler's more contemporary style is perhaps more accessible for the modern reader, and his many examples from well-known movies ('Shane', 'Star Wars', 'Titanic') really help to demonstrate the practical application of the formula that he explains in rich detail here.

Make no mistake, it is a formula, and some readers have criticised Vogler (himself a Hollywood screenwriter and story consultant) for peddling a formulaic approach to the creative act. In fairness, he warns several times in the book about slavish adherence to the recipe, and is clear that no writer should simply spread out the journey map and start plotting the route accordingly. Like any writer's tool, this book is a valuable travelling companion, not a pilot. Vogler provides a good example in his analysis of Quentin Tarantino's 'Pulp Fiction' of a great script that contains all the essentials of a Hero's Journey presented entirely unconventionally with freshness and verve.

Novelists as well as scriptwriters should find this a useful and interesting guide. Don't let it be the only book you rely on (Robert McKee's Story is another rewarding read) but be sure to take it with you if you are embarking on your own writer's journey.

As you can tell from the review, I liked it. For me, it's a good reminder of story archetypes and key stages. Among the archetypes Vogler presents in the book are:

The Hero
The Mentor
The Threshold Guardian
The Herald
The Shapeshifter
The Shadow
The Ally
The Trickster  

As a little spot-check, I looked to see if I could find all of these archetypes in my novel 11:59 which I wrote before I read Vogler's book and certainly without thinking of  'mythic structures' (this is a contemporary novel). I did find all of them, and one of the things I found interesting is that one or two characters evolve from one to another - the best example is Oliver, who starts out as Fool (not strictly an archetype Vogler recognizes, except as a variation of Trickster), becomes an Ally to the 'hero' Marc, and eventually emerges as Hero himself. I like to think this mobility of archetypes is healthy, formula-resistant.

Here are the stages of the journey as Vogler sees them:

Ordinary World
Call to Adventure
Refusal of the Call
Meeting with the Mentor
Crossing the First Threshold
Tests, Allies, Enemies
Approach to the Inmost Cave
The Ordeal
The Road Back
The Resurrection
Return with the Elixir

Again, I retro-plotted these with Marc's journey in 11:59 and could recognize all the staging-posts, except that at the end, though we are confident of Marc's Resurrection, we are left hoping that Oliver will enjoy a Resurrection too.

Vogler also has some interesting diversions on subjects such as Polarity and Catharsis, though I think towards the end of the book he gets a little New Age for me.

I'll finish this rather long posting with a few random quotes from the book that I marked as interesting.

Christopher Vogler
x. ‘An effective story grabs your gut, tightens your throat, makes your heart race and your lungs pump, brings tears to your eyes or an explosion of laughter to your lips. If I wasn’t getting some kind of physiological reaction from a story, I knew it was only affecting me on an intellectual level and therefore it would probably leave audiences cold. ‘

7. ‘The protagonist of every story is the hero of a journey, even if the path leads only into his own mind or into the realm of relationships.’

42. The best advice is worthless if you don’t take it.’

68. ‘It’s important to remember in designing stories that most Shadow figures do not think of themselves as villains or enemies. From his point of view, a villain is the hero of his own myth, and the audience’s hero is his villain.’

162. ‘Identifying with a hero who bounces back from death is bungee-jumping in dramatic form.’

224. ‘All the subplots should be acknowledged or resolved in the Return. Each character should come away with some variety of Elixir or learning.’

308. ‘We thwart the deep wishes of the audience at our peril. Movies that deny the wishes of the audience to see the heroes ultimately happy or fulfilled may not perform well at the box office. The audience will inwardly cheer for poetic justice – the hero receiving rewards proportionate to his struggle, the villain receiving punishment equivalent to the suffering he has inflicted on others. If that sense of poetic justice is violated, if the rewards and punishments and lessons don’t match up to our wishes for the characters, we sense something is wrong with the story, and go away unsatisfied.’

309. Polarity is an essential principle of storytelling, governed by a few simple rules but capable of generating infinite conflict, complexity, and audience involvement.’

Sunday, 6 February 2011

The light comma

I need a new punctutation mark. It doesn't seem to exist, so I'll have to invent it. I'll call it the light comma.

A fair proportion of my writing time is spent inserting and deleting commas. Well, it's truer to say a fair proportion of my reading time is spent this way, mentally rehearsing the sense and effect of with comma and without comma before the deed, then testing it after the deed - the actual insertion and deletion takes no more time than it does to make a keystroke or two (or ten or twelve before I'm satisifed I have it right, which lasts until the next day when I come to read the draft again and doubt my judgement of the day before). Come to think of it it's not just the comma; I've just spent a good ten or fifteen minutes fiddling with the other stops, starts, hesitations, interjections and interpolations signified by the brackets, dashes and semi-colons of this very paragraph, not to mention making a judgment on 'judgment' or 'judgement' (you can have either spelling). It's the comma, though, that gives me most pause for thought.

On the whole, modern writers make less use of the comma than those who came before. I guess that's partly a reponse to our more hurried times, partly a more relaxed (some would say less disciplined) approach to the rules of punctuation, especially since texting has become an everyday means of communication. What we risk, in dropping the comma, is ambiguity, lack of clarity and, for creative writers especially, a certain loss of rhythmic control over the way our work is read.

I try not to put too firm a foot in either the old camp or the new camp, but prefer to experiment; to read and test, and read and test again. The eye, the ear, the brain, the heart all have to be involved - if that doesn't sound too precious for the deceptively simple act of punctuation.

Not simple at all, that's my point. It's the subtlety of it that has me yearning for a new type of comma, because I'm increasingly finding that there is not enough range in the options available. An artist can mix his paint on the palette, apply it more or less heavily to the canvas. A musician can play a note loudly, softly, somewhere in between. We have but a few choices available to us of punctuation marks in general, and as far as the comma in particular is concerned the choice is... to use or not to use. Sometimes that is not enough nuance.

OK, I'll try to illustrate what I mean by an example. I am currently revising some chapters of a novel and this week I wrote the following:

We placed the board next to the injured man, and the doctor supervised his transfer onto it; three of us either side, our male fingers unnaturally interlocked under shoulders, back and buttocks as we lifted him, gently as we could. I could feel the scrape of loose spoil on knuckles, wetness running into my palms.

Reading it over several times, I found myself more and more disturbed by the comma after shoulders. It seemed to me too heavy in the sentence, disturbing the rhythm and gving too much emphasis to shoulders in comparison to back and buttocks.  I felt it important that the three parts of the man's body needed equal emphasis - not quite sure why, but maybe it has to do with conveying the idea of the patient being lifted across in one smooth movement. So I tried bucking the convention of placing commas in a list and edited the paragraph to read:

We placed the board next to the injured man, and the doctor supervised his transfer onto it; three of us either side, our male fingers unnaturally interlocked under shoulders back and buttocks as we lifted him, gently as we could. I could feel the scrape of loose spoil on knuckles, wetness running into my palms.

But now the absence of a comma after shoulders seemed to draw attention to itself, and seemed somehow to bring back too close to it. Damn it.

That's when it struck me that what I need is a new type of punctuation mark, a comma providing a pause that is more than nothing, but slightly less than an ordinary comma: a light comma.

The light comma would look the same as an ordinary comma except that it would have the effect of being printed on an old typewriter ribbon. If handwritten, the writer could ease up just a little on the pen pressing down on the page, just like the artist with her brush, or the pianist touching the key - pianissimo.

Surely computer keyboard makers would be able to design something that could work in this way? All I need is a few million writers agreeing with me that the light comma is needed, and we could make our consumer voices heard. Anybody out there want to join me?

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Banging the Digital Drum

I've just completed a collaboration with on-line site Book Drum that has given me the opportunity to enhance my short story collection We Never Had It So Good using pictures, videos, maps and music to recreate the spirit of the late 1950s, where the stories are set.

Book Drum ( has adopted what they call the companion model. Using contributors, they provide page-by-page commentaries and  multi-media content to complement a wide range of classic and contemporary titles. I'm pleased with the company I'm keeping - We Never Had It So Good, which is about growing up in a North East mining community, has taken its place on the site alongside such well-loved books as To Kill a Mocking Bird and The Catcher in the Rye, and today’s favourites such as The Kite Runner.

Talking to the editor Hector Macdonald about creating a profile for We Never Had It So Good, we both felt these particular stories would lend themselves well to this interactive treatment because on just about every page there are references to the way people were living their lives fifty years ago that could be brought to life the Book Drum way. So, for example, you can read about the boy watching the TV western Wagon Train in one story, and go to the appropriate bookmark on the site to see the opening titles and listen to the theme song  of that very programme; or you can recapture the sights of the 1950s fairground you read about in my story Fair Fight by looking at some period images that have been kindly supplied by the National Fairground Archive.

To show you what I mean, I've tried to do a sort of mini Book Drum mock-up below, using the examples I've mentioned.

Bookmark Page 23. " On Wagon Train, a telly programme I used to watch... "

Wagon Train was an American TV series that ran from 1957 in the USA and in Britain from 1958 to 1964. (See the British TV nostalgia site Whirligig.) The series was so popular in the UK that Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell wanted the General Election of 1959 held on a day when Wagon Train wasn't screened, in case it kept voters at home.

Click to listen to the Wagon Train theme tune on Spotify.
Here's the original TV intro (contemporaneous with the story).


And here are the intro and closing credits of the early 60s colour version (look out for a famous name in the credits):

Bookmark Page 133. "This booth has two giant pictures of boxers painted on boards either side of a red curtain."
Though boxing booths are no longer a feature of touring fairgrounds as a result of tighter regulation, they had been popular since the Restoration, and generally attracted good crowds in the 1950s when local lads would take on the hard-bitten professionals.

There is much more like this in the Book Drum profile for We Never Had It So Good. The whole profile took about four months to complete. Apparently the editor is very pleased with it, and intends to make a special feature on the site. Currently the profile is handily placed top right of the home page on the site. Just go to and click the cover picture for We Never Had It So Good. Let me know what you think.