Monday, 24 December 2012

A model of The Rocket

One of the nice things about being a writer is that occasionally someone who likes your work will contact you to say so, and often will bring a new perspective or something interesting from their world into yours. Such has been the case with my novel Mr Stephenson's Regret which has prompted  a fair degree of welcome correspondence since its publication, including some fascinating emails from North East railway enthusiast Colin Moran.

Like me, Colin is dismayed that North Tyneside Council have not seen fit to preserve long-time Stephenson residence Dial Cottage in West Moor as a visitor attraction in the way the National Trust have done so well with George Stephenson's birthplace in Wylam, Northumberland. Colin is currently conducting a one-man campaign on the issue, and I support him every step of the way.

What I did not know about Colin until a few days ago is that he also constructs model replicas of some of the locomotives that have been so important in our railway heritage. The other day he sent me pictures of his model of Stephenson's Rocket which I'm so impressed with that I wanted to share them with readers of this blog. Colin has kindly given me permission, and so I reproduce some of the interesting images below. I don't know anything about model railways, so I'll simply copy what Colin had to say about his model:

Thought you may be interested in viewing my " Rocket " which l think is
quite spectacular in detail and finish. Notice the rails are very different
from today. They were called " Fish Belly " because of their curved shape
between the stone supports. The rails were tied together by bars to keep
the gauge. This was before sleepers were conceived shortly after the
Liverpool/ Manchester became operative.
A clever man in Birmingham made the rails in moulded brass section, in
exactly the way the original cast iron rails were cast. I had the plinth
made and put all the the parts including cutting the blocks together. The
loco is a full working steam machine identical to the real thing in every
detail, although never steamed as l said. Its simply too good to soil, and
will remain l think in that condition, even after me some day.

Thanks again, Colin. These look wonderful.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Write wit 3

Here is the third in my series of quotes about writing by writers. For the others, see Write wit and Write wit 2

A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it. 

Don Delillo  


My passions drive me to the typewriter every day of my life, and they have driven me there since I was twelve. So I never have to worry about schedules. Some new thing is always exploding in me, and it schedules me, I don’t schedule it. It says: Get to the typewriter right now and finish this. 

Ray Bradbury 
Maya Angelou

I’ve had the same editor since 1967. Many times he has said to me over the years or asked me, Why would you use a semicolon instead of a colon? And many times over the years I have said to him things like: I will never speak to you again. Forever. Goodbye. That is it. Thank you very much. And I leave. Then I read the piece and I think of his suggestions. I send him a telegram that says, OK, so you’re right. So what? Don’t ever mention this to me again. If you do, I will never speak to you again. 

Maya Angelou

Tips for a short story writer: 

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.

  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.

  5. Start as close to the end as possible.

  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Kurt Vonnegut 

In an unmoored life like mine, sleep and hunger and work arrange themselves to suit themselves, without consulting me.

Kurt Vonnegut
Ernest Hemingway
All my life I’ve looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time. 

Ernest Hemingway

There isn’t any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The sharks are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.
Ernest Hemingway

The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.
Ernest Hemingway

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story. 

John Steinbeck

Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

John Steinbeck


You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write. 

Saul Bellow

Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open. 

Stephen King

Fiction is a lie, and good fiction is the truth inside the lie.

Stephen King

Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.

Stephen King
Tom Wolfe
 The problem with fiction, it has to be plausible. That’s not true with non-fiction. 

Tom Wolfe


Write without pay until somebody offers pay; if nobody offers within three years, sawing wood is what you were intended for.

Mark Twain


There’s nothing wrong with well-made, strongly constructed, purposeful long sentences.
But long sentences often tend to collapse or break down or become opaque or trip over their awkwardness.
They’re pasted together with false syntax.
And rely on words like ‘with’ and ‘as’ to lengthen the sentence.
They’re short on verbs, weak in syntactic vigor,
Full of floating, unattached phrases, often out of position.
And worse — the end of the sentence commonly forgets its beginning,
As if the sentence were a long, weary road to the wrong place. 

Verlyn Klinkenborg

Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money. 

George Orwell

All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. 

George Orwell

Every page was once a blank page, just as every word that appears on it now was not always there, but instead reflects the final result of countless large and small deliberations. All the elements of good writing depend on the writer’s skill in choosing one word instead of another. And what grabs and keeps our interest has everything to do with those choices. 

Francine Prose

A girl pushing a carpet sweeper under my typewriter table has never annoyed me particularly, nor has it taken my mind off my work, unless the girl was unusually pretty or unusually clumsy. 

EB White

A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper. 

EB White

There are very few thoughts or concepts that can’t be put into plain English, provided anyone truly wants to do it. But for everyone who strives for clarity and simplicity, there are three who for one reason or another prefer to draw the clouds across the sky. 

EB White

Often a word can be removed without destroying the structure of a sentence, but that does not necessarily mean that the word is needless or that the sentence has gained by its removal. If you were to put a narrow construction on the word ‘needless,’ you would have to remove tens of thousands of words from Shakespeare, who seldom said anything in six words that could be said in twenty. Writing is not an exercise in excision, it’s a journey into sound. How about ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’*? One tomorrow would suffice, but it’s the other two that have made the thing immortal. 

EB White

Susan Sontag

The only story that seems worth writing is a cry, a shot, a scream. A story should break the reader’s heart. 

Susan Sontag

Breathe in experience, breathe out poetry. 

Muriel Rukeyser

Writing is only a substitute for living.

Florence Nightingale


Thursday, 13 December 2012

All shall be published

In the latest issue of The Author (official magazine of The Society of Authors) I have an op-ed piece about digital publishing and its possible consequences for the professional writer. In the magazine my contribution has the title 'Indiscriminate tide'. I have reproduced the article below under its original title 'All shall be published'.
Around about the time of the liberal, permissive (and much-missed) 1960s a well-worn expression was 'All shall have prizes'. This encapsulated the philosophy that participation was more important than competition. In certain circles the notion of winners and losers became anathema as it was too hard on the losers and discouraged involvement. Too great an emphasis on high standards would act as a disincentive to the mediocre - that is, most of us.
There was a certain logic to these ideas, but the counter-argument was that there was no reward for genuine ability and hard work, and less motivation for the highly skilled. Also, when the time inevitably came for selection (for university, for serious sport, for a job) how could selectors effectively discern who among the crowd was the real star, the person they needed?

This is a preamble to my thinking about the way publishing seems to be going. These days it has never been harder or easier to be published. On the one hand mainstream publishers are ever more nervous of trusting new talent, or even moderate successes of the past, relying instead on high profile established names and increasingly on celebrities for their publishing and marketing efforts. On the other hand, through Amazon, Smashwords and the rest, it is possible for anyone who wishes it were so to be published, at least in digital form, without any real expenditure and, significantly, without any quality standard or objective test of merit. Marketing, of course, is left entirely to the authors.

With what seems to be the inevitable demise of printed books in the near or long term in favour of the ebook format, and the correlative decline of the traditional apparatus (agents, publishers, bookshops) what we will be left with is a few huge digital bookstores. The good news for the would-be author is that it will be the easiest task in the world to self-publish and present in these bookstores - the new axiom is 'All shall be published.' No need now for those mind-cudgelling synopses and tricky pitches; no more dollars and pounds spent posting heavy manuscripts to every possible contact in the Writers' & Authors' Yearbook; no more waiting weeks and months for a reply; no more rejection slips; no more disappointment.
Who would deny any writer the pleasure of seeing their work in print? Who could object that good writers with interesting stories who would otherwise be ignored by a celebrity-obsessed publishing sector should be given the opportunity to show the reading public what they can do, what they have done? Surely no-one: but when the barriers are down aren't we all - writers and readers alike - in danger of being drowned in the flood? How is any writer - good, bad or indifferent - going to be able to keep her head above water? to be spotted? to be picked out? to be read?

If the answer is word of mouth - or viral attention in digital-speak - I fear for the future of careful quality writing and editing. Infinite Shades of Grey, it seems, is what we have to look forward to. 

It's true there never was a Golden Age, and in writing as in other forms of the arts excellence rarely equates with popularity - which is why quality newspapers generally struggle to achieve a circulation that will keep them financially sound, and why few first-rate authors ever make it to the Rich List - but until recently it was just about possible to make a living. Now, apart from the difficulties of gaining attention in a world where the noise-to-signal ratio produces so much distortion, there is the growing problem of perceived value. 

The price of ebooks is generally way below their printed cousins (of course the production costs are much less) and the tendency is very much southwards. Hundreds of thousands of ebooks are available for free, either permanently or temporarily. Price promotions and heavy discounts are the norm, whether from the giants of distribution (Amazon, Sony) or directly from the digital publishers. One of my own publishers, Wild Wolf, regularly offers free downloads on its titles for the short term promotional gain the tactic provides - and I have personally benefited from a modest upsurge in real sales after the promotion ceases. But the cumulative effect is to devalue the printed word in general. As customers we are conditioned to become highly resistant to paying much, if at all, for what we read. 

The amateur author may be quite happy to place a zero price tag on his ebook in the hope of winning readership, and there is no gainsaying that. Except we all have children to feed. The professional has somehow to make a living, but the prospect of doing so is receding rapidly for most. High quality writing does not come exclusively from the full-time professional - of course not - but just as professional sportspeople tend to be those at the peak of excellence because a) they have been through a careful, rigorous selection process and b) they hone their skills all day and every day, such is the general case for writers. 

It would be to the detriment of mankind if economic exigency led to the literary art becoming once again the exclusive pursuit of the leisured or moneyed classes, or relegated to the province of the casual amateur. Ironically, what might be seen on the one hand as the democratisation of publishing in the digital age, accessible to all, could have the unintended effect of pushing us back into a pre-democratic age of inequality with the doors firmly shut on the aspiring professional.