Wednesday, 7 January 2015

If I Only Had Time

The current Winter issue of The Author (magazine of the Society of Authors) carries an article of mine under the heading Where Do You Get Your Ideas? The article is a slightly abridged version of one I originally titled If I Only Had Time. I thought you might like to see the full version of the article so I have included it below.

If I only had time

Imagine a patient saying to a doctor at the end of a consultation, 'I could have been a doctor you know, I've often thought about that, but somehow I never got round to it. I've never really had the time to do it.' Unlikely, yet substitute one profession for another - writer for doctor - and you'll find it happens a lot, or it does in my experience.

Time, apparently, is the only essential requirement for writing a book. Oh, and ideas, but they're no real obstacle. 'I've got a headful. The life I've had... The stories I could tell... If I only had the time to put them down I could have a best-seller. You should come round sometime, I'll give you plenty of ideas for your next book. You can pay me commission.'

I've perfected the strained smile on hearing these words - I'm sure every writer has - and I've learned the futility of counter-argument, though I'm often tempted to quote the late journalist and author Gene Fowler: 'Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank piece of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.'

I guess for most people most professions - doctor, lawyer, banker - are a mystery, but writing is something we all do to a certain extent, if only to update our status on Facebook. And of course we've all done creative writing - the faded pages of the school exercise books still stacked somewhere in the loft are testament to a talent shown from an early age - so there's no mystery to it, and no anatomy to learn, or jurisprudence, or how to make sense of a balance sheet. Plus, you can read a book in a couple of days so how hard can it be to write one?

My urge to rage is sometimes strong: a sublimation of my inner demand to be given due credit for all the time (yes), ingenuity, craftsmanship and sheer bloody hard work (bordering on agony) that I've put into producing a book. I want to take the hapless reader through every page, every line, to deconstruct and forensically analyse, disinter the learning beneath, reveal the artist at work (how he plays with tone, colour, variation; how brilliantly he achieves balance and synthesis from thesis and antithesis); to hold my jewel to the light and have my reader marvel at its distilled beauty. Sorry, am I gripping your arm too tight?

Perhaps the real reason I do talks is not to sell my books (another oft-crushed hope) but to offer myself up for such examination, to lay myself open to questions that might begin: 'I was intrigued by the way you revealed motive without needing to express it directly in the words and thoughts of the lead characters - could you say more about how you achieved such a feat?' Unfortunately questions like that never occur. 'Where do you write?' 'How do you find a publisher?' Questions like that occur. And during the post-talk tea ritual, as I wait in shy expectation behind the pile of books that always turns out to be too optimistically high, people sidle up to tell me of their own frustrated literary ambitions. My excruciating chart-topper is the WI stalwart who said in all seriousness: 'I have a fantastic idea for a novel; all I'm missing is the words. Do you do ghost-writing?'

I am anticipating sympathetic tuts and nods from fellow writers, but as we close in our group hug maybe we are turning our backs on an essential truth, that the only real difference between us and the literary wannabes is that we actually have a book or two with our names on the cover. So what? What do any of us have a right to expect beyond a cursory nod of acknowledgement for the production of a new work, the equivalent of a pat on the head for the boy who has done his homework. Less perhaps, for at least the boy was given the homework by someone who demanded it. Whoever asked us to sit down at a desk and open a vein to write copiously in our own blood? Why should we complain about how difficult it is to write a book when many might prefer we found it impossible.

Has there ever been a banner headline that announced The world needs a new book? Of course not; there are millions on offer already, far more than the world could ever hope to read. In fact what my experience shows is that there may be more people out there with the vague ambition to write a book than those with any desire to read one. Or maybe they just don't have the time.

No. I can't let the cynic in me close this argument. I must reach for a reason, a justification for all those hours spent on squeezing out the words and shaping something meaningful from them. Maybe I shouldn't dismiss as unimportant the simple fact that so many others have thought about writing a book for themselves but have never done it. Their very number suggests there is a perceived status to being an author even if it's somewhat below being a professional footballer or appearing on The X Factor, among other favourites of the wishful thinker. And I should comfort myself with the notion that if people did not spend half their time wallowing in daydreams they might actually get around to producing something. So I'll continue smiling as I listen to another would-be-should-be-could-have-been, I'll even nod my head in a show of empathy while, in my mind only, I will say to my new friend: Keep dreaming the dream, but for pity's sake don't pick up the pen. We have quite enough competition as it is.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Funny things happen at talks

When I do talks and readings I set out to entertain the audience. They also amuse me on many occasions; here are just a few examples from the last couple of months.

Deep listening

I received an invitation from a Rotary Club to speak at their lunchtime meeting. We all enjoyed a good traditional lunch of roast beef and yorkshire pudding followed by custard and crumble washed down by some diners with generous glasses of red wine. After a smattering of Rotary business I was welcomed and stood for my talk. I noticed, within thirty seconds of starting, that one senior Rotarian near the front was fast asleep with his mouth open, snoring gently. I pressed on regardless and enjoyed a good response from members, evidenced by a lively Q & A directly after my talk and a round of applause that awoke the sleeping Rotarian. He was immediately called upon by the President to deliver the vote of thanks which he did with alacrity, a grateful smile and fulsome praise for my excellent presentation. One of the best he'd heard, apparently.

Book signing

I never presume that people want their books signed, always wait to be asked. One very enthusiastic lady asked me to write a message in the one she'd bought. 'Of course,' and I turned to the flyleaf with my pen poised, mentally composing something suitable for the occasion. She beat me to it, and started to dictate: 'Please write Happy birthday, my darling Gemma'. I wrote this down faithfully. 'Er, OK, you want me to sign this?' 'Yes, put Love from Grandma xxx' I added the line to her direction. 'Now do you want me to sign?' 'No, that'll be fine, thank you,' and she went off happily with her book.

Sure-fire best-seller

On a regular basis I have members of the audience coming up to me after talks to tell me that they too could have been a writer, but they never had the time to put pen to paper. My all-time excruciating favourite occurred recently after a talk to the WI. A woman in her eighties rushed up to the front to collar me. 'Do you do ghost-writing?' she asked in all seriousness. 'I've got some fantastic ideas for a novel. All I'm missing is the words.'

Monday, 13 October 2014

As Close As You Are To Me - The Cover Completed

As a follow-up to my last on briefing the artist and reviewing the cover image in progress, here is the completed though low-res version of the front cover for 'As Close As You Are To Me'.

I'm very pleased with how the artist Peter Fussey has handled the brief. Particularly I like the treatment of the girl's hair (Alex, the lead character who observes the girl, notes especially the way the wind slightly lifts her fine, blonde hair to reveal her Maltese Cross earring), the water (always difficult to achieve in illustration - this looks fab in hi-res), and the slight scruffiness of the grass and paving, so typical of a city park. Peter has also answered my concerns about the title text possibly obscuring the image by providing a light, open font that remains clear for the reader without masking the image in any way.

Not much left for the publisher to do now. We are on track for a publication launch date of 6th November. Hope you'll bear me in mind when visiting your favourite local or on-line bookshop.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

As Close As You Are To Me - The Cover Emerges

One of the most exciting phases in the production of a new book is your first glimpse of the cover art, especially when your publisher uses the services of such a talent as Peter Fussey, who also created my covers for 11:59 and Mr Stephenson's Regret.

Coming up with a brief for the artist can be tricky because the idea is not merely to create an attractive cover but to produce an image that will say something about the story inside and send some subtle sensory signals about the book as a whole. It's especially tricky for a psychological mystery, which the novel is, because you don't want inadvertently to provide a 'spoiler' with the choice of image, though you do hope to tease the reader's interest.

For this one I felt we should produce a telling image from the first scene in the novel, which is where the inciting incident lies. The central character Alex is in a city park, in a state of abstraction. He is brought to a sort of stunned consciousness by the appearance of his daughter walking alone through the park. Why the surprise? Ruth has been dead for over a year.

Here is the brief I gave to the artist:

I suggest the cover artwork refers to the first scene in the book, where Alex sees 'Ruth' in the park, though the viewpoint I'm proposing takes us closer to the girl than he would have been from his position on the park.  

An unseasonably warm early October day in the park. We see in the foreground, as if we were just about able to reach out and touch her, the head-and-shoulders back view of a young girl of 19-20 walking through the park. We can tell she is attractive ('Swedish-looking'; think a young Agnetha from ABBA) but we can see little of her face beyond a cheekbone and her ear beneath her wispy blonde hair, lifted slightly by the breeze. She is wearing a silver Maltese Cross earring with rounded edges on the cross-pieces and a couple of short silver links, just enough for the earring to dangle slightly. (No need to make the earring too obvious as long as it's there.) She is wearing a simple green coat and we may just be able to see that she is carrying a shouldered handbag with a single strap. She has a simple but elegant affluence about her.

I'm not sure how much of the park we may be able to see in the background, but if possible it would be good to see the suggestion of a fountain in the distance (think Trafalgar Square fountain but very much scaled down to city park size). In the story the girl runs her fingers through the waters of the fountain as she passes, so the surface level would be at a height for her to do that comfortably.

If it's difficult for perspective reasons to get the fountain into the background I'm not too concerned - much more interested in getting the girl right; she is very much the focus of the picture, and we need to feel the presence of the unseen observer. 

Peter concentrated first on the girl, and a few days ago sent me this sketch:

I was very pleased with it - very close to my mental image of 'Ruth'. The only concern I had for a while is that we see Ruth from the rear left. In my text the girl appears from the left of where Alex is sitting in the park, and just as she enters his peripheral vision makes a turn to her left and walks away from him. Following the logic of the text we should be seeing the girl from behind her right shoulder. Peter offered to 'flip' the image but as I reconsidered I realised it is better to have the image turned 'into' the cover rather than facing out of it. As it happens, I was checking the publisher's proof at this time. My solution? A minor redraft to have the girl entering from the right of Alex in he park. Some of you may consider me very anal retentive to insist the cover image follows the logic of the narrative exactly, and of course I am aware that 99% of readers would never notice this detail, but it would bother me forever.

Peter has now almost finalised the image and has sent me this near-complete version to check

I really like this and hope the readers will too. Peter told me he planned to add some people around the fountain but I have asked him not to - I'm sure that would distract from our subject; as I said in my brief I really want the girl to be the focus of the composition.

The only concern I have now is where the title and author name will go. My previous Wild Wolf novels have had my name running over the top of the image and the title running across the bottom. That worked for the previous covers but I think we may need some extension of scenery here so that the name does not obscure the head of the girl. I've raised this with the artist and I'm sure he'll come up with a good solution.

So the proofs have been checked and the cover almost done. 'As Close As You Are To Me' is scheduled for publication by the end of October. We may be a week or so out but it will certainly be in the shops in good time for Christmas. I hope you have it on your list.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

50 Stories & Snippets Extract 6

Here's the latest extract from my new ebook publication for speakers and trainers in the Almost Free series, available on Kindle and Nook:50 Stories & Snippets for Conference & Workshop Presentations. 

Eight Proverbs

Four things come not back: the spoken word, the sped arrow, the past life, the neglected opportunity.
Saudi Arabian proverb
Seize opportunity by the beard, for it is bald behind.
Bulgarian proverb
Between saying and doing many a pair of shoes is worn out.
Italian proverb
If you want a thing done, go. If not, send. The shortest answer is doing.
English proverb
Thinking well is wise; planning well, wiser; but doing well is wisest and best of all.
Persian proverb
A journey of a thousand miles starts in front of your feet.
Chinese proverb
The beginning is the half of every action.
Greek proverb
Abundance is from activity.
Turkish proverb

Using the proverbs

The old management truism has it that you must 'walk the walk' not just 'talk the talk'. A cliché, but it's true. An individual or an organization may be brimming with ideas, may be ambitious for success, but will never become truly effective unless properly organised for action. The world (as demonstrated by the international breadth of the sources above) is full of 'would haves', 'could haves' that go no further because of a failure to act, to act first, or to be organized for the opportunities that emerge from the creative process.
Use these eight proverbs from around the world to underline memorably how important it is to act as well as talk about what you are going to do.

Famous Failures

From artists to sports stars to world leaders some of the most successful people in history have been labelled at an early stage as failures or no-hopers; here are just a few of them.

Fred Astaire made a screen test for MGM in 1933. The memo from the testing director to the studio read: 'Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.' After he made it in movies the Hollywood star kept that memo over the fireplace in his plush Beverly Hills home.

Lucille Ball was told by the head tutor of the John Murray Anderson Drama School, where she started studying in 1927: 'Try any other profession.'

The Beatles were turned down for a recording contract by Decca Records in 1962, weeks before their first hit with EMI's Parlophone. Decca's evaluation: 'We don’t like their sound. Groups of guitars are on their way out... The Beatles have no future in show business.'

Michael Caine heard his headmaster confidently predict: 'You will be a labourer all your life.'

Winston Churchill was rebellious by nature and had a poor academic record, attracting censure and punishment at three different independent schools that he attended. He also had to overcome a speech impediment. Nevertheless he became Britain's most celebrated Prime Minister whose stirring public speeches galvanised the war effort. One of his most famous included the words: 'Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never - in nothing, great or small, large or petty - never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.'

Charles Darwin earned the disapproval of his father when he gave up his medical career. He told his son: 'You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat catching.' In his autobiography, Darwin wrote: 'I was considered by all my masters, and my father, a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard of intellect.'

Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor because he 'lacked imagination and had no good ideas.' Many of his early business ventures failed and he was bankrupted more than once. His proposal for a theme park (Disneyland) was rejected by the city of Anaheim on the grounds that it would only attract riffraff.

Albert Einstein did not talk until the age of four and could not read until he was seven. His parents considered him 'sub-normal' and he was described by a teacher as 'mentally slow, unsociable, and adrift forever in foolish dreams.' He was expelled from school and refused admittance to the Zurich Polytechnic School. He made up later for his slow start.

Vincent Van Gogh sold only one painting during his life - this was to the sister of one of his friends, for which she paid only 400 francs. Despite his commercial failure he completed over 800 paintings, many of which are now regarded as the most valuable in the world of art, worth many millions.

Abraham Lincoln was several times unemployed in his early working life and failed as both a businessman and a lawyer before he turned to politics. He was defeated in his first attempt for the legislature, defeated in his first attempt to be nominated for Congress, defeated in his application to be Commissioner of the General Land Office, defeated in the senatorial election of 1854, defeated in his efforts for the vice-presidency in 1856, and defeated in the senatorial election of 1858. He did, however, become the sixteenth President of the USA and is one of the four great statesmen commemorated by having their faces carved from rock at Mount Rushmore.

Louis Pasteur as an undergraduate student was regarded as mediocre at best, ranking fifteenth out of twenty-two students in chemistry.

Elvis Presley was fired after only one performance at the Grand Old Opry. The venue manager Jim Denny told Elvis: 'You ain’t going nowhere, son. You ought to go back to driving a truck.'

Babe Ruth became baseball's most famous player for his home run record, but for years he also held the record for strikeouts. He hit 714 home runs and struck out 1,330 times in his career. Babe was philosophical about this: 'Every strikeout brings me closer to the next home run,' he said.

Stan Smith was rejected as a ball boy for a Davis Cup tennis match because he was 'too awkward and clumsy'. He went on to win Wimbledon and the US Open as well as eight Davis Cup Finals.

Frank Winfield Woolworth was not permitted to serve customers when he worked in a dry goods store because, his boss said: 'he didn’t have enough sense.'


Using the stories

Advice from others can be crucial in forging a career, but negative opinion can be destructive. Fortunately what all of the people above demonstrated in abundance was a self-belief together with a determination to progress along their chosen path.

Use these examples both as a reminder that 'expert opinion' should not always be taken at face value and, more importantly, that success rarely comes easy but opportunities are available where talent and focused dedication unite.

More extracts to come, but if you can't wait or you want them all in one published collection you can download the book to your Kindle or Nook. 


Wednesday, 24 September 2014

50 Stories & Snippets Extract 5

Here's the latest extract from my new ebook publication for speakers and trainers in the Almost Free series, available on Kindle and Nook:50 Stories & Snippets for Conference & Workshop Presentations. 

Charlie's Dream


It would certainly have been no surprise if the poor English boy Charlie Chaplin, who grew up to be the great silent movie actor and producer, had instead become in real life the little tramp he portrayed many times on screen. His childhood was desperately poor. Charlie's mother was eventually committed to an asylum and Charlie himself was twice sent to the workhouse before the age of nine. Yet throughout this time of hardship he was sustained by a dream.
'You have to believe in yourself, that's the secret. Even when I was in the orphanage, when I was roaming the street trying to find enough to eat, even then I thought of myself as the greatest actor in the world. I had to feel the exuberance that comes from utter confidence in yourself. Without it, you go down to defeat.'
Charlie Chaplin, actor, filmmaker, writer (1889-1977)

Using the story

Charlie Chaplin's is the archetypal rags-to-riches story and the actor is a role model of triumph over adversity. His is an example of determination fuelled by a personal vision and the self-confidence to reach his long-term goal.
Use this story to show how a clear vision can be as important to individuals as to organizations. Dreams can be a motivational force, a springboard to successful action, even when the odds seem stacked against.

The Child Within You


50 Stories & Snippets author David Williams and his wife Paula were collecting their thoughts after a lively training workshop which involved adults making models and collages as they envisioned the future. A couple of cleaners came into the room to tidy up. Surveying the scene they innocently asked, 'Have you been running a nursery class in here today?'

'What a distressing contrast there is between the radiant intelligence of the child and the feeble mentality of the average adult.'

Sigmund Freud, Austrian founder of psychoanalysis (1856-1939)


'Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.'

Pablo Picasso, Spanish painter (1881-1973)


Using the story


A dynamic organization will be constantly searching for imaginative approaches, different encounters and new ways of thinking.
A creative environment keeps us fresh and imaginative. It encourages metaphoric thinking, stimulates all the senses, values fun and humour, tolerates (even embraces) risk-taking and avoids the stultifying influence of 'business as usual' habits and practice. Sometimes it helps to think like a child.
Use this story and accompanying quotations to show how we sometimes need to throw off the assumptions of our adulthood to find fresh ideas. You may like to precede or follow up the story with a participative exercise in creativity such as the one briefly described above.
More extracts to come, but if you can't wait or you want them all in one published collection you can download the book to your Kindle or Nook. 


Monday, 15 September 2014

50 Stories & Snippets Extract 4

Here's the latest extract from my new ebook publication for speakers and trainers in the Almost Free series, available on Kindle and Nook:50 Stories & Snippets for Conference & Workshop Presentations. 

Breaking Through

The watching crowd marvelled and clapped as the karate black belt instructor sliced through bricks with his bare right hand. At the end of the performance several people came up to ask the master how he achieved the feat. The instructor said: 'If you want to put your hand through a brick, you cannot do it by aiming at the surface of the brick. You have to aim at a point well beyond the brick. That way you ensure that you strike through a surface that your body would naturally flinch from. Reach beyond your target and you will make that target.'
'It is a paradoxical but profoundly true and important principle of life that the most likely way to reach a goal is to be aiming not at the goal itself but at some more ambitious goal beyond it.'
Arnold Toynbee British economist, reformer (1852-1883)

Using the story

Though much maligned, targets provide the impetus for improvement and an object of focus for action. Problems occur when targets are either too easy to achieve, thus representing no challenge, or are impossibly difficult, leading to frustration and a feeling of failure. The story of the karate instructor provides an interesting angle on the notion of a target that is more like a vision, an imagined picture of the ideal that inspires an effort to reach just beyond what is actually needed to ensure the effort is fully made.
Use this story and quotation to reinforce the importance of creating challenging targets, beyond what you may need to achieve in practice but not plainly out of reach.

Changing Times

Soon after taking over the role of Chief Executive at IBM in 1993 Lou Gerstner made a company address and said: 'The last thing IBM needs is a vision.'
Two years later, as the computer manufacturer was trying to survive turbulent times, Lou Gerstner declared: 'What IBM needs right now is a vision.'

Using the story

An organization without a clear vision in times of turbulence and change is like a boat without a rudder. Lou Gerstner's first statement may have been a pot-shot at the 1990s fashion for management consultancy and the often hollow management-speak that emerged from it, but he eventually realized that, stripped of verbiage, a well-articulated vision can indeed be a driver of progress.
Use this story to show how good leaders come to recognize the importance of vision, even if it sometimes takes them a little while to get there.
More extracts to come, but if you can't wait or you want them all in one published collection you can download the book to your Kindle or Nook.