Pity the Poor MP

Pity the Poor MP

The journalist Ben Goldacre has a favourite saying, and now the title of one his books:  “I think you’ll find it’s a little more complicated than that.” It applies to many things, but most of all to politics.

We ask a lot of our politicians. They work long days, and unless they escape somewhere far away, they’re never really on holiday. Family life is difficult and the divorce rate is high. A UK MP’s salary, currently £84,000, seems high, but that’s not so high if we’re trying to attract candidates who have already proved themselves highly competent in their own fields. At least it’s not if we expect them to give up their second jobs and become full-time MPs.

Once upon a time, the great majority of MPs were lawyers, doctors, farmers, journalists, trade union officials and so on, who were allowed to continue their extra-parliamentary activities so long as it didn’t interfere with their Commons work. I accept that there were MPs who effectively treated Westminster as their second job, and that wasn’t right. However, Parliament now seems filled with full-time career politicians, which can have unintended consequences. Some of those consequences are being seen now.

Nowadays, if an MP loses his or her seat at an election, they’re unemployed. Out of a job. On the dole, receiving benefits. There’s a short three-month parachute payment, but after that…? If there’s a landslide defeat, and many MPs suddenly all come onto the labour market at the same time, it can be really hard to find work. When the Conservatives were swept out of office in 1997, half of all the defeated MPs were still out of work six months later. Some lost their homes. It’s a genuinely scary prospect for an MP. As the Tory MP Charles Walker put it, “There’s nothing so ‘ex’ as an ex-MP.” That’s particularly the case in today’s job market.

So they’ll do anything they can to stop becoming ‘ex’. If that means defending the indefensible, they’ll do it. If it means supporting some dimwit to become party leader, they’ll do it. If they’re asked questions on party policy by media journalists, they’ll talk gibberish in support of the party line rather than give the honest, considered answer they’d really prefer to offer.

Most MPs – of all parties – are usually described by their constituents as “hard-working on behalf of their constituents”. They enjoy attending uncontroversial local events, or helping individual constituents with housing or financial problems. I can’t imagine they enjoy being ordered to give open public support to tripe.

Many of these MPs know there should be an election. They’ve had enough, but they’ve nowhere to go, the inevitable result of our insistence that politicians work full time. Perhaps the time has come to provide a softer landing for ex-MPs. It’s not the first thing that comes into your head when you look at the current circus act that calls itself Westminster politics. But it’s a little more complicated than that.

Not the Best Time to Publish a Novel

Back in 2020, I published my first non-fiction book, Self-Publishing, The Total Beginner’s Guide. It’s sold OK, as well it should since it costs just £0.99 as an ebook if you buy it from my own website, or £1.49 if you allow Amazon to sell it to you. (There is a print version, too, but who’s going to pay ten times that?)

The book tries to cover all the aspects of publishing that a self-publisher might need to be aware if, but there’s always something else that you might not be expecting. When it came to my first full-length crime novel, The Midnight Visitor, published on 1st March 2022, I was hit by hay-maker of seismic proportions.

It’s a waste of time trying to launch a book in the week that Putin’s Russia is invading Europe. After all, who’s thinking about gentle crime fiction just now? Who really wants to do anything other than either watch the news anxiously or hide in a cupboard and just wait for it all to be over?

Don’t get me wrong. If I could give up everything from The Midnight Visitor and end the suffering in Ukraine instead, I’d do it in a flash. Somehow, though, I don’t think Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin would be much influenced by the offer.

So it looks as if the best I can do is to “launch” the book officially at some point in the future. In the meantime, though, it’s available to buy in bookshops, on Amazon, or – best of all, since I make the most money – from my own website. There’s lots of free stuff there, too. Ukrainians can have the ebook for free.

I suppose it’s good to be reminded of the two great truths of publishing. First, wars are more important than any individual book. And second, there’s always the next time.

Treat Your Reader With Respect

Yesterday, an author posted a (since deleted) comment on my website. He’s a successful crime fiction author, and his first novel was suggested to me in 2013 by a bookseller where my own recently-published book happened to be on display beside it. It was OK, but it was a first novel and I recognised some of my own failings in it – for me, an uneven pace, a bit of a sag in the middle, and there were aspects of the central character that I wanted to know much more about. Given the build-up the book had been given by my friend in the bookshop, I confess I was slightly disappointed. No worse than that, though: it was decent, and the series – if a series it proved to be – showed promise.

I said all of that on Goodreads, adding that I’d definitely look forward to reading more in the future; I gave the book three stars. That doesn’t sound like a bad review to me.

Imagine my surprise, then, when the author himself commented on my review to say how much he disagreed with it. (I noticed he himself had given his own book 5 stars.) We corresponded privately for a bit, and I thought I’d managed to make him understand that my review wasn’t intended to be as negative as he’d taken it to be. I thought we were on good terms.

I did read other books in the series, and sure enough they were much slicker. (Remember this is all just “my personal view”.) The author worked hard, not only on his writing but also on his publicity skills (a necessary evil these days, he’s never off Twitter) and in time his detective series was snatched up on some sort of TV series contract. To be fair, it’s tailor-made for TV: it has the same appeal as Ann Cleeves’ Shetland series. I was genuinely pleased for him, and in 2018, fully five years after the original review that had upset the author so much, I posted an article on my blog congratulating him on his success, adding an excerpt from a newspaper article about it.

So I was rather surprised to discover an email in my inbox just yesterday morning (in 2022, four years later) saying that he’d left a comment on the 2018 blog. I was particularly surprised, given that the entire collection of blog posts had been archived around two years ago and was technically invisible. (Answer: someone had typed his name into Google and the archived page had appeared. He says, “a reader”.) He wrote:

“Given it was… one of the bestselling books in the country at the time, etc., I think we can safely disregard your opinion.”

So there you are, my opinion counts for nothing, unlike his own. His standard response is that he’s sold over a million books, so his opinion matters and mine doesn’t. It’s a bit like saying that Boris Johnson is always right just because a lot of people voted for him in 2019.

As if that weren’t enough, he did this on Twitter:

There’s absolutely no need to block someone on Twitter: muting achieves the same result without being deliberately offensive. I certainly have no intention of being so petty, and I’m still easy enough to contact.

Now, it goes without saying that he’s entitled to say and do what he likes, subject to all the usual legal limits, and he’s most certainly entitled to his opinion. That’s not a problem at all. (How I’m supposed to make that clear is hard to fathom when he’s blocked me, mind you.)

However, because the author has snapped and failed to acknowledge that I’ve read more of his books – which must say something about my opinion of them – I’ve now revised my opinion. There is now no chance that I will ever read, give or recommend any of this author’s books in the foreseeable future. There are many other excellent Scottish authors whose books I haven’t got round to reading yet.

It’s highly unlikely that the author (or anyone else, probably!) will read this anytime soon, but if he does, I bet, like the guy(s) in Carly Simon’s song, he’ll think this blog is about him. Of course, he’ll say he won’t care, but if by some chance he does, it’ll no doubt be with some reference to the number of books he’s sold by comparison with me.

But there’s an important moral to all of this for all writers – probably the entire human race, to be honest.

Never, never sneer at your reader or treat them with disrespect. It’s entirely unnecessary, and is the sort of thing you end up regretting.

Naming Characters

Naming characters isn’t as easy as you’d imagine. I use the random Name Generator in Scrivener a lot, although I usually reject more than a dozen possibilities before I finally find one I’m happy with.

One note of caution for budding writers: be very wary of giving a character a name ending in ‘s’ or something that sounds like it. My detective protagonist* is John Knox (I’m stuck with that), but I wince a little every time I have to add an apostrophe.

I suppose I could always follow 21s’t century convention and stick them anywhere!

Meanwhile, here’s good advice on the subject from the prolific Derbyshire crime writer Caron Allan.

*The Midnight Visitor, the new Mary Maxwell-Hume/John Knox novel, is available from March 2022.

“That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet”

William Shakespeare – Romeo and Juliet.

Shakespeare’s suggestion that names are not important is hopelessly wrong for writers. Who hasn’t sat, staring at a blank sheet of paper, agonising over what to call a character? And if it’s your protagonist, that only makes it harder. Without a character, you have no story.

Occasionally a name for a character just comes to me: Meredith Hardew from a book I plan to release next year, A Meeting With Murder: Miss Gascoigne mysteries book 1, and Cressida Barker-Powell from Criss Cross: Friendship can be Murder: Book1 published 2013 (whose name was a deliberate mutation of Parker-Bowles). These are names that sprang fully-formed into my consciousness as I began to write the story. I couldn’t even think of calling any of those people anything else. In fact this whole opening…

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Writing About Sex

This article is adapted from a version which first appeared on the Comely Bank Publishing website in 2017.

(Image: Creative Commons)

Two things are already possible: either you’ve clicked away in disgust, or you’re about to read avidly!

Sometimes it seems that a modern novel isn’t complete without a sex scene, sometimes quite a few. Writers seem to feel pressured into including some quite graphic details, often with disastrous consequences. The physiology and mechanics of the act itself are rarely critical to the plot; the key feature is the nature of the relationship between the characters. Is it tender? Is it mutually consensual? Is it part of a permanent coupling or merely a one-night stand?

Personally, I think a good sex scene should have two key components. First, the reader should be able to relate to the event – a seventeen-orgasm bonk is just a joke. I think the scenes are actually sexier where the individuals are themselves more ordinary – an extension of the Brief Encounter idea, where the very ordinariness of the Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard characters is what makes it work. The reader wants to relate to every part of the book. Athletic male six-packs and female catwalk figures don’t quite do it.

The second aspect of a good sex scene is that less is more. Alfred Hitchcock always maintained that the human mind was more afraid of what it could imagine than what it actually saw; I think the same applies to sex. Let the reader fill in the blanks for themselves – in any case, who are you, the author, to presume that you’re the expert?

Finally, two related questions for you, the reader, to ponder.

I’ve met authors who’ve passionately argued that a woman can’t possibly write from a male point of view, and vice versa. I’m not sure if that’s true or not. What I am slightly aware of – and this just my sense – is that it feels more acceptable for a woman to write explicitly about sex, including all the nuts and bolts, than it is for men. If so, I wonder if that’s a statement of society’s implicit greater sexualisation of women? One thing’s for sure: The Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award* is routinely won by male writers, sometimes even from an all-male short list.

Secondly, a woman I know has written a series of LGBT novels featuring the sexual awakening of a gay man and his relationships with others (as well as the non-physical relationships with women around him). The author is a happily married woman, and I have to assume that she has no personal experience herself.

I found my writing friend’s handling of the scenes to be both tender and appropriate – perhaps precisely because she had to leave so much to the reader’s imagination. Is it easier for straight writers to write LBGT fiction about the other gender?

*Don’t ignore this link – the writing is cringeworthy but the judges’ comments are hilarious.

Self-Publishing – The Total Beginner’s Guide

2020 marked the publication of the first dip of my toes into the sea of non-fiction with the launch of Self-Publishing – The Total Beginner’s Guide, published by Dean Park Press, the new Comely Bank Publishing imprint.

There are lots of books about self-publishing, most of which cover some aspect or other, or perhaps a range of them. The Total Beginner’s Guide doesn’t mess about – it aims to cover everything: writing, editing, covers, typesetting, producing print and ebook copies, marketing, accounting and even dealing with bad bill payers.

The book doesn’t really try to tell you how to make a fortune. Instead, it aims to help you not lose one while still chasing your dream of writing a Booker Prizewinner.

The paperback is priced at £9.99, but the real steal here is the ebook, which is deliberately priced at just £0.99. Or at least it is if you look in the right place, which is on my author website at https://www.lawrie.info/buy-the-self-publishing-guide1.html. Buying from Amazon costs you 50 pence more, thank you very much, and by the way I receive just 23p from each Amazon sale, as opposed to “most of it” via my own website. (I use an ebook download service called Gumroad to sell my ebooks.)

Self-Publishing – The Total Beginner’s Guide, by Gordon Lawrie, Dean Park Press, 366pp, ISBN 978-1912365-13-5 from all good bookshops, online and from my own website using the link above.

A Funny Thing (Well, Two Funny Things) Popped Into My Email Inbox Yesterday

I was innocently checking my emails last night: it was a Thursday, so there are always quite a few Friday Flash Fiction submissions to process. Once I’d dealt with those, I turned to the emails that are directed to my “writer” persona.

Right at the top was a blog notification from Caron Allen, a crime mystery writer I’ve only met once, but with whom I’ve shared a bit of correspondence. On this occasion, Caron’s blog – which comes highly recommended – reminisced over the (almost) ten years since the publication of her first novel, Criss Cross.

She’s actually slightly newer to the novel-writing process then I am – the “10th Anniversary Edition” of Four Old Geezers and a Valkyrie came out at the start of 2022. Much of her article relates how she tried, and failed, to land a conventional publisher, and ended up turning to self-publishing. As I’ve touched in other places, it’s quite possible that might have been Caron’s lucky break. Very, very few writers make any money from their work; all most should aim for is: to keep expenses to a minimum and not lose money; gain a bit of satisfaction; and most of all, enjoy those special moments when a reader tells you that they “found your book wonderful”. It does happen.

By those measures, I suspect Caron’s done quite well. Her books are cleverly pitched at readers who looking for old-fashioned escapist crime mysteries; the messy, gritty detail of death don’t feature much. As such, they’re slightly out of fashion, but readers like them – if that makes the slightest sense.

So I turned to the next email, which was from a company that claims to assist authors self-publish. I won’t mention the firm’s name, although I’m not sure it really deserves anonymity. Coincidentally, this one was also about self-publishing, and advertising a 10-week online Zoom course. I’ll leave you to study it for yourself.

In case you hadn’t bothered to do the calculation, that’s also an EXTRA £440 they charge for splitting the payment across six months. And if you look at the application form itself, you have to tick a box agreeing that “you might need to spend extra money on outsourcing other assets like book covers, editorial work, website building.” It’s a blank cheque.

As the drug campaigns say, just say no.

PS – If you want to save £2499.01, why not try my own Self-Publishing: The Total Beginner’s Guide? Cheapest of all here at this link.

*Also an excellent opportunity for shameless self-promotion.

Sharks in the Publishing Seas

Sharks in the Publishing Seas

I’m not proud of everything of everything I’ve ever written. I like some of my material, even quite a lot of it, but I recognise that it’s not to everyone’s taste. When you dabble in any of the arts – music, painting, sculpture, poetry, novels, anything at all – you have to get used to the odd kicking. People read your work and feel entirely qualified to tell that you’ve written a lot of tosh. A nephew once borrowed one of my novels and then wrote back to point out the areas where I clearly “wasn’t a professional author”. He got quite short shrift, but generally I ignore dross. You develop a thick skin as a writer.

But even if I recognise that some of my writing isn’t very inspiring sometimes, I’m proud of my staying power. I might write a trashy novel, but I’ll finish the entire trashy novel right through to the bitter end. As a result, I have a couple of truly atrocious manuscripts that spend most of their time buried deep in a lead box many feet underground in case they should accidentally escape. Just occasionally, though, I have a little fun with them.

For I have an alter ego. I can’t tell you what that alter ego’s name is, but my other me could be either male, female or gender-fluid. Let’s for the moment give my other me the name ‘Chris’, and you’ll get the idea. Let’s go the whole hog and call me ‘Chris Smith’. What ‘Chris Smith’ then occasionally does is submit one of these awful (but complete) manuscripts to a vanity publisher, to see what happens.

Before we go any further, it’s important to understand what a vanity publisher is, and that, although there are superficial similarities, it’s actually the opposite of self-publishing. Self-publishing authors pay all the costs of producing a book – editing, cover design, printing and so on – but then the books themselves belong to the author. So, too, do the rights to the book, which means that if Steven Spielberg wants to turn your book into a blockbuster movie, you can sell him the rights and earn money that way, too.

Vanity publishing firms offer to publish your book for you. They look like ordinary publishing firms, but they ask you to “contribute” part of the production cost. In fact, they generally ask you to provide a very large part of the production costs, something like 100% perhaps. Just in case the book’s any good, the vanity publishing firm retains the rights to your book, and the books are theirs, too. They’ll be nice to you, though; they’ll give the author a 40% discount on their own book. Get the idea? Vanity publishers are the spawn of the devil.

There are black lists (they’re known as “red lists” in the trade) of vanity publishing firms, but most people who write books will have heard of at least one of them. For fear of legal nasties, let’s not name them, but instead we’ll invent a firm which we’ll call Morris MacDoggie. So, just to see what would happen, I sent one of my worst manuscripts (in a perverse way I’m rather proud of them) to MacDoggie’s “for consideration”.

What then happened was entirely predictable. I received a letter from MacDoggie’s which stated:

Your manuscript was brought to our attention at the latest editorial board meeting where we discussed its potential, and the possibility of it being published. Having read all the reports and taken note of the editors’ opinions, I can confidently state that your work was a captivating and enthralling story that will resonate with readers from beginning to end as they follow the protagonists on a journey that will define their relationship.This book will also explore the many issues that are comparable to social issues today.

This assessment of my manuscript, i.e. “captivating and enthralling”, is risible: the novel is, in fact, dreadful.

But the kicker in the response lay not in the response letter, but in the accompanying “contract offer”. Sure, they were offering to publish my book, but only if I myself made a “contribution” of $3,100 (I sent it to the US office). Morris MacDoggie would keep the rights, including any sell-on rights should anyone wish to film the thing, for goodness’ sake, and they get to set the cover price. Morris MacDoggie could also instruct me to do any promotion of the book at their request.

For that, I would get 25% of the sale price of each book. I would receive 20 complimentary copies of my own terrible book, but thereafter I’d have to pay the same price as any bookshop – in other words, I’d get a 40% discount.

That “25%” figure is actually suspiciously high. Normally, commercial authors might reasonably expect around 10% of the sale price. So I’m guessing that the book would only be printed on demand: in other words, it wouldn’t exist unless someone specifically asked for it – such as the author. When you looked at the contract more closely, they didn’t commit to distributing the book at all. And if a publisher holds the rights but effectively stops anyone else from buying your book, I’d say they’re not publishing your book at all. Believe it or not, Morris MacDoggie wanted first refusal on all my future writing as well.

Of course I turned the “offer” down. To be fair, sending dross manuscripts to firms like Morris MacDoggie is a bit like bear-baiting, and should probably be outlawed. Perhaps I ought to apologise, but these firms are sitting like hungry alligators (or sharks, if you prefer) waiting to eat up vulnerable authors like you and me. Fall into the clutches of one of these predators and say goodbye forever to your cherished book.

PS – If you’re curious, the manuscript in question was called “In Your Shoes“, and featured a couple of teachers who take drugs at a party one night and end up in each others’ bodies. Slowly, they have to learn to live with the different expectations placed on men and women in society. Although I made it to the end, it just proved too difficult to make it work well, at least for me. Aware of what happens in a school, I got too bogged down with trying to stop them being discovered. The intimate scenes, including the sex scenes, were probably the best bits.

Friday Flash Fiction

Friday Flash Fiction

Although I like to think of myself as a writer, to many readers around the world I’m probably more familiar as editor of the flash fiction online publication Friday Flash Fiction. Friday Flash Fiction – usually referred to by its followers as “FFF” – began as a conversation thread LinkedIn in 2013, but quickly outgrew that social media platform, and in the intervening years a total of over 10,000 stories and poems have appeared on Friday mornings.

The beating heart of FFF is its ultra-short fiction section, i.e. fiction of 75-100 words. (It therefore includes “drabbles”, but drabbles have exactly 100 words.) The essential challenge of Friday Flash Fiction is to write a new, fresh story each week in time for publication on the next upcoming Friday at 7:00 am UK time, although nowadays there are so many stories to publish that a second batch is published at 10:30 to give each story a few hours on the front page. There’s a lot of reading there, even although the stories are short. The one thing we insist on is that the story is freshly-written that week, and isn’t a re-hash of something that’s appeared elsewhere previously.

Editing takes up a lot of my time, but it’s hugely rewarding. I’m well aware that, for many writers, this is their first venture into creative writing, and seeing their work validated nby being published for the world to read sets them off in more ambitious directions. We have a number of younger writers; we don’t reveal ages, though, everyone is judged the same. We also have a surprising number of writers whose first language is not English: perhaps they’re learning, and being encouraged to write by a professor or tutor; perhaps they simply want to brush up their skills.

I’m aware that there are other reasons for writing, too. Writing can be great therapy for individuals currently finding life difficult for one reason or another. Recently, one of our contributors has been posting material from Ukraine, where she personally has witnessed rocket attacks and bombs at close range – and yet she wants to express herself in fiction terms. She’s good, too.

We don’t accept everything submitted, but I want to encourage, not create some sort of contest to see who gets published and who doesn’t. What makes for good flash fiction is for another post, but in general so long as it’s a story written in decent English, isn’t tasteless or nasty, and meets our fairly obvious requirements to complete the submission form correctly, we’ll publish it.

I said that the vast majority of writers appreciate the hours (and a little financial support) that go into editing any publication, whether electronic or in print, but there will always be exceptions. Writers are artists, after all, and throwing toys out of the pram isn’t unknown for creative types when they feel slighted, rejected or treated unreasonably. Friday Flash Fiction offers a feedback service for which we charge a minimal fee (£5.00 is nothing, believe me) and yet there are still those who think “Was my story rejected because it was ––?” isn’t a request for feedback. A good tip for any writer is to ask yourself: what is the publisher getting from my story? And if the answer is “nothing”, then expect nothing in return.

But that sort of writer is mercifully rare. Please do check out FFF, and if you haven’t already done so, try sending something in. It’s fantastically good for your writing technique, compelling you to make use of every word, to treat each one with reverence, and to learn the value of the unspoken extras to be found in the spaces between them. And it’s only 100 words, for goodness’ sake – what have you got to lose?