Monthly Archives: December 2012

Welcome to Mirkwood

I’d probably be about fourteen when I first heard of Mirkwood. It was on a walking holiday in North Yorkshire and as we entered a forestry plantation the chap who was leading us said ‘this always reminds me of Mirkwood.’
So I asked what Mirkwood was and he mentioned ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ and other things and somehow there was magic hung around the name.
I’d be fifteen, perhaps sixteen, when I inveigled family into buying me ‘Lord of the Rings’ for Christmas. I read it in three evenings! Indeed on one of those evenings a young lady approached me with other plans and I confess I was so far into the story that I stuck with the book. Perhaps if I’d taken her up I’d have been writing in a different genre.
Still, life goes on, time passes. Early this year I’d been looking at the map and had seen what seemed to be an interesting walk, down a path from ‘Little Tesco’ to the Abbey, then follow a path which criss-crosses under the railway to Dalton. Then via ‘St Helens’ (No not the one with the Rugby Team), along Rakesmoor, down through town to Morrisons, along the docks, and out along the old line and home. It’s not an outrageously long walk, fifteen miles tops, but it never happened because I never got a decent day to do it in. It wasn’t a walk I wanted to do in the rain, and this year has presented us with little else.
So today, after feeding round and doing a few bits and bobs, I grabbed a sandwich for lunch and set off. It wasn’t what you’d call beautiful weather, but there was some blue sky and it almost certainly wouldn’t rain. Admittedly I was going to run out of daylight before I hit Morrisons but I knew the last bit well enough and it was a path with no traffic.
A good walk, I enjoyed it. But it was when I got to St Helens that I was on ground I hadn’t seen for years. I’ve never known that area well. But I’ve not been there since Keith sold up and retired. Some years before, perhaps in the late 1980s, we bought some milk quota from him. Back then you had to do some sort of tenancy arrangement where you rented land with milk quota and returned it without the milk quota. It’s amazing the bizarre hoops you’ve got to jump through to run a business when both the EU and the UK government get into full legislative mode. Anyway, technically you had to ‘occupy the land’. So I talked it over with Keith and a quiet Simi cow, who [presumably] rejoiced in the name of Clover, and her three calves, travelled to St Helens to ‘occupy’ the land in question.
The required number of weeks later I arrived with a tractor and cattle trailer to fetch them home, our legal obligations fulfilled and bureaucratic severity of an inordinate number of mandarins assuaged. Keith had put Clover and her brood onto a ‘handy bit of land’. Some surfaces were horizontal, some were not quite vertical, but you got an awful lot of grass per ‘plan acre’ and there was always a dry spot to lie, always a damp place which had grass even in a drought year, and there was always shelter whichever way the wind was blowing. It was the sort of land which is useful to have but you don’t boast about. Anyway it was beautifully manicured by Clover and a collection of bonny dairy heifers and looked remarkably picturesque.
Today I walked past it and thought, ‘There’s something familiar about that land’. And then the memory flooded back. Except now, someone has planted trees all over it. Now looking at the spacing of the young trees in their tree guards, this isn’t going to produce the ‘Greenwood of Merry England’. No, at this sort of spacing, we’ve going to get Mirkwood.
As I continued on my walk it struck me that this sort of revelation is becoming more common. The world I walk through is no longer quite the world as I remember it. Not all changes are good, not all are bad, and some I’ve probably not even noticed. And this is in places I’ve lived all my life. Lord alone knows what I’d see if I revisited the place in North Yorkshire where I first heard of Mirkwood. It’s probably been clear felled and replanted by now.
Yet, whilst the world I live in refuses to match my memories of how it should be, Mirkwood itself remains as magical and as mysterious as it always was. I’ve got to the age where parts of Tolkien’s Middle Earth are more real than places to the other side of my home town.
Perhaps here we hit the core of what it means to be a writer. The Los Angeles of Raymond Chandler and Philip Marlowe is more real for many people than the modern American city of the same name. Perhaps we ought to be careful about the worlds we create, as we get older we might end up living there.

Oh yes, and before I forget, Happy New Year.

Looking for a job playing honky tonk piano in a bordello

When you do freelance writing it always pays to keep an eye on the markets. You no sooner get your feet under the table with one magazine than the editor moves on. The new broom who comes in wants sparkling new talent and you’re not sparkly enough. So in reality as a freelance you’re always looking for new work.
Anyway I’d drifted into other fields for a while but as some of them finished, I thought I’d better get into freelancing again. I expected to find things had changed. Certainly there is more web-based work; it seems to be the biggest market. There are even people out there who’ll pay you to write their blog for them. Mind you, at $15 per 1000 words, it barely puts your amateur status at risk.
One phrase I saw far too often was ‘we are an enthusiastic young company so we will not be able to pay you at lot (or even ‘not be able to pay you’) until the company grows.’
Still there were three things I pretty soon picked up on.

At one time breaking into the US market was something I aspired to. American jobs paid well. Well, looking at the rates on offer, I’d say that the US market is pretty well saturated unless you’re really specialist. Freelance rates were never brilliant, but they’re worse than I remember them.

The next thing that struck me was looking at the UK market. Working my way methodically through Google, it was notable just how many sites were offering work to graduates. If you’ve got a good degree, especially Masters or better, then there’s a good living out there for you, writing essays for students at university who feel that the whole ‘work’ thing is something they can dispense with.

Still I wasn’t really aware how low the job could get until I came across two jobs offered. One was re-writing title descriptions on adult websites. The other was at https://www.odesk.com/o/jobs/job/_~01705867a41d490031/
Someone needs 6 Amazon Reviews written and submitted from different accounts. For this they’re willing to pay the princely sum of $10.
I don’t know whether to feel sorry for someone who hasn’t got enough friends willing to write glowing reviews of their book for free, or to feel annoyed that this person is so cheapskate they assume you’ll be happy to dump your principles for $10.

So at the end of the process I was left feeling that perhaps I should have kept up with the piano when I was younger. Playing Honky Tonk in a bordello is starting to look like a step up from freelance writing.

A Story for Christmas?

The thing about Christmas, it’s such a chuffing faff. Charging about getting everything ready, it’s just far too stressful. Yet somehow stuff keeps leaking through out of the past. If you aren’t careful the real Christmas creeps up on you and before you know where you are the commercialism is lost and the retailers have to turn up the canned music to drown out the memories and keep you spending.
So I thought I’d give you four stories for Christmas, just little ones, nothing special.

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A couple of days ago I was at our local homeless shelter. It’s nice; an awful lot of folk remember them at Christmas. People are very generous; they have had people turn up with a turkey on Christmas Eve. It’s great, don’t knock it, but what can you do with a turkey (often frozen) on Christmas Eve? In their situation they say thank you, and pop it in the freezer to keep for later in the year. What they do is dig deep and buy Turkey crowns, which they are already cooking on Christmas Eve. So I mentioned this to a friend at a neighbouring church and during their carol concert he stood up and explained the problem. I got a phone call; they’d raised £75 so the Homeless Shelter would have the cash to buy the Turkey crowns. So I dropped the money off. Whilst I was there people were coming in with home made cakes, a box of Christmas goodies suitable for a family, one local businessman brought in cases of toilet rolls and paper towels (A toilet roll is for life, not just for Christmas).

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Another story is from a few years back. A friend of mine, she’s a Jehovah’s Witness, and before she emigrated she used to do the whole door-stepping thing.
She and another lass were working their way through one part of town, a nice enough part of town, and they were working along a street of pleasant semi-detached houses. It was a seriously cold evening just before Christmas Eve. There was snow on the ground, an icy wind, the works, and to be frank I suspect they were loosing heart. Anyway they’d do the last semi-detached house and finish the street. First half of the house was all in darkness, the second half they knocked on the door and the ‘gentleman of the house’ came to the door, stark naked.
My friend Kay kept him talking, on his doorstep, in the icy cold, for nearly half an hour. Finally she just glanced at him, said “I think it’s turned blue, you better get inside before it drops off, Merry Christmas,” and let him escape.
Apparently the two young women were still giggling about it when they got home.
Never forget that Jehovah’s witnesses can include almost sensible married ladies of a certain age who’ve seen it all anyway.

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And another story, back a lot more years. I was a kid at the time. On a small dairy farm, Christmas day can be hard work. My mum would be up an hour early to get the Rayburn turned up so the turkey could go in, and then go out and feed calves. My Dad would have been up an hour early so that he could get finished milking, mucking out and feeding stock and be back in the house for about 11am.
So we tended to open our presents after 11am. Then it’d be dinner, and a brief snooze in front of the fire, and out after the Queens Speech to feed round and milk. A side effect of this was that you were always ready for your tea on Christmas Day. You got it about 6pm and you were hungry.
Anyway, back to the year in question; let’s get on with the story. My Dad has started morning milking, it’s as black as the ace of spades because it’s barely 5am and a retired neighbour walks into the shippon where my Dad is milking. Obviously the first thing you think is that something’s wrong. Not a bit of it, with the words “My kids are grown up now, yours are still young enough to want their Dad about on Christmas morning,” our neighbour picked up a shovel and went and started doing the mucking out. By 9am the work was finished, and handing a box of Milk Tray to my Mum, and a bottle of milk stout to my Dad, he wished them ‘Merry Christmas’ and walked home for his breakfast.

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And a last story, from even further back. I might not even have been born. It was back when postmen travelled on push bikes, even on our round. Not only that but they still made deliveries on Christmas Day. Christmas Day is one where you make the effort, you’re that bit more hospitable than you’d normally be. So when the postman knocks on the door to hand you the letter or parcel, you don’t just say thanks, you hand him a glass of Sherry, (or more likely Scotch.) Even now, the postman in a rural community is part of the community if he or she wants to be, back then it was probably compulsory.
So on that Christmas Day the postman delivered his letters to Rampside, and then he worked his way round Roa Island, imbibing Christmas cheer and good fellowship, and finally wrestled his increasingly recalcitrant bike into the lanes to deliver to the farms. At this point the bike was winning (two falls and a submission).
So he abandoned the bike, the letters and the rest of the round and walked the four or more miles home. Three young brothers from one of the farms, wondering where the Christmas post was, went out to look for him, found the bike and the letters and delivered the rest of them.

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So there you have it. If you’re not careful, Christmas can creep in and surprise you. Merry Christmas.

Selling out!

Over the years I’ve said quite a lot of things about Tesco. Some of them printable. Indeed some of them have been printed. In one article in a farming magazine I advised ‘if you want to support Tesco, ask your wife to shop there. Don’t ask her to go out to work so that you can continue to sell your milk to Tesco at below the cost of production.’
I don’t think I’d classify it as a ‘love/hate’ relationship. Probably suspicion tinged with mild dislike on my part, and total unawareness of my existence on their part.
But suddenly I discover that I have an author page on Tesco. Go to http://tinyurl.com/d4fv3o9 and there you’ll see it in all its glory.

Somehow I always felt that selling out would feel different. At least you would have thought that it would involve people pouring money into my cupped hands until it started spilling and I had to catch it in my jumper. But then I suppose we are dealing with a major retailer here. If I wanted the Scrooge McDuck experience, I ought to have worked for them in senior management, not joined the ranks of their suppliers.

I was talking to one of the bright lads selling IT at our local Tesco and he said that he’d been told they were going to roll out ebook sales in-store at some point in the future. At the moment they’re tucked away on the website and most people don’t know about them. A lot has been written about the High Street fighting back against on-line retailers, perhaps the ‘out of town retail parks’ are also fighting back?

So we have ebooks in Tesco, what do we do next? Book signings near the bakery perhaps? Perhaps the area of the store would be themed to the book, romance near the ‘Health and Beauty’, Adventure near the ‘DIY and Car.’ Sci Fi would fit in perfectly with ‘Technology and Gaming’ and knowing my luck Fantasy would be stuck between ‘Baby and Toddler’ and ‘Home Electrical’. Still you never know, it might just work.

What the hell are we supposed to use man? Harsh language?

You sit down to write the book, and suddenly dialogue tends to happen. Your characters speak to each other. Sometimes they get upset, sometimes they get angry. Sometimes they’re just being bitter, ironic, or perhaps bitterly ironic. But what do they say. You as the writer are the one who puts their words down on the page.
Now I’ve worked all my life amongst men who swore. I can remember when Sid Vicious swore on telly (way back in 1976 if you believe Google). I remember going into Ulverston Auction Mart, and there, sitting on a bench watching the events in the dairy ring, was my Grandfather and four of five of his contemporaries. As I wandered up to say hi, they were talking about the Sex Pistol’s outburst. They were shocked. “Ignorant little s…, needs his a… kicking.” “I’d give the little b…… a ……. hiding if he said that in my presence.” They were criticising him in language that would have scorched his ears. It wasn’t that they were against swearing, but there was a time a place for it. The Dairy ring at Ulverston auction was obviously, in their minds at least, the time and the place. My Grandmother might have disagreed but had she been there, they would have modified their language.
I read someone commenting about an article he’d come across. He worked out (from figures in the article) that young people swore ten times an hour when they were with their mates. From some of the kids I know, that ten times an hour is probably an underestimate. But the words they use are often used without meaning. They’re just ‘intensifiers’, synonyms for ‘very’.
This might give us our way in. The kids are an example. They have their own ‘language’ or argot. I call it an argot because people outside the group aren’t really supposed to be able to understand it. Kids want to speak a language their parents cannot understand, lawyers and PR people want to speak a language that baffles their clients into handing over the money. Each group has its own argot, jargon, call it what you will.
So back to your characters, what is their ‘argot’? That is obviously going to produce a lot of their vocabulary.
But on the other hand, whilst my Grandfather’s argot (when he was talking to his mates) could get pretty scatological, when in the presence of his Wife and five daughters, it was considerably tamer. As a general rule we can assume that people are expected to abandon or dilute their argot when attempting to communicate outside the group. If my Grandfather had stuck with his, you’d have written him off as ignorant, if a lawyer stuck with his in a social situation you’d write them off as a pompous bore.
From a writer’s point of view, the argot presents another problem. Our reader is probably not part of that particular group. Therefore they cannot expect to be entirely comfortable with it. We could probably cope with the swearing, but lawyer’s argot doesn’t make for easy reading. So we have to water it down a bit, if only to make it comprehensible.
The final issue is the time and place. If you’re writing the dialogue for something happening here and now, then you can go and sit amongst the folk you’re writing about and get a feel for their speech patterns and vocabulary. If you’re doing a historical piece, then it is possible that examples of the argot have been preserved, so you can use that. As with the modern stuff, you might want to water it down a bit so it is comprehensible. On the other hand you might want it to be incomprehensible, to give a feeling that these people are different, outside society or part of a different society.
But what about those of us who write fantasy or Sci Fi? Here I offer no better solution that that adopted by Douglas Adams in ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’. In the original radio series ‘Belgium’ was described as the most offensive word in the galaxy.

On-line spending frenzy

I have just been informed; (by Brenda who knows these things) that today there is expected to be ‘an on-line spending frenzy’. As it’s all due to happen between 8pm and 9pm and we will be out, I suppose I won’t be contributing. Yes I know you can now do the whole ‘spend spend spend’ thing on your phone but I’m impervious to that as well. My phone is a rudimentary thing which lives switched off and is doomed to spend its life as a substitute for a Verey pistol.”

So other than not spending money (something I do really well unless I find myself in a good second hand bookshop) what have I been doing? Let’s ignore the bits which involved a shovel and wheelbarrow, it lacks enchantment. Let’s concentrate, if only briefly, on the writing bits. I used to think that when you’ve written a book, that was it. Ha!
No, you have to update your Amazon author page (two of them as Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk don’t really talk to each other), blog about it, ‘facebook’ it, twitter it, make sure the people across on ‘Goodreads’ know about it, spam the world and Amazon.
And then you wait for the reviews to come in. In the good old days it wasn’t an issue, big league publishers have interns with nothing better to do than post glowing reviews on all the appropriate websites. Standards have fallen so much that some professional writers were forced to create false identities and use them to write their own reviews. But for those of us who decided that you have to draw the line somewhere, you have to wait for the real thing.
And now, I have the first review, and not just any review. There are some reviewers who have, over the years, created a reputation. They are known as honest. They are more than just reviewers; they are Patrons of the arts. They encourage, they help, they guide. When one of them recognises that you’ve written a good book, then it’s as good as winning an award.
What I’m trying to say, in a roundabout manner so it doesn’t sound too pompous, is that I’ve had a good review. And not just any good review, I’ve had a good review from Ignite, an Amazon Top 500 reviewer.
So get yourself along to
http://ignitebooks.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/Jim%20Webster%20-%20Fantasy
and read what the princess of all reviewers has said.
And then, given that now is the time for an on-line spending frenzy, you might even get round to buying the chuffing book as well!