The Most Important Writing Lesson of All

I finally managed to get a galley proof of my book. But the expected euphoria at holding an actual work of art produced by my own self did not appear.

I didn’t like the look of it, the feel of it or the size of it. At 110,000 words I’d expected a doorstop sized whacking big thing, but no. It looked like a thicker version of a half-sized comic. The champagne stayed in the fridge and the party hats remained in their boxes.

And that was just the start of it.

Holding the Book

Holding the Book

But as I’ve learned in life it’s the setbacks that teach you the most. And a very big lesson was just round the corner as I sat down to read my own book in print.

The experience was completely different to the 800+ times I’d read it in A4 size electronic format. It was even different from the version I downloaded from Kindle. It was a revelation.

Every author has probably read their first chapter hundreds of times. Trying to get it right. The one chapter that sets the scene, hooks the reader and foreshadows the tale to come. As I read my first chapter for the first time in print the book took on a different feel. I could almost see the words threading through the page ahead of me, like a narrow pathway leading me into the story. The plot unfolded more slowly, the characters seemed sharper and the hints on what was to come were more subtle.

It was a different book. It was an actual honest to goodness novel, not just electronic words dancing on a screen that one day would become a book. It was real.

I reached for a party hat…..

Then I noticed that some of the typeset wasn’t quite right. The chapter titles weren’t centre-justified. There were grammatical errors even after the two professional edits and the hundreds of searches through the text for missed capitals, commas in the wrong place and quotation marks not closed. The hundreds of hours spent finishing the book for a Kindle upload looked hopelessly inadequate. The book just wasn’t publishable, I’d jumped the gun like so many of my fellow writers. I’d wanted to finish the book so badly I ignored the advice to ‘edit the book to death’ before it went public.

So, on a plane last night I sat with a pen and a highlighter going over the text once more. I edited it backwards so that I wouldn’t get wound into the story and end up being more interested in the hero’s arc that the punctuation.

It’s going to take some time to fix. No-one said it would be easy.

But, to date, it’s the most important writing lesson I’ve learned.

And it’s a lesson that we all probably have to learn at some point.

To All Women Everywhere. An Official Apology From Men.

I must say that I’m speaking for all men here, past and present. As the self appointed spokesman for men of all time.

I know that if they all knew I was doing this that they’d support me. Or I’d be going round to their house later.

The man who wrote this was a misogynist, big time. But he learned as we all must that women are the best.

(Jim bows to all women in thanks)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f-x1FsvOAz4

Art for Art’s Sake, Money for F*ck’s Sake

So sang the great 10cc.

I thought I’d do some art tonight and leave the incessant book promotion stuff for a while Stop laughing at the back there!)

My missus is out of town so tonight was pasta a la Jambo and Merlot, drunk a la Espagnol in a small tumbler. As I cooked I listened to Bocelli with some Bruch to counterpoint the lush voice of Andrea. Bruch’s Violin Cencerto No. 1 Adagio, it could bring a tear to a glass eye.

Have a listen to Joshua Bell give it a spanking here. I could have played violin like this but I’ve got one leg shorter than the other.

Anyhoo, I was in intellectual mode and after eating I wandered round my house and took some pictures of my artwork (as in stuff wot I painted). I don’t have much, I give most of it away or sell it for charity. Mostly portraits.

It was quite difficult to photograph the pieces because there was either a reflection on the glass or a flash spot from the camera – and I wasn’t in the mood to unmount them. Last time I did that I cracked the glass and that’s not a cheap replacement in Dubai. I hit on the idea of putting all the lights out and taking flash shots – surprisingly it worked OK, a few flash spots but what the hell. After a bottle of Merlot I’m lucky just to work the camera.

So, on with the art tour chez Jambo. It’s all upstairs, mainly in the upper living room.

Vase of Flowers

Orange Flower Vase

This is an acrylic on canvas – an exercise in art class that turned into  a small project. Total painting time 3 hours (I’m a fast worker).

Next is a work on a statue – I spotted this guy in a museum in Sri Lanka – it was more the way the light cut across it diagonally that caught my eye than anything. It’s oil pastel on self-coloured cardboard

Taken sideways to avert the flash

10 Minute God

It’s called 10Minute God because that’s how long it took. The trick is just to paint the lighted parts on a dark background. There’s hardly any paint on that surface.

A Murial

La Rubio in 4 Colours (sorry Andy)

Next up a large mural (what Glaswegians call a ‘murial’) that has four paintings of ‘La Rubio’ or my missus as she’s better known. It’s not quite a Warhol but it’s getting there (yes you at the back I know what bloody derivative means!)

So moving onto another derivative piece – La Rubio again but a la Lichtenstein. If the house was on fire this is what I’d grab on the way out. Acrylic on canvas

La Rubio

La Rubio – Homage to Lichtenstein

Jambo self=portrait

Artist as a Young Loon

Another quick shot – the artist as a young loon. Oil pastel on paper

German Bollocking Fodder

The primary colours on one brush

 

 

Last but not least a exercise in painting with 3 primary colours on the brush – and you had 20 minutes to nail it or the German painter gave you a good bollocking in German.

 

 

 

 

And – back to another bottle of merlot, no wait, there’s a six pack of Corona in the fridge.

That’s enuff of that intelekashul stuff for one night.

I Need A Hero

And he’s got be strong

And he’s got to be fast

And he’s got to be straight from the fight

So sings Bonnie Tyler at

If you’ll indulge me for a moment, this post is about writing and the hero’s arc and the need for a hero, with a twist. It’s on something I learned about writing. That the most interesting heroes you can write about aren’t chiselled jawed hunks in homo-erotic spandex. No.

The most interesting heroes are ordinary men and women with flaws who can do heroic deeds. And jumping over tall buildings isn’t one of them.

I’ve met many heroes but I always remember the day that I realised I’d met one. He was my first hero so to speak.

I worked in an office and in a wee corner office there were two men jammed in sharing a desk. They were both small men, hunched and combed-over. Shiny trousers and jackets with patches at the elbows. Grey men. They were the butt of many office jokes.

But through work I got to know one of them well. He did a job that required exceptional concentration and great attention to detail but needless to say, it didn’t pay well.

One Friday I offered to buy him a drink after work, I was getting married the next day and frankly he was the only one in the office that I’d buy a drink.

Anyway, he limped alongside me to the pub then he took a half pint of heavy beer then stood to say goodbye. He had 5 miles to walk home and with his bad leg it took a him a while, he said. I looked at him, perhaps seeing him for the first time. He had curvature of the spine and his sight wasn’t so good. A National Health hearing aid was stuck behind his right ear.

I offered to drive him home, by way of compensation for keeping him late. He accepted and I got my car and headed to his house. He explained that his wife was profoundly deaf and her eyesight was worse than his. She fretted if he was late. He was the only person she knew in the whole world.  As we drove we talked about the latest rumours that the company was downsizing. I was worried because I was about to be married, he was concerned because  he had no savings and he needed to support his wife.

We got to his house. A terraced house idential to the thousands of others in the housing scheme he lived in. The garden was neat and tidy, the door was freshly painted and at the window stood a slight woman staring out with a look of worry on her face.

He wished me a happy marriage got out the car and limped slowly up to his house.

I wish I could say I empathised with him, but i didn’t. I was a callow youth with my own worries and a future to get after.  But years later I thought about him and I realised that he was above all else, a hero.

Men who swing into battle are not heroes. They have courage, grit and determination. But heroes? No.

People who can endure the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, people who can stoop to rebuild their life’s work with worn out tools. People who can keep their counsel and care for others while being ridiculed for things over which they have no control. People who live with their flaws, their disabilities and drawbacks but still continue to have a life rich in meaning beyond the grasp of uncaring people. These are the heroes. There is probably one close to you right now, have a look around.

And so, to return to writing. Writing can be about men who wear their underpants outside of their tights but it’s unlikely to be interesting. Real interest lies in people who are flawed. But come the time, they are there for  others. And they endure.

Above all else, they endure.

A Book’s First Chapter

When I started writing my book I envisioned a flash-bang-wallop start that shook the reader up. You know, throw the reader into the middle of noisy mayhem. (and I still like the idea of doing that).

All the advice given to writers is to grab the reader by the lapels on the first page. But as I redrafted the book and reworked and reworked the first chapters I decided to wind the readers in to the story by slightly devious means. In the finished version, the story starts with a retired German policeman watching a group of people in a coffee shop. They’re a weird looking crew and he worries in case they’ll cause trouble for the cafe and its owner. He’s quietly in love with Elise, the owner, but she’s been playing it cool. The way women do.

The story opens in Munich in Germany. In a cafe styled like a Starbucks, because the owner likes to keep up with current trends. The windows stream with rain and Max, the policeman, is in his favourite chair keeping an eye on things. He knows from experience what people will do next. Usually.

I read the chapter over recently while I sorted the book out for upload to CreateSpace. Every time I do an edit or look at the book for any reason I get engrossed in the story and a part of me wonders what will come next. Which strikes me as an odd thing for the writer of the book to think.

So, reading it again I was struck by how the chapter had changed since its first outing. As it was rewritten again and again the basic structure stayed the same but more and more detail crept in. Text was layered on text but the chapter never increased in size, its still one and a half pages long. But the slight touches to the descriptions and some nuances to the sentences have created (pardon me saying this since I’m the author) a depth that the reader can wander through.

At one point Elise finds that Max is carrying a gun and she flashes with anger touched with concern.The sentence also embeds a memory in the readers’ minds for a significant event in the next chapter. The gun is there to tell the reader that it’s not a lightweight story, there’s violence to come. The trick was to show all of that to the reader in one short burst using as few words as possible.

Reading it struck me that I’d fallen upon one of the secrets of writing, to rewrite and keep adding to the story but to use the same number of words or thereabouts. To keep enriching the experience of the reader with touches that they might not consciously see, until they feel as if they were sitting beside the retired policeman watching the scene. But without making the prose dense or confusing.

I also paint (portraits mainly) and the analogy of starting with the basic outline then working and working at a face to put layers and layers on the canvas to give the image depth, is the same process as writing. The reader doesn’t realise that they’re looking at the work of days and nights to make every small detail just the way the writer intended. But they enjoy the experience even though they may not understand why.

And it doesn’t matter, because they should be concerned with what happens to the characters next and not about how the writer transported them to that place and time.

Writing in the Middle East

WordPress is overwhelmingly Western orientated and from some comments I’ve seen, people can assume that everyone lives in America or Britain. You know, ‘our tax system is hopeless’ kind of note, with the author not explaining what tax system they’re talking about.
It’s not a serious flaw but amongst our numbers there are people who live in places vastly different from ‘The West’. Their experiences in writing then publishing a book is very different from what people in the West might imagine.

I’d like to take you on a short tour of my writing experiences in the Middle East to shine a faint glimmer of light on what it’s like. Not just the mechanics but also how it affects the way you think and by extension the way you write.

A bit of background. I describe myself as Scottish by birth, European by nature and Middle East resident by choice. I travel around the region from Kurdistan to Oman and places in between. I’ve lived for extended periods of time in Iraq, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Although I’ve been in the region for 12 years this time round I hardly speak a word of Arabic (Jim hangs his head in shame).

The Amazing Diver Sculptures in Dubai Mall

The Amazing Diver Sculptures in Dubai Mall

On writing. I currently live in Dubai and you can sit here in a hotel lobby and you could write a thousand novels based on an evening’s observations. The mix of people, cultures, dress, habits never cease to amaze. At present the number of people from the Former Soviet Union is expanding – lots of hotel staff are now from that area. The other noticable change is the number of Chinese and Koreans. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a vast bazaar, a massive souk where people come to live, do business, holiday and stop-over on their way somewhere else. Most International Oil Companies have regional hub offices in Dubai, mainly to service their operations in Iraq. But for British people its a home from home. You can actually get deep fried Mars bars here (a Scottish delicacy if longevity is not your aim in life).

So the UAE is a comfortable place for someone like me to live. BUT. And that’s a big big BUT. I never forget that I’m a guest in someone else’s country. The law here is not based on English law (like so many other countries), the law here is Sharia and woe betide anyone who thinks differently. Its all to easy for people to imagine somehow that ‘probably things are much the same here as back home’.

And how is this of significance to writers? Well, you can’t just find a publisher here and knock a few thousand copies out then get them into the shops. You have to obtain a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from the government (I’ll not go into the process – it’s lengthy but not complicated). If the book contains anything deemed to be blasphemous or would offend local family values then its unlikely to get a NOC.
I’m going through the process right now and my book does contain harsh criticism of the Catholic Church – it may be a factor that stops me publishing here because the Ministry of Culture protects all religions not just Islam. There may be other factors but I couldn’t even guess what they might be. Like everything else in the Middle East your best companions are Patience, Good Humour and an engrossing book to read.

Tigris and the Baghdad Green Zone

Tigris and the Baghdad Green Zone

Going back to the process of writing. I wrote the outline for my book iNation when I lived in Baghdad in 2003. I was in the Sheraton Hotel, situated on the roundabout where Saddam Hussein’s statue was pulled down. I had a great view from my room overlooking the Tigris. I could see everything in the Green Zone (Saddam Hussein’s palace and other government buildings). I ate often at the palace and wandered through the grounds. I even swam in his pool. Despite what was said in the media at the time the palace. pool, etc were no bigger nor more opulent than a million other houses in this region. The scurrilous hype about Saddam living in grand luxury while his people lived in hovels conveniently forgot to mention how the President of the United States lives in the White House v people in shotgun shacks in some States. Ps, this is not an anti-American rant – I love America and I count many Americans amongst my friends. The media across Europe did hatchet jobs on Saddam every bit at vitriolic as Fox News.

Anyway it was these experiences that planted the seed in my mind. America runs the world now but what if there was a much bigger yet hidden country just around the corner. A country that holds no territory, a country that lives in the world wide web? What would it do, how would it work, could it change the world? Would the change be for good or would it produce a world dictatorship?
When the phenomenon of Facebook burst upon us the book practically wrote itself. I also took the opportunity to give some other global organisations that should be making the world a better place, but are not, a right good Glasgow kicking. A Glasgow kicking is considered by thugs around the world to be the very pinnacle of ‘a kicking’.

Returning once again to writing (I know, I ramble), the act of observing ones country and others from a distance and from within a different culture adds (IMHO) depth and gives a twist to how things are written. You’re less influenced by the propaganda pushed out in those countries, you more likely to see a bigger picture than a local election or the rise in the price of petrol. As many writers have observed, people who live on the margins of society, people who are ‘different’ and people who are from different cultures are often the sharpest observers. Gore Vidal and Jerzy Kozinsky spring to mind. The Middle Eastern culture is so pervasive and different it would be a miracle if your approach to writing didn’t change.

Apart from that, writing here is the same as anywhere else. Sitting at a computer in solitude bashing the keys and hoping something worthwhile will fall out and start reaching for the light.

Even as I write this, the call to prayer from the mosque next door reminds me that I’m a legal alien in Dubai. Humdalala!

iNation Promotional Video

Before opening this short video (67 seconds of mayhem)…

Remove all inflammable clothing

Remove glass eyes, false teeth, etc

Hold on to something solid.

Best with earbuds in and the volume cranked up

Thanks for watching!

iNation

Image

Let’s get them bad guys

Ever sat and talked over how the world could be changed? Ever thought of how it would be great to hit out at all those people who turned the world into a rubbish heap for unemployed people? The guys who roller-coast the world’s economy to sell high and buy low. The guys who own presidents and appoint dictators? The people who don’t give a shit about anybody else but themselves?

Have you really thought on what it would take to protect the people of the world, to improve their lives and to dry the tears of a billion children?

An old rock n’ roller, a geek and 19 year old girl take them all on, here’s how.

Available at Kindle for $7.

A cheap way to learn how to change the world.