The Rules of Writing

referee-1149014_1280.jpgAnyone who has followed my FB posts even casually will probably have got the impression – rightly – that I’m not big on rules. The internet, ‘how to’ books, writing classes… they all attempt to reduce this most creative pursuit to a set of instructions: do this and you’ll be fine.

Well, crap.

The basics: what is the purpose of writing?

Let’s go back to basics. What is the purpose of writing? Imagine a line… at one end is ‘Entertainment’; at the other is ‘Information’. All writing sits somewhere on that line, as do all films, TV shows, plays, lectures… anything that uses language as it’s principle medium. Everything. There isn’t anything else. Emotions? Sure, but only as a bi-product of informing you about something (usually something you already believed but may not have known about: it’s informing you about yourself). Humour? Yes, laughter is a bi-product of entertainment. If you weren’t entertained, you wouldn’t laugh. I have tried to find an exception that does not sit on this line, and so far, I haven’t found one.

I will digress for a moment here. If you’re not interested in visual arts and music, feel free to skip to the next block quote!

Visual arts and music sit ‘off the line’ – or at least they can, and a brief examination of why will shed light on why writing can not. Leaving aside the endless Renaissance religious allegories (which were about information) and pop-art (which is about entertainment), much of the Western tradition of painting between the two deliberately transcends the continuum. While the Impressionists were intending to inform through a rigorous, literal ‘truth’ about what they saw, they paved the way for art which aims to touch something ‘post-intellectual’ – that is, a state of experience which can not be reduced to a verbal description. It is meaningless to describe Mark Rothko’s colour-field paintings, or Pollock’s drip canvasses; Cezanne and Picasso informed us a great deal about three-dimentionality and visual perception, but they also tapped into something beyond language too; and the panoply of expressionists of the 20th century deliberately did not tell us anything at all about objective reality. They ‘inform’ about something beyond description.

The same is true of music, especially post-Bach. As instrumental music consists of both the medium and the message as a single indivisible entity, it carries no specific meta-meaning. Bartok’s six string quartets might tell us something of Beethoven’s methods of working in his late quartets, but they tell us nothing about the price of bread or the colour of a daffodil.

Music and the visual arts sit off the line because we are linguistic animals. We make sense of the world through a reductive description of it. Great (post-impressionist) art tells us about ourselves as unique, isolated individuals; it can not tell much about objective reality. Music tells us nothing at all, but has the strongest pull of all arts to that abstract part of us known variously as the soul, the heart, the spirit.

Writing, however, is ultimately incapable of stepping off the line, as it can not, by definition, divorce itself from our linguistic relationship with our perception of the world.

Digression over…

How does a purely  reductionist argument help us?

So what if writing can only inform or entertain? How does a purely  reductionist argument help us?

It helps because the reason everything sits on this spectrum if because it is all about communication. That is the first, last and only goal of any linguistic endeavour: to communicate. And that is why any prescriptive rules are inevitably nonsense. If your writing is communicating your ideas to your audiences’ minds, it works, whether you have introduced you main protagonist on the first page of the twentieth; whether you’ve used adverbs or not; whether you have used ‘info dumps’ and ‘head hops’ (and all this other neologistic crap spouted by the new breed of semi-literate internet critics) or not. If you have communicated what you set out to, you are doing just fine. The proof? Shakespeare and Stephen King are both great writers in the sense that they are both great communicators… but if there were truly a set of ‘rules’ of how this game works, one would pass and the other fail the test (which is which depends on which set of rules you choose to apply). Their writing styles have almost nothing in common, yet both are immensely popular, and rightly so. Both pass the test because there are no rules about how to be a great communicator.

So are there any rules at all that might help?

Yes and no.

I would suggest that the one thing every writer should be doing is reading

I would suggest that the one thing every writer should be doing is reading (and even here I have come across the odd exception of good writers who claim never to have read a book). Reading other people’s work will tell you all you need to know, provided you read intelligently. Read with ten per cent of your brain switched on to the writer’s technique. Find a passage that makes you want to keep turning the pages faster and faster to find out what happens? Go back, reread it, find out how this effect was achieved. Was it with careful foreshadowing? Did the sentence length vary, either from that in the rest of the book, or across the passage in question? Had the author switched point of view? Varied the balance between description and action? Did the style of dialogue change? There will be an answer: find it, and you can try to do the same.

If you find a passage with a particularly heightened emotional punch, ask yourself why. Were secondary senses (taste, smell, touch) being invoked? Was the writing more symbolic or metaphorical than before, or less so? There could be any number of reasons, but if you experienced that tug at your heartstrings, there will be a reason for it.

The majority of your reading should probably be in the genre in which you write, but it is also worth reading well outside that genre too. If all you ever taste is sweetness, you become dulled to it unless you have a little sour now and then to cleanse your palate. If you read analytically you will soon see that the techniques employed by a horror writer are vastly different to those of a romance writer. Sounds obvious? Of course, but try to find out what those differences are. Once you know that, you’ll know what particular techniques make horror do what it does (or whatever your chosen genre is!) and you can use these to maximum effect in your own work.

I’m not advocating some kind of anarchy in writing

In saying that you should ignore the ‘rules’ I’m not advocating some kind of anarchy in writing. Anarchy is lazy, and formless, unintelligent writing fails the principle test of clear communication. If your writing is inconsistent, overly complex or obscure it will fail to entertain, and it will fail to give clear information too. You will be ‘off the line’.

But by not getting tied up in knots over rules that won’t help you, you are much freer to find you own voice. And voice is important. It’s what publishers (and readers) look for. Consider, as a fairly extreme example, the thriller writer Lee Child. Technically his writing is awful – if you ran it through one of those oh-so-helpful ‘check my writing’ websites, it would come back littered with red marks… and suitable only for readers aged eight or under. But it works. It is his own voice, and millions of readers love it. You pick up a Lee Child novel and you know what you’re going to get. It’s not Salman Rushdie… but then if you wanted Salman Rushdie, you’d buy Midnight’s Children!

So, in conclusion, I’ll give an opinion on why I think so many people believe in the rules of writing… and why I don’t advocate them if you are serious about being a writer. Rules are designed to make life easy. ‘Do this and that will happen’: ‘write this way and you’ll get published.’ Rubbish. Writing – good, successful writing – is not reductive, it is an intellectual game. You have to have your brain switched on 100%. You have to practice it. A lot. I think it was the academic/doctor/opera director/general all round genius Jonathan Miller who said you have to write a million words before you’re any good. This may be an exaggeration for the average genre writer, but the principle remains. Practise – intelligent practise – makes you better, and there’s no short cut. Every rule ever invented will not make you a good writer if your heart and brain are not in the job. They might, at best, make you a hack writer, and what’s the point of that?

 

 

 

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Is Instagram the Stupidest Platform in the Universe?

No, I’m not talking about all those pictured of people’s dinners or endless snaps of puppies and badly framed selfies. I’m talking about the platform itself.

Having ignored Instagram for years I was thumbing through friend’s feed today, and Instagram ‘invited’ me to sign up. Ok,  I thought, why not?

Sorry, something went wrong creating your account. Please try again soon.

So I logged in with Facebook and proceeded to sign up (if that’s not tautological, I don’t know what is, but let’s just go with it. Presumably this trillion-dollar company knows something I don’t). Choose a username. Not hard: AlanCPorter. That’s who I am, after all. Password? No worries. I put that in, clicked on Sign up and… got an error. “Sorry, something went wrong creating your account. Please try again soon.”

So I tried again a bit later. And my Username was no longer available. WTF? Has another Alan C Porter signed up since I last tried? What are the chances of that? Ah well, the world is a very big place. Maybe there are two of us. And neither of us thought to have an Instagram account until this very moment. So I tried a different user name. Same result: really helpful message about an ‘error’ that they couldn’t be bothered to explain so that I might have some chance of fixing it.

Again… third time lucky? No. Same crap.

So, I thought, maybe I need to use the App version. Turned on the phone, tried to log in, got the followinginstacrap1.png

How the fuck did you manage that Instagram? I haven’t even successfully signed up yet! How in the name of Greek Buggery can I have ‘violated’ your terms when you won’t let me though the front door? What did I do? Tell me. What did I manage to get wrong in  TWO LINES of input (one of which is my own name!)?

But I wasn’t defeated yet. I’ve met stupid before (I used to use Windows, and that was the Heavyweight Champion of the World of Stupid in the 1990s).

So… here’s clever. I’ll try one more time on the laptop. Using the details you think have violated your terms (which, incidentally, you have not yet even invited me to read…)

So I put in the details. And got this…

insta2.png

Now hang on just a minute… Not thirty seconds ago you told me I’d violated your terms. Now you tell me (or should that be ‘admit’?) I haven’t even got an account?

Seriously. One billion users. The crappest piece of programming in the known universe.

I have put in a ‘report’ about this, but I doubt anything will come of it. Any company stupid enough to actually be running software like this is going to be far too stupid to sort the problem out.

So you’ll never have the chance to see what I’m having for dinner.

Thanks Instacrap.

Writing Jerusalem Blind (Part 2)

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The establishing chapters of the book are now done. All the main protagonists are in place, the jeopardy is at least partially in place and the reader can see some of the traps that lie in wait for Leila Reid as she tries to navigate her way out of the situation into which I have thrown her.

This is only a first draft, and I know what I’ve written will be pretty rough.

There is a temptation at this stage to go back and reread these first half dozen chapters. But it’s one that should be resisted. This is only a first draft, and I know what I’ve written will be pretty rough. It’s probably full of typos, clumsy constructions and bits where detail needs to be either trimmed out or added in to get the rhythm right.

The reason I never go back to reread anything at this stage is because it’s the surest way to destroy the momentum of writing. It is vital to keep pushing on – with only seven thousand words written I’m less than ten per cent of the way through, and worrying about typos and inconsistencies now is going to nothing to chip away at the remaining ninety per cent still to do. The second draft is the place to smooth things out and start to turn these bare bones into something worth reading.

So far all I’ve done is to cause the problem my protagonist faces. But in doing so, the reader knows what the most desirable outcome is to be. Boiled down to its bare bones it’s a case of Reid is trapped and we want to see how she escapes. Note that this is where the thriller genre parts company from the mystery genre. While the two are very close, and sometimes overlap, in a mystery the reader is supposed to pick up clues and ‘solve’ the mystery in parallel with the book’s main protagonist. In pure thrillers, this is not the case. While a mystery novel is an ‘inner’ journey (intellect used to solve a puzzle), the thriller is an external one (guise, strength and cunning is used to solve the problem). Jerusalem Blind certainly has intellectual puzzles, some of which the reader may be able to solve, but doing so is not necessary for the enjoyment of the book. The point is to watch how our heroine solves them.

Reid is trapped and we want to see how she escapes‘ is the superstructure of the book. But that escape consists of major events (in the case of Jerusalem Blind, three in number) and each of those consists of further, smaller events. Each of these ‘events’ takes the form of problem-and-solution (or trial-and-redemption). The problems must be big enough that the reader sees the danger, but not so bit that the solutions would cast our heroine as some kind of super-hero (think James Bond – for the sake of drama his problems would be impossible to solve by any normal human being!).

In other words, the novel – and most novels – consists of:

  1. Superstructure: the main story arc from initial impetus to final resolution
  2. Main pillars: the major steps that support the superstructure and act as ‘episodes’ within the narrative. This division gives the story its internal shape and allows for periods of ‘relaxation’ in the narrative drive
  3. Narrative: the small challenges and solutions that propel the main character from one episode to the next, and ultimately to the final resolution

I’ve pointed my heroine along a narrow, dark and dangerous path. Now it’s time to get her walking…

So, even 10% into the book, the superstructure is implied and the reader is in no doubt about two things: Leila Reid needs to find a way out of Israel, and she has several major organisations trying to stop her. I’ve pointed her along a narrow, dark and dangerous path. Now it’s time to get her walking…

Although neither Reid nor the reader knows it, she has three major movements to perform to escape.

So, without giving anything away, lets call these three main pillars Negev, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Reid has to navigate her way through these three locations and perform a number of tasks in each. To me, three is a good number: it means that the build-up of the story arc can be roughly two-thirds of the book and the final showdown the final third. (There are also echoes here of the Golden Section divisions of classical literature, but that’s another story…)

For roughly the first third of the book, her path must continue to get worse. At every turn she in confronted with another problem. Some she solves; some she is able to live with; some foreshadow yet darker things to come. The point of all this is two-fold. Firstly, we see Reid as a capable and resourceful woman. This casts her character as one which has at least a fighting chance of making it to the final page alive. Secondly it propels the superstructure of the story in a plausible way. That is, if Reid had only one problem to solve, and she thought of a solution early on, the book would be both boring and pointless. Think of the ‘insta-love’ found in so many second-rate romance novels: the heroine is not a character, she’s a puppet of the author, performing unrealistic wish-fulfillment in a story that ultimately tells us nothing about the human condition. And remember, above all else what readers are interested in is people: what they do and why they do it.

For the middle third we must see her up the creek without a paddle, but beginning to form a plan to find one. The final third will be Reid beating her opponents over the head with that paddle and (hopefully) making it out of Israel alive… and with something to show for her troubles (this is a side-issue I will deal with later, but suffice to say that merely achieving her escape is not enough for a satisfying story. She has to win a prize too. That way we see her not only triumph over adversity, but turn it to her advantage).

Within these three subdivisions are a series of smaller tasks. Plans are made; plans fail. She calls on those she believes can help her and they betray her. She neutralises one foe only to find the hydra’s head regrow and her situation get even worse.

Readers have expectations of particular genres, and trying to stray too far from convention is dangerous

This is the only point in any novel where I might make plotting notes because a sense of progression – and a believable logic – must inform the order of events. The biggest problems must be the later ones. No point having her solve 90% of her problems too early! It is about creating a satisfying rhythm to the story. While I hope my books are never predictable, readers have expectations of particular genres, and trying to stray too far from convention is dangerous. Remember, we are taking our readers on a journey. We can shock them now and then (especially in that final third of the book), but they’ve got experience of the type of journey they’re on, and we rely on them playing along for the whole experience to work. Work with your reader, not against him!

What my plotting note don’t do, however, is tell me the details of each of these mini-scenes. I might note ‘Reid needs to contact X’ at this point. How she does it will depend on how she arrived at that point and where I need her to go from it. Often the exact details of how she performs this task only work themselves out as I write – this is because the characters are developing all the time through a series of superficial action-and-consequence events. If, for example (and this is only an example), Reid discovers her phones are bugged, she wouldn’t use the phone to make her contact. And at this early stage of the book, I don’t necessarily know whether her phones are bugged or not. That detail will depend too on what comes before it, and what I need to have come after it. This first draft is a process of evolution.

The disadvantage of an evolving plot is that occasionally I run up a blind alley. I’ll make something happen that makes something else either impossible or implausible. A little backtracking is required. And once you start picking at the weave of a plot, it can rapidly unravel. Fortunately, a lot of this is down to experience. The less I plot, and the more I trust that I know what I’m doing at some subconscious level, the less this happens. I trust my instincts and I trust my characters.

So, the next phase of writing is to push through the remaining first third of the book, then on to the climactic junction between the middle and final thirds. I need to bring all the players into alignment and to a point of maximum peril and maximum power struggle. By the time I next check in with progress, I’ll be at a point where I have laid everything out for the reader. We will stand on a precipice looking into a fog. I will know what lies in the gloom, but the reader won’t have a clue…afghan-857786_1280.jpgafghan-857786_1280.jpg

Join me again in a few weeks when I will discuss how I ‘interact’ with my readers (without them being aware of it). I’ll try to show how I lay clues along the path, how I set up expectations and play with the results, and the importance of pacing.

Writing for Mental Freedom

drawing-1166119_1280.jpgWriting can be an excellent way to destress and free the mind from the myriad daily concerns that cause so many of us so many problems – insomnia, depression, anxiety, even physical health problems.

That sentence sounds very much like a description of mindfulness meditation. Which made me wonder: can writing become a form of meditation in its own right? And could that meditative freedom in turn unlock creativity which has become hidden behind mundane daily concerns? Could writing even become a way of unblocking writers’ block?

The answer is yes, and it turns out that some writers have known about this for decades.

It turns out the idea of writing as a parallel form of meditation, with many of the same general benefits, and several very specific benefits for the writer, has been known about for a long time! It is called free writing. Below is an introduction (which I don’t claim is original – much of it is culled from other sources, but it was news to me, so it might be to you too!)

Free writing involves continuous writing, usually for a predetermined period of time (often five to fifteen minutes). The writer writes without regard to spelling, grammar, etc., and makes no corrections. If the writer reaches a point where they can’t think of anything to write, they write that they can’t think of anything, until they find another line of thought. The writer freely strays off topic, letting thoughts lead where they may. At times, a writer may also do a focused freewrite, letting a chosen topic structure their thoughts. Expanding from this topic, the thoughts may stray to make connections and create more abstract views on the topic. This technique helps a writer explore a particular subject before putting ideas into a more basic context.

Freewriting is often done on a daily basis as a part of the writer’s daily routine. Also, students in many writing courses are assigned to do such daily writing exercises.

The writing does not have to be done with pen and paper. A technique known as Freeblogging combines blogging with free-writing with the rules changed so that the writer does not stop typing for long periods of time. The end result may or may not be shared with the public.

The correctness and quality of what you write do not matter; the act of writing does.

Here are the essential rules that are often formulated for the beginners or students, often a paraphrase of Natalie Goldberg’s “Rules for Free Writing,” often referred as Natalie Goldberg’s first four rules of writing:

  • Give yourself a time limit. Write for one or ten or twenty minutes, and then stop.
  • Keep your hand moving until the time is up. Do not pause to stare into space or to read what you’ve written. Write quickly but not in a hurry.
  • Pay no attention to grammar, spelling, punctuation, neatness, or style. Nobody else needs to read what you produce here. The correctness and quality of what you write do not matter; the act of writing does.
  • If you get off the topic or run out of ideas, keep writing anyway. If necessary, write nonsense or whatever comes into your head, or simply scribble: anything to keep the hand moving.
  • If you feel bored or uncomfortable as you’re writing, ask yourself what’s bothering you and write about that.
  • When the time is up, look over what you’ve written, and mark passages that contain ideas or phrases that might be worth keeping or elaborating on in a subsequent free-writing session.

Goldberg’s rules appear to be based on those developed by Jack Kerouac, who she cites several times. Kerouac developed 30 “rules” in his Belief & Technique for Modern Prose. While Kerouac’s “rules” are elliptical and even cryptic for beginning writers, they are more comprehensive than Goldberg’s for those who have practised prose writing for some time. Kerouac supplemented these with his Essentials of Spontaneous Prose, and together they form the basis of his prose writing method, a form of narrative stream of consciousness. Kerouac himself cites the “trance writing” of William Butler Yeats as a precursor of his own practice.

For more posts like this, plus tips and tricks for writer, literary trivia and more, hop over to my Facebook page at facebook.com/AuthorAlanPorter

Writing ‘Jerusalem Blind’, Part 1

plane.jpgEvery writer has their own process when it comes to putting a novel together. Here I want to outline my method, from idea to the end of the first draft, as it actually happens…

‘Jerusalem Blind’ is the working title of the sequel to my 2015 thriller ‘Sleeper Cell’. The action starts just three days after the final scene of the first book in what will likely become a series featuring my counter-terrorism detective, Leila Reid.

In some ways, this makes the process easier than starting a completely new idea, as I already have a main character who is well established in the first novel. Some supporting cast also come through to the second novel. But it also casts hidden traps along the way. I can’t assume that everyone who reads Jerusalem will have read Sleeper Cell. So while I don’t want to rehash Leila Reid’s backstory or go over all the events that happened in the first book, I have to make sure there are enough pointers that new readers won’t be completely lost. At very least it will be necessary to outline the main plot points of the fist book in the second. Something to keep in mind…

There is nothing more exciting than a completely blank computer screen

Some writers hate a blank page, but for me there is nothing more exciting than a completely blank computer screen on which I am going to start out on an exciting twelve month journey (all told, a year is about average for the production of a full length novel for me). My first sentence is usually short – no more than a dozen words – and it never changes from one draft to the next. What I write on that blank screen is exactly what the reader will see when the book is published. It’s a superstition. It’s how I work…

So, what mental kit do I set out on this journey with? I’m not a plotter. I don’t do character notes. Everything I need is in my head – not as a complete novel in the way that Mozart is said to have had a complete symphony in his head before he picked up his pencil, but I know my characters, I know my setting and I’m confident that if I let the story unfold naturally it will maintain internal consistency. Of course, this is the reason why my second draft takes almost as long as my first (of which more in a later post). The most I will do at this stage is take a sheet of A4 paper and write the initial impetus for the story at the top and the desired outcome at the bottom. Between the two I might add plot pointers for essential movements as I go along, but never in advance of actually starting the writing process. We’ve got to get from A to B, but how? Don’t know – my characters will tell me a lot as I write, and inconsistencies can be ironed out in the second draft.

So, I know where Leila Reid starts. She’s on a private jet. The cabin is empty… and so is the cockpit. She can’t read the instruments, has only ever flown a Cessna, and all she can see below her is desert. She has no idea how she got there.

As starting points go, this is quite detailed by virtue of the fact that I (and most readers) already know a lot about our heroine. The opening idea for Sleeper Cell was simply a bomb in a London hotel. I had written the first chapter before I even knew who the heroine was!

I try to avoid having to do much research as I write as I like to write fast. This helps to keep up a breathless pace right from the start. Write fast and it ‘reads’ fast, even after it’s been hammered about in the second and edited drafts. At least, that’s the theory. We all have our quirks and superstitions!

I spent most of January doing the technical research for the book – I knew where it was set, some of the principal plot points and what kinds of backgrounds I was going to have to create, at least for the opening third of the book. Beyond that, I’ll have to see what’s necessary when I get there! I have schematics for the particular jet in question (although it is never named), and I know enough about how they fly to be able to get one on the ground – albeit in a state that it would never fly again. That’s all I need – Reid can’t fly either, so I only know what she knows. I know where she’s going to land and although I’ve never been there, I’ve spent time in deserts and I’ve got satellite photos and maps of the real location. That should be enough. If not, I’m going on holiday…

This series of books are structured rather differently from my usual novels in that they consist of a large number (40+) of short chapters, and the action chops and changes between different protagonists and locations. This keeps the momentum of the novel up and keeps the reader guessing until all the strands are brought together in the final section of the work.

Remember what readers are interested in: people. And people do things.

So this first chapter is pretty much what you’ve read above, fleshed out a bit. It’s not action-with-a-hook-at-the-end. It’s all hook. It plunges the reader into the jeopardy right from the start. There’s no description, no back story, only what Reid actually experiences in her first three minutes after waking up on the plane. In other words, the action takes place in real time – three minutes is about as long as it will take the reader to read it. This makes it personal, immediate, and unsettling. Hopefully it makes the reader want to proceed into chapter two.

If I’m writing a more expansive first chapter (see, for example, Run (2013) or GM (2014)), I might include more description, but it’s kept to a minimum. A lot of writers early in their journey to becoming proficient include too much irrelevant detail. We don’t need to know what the weather is doing (unless it has a direct bearing on the action); we don’t need a description of the room, what the man next to her in bed looks like, what kind of coffee they drink, her school record, any of that shit that slows the narrative down. Remember what readers are interested in: people. And people do things. You can show a lot more about a character by having her act than just sit there like a model in a renaissance painting. Cut the crap and get on with it!

At the beginning of this book, Reid is being hunted by three different organisations, and the next three chapters outline the real-time positions of each. Again, they are all hook and no back story. It’s important to make the characters live immediately, and the locations as sensory as possible, as the reader has to absorb a lot of information quickly. If in chapter five the reader has to flick back to find out who the hell Michael Lawrence is, I’ve failed. He must be alive from his first appearance (although it helps that he is a main character in Sleeper Cell, most of the people we meet in the first forty pages of the book are entirely new).

I’m taking the reader on a journey, and the best way to do that is to take that same journey as I write.

By chapter five I can relax the pace a little. The ‘problem’ Reid faces (other than being in a pilotless plane!) has been strongly suggested, and it’s now time to fill the narrative out. I can refer back to the events of Sleeper Cell to show how she got into this mess, and begin to hint at who might be able to help her, who hinder her, and who is outright determined to kill her (most people!). What I don’t do yet is give any hint at how she is going to navigate her way through the minefield. And I do this by not knowing myself. I’m taking the reader on a journey, and the best way to do that is to take that same journey as I write. I know where I need her to be on the final page (probably; it may change), but not exactly how she’s going to get there.

My schedule is 1,000 words a day, although often I’ll write more in the early stages of a book. The novel will be 90,000 words in first draft, to be cut in later revisions to about 75,000. So that’s three months for the first draft (unless I have to go to Israel to do a bit more research!).

Now, the exciting part. A blank screen awaits…

The next installment of this post will discuss how I use back story and setting to flesh out the action, and how every thriller is really just a series of increasingly jeopardy-filled problem-and-solution scenes that lead along a path to salvation. Stay tuned!

 

Me, Myself and I

These three little words are all pronouns which can be used to refer to yourself. But they are not interchangable. They are not three variations of the same thing which can be used according only to how posh/hip/formal you want to sound. And yet that is how they are increasingly used. Listen to TV and film dialogue; you’d think some writers had never been to school at all.

The worst offenders are ‘me’ and ‘I’. You’ll often hear people using them in an attempt to sound either more educated than they are (when they’ll use ‘I’) or more informal and laid back (‘me’).

For example:

Me and Phil went to the park. (Sounds cool, yeah?)

or

The police accused Phil and I of vandalism in the park. (Sounds really superior and indignant, OK?)

Both are wrong.

‘I’ should be used when the pronoun is the SUBJECT of the verb. In the first sentence, the verb is ‘to go’ (went). You and Phil are the subject of the sentence – you went to the park. So it should, literally, be ‘I and Phil went to the park’ – or, less clumsily, ‘Phil and I went to the park’.

‘Me’ is used when the pronoun is the OBJECT of the verb. In the second sentence, you and Phil were accused; that is, the verb happened to you. So it should be ‘The police accused Phil and me of vandalism in the park.’

If all this sounds a bit technical, there is a very easy way the determine whether you’ve used the right pronoun. Simply remove the additional noun (in these examples ‘Phil’) and see if the sentence makes sense. For example, leaving Phil on the sidelines, the first sentence would read: ‘Me went to the park’, which is clearly wrong. The second would read ‘The police accused I of vandalism in the park.’ Again, nonsense.

Using ‘me’ might not sound very formal; using ‘I’ might make you sound posh. But get them right and at least you won’t sound thick.

So what about ‘myself’?

The use of the reflexive pronoun seems to have gained currency recently as politicians and their ilk use it to make themselves sound superior. They are terrified of the lowly ‘me’ (which it almost always replaces). There is one simple rule for ‘myself’. Don’t use it except where you are both the subject and the object of a sentence: ‘I talked myself out of going to the park with Phil’. (There are a few other exceptions, but generally reflexive pronouns are best kept only for special-effect value.)

Of course, we play with language in our writing. There’s nothing wrong with getting all this wrong when writing character dialogue… provided such errors are in character. For example, an Oxford Professor of English would not say ‘The Dean cooked dinner for Professor Jones and I.’ That would be stupid!

 

Globalising ‘Buy’ links for Amazon

As authors, everything we do is about encouraging people to buy our books. We write, so we need people to buy. You’ll notice I never solicit sales through Facebook posts, but there is a link on the header bar in case anyone is inspired to do so. That link goes through to my website where ebooks and paperbacks can be bought.

If you don’t care enough about your customers to make buying easy, they probably won’t bother.

So far, so mundane. Plenty of people have similar set-ups. But what I see time and again are links only to Amazon DOT COM. And I live in England. I can’t buy your book from the dot-com site. OK, it’s only another click away, but really, if you don’t care enough about your customers to make buying easy, they probably won’t bother. It’s certainly enough to kill any ‘maybe-spur-of-the-moment’ purchase.

So why don’t you make it easy?

Globalising links is easy. It can be done for any international retailer, but for the sake of illustration I will concentrate on two methods for driving traffic to the correct Amazon site.

The first method is to have a single, portable link (which can be disguised as a button if required) that can be placed in email signatures, blog posts and on third-party sites (if allowed). While it is possible to do the coding yourself, it is much easier to outsource the job to someone like Georiot* (https://www.geni.us/). Here, you can sign up for a free account (up to a certain number of clicks per month, after which there is a tiny charge), and they will create a universal link which can be placed on your site. When a customer clicks on it, or a button of your own design associated with it, they will be taken via Georiot – who will parse their IP address for location information – and direct them to the correct Amazon site. It’s neat, slick, and Georiot is completely invisible to the customer.

Georiot also has optional customisation that parses the user’s device and will send them to iTunes if they’re using an iPad, or Amazon on a Windows phone, and so on. The customisation is impressive!

(*Note: I have no connection with Georiot other than using their services on my mobile site.)

The second way is to hard-code the options in HTML using drop-down lists and a bit of Java coding.

At the point on the page at which you want to create a drop-down list of Amazon websites, simply paste in the following code.

   
function openDir( form ) {
var newIndex = form.fieldname.selectedIndex;
if ( newIndex == 0 ) {
alert( “Please select a location!” );
} else {
cururl = form.fieldname.options[ newIndex ].value;
window.location.assign( cururl );
}
}

<table border=”0″ cellpadding=”4″ cellspacing=”0″ width=”100%”>
<form name=”form”> <tbody>
<tr>
<td nowrap=”nowrap”>
<select name=”fieldname” size=”1″ onchange=”openDir( this.form )”>
<option>Select your location</option>
<option value=”http://www.amazon.co.uk/GM-Alan-Porter-ebook/dp/B00ITVZWZ0/”>UK</option&gt;
<option value=”http://www.amazon.com/GM-Alan-Porter-ebook/dp/B00ITVZWZ0/”>US</option&gt;
<option value=”http://www.amazon.com.au/GM-Alan-Porter-ebook/dp/B00ITVZWZ0/”>Australia</option&gt;
<option value=”http://www.amazon.de/GM-Alan-Porter-ebook/dp/B00ITVZWZ0/”>Germany</option&gt;
<option value=”http://www.amazon.fr/GM-Alan-Porter-ebook/dp/B00ITVZWZ0/”>France</option&gt;
<option value=”http://www.amazon.ca/GM-Alan-Porter-ebook/dp/B00ITVZWZ0/”>Canada</option&gt;
<option value=”http://www.amazon.com.br/GM-Alan-Porter-ebook/dp/B00ITVZWZ0/”>Brazil</option&gt;
<option value=”http://www.amazon.it/GM-Alan-Porter-ebook/dp/B00ITVZWZ0/”>Italy</option&gt;
<option value=”http://www.amazon.co.jp/GM-Alan-Porter-ebook/dp/B00ITVZWZ0/”>Japan</option&gt;
<option value=”http://www.amazon.es/GM-Alan-Porter-ebook/dp/B00ITVZWZ0/”>Spain</option&gt;
</select>

</td>
</tr>
</tbody> </form>

Obviously, you’ll need to change the Amazon links to your own title! You can find your own links by searching any Amazon site for your book, then manually changing the domains to those above, eg ‘.br’ for Brazil; ‘.com.au’ for Australia.) For example, the link will look like this:

http://www.amazon.com/GM-Alan-Porter-ebook/dp/B00ITVZWZ0/

And the com should be changed to es, fr, co.uk and so on, one for each country in your drop-down list. Make sure you also change the text after the link to the relevant country as this is what the customer will see when they click on the drop-down. By examining the code above, it should all be quite straightforward!

Once you upload the html file you will get a drop-down like this (in whatever position you chose on your page):

drop closed.jpg
Click on it, and it will open to:
drop open

You can see it live at http://www.eyelevelbooks.co.uk/drop.html. Or see it in place on a live page at http://www.eyelevelbooks.co.uk/acp/library.html (Note, if you are using a mobile device, the links above may take you to my mobile site, which does not use drop-downs… sorry!)

Or, click on the Buy link in the header bar of my FB page to see them in place on a ‘real’ page (if you’re using a desktop computer).

Click on any of the countries, and you will go directly to that Amazon site. (The list here may not be comprehensive, and this is the disadvantage of doing it this way – as more sites are opened, you need to keep updating the code!)

Whichever method you choose (or you may find other services which do the same thing as Georiot), you will hugely improve your customer experience, and increase the likelihood of making a sale. There is no excuse for sending customers to a site where they can’t buy your book – getting someone to click on the link at all is hard enough without being disrespectful to them when they do!

(Please note: this ‘blog’ is only used for occasional postings that are published on my Facebook page (fb/AuthorAlanPorter). Please ‘like’ me there rather than following me here or you’ll miss most of the fun!