Dear bookshops: I’m sorry

I feel guilty whenever I visit a bookshop these days.

At first glance it’s not obvious why. I read three books a week, buy several more. And as an indie author I depend on people buying books for an increasing chunk of my income.

But in the last four years, precisely 0 of those purchases have been on paper.

On the lookout for solid marketing? Email Chris.I’m a Kindle fanatic and a minimalist; I’ve given away half a thousand print books over the last year or two and my shelfspace at home doesn’t even stretch to a metre. That combo is killer for any bookshop.

And I’m sorry.

From the bright detailing of the big chains to the musty corners of the independents that still dot Charing Cross Road, I enjoy them all. Browsing, visiting, wasting time. But unless there’s a coffee shop, I no longer have any reason to buy anything in them. I am driving them out of business.

But just as no teenager today can believe we used to carry around music machines that stored a single album, I simply can’t bring myself to buy the print edition of any book. Books take up too much space. How and why could I possibly justify purchasing a kilogram of dead tree, when a thin grey slate that weighs next to nothing can store two thousand of them?

Like I said, I’m sorry, bookshops.

But I’ll make you a promise or two. It’s not much, but it’ll help. Maybe.

  • I promise I won’t come in to paw the books before buying them on Kindle. That’s theft of resource, plain and simple. If I want to read the blurbs, I’ll do it at Amazon.
  • I promise I’ll buy a coffee. If there’s a tea stand out back, I’ll stick around and buy a beverage, maybe a croissant or something. Even if I’m not hungry. I owe you that much.
  • And I promise I’ll do anything short of outright charity to keep you around. When you run Writers’ Nights, I’ll support them. When I want to rent space, I’ll look at you first.

Let’s face it, your business model is bleeding out, and unless you’re a City Lights or a Shakespeare & Co you haven’t got long. But our streets are richer for having you in them. And I really, really want you to stay.

New Gabe Rayner short story, “Worked Out”, up at Amazon

workedout_thumbA short story featuring my business consultant action hero, Gabe Rayner, is up at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk for your Kindle.

In “Worked Out“, Rayner’s in the mood for some R&R after a conference in Miami. The miniskirted nymphet beckoning him over gives him some ideas, but they might not be what you’re expecting…

… and if you promise not to tell, the ebook’s also FREE as a download in .mobi (Kindle) or .epub (iBooks) format.

SFF: one F too many

If there’s one thing I really hate, it’s the way the fiction business conflates Science Fiction with Fantasy.

SFF is not a genre. Science Fiction is not Fantasy, okay? If Fantasy has a role, it’s as Sci-Fi’s less respectable cousin. A burger and shake for preteens before they graduate to something crunchy and interesting like a Dozois anthology. Sci-fi writers have worked for decades to be a genre that even has a less respectable cousin; that extra F hasn’t earned the right to be there.

I accept there’s an argument the other way. You could say a dwarf and an alien share conceptual DNA (now there’s an image to conjure with.) And when it comes to “magic”, Fantasy has its vanishing spells while Sci-fi has teleports and hyperdrive.

But I maintain that’s moot, because most SF at least tries to ground itself in natural law; the physics of a space/time warp, the excitement of photons in a death ray. In good SF, hyperdrive isn’t a get-out; it’s an integral part of the plot. It’s what allowed the human species to spread out over a thousand worlds without fragmenting into separate societies. Or, in other narratives, what caused it to fragment.

Sci-fi is rooted in realities. Even if that reality is a speculative extrapolation of engineering and physics. Much SF recognises the frailty and weakness of the human, and the greatness of applied learning that lifts us above our Earth and onto the surface of alien worlds.

By contrast, Fantasy’s characters draw heavily on cheat factors – lost kings and highborns, warrior tribes and evil overlords. They’re fairy tales, stories for children not adults, not worthy of respect the way a Bear novel or Dick short is when it explores the future of technology and returns a commentary on what it means to be human. (Of course, Star Wars was a fairy tale, but the point holds.) Sci-fi is self-aware, in a way Fantasy never seems to be.

Other worlds. The only one we've been to.Of course there’s a lot of bad SF out there, just as there’s a lot of bad Fantasy. (And bad romance. And thriller. And…) Because good sci-fi takes serious effort to write. You’ve got to create a believable storyworld that’s both complete in itself and consistent with the world we know, physical laws and evolution and cosmology. (Even at this early stage in the human adventure, we know a fair bit about physics.)

One of the few “good” Fantasy series – JRR Tolkein’s – is readable precisely because he grounded his monsters and magic in laws we feel hold true: the laws of living languages. The vast majority of Fantasy doesn’t feel the need, while almost every Science Fiction novel does. And Fantasy’s dragons and swordplay are a steaming pile of garbage as a result.

“SFF” is an abomination. Let’s drop that extra F, and leave Fantasy to the people who want to read about dwarves and buried treasure.

Fitzgerald, Fagles, or Lattimore?

thucy-751915I’m a Kindle fanatic, but I go for quality rather than volume, and today I’m kicking off my selection of the Greek and Latin classics. Obviously the trio to start with is  Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey with Virgil’s later Aeneid – but which translation?

Well, the first decision is easy. These epic poems were chanted (long before they were written down) so the prose translations don’t do it for me: I want a sense of how the ancient languages worked. Despite being written in different languages five centuries apart, all three epics used dactylic hexameter. (DUH-duh-duh DUH-duh-duh DUH-duh-duh DUH-duh-duh DUH-duh-duh DUH-duh-duh) – so I’d like a version that nails the odd drumbeat of those 20ish syllable lines. What’s more, Homer wrote the oral sagas down compactly; scholars say the Greek doesn’t waste a word.

So I’m looking for a verse translation that’s not florid or flowery. Three big names come up: Robert Fitzgerald, Robert Fagles, and Richmond Lattimore.

Richmond Lattimore was both a translator and poet and worked before post-modernism introduced interpretative translating to a broad audience. His Iliad and Odyssey are reportedly as pin-perfect as English can come to ancient Greek: syllable counts and line lengths are constant, as in the Greek.

Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
Even so he could not save his companions, hard though
he strove to; they were destroyed by their own wild recklessness,
fools, who devoured the oxen of Helios, the sun God,
and he took away the day of their homecoming. From some point
here, goddess, daughter of Zeus, speak, and begin our story.

He’s also the only big name who hews to the same line count, a huge achievement: any line of Homer corresponds to the same line in Lattimore. For this attention to detail and structure, plus the way his spare English and beats reflect the chants of thirty centuries ago, he’d be my first choice. One issue with Lattimore: he never did an Aeneid.

Robert Fagles is the rock star of Homeric verse: there’s a grab-bag of modern coinings in his verse, and it’s all pretty good stuff. Apparently though he takes a few liberties with his translation; it’s far more a transliteration than Lattimore’s.

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bringing his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod blotted out the day of their return.
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will sing for our time too.

His line lengths all cut the mustard, and the vowels make it more of a tone poem than Lattimore’s. Also, Fagles translated the Big Three, so a real contender.

Robert Fitzgerald takes a slightly different perspective: look at how different that “Sing in me… and through me tell the story” is in sense to Fagles and Lattimore. Fitzgerald also plays havoc with Greek meter to make his English work: this ain’t a poem for chanting.

Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end,
after he plundered the stronghold
on the proud height of Troy.
He saw the townlands
and learned the minds of many distant men,
and weathered many bitter nights and days
in his deep heart at sea, while he fought only
to save his life, to bring his shipmates home.
But not by will nor valor could he save them,
for their own recklessness destroyed them all
children and fools, they killed and feasted on
the cattle of Lord Helios, the Sun,
and he who moves all day through heaven
took from their eyes the dawn of their return.
Of these adventures, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
tell us in our time, lift the great song again.

As such I’m not going for Fitzgerald’s work. So which: Lattimore or Fagles?

Well, Lattimore didn’t do an Aeneid, and neither writer, unforgivably, is available from a single imprint on Kindle. (Cover designs and consistent formatting shouldn’t make a difference, but do: I love seeing a nice grid of those Penguin Classics covers on my screen.)

But the precision-translation of Lattimore’s more to my taste, so he’ll be my choice for Homer’s epics. While I’m trying out Fagles’ Aeneid (having read his Iliad and Odyssey decades ago.) Of course, the sensible thing is to buy both.

A foray into fiction

00_2birds_100pxMy first bit of fiction, Two Birds, is now up at Amazon. It’s Kindle-only, but you don’t need a Kindle to read it – there are free reader apps for your phone, iThing, Mac or PC.

It’s a short novel featuring Gabe Rayner – the first business consultant action hero! If you’re minded to give Gabe a go, I’d be grateful for all comments, criticism, and (especially) reviews on my author’s page (I write under my pen name, Mark Charteris). Download the book from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk. Thanks!

 

Taking a year off: a 365-day stretch goal

Things happen in threes. Not for a reason – reasons are just narratives we impose on the world to make sense of it – but when three connected things happen in the same month that all push you in the same direction, it’s worth thinking about the big decisions of life and what you really want out of it.

I’ve been a copywriter a loooooong time. Thanks to knowing tech just when marketing it got big – and maybe, just maybe, being a decent ideas-into-words guy – I’ve been on the top tier of my market for twelve years plus. Among the hordes of freelancers who infest London’s marketing services agencies and departments, I’ve always had an edge: maybe nothing more than a head for numbers and an understanding of organisational behaviour, but it means clients hire me for “the hard stuff“. And the hard stuff’s always paid better.

But like all small businesses, I have rough years: yesterday, my bank pulled a credit line I use as breathing room in the two slow summer months. That’s the kind of thing you can huff and whine about. Or see as a sign. I’ve felt bad about my £50-a-day extraneous expenses for a while; nobody needs to eat breakfast out, everybody’s capable of prepping their own lunch, and few need to spend £90 a month on a gym with free towels. Tyler Durden taught us to let go of that which does not matter, and my life was becoming simpler already. That’s Sign One: the financial driver. Living a great life comes cheap if you don’t live it by others’ standards.

Sign Two was a change in behaviour: in the last year I’ve unaccountably started reading fiction again. The good stuff: Dozois’s anthologies, Chandler and Child, Elmore Leonard right back to his pulp cowboy yarns in the 50s. Plus a lot of texts on narrative structure and character dev. To amuse myself I’ve been scratching together a novella the last two months that’s nearly ready for prime time. (Sci-fi is my first love, and I run a fiction site with 2,500 fans: that’s what’s known as “an audience”. But what sells in the mainstream male market is thrillers.) That’s Sign Two: fresh skills.

Sign Three conects the two: for no reason I foresaw, I’ve just converted my garage into a home gym/office/studio space, adding a wodge of value to the house and opening up opportunities to rent a room out. With the place paying for itself I can survive working for “real” clients just a couple of days a month, if I feel like it. As a home gym the new space works great; as a writer’s garret it’s awesome. Sign Three: the infrastructure.

The new garret, sorry, I mean garage.

The new garret, sorry, I mean garage.

So: an incentive to reduce my outgoings… an infusion of new skills… and a ready-made place to put them to work. Together, that’s more than signs: it’s Life swinging a sledgehammer against my skull and saying DO THIS.

That’s the stretch goal, summer to summer. From 1 July 2013 to 30 June 2014 I conceive, write, and improve my first full-length novel, publishing an initial novella end of July 2013 as a taster and tester. A month to plan and structure, eight to write 500-1000 words a day for a target of 160,000, and three to shave and scrub before it hits Kindle. Well, why the hell not?

If I can’t do this, I’m just soft and lazy. (People wrote great novels by candlelight in freezing attics.) And if I can’t do this after two decades being paid to write stuff, I’m just not cut out for it.

Either way, the next 365 days will tell me.

Life is amazing. And I’ve a feeling it’s about to become even more so. Sign One gives me a reason to cook with aplomb, to work out using two meanings of “free weights”, to carve up the calendar with even greater discipline. Sign Two shows the way to take something I found easy to the next level, in a way that lets you gather criticism and feedback constantly. And Sign Three gives me a lifespace precisely the right shape and size. What’s not to like here? The adrenalin’s pumping already.

Today, a life that was already pretty satisfying becomes even better. A story of how extreme self-actualisation leads to things that improve yourself… and adds something to the world as a whole. And the best thing in life is that there’s no top floor in what we humans are capable of.

Which, by the way, is the theme of the novel.

Watch this space.