Saturday, 22 November 2014


I spoke to Lucy Catten, one of the many well-respected, committed and talented book reviewers on Goodreads, recently who told me: "I'm drawn far more to books with a mix of really high and really low ratings than those with hundreds of mediocre ones. Far better that a story sparks strong feelings! I don't give scores in my reviews either - I think they're pretty pointless." 

If that is the case, why are we authors fixated on equating the quality of our work with a quantity of stars?

I suppose it's because authors put so much time and effort into producing their very best that they expect to be rewarded with a mark of excellence. It's like being at school: with five gold stars, you're at the top of the class.

With product feedback dominating the decisions in consumer choice, public opinion has usurped the long reign of the professional literary critic. Feedback for a book comes in the form of the reviewer, which is anyone and everyone, and the majority of readers aren't interested in whether that semi-colon is in the wrong place; how many adjectives there are to a sentence; or whether the reflexive pronoun has been lexicologically murdered, they simply mark a book according to the personal experience it has given them.

There is solace for those amongst us who have received some terrible reviews of their precious works. Even the world's greatest writers have had one-star ratings for a range of reasons, from not liking the story personally to not receiving the book on time. After a quick trawl through Amazon, the following is, from least favourite to favourite, my Top 30 list of the best (or worst) one-star reviews: 

30 Emily Brontë,Wuthering Heights: “I am repelled by the absurd peregrinations of Brontë's spiteful, petty-spirited, self-absorbed characters” 

29 Paulo Coelho,The Alchemist: “Allegorical nonsense”
28 Joseph Heller,Catch-22: “... one of the most tedious, poorly-written books I've ever read.” 
27 Yann Martel, Life of Pi: “... dull pseudo-intellectual garbage.” 
26 Helen Fielding,Bridget Jones’s Diary: “For anyone concerned about the ‘dumbing-down’ of humanity, here it is in all its glory.” 
25 Irvine Welsh,Trainspotting: “I have no idea if this is a good story because I became bored and frustrated trying to translate the cockney crap.” 
24 Ralph Steadman, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream: “Nothing more than a drug-induced binge.” 
23 John Steinbeck, East of Eden: “This book was yellow and old. I did not want to touch it and threw it away.” 
22 Hubert Selby Jnr, Requiem for a Dream: “This entire book is written in ghetto/white trash dialect spelled phonetically, with minimal punctuation.” 
21 Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho: “A juvenile attempt at grossing the audience out.” 
20 Markus Zusak, The Book Thief: “What's with all the color descriptions? I felt like I was working through a box of crayons.” 
19 Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness: “Really boring. It's about steamboats and the ivory trade.” 
18 Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls: “You spent more time wondering what the gypsies are saying than the actual story.” 
17 George RR Martin, Game of Thrones: “There is no point to this soap opera. Everyone dies.” 
16 Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude: “... tedious, pointless, and unpleasant and all the characters are creeps.”
15 Scott Donaldson, On the Road: “Three hundred pages of whining, grousing and getting loaded.” 
14 Tracy Chevalier, Girl with a Pearl Earring: “Aside from a memorable metaphor on page one, this book is bland as a pauper's meal of yesterday's potatoes.” 
13 Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: “... if you were interested in crazy people this is the book for you.” 
12 Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast for Champions: “I'd say it was a book purposely written stupidly to appear clever.” 
11 Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl: “She talks of her lady parts and its SERIOUSLY GROSS.” 
10 Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities: “Many words used are obsolete.” 
9 John Milton, Paradise Lost: “It was so far beyond me that I embarrassed myself.” 
8 Orson Scott Card, Enders Game: “... an awful lot of all male shower scenes for an author who doesn't like gay people.” 
7 Mary Shelley, Frankenstein: “The creature went from hideous dumb clod to hideous Collin Firth in a matter of months via eavesdropping on some peasants.” 
6 Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange: “The made-up slang words ruined the book for me.” 


5 Aldous Huxley, Brave New World: “a bit too scientific for me.” 
4 Herman Melville, Moby Dick: “Too nautical for me.”
3 Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire: “Being a vampire myself I can assure you that this is nothing at all like it really is. Anne Rice knows nothing of the world of darkness!” 
2 Stephen King, The Shining: “got ruined for me when that Friends episode told me how it ended.”
1 George Orwell, 1984: “He doesn't know a thing about the '80s. Not ONCE did he mention Def Leppard or Karma Chameleon.”

You can't win 'em all!

Sunday, 5 October 2014


Is there a middle option between conventional and self-publishing?
There's no doubt that a good book deserves a professional service but most new authors - many with works of potential excellence - will know that their precious title is littering the floors of traditional publishing houses and will never see the light of day.
More and more often, with staff and cost cuts in the publishing industry, typos and errors are creeping into professionally-published manuscripts and many companies are reluctant to fork-out a percentage of their ever-decreasing marketing budget on their authors. Some of the smaller organisations have no marketing budget at all. The burden of promotion and proofing are therefore left almost exclusively to the author.
DIY publishing has been made easy and cost-free by the likes of Amazon and Smashwords but, with so much choice on the market, books are judged by their cover. A bad cover design can let an author down as can a poorly edited manuscript.
Then there's the marketing and publicity of a book to get it seen. This, to most authors I have spoken to (conventionally and self-published), is where the real work begins. Months of endless networking, press releases and author interviews doesn't necessarily equate to sales, unless you're an established author with a strong fan base. I've also heard a lot of traditionally published authors complain that they have been forced to take responsibility for the promotion of their own works as publishing houses invest time and expense on other services and their better-established authors.
So, if a book's worth publishing and an author is prepared to put in vast amounts of time and effort, why do we shudder at the thought of paying out cash for professional services?
I know a good few traditionally published authors who are finding the DIY publishing model far more lucrative. I don't know any of them who do not pay for a professional editing service. Similarly, most of them fork out for a good cover designer. They do this to maintain the standard of excellent quality that readers expect from them and will continue to buy into. Some of those authors pay for the services of a publicist to professionally market their product.
Unscrupulous vanity publishers (and that's not a syllogistic statement) have ruined perceptions on paying for publishing. The stigma attached to vanity and the warnings against them are a good reason to stay well clear. Jonathon Clifford, on his excellent site Vanity Publishing: A Campaign for Truth and Honesty makes it very clear what a good vanity publisher will NOT do:
So what's the alternative? Is there a middle road to publishing between conventional and DIY?
I've been speaking to Matthew Smith (pictured right), director of Urbane Publications, a Kent-based company that calls itself a 'collaborative' publishing house: an organisation of professional book people who share the costs of publishing a book with the author in a mutually beneficial contract. He calls it The Third Way.
I'm not advocating their services but am curious as to the effectiveness of their delivery. Are they a brand new business model for the industry or just another vanity publisher under a different guise? If they are what they say on the tin, then this is indeed an exciting time for publishing.
Matthew Smith certainly puts up a compelling argument that his Third Way approach is the way forward. He says: '[There is a Third Way] that combines all the benefits of traditional publishing (an engaged editor, script development, knowledge, design, route to market, promotion etc) but gives the author creative and commercial engagement during every part of the process. Every aspect of the project is a shared experience with shared goals, a genuine partnership. And that includes the sharing of the revenue, because every author deserves a fair return on their words.'
If you're interested in learning more, pop over to my Ivy Moon Press site and decide for yourself.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Wigtown showcase sets tongues wagging

WagTongues pop-up bookshop joined the Wigtown Book Festival on Saturday with its own mini-festival of readings, talks, interviews and books.
Run by the Dumfries Writers’ Collective, WagTongues is a bookshop which pops up without warning across Dumfries and Galloway and over the border.
Its remit is to sell precious things: local books by local writers, including poetry, fiction, memoir and history from Sally Hinchclife, Donald Adamson, Hugh Bryden, Mary Smith, D D Hall, Gwen Kirkwood, Margaret Elphinstone, Claire Cogbill, JoAnne McKay, Kriss Nichol, Janet Walkinshaw and, of course, me.
Celebrated poet Hugh Bryden
searches for inspiration for
The Poet Is In
Member Mary Smith, said: “WagTongues runs a programme of events whilst we’re open, so there’s the opportunity to meet authors, listen to readings, hear interviews and attend mini-workshops as well as browse through and buy wonderful books.
“We take books from any writer or publisher in the region and anyone who would like to join us should send an email
Sally Hinchcliffe and JoAnne McKay
The bookshop has this year enjoyed a successful festival run.
It was invited to be  part of the Dumfries and Galloway Arts Festival in May when it held a two-day pop-up bookshop and mini literary festival in Castle Douglas.
WagTongues recently took advantage of another invitation by The Stove, Dumfries, where it popped-up during the Nithraid and In Our Town events. Its innovative literary venture, the Poet Is In, proved popular with the afternoon crowds.
Last year WagTongues appeared twice at the Wigtown Book Festival and at The Stove, Dumfries, during Scotland’s Book Week in November.
A few weeks ago, they moved across the Border for the first time to collaborate with the Carlisle Writers at the Borderlines Book Festival.
WagTongues member Sally Hinchcliffe, said: “We're really pleased to have been invited to take part in both Borderlines and Nithraid, two great up-and-coming events in the region, and a chance to build bridges both across borders and with different art forms.”
Chick amused his audience
with a performance of
poems by rote.
On Saturday, WagTongues popped-up in Wigtown during the Book Festival at the Quaker Meeting House and adjoining garden.
An impressive display of books in the outside pavilion attracted browsers and purchasers while, inside, festival-goers listened to the many talks and readings by Dumfries and Galloway authors and poets.
I sold three copies of
The Sleeping Warrior on the day!
At the same time, the region's most talented poets sought inspirational thoughts from the public for a set of spur-of-the-moment poems which delighted audiences.
Poet and WagTongues member JoAnne McKay said: “It's fantastic that WagTongues has popped-up three times during September, and each appearance has so far had a very different flavour.
"We would like to say a huge thanks to all the writers and publishers who came along and to everyone who volunteered to help out.
“We exist to promote local writing, and love doing it, even if it does mean a few sleepless nights!”
WagTongues takes no commission with the full price of sales going directly to the authors and the events will raise funds for Arthritis Care Scotland. Further information from

Wednesday, 17 September 2014


“We could be on the brink of the end of the United Kingdom as we know it”, said Emily Maitlis of the BBC recently.

On Friday morning, the United Kingdom will feel the full impact of its recent separation. Irrespective of whether Scotland gains independence from the 78th largest sovereign state in the World or not, the great divide has already taken place through the litany of impassioned opinion, and relationships will never be the same again.

Like most divorces, it’s the sparring  that cuts the deepest: the angry words, the apportionment of blame, the accusations, the fury and the sulking. When bad relationships come to a head, the parties seldom kiss and make up. Instead it’s down to the divorce lawyer to initiate proceedings and attempt to negotiate a mutually beneficial financial settlement that won’t put one or the other party out of pocket.

As for Scotland, the imminent referendum has split the nation into two almost equal camps: Yes and No. Choosing one or the other should, prima facie, be a simple task but the forensic debate that has accompanied that single question has led to further enquiry on a subject where there is little precedent upon which to offer informed answers. Politicians and supporters from either camp, therefore, have resorted to the usual dirty tactics of the slanging match and opinion, not facts, has provided the bases for serious discussion.

The romantic ideology of a subdued and conquered nation rising up against its oppressors to the rallying call of freedom can be highly persuasive. Heroes like William Wallace and Robert the Bruce have been resurrected from their graves in aid of the Yes cause only to be met with the boos and jeers of the opposing forces  telling them that the people of Scotland should not dwell on the past but look instead to the future.

But it is the past that moulds and shapes the individuals we are today and even historical events can form the foundation for emotive argument. Maggie Thatcher’s axe came down on the Scots in the ’80s with as much force as Edward I’s infamous hammer did in the 13th century. The Iron Lady even violated the Act of Union by using Scotland as a testing ground for the poll tax a year before it was inflicted on the rest of the United Kingdom. Westminster commended her efforts by bestowing upon her the highest order of Knighthood. The Scots still hate her.

Tony Blair led his kingdoms into a war which the majority of Scots (as well as the rest of the UK) did not condone. David Cameron’s misguided refusal to include a Devo Max option in the referendum has been taken as evidence that Westminster either underestimated the sheer force of Scottish sentiment or had little care for it.

History has become that proverbial elephant of Scottish pride: the one that may forgive, but refuses to forget.

Scotland will decide tomorrow whether it secedes from, or remains in, a three-hundred year union. Whatever the decision, the strength of national identity, which has been rippling on the surface of Scottish opinion for centuries, has now become a significant tidal force.

Like many other countries across the world, we are on the brink of the end of a unity as we know it, whether Scotland becomes independent or not. Globalisation and the call for national identity has ensured the tide’s been receding for centuries around the shores of bold Britannia. Those mighty waves crashing against her proud flotillas of war and conquest now cause little more than a tiny splash against a plastic bathtub bobbing in the midst of an ever-widening ocean of disappointment and discontent for some.

Yes or no. A nation will decide. My only hope is that, whatever the outcome, we have a final chance to leave the bitterness behind and look forward to a harmonious future with our closest neighbours.

I'll leave you with a note from fellow author Mary Smith:

Something to share and invite others to do for the next few days. Share a Scottish love song and make this a week of love and celebration, whatever way you are voting. There are folk for whom this has been an anxious time, and there are folk, like those in Catalonia, who are banned from this kind of democratic decision. Whether you are voting yes or no, share a song, celebrate your vote, and let's show the world we can respect one another. Something to share and invite others to do for the next few days. Share a Scottish love song and make this a week of love and celebration, whatever way you are voting. There are folk for whom this has been an anxious time, and there are folk, like those in Catalonia, who are banned from this kind of democratic decision. Whether you are voting yes or no, share a song, celebrate your vote, and let's show the world we can respect one another. http

Here's mine from twa local lassies:

Emily Smith, The Silver Tassie:
Mary Barclay, Blackbird: 

Monday, 15 September 2014

Linda Fausnet
I'm over at Linda Fausnet's blog this week talking about the importance of the book reviewer to authors and publishers:

Originally a screenwriter, Linda's novel Queen Henry is the story of a homophobic, macho major league baseball player whose participation in a clinical drugs trial alters his life in ways he could never imagine:

Linda is a strong advocate of equal rights and all proceeds of sales of her book go to The Harvey Milk Foundation.

She is also a great supporter of the self-published author and regularly features fellow writers on her blog.

She says: "I ... believe strongly in helping other writers. It's my goal to connect readers with good stories, whether they come from traditional publishers or independent writers."

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Call of the wild

'We need the tonic of wildness...At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.” 
Henry David ThoreauWalden: Or, Life in the Woods

I HAVE indulged in an illicit love affair with north west Scotland for decades.
Every year, when family and friends are taking planes to far-off sunny climes, living lavish temporary all-inclusive lifestyles on a tropical beach, the solitary voice of the cold wilderness calls me to return.
In response, I pack the tent or, more lately, the camper van, and head north to reunite with my soul.
There is nowhere in the world like the north-west Highlands of Scotland, where deer and eagles are more profuse than people; where humankind has learned to endure rather than prosper; and where contemporary society is a condition that other people are forced to live with.
Bothy in Drumbeg, looking
out to Eddrachillis Bay
When I was a child, I believed the Highlands began at Dumbarton Rock in the Clyde: the giant sentinel stone marking the gateway to the snow-powdered peaks of the Trossachs.
The further north I travel, however, the further the perspective of remoteness moves. The brooding mountains of Glencoe and sweeping Caledonian forests of Glen Garry no longer hold the same heart-thumping thrill.
The Highlands, for me, begins on the sun-bleached rocky shores of Loch Lochy: this is where I get that surge of excitement that I have actually reached that 'somewhere'. It carries on through Ross and Cromarty and ends in the most spectacular landscapes in the United Kingdom and, to me, the world: Assynt - a magnificent wilderness of rock and water and one of the oldest places in the world.
The mountains in the picture - from left, Canisp, Suilven, Cul Mor and Cul Beag - were squeezed out of the earth in, what geologists call, the Moine Thrust and some of the rocks that have carved this spectacular landscape are over 800 million years old.
Eight hundred million years ago, the world was just ocean and one big super-continent called Rodina. It was five hundred and fifty years later that the continent broke up, drifted apart and formed the world as we know it today.
Although Glaciation and warming have further sculpted the mountains around Planet Earth, the hard bedrock of Sutherland is as thrawn and inclement as its climate. This is a place that, over the millennia, has refused to be sullied. Although this land has been frequently studied, surveyed and explored, it remains unfathomable; its impact on the soul, immeasurable.

Monday, 28 April 2014

Freedom to roam

WHILE the rest of the British Isles and a large part of Europe were blighted with inclement weather over the weekend, a little micro-climate of sunshine hung over the Oban area.
It just so happened that I was there to experience this rare summer weather in April, and without the midges, in this beautiful part of Argyll and Bute.
For anyone who hasn't experienced the unique sensation of freedom and all its associated philosophies that the Scottish Highlands evokes, a trip to this corner of the world will change you forever.
In my haste to get away, I left my precious camera at home and was forced to revert to the rubbish one on my iPhone.
The long walk along a muddy path, clothed by woods and mountains, was well worth the effort as the end of it opened out into Sailean Sligeanach (pictured), a small inlet of the Lynne of Lorne close to Benderloch, where Highland cattle roam freely across the mudflats and the mountains of Lismore and Morvern frown from the horizon behind the sparkling blue sea.
Long may the memory linger.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

On the shelf

THE journey of most debut authors - whether mainstream published or self-published - is a long and arduous uphill climb. Few are fast-tracked to the top of the world's reading lists and even fewer make a good living out of writing.
So why do we bother to do it?
There was a time when I believed there to be no feeling more satisfying for authors than holding a real copy of their first novel.
The ability to thumb through the pages and recognise parts of one's own work in tactile print creates a significant sense of achievement.
Although most authors would say they write books to satiate a personal need, there is also a necessity to share the work with others. Authors of fiction are storytellers and storytellers need listeners. There is little point in telling tales in front of an empty auditorium.
I've just received another five-star professional review of The Sleeping Warrior ( in which the reviewer Danielle Pinzon described it as 'remarkable'. It is little words like this from complete strangers that make all the effort meaningful and there is nothing better than a sense of worth to raise confidence in a writer and spur them on to do more and do it even better.
The highlight of the month for me was a visit to my local library where I saw a copy of The Sleeping Warrior placed in a prominent position on the shelves. Seeing my book displayed for public access can only be described as one of life's true joys.
The success of a product lies in its potential value to the purchaser -  in an author's case, the reader - and the only way to increase recognition is to give readers the means by which to spread the word and share their good experiences. That's why reviews, libraries and bookshops are so important to an author: they provide the physical channel for public access to your book that no amount of social networking can compete with.
Although Amazon is the biggest seller of books throughout the world, its shelves are endless labyrinths of virtual words and books that don't sit in the top one hundred of any particular list will normally fail to get noticed by potential readers. Amazon is also very fickle in that anyone who knows how to manipulate their way to the top of the lists can become an Amazon best-seller for a nano-second and then it's all over.
There are, of course, many exceptions to this rule and I would never seek to underestimate the power of the mighty e-book nor the honest efforts of fellow writers.
I think I'll put what's left of my hard copies to good use and attempt to sell them to more libraries and bookshops: especially the ones with a geographical and genre connection to the book.
I will also try and find more professional reviewers to increase the list of candid, independent analyses.
How that will equate to more readers and sales in the long-term is yet another story to be told.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Guest interview

I'M ANSWERING questions over at Giovanni Valentino's blog today:
Giovanni is a fellow author who also spends his time and effort supporting others on their publishing journeys.
He's also co-publisher at Strange Musings Press: