Archive | Random Thoughts – mildly humorous RSS feed for this section

The Five Deadly Sins of Writers on Twitter

10 Feb

Before we get into this, I’d better be upfront: I joined Twitter because I am an author, and apparently it’s one of the absolutely essential things you have to do. Tweets drive traffic to your website and, so the theory goes, that increases sales of your books. I’ve yet to see the proof of this, but I stay on Twitter anyway because, annoying as it often is, it’s good for up-to-the-minute news, it’s sometimes funny, and you should see how much faster companies work to sort out your customer service queries when the details are on the web for everyone to see.

However, as a writer on Twitter I’ve become aware of the ways in which writers abuse this extremely abusable medium in a variety of irritating ways, so I thought I would have a little moan about it (which, naturally will increase sales of my books. Hmm.). Here are the five commandments for writers using Twitter.

bull horn

1) Don’t tweet about your book all the time.
I know that’s the reason you joined Twitter, but this isn’t a billboard or a TV screen for you to advertise on. It is, in a loose sense, a community. People follow you because they are interested in at least some of what you have to say. If the only thing you have to say is “Buy my product, buy my product!” they will very soon get tired and stop following you.

That’s not to say you can’t mention your wares at all, but keep a strict limit on it – one every ten tweets, say, or once every five if you absolutely must. In between times, find interesting things to say. If you can’t do that, the question is not “why are you on Twitter?” but “why are you a writer?”

Tweedledum and Tweedledee

2) Don’t only follow authors.

And don’t mainly follow authors, and especially don’t follow authors just because they’re authors. Yes, it might be nice to share the joys and sorrows of your profession with like-minded souls, but that’s not why you’re following them, is it? You’re following them because they’ll probably follow you back. And so they will, because they’ve read the same advice you have about building up your Twitter following to drive traffic etc. etc.

The problem with this logic is that they are not interested in your books! They are not going to buy them! They just want you to buy theirs. Do you plan on buying even one book from each author you follow on Twitter? No? Well use a bit of that writerly empathy to understand that the same applies in reverse, and stop trying to sell coal to coal miners.

BSZpsnx3) Don’t offer a follow for a follow or a like for a like.

For the same reason that you shouldn’t follow authors, hoping they’ll follow you back, please don’t say “follow me, I always follow back!” or “like my author page and I’ll like yours!” Anyone who follows you just to get followed, or likes your page just to get liked, is probably not really going to engage with your tweets or your webpage, and is almost certainly not going to buy your books.

It’s worse than that, though. To my mind, this kind of self-interested mutual back slapping is meaningless, pointless and vaguely incestuous. It’s also a little dishonest – a step down the road towards giving each other reciprocal positive reviews, regardless of what you thought of the book. Yes, you might get fewer page likes and follows if you refuse to play this game, but as we used to say on Team Starfish, “at least we kept our integrity.”

hard-sell-confused.com-0074) Don’t begin a relationship with a sales pitch.

If someone follows you on Twitter it’s nice to say “thanks for the follow” and it’s also nice to comment on some interest you may share. It’s not nice to say “Buy my book!”, “Visit my website!” or “Love me, love me, love me!”

Yes, I know that’s what you want in the long term, but take things at a steady pace and read the signals, ok? Think of it like meeting that special someone for the first time: it’s probably better to begin with “Nice to meet you” than to go straight in with “How many kids should we have?”

father ted5) Don’t give us the gory details.

This last one probably only applies to the writers of erotica, horror and especially gritty thrillers. You want to entice the inhabitants of Twitter to read your new masterpiece, so you give a short summary, and what better to include in those few characters than the most shocking and titillating bits?

Well, anything really. Twitter is public. Your followers may see it (although they may well not, but Twitter algorithms are a topic for another day) but so may anyone else in the whole Twittersphere. People with weak stomachs. People who’ve had traumatic experiences. People with strong moral views.

Although our culture sometimes seems saturated with violence and sex to the point where it’s no more shocking than a PG Tips advert, there are still plenty of people who don’t want to get wet. And don’t forget that, despite the popularity of things like Fifty Shades of Grey, there are still people who see erotica as being just as morally reprehensible as porn.

It’s entirely possible to provide a pretty good impression of what sort of book you’re plugging without giving it both barrels. Save that for your own website, where you’re likely to get a self-selecting bunch of people who actually like that kind of thing. In advertising your wares graphically on Twitter, you’re not gaining new readers so much as alienating potential followers.

And who knows, maybe followers are good for something other than buying our books? Maybe they have value in themselves as human beings. A radical thought, but one that, if embraced, might make us all more pleasant and charismatic members of the Twittersphere.

(By the way, if you do want to follow me on Twitter, for reasons other than sins #1 and #2, my handle is @kcmurdarasi.)

All’s Well That’s As You Like It

13 Aug

My good friend Rebekah Holden (who is the same person as the actress Rebekah Harvey, since actors are supposed to have unique names) had kindly posted guest post by me on her lovely blog. It is a simple, 5-step guide to writing a brilliant Shakespeare comedy. Just add genius. And comedy.

All’s Well That’s As You Like It; How to write a Shakespeare comedy

Why the chicken really crossed the road

15 Apr

image

I am just back from a lovely holiday in Albania complete with sun, sand, sightseeing and strange cocktails. However I have already written at length about how wonderful Albania is, so this time I think I will tell you what Albania has taught me … about chickens.

Before I continue, I should explain to any chicken fanciers reading this that there’s nothing unique about Albanian chickens, so far as I know, it’s just that I never had much exposure to chickens, or indeed any farmyard animals. My primary school teacher once let us hold some newly hatched chicks, and my family had the occasional visit to a farm during the school holidays, if we were passing one, but I’m a city girl born and raised, and I’ve mostly seen chickens in small, pale, plastic-wrapped pieces on supermarket shelves.

That changed when I lived in Albania, and especially when I married into an Albanian family. My mother-in-law keeps chickens, as do a lot of people in Albania, as long as they have a bit of garden for them to scratch around in. So let me share with you the wisdom I have gleaned about chickens so far:

1) Cocks crow all the time . I knew that cocks (or roosters, if you prefer) crowed at dawn, just like they do on cornflakes adverts. What I didn’t realise is that after they start, they don’t stop. They just keep going all day long. It’s pretty annoying if you’re trying to sleep late, or have a siesta – and I often try to do both.

2) People can recognise their own chickens. To me, one black chicken looks pretty much like another, and I assumed there was some sort of leg ringing system, or a more informal way of marking which one is yours, but apparently not. People can just look at a black chicken (or any other colour – I only give black by way of example) and tell whether it is their chicken, their neighbour’s, or a completely alien chicken. I think it must be an acquired skill. Despite a lot of peering at chickens over the last week, I still have no idea which is which.

3) Chicks are only cute for about two weeks. After that they stop being adorable little balls of fluff and turn into straggly, leggy things with half-grown feathers and a bad attitude. The males start to bully the females, which is not an attractive trait. However, chickens do produce new fluffy chicks pretty regularly, so it’s not too bad.

4) Chickens are chicken. This insult is well-founded because chickens really are scared of everything. They scuttle out of your way as if you were trying to kill them (even when you’re not), and when there was a loud bang at my husband’s cousin’s house, the chickens practically jumped into our laps. I can understand where the story of Chicken Little came from, because if anything dropped on their heads, chickens would undoubtedly be terrified enough to think that the sky was falling. This is also because…

5) Chickens are incredibly stupid. I mean so, so stupid. Especially the young ones. When they run from danger, as they so often do, they’ll as likely as not run in the wrong direction. They followed my husband’s uncle around when he was hoeing, even though one of them had already lost a toe that way. It’s no wonder they’re said to be able to live for a while without their heads – there’s nothing of worth in there anyway. And this also answers the age-old question, why did the chicken cross the road? Because it was too stupid even to realise there was a road, let alone that it would be in danger from traffic.

No doubt there is a lot more I could learn about chickens, and do feel free to inform me through the comments, if you are a chicken expert. For me though, it’s back to chickens being kept in the fridge, in pieces, until the next time I go back to Albania.

Game of (Heavenly) Thrones

17 Mar

I was very excited a couple of days ago to receive through the post my author copies of Augustine: The Truth Seeker. It’s a brilliant feeling to hold your own book in your hand, and I have been waving a copy in the face of everyone I know, with what must be very irritating squeals of excitement.

Game of Thrones

I was going to write a post telling you about the book, and how you can get hold of it. (This is still something of a mystery – I have my copies but no bookshop seems to yet. Can’t be long now.) However, I have been watching a lot of the HBO series Game of Thrones recently – all three seasons in just over a week in fact, because we got a short-term Sky Entertainment pass. And I noticed some interesting similarities with my own work. Therefore, instead of telling you all about how wonderful Augustine: The Truth Seeker is, let me tell you why it’s just like Game of Thrones – but with a PG certificate instead of an 18.

  • It’s about an ambitious young man from a semi-noble, but not monied, provincial background trying to make it in the big cities of the empire. Remind you of Littlefinger?
  • Barbarian hordes start invading from the north and east.
  • Some people hold to the old gods, some to the new, and there are weird mystery religious from foreign lands with a worrying hold over believers.
  • Pretenders to the throne keep cropping up, and at one point in the book there are three monarchs, including a King (ok, emperor) in the North who comes south to try and take the whole lot.
  • Crossing a narrow sea was quite a big deal in both Game of Thrones and Augustine’s time. Especially when you did it with an army.
  • Family members scheme to undermine each other’s power base. (I’m thinking of City Prefect Symmachus and Bishop Ambrose – and just about any of the Lannisters, Barathaons and Greyjoys.)
  • Both have an emphasis on mothers who wish they had more influence over their wayward sons (Monica with Augustine, Catelyn Stark with Rob and Bran, and of course Cersei with Joffrey).
  • There’s a lot of celibacy, in the Night’s Watch and various religious orders of George R. R. Martin’s world, and in Augustine’s Monastry in the Garden. There’s also a lot of the opposite, when Augustine was a younger man – and everywhere in Game of Thrones.
  • Illegitimate sons who are dear to their fathers have an important role to play.
  • People drop like flies. Don’t get too attached to the characters in Game of Thrones or Augustine.

Of course, I’m being a bit facetious. It’s not just the lack of dragons in Augustine that distinguishes it from Game of Thrones; there are far more fundamental differences, the key one being that in Augustine’s world there is a truth that can be discovered, and the one who sits on the heavenly throne turns out to matter a great deal more than the earthly game of thrones. There’s also a lot less nudity and swearing of course, although there is some violence and “mild sexual references”. It’s aimed at the 12 to 14 age group, or mature ten-year-olds, so nothing too graphic.

So there you have it: Augustine: The Truth Seeker, the PG Game of Thrones. I await the phonecall from HBO about TV adaptation rights.

Train of Thought

25 Nov

I am writing this on a train. That sentence probably didn’t alarm you.  It might have done if I had instead written “I am writing this while driving a car.” That’s just one of many good things about public transport in general, but trains more specifically. I have been left in charge of the car keys recently and have had occasion to do a bit of driving, and while cars are certainly convenient and at times almost necessary, it has made me realise just how much I like trains, how relaxed they make me feel in comparison with the heart-palpitations-and-incipient-ulcer sensation I get when discovering that I’m in the wrong lane with no idea how to get to my junction.

Certainly, trains have their faults. They’re almost a by-word for lateness, they are sometimes crowded, and it’s not much fun being on the last train home on a Saturday night with all the people who are too drunk to drive, and far too drunk to regulate the volume of their conversation. However, those things are also true of buses, which are far less pleasant to travel on. So this post will be all about the superiority of trains as a form of domestic transport.

Five reasons why trains are better than cars

1. You don’t have to scrape the train on a cold morning, and the heating is already on when you get in.
2. If the train breaks down, you don’t have to pay to repair it.
3. Trains are almost never in the wrong lane, and can’t ever take the wrong turning because they’re on rails.
4. No one tailgates you on the train.
5. You don’t have to park a train.

Five reasons why trains are better than buses

1. Buses have to stick to roads. Trains often go through some of the most beautiful countryside, without any other traffic to scare the wildlife away.
2. Trains don’t take unannounced diversions and leave you in an unfamiliar part of town with no idea how to get to where you’re going.
3. You don’t have to go to each platform to find out which one your train will stop at; there will be a sign in a central area telling you which one. Not so with bus stops.
4. People on buses (in the aggregate) are louder, smellier and more aggressive than on trains. I don’t know why, they just are. Bus drivers also tend to be less friendly than train conductors. Maybe someone should do a sociological study.
5. Trains are great for writing on. It’s something about the white noise, rhythmic motion and view out the window. It seems to switch off certain parts of your brain in a really helpful way. Buses don’t have the same neurological effect, and anyway all the bumps mean you would never be able to read your writing anyway.

I’m crossing a misty river in perfect comfort, watching the stressed traffic driving along the bank below me, which means I’m almost on Central Station. Time to sign off.

The Book of Hezekiah

18 Oct

I am in the process of organising a ceilidh. (23rd November at Adelaide Place Baptist Church, do come along if you’re in Glasgow.) Finding a date that worked for the venue and the band, and didn’t clash with any popular events or holidays, was a bit complicated and protracted, and no doubt there will be all sorts of headaches to come about layout, first aid provision, audio, catering and so on (in fact I’m giving myself a headache now just thinking about it). However, one thing that I didn’t have to give any serious thought to was the start time: 7.30pm, of course, as is prescribed in the Book of Hezekiah.

Hezekiah is a book of the Bible that contains all sorts of useful instructions and information about Christian living. This is where it says (in chapter 3, “Times and Seasons”) that morning church services should be held at 11 (or 10.30, at a pinch) and evening ones at 6.30, but that all other evening Christian events (or in the case of the ceilidh, events with Christian venues and / or organisers) should start at 7.30. This chapter also lays down the exact amount of time one should remain in one’s seat after the service, depending on the solemnity of the final hymn, depth of the sermon and proximity to communion (Eucharist), before one can make a foray towards the biscuits.

If you’re of a religious persuasion at all, you may be wondering where Hezekiah is in your Bible, and why you’ve never come across the 7.30pm rule written down. I mean it sounds familiar, but you can’t quite place it. Minor prophets, maybe, all those tiny books tucked away at the end of the Old Testament that you only come across accidentally when trying to find the start of Matthew at Christmas? Or, if you’ve gone so far as to check the contents page of your Bible and find it’s not there, maybe it’s in the Apocrypha, that land of exotic and forbidden scriptural delights?

No, I’m afraid the Book of Hezekiah, while very useful, doesn’t actually exist. It’s just a Christian joke, but one with a point. It’s an unwritten record of our shared assumptions and habits. Tea and coffee should be served after the service, not port and sherry. Why? Because thus is it laid out in Hezekiah 5:12. It should be served by women, of course, as is prescribed in the following verse. Women must also lead the Sunday school and clean the church,  of course. The Book of Hezekiah’s not great on gender liberation. These instructions may change in the future. One of the unusual things about Hezekiah, compared to other Bible books, is how it alters its content from one generation to the next.

Then there are the moral precepts that you know are right, but that you just can’t find anywhere else in the Bible, like the prohibition of gambling or the command not to lie. Yes, the ninth commandment almost says you shouldn’t lie, but not quite, so you need the Book of Hezekiah to fill the gap. This is less of a problem for Catholics of course, who can draw on both scripture and tradition. Protestants (like me) base their beliefs, in theory, sola on scriptura, meaning that when scripture lets you down, you have to turn to Hezekiah.

Now I’m not saying that you should lie and gamble. Nor am I advocating a departure from the authority of (real) scripture, although it is worthwhile to bear in mind that while Bible+ has its dangers, the sola scriptura approach also has potential weaknesses. No, what I’m saying in a rambling sort of way is that you should question your assumptions, even if everyone else in your church holds the same assumptions. What are they based on? If you don’t know, maybe you should find out, and decide whether or not you should keep them.

“For in the critical examination of the assumptions, wisdom is found,” as it says in Hezekiah 1:6.

(But the ceilidh will still be at 7.30pm – I’ve printed the tickets.)

Toilets I Have Known (on a scale of one to ten)

9 Mar
The Trainspotting Toilet - about a three.

The Trainspotting toilet – about a three.

I have a rather idiosyncratic approach to toilets – so much so that a friend suggested I share it on my blog. I’m not referring to the way I use toilets, which is entirely normal. (Athough really, in the privacy of the cubicle, who knows what is normal?) No, I’m referring to the fact that I award them a score on a ten point scale.

This is just public toilets, I should probably say. I’m not going into people’s houses, wrinkling my nose and saying, “No better than a six,” like some contestant on a lavatorial version of come dine with me. However, when using a toilet in a public place for the first time you might well find me doing that.

This started as a coping mechanism in Albania. In the less developed parts of the world you are far more likely to find toilets that I would consider to be on the lower end of the scale, and using them can be quite a trying experience. To help, I would assign them scores, which is not only a distraction in itself, but also reminds you that it could be worse.

So what are the criteria for scoring well on the WC scale? It’s partly subjective, but here are some of the basic elements that score a toilet points: a door that shuts; a lock on the door; a light source; the ability to flush; toilet paper, and somewhere to dispose of it; water to wash your hands, preferably running; soap; a method of drying your hands; a hook (see my post on disabled toilets); a mirror; an inoffensive smell. Extra marks can be gained for having such luxuries as hand cream, aesthetically pleasing decor and floor-to-ceiling cubicle doors.

Some of these seem pretty essential, do I hear you say? You’d never find a toilet without them? Oh yes you would, and I have seen facilities missing all of these things, though usually not all in the same toilet.

So let’s examine both ends of the scale. Although in Britain you wouldn’t expect to find less than a 6 at worst, it takes something special to reach the perfect 10. Toilets in art galleries and beauty salons often score 9s or 10s, as do posh restaurants and hotels, but possibly the nicest I have ever seen is in The Blythswood Hotel in Glasgow. I may not like their attitude to ordinary working folk, but I can’t fault their toilets: a haven of peaceful salubriousness, with restful lighting, lovely fittings, and tiny single use hand towels that you throw in a basket afterwards. Bliss – definitely a ten.

What about the other end of the scale? What kind of a toilet scores just one? Are you thinking of the filthy loo in Trainspotting? No, that’s about a 3. Disgusting as it was, it had a door (that locked, I think) and sinks to wash your hands. The toilet in Slumdog Millionaire, then? Again, no. It had a door and someone to guard it. I think there may even have been paper. It would score at least 2. So is it possible to score only 1? Yes. I have seen the worst toilet in the world (I believe). It was in Albania, I think in Erseke though it may have been Leskovik. It was a hole in a concrete floor above a river. The room had three concrete walls; the fourth side was entirely open to the road, from where I observed it. I did not use it. That’s how you get a 1. So the next time the loo roll has run out or the hook is broken, think of Erseke, and be grateful.

Nature and Nurture

15 Dec

Pink Nail PolishHave I created a monster? (Although if I have she would be the cutest, most adorable kind of monster you could imagine.) My 21-month-old niece is the girliest girl possible, and I fear I may have a lot to do with it, since I look after her three days a week and she sees me putting on makeup, using various lotions and potions, wearing high heels etc. She insists on copying me, putting on pretend make-up and real hand cream, and picking out high-heeled shoes for me to wear even when the weather, and carrying a two-stone toddler, would make them quite impractical. She loves playing with my handbag, which keeps her amused for minutes on end. (That’s pretty good, with a one-year-old.)

But I don’t think I deserve all of the blame for this. Her mother would have to take a portion too, since my niece often comes to my place smelling of mummy’s perfume and dressed in very cute outfits, but that’s not what I mean. I don’t think this girly obsession is entirely due to her upbringing at all. I think pink blood runs in her veins, so to speak. I know it’s easy to fool yourself that you’re not imprinting gender stereotypes on your kids when in reality you are, without realising, but I have good evidence that there is something deeper. For instance, she’s obsessed with handbags, and often goes after other people’s on the train (I really must train her as a pickpocket). She’s also fascinated with painted nails. Now I rarely paint my nails and, as I’ve written before, I’m just not that into handbags. She’s not getting that from me, and I don’t think she’s getting it from my sister, either.

The thing that decided me, though, was watching her with my husband yesterday. She adores her uncle, and follows him round watching what he does – but she doesn’t copy him. She doesn’t want to put shaving foam on her face or gel in her hair. When I use deoderant she’s after me for the bottle to pretend to spray it herself, but when he does, she’s content to watch. (So am I. He has the body of a Greek god.) In other words, she knows she’s female without being told, and knows that mummy and I are too, so she models herself on us and other women. This is not conditioning, this has to be inbuilt.

Actually, she’s not as much of a girly girl as this post makes her appear. She’s also quite tough and loves being tossed into the air or chucked on the bed, and as well as handbags she likes to carry all sorts of other bags and containers, some of them very heavy. She’s also taken recently to sticking her finger up her nose, which I consider very unfeminine. Of course, children go through phases and in ten years’ time we may be laughing at the fact that she was every girly. She has a baby sister on the way now, so it will be interesting to see how that affects things, for both of them. In the meantime, I’ll just keep a wary eye on my blusher.

Sightly Thoughts on Gruntlement

31 Mar

Many years ago, during English Language A-Level, a friend and I began thinking about words that have no positive equivalents. Unintentional, for instance, corresponds to intentional, but what does unsightly correspond to? I’ve never heard anyone describe anything as ‘sightly’.

The list is longer than you might think. It all started with disgruntled – a great word in itself, but wouldn’t gruntled be good, too? Ruthless and reckless attracted our attention as well. The Government should be running a campaign urging us all to drive reckfully.

A lot of these are what called fossil words – words that are preserved inside other words, in this case their negative versions. Reck, ruth and gorm used to actually be things, and people would use them in sentences, but they have died out, leaving only confusing traces in reckless, ruthless and gormless.

The issue sprang back to mind many years later because someone on the radio ticked Madonna off for singing “nothing’s indestructible”, criticising the phrase as a double negative. Leaving aside the fact that the criticism was based on a misunderstanding of the double negative rule (which is itself a silly rule), what was she supposed to have said? “Everything is destructable”? Is that a word?

Below is the list of these positive equivalents that are never used, as far as I know. It is nowhere near exhaustive and suggestions for additions will be considered ruthfully.

(The friend, by the way, was Kerry Smallman, who these days produces weird European house music,  and very good poetry, if you want to check it out.)http://www.myspace.com/kerryandcasio

AdvertantGruntled
AimfullyGusting (As in disgusting, not as in wind. Although wind can be quite disgusting… )
Card (as in discard)Hapless
ChoateKempt
CombobulatedMolish
ConcertingMoralised
CouthNominious
DefatigablePointful
DestructablePudent
DignationPunity
DisestablishmentarianismReckful
DolentRuthful
DupitablyScathed (although we do have scathing)
EffableSightly
EluctableSolent
EvitableSouciance
FeckfulVincible
GainlyWieldy
Gormful

Norn Arn

6 Jan

Nuala with the Hula, Belfast (Ardfern)

I spent New Year in Norn Arn. For anyone who doesn’t know, that’s Northern Ireland in a Northern Irish accent. Alternative spellings are Norn Urn and Norn Iron. It was my first time in that part of Britain, so I thought I’d record my impressions, for what they’re worth.

The thing that struck me most was the different attitude to personal space. It’s not that people crowd you, it’s just that don’t have that automatic impulse to move aside when someone else comes too close or tries to get past. Weaving my way to the toilet after church I had to push through knots of people who didn’t seem the least bit awkward about it. When I got to the other side I realised that part of the reason it was so crowded was that a third of the room was empty; people were huddled like emperor penguins.

In some ways Norn Arn is a lot like Scotland, but a notch or two up: the weather is terrible, worse than Glasgow; the people are very hospitable and keep plying you with food; and they seem to have the same sort of humour when it comes to giving nicknames to landmarks – the Balls at the Falls and Nuala with the Hula, for instance.

In other ways it’s nothing like Scotland, or like my part of it anyway – hence the fact that we were at church bright and early on New Year’s Day when all sensible people are in bed. The church was lovely and the sermon was inspiring, but I couldn’t get over the fact that every pew was full at 10.30 on New Year’s Day.

The day I returned (the day before the big storm, fortunately, or I wouldn’t have been going anywhere), we went to Belfast, the capital. Belfast seems like an odd mixture of Dundee and Prishtina (which is not meant as an insult – there’s nothing wrong with Prishtina). Up close it’s much like every other major city, apart from the amazing profusion of craft shops. You will usually find one or two in a city, though you’ll have to search for them, but in Belfast they’re dotted all over the city centre. There’s even a shop dedicated to beads.  So I suppose if I ever do get stuck in Belfast because of the weather, there will at least be plenty to keep me occupied.