Saturday, 23 September 2017

In Pursuit of Good Quality Content

As well as writing books I endeavour to make something approaching a living out of compiling content for other people's websites. But the lot of a content writer can be a frustrating one. Generating unique and interesting content is always a challenge in itself, trying to find new and different angles and approaches when the topic of choice is something one has been writing about for aeons. Even the most prolific amongst us are sometimes stricken with "writer's block".

Having overcome this, the next task is to compete in the market with "writers" who have been raised in a world of SEO (Search Engine Optimisation), in which it is not so much what is written that matters as using the right sequence of words and using them as frequently as possible.

Because this trash-writing technique requires little in the way of imagination or literary finesse, the market inevitably becomes saturated with "writers" who need have no ability to write anything even resembling good English, nor even to speak it. Far less of the ability to construct sentences which are attractive and pleasing upon the eye. Just so long as one can pack the words "payday loans london" fifty-seven times into 1000 words of completely meaningless and disjointed scribble there are customers who will gratefully pay a dollar for this rather than invest sensibly in some legible content which would confer so much more credit and credibility upon them and the organisations they represent. Getting the unsuspecting to the website is everything, what they do or think when they get there is something to worry about later. Indeed the "SEO expert", having been paid his money, will not be worrying about it at all.

HOORAY FOR PANDA AND PENGUIN

This is why decent content writers have generally been grateful for the development by search engines, and of course we are talking primarily about Google, of ever more sophisticated algorithms which seek to reward quality content and to demote sites whose sole objective is to attract traffic with no consideration for what awaits the visitor on arrival.

In the world of content, the two words on the tips of everybody's tongue are Panda and Penguin. Both are simply names given to significant changes in Google's algorithm the effect of which has been to relegate sites which use strategies such as keyword stuffing, self-generated links and other "black hat" (i.e. dodgy) techniques to try to trick the search engines into believing that their site has more authority and more quality than it actually has.

This is good news all round for those of us who have found ourselves out-priced and undercut by ten-year-olds from nether regions of the world who have understood and mastered the art of manipulating search engines but not of composing high quality content of a kind that only a writer can produce.

The clue, after all, is in the name.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Letter from a Legend

It would be an understatement, to put it mildly, to describe simply as a great privilege the letter I received yesterday from the music legend that is Steve Harley, frontman of Cockney Rebel (even most of the youngsters amongst us, deprived musical upbringing notwithstanding, will be familiar with the 1975 UK number one hit Make Me Smile (Come Up And See Me) - one of the most played songs in British recording history).

Steve has kindly permitted me to reproduce his letter in full, which I do below. Please click on the image to enlarge:

No further comment should be necessary.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

"I Like to Think it Works on More Than One Level" - My Member Spotlight Submission to CreateSpace

Here is the text of the submission I made this morning to the self-publishing platform CreateSpace, in response to four questions put to me about my novel The Best Year Of Our Lives:

Tell us about your title

The Best Year Of Our Lives has been a work in progress for a whole forty years, a real labour of love. Set in 1976, the year of that glorious summer, I have unashamedly drawn inspiration from my own adolescence which was fresh in the memory when I began to put it together, and have tried to synthesise my own real-life experience with a storyline which I'm sure will resonate with those who look back with fondness to their own formative years, particularly in my own age group but also hopefully in others.

Essentially it is about a group of young people who are trying to carve a niche for themselves on the streets of the Middlesex town in which they live. As with most teenagers the world in which they are growing up is the only world that really exists, and the things which are important to them at their point in life are the only things that are really happening. Adults exist in their world almost as ornaments and the things which inform and motivate them are of little consequence; the only politics which matter are those of the youth club and of the street corner on which they hang out.

The lead character is an ordinary young man who has aspirations to be top dog in the neighbourhood, but not the physical presence to make it happen by fear alone. To compensate for his own limitations he builds a movement which operates under the cover of a benign inner circle of younger friends, male and female, but through which he moves to outsmart and outpace the crude gangs with their limited, parochial estate-based loyalties and their predictable modus operandi.

At the same time there is a spirituality about the lead character and his closest friends which is real and genuine and fuels a mission which, though undefined, allows them to feel vindicated in their quest. Their goal is not just to conquer for conquest's sake, but to civilise and to impose their superior values upon the unbelievers for the greater good of all.

Their relationship with one another and the way in which that is repeatedly empowered by their dislike of certain others delivers a sometimes chilling lesson on the symbiosis of love and hate, of good and evil, and the dividing lines between the two are seldom completely clear. The story begs the question as to whether success is achieved by being ultimately in the right, or just by the sheer power of the will.

Some of my reviewers have enjoyed the book at face value and have been happy to treat it as a simple story in its own right and as a pleasant reminisce, and I'm cool with that. I like to think it works on more than one level. But what is most important to me is that I have finally put into words the thing I have waited forty years to say, although I'm still not quite sure what that is.

Why did you choose to make your content available On-Demand?

That was a no-brainer. Traditional publishing has had everything its own way for so very long. After having spent so many years preparing my work, fine-tuning it and deciding what needs to go in in order to tell the story that I wanted to tell, the thought of a publisher with an eye on the financial bottom line but with no emotional attachment to the story pulling it apart and repackaging it as a commercial project filled me with dread. It would have been a betrayal of everything I have worked for.

What are the most notable successes with your project?

The biggest success was always going to be just getting it into print after all this time, and out there for anybody who is interested to read. It has been selling quite well and of course that is important, and I'll be considering strategies through which to increase exposure and build sales during the coming weeks and months, but the fact that the book has been written and published was always going to be my primary achievement. I'm proud of this work and when I read the nice things that reviewers have said it truly makes the whole thing worthwhile.

How has CreateSpace helped you reach your goals?

CreateSpace is a wonderful resource which has enabled me to overcome all the obstacles which daunted me so much at the time when this work was in its infancy. Not only has it allowed me to put the story onto the market intact and untampered with, but it has done so by making available to me tools which are so simple for somebody of modest technical competence like myself to get to grips with.

Self-publishing has totally rewritten the rules of the game and CreateSpace is obviously at the centre of all that. It's an exciting time to be a writer.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Annus Mirabilis, or the Year the Music Died?


My introduction to "pop" music came, peculiarly, in the person of Michael Jackson.

We were at primary school, I was ten years old. For reasons which I cannot recall, one particular day was declared to be a "free" day – no lessons, no classwork, no booky stuff. Instead we were invited to bring in our 45s, to be played to the class on the old record player brought into school by the teacher.

Being inspired primarily by other things, mainly football and toy cars, I didn't actually possess any records of my own, so I brought in some of my mother's. Who, unfortunately, had rather conservative musical tastes, and my classmates groaned and stuck their fingers in their ears as the sound of Frank Sinatra strained datedly from the turntable. My friend Paul, unable to take any more, lifted the needle in mid-croon and replaced it with a record of his own, Michael Jackson's "Rockin' Robin". Humiliation turned very quickly into devotion. I was hooked.

As befits my obsessive personality, I transformed myself very quickly from pop novice into classroom authority on the music charts. By the end of 1972 and into '73, by now a first-year pupil at senior school, I was the first to rush out and purchase every latest release by the big chart acts of the day – Slade, The Sweet, Gary Glitter, T. Rex. The new chart was announced at noon every Tuesday, and I would race down to the toilets as soon as the bell sounded for the lunchtime break with my illicitly-smuggled transistor radio wedged firmly in my blazer pocket and pre-set to Radio One, pen and notebook at the ready, to list all the latest Top 30 placings. By the end of the dinner break I could recite them all sequentially without reference to my notes.

WIND-FLAPPING LOON PANTS

My dear late father and I would argue at some length about my musical enthusiasms. He was a rock'n'roll man, raised on Elvis and Little Richard although by no means averse to the Beatles and some of the stuff which had defined at least the earlier part of the sixties. My music and its accompanying culture, he informed me, were ridiculous. The long hair, the wind-flapping loon pants, the absurdly impractical platform boots, the (to him) banal and repetitive lyrics (not at all evident, I would point out sarcastically, in ditties such as "She Loves You Yeah Yeah Yeah"), and all the monster-sized egos which paraded themselves shockingly around the stage every Thursday evening on Top of the Pops.

Worst of all, all the music of my era apparently sounded the same. Not so, it would seem, the simplistic be-bop of Stone Age rock'n'roll or the pudding-bowl haircuts and four-guys-in-suits which defined the so-called musical revolution of the early- to mid-sixties. No, it was Elton with his Zoom! spectacles, Glitter with his ostentatious if ever so slightly too tight costumes, Marc with his corkscrew locks and Bowie with his androgynous Ziggy persona who were apparently identical to behold. How could anyone be so blind?

In fact so locked was I in that moment that even now a part of me still thinks of Mud, Wizzard and Suzi Quatro, not to mention Sparks and the Rubettes, as being "new" acts. Of course I bought into those as well when they arrived, especially Suzi Q who doubled for a time as my childhood fantasy woman (not least I imagine because she was about the same height as me).

One "new" act by which I was particularly captivated was Steve Harley and Cockney Rebel. Not glam in the sense of sequins and tassels and look-at-me stacked heels, but showy enough to hold a '70s audience for long enough to appreciate some really nifty songsmithery from a truly gifted writer and artist. And then there were always Mott and Roxy.

CULTURAL BACKDROP

Of course such a full-on onslaught of sparkle and glamour was doomed to enjoy a limited shelf-life, and by the time 1976 arrived I was already, musically speaking, a man lost in time, with only the evergreen Bowie for company. And yet, at fourteen, I was beginning to take my first tentative steps along the awkward road from childhood into maturity, and was much in need of a cultural backdrop against which to strut my stuff. What I found was a zeitgeist both unique and peculiar, a mosaic of fading glam intermixed with an uplifting discofied soul which I found eminently palatable in spite of my normally European tastes (I'd long since jettisoned Michael Jackson from my list of idols by this time, Rockin' Robin notwithstanding). Add into the mix the most glorious summer of all and I was in ecstasy, an emotional and spiritual state of being which I had never encountered previously, and have never found since. 1976 isn't formally recognised as having been the best year ever to have grown up in for nothing.

And then, at the height of it all, came punk. Spitting, snarling and, worst of all to me, pretentious. I could swear with the best of them, but vulgarity was for classroom banter or the rest room at the youth club, it was never part of my music. Anybody who gobbed at me could expect a fight, it wasn't something I went to a gig to experience. Worst of all, on my streets at least, many of the kids who seemed to embrace this sudden outpouring of anarchy and revolution were the kind I had always thought of as being, well, a bit middle-class. Geeks, spotty types and pencil monitors had suddenly become the ambassadors of rage, and I couldn't quite work out how or why.

By the time the world had become bored with the cultural one-trick pony that was punk, it was too late. As the impact of the explosion faded, what emerged from the dust and the smoke was Grease and John Travolta. It was as though the proverbial gods were punishing us for having turned our backs on our spiritual nirvana. The twentieth century equivalent of a plague of frogs. The flares had gone, alas, and we had climbed down from our platforms forever.

Of course, my story is precisely that. Others remember 1976 with fondness precisely because of punk, viewing it as a liberating force sent to rescue us all from the ever-encroaching triteness of disco, to move us on from a post-glam musical wasteland which no longer quite knew what it was about. Oddly enough I can understand and even sympathise with this view. Hidden amongst my collection of singles which still lurks in a forgotten cupboard somewhere at my mother's home are a few of the more well-known numbers by the Sex Pistols and Sham 69. At times I swayed with the wind, no matter how hard I struggled to stand firm.

A SPECIAL YEAR

The fact is that 1976 was a special year for all sorts of reasons and that applies whether one was a punk, a disco kid or a lost soul still wandering confused by the demise of glam. It was a special place that we all inhabited at the same time, moving around in the same age often oblivious to the existence of one another. It was like a veritable black hole which sucked in everyone from every genre of adolescent society and spat them all out sometime later transmogrified into Bee Gees.

Some wag recently remarked that in spite of all the strikes and shortages, bombings, football hooliganism, Carnival riots, Cold Wars and Cod Wars we were all younger in 1976 and it is this fact alone that makes us regard it lovingly through rose-tinted spectacles. This doesn't of course explain the special affection this particular year holds in our hearts which is absent in respect of other years. There's always one, isn't there? Fact is, the Spirit of 1976 lives on as a memory that will never be erased, a candle that will always burn. Don't take away the music, whichever tune from 1976 it is that floats your boat.

Reproduced with acknowledgements to The Spirit of 1976.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Some Advice From a First-Time Author



Just over a month ago I realised what has been almost a lifelong ambition. I published my own novel. After forty years of procrastination and distraction, I finally managed to consign to print the story that I have for so long been wanting to tell - that of a young man growing up on the streets of Middlesex in 1976, officially (according to the New Economics Foundation, whoever they are) the best year, ever, for anybody to have been alive.

Whatever the drawbacks of indecision and hesitation, there were two distinct advantages to be gained from having waited forty years to get my act together. First of all, my own writing style has taken an extraordinarily long time to mature from the childish flippancy of old to what is hopefully now something readable and at least vaguely pleasing to the eye. Secondly, and just as importantly, writers now live in an age in which we are thankfully no longer hostages to the whim of a publisher to whom product sales is the absolute bottom line to which heart and spirit must if necessary be forfeit.

When I say I published my own novel, I mean I did just that.

Amazon’s CreateSpace is an amazing resource which allows anybody to publish their work and to market it to the world through their very own author page and product listing. Certainly the advent of the ebook has made the process of producing a book cheaper, and greener, but for those who prefer the look and feel of the traditional paperback it is its POD (Print On Demand) service which is the real game changer. Rather than spending as much as two years sweating over whether or not a publisher will think it will sell enough copies to generate a profit, the economies offered by modern print technology make the printing of a single, solitary copy economically viable - incredible though that may sound. You announce it, Amazon markets it, and if anybody orders it it will be printed to order there and then. Every one’s a winner.

And of course it isn’t only fiction writers who are taking advantage of this revolutionary new development in the world of literature. Purveyors of non-fiction, specialist information, directories and even audio recordings are likewise able to ply their wares through the same easy and almost seamelss process. Neither is Amazon the only platform through which it may be done, although it is currently the largest.

SEVEN-POINT GUIDE

In offering advice based upon my own recent experience of releasing my own novel I can only touch upon the dos and don’ts of the process of self-publishing your work, but hopefully this handy seven-point guide will help steer any potential writers along the correct path. If it doesn’t answer your questions, then by all means ask and I’ll do my very best to help:

1. Write your book. It sounds obvious, but this is the hard part. It all begins with an idea, you then need to develop it and to convert it into good, readable English (or whatever language you happen to be writing in). If your book lacks quality or is badly written then no amount of marketing is going to make it a success.

2. Get somebody else to check it. I am a content writer and I pride myself on my literacy and accuracy. Nevertheless after some 20-30 reads and re-reads I managed to miss no fewer than five typos in my manuscript which were picked up by others who generally do not share my attention to detail. Proofreading your own material doesn’t work as you tend to read what it was intended to say rather than what it actually says. Don’t take shortcuts, it seldom works.

3. Decide whether you wish to publish your work as a paperback or ebook - or both - and, if both, in which order. Both CreateSpace and its parent company Amazon offer their own package for both but the received wisdom tends to be that CreateSpace is best for POD and Amazon proper for ebooks. Make this decision first, don’t blindly follow through with one or other provider.

4. Google is your friend - by all means read all the spiel provided by the publisher when you open an account but there is plenty of impartial third-party material available which will advise you on how best to proceed. Hopefully this article will have given a few initial pointers but there is much more out there in the big wide world of cyberspace. The Creative Penn is a particularly helpful resource in this regard.

5. Use the resources provided by CreateSpace and Amazon - they are there to help you because they help themselves by so doing. Formatting your manuscript for POD can be a tricky process but the templates provided by CreateSpace make it much easier (watch out for the erratic page numbering though, which seems to have a mind of its own and changes itself arbitrarily whilst you are in the process of pasting up your material - even after it has been saved). For the ebook at Amazon I find uploading the manuscript as a Word document tends to work best - .mobi doesn’t seem to do it despite what you will be told elsewhere, and PDF files do not convert well.

6. Use other platforms. Amazon is the biggest one, it’s not the only one. If you publish your manuscript in ebook format you will be encouraged to join its KDP Select program, which allows your work to be viewed without purchase in the Amazon library in return for a small royalty every time somebody looks at your work. Don’t. Your part of the deal is that you must not make your ebook (it doesn’t apply to paperback) available through any other platform for a whole three months. In return you will receive peanuts. However attractive this option may once have been, the terms have apparently been altered and my view is that it is now a path not at all worth treading. I’m locked into KDP Select until the end of October - don’t make the same mistake that I made.

7. Market your book. The downside of self-publishing is that you are also required to self-promote. Unlike with traditional publishing, nobody is going to do this for you. Start with friends and family, then use social media and pay particular attention to those Facebook groups within your particular niche. At the same time take advantage of any forums, blogs or other online resources which permit you to draw attention to your work or even to generate backlinks, either to your author page or to the website or blog which you will have created in the meantime as a platform for your work. By the time all these options have been exhausted you will hopefully have sold enough copies to be able to benefit from word-of-mouth recommendations from your first wave of purchasers.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

The Girl Who Lived By The River by Mark Daydy - Review



Mark Daydy has written extensively for television and radio over a period of some two decades, working on several award-winning shows. His 2015 Radio 4 sitcom The Best Laid Plans starred Ardal O’Hanlon and his latest sitcom idea has been adopted by NBC-Universal.

My interest in his book The Girl Who Lived By The River was inspired by the recent publication of my own debut novel The Best Year Of Our Lives, also self-published and listed on Amazon. Like my own work, Daydy’s is set in the 1970s and centres upon one adolescent lead character surrounded by a number of others within his immediate and not-so-immediate friendship group. And whilst his characters are slightly older than mine, the essential dynamic is reassuringly similar.

Where the structures of the two novels part company is in the fact that Daydy’s story develops over a four-year period, as opposed to just the one. Indeed it is something of a box set, comprising four shorter stories charting the adventures of the sometimes hapless but basically decent East London teenager Tom Alder between 1975 and 1979, cleverly embracing as it goes along all the contemporary cultural influences which defined those years and neatly deploying them as a backdrop.

Without wishing to give too much away, Tom effectively has three ambitions in life. The first is to find himself a girlfriend and the second is to play guitar in a rock band. The latter comes about more or less by accident as a consequence of his clumsy pursuance of the former, but all the same it sets the scene nicely for the remainder of the story. His third objective, which runs harmlessly (although interestingly) in the background like some benign software application, is to explore his own origins after having been the unwitting recipient of some information which wrenched from him the certainties of his own upbringing and carried the potential to change his world forever.

CONTRAST AND CONFLICT

Where a book of this kind succeeds or fails is in its ability to develop the characters around which the story is based, creating contrast and conflict where necessary just as much as empathy. Whilst Tom is at the centre of it all it is those around him and, specifically, the way in which he interacts with them which captures the imagination and makes one impatient to read on. The author does that very well, to the point where many of us will inevitably see glimpses of some of our own acquaintances in the storyline, especially those of us who are of a certain age and to whom the various contemporary references and the general ambience will be familiar.

I read this novel with my feet firmly in the shoes of the lead character, laughing alternately with him and at him. What begins as unadultered comedy progresses by stages into something more serious as Tom and his friends approach and to varying degrees achieve maturity, but without ever completely losing the sense of humour which defined it in its earlier stages. I was sad when it ended, but it ended well.

Despite my love for writing I am not a particularly prolific reader. If a book doesn’t hold my attention I can quickly lose interest and become distracted. The Girl Who Lived By The River was difficult to put down, as I felt I had come to know the characters and was genuinely interested to learn what was to become of them.

All in all this book is a great read, and a wonderful advert for self-publishing. It is available from Amazon in paperback (£8.99) or ebook format (£2.50).