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Archive for December, 2013

Liminal Traces

liminal gleanings smallShameless plug for my latest self published volume – a little book of short poetical sketches, most of which have appeared here on my WordPress blog and are now offered here in collected form as a free download.

We live a life of two halves – one we’re aware of by virtue of our conscious mind, and the other we know very little of because it lies literally unconscious within us. In fact a century of psychoanalytical investigation suggests that by far the greater part of us remains unknown, that the self we are aware of constitutes only a very small part of our personality, and our potential. Through conscious awareness we might glean a sense of who we think we are – our memories, our likes, our dislikes, but it’s never a very clear picture because without a sense of personal meaning, our memories and our earthly achievements, be they meagre or extraordinary, are just window dressing on some deeper mystery, and can obscure the essential meaning of our lives.

Meaning arises from the unconscious, which is largely a no-go zone. We don’t know what’s in there because it’s – well – unconscious. It’s a deep, dark forest, impenetrable and mysterious, it is a lake of unknown depth, an ocean of unexplored breadth, a place of storms, and doldrums, inhabited by a menagerie of the most exotic creatures. But if we want to understand why we sometimes feel the way we do, we have no choice but to approach it.

We draw near the liminal zone, the boundary between consciousness and unconsciousness, and glean whatever we can from the experience. We can do this in dreams, in meditative reverie, shamanic journeying, prayer, and of course poetry. The liminal zone of the mind is mirrored in reality by the boundary places – the shorelines, the riversides, the forest’s edge. These are the places magical things can happen, places the Faery are said to frequent, and sometimes if you sit quietly with notebook and pencil, and listen very carefully, you can hear them talking about you.

Unlike my earlier poetry, sketches where the underlying ideas sometimes took second place to a search for structured rhythm and rhyme, the works contained in this little volume are mostly of free verse, and come closer I think to what I have actually felt in recent years.

Click the pic for a free epub file.

These are privately self hosted. You’ll not find them on Feedbooks or Smashwords.

Keep well, and stay safe.

Michael.

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Mawdesley DawnI began my journal entry this morning with a description of the dawn. I’m on holiday at the moment and would normally have been setting out on my commute, so it was a pleasure instead to look out through the window and begin my day in a contemplative frame of mind with my diary, instead of negotiating a tiresome traffic jam.

The weather is  strange – wild and stormy one moment, breathtakingly calm the next and lacking any general theme, any fixed direction. It had been another black December night, a night of howling wind and horizontal rain, my sleep disturbed by the rattling of the chimney pots. But looking out this morning, just after eight am, I was greeted by a perfectly still dawn, and a bright moon, just past full, rising sedately into a pale sky, all delicately streaked with vanilla and pink striated clouds.

Then I thought: what am I doing sitting here, indoors, writing? So I grabbed a coat, a camera, a pair of bins and set off in the direction of what I call Diana’s arrows, a triangular formation of wind turbines out on the Lancashire plain. I’ve lived in West Lancs for twenty years now, and still have trouble with it. I find the the plain to be such a dreary place – more open air factory than open country, and stinking just now of cabbage and sprouts and mud. In contrast to much local outrage at the time, I welcomed the erection of the wind turbines a few years ago, if only to give me something to look at, and set my internal compass by. I’ve adjusted somewhat over the years to life on the plain, but only by developing an appreciation for the dynamism of the sky, which is by far the most dominant feature here – a full 360 degree horizon and at times quite breathtaking in it expressiveness.

Like the weather, my thoughts have  been thrashing about, torn from safe moorings one moment, and becalmed the next, and like the sky this morning there’s also a unpredictable current to them, no firm direction. By the time I’d got under way, the striated clouds had congealed into a blue grey blanket of overcast nothingness – and the land bore no contrast, no shadow. There was just a flat, uniform and rather dim light under which the muddy plain seemed to shiver and shrink. And there was no life, at least not within the sweep of my glasses – just a couple of wood pigeon pecking at fresh shoots of winter wheat, and a lone woman taking her mongrel dog for a dump.

I felt let down, for the dawn had seemed to promise much, but now, like the land, I felt flat, restless for a defining mood. But the sky would not yield and the sun whose munificence I had anticipated was now a presence only hinted at by a few stray rays bursting from behind that bank of steadily thickening blue-grey nothingness.

But then it happened. The sky shifted, it breathed and released the sun. At once the land was transformed – the flat meadows now revealed in all their intricately furrowed detail, the almost luminous green of the winter wheat set in stark contrast against the fertile soil, black as coal and freshly tilled. Suddenly there were stories here, and ghosts to walk with. I snapped the picture, and turned for home. There was a dynamism, a direction indicated by the finger-pointing of long shadows westwards. Likewise my thoughts began to take shape, pointing me along an unexpected course, linking me back to works undertaken a long time ago, and to names I’ve not heard or thought of in forty years, but who seem now to be hove in sight, arrayed on my horizon like galleons of old.

I turned for home and finished up the diary, then reached for the Book of Changes, but it could tell me nothing I did not already know. It seemed the sky had already prepared me for the way ahead and the attitude I must adopt. I’ve no idea what those galleons mean, whether their guns be to clear a path for my escape into a new adventure, or to level chain shot at my masts, and scupper all my hopes, but whatever their meaning, they will not take me by surprise. I raise a flag in friendship, but keep my eye on the tide and on the way the wind is blowing.

Of course, when I’m up to my eyes in the day-job I cannot think this way, I am straight-jacketed within the narrow confines of rational thought, pressed down in a place where I drown in mediocrity, just one insignificant man eternally subdued by the overpowering sense of his own obscurity.  Only when I am free to seek augurs in the sky, like this morning, and allow with impudence my inner self to indulge in them, do I live as I believe a man should.

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moll - william  hogarthOr less sensationally: Self-hosting your own ebooks

The business of self publishing continues to fascinate me. Currently I’m using two of the big names in free self-publishing, namely Feedbooks and Smashwords to host my stories. This basically means their computers hold the files containing my words and they present them in a such way that readers can find them – primarily on their smartphones or their Android tablets. This is by far the most efficient way for a self publisher to disseminate their work. For the traditional tweed suited, bow tied author, the dream is a book on the shelf at Waterstones, a highbrow book signing, and a table at the Booker awards ceremony, but for the modern indy – well this one at least -the dream is simply to have their book picked up by a Smartphone somewhere in the world, and using Smashwords and Feedbooks has worked out really well for me in that respect.

But there are snags in letting others host your work. With Feedbooks in particular I must admit to a growing irritation at the presence of childish smut that’s so “in your face” it’s hard to know where to look when you browse their website these days. If anyone can publish anything there’s always going to be a race to the “bottom”, and Feedbooks demonstrates this in heaps. If my rather staid literary titles end up sandwiched between offerings of anal intercourse and incestuous bonking there’s not a damned thing I can do about it, and I no longer find it “cool” to be seen out in such company. One is also at the whim of tech support when something goes wrong. Feedbook’s stats have been broken for months now, perhaps creaking under the strain of all that smut, so I’ve no idea how my stories are doing now. I’ve had a good run on there, and I hesitate to complain, but it makes one wonder, it makes one consider one’s options.

Smashwords on the other hand, while still a vibrant and valuable hosting service, one that has long championed the cause of the independent author, I feel falls down on the subject of formatting and upload. I’ve followed all the rules, put several manuscripts through their automatic ebook generator now, and none of them have come out right, at least not to my satisfaction. I know I’m particular, but I want it to look how I want it to look, and I don’t want to have to wrestle with it in order to get it there, or pay someone to do it for me. They have smut on Smashwords too but there’s a button you can click to make it disappear. Unfortunately, it makes most of my stories disappear as well.

Ho hum.

I don’t mean to sound like a grump, and I am grateful for the services these outfits provide – they really have saved me from drowning in my own words, and snatched me from the demoralising treadmill of traditional publishing. But what if you could produce your own ebook file, host it somewhere privately, for free, where you can maintain control of how your book looks, get stats on daily downloads and above all avoid having to sit down with pimps and pornographers? Sounds good? Well, I thought so, and I’ve spent the last few days exploring how I might go about it.

In order to get your work into an ebook reader on a smartphone or an android tablet you need it compiled in .epub format or .mobi for Kindle – there are other formats, but they’re the main two a writer should concern themselves with.  Sigil is a very useful tool in this regard – at least for epub. I put “Push Hands” through it last night and the output is very encouraging. The software is easy to use, well documented and free. For conversion to Kindle format, I’m guessing I’ll have to use Calibre, another free ebook formatting tool, but I’ve not tried that yet.

For the self-hosting bit you need Dropbox. I’ve had a free “cloud based” storage account with them for a while but I don’t use it much. With Dropbox you get a private and a public folder. If you drop your Sigil generated .epub file in the public folder you can then generate a web address to that file, which you can then cut and paste into your blog. I’ve created a separate page here at WordPress called “EPUB” where I can put my links. And hey-presto, a self publishing indy author, self hosting, and all for free. The downside? Well, as with all self publishing, without a team of publicists blowing the trumpet for us, we mustn’t expect many clicks, but a writer has to keep abreast of the options. Plus, if Feedbooks and Smashwords go belly up, at least my books are still out there.

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RTF AndroidAs a writer who uses computers a lot, I’ve always favoured the Rich Text file format (.RTF). I like it because it’s simple. A step up from plain text (.TXT), it allows things like italics, bold and underlining. Business users and academics may have need of more sophistication than this, but as an independent fiction writer aiming primarily at ebook publication, anything more complex than RTF is only going to leg me up.

RTF is readable across a wide range of word processors and, since it’s inception in 1987, has certainly stood the test of time. Things I wrote twenty years ago, using software that is now unobtainable, on devices that are now museum pieces, are still readable today on modern machines running modern operating systems and word processors. But with all this going for the Rich Text Format, why is it so difficult to find support for it on that most leading edge of mobile platforms: Android?

One of those museum pieces I used to write on was my little Psion 5. I still have it, and it still works, but its lack of reliable USB support has left it languishing in a drawer. That machine allowed me to put all my writings in my pocket and take them anywhere. I wrote hundreds of thousands of words on it, including the The Road From Langholm avenue, and much of the Lavender and the Rose, but getting RTF files from that old pre-USB device, while still possible, is far more trouble than I’m prepared to put up with these days.

Android tablets are the most obvious solution to writing on the move, and would allow me to carry my muse into places I’d never take a laptop. In the Autumn, I carried my Android Smartphone up Dovedale Crag in the Lakes, used it to snap a few reference pics, and to jot some spontaneous lines of poetry. The phone was there by default – it’s just something I carry around without thinking, like one might have carried a pocketbook in Victorian times. The phone’s too small for serious work, but the potential for a writer in having such a powerful device always to hand is obvious. Until recently though the ultra flexible RTF format has been notable only by its frustrating lack of support on the Android platform.

However,…

I’ve just discovered a newish word processor called Textmaker. It works with a wide range of file formats, RTF among them. It’s not free, but at £3.30 from the App Store even I’m not complaining. I’m running it, not on my phone, but a 7″ Samsung Galaxy Tab. How practical is it? Well, I wrote this article on it. I’ve also edited bits of my current work in progress on it – a novel that stands around the 90K mark, weighing in at 500 MB of RTF – and it handles a file of that size with ease. I’m sure, in time, other developers will follow suit and RTF won’t be such a rare beast in the Android world any more, but for now, Textmaker seems to have stolen the lead.

As for the mechanics of writing on the Samsung Galaxy Tab, the 7″ screen is about the minimum you can live with for accurate typing, and about the maximum you’d want for a pocketable device. Finger fluffing and back tabbing are admittedly far more frequent than with a proper keyboard, but the overall experience is promising, though regrettably, still not a patch on that old Psion which, in my humble opinion, has yet to be beaten.

The ultimate test of any writing medium, whether it be pencil and paper, or a computer, is whether or not the technology can be made to disappear and all you’re aware of are the words forming as you move your fingers. We’re not quite there yet – these virtual keyboards hide apostrophes and speech marks in really weird places, perhaps because such things are considered obsolete in social media, and who would want to write a long, properly punctuated story on a machine like this anyway? Well, I would – at least when I’m not at home and in reach of my Laptop. But we’re getting there, and the fact the little green Android man has finally decided to make friends with the RTF format is, I think, a big step in the right direction.

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Fractured Beauty

I recall an immense stillness,
And a velvet, sparkling night,
And a full, perigee moon,
Painting white wavelets,
On the black lake,
Lapping below.

Left and right,
Pines forests pricked the sky,
Dark on darker still,
Enfolding us in hushed embrace.

Small hours late we stood,
Beneath that moon,
Stealing minutes,
From the dawn.
Your perfume, razor sharp,
Seemed a blade to part,
The thickness of the summer air.

Mute, I let the night imprint itself.

I did not know you then,
Nor ever would;
A fool in love with love,
And you,
In thrall to blood,
And breath,
And bone,
Yet too young to guide,
Too young to say: forget love.
And just make love.
And me too shy to steal,
What you but loosely did conceal.

You judged me empty, perhaps.
Yet I was full,
But cautious and ill prepared,
For you.
And that big moon,
Bright witness, shone,
Upon the fractured beauty,
Of it all.

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girl reading charles-edward-peruginiOne of the spin-offs of the online media revolution and the advent of social media is that nowadays everyone with an Internet connection can publish an opinion. If you buy a book, or indeed anything online, you can write a review of it for all to see. Amazon positively encourages you to do this, prompting you with emails to either rate the supplier or to say what you thought about the product. For book reviews there’s also Goodreads, and Goodreads isn’t limited to traditionally published works either. My own books have found their way onto Goodreads’ website too, and I didn’t put them there myself, honestly.

Fortunately most reviews of my work are positive. One critic did complain that the Lavender and the Rose was turgid and went on too long, but others have been more appreciative. It depends what you’re expecting of course, whether you felt misled by the blurb – thought you were getting a fast paced thriller and ended up with a two hundred thousand word meditation on the mystical path. I’d be disappointed too. To all my positive reviewers, and especially my six Goodreads fans, I say thank you very much. To my negative reviewers I reply that I humbly respect your opinions, and regret that I was unable to engage your interest. I’d also like to remind you, ever so politely, that you didn’t pay for that book.

But is this sort of thing any use?

“I taught dis buk was rubish” is not untypical of the type of review one might find on Amazon or Goodreads. But would such trite social media-speak discourage me from reading a book? Not necessarily; it would depend on the other reviews of course – but if it was the only review? Hmm. Tricky.

I have reviewed books myself on Goodreads. It can be a useful exercise in distilling the essence of something one has just read – or at least what one has taken away from the experience. It also keeps you writing. But I find myself reviewing only those books I enjoyed, while drawing a veil of silence over the ones I did not. Your stereotypical proper book critic – bow-tie, tweed jacket and donnish air – would not be so selective, and would waste no time in lambasting any author they felt had fallen short of the mark. This is no bad thing, for where would any of us be without that stern English teacher red-penning our misdemeanours?

But I am no stern teacher; I would never say I thought a book was rubbish, because that would be to set myself up as an authority on literary taste and discernment, which would be immodest, and probably also untrue. I have no more idea than the next person what is worthy of that most prized accolade: A Good Book. I have read revered works and they have left me nonplussed. I have read works that have garnered controversy, and wondered what the fuss was about. I have read works by writers no one has ever heard of, and been blown away. We all know what we like and can say what we enjoyed about a particular work, what we took from it, but to be critical? For myself, I would not want to hurt anyone’s feelings. Does that make me a poor reviewer? I suppose it does.

But online reviews are not like the professional reviews that appear in the literary supplements. Professional reviews are more dictatorial. They are a select voice, one with the potential to influence a wide audience by virtue of its coverage in the national press. Of course a well educated, erudite reviewer can give us valuable insights into a book’s strengths and weaknesses. They can also give us insights into an author’s background and any underlying agendas that might be relevant in colouring the way the book has been written or presented. But without knowing the reviewer’s agenda too, the potential buyer is still vulnerable to bias, also to the ever effective devil of the publicist’s well honed blurb.

The online review is more of a democratic vote. We each add our voice, and it’s understood that no single voice should be taken as being definitive. The reader scans the babble of opinion, and makes an assessment: does it seem mostly positive or mostly negative? Of course, the critics of such democratic criticism would point out the obvious risk of fake reviews. It’s easy to set up an on-line I.D. complete with false avatar and post the most glowing review of one’s own work, also to post the most withering review of the work of someone you dislike. But truth is rarely to be found in the extremes – more often in the average – and I think a wise buyer will bear this in mind. There is much wisdom in crowds, but wisdom too, in circumspection, when dealing with them.

In searching out an enjoyable book, the opinions of one’s peers are always useful, but in the end you never really know until you read it yourself. Indeed you might just be missing out on the read of a lifetime because someone told you, unimaginatively, they thought that book was rubbish.

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i chingIt wasn’t easy breaking into college that night. Obviously the gates were locked and the grounds patrolled by dogs. There were also infra red CCTV cameras all over the place. The main buildings too were locked, but let’s just say I was determined and I found a way.

Once inside, the corridors were empty, sterile, smelling of disinfectant, and for a moment I was disappointed; perhaps there was nothing here after all? There were no lights and my torch was pathetic – just a single intermittent beam, batteries running low – and I’d no idea where I was going, what I was looking for – I mean specifically. I tried several doors at random. Some were locked, while others gave onto darkened rooms. Then I opened a door to find myself inside the main lecture hall. It was well lit, and full to the top tiers with students. It was warm inside and there was an excited buzz, cut suddenly short by my brazen appearance.

 The lecturer, a kindly old guy, who bore an uncanny resemblance to a Fluid Mechanics teacher I’d once studied under, paused only briefly in his presentation, then gestured to a few empty seats where I might take my place. Students – they were not young these students, but mostly older guys and gals – gave way for my passing so I might sit among them. I hesitated because I could tell by the material on the blackboard that this was a deeply profound subject and those gathered were of an uncanny breed. It would be expensive, I thought, and I might not be able to afford the fees. But, as if reading my thoughts, an old guy gathered me to his side, took me under his wing, so to speak, and he either said, or intimated subliminally that all the courses here were free. Sure, the college was locked and a bit of a puzzle to get into, and it was up to the individual to find a way of breaking in, but once in, he was welcome and there was absolutely no charge for any of the knowledge he might care to take away with him.

 All right, yes, a dream – unusually numinous and, for once, not that hard to interpret.

I woke up feeling deeply reassured.

 

 

 

 

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