Pirates aloud

Well, this is new. Someone on YouTube is advertising an audio version of a book of mine which is an interesting move since there isn’t one.

Actually, I say this is new but I am aware that Doctor Who radio dramas get pirated so it must’ve happened to me before but I’ve never seen it happen. I’ve definitely never seen it while in the bath.

I’m not sure I should’ve mentioned that last but it is just you and me here plus you’ve got a kind face. I was having a long soak with my large iPad propped up on a chair across the bathroom. It was playing various YouTube videos I wanted to catch up on and I’m stopping right here, I’m not telling you what I watched, you’re going too far now.

But the purpose of the soak was to hide away from a tough week and explicitly to not think about various projects I’m on.

And the result of the soak was that of course I had an idea about one of them.

A bath plug tugged and two big towels sanding me down later, I did a search online for a fact to do this idea – and the only result that came back was me. My book. In this unauthorised, unheard-of audio version from someone I suppose I shouldn’t name but who, let’s be clear here, isn’t me.

Thanks to editor Mike Wuerthele, I’ve learned that you can file complaints to YouTube about just this sort of thing and I did so in the required great detail before my hair dried.

It’s just that I should be angry, and I am. I should be determined to stop this – and you had better believe that I am. Yet alongside that, I keep coming back to wondering why it was this particular book.

If you promise to not search YouTube for the illegal audio version, I’ll tell you that it’s Getting Productive with Omni Software: Exploiting OmniFocus, OmniOutliner and OmniPlan.

I think that’s pretty niche. This software is world-class and the first two, especially, have transformed my working life. (OmniFocus is the To Do app I live in and OmniOutliner is how I’ve planned about 400 of my last speaking gigs. Also some books. OmniPlan is project management software which I’ve used for some complex projects but really they were only complex to me, you’d have done them in your sleep.) Read my book or just go buy the software.

It’s niche but I like that book and it seems to be in demand more and more. Earlier this month I got to speak about it over Skype, presenting to the members of the Chicago Apple User Group. Early evening their time, after midnight mine, and whilst I was in an oven of a hotel room in London ahead of delivering an all-day workshop for the Federation of Entertainment Unions.

I told you about the bath: that night I had five showers solely to cool down and only got dressed again because it would’ve been a bit offputting to the Chicago people if I’d sat there in towels.

That was a really good night: hearing twenty or so people laughing back at me across the Atlantic, it was buzzing. Plus I’ve had since some lovely comments about the book, too.

All of which means that one of those projects of mine that’s been so pressing me down has somewhat floated up higher. I’m doing a new edition of the book and it will be out as an ebook and this time a paperback later in the year. I don’t know when because I want to wait for a particular new version of OmniOutliner to be released and all I know is that it’s soon.

But I wonder if I should do an audio version.

UPDATE: YouTube has accepted my copyright claim and removed the video.

To make a short story long

If you look at writing from a cold, commercial view then you know that short stories don’t sell. But a great short story can have an impact on its reader and I’m learning that they can have a bit of a wallop on the writer too.

For you know that Facebook has this thing now of dredging up things you said one or more years ago. Today it showed me one from 2014 that was about a short story of mine. Unfathomable that it’s two years ago. But Roz Goddard commissioned me to work with a reading group in Combrook to come up with a short story for them. Each year several writers work with several groups and the job is quite clear: find out what each group enjoys and write them a story that fits.

I think there were six writers and six groups in my year and that would mean five got it right.

For I’m afraid that I rather betrayed my group and the principles of the entire project as instead of writing a story for them, I wrote a story about them.

Well, let’s be clear for personal, creative and definitely legal reasons: it wasn’t about them per se. But it was.

They’re such a good group of people, I had a delightful evening working with them, but despite the torrent of ideas and thoughts and laughs, there was one fact that I could not get out of my head. This group was in a beautiful village – you want to move there, you do – but that village actually had two such book groups.

That’s what I called the story: The Book Groups, plural. I imagined all sorts of rivalry between them and I am slightly disturbed by how some of the real group tell me they identify with certain of my imagined characters’ actions. Maybe you don’t want to move there after all.

What happened that evening two years ago is that I read them the finished story. I remember asking for a seat near the door in case they didn’t like it. But it was a happy evening for me, a privilege to be in that group for a spell. And I’ve read the story a couple of times since.

Once was to my mother who I didn’t think was particularly listening until I reached a key moment and she jolted. “What?” she said. “Read that bit again.”

Then I got to perform the piece at the Library of Birmingham. And this is where the short story becomes a long-lasting thing for me because I’m back there tonight. Alongside the very many events in the Birmingham Literature Festival, there are a series of extra readings and performances and I’m doing a new story, Time’s Table. It’s written for this evening, it’s partly set in this evening.

But then on Sunday there is the launch of an anthology of short stories, What Haunts the Heart, at Waterstones’ in Birmingham and it contains one of mine so I’m performing there too. Time Gentlemen Please is therefore my second published short story after The Book Groups.

Two published short stories in two years. It’s not a lot and I don’t know the word count but even together they can’t add up to a significant fraction of the number of articles and books I’ve done in that time. But they’ve been a huge wallop for me.

Gareth Thomas

In the 1970s I was a boy watching Blake’s 7 on the telly and for just a moment yesterday, I was again. How things change, though: I was in a TV studio being filmed when I heard that Gareth Thomas has died.

I never met him but I did interview the guy by phone twice. Once was for Radio Times in some kind of countdown feature about TV shows the magazine’s readers had said they wanted to see come back. It might’ve been 2004, maybe 2006, I don’t know. Still, I can see me at the RT desk on the phone to him, having a very happy conversation and only at the end of the twenty minutes or so asking him where he was.

“Tesco,” he said.

I don’t know why it tickled me that he was standing by the chiller cabinets in aisle 9 while being interviewed for Radio Times, but it did and somehow that all fitted into why I just liked the man.

Which means this next bit makes me wince. I can’t remember where Blake’s 7 came in that top ten, but I do remember that for some utter fluke of a chance, its whole section got missed. That top ten went to press and onto newsstands without number six or whatever it was. We ran an extended version online. It’s not the same.

Then in what now seems oddly related, I interviewed him again in 2013 for a book I was commissioned to write about Blake’s 7. I’m proud of that book and its 170,000 words –– seriously, who knew I could write that much about anything? –– but you can’t read it yet. It’s been rather severely delayed since I delivered the manuscript and I’m sure if I knew all the reasons why, I wouldn’t be able to tell you.

Obviously I’d rather it was out and obviously I wish you could read it but I think part of yesterday’s surprise at Thomas’s death is that he’s in this book of mine that is still in progress. How can he die before what he said to me is printed? What’s more, he’s now the second interviewee to die: I count myself privileged to have got to spend a whole hour on the phone with writer Tanith Lee shortly before she died too. She sent me a book we’d been talking about and I didn’t get to read it in time, I now cannot ever tell her what I thought.

Tanith Lee and Gareth Thomas: two names I knew from the TV credits when I was growing up. Two names I got to work with, at least in this small and short way. Neither of them would’ve recognised me on the street but it made yesterday’s news seem that much more of a shock. Cumulative shock.

Let me tell you this instead of dwelling on that. Right now I am at the same desk that I was when Gareth Thomas phoned me from backstage at some theatre tour. I can play back the recording: it’s right here on my Mac alongside the finished book. With one tap I can read the result of our chat and I can summon the man’s voice.

I’m not a Blake’s 7 fan, which on the one hand I think made me a good choice for the book but today also makes me regret that everything you’re hearing and reading about this actor concentrates on that one show. I’m doing it too, I’m doing the same thing instead of covering a giant career.

But I’m doing that because I’m going to do this. I’m going to show you a quote from my interview with Gareth Thomas. I’d heard before that he didn’t watch Blake’s 7 and I was curious whether that was because he wasn’t interested in it. At the time, I thought his answer pointed to a man very serious about his work. Today I’m thinking it hints at a man who was always moving forward, always pressing on, always reaching for something. And so what makes his death hurt is not that I remember him as Roj Blake or in that scary Children of the Stones, but rather that all this life and verve has stopped.

“Never seen the show,” he told me. And he didn’t want to. “I’ve never seen anything I’ve done. I’d hate it, I’d want to do it again properly, immediately. You can’t see yourself on stage so why bother on television?”

Book people

This is new. As I write this to you, there’s a writing workshop going on and I’m producing it. Just over there. In that room. Now, obviously I would come out of it to talk to you – nobody else, mind, let’s be quite clear there – but I’m not in the room at all. The session is being run by <a href=”https://twitter.com/smalextownley”>Alex Townley</a> and I’m hearing laughter, I’m hearing the buzz of chatter, I’m hearing that it is going very well.

I should be feeling rubbish out here but instead I am deeply, deeply delighted. It’s like when you write a scene you think is good, you hope it’s good and then you see it working even better. A couple of years ago now I sat in the audience at the Birmingham Rep watching a discussion event on stage and actually marvelling that I’d made that happen. You can’t count the number of other people involved but I couldn’t dismiss the fact that I made it happen. Nobody in that audience had any idea I had anything to do with it and at the end, everyone on stage got applauded and I was right there applauding with them.

There is something just tremendous about creating things, I think, and when you have someone good doing part then it is tremendous that you saw what they could do and you got them. This week of the writing workshop series is about creating characters and bringing them to life on the page: no question, Alex is the one to tell them about that. Equally no question, or at least not very many questions or at least I’m not listening to you if you’re questioning, is the fact that I’m the guy to do next week’s one on dialogue.

You should probably not get me started on dialogue. It’s my thing. You’ve got your thing, I’ve got dialogue. It keeps me warm.

And the instant I say that to you, my mind splits in two directions. I want to tell you of a line of dialogue that cropped up in a TV drama recently where someone said: “I’m done with listening, do you hear me?” I don’t fully understand why I laughed at that.

But my mind also wants to address the realisation that I’m just after saying that to you about dialogue and what am I doing tonight? I said a few words at the start and I will at the end, otherwise I’m sitting here typing.

It’s not typing, though, is it? It’s writing to you. It’s a weekday evening as I write this, I’m sitting in the offices of <a href=”http://www.writingwestmidlands.org”>Writing West Midlands</a>, there’s a colleague working across the room, and next to both of us is this room where a group of writers are having a good time concocting characters. I think this is pretty good.

Reading and writing

I can remember my sister trying to teach me to read. I can see her, I can see the room, I can feel my anxiousness to get away, I can hear my mom saying okay, well, maybe that’s enough for today. I was slow to start and while I’m fuzzy now on the details of how it went at school, I know I was in a remedial reading class for a least a while. I know that because I can equally clearly see the room and the teacher.

Again, I’m shaky on details but I think it was that several of us who were below average reading ability were regularly taken off out of classes and into some other room to read. I’m sure of it, actually, because the thing I can see, the moment I can completely visualise is when the teacher thought I was pretending to read.

Whatever it was, however it happened, there was just one moment when suddenly I could read very well. I’m not certain I even realised it: I picture her asking me to read something aloud and instead of struggling as I presumably did up to then, I read it flawlessly. I read that flawlessly, I read the next piece she shoved under my nose and the next. I read and read and never went back to that remedial class again.

I don’t often tell people that but chiefly because I don’t often remember it. Reading is just part of everything I do, it’s part of everything I am. Only, I wanted to tell you this today because something happened this week. It’s something that I am having difficulty processing, I am struggling to get it into my skull. But then equally, I can’t seem to get it out of my head either.

I’m a best-selling author.

Seriously.

You’ve got to let me qualify that, you’ve got to let me try to whittle it down a bit. I’m a best-selling author of a non-fiction book, actually solely an ebook, and I’m a best-selling author only in its very, very specific niche. I’ll tell you: the book is called <a href=”http://amzn.to/1OdOCJx”>MacNN Pointers: Get More from Your Apple Software</a> and I co-wrote it with Charles Martin. We are best-selling authors of this collection of tutorials on how to use the software that comes with your iPhone, iPad, Mac and so on. We co-wrote it, I edited it and the book was proposed by Mike Wuerthele. He’s managing editor of MacNN.com, Chas is editor.

Within a few hours, certainly no more than a day of it being available, the book went to number 1 in its category on Apple’s iBooks Store in both the US and the UK. On Kindle, it was number 2 in the US and nowhere near as high in the UK – but high enough that Amazon listed it has a Hot Seller. Then at some point it became number 10 on Amazon for books in its category. That’s books, not ebooks. Number 10 in its category across both ebooks and physical books.

That speed isn’t just exciting, for me, it’s directly responsible for the best-selling status. For publishing has changed and not just in the fact that there are now ebooks. It’s changed in how I believe it used to be that the book that sold the most number of copies was the best-selling number 1. I don’t know that was the case but it sounds pretty reasonable. Today that is a factor but so is the speed of sales: something selling a dozen copies a minute will chart higher than something selling a dozen a week, even if the former only lasts for one minute.

So the fact that, for whatever reason, the book was immediately popular, that’s what took it into this status. I can tell you we’ve sold a couple of hundred copies so it’s not like we’re shirking.

I’m not thinking of numbers though. I’m certainly not thinking of the money: this is not something that will change my week let alone my life. I’m thinking instead of how this is like the time a proof copy of my first-ever book arrived. I held that book in my hand and I realised no one can ever take it away from me. Good or bad, I’d created that book and long after my death if any other writer wants to cover the same ground, their proposal will have to explain how my book can be bettered.

In much the same way, then, you can argue that best-seller status doesn’t mean what it used to, you can very well argue that it’s a bit different being a best-selling author in a non-fiction technology category than it is being a novelist on the New York Times charts. But you can’t take it away. No one can. I actually am a best-selling author.

I’m a little red-faced with excitement yet also pale: a slow-starting reader, a remedial-class reader, what one pixel changed in my life or my head that turned me into a writer? I am unemployable in any other job: I think a lot about what would’ve happened if I’d not found this in me.

I’m also uncomfortable being proud of this. I’m only telling you, right? And any publisher I ever pitch to, naturally. I’m modest but I’m not stupid.

No, sorry, modesty is wrong. I am British, that is how I feel about it, but I’m also proud and so I should be. I didn’t particularly aim to be a best-selling author, the lifetime ambition has been just to write and keep writing, but now it’s here I am and I should be proud.

I got to this the long way around, I got to it through stubborn persistence. So yes, I’ve been pig-headed for a long time and maybe now I can spend a minute or two being big-headed instead.

New book out today: Filling the Blank Screen

Filling-the-Blank-Screen_600x900Last year, The Blank Screen book captured every single thing I knew about being a productive yet still creative writer. How to beat distractions. Get started. Cope with the day job, cope with deadlines, cope with other people – and cope with yourself too. There’s also an astonishingly popular bit in it about kettles. Tea-making aside, I am deeply proud of how useful the book has proved to people. Actually, hang on, how about this quote?

“Love this book, it is clever and witty and genuinely grapples with making an extra hour (or two) in the day. Inspiring and liberating. A real Can-Do manual. No creative should be without it.”

That was an out-of-the-blue email from Barbara Machin, creator of BBC’s Waking the Dead. Made my day, didn’t it? So did getting tweets at 5am from people saying they had finally finished their novels because of what I’d told them. Okay, being up and working and able to tweet right back at them that second was part of the fun.

But that’s the thing. People. The Blank Screen book became a workshop that I have now done all over the country. I’ve done versions for individuals – that’s intense but fantastic: ask me about that – and I’ve spoken at literary festivals, in universities, I’ve worked with new and amateur writers, I’ve worked with long-time professionals. Next week I’m in Newcastle and it is to spend a day with writers but also with journalists, musicians and actors. People who have to create, whose passion is in creating new work but who are having to do more of that and do it alongside so many other jobs that their creativity is under pressure. The work they live to do is being squeezed to one side like the credits on a TV show while they are having to run businesses or get day jobs.

I know that what I’ve got for them will help with everything they’re doing. That’s a great feeling, to actually know that this works. But what’s greater, for me personally, is that I do not know what they’ve got for me. I just know that they will have something.

It’s more or less exactly a year since The Blank Screen first came out and now I’ve learnt so much from so many people that I’m ecstatic to tell you today sees the official publication of a new book: Filling the Blank Screen. One hundred chapters of advice, tips, recommendations and daft anecdotes from a year of making more people more productive.

This new book is actually a distillation of more than a thousand articles on The Blank Screen news site and of more than a quarter of a million words written on there since November 2013. One hundred of the best, the most-talked about and the most-read pieces have been continued, developed, updated and given a nice scrub to make this new ebook. If you and I have talked at a workshop, I have stolen your brilliant idea and it’s in chapter 3.

Filling the Blank Screen is due to be released in paperback on 12 September and the ebook is out today.

The aim of this new book is not to replace The Blank Screen, I still know that will be useful to you and I hope also entertain. But Filling the Blank Screen is a burst of bite-sized pieces you can grab on the run and which tell you what to do to get things done. Read one piece a day and in a hundred days you’ll have had a good time and I’ll have the reputation for writing long books.

Everybody wins and it costs you only £2.99.

Quick aside? Since it’s you? Filling the Blank Screen is not the book I was planning to write this year. It really did come out of the unexpected success of the workshops and the news site. It felt like it was the book itself that wanted to be written. Which is startling and great, obviously, and I’m dancing here, but still it is not the book I was planning to write. Which means I am deep into the planned book and that’s what I should be working on right now. If only there were a couple of books out with great and tested advice about getting writing finished and beating distractions and putting the kettle on this minute.

It is a treat that I get to tell you these things. Thanks.