As I write there's four hours left of 2011 - a year I'll be glad to see the back of, yet it wasn't all bad. The financial sword of Damocles continues to dangle above my head, wiping the smile off my face if I go over-exuberent about being alive - but what the hell! I am and I will not be defeated.

There were plenty of good things but I can't say 2011 was the best year I've ever had: a lot of the surprises and twists and turns life takes were negative. I won't go into the details, but it wasn't just about me - some close and dear friends also had some severe setbacks.

On the upside I got a fair amount published, becaume a regular columnist with Specter Magazine and a member of the Specter Collective, and got an offer from Trestle Press to publish my first novel as an ebook, which will be out in the new year. Alongside that I submitted two short stories and the first three chapters of Novel 2 to organisations who I think highly of. One is for the BBC (should find out if that's been accepted in the summer), one its for the short story competition run by Peirene Press and the last was for another competition. The prize for the later is to have the story critiqued by a real live literary agent. There's also a poem entered into the competition run by Holland Park Press.

I've also found at least one really good target to pitch my second novel - a bike-based romance set in the Netherlands - which is a huge bonus as we all know a focussed submission is less likely to fail than a more random one. More on that as soon as I've despatched the finished work to them.

So 2012 is already lining up to be a good year: I know the BBC will accept and broadast my story, and it's a dead cert that I'll win at least one of the competitions - how can you doubt me? :) Yes, I know - no one but a fool would believe such nonsense. But as I said, I will remain optimistic (and yes, sometimes I will be wildly optimistic!) and not be held down by negative feelings and natural and unnatural disasters.

The start could hardly be better as I'm off to Melbourne in Australia for three weeks, two of which will be a holiday and all of which will be spent with a very talented and creative friend. And I'll be on such a high from that I'll still be soaring like a bird come June! :)

Happy and succesful new year to you all. xxx
Don't Believe a Word
As mentioned in earlier blogs, I'm not impressed with poor standards in writing. Although I'm happy to see most writers being succesful, I don't see why we should try and play by the rules and work our arses off crafting something good, when some publishers and writers are happy to publish sub-standard work.

Not that I'm encouraging you to follow suit, or willing to write poorly myself. But if the publishing industry wants to write the rules (not an unfair idea) then they should follow them too.

I'm basing my opinion on a book I spent a good month trying to read (I say trying because it was like sandpapering my soul) which flouts almost every rule and guideline from agents and publishers I've read. That said, in the past I've tried to read several books that could, at best, be called second rate. So this particular one isn't the only cause of my irritation.

I've already banged on about this in earlier blogs, so today I'll just concentrate on a more personal issue about feeding my brain and reading as a learning and motivational experience.

Get Your Motor Running
One of the things we're all told to do as writers is read, and quite rightly so. I find reading is a great way to learn and is also inspirational. There is nothing like reading a good story that is beautifully crafted to fire up the imagination and make one pick up the pen.

Conversley, the opposite is true when you are reading rubbish. I found that over the course of the last month or so I was barely able to write anything, not even short poems, so dessicated was my imagination.

And then I read a great quote that said, in a paraphased stylee:
"There are so many great books out there you should read those first: don't waste good reading time on anything less."

It's a lesson that has been learned the hard way. In future I will stick to my 12 page rule, and that is if I haven't started to like or enjoy the story within 12 pages, then I'll stop reading it because it isn't going to get any better.

What Do You Do?
Does anyone else have such a rule and what is your experience and attitude towards second rate writing?
Here's the dilemma: I'm reading a book that I want to review. It is not a good book. It is poorly written, unimaginative and dull. At best it's a short story, because the basic idea is good. The editing is also questionable. I think that, given how hard many aspiring authors work to produce something good, and how much attention we give to following the advice from industry professionals and published writers, this book is insulting and really taking the piss. It should not have been published in its current form and is, in my opinion, about 50% of the way there. The only upside of this is that I didn't pay for the book, it was given to me.

My problem is that although I feel the need to point out its failings, I'm not sure if I ought to. Perhaps my time would be better spent reviewing (and
reading!) something I like. And surely beauty is in the eye of the beholder and people's tastes are not all the same?

Yes, both of the latter are true, but in this case it's not about taste, it's about poor workmanship. I will quote two examples from this book to demonstrate my point, but I could easily quote or more.

Quote 1
The following comes from a long passage where an FBI agent is describing a fight with a vampire:

"...he picked me up by the neck like I weighed nothing and threw me down onto the ground. I started shouting questions at him, asking him to tell me about himself. For some astounding reason, he stepped back and started

So we're supposed to believe that at one moment the agent is being nigh on
murdered by a vampire, and in the next - and with no explanation whatsoever they're having a nice chat. Really!? Call me demanding but I want the writer to explain this dramatic turnaround. In fact the story can't proceed without being explained. I think this is should have been picked up in the editing process at the very least (where were you editors?). My main question here is, why doesn't the author bother to take the time to fill in the missing details of this sudden change of events? It should IMPOSSIBLE not to describe because you know your readers are going to ask themselves the same question. Then there's the 'For some astounding reason' sentence which the author assumes lets her off the hook of explaining what's going on. If the author can't be bothered to spend the time writing a few hundred words to explain what happened, then why should I bother reading on? Because you've already proved that shoddy workmanship is ok with you. It is not ok for paying customers.

This 'can't be bothered to explain' trick is used many times throughout the course of the book.

Quote 2
Much later in the book the main character is at a gathering of vampires for a ceremony where, not surprisingly, reality is a little challening:

"Candles floated in the air of their own volition, just like in the Harry Potter movies,..."

This starts well enough but then 'just like in the Harry Potter movies'? How lazy can you be? First there's the assumption that the reader has seen any of the films, secondly why doesn't the writer exercise their imagination and supposed writing skills rather than using graphical shorthand? The book is riddled with this sort of thing, all of which should have been picked up by the editor.

Critical Failure
Because I've been caught on the horns of this dilemma, I've asked other writers what they think about critiquing poor work, most prefer to ignore it and instead review books they do like. A few months ago I read another writer's blog about the same issue. Her attitude was that she didn't want to give a bad critique because she didn't want to create negative feelings within a close-knit industry and among people she may need at some point in her career. She is not alone in the POV, and I understand where she's coming from. It's hard enough to become a published/successful writer as it is without creating waves that may bounce back of distant shores later in life and slap you across the face.

On the other hand, we've a right to our opinion and to point out shoddy workmanship to others who might be tempted to spend their money on it, only to find out that it's crap. They should at least have the opportunity to know other people's opinion before they buy.

But we shouldn't live in fear of stating our opinion: that is not good for us as individuals or for our society. In fact, because of our moral obligation to be honest to ourselves, I'd say we're almost obligated to state our opinion.

Writing this blog has helped sorting my thinking out: I will be writing a critique (assuming I can reach the end before death overtakes me). And I will be as balanced as I can be, using examples to back up my comments, which is what I owe the author and publisher. It won't be a hatchet job. But I won't be holding back either, I owe that to everyone considering buying the book and all of the writers who sweat and toil to produce the best work they can.

If we don't take a stand against what we see as poor work, then we are allowing the lazy authors and quick-buck publishers to get away with literary murder. And while I know not all books are meant to be high art (and I love many things that could easily be called low-brow such as B-movies and pulp fiction for example), I don't accept that work that sinks to this level of mediocrity should be published, ever. To do this insults all writers and readers, and the memory of others, such as Mary Shelly and Bram Stoker, who were masters of this genre. While many of us may never achieve their level of excellence as writers, we should aspire to. If not, then there's no point in calling ourselves writers, we're just painting by numbers.

If that's what you aspire to, please don't bother. It's hard enough to get published as it is without having you cluttering up the slush piles.