Data is fragile – secure it!

Yet again, I’ve just seen an impassioned plea from an online friend for advice about rescuing precious files from a dead computer.

I’ve designed, modified and fixed computers for the whole of my working life – some 30-odd years. My first programs were written and stored on paper tape, which then had to be run through a high-speed reader to load them into the DEC minicomputer we were using then. After that, we got another DEC minicomputer, this time with FLOPPY DISKS! These were 8″ (yes, eight inch) devices, and were in a paper / fabric sleeve, making them very floppy indeed. In a normal working environment, being used every day, it wasn’t unusual for these disks to become unreadable, at which point we would turn to one of our structured backup disks, create a new working disk, and off we went.

8" vs. 3.5" floppies

8″ vs. 3.5″ floppies

Then we moved to 5¼” disks, which were still floppy, but tended not to bend if you slightly misaligned them when inserting them into a drive. Then we went to 3½” disks which, wonder of wonders, had a hard, plastic shell, and a sliding cover over the disk access slot, which were damned near impossible to destroy.

The point of this fascinating (?) history lesson – I backup my work. Obsessively. I have learned the hard way that you can lose a week’s worth of new data by not looking after your storage devices. The thought of having a single device, which stores precious digital photographs as well as hundreds of hours-worth of written work, is just the stuff of my nightmares.

Storage is cheap. Really, really cheap. Why spend hundreds on pounds on a computer, and then not spend a few dozen pounds on a removable storage system (to whit, a USB hard disk). This is what I use. I have three of them. I have one which is in a different room to where I work, and that has weekly backups. Like, everything new added to my computer’s hard disk since the last backup, which was a week ago. I have another one, which was last used a few months ago, and it has the whole of my hard disk data on it, including digital photos, downloaded music, and other junk. AND my writing. And then, the third, is stored at a friend’s house. And has several backups of my hard disk data, going back a decade or more.

Why three? Well, if your computer can go wrong, so can a USB hard disk. It’s impractical to keep backing up to multiple devices all the time, but this way, I restrict my losses whilst not spending all my time doing backups.

The thing being, if I wanted that precious photo I took several years ago, it’s there, somewhere. If I need it badly enough, I can find it. But the more crucial thing is that my writing, in which I invest hundreds of hours every year, is secure. Even at a impoverished writer’s working rates, that’s a lot of money tied up in 1’s and 0’s on a piece of magnetic stuff.

What hardware options are there?

* Little pen / thumb / USB solid state drives are cheap, and come in reasonable capacities these days. Good for storing projects.

WD USB disk

* My own choice, USB hard disks, are coming in with 1TB (terrabyte, or 1000 gigabytes) capacity, or more. I prefer Western Digital or Seagate, but there are other makes that are probably as reliable.

* Most of us have wireless routers now, and there are things such as NAS drives, which plug into the network ports on the router, and have data constantly available.

* Online storage – a simple, old skool method of storing small amounts of data is to email it to yourself. There are restrictions on most mail systems to 5MB or 10Mb attachments, but it’s quick and easy to do send documents to yourself.

* Dropbox (other systems are available) is a system for creating an online (“cloud”) storage which is updated automatically across all of your devices, crucially working with iPads, and probably other tablets. A simple, and transparent, method of storing data.

* Time machine (Mac) is a system which automatically backs up your data while you work. The problem is that you need to have the device attached all the time, which is a little impractical for me.


But, I’m afraid I’m an old computer person, and I prefer having the data physically in my hand. I’m not reliant on internet connections to be able to get to the data in a hurry.

So you need to choose a method, and backup your data – NOW!


Late summer update. Busy busy busy.

Tonight, I had cause to log in to my WordPress account, in order to comment on a friend’s blog. No problems occurred, but I did look at my blog, and saw that the last item was posted way back in early April. Ugh. Bad blogger.

As a way back in, I’ll give you an update on what’s happening. Summer is happening, that’s what. For once, the UK, and especially the Eastern side, has been bathed in beautiful sun for what seems likes weeks on end.

Which makes it hard to write.

It always seems that there’s something else that needs doing, whether it really needs it, or whether that need is perceived. Gardens need tidying, planting, cutting back, mowing, watering. Summer houses needed to be built, which necessitated quite large changes to groundworks in the back garden. Social events had been organised, and enjoyed.

Cycling happened. A lot. I rode from London to Paris in less than 24 hours. That was fun. Shortly, I’m going to be riding from Shenfield (bottom of Essex), through Harwich / Hook of Holland, to Bruges (or Brugge, if you’re Belgian). And back again. There’s various other cycling-related things going on, too, either watching or actually doing. And a new bike has entered the collection, which is lovely and a joy to ride.

Oh, and I’m doing #100kwords100days again.

The group seemed to have an appetite for more of the pain and anguish, although word counts have been somewhat down on the winter version. I suspect others have the summer distraction thing going on, too. This one runs from the 1st of July through to early October, when we’ll breathe a sigh of relief before girding our loins ready for NaNoWriMo.

I’m writing about the end of the world again, albeit this time in a fairly small area in the USA. But there’s death and destruction going on, forces unimagined by man (or woman), and I have a strong female lead. Again.

On word counts, I’m somewhat down on the target. I’m at 41,579 for the story and 48,435 for the challenge (the challenge includes blog posts and other creative writing). I am supposed to be somewhere near 66,000 words right now. My rolling average word count per day is creeping up and is now 734 words per day, which is pretty good, and I need to write an average of 1,517 words per day between now and the end of the challenge to reach the 100k.

More importantly, it looks like I’m going to finish this work. Mr. Work In Progress might actually get to finish something (unlike the other 17 or 18 WIPs which lay unloved on various parts of my hard disk).

And how has this been achieved? I think it has been achieved with more structured planning, clear and interesting characters, a vision for the whole story from start to finish, and using the classic 3 act / 8 sequence structure, often used in film making. I’ve been able to keep my story on track, writing scenes (In Scrivener, of course), and kept the plot rolling along.

I also have an outline for another long piece, which may end up being my NaNoWriMo project. When this story is complete, I shall put it away for preliminary editing, and take up my crime short novel series. I really would like to get 2 or 3 of those written before the end of the challenge.

Wish me luck!


Scrivener – *now* I’m a believer

Let me say, first off, that I always liked the idea of Scrivener. A piece of software which helped writers to write, not get in the way or prescribe how you should write. I downloaded a trial, back in the Dark Ages, and I was instantly confused. There was too much going on.

David Hewson, a writer I admire, and whose books I’ve enjoyed, talks about Scrivener a lot. He’s even written a book, called “Writing a novel with … Scrivener”. Which I’ve bought and read. I must admit, I’m with him up to a certain point, and then … I get lost.

Other writers on forums and on Facebook talk about Scrivener in reverential terms. Literature and Latte, who market Scrivener, sponsor National Novel Writing Month, and offer special half-price deals for NaNoWriMo winners. I know, because I bought it in 2011.

And I tried it. And I got confused. I downloaded other people’s templates, and tried it again. And got confused. It was my fault, I admit. There was some sort of disconnect between me and the joys of Scrivening (if there is such a verb).

At the start of 100kwords100days, a couple of people asked what software other writers used. Again, Scrivenophiles (if there is such a noun) were vocal in their support of the product, and again I tried it out. And again, I didn’t get it.

Until now.

This is my Damascene moment. I get it. I now totally get it.

I was happily writing away, using my chosen word processor (Bean, for Mac – a brilliant, simple, easy-to-use word processor with all the stuff you need and none of the stuff you don’t need). I write each chapter separately, starting each file with Chapter 4 (or whatever), saving each chapter separately, and merging all the files together at the end. Safety first, that’s what I say. And then I had a problem. I decided that my wonderful story needed a chapter inserted in the middle of what I’ve already written. Which meant my chapter headings would be all out of sync, and the filenames would be wrong, too. (My chapters had file names like chapter-04-001.doc). And I’d also noticed that some of my chapters were around 800 words long. And some of them were around 3,500 words long. That can’t be right?

So, reluctantly, I opened up Scrivener. Under “Manuscript”, I created a folder called “First Draft”. In there, I added “New Text” called “a-DM enters office. Grief”. My main character, Danni McGregor, entered her office at the police station, and got some grief straight away. I then created another one, called “b-DM/PS go to cafe” and “c-At arcade – murder scene”, “d-Interview at scene with Michael Fraser” and “e-discussion with Hamden over body”. So now, I’m splitting my story into scenes. I don’t care about chapters, whatever they are. I’ll sort those out later.

So I wrote my scenes. I wrote the first one. Then I wrote the second one. Then I wrote the fourth one, because that made more sense to me as the writer. When I’d written half a dozen scenes, I decided that they should go to the murder scene, do all that they needed to there, and then go to the cafe. So I dragged the text title thing “b-DM/PS go to cafe” to below “e-discussion with Hamden over body”. All my lovely text moved with it. No renaming. No renumbering. It was SO EASY.


I then put text things under Characters and Places. Under Characters, I’ve got two folders – Police Characters and Local Characters. I’ve just put them in as place markers, more for me to remember their names. Each time I introduce a character, I stick their name in there. It takes 10 seconds. Or less. And I don’t have to fill in character questionnaires or profiles.

Scrivener can create names for you. So I created some. And I copied and pasted the names into a ‘thing’ for names. They were male names, so I renamed the thing. I created some female names, too, and put them in a separate ‘thing’.

Now, under my First Draft manuscript, I change the icon for the ‘things’ so I can see which parts I’ve written. Because I can now write things out of sequence. It doesn’t matter any more. Scrivener works how I want to work.

If I get stuck on a scene, I write a different one. I don’t have to worry which chapter it fits into, because it doesn’t yet. I’ve deleted a load of stuff from the left hand column (apparently called the binder, but I hate that name. It means nothing to me). Where I’ve created my scenes, I’ve added some description into the right hand column (apparently called the Inspector, but it’s different to the Mac Inspector, so that confuses me too).

But, nomenclature apart, I’ve now discovered how it can be used to write the way I want (and need) to write.

In the three days I’ve been using it, I’ve averaged over 5,000 words per day. 

Scrivener is wonderful!

P.S. This blog post was written in Bean. Sorry, Scrivener – horses for courses.


Please! How can I sell more of my books?

money-bagI’ve been writing for over 40 years. Okay, so for many of those 40 years I was working for a living, having children (not literally), and generally being too busy, or lazy, to write, but I’ve taken writing much more seriously over the past ten years. In that time, I’ve written getting on for three-quarters of a million words. I’ve submitted short stories and flash fiction to online publications and competitions. I’ve been part of writing groups, where my writing was subject to open, honest, and sometimes harsh critique. I’ve completed (‘won’, if you will) eight NaNoWriMo’s. That’s 400,000-odd words right there.

So, I get quite grumpy when I see questions from writers asking “how can I market my book?” “How can I sell more of my books?” “What’s the best way of using Twitter and Facebook to market my book?”

Quite often, these questions are from people who’ve written one book. No writing CV. No other writing success. They’ve written one book, and they’ve read how some writers (Amanda Hocking, John Locke, J.A.Konrath, Michael J. Sullivan, Louise Voss/Mark Edwards, Stephen Leather, Bella Andre, et al) have made a ton of money from self-publishing, and they want some. They think all they have to do is write one book, upload it to an online bookstore (Amazon, Barnes&Noble, iBooks, Smashwords), and promote the hell out of it, spamming Facebook groups, endlessly Tweeting about it, and generally getting on everyone’s nerves. And then they think there’s something they’re not doing, some magic bullet which, once they’re told about it, will rocket their book up the bestseller charts, earning tens of thousands of dollars in the process.

I used to avidly follow the posts in the Writer’s Café section of Kindleboards (i’m not going to give you a handy clicky link – if you can’t be arsed to drive Google to find it, then you’re not serious about this), and it was a great place for the new self-publishers. Writers shared successes, with numbers, and dollars, and what they did, and how they did it. Now, most of those fascinating self-publishers have gone away, tempted by the Big K – Kudos – that a ‘proper’ publishing contract can bring to them. And I don’t blame them for that. Publishers are in business for one thing – to make money. And if they can sign up a writer with a proven record of selling huge quantities of books, then they’ll come a’ running, with cheque books open. But the rest have got pretty tired of the new members. “I’ve written a book, and uploaded it to Amazon, but sales are disappointing. How can I improve my numbers?”

I’ll tell you in the next blog post, coming soon.


For Pete’s sake. READ. IT. THROUGH.

I’ve loaded up Kindle for a forthcoming trip. I was checking my purchases. Crime. Thriller. Short fiction. All lovely.

I was intrigued by one of my books, and opened it up. Grrrrr!
In the first sentence, the author used the words mouthful, mouth and handful. It was clumsy. Amateurish! Abort! Delete!

Out of interest, I checked another book. Grrrrrr! Again!
First two sentences: “The woman stood in the middle of the bank atrium. She stood there …”
Aaarrrggghhh! Clumsy! Abort! Delete!

Why don’t people check their writing? Are they blind to it? Have they given it to their partner, parent, in-laws, and they were too scared to criticise?

Put yourself in the shoes of a book buyer. Be it from a bricks-and-mortar shop (other building materials are available), or from an online store. For the sake of imagery, let’s walk into a nice bookshop. Usually, there’s a presentation bookcase straight in front of you when you walk in. Let’s call it “New Releases”. And it even has a special cardboard point-of-sale star attached to it: “Special Offers”. No, I don’t know why they feel the need to Capitalise Every Word Either. I digress.


So you approach the shelves, and you’re in browse mode. You might see some famous names presented there, but you fancy something different, something new for a change.

Oo look, there’s a new writer. Hieronymus Postlethwaite, with his latest release: “Syphoning the Snake”. Sounds intriguing, doesn’t it. Should you buy? Should you not? What are you going to do?

Obviously, unless you’ve been living under a rock since you were old enough to walk, you’re going to pick the book up. If you’re like me, you turn it over to read the back cover. There’s blurbs from other, more famous authors, but mostly they’ve been paid to say nice things about other authors from the same publisher.

There’s a summary. “Phileas B. Pendlestone never knew what it felt like to be loved. From a baby, kidnapped from his pushchair by a pack of wild kangaroos on an outing from the local zoo, he lived in a cave for 16 years. Whilst working for the government on a top-secret mission, he falls in love with a beautiful Russian agent. But on a trip back home, his childhood sweetheart uncovers a truth that forces him to make a decision. Should he ….” (etc etc).

Sounds pretty damned good to me. And I’ll bet it does to you, too. So what do you do then? Do you trot off to the cashier, credit card in hand?

No, of course you don’t.

You open the book. You read the first paragraph. Maybe two.

And there, kind readers, is the crux of this post. Prospective purchasers will read the first paragraph or two, or a page. That is the point at which they’re deciding to buy the book, or put it back on the shelf.

So what should a novelist do, in those first few paragraphs? Hmm? Do I really need to spell it out?

You make those first few paragraphs the best damned paragraphs in the whole book. IN. THE. WHOLE. BOOK. Because within those paragraphs lie the secret to the sale.

Online, it’s the same thing. The Big Gun, Amazon, give you a “Click to LOOK INSIDE!” feature. They seem to think it’s pretty important for people to be able to have a squint at what you’re on about. Or you can download a sample. Same thing.

Okay, you say. I get it, you say. I need to have someone check it, you say. So you give it to your mom.


Your mom (mum if she’s in the UK) is probably very nice, and brought you into this world, or at least, brought you up. What’s she going to say? Is she qualified to judge writing? Is she published? Or, maybe you give it to your best mate at work. What’s he/she going to say? “Yeah, it’s great.”

No no no no.

Find another writer. Come on, it’s not difficult. These days of social media everywhere, you can surely find someone, online, who’s another writer, and preferably writing in your chosen genre. Say hi to them. Create an online friendship. Ask them to read your book.

No no no no.

Authors are busy people. If they’re not, they’re no good. if a good author has free time, the last thing she’ll want to do is to spend a number of hours wading through your manuscript.

So my advice? Send them a small section. At the start. Take the first few hundred words of your story. Not too much, because they won’t read it. A paperback page is around 250 words, so make it around that. Bad writing can be detected (usually) within a paragraph.

Send them the extract, ask for honest opinion. Does it work as an opening section? Would a reader want to read on? Are there any ways it could be improved? Just that. Don’t send them a thirty page questionnaire. Just three questions.

If the feedback is good, proceed to Go, and collect £200 (if you’re lucky). If the feedback is bad, think about your writing. Is it really good enough to publish? Was the extract an aberration? Or was it typical of your writing? Don’t forget, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.”

ImageEdit: Hoist by my own petard! A friend pointed out that the first “I” was missing from this blog post. See what I mean? Read. It. Through. Okay, I will. Next time.


Writing challenges – are they any good?

First, there came National Novel Writing Month – often shortened to NaNoWriMo. The challenge? To write a 50,000 word ‘novel’ during the 30 days of November. First

NaNoWriMo remains very popular. In 1999, their first year, they had 21 participants and 6 winners. In 2011, they had over a quarter of a million participants and nearly 37,000 winners. The number of words logged in the 2011 event was 3,074,068,446. Over three billion words. Staggering.

However, there a couple of problems with NaNoWriMo:

1) The pace is pretty high, at 1667 words per day. The danger is that you type words, not create a story. Generally, I’ve been dissatisfied with my 8 NaNoWriMo winning ‘novels’

2) 50,000 words do not a novel make, especially that, by the time you’ve done some (necessary) editing, you’ll end up with something around 30,000 words.

Several other challenges have emanated from the NaNowriMo people. Camp NaNoWriMo is another 50k word novel month, in the month of July. Script Frenzy is the same, but for scriptwriting. And it doesn’t stop there. Others have created NaNoEdMo (editing), NaNoWriWee (30k in a weekend). There’s a ton of monthly timed artistic challenges at

So, with all these problems, is it worth doing a timed wordcount challenge? Bearing in mind that:

* You have to be prepared to work at it. Nothing worth having comes easily. You need to make compromises. You need to write when you don’t feel like it.

* You can feel down if you start falling behind. You need to either stick with the schedule, or not. If something gets in the way – illness, family issues, meteorites hitting the earth – you need to accept that you’re not going to achieve that target.

* You can end up with nonsense. Ernest Hemingway said “the first draft of anything is shit.” And it is. Mine are, anyway. That’s what the editing process is for.

However, there are a couple of huge positives:

* Having a regular, challenging schedule means that you need to write each day. This is a very good thing. And once you get into the habit of writing each day, you can’t stop. More writing = a better chance at gaining a publisher or more self-published works to offer to the public.

* You can feel that you have what it takes to become a novelist. This is also a good thing. We’re all delicate, fragile souls, and our confidence needs lots of bolstering.

How do you succeed at timed writing challenges? Here are some hints and tips I’ve used over the years.


I’ve seen many authors fail the challenges, but one of the biggest reasons is due to lack of planning. You really can’t write a novel without having a plan. An idea is not enough. An idea is not a plan. The plan is something which lists plot points, from the start, through the middle, and to the end. The plan lists your characters, with some sort of character definitions. The plan can be a chapter-by-chapter detailed definition of your story, but it needn’t be. Without the plan, your story will run out of ‘legs’, you will run out of story, before you complete the necessary words. And, with something like NaNoWriMo, there is no time for major replanning.


It sounds obvious. But some people don’t. They feel tired, they have a busy day at work, they have a family member fall ill. All valid reasons, sure enough, but if you can break through these barriers, write just a few words, a couple of sentences, maybe a paragraph or two – then you’ll stand a much better chance at succeeding.


NaNoWriMo have forums for you to chat with your fellow challengees. They have individual local forums for people in your area. They have forums for your genre. They have technical question forums. They have forums for people to recommend writing resources and programs. And so it goes on. There are Facebook groups, Twitter hashtags, other forums. All of which take you away from what you are supposed to be doing – WRITING!

Restrict your non-writing social media efforts to a certain amount of time during the day. One of the best things I have found to do is to close down my browser when I’m writing. That little bit of effort to open up the browser and load websites takes just long enough for me to think carefully before doing it.


One of the problems many challenge writers have is of finding time to write. We think to write 1000 words a day or more, we need a couple of hours of time away from other people, in silence or with the music of our choice, a glass of wine or a cup of tea, and a view to inspire our writing.


You need to put your writing instrument of choice in front of you, and write. I’ve written whilst food has been cooking. While watching TV. In between doing household chores. When the rest of the house has gone to bed. Before the rest of the house has woken up in the morning. Whilst waiting for an appointment. During a 15-minute tea break. During a lunch break. Learn to write in small sections, and with distractions. Learn to switch off from outside influences, and concentrate on your story. I can type at around 1,000 words an hour, creating fiction as I go. That’s four, quarter-hour segments, or six, ten-minute segments during the day. Can you find six, ten minute chunks of time to write. Sure you can!


Yes, the challenge is about writing. And writing is work. Damned hard work. But you’re allowed to have fun, too. Chat to others about what you’re doing. If there’s a forum, join in. Read blogs that other writers offer. Here are a couple that might amuse or encourage you. Chuck Wendig is not everyone’s cup of tea, and he’s irreverent and some of his language may offend. But what he says is the truth, so please read them, and nod your head sagely, and remember who told you to read them!

Good luck!


Monomyth and story structure

I’m not a fan of prescriptive writing. The sort of stuff where you learn ‘how’ to write a proper story, where you learn about protagonists, antagonists, story arc, blah blah blah. I’ve read a lot of novels in my writing genre (crime / horror / dark / dystopian fiction), and I think I’ve absorbed story structure into my head. My characters have challenges and conflict.

But I enjoy reading about writing, and I particularly enjoy listening to the Writing Excuses podcast. You can subscribe via iTunes.

This week, they were talking about “Hero’s Journey” and there’s a lot of interesting stuff in there. They also link the theory to popular stories and films, like Harry Potter, Star Wars, and the Lord of the Rings story. Examples like that really bring home the reasoning behind the theories.

I’ve searched some of the stuff they talk about, and include links below.

I’m not saying (and they’re not saying) that your stories have to follow these prescriptive plans, but it’s worth reading about the theories to see if they might be useful to you.


Quick update …

… in more ways than one. Long overdue, I updated my two ebook collections of flash fiction and short stories (see side panel). All in all, it was a very painless experience. I completed the updates at around lunchtime, and the books were available to be downloaded by tea time. Excellent! (Should have done it earlier!)


New Year – New Challenge!

It’s New Year, and despite the fact I don’t make New Year Resolutions these days (thereby avoiding the guilt trips I have suffered in the past when the resolutions get broken within a week or two), I’m up for a writing challenge.

100k100day logo-simple-2-294


And there’s no better challenge than my old mate Sally Quilford’s 100k in 100 days challenge. The idea has some similarities to NaNoWriMo, in that there is a word count target at the end of the period – i.e. 100,000 words in 100 days. Mathematicians amongst you will probably soon be working at that this means 1,000 words per day, which is much less stressful than NaNoWriMo’s 1,667 words per day average. Still, that’s about four pages of a paperback novel, which doesn’t sound too onerous, does it? But definitely worth doing. By mid-April, you’ll have enough of a first draft written to enable you to edit it down by 20%, and still have an 80,000-word novel to send out or publish.

The other difference is that Sally allows writers to use creative writing from other destinations, not just on one ‘novel’. You can include blog posts (as long as it’s about writing), writing articles, short stories, poems, and stuff like that. Again, it’s to reduce the stress and the pressure, and allow you more freedom in choosing your writing. The main idea is that it keeps you writing.

I’ve created a little spreadsheet on the internet for people to log their word counts. Simple enough, but the first place I chose to host the spreadsheet was very unreliable. The fact that their blog hasn’t been updated since 2009 doesn’t exactly engender confidence, either. After a second hiccup, another writer from the group suggested Google docs. I had been confused by Google telling me I needed to download Google Drive (which I did, but which isn’t appropriate for everyone to do). But, on further investigation, that was just to allow easier uploading / archiving, and Google Docs works pretty much as it always has done. So the word count spreadsheet resides on Google’s massive servers.

So, how are we doing, four-and-a-bit days into the challenge? So far (as I type this) – which will, of course, count towards my daily total 😉 – the group has recorded over 279,000 new words written, across the 89 users currently listed on the spreadsheet. An amazing total! Personally, I’ve taken my Performance Enhancing Drugs (Christmas cake and coffee), and am aiming for double the average, and trying to write 2,000 words per day. After 4 days, I’m sitting at 8,874 words, most of which are in a new novel wth a working title of The History of Things To Come. The subject is the end of the world, for which the December 21st date has come and gone. This book, which is fiction of course, shows why that date was incorrect, and more importantly, names the REAL date. Death and destruction all the way. It’s a thriller, in case you can’t guess.

In the next blog post, I will list some of my coping mechanisms / tips for writing challenges. I’m an 8-times ‘winner’ of NaNoWriMo, and I’ve discovered things that work, and a lot of things that don’t. I hope you’ll join me then.