Apartment Hunting, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, 2006

A woman with short black hair and a fur coat waited outside the entrance to the building, holding a clipboard. She turned out to be the agent showing us the apartment and after greeting us she punched in a code on a keypad and heaved open a heavy, half-inch thick steel door with a handle made of bent rebar welded to the outside. Leaving Igor with the car, Marina and I followed her inside and up a short flight of concrete steps lit by a weak bare bulb hanging from a wire that jutted out of a bird’s nest of electrical cabling. The place smelled of garbage and urine. We went into a small foyer and the agent pressed a button and a lift clunked into life, then scraped its way down to meet us. It arrived with a bang and the doors slammed open. We squeezed in. The agent peered at the buttons, muttering to herself. Most of them had been melted with a cigarette lighter, reducing them to charred lumps of twisted plastic with the numbers erased. A helpful citizen had taken a marker pen and written the number alongside what remained of each button, but my head blocked the ceiling light, casting everything in gloom. Eventually she hit the number six and the lift jolted, and began to rattle its way upwards. Nobody spoke, and I studied the melted buttons and the hole where the grille for the emergency intercom had been ripped out and stuffed with what looked like newspaper and chewing gum. There were thick black soot marks six inches long above it, and I wondered who would be stupid enough to start a fire in a lift they were travelling in.

We bounced to a halt and spilled out onto a concrete landing in front of another steel door. This one looked as though it came off a warship, and hadn’t been painted since its service on the high seas. The agent rang a buzzer, and after a period of silence shuffling noises came from behind the door. Somebody fiddled with locks for what seemed like an age, and eventually it opened a little and the face of an elderly Asian woman peered out.

“Mrs Kim?” said the agent. “We’re here to see the apartment.”

“To see the apartment? I don’t understand,” the old woman said.

The agent checked the apartment number on the paper attached to the clipboard. “This is number forty-two? Mrs Kim?”

“Yes, but -”

“We’re here to see the apartment. It’s for Mr Merrion, he’s from England.” The agent pointed at me. I waved as if she’d not spotted me yet.

A man appeared behind Mrs Kim, a Korean in his forties wearing a shiny black Adidas tracksuit. “Mama! Mama, it’s okay, let them in!” he said, taking his mother’s place at the door as she shuffled back into the apartment, a confused look on her face. “Sorry about that,” he said. “Come in! I’m Boris.” Once I was safely over the threshold he shook my hand, flashing a row of gold teeth as he grinned at me. The agent, Marina, and I elbowed each other as we removed our shoes then, in our socks, followed Boris down a short, dark corridor into a living room.

The largest wall was covered floor to ceiling with wallpaper printed with a photo of a birch forest in autumn, viewed as if you were stood among the trees. A grey couch sat against it with a pink blanket thrown over the back, and in the centre of the room was a small table six-inches high with an Asian tea set on top. A flat-screen Samsung television hung on the opposite wall, looking like alien technology beside a dark brown dresser filled with glassware of the sort that’s won in raffles at British church fetes. The room was hot and stuffy with a strong smell of foreign cooking along with something else I couldn’t place. Set in the far wall was a double window and a door leading onto the balcony, which was enclosed in double glazing. I crossed the room to look outside and jumped when a giant black face popped up to greet me from the other side of the glass.

“What the hell is that?” I said, more to myself than anyone else. The dog was the size of a small horse and hairy as a bear, and took up the entire balcony. Mrs Kim appeared through a door and told me not to worry, rushing to the defence of her pet who now had its paws on the glass and a red, wet tongue the size of a sock lolling from its jaws. Boris opened the door and went onto the balcony, waving at me to join him.

“It’s okay, he’s friendly,” he said, ignoring the possibility I might not understand Russian. I stepped onto a freezing tiled floor, tufts of dog hair sticking to my socks which I was still finding in my boots a month later. The dog nudged my leg with its nose, nearly pushing me over. I wondered how much meat it ate, and at what cost. The view from the balcony was onto a range of heavily forested mountains, closer than those I saw from the plane. The low sun caught the folds of the terrain making a jumbled patchwork of shade, the dark greens and browns broken up by gleaming patches of snow. Behind in the distance were higher peaks, their summits bare and frozen white. The cold, dry air sharpened the view and made everything appear closer, as if I were looking through a telescope.

“Nice, yes?” said Boris, raising a thumb and grinning.

I grinned back. “Yes.” Nice was wholly inadequate to describe a view like that.

We left the balcony and Boris showed us into the bedroom, where a low double bed with no headboard and a suspicious sag in the middle competed for meagre space with a set of drawers and a wardrobe that looked ready to topple over. I gently pulled open one of the doors, enough to see it was full of woman’s clothes, blankets, and junk. Mrs Kim, who had been hovering inside the bedroom door looking increasingly anxious, pulled her son aside and spoke to him in a low, hurried voice. “Is he moving in here? Where will I go?”

“Mama, don’t worry, we’ll find you somewhere.”


“Mama,” said Boris, getting irritated. “I said we’ll find you somewhere!”

I’d seen enough. “Boris, what happens to the dog if I move in here?” I asked in English.

He looked at me, confused, then at Marina and the agent. I waited while Marina translated.

Boris smiled, his gold teeth flashing. “He can stay here with you!”

I laughed at that.


Window on a Burning Man – Part 2 of 7

Part 2 of Window on a Burning Man is now online here.

This part includes a filthy sex scene which I was told I had to include because women insist on at least one in a book of this nature. At least one male reader has told me he skipped over it, so far no female reader has told me the same. When I wrote it, I felt like how I imagine pornographers must feel after shooting a scene.

There is also a short discussion on when a man can expect to have sex with someone he’s met online. Is it on the first night? Or must he wait until they’re married? Read it and find out.

There’s also a twist at the end, which I think makes the book in many ways. If it were a film, this would be a pivotal scene. The timing would need to be exquisite, though.

In terms of sales, I’m now up to 84 after 2 weeks and I’m shifting one or two copies per day (90% ebooks, 10% paperbacks). I’m hoping by now this represents people who have come across it independently of this blog, either on Amazon, Facebook, or through word of mouth, and this steady trickle will continue well into the future. Obviously I’m then hoping somebody influential will stumble across it and bring it to a much wider audience, delivering me the fame and fortune I so richly deserve. The Amazon reviews are steadily growing too, which is good. Some are critical, and in all honesty I can’t take issue with what they’re saying. Some are highly flattering, most likely from family members and people who feature in the book itself. I’d best not order a yacht based on their feedback. Over time, I’ll get a better idea how it is being received by the general public.

The best thing I can do now is to keep plugging away and write something else. Once I’ve unclogged my schedule of various things over the next couple of weeks, I will get cracking.


And just like that, I became an author

On October 26th 2016 I said:

If you want to write a book, you need to write a book.

So I did, and it’s here.

Window on a Burning ManSo far it’s only available on Kindle, but hopefully in the next few days the paperback version will be out as well.

The site I link to above is where I will run the serial I talked about, the first part of which will be published soon with a new installment following each week. There are 7 parts in all. The site can be accessed quickly by clicking on the picture of the book at the top of my sidebar. I have put the first chapter up as a teaser until the serial starts.

I have two favours to ask:

1. If anyone reading this runs a blog or a Twitter feed and you think your readers might be interested in this book, please consider writing a short post with a link to my book’s site to funnel them in its direction.

2. If you do buy a copy, or read the serial when it comes out, please write a review on Amazon. I’m not asking you to write a good review, or even an honest one, but reviews of any kind are vital to self-publishers and the more I can get the better.

Finally, a big thank you to the readers of this blog who gave me so much encouragement, support, and advice during the writing of it. I could probably have done it without you, but it would have been a lot harder and the end product much worse.



Window on a Burning Man

He wasn’t looking for convention, but he’s learning there are limits!

When a middle-aged British man meets a charming New Yorker with a passion for photography, he thinks he might have found what he’s looking for. But she lets slip a secret and everything changes, forcing him to confront her past and try to understand the choices she’s made. Seeking answers but filled with self-doubt, he plunges into the world of Brooklyn’s artists where relationships don’t follow the normal rules, and third-wave feminists join misfit hipsters in an annual pilgrimage to Burning Man. But the more he discovers, the more questions arise. Why did she leave Moscow and move to America? Why did she divorce a husband she loved? And why is she sticking with him, a man with a complicated past of his own?

Provocative, funny and refreshingly honest, this is a story of an ordinary man in love with a very modern woman.


Milo Yiannopolous and Editors’ Comments

Last February, when Milo Yiannopolous was self-destructing, I wrote this:

I understand he used inflammatory language and controversial behaviour to get people to listen to him, but once he had the world’s attention it was time to take it down a notch and start portraying himself as a serious, mature individual who beneath the act is really worth listening to. Instead he stuck with the jokes about sucking black dicks, “feminism is cancer” remarks, calling Trump “Daddy”, and others, all of which were crucial parts of his early “game” of getting attention but made him look as though he was never going to be serious about anything and was purely a professional attention-seeker.

Shortly after this episode, the publishers Simon & Schuster cancelled his book deal, for which he’d been paid an $80k advance (Milo claimed at the time it was $250k). Milo took umbrage at this and sued Simon & Schuster claiming $10m in damages. As a result of this lawsuit, the first draft of Milo’s book Dangerous is now publicly available on the New York state courts’ website, complete with editor’s comments. It can be downloaded from here in .pdf and boy does it make for some grim reading.

Firstly, it is obvious that Milo had no intention of toning down the infantile jokes. Sure, they’re funny once or twice when he says them in front of an audience who didn’t know what to expect, but they quickly got tiresome and the book is full of them. What makes it worse is this brand of humour doesn’t translate into print well.

P.J. O’Rourke once wrote an article called “How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink”. It was snortingly funny and got him a lot of attention, but he never used a title like that again (or made many sexual jokes) because it’s only really funny once. Milo hasn’t worked this out, and nor is he anywhere near as clever and funny as P.J. O’Rourke. Consider this for example:

And compare it to this from O’Rourke:

The French are a smallish, monkey-looking bunch and not dressed any better, on average, than the citizens of Baltimore. True, you can sit outside in Paris and drink little cups of coffee, but why this is more stylish than sitting inside and drinking large glasses of whisky I don’t know.

O’Rourke had the extremely rare skill of being able to apply off-hand humour while still making serious points. Milo, as we can see, simply isn’t gifted enough to do this.

The other thing that doesn’t translate well to print is Milo’s ego. Self-aggrandising comments work well enough verbally, but they really grate in the written form.

Unless the author is writing as an obvious alter-ego and staying in character, self-depreciation is far more effective and amusing than self-aggrandisement.

This might not matter so much were Milo capable of making the serious points well. Sadly, it seems he isn’t:

This one is especially scathing:

While some people are showing sympathy for the editor who had to go through this mess, many are asking what Simon & Schuster expected. Milo’s fans would say that Milo has simply written what would be expected of Milo, which is undoubtedly true. I suspect what happened was Simon & Schuster thought they could cash in on the Milo phenomenon and were perhaps persuaded by his articulate and consistent verbal arguments, without realising he can’t write for toffee. And I think that’s the problem here: Milo simply can’t write, or if he can, he decided not to apply his skills here. There are rumours that it might have been ghost written, which doesn’t say much for the ghost. Even for a first draft, this is poor and it’s not surprising Simon & Schuster are using it in defence of their cancelling the contract. Whether they are successful or not remains to be seen; if they’re not, I can’t see anyone having much sympathy for them.

I found all this particularly interesting because the story came about as I was implementing my editor’s comments on my own book. Thankfully I received very few comments of the nature of those above, although this might be because I was paying him. If he’d shovelled eighty grand in my direction in advance of the manuscript, he might have been a little less forgiving. But another reason could be that I didn’t send a first draft to my editor, he got the third draft after I’d gone through it twice removing anything I thought was superfluous. I actually read every line out loud, as if I were on a stage. It’s a good way of seeing how the text flows and if a joke falls flat.

I must thank my readers for helping me with this. When I posted an excerpt of the first draft a lot of people jumped in and told me, quite bluntly, that it was overwritten shite and I should lose at least 50% of it. Someone patiently explained I should write the scene rather than describe it word for word, and introduced to me the concept of being efficient with words. Then Adam Piggott rang me up on Skype and told me it was sub-Dan Brown garbage and if it went to an editor like that he’d be robbing me blind. None of this was particularly easy to take but, armed with a much more critical eye, I was able to make major improvements for the second draft. I was determined that whatever I sent to the editor would not have his eyes rolling, and that he’d at least see I’d made the effort to get the manuscript as good as I could on my own. This is why I didn’t have any problem accepting the editor’s comments. I’d already taken the beating after the first draft; his comments were extremely benign by comparison.

If Milo had run his stuff by someone first, he might not have saved his contract but he’d at least have avoided the humiliation of having editor’s comments like these plastered all over newspapers. He eventually self-published his book, but it didn’t do very well. Writing, it appears, is difficult and requires a lot of effort. Who knew?


Window on a Burning Man

The title of this blog post is the title I have chosen for my book. I will save the pretentious, hour-long explanations of the deep meaning behind it for when I am speaking to vast, excited throngs who have come to see me on my global book tour.

The blurb I have settled on is as follows:

And it started off so well.

When a middle-aged British man meets a charming Russian émigré, he thinks he might have found what he’s looking for. But she lets slip a secret and everything changes, forcing him to confront her past and the choices she’s made. Filled with self-doubt and seeking answers, he plunges into the world of Brooklyn’s artists where relationships don’t follow the normal rules, and third-wave feminists join misfit hipsters in an annual pilgrimage to the Burning Man festival. But the more he discovers, the more questions arise. Why did she leave Moscow and move to New York? Why did she divorce a husband she loved? And why is she sticking with him, a man with a complicated past of his own?

Provocative, funny and refreshingly honest, this is a story of an ordinary man in love with a very modern woman.

I don’t intend to change this, unless someone comes up with a minor suggestion in the comments which is immediately obvious to me as an improvement.

I would like to say thank you to everyone who contributed in the comments of my previous two posts on this subject, and a very large thank you is due to commenters Bloke in Germany and Matthew McConnagay whose re-writes I leaned on heavily in coming up with this final version. Both are entitled to a free copy of the book, should they want one, and a beer or several should I ever meet them. Really, thanks guys.

The good news is, as I said previously, that my running it as a free serial will be the main marketing pitch for the book so the blurb isn’t as crucial. If it turns out to be a runaway success, I can always hire someone to write a proper one for me.

I have finished implementing my editor’s recommendations, accepting without question the overwhelming majority of them which were inherently sensible and definitely improved the final product. My next step is to contact the outfit I am hoping can make me a professional cover, both for the e-book and paperback versions. Once that’s done I can launch the e-book straightaway I think. From what I can see, the paperback will take a little longer because I’ll need to get one printed out for myself to check before putting them up for sale on Amazon and ordering the thirty-thousand copies I’ll sell by the side of the road. I’m not sure how long the cover design will take and the uploading process, but I’m hoping to get the e-book published sometime in January. I’ll keep you all posted.


Adverbs in Dialogue

One of the first pieces of advice I got when I started writing my book was never to use an adverb following “said”, e.g.:

“Of course,” she said happily.

This, I was told, constitutes “telling” rather than “showing”. I heard this advice repeated several times over the course of my writing it, and my editor has quite firmly told me you should never use an adverb in this way except in the rarest of occasions. Instead, you should show the reader what emotions are being displayed, either by using different dialogue that makes the meaning clear or by describing the speaker’s mood in other ways, e.g. their facial expression, body language, etc.

Now this makes sense on some levels: an author should show not tell, and it would be very annoying to read a different adverb after every instance of “he said”. But I have a problem with this advice. I’ve read a lot of books and I don’t recall an absence of adverbs used in this way and so yesterday I opened up four books at random from established authors that I admire:

Terry Pratchett’s Guards! Guards!

Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister

Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest

Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey

With barely any effort, meaning I turned to a random page of dialogue, I found multiple instances of adverbs used in this way by all four authors. I didn’t bother opening any other books, but I suspect I’d find the same if I opened another twenty. And yes, I checked that they weren’t in each case using them in a highly-specific way which is absolutely essential in that one instance. Besides, the advice I received was never to use them except in exceptional circumstances.

Now consider this paragraph from Northanger Abbey when Tinley meets Catherine for the first time:

“Now I must give one smirk, and then we may be rational again.” Catherine turned away her head, not knowing whether she might venture to laugh. “I see what you think of me,” said he gravely—” I shall make but a poor figure in your journal tomorrow.”

The “gravely” lets the reader know, quickly and simply, that Tinley is mocking Catherine. Now perhaps the reader could work that out for himself, but personally I think it conveys the tone of the conversation better than the dialogue alone. Is it spoon-feeding me? Possibly, but I rather like the use of adverbs in this manner because what’s the alternative? In this example, and those of the other three books listed above, the dialogue is moving along at a rapid pace and the reader immersed in the repartee; in such instances, I think conveying the tone of the speaker in the most efficient manner possible, i.e. with an adverb, beats adding words to the dialogue or breaking it up to describe body language, etc.

Or, put another way, if the likes of Chandler, Austen, and Pratchett use adverbs in their dialogue and I especially like these authors for their dialogue, why would I steadfastly avoid using them in my own writings? Well, I wouldn’t so I’ll be keeping them when I think they’re conveying information in the most efficient manner.

Similarly, I was also told not to use words other than “said” and occasionally “asked” when writing dialogue. Again, I can understand this: nothing is more pretentious than an author using as many different words as possible in place of “said”, but when I looked at the four books above I found each frequently used alternatives. Pratchett seems to use them more liberally than others, perhaps because his style is often mocking pretentiousness (and I have no intention of taking it that far), but I find the occasional use of “grumbled” or “bawled” makes dialogue more colourful.

I know the whole point of dialogue is to immerse the reader so they somehow forget they’re reading a book, but I’ve never found the author taking license to describe the tone of voice to be overly distracting. I need to be careful, but I’m taking the view that if it’s good enough for authors like the ones I’ve listed, it’s good enough for me. Sorry, editor!


An Update on the Book

So yesterday my editor got back to me with his finished copyedit of my manuscript. There is good news and bad news. I’ll start with the bad.

The editor highlighted some weaknesses in the story arc, one of which is quite fundamental and would be a principle reason why any traditional publisher would reject it. To be fair I knew this already, and I didn’t address it because I had a particular story in mind when I started and didn’t want to deviate from it too much. I thought the story arc I had would work on some levels, but the editor’s remarks have brought home the fact that it wouldn’t have mass appeal. The same is true for the other weaknesses, i.e. I knew about them before, but they are more minor. What I probably didn’t appreciate, and it sounds obvious in hindsight, is how little wriggle-room you have with these things. If I ever thought my witty prose could make up for a flawed story-arc and my book would become a bestseller anyway – well, I don’t think that now.

The editor also pointed out some things I didn’t already know. When writing in the first person the narrative can become unbalanced as the reader develops an intimacy with the narrator greater than that with the other characters, who are only viewed through the narrator’s eyes. This is something I’d have to bear in mind next time.

I stepped away from the book for about seven weeks while the editor’s time slot came around, and didn’t so much as glance at it. Digesting the editor’s remarks, and thinking about what I’ve written, something dawned on me: it is less a novel (in terms of structure) than a character study and social commentary which takes the format of a story. In short, it is something partway between a novel and my blog. This wasn’t my intention but, as is abundantly clear, I’m winging it here, trying to work things out as I go. This also explains why I was struggling so much with the blurb, and rejecting the valiant efforts of my readers to write one for me.

The good news is the actual edits aren’t that serious and most relate to style, consistency, use of commas, and repeated words. There isn’t much by way of rewriting entire passages (this wasn’t a developmental edit after all) and the editor even told me that my writing is cleaner than most. The other good news is that the editor seems to be good at what he does and his suggestions sensible. By the time I’m done implementing them it should read pretty well and not have people throwing the book at the wall in disgust at clunky prose and lame clichés.

So here we are. I now have a choice of either setting about making substantial rewrites, or going with it as it is. I’ve decided on the latter. I still want to tell the story as I originally envisaged it, and I don’t want to make major changes in the hope more people will like it. I would much rather incorporate the feedback and tailor my product to reader’s expectations in a second book, which will be far more conventional, than mangle my first one. Back when I started this project I always thought it would be a learning process and that getting the first book done and out the door was the first major milestone in becoming a decent writer. If an author’s third or fourth book is to be his best, he must first write a first and second. When I’ve read the thoughts of writers online, they’ve all said you need to write as much as you can and churn the stuff out, rather than spend years trying to perfect your one masterpiece. This first effort was never going to be a masterpiece, but it is the first rung of a ladder. Frankly, I’d rather spend the time and energy on a second book than on this one, which may only have limited appeal at best. Besides, I’ve kept you all waiting long enough: if I don’t get this out there soon you’ll all think I’m one of these bullshitters who is always going to do something wonderous “next year”.

It does leave me with a dilemma though. I don’t want to spend much time and effort marketing a book whose story-arc isn’t up to scratch and I feel may let people down – particularly if they’ve paid for it. If nothing else, it may damage my reputation as a storyteller before I even have one and I don’t want that. So here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to publish it somewhere on this site, probably on its own page, at regular intervals as a serial. I haven’t worked out the intervals or installment lengths yet but I will, and it will be free to everyone just by following the link. In parallel, I will publish it on Amazon both as an e-book and in paperback for all those who don’t want to wait for each installment of the serial and those who are still keen on a copy despite all my warnings here. I’m not intending to make money on it so I’ll keep it cheap, and I’ll still send signed copies to anyone I promised one to.

My plan is to drive traffic to each installment of the serial, and get discussions going on the topics therein. The number of returning visitors, and the number of people who subsequently buy the whole thing on Amazon, will give me an idea of how popular it is. The advantage of this approach is I don’t need to fret too much about writing a brilliant blurb: the installments will be the main marketing tool now. If by some miracle it proves very popular and people start talking about it, I can think about marketing the actual book more aggressively using their feedback. At the end, if I think I can shift a few more copies on Amazon, I can pull the serial offline.

So that’s where I am. I need to incorporate the editor’s comments and start thinking again about a blurb and a cover. If work stuff doesn’t get in my way, I’m hoping it will all be done and published in February.