Wednesday, 25 November 2009

It’s a book!

I’ve been referring to First Time I Met The Blues as a book for a while, but in truth, it was really just a collection of words in a file on my computer. But now it really is a book – 200 books, to be precise, sitting in boxes in my living room, delivered hot off the press this afternoon. (Well, not all that hot, given that the printers are based in Norfolk and I live in London.)

Nothing else to say right now - I’m just savouring the moment.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Parkes life

Last night I attended a meeting of the London Writers’ Club for the first time – my first attempt at novelist’s networking. The special guest was writer Nii Parkes, who read extracts from his novel Tail Of The Blue Bird and talked about his experiences with publishers, and how he’s gone about marketing his book.

He’s done so, in the main, off his own bat, even though the book is published by Random House. That fact, more than anything, rammed home the message that all writers (well, apart from JK Rowling and maybe a handful of others) have to do their own PR these days. That’s why I went along, to pick up tips, and I achieved that. (Not least from the splendidly-named Jonny Nexus, who I had a long chat with.)

I left the meeting simultaneously energised and deflated – the latter because it’s only now sinking in just how much I need to do in order to maximise my chances of gaining publicity and selling copies. I already have a lengthy to-do list, and every conversation I have about the project adds another couple of items.

The best question of the night came from a young woman who asked Nii how he balanced time spent marketing the book that was already published with time spent writing new material. Significantly, he didn’t really have an answer – and he’s a full-time writer.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Middle-aged men in pubs

A couple of weeks ago, after watching Watford beat Sheffield Wednesday 4-1, I passed the One Bell pub on the High Street on my way back to Watford Junction station. From inside came the unmistakeable sound of a 12-bar boogie, and looking through the window I saw a bunch of middle-aged men – guitar, bass, drums – playing to a small crowd of drinkers. If I hadn’t had a train to catch, I’d have gone inside to listen myself. Because, in an alternative universe, that group could well have been The Hornets – the fictional band in First Time I Met The Blues.

The phenomenon of middle-aged men playing blues in pubs was one of my key inspirations for the novel. In my twenties, I often found myself in pubs where a band was performing classics from the Chicago blues repertoire – Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James and the rest – and I couldn’t help noticing that the musicians were never in the first flush of youth. It was the hair that gave it away, mostly: either disappearing fast, or inappropriately long, and occasionally both at once.

So I started to wonder where these middle-aged blokes had come from. Had they always played the blues? Had they, perhaps, tasted success when they were younger? Was this what they expected to be doing in their forties and fifties?

From there, it was a relatively short step to inventing a fictional blues band and creating a back story for them; working all the way back to when they were teenagers falling in love with the music, then giving them a glimpse of success and seeing how they coped when things didn’t turn out the way they’d anticipated. After all, for every Eric Clapton or Mick Fleetwood, who used the British Blues Boom of the 1960s as a stepping stone to a life of limos and leggy blondes, there must have been dozens of blues musicians who didn’t become rich and famous. First Time I Met The Blues tells the story of three of them.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

What’s in a name?

Like everyone else, I’ve occasionally used the enormous powers of the information superhighway to search for namesakes, famous or otherwise. Years ago, as a TV listings writer, I came across the actor Tim Turner, who appeared in a few films and was best known for playing the Invisible Man in a 1950s adaptation of HG Wells’s novel – a character whose face is never seen, swathed as it is in bandages throughout the series.

That’s as famous as my namesakes get, as it happens – unless you’re reading this in Washington State, where (to quote from “singer, songwriter, guitar player extraordinaire, Tim Turner has been plying his craft in the Seattle area for three decades”. So, when I rather belatedly turned my thoughts to the question of setting up a website to promote First Time I Met The Blues, I had my fingers crossed that I could snaffle the ideal address.

Unfortunately, I’ll have to think again, as a quick search revealed that has already been taken by a computer repairman in Bude who advertises himself as the ‘PC Doctor’. At least there isn’t much chance of us being confused, I suppose. But it does mean that I’ll have to choose something a little less slick, like ‘’ or ‘’. Not perfect, but better than nothing.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Fun with forms

I realise I haven’t posted much about the mechanics of self-publishing recently. That’s partly because I’m in what you might call the admin phase, which isn’t particularly interesting. Also, I haven’t done it particularly efficiently. So here, for anyone thinking of self-publishing, is how it works.

First, I wanted to get a quote for the job from the printers. When I went to fill in the form, I realised I needed the detailed specs of my book – what size I want it to be, what paper I want it printed on, whether the cover will be matt or glossy, and so on. To get these I had to consult my book designers, who made their recommendations based on my initial meeting with David.

So eventually I filled in the form, and a couple of days later the quote came back. I ran it past the designers, who seemed to think it was fair enough. Now I was ready to place an order with the printers. So I looked at the order form – and found that I needed to enter my ISBN (the universal code used to order books worldwide).

So now I had to fill in the ISBN application form, and discovered – surprise, surprise – that this required yet another item I didn’t possess; a sample title and verso page for the book. This meant going back to the designers once again and a couple of days of toing and froing by email.

Now, finally, I have my ISBN number, which means I can place my order and get a date when my book will be printed. But I’m sure I could have reached this point several weeks earlier if I’d just taken the trouble to read all the forms at the outset.

Thursday, 10 September 2009


One thing I learned from the sleevenotes to the deluxe CD version of Five Live Yardbirds was the true derivation of Eric Clapton’s nickname. I’d always assumed that ‘Slowhand’ was an ironic reference to the speed with which his fingers moved up and down the guitar when he was playing a solo – in much the same way as tall men sometimes used to be called ‘Titch’.

Not so. According to Yardbirds rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja, Clapton used to use very light strings made for ukuleles, as they were easier to bend. Being so thin, they frequently broke, so Eric would have to restring his guitar between numbers. Frustrated at the delay, the audience would start slow handclapping – hence the nickname ‘Slowhand’ Clapton.

I just thought I’d share that with you.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Got Live If You Want It

I’ve just been listening again to the album which was one of the crucial inspirations for First Time I Met The Blues: Five Live Yardbirds.

I’m not sure if it was actually the first LP of British blues I heard (the Rolling Stones’ debut may have nipped in ahead of it), but Five Live Yardbirds was definitely the one that proved, beyond all reasonable doubt, that boys from the suburbs of London could play r’n’b that was every bit as raw and exciting as the Chicago blues I was learning to love.

Listening to it again now, it is, if anything, even more astonishing. After an eccentric on-stage introduction by the band’s manager’s assistant, they go from 0-60 in about five seconds in a manic assault on Chuck Berry’s ‘Too Much Monkey Business’, complete with furious soloing by Eric Clapton. The next song, ‘Got Love If You Want It’, features equally expert blues harp solos by lead singer Keith Relf, over a Bo-Diddlesque beat.

That sets the pattern for the rest of the set: fast songs attacked with gusto, and (slightly) slower ones which generally rise to a succession of crescendos. The primitive-sounding recording – this was one of the first live LPs, and the equipment wasn’t really up to it – only makes it even more exciting, as do the enthusiastic reactions of the audience, crammed into a sweltering Marquee club one night in March 1964.

In the book I place one of my three lead characters, Des, in that audience. It’s this experience that inspires him to form a blues band, in the hope of emulating his new hero, Eric Clapton. It’s the resulting live LP he plays his bandmates when he wants to show them what is possible. And it’s the Yardbirds’ arrangement of ‘Good morning little schoolgirl’ that is one of the first songs they learn – and when their new acquaintance Trevor realises that they haven’t got a blues harp player to imitate Relf’s riffing, he sees his chance to join the band…

Monday, 31 August 2009

Cover me

Holidays, and stressful times at work in between, have slowed my progress these past few weeks, but in the meantime I’ve been swapping emails with the people at Two Associates, and my front cover is beginning to take shape.

Well, two shapes, because we’re working on a couple of ideas: one text-based, one more illustrative, but both featuring a harmonica, which is becoming the visual symbol of the book. I won’t say any more just yet, but I will say that it’s immensely more satisfying than just getting an off-the-shelf cover, as I did with Grown-Up People.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

It’s not a harmonica

Well, obviously it is – the object in the picture that illustrates this blog, I mean – but you don’t call it that if you’re serious about the blues. ‘Mouth organ’ is a little better, but only a little; ‘blues harp’ or ‘mouth harp’ will get you more respect; and if you really want to show off, you can call it a ‘Mississippi saxophone’.

It’s funny how all the slang terms for this simple little device compare it to other, more complex musical instruments. Perhaps people are embarrassed by its very simplicity. They think of a harmonica as something you give your nephew or niece for Christmas, so they can learn to play ‘Oh, when the saints go marchin’ in’ (following the instructions provided, assuming they’ve bought a Hohner Marine Band, which most people do) before discarding it a couple of days later.

If that’s what you think too, I suggest you listen to a bit of Sonny Boy Williamson (I or II, they’re both good), or James Cotton, or Charlie Musselwhite, or the greatest of them all, Little Walter. Acoustic or amplified, the mouth harp is one of the essential blues instruments, to the point where I don’t really consider a blues band worthy of the name if it doesn’t include someone who can play it.

It’s also the instrument that Trevor, one of the three main protagonists of my novel, learns to play in order to audition for his new friends’ band – and the instrument I tried to teach myself when I was 18 or so. Having discovered rock and blues music, and realising that by the time I’d learnt to play something complicated like guitar or piano I’d be too old, I homed in on the blues harp as my one chance to join a band. (This was all purely theoretical, you understand. I didn’t actually know anyone who was in a blues band, and even if I had, I wouldn’t have had the nerve to approach them.)

So I went to Hammond’s Music Shop in Watford (just as Trevor does in the novel) and bought myself a Marine Band and a book on how to play blues harp. And sure enough, with a bit of practice, I taught myself to play the tunes and solos in the book – bent notes, vibrato and all.

The trouble was, as soon as I ventured away from the book I was lost. Even with something as simple as blues harp, you need to understand a bit of musical theory to play it properly, and that’s always been a mystery to me. I just don’t understand how you know which note to play next if you’re not following it in a book.

I persevered on and off for a couple of years, but eventually the penny dropped: I wasn’t destined to be a blues harp maestro. It was only years later, when the idea for First Time I Met The Blues was germinating in my mind, that I realised I could indulge in a bit of wish fulfilment through one of my characters…

Friday, 31 July 2009

That sounds familiar…

I opened the new issue of Mojo the other day and almost had a heart attack. There, in the books section, was a review of a new book called The First Time We Met The Blues. Remind you of anything?

My initial reaction was sheer panic. Does this mean I’ve got to change my title? Or even scrap the whole project? The process of finding a title for a novel is still a mysterious one to me, even though I’m currently working on my fourth. Each time I’ve started without one, and yet something has mysteriously worked its way to the front of my mind and moved from the status of ‘working title’ to something that’s indelibly linked to what I’ve written. It’s the same with First Time I Met The Blues, named after a song by Buddy Guy that one of my characters talks about at one point. (Oddly, I can’t remember now which came first: the scene, or the idea of naming the book after the song.)

Anyway, once I’d calmed down, I decided that this coincidence could actually be a good thing for me. For instance, people searching for the other book online might find this blog instead, or as well (even though I’m not showing up on Google yet – oh yes, I’ve checked). Besides, the rival book isn’t a novel but a memoir, by a bloke who was friends with Jimmy Page when they were teenagers discovering the blues together. Similar subject matter, then, but a completely different treatment. Maybe it’s even a sign that the British Blues Boom of the 60s is coming back into fashion – but no, that’s too fanciful.

Monday, 27 July 2009

It takes Two

One of the names that Jacqueline scribbled on my spreadsheet was that of David Eldridge, founder of graphic design company Two Associates. So it was that on Friday afternoon I found myself tramping the streets of suburban south-west London in a sudden monsoon, in search of their offices in East Sheen.

As a journalist, I’m used to dealing with designers, but I’ve never been particularly good at devising, or communicating, ideas that might help them to illustrate an article. Some people think in words, others in pictures: I’m definitely one of the former – that’s why I need a professional to design my book jacket.

Fortunately, David got the idea very quickly. I’d brought along some visual stimuli – examples of typography and photography from the British blues boom of the 60s, where my novel begins – and he pounced on them with great enthusiasm. I talked him through a couple of ideas I’ve been mulling over for the cover, and left confident that he’ll be able to translate them into something I’ll be not just happy with, but proud of.

That’s the other thing: as with Jacqueline, David’s enthusiasm for the project helped to reinforce the idea that self-publishing doesn’t have to be an apologetic, settle-for-second-best option. We talked about different kinds of binding and typefaces, and the various options for laminating the cover, and I realised that – cost permitting, of course – I really may be able to publish a book that will look as good as something that would emerge from one of the big multinational companies.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

The Starbucks summit

Step one: get some expert advice. Two separate people from unrelated areas of my life had told me that I should talk to Jacqueline Burns, co-founder of the London Writers’ Club and the website, and it seemed silly to ignore such an obvious piece of serendipity. (Does serendipity come in pieces?) So I arranged to meet Jacqueline early one morning in the basement of the branch of Starbucks just up the road from my office.

I started by giving her a bit of background about my project (as per the entry above) and then showed her the spreadsheet I’d created on which I painstakingly compared the self-publishing companies I’d researched, according to a number of key criteria.

She barely even looked at it: “You should use these people to print the book for you,” she said, scribbling a name on my spreadsheet. “And this guy will do a great job of designing your cover. He can liaise with the printers, too.” Another scribbled name, and that was the two key points I’d wanted to cover dealt with in under five minutes.

That gave us 55 minutes to talk over the details of what I could expect from the process, what I needed to do to make it work, and how I could publicise my book, both before and after publication. I emerged blinking into the daylight an hour later with my head spinning with ISBN numbers and Twitter feeds, pre-publication offers and ebooks, unit costs and press releases – a little daunted, it’s true, but mainly excited at the prospect of not only doing it myself, but being in control of the process.

Monday, 13 July 2009

The story so far

Nearly 10 years ago now, I finished my first novel, Grown-Up People. I found an agent to represent me, but despite some near misses, she didn’t succeed in finding a publisher who was prepared to publish my masterpiece. So I decided to do it myself.

I did so with the help of Xlibris, an American company who may well have been the first to offer a print-on-demand service, and were certainly the first I’d come across. I had a good experience with them, though with a couple of reservations.

One was that, having ticked the box on the application form that said ‘design a cover for me’ (or words to that effect), I ended up with a clumsy combination of abstract shapes and old-fashioned typefaces that I could probably have managed myself, given access to a computer with Adobe Photoshop and a half-hour tutorial.

The other reservation (and something that’s not their fault at all) stemmed from the fact that, since Xlibris is an American company, they print copies in the US and ship them to wherever the buyer lives. Most of my potential buyers were in the UK, and whether they bought the book directly from Xlibris or via Amazon, the additional shipping costs hiked the price of the book to around £20 a copy. Not ideal. I eventually got around this by buying ‘author copies’ in bulk, giving me a discount which allowed me to sell the book at £8 and break even, but it wasn’t an entirely satisfactory solution.

Fast forward to 2009. In the interim I’ve completed a second novel, and indeed a third, neither of which my original agent felt enthusiastic enough about to hawk around the literary world. I’ve even started no. 4, but I’m still keen to publish no. 2, which, I believe (in the absence of any concrete evidence to the contrary) is significantly better than Grown-Up People.

So this will be a weblog in the original sense of the word: an online diary that will track the (self-) publishing process, from soup to nuts (and whatever comes after that).

Oh, and the title of the novel? It’s the same as the title of this blog: First Time I Met The Blues. More of that in due course.