Saturday 17 December 2011

The Beauty of the Barter

I've often lamented that I find it somewhat difficult to patronise actual bricks-and-mortar bookshops, something I'd dearly love to do if only it were possible. Newcastle City Centre boasts only two bookshops nowadays, both of which belong to chains and neither of which stock the books I require for my PhD, so I have little choice but to head to Amazon and buy online.

Of course, as much as I think it's important to spend money in actual shops, sometimes it's nice just to find somewhere to go to discover new books. Sure, libraries offer a vast array of books and it costs nothing to borrow, but what about those times when you don't want to have time constraints put on your reading, for fear of incurring overdue fines? Enter the second-hand bookshop.

I used to be a big fan of the Book and Comic Exchange in Notting Hill when I lived in London. You'd take in your old books, get 50p cash (or £1 credit, although that seemed to go down to 50p) and find new books. Obviously it's a bit far to go there these days, but living in the North East has a distinct advantage - the famous Barter Books is in Alnwick, home of Alnwick Castle (which stood in for Hogwarts' exterior in the first two Harry Potter movies).

Barter Books began way back in 1991 when Mary Manley opened a secondhand bookshop in the front room of Alnwick's old Victorian railway station. These days it occupies the whole building, and offers a range of books, both fiction and non-fiction alike, while a growing CD and DVD section has been added to meet demand. Some of the books are extremely old, some outdated, and others almost brand new, but the whole system works upon the idea of the "barter" - you take in a pile of your old books, and the shop issues you with a valuation receipt, which can be redeemed against new purchases. Anything they don't want they'll return to you. So today, I took in two huge carrier bags of books and got almost £20 of credit, which I spent immediately on books about film theory.

I can't actually recommend a visit enough. The fact it's in an old Victorian railway station is cool enough, and the trading principle is even better, but the choice available is by far its biggest selling point. The fiction covers most genres, sporting both well-known names and unknowns, and the non-fiction variety is brilliant. Sure, a lot of the books are massively out-of-date (don't expect any recent photography texts) and some of them are so old they probably need restoration, but you can find some real gems among the titles on offer. Indeed, the two film books I bought were cheaper to buy second-hand in Barter Books than they would be to buy second-hand through Amazon - and that was before I even cashed in the credit from the books I put in to barter.

Barter Books is a beautiful building, and it's got a wonderfully welcoming atmosphere, and I feel rather lucky to live in the same county as a shop dedicated to sharing books.

Friday 16 December 2011

Friday Flash - Incommunicado

This is the last in my superhero series - for the time being, at least. I know everyone's been enjoying them but if I'm honest, I'm getting bored writing them, and you have to love what you write. Don't worry though, I'm sure I'll go back to the saga at some point. In the meantime, I give you...


From: Icy Von Doom
To: Dr Online
Subject: CA
I note CA took the bait. Expect a postcard from Vegas soon.

From: Dr Online
To: Icy Von Doom
Subject: RE: CA
CA touched base yesterday with Miranda Sparkles. Has announced intention to switch his crime-fighting efforts to Monaco. News breaks tomorrow. Suggest WIN?

From: Icy Von Doom
To: Chief Superintendent Barry Beckers
Subject: Crime prevention
Good morning Barry,
We have received a communication that Captain Astounding is safe and well, but has decided that the Mediterranean community of Monaco could better use his expertise than our fair city. In the wake of his absence, please consider my Armed Response Division as being entirely at your disposal, should the need arise.
Ever your servant,

From: Chief Superintendent Barry Beckers
To: Mayor Parker
Subject: CA's disappearance
Had an email from Von Doom. Has offered us her armed response people now CA has gone. Suggest we take her up on her offer - better to have her on side.

From: Mayor Parker
To: Chief Superintendent Barry Beckers
Subject: RE: CA's disappearance

From: Chief Superintendent Barry Beckers
To: Icy Von Doom
Subject: RE: Crime prevention
Many thanks for your offer, have spoken to Mayor and he agrees with me, we would like to accept. Look forward to working with you.
All the best,

From: Icy Von Doom
To: Dr Online
Subject: RE: CA
Stupid fools took the bait. Espionage team to be briefed and re-fitted as Armed Response Division asap.
Also, grant bonuses to PR team. Genius.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Guest Story - Cause for Complaint

I've got a bit of a treat for you today - instead of some insane rambling from me, I've got a very special guest story by Emma Newman! She's on a mission to release a year and a day of weekly short stories set in her Split Worlds universe, and this is the seventh story.

If you would prefer to listen to an audio version, you can find it here, and you can find links to all the other stories as they are released here. Or do what I did and sign up to the newsletter! You can contact Emma through the Split Worlds site or in the comments section if you'd like to host a story too.

Cause for Complaint

The clock mounted above the door chimed four, indicating an impending customer from the city of Oxenford.

"At least it's not one of the Londinium lot," the shopkeeper muttered, slipping his bookmark into place as the clock hands returned to marking one minute after nine o'clock.

The bell jangled as the door was thrust open. "Good morning sir," he smiled at the young man who strode up to the counter, face pink with anger. It happened to match the dandy's waistcoat beautifully, but the shopkeeper didn't remark upon it.

"I wish to make a complaint!" The young man punctuated his statement with a slap on the counter top.

The Shopkeeper removed his glasses to better peer down his nose. "I beg your pardon?"

"You heard me shopkeeper, I want to complain about that potion. It didn't work."

"That's impossible," the shopkeeper replied. "You must be mistaken."

The young man's rage made his sideburns quiver. "Mistaken! Don't you know who I am?"

"Of course I do sir. You are Xavier Rubiginosa-Rosa, third and youngest son of the esteemed Oxenford family, recognised by the Collegiate and held in high regard by the Chancellor. I've had the pleasure of serving your family and the residents of the Great Cities for several hundred years and I can assure you, in all that time I have never once had a complaint."

The Rosa spluttered. As a member of the Great Families he had superior status, but it was hard to recall when faced with the age and confidence of the owner of the Emporium of Things in Between and Besides.

The shopkeeper remained calm. "Perhaps you could explain why you perceive a problem, and I will endeavour to resolve the issue."

"So you admit there may be cause for complaint? Ha!"

"Not at all sir. Since the founding of this establishment, there have been five occasions upon which a customer came with the intention of complaining. Every time, the problem lay with either the interpretation or execution of instructions, or simply a poor choice of product for a certain set of circumstances, stemming from a lack of sufficient information at the point of sale. I can and will assure you, once again, the potion will have worked perfectly."

The Rosa blinked as he struggled to process the monologue. Over the centuries, the shopkeeper had perfected his delivery; providing just enough detail to make sense to the customer and delivered in just the right tone to lull them into a state of mild confusion. It usually resulted in a sale as the customer avoided the embarrassment of having to ask for something to be repeated. There had only ever been one person it hadn't worked on. The shopkeeper forced the thought of her to the back of his mind and listened to the young man.

"I followed the instructions perfectly and the girl it was intended for drank it all. It was mixed with orange juice, nothing else, as you said."

"I see. Go on."

The customer lowered his voice even though there wasn't another soul in the shop. "And it did the opposite to what I wanted. She started questioning my motives… realised I wanted to…" he cleared his throat, moving on, "and then she listed, with remarkable eloquence, all the reasons she would never want to spend another moment in my company. She said she'd never had such clarity and then she left."

Towards the end of the account the shopkeeper plucked out a spotless white handkerchief and polished his glasses. It was impossible for dust to land on the enchanted lenses, he simply wanted something to do as he realised something had gone horribly wrong.

"Does that sound like pliability to you?" The Rosa demanded, the memory of failure reigniting his anger.

The shopkeeper had no doubt the expensive potion would work. Either the Rosa had used it incorrectly, or had not used the correct potion. Then he remembered the other order he'd sent out yesterday afternoon. "Did you personally take delivery?"

"Yes, and I checked your delivery boy's marque. When will you admit you're at fault?"

"When there is no doubt," the shopkeeper replied. "Would you give me a moment to double-check the properties of the potion?"

The Rosa nodded, taking to pacing as the shopkeeper hurried to his back office. He pulled the cord that struck the hammer against the lamp, the clang waking the sleeping sprites trapped inside the glass globe. The tiny creatures flitted in panic, emitting their pure white light once more. The ledger confirmed the new delivery boy had been given two packages, one containing a pliability potion, the other an elixir of eloquence. As both orders were considered sensitive, the bottles had not been labelled, as requested.

"Bloody fool!" he hissed into the pages. He'd asked the Agency if he was fully trained, how could they let such an idiot enter his employ? He could feel a stern letter brewing.

The shopkeeper slammed the ledger shut, he'd have to placate not only the angry youth, but also the Lilium who'd received the pliability potion in error. Hopefully he hadn't needed that eloquence for anything important.

He went back into the shop, considering all he knew about the Rubiginosa-Rosa family and how best to exploit it. "I believe I have an explanation sir. I recall you describing the young lady as having red hair."

"Yes," he said. "Is that important?"

"And that she is of mundane descent, and indeed the potion was used in Mundanus?"


"Ahhh," the shopkeeper nodded. "I see what's happened. One of the reagents used in the potion is very sensitive, and can have extraordinary side-effects in a particular set of circumstances. The young lady must have dyed her hair, I understand it's very common in Mundanus these days, and should she be a natural blonde or brunette, well, the effects of the potion can be quite unexpected."

"Why didn't you make that clear when I ordered it?" The Rosa shouted.

"How could I do anything but assume you knew her hair colour sir, would you not have been offended if I'd asked?"

"I suppose so… gosh… you're telling me she isn't a natural redhead?"

The shopkeeper put on a mask of sympathy and appropriate embarrassment. "A most unfortunate way to discover such a thing sir, but yes, that's the only explanation. The side-effect may have inadvertently saved you from investing too much time in one unworthy of your attention."

"Gosh," he repeated, tugging at his cravat as he considered the horror.

"Perhaps a soothing bath in restorative salts would be in order. I'm happy to sell you these," he lifted a box down from the shelf near the counter, "at half price, as a gesture of goodwill so we can put this unpleasantness behind us. These are infused with delicate new hope and a soup├žon of optimism. Just the ticket I feel. Yours for the reduced price of a sigh of disappointment."

The Rosa nodded, no doubt he had plenty of them. The shopkeeper caught the sigh in a silk bag insulated with eider down and apple tree shavings, tying it quickly.

"Thank you shopkeeper," he said, watching him wrap the box in brown paper and tie it with string. "I'm terribly sorry about the shouting earlier."

"All forgotten," the shopkeeper smiled. "Do come again."

Shortly after the Rosa left, the clock chimed four. He wondered if it was an angry Lilium with the expected complaint, but a lady entered instead. Upon seeing the empty shop, she rushed to the counter, tears streaming down her cheeks. He recognised her as the Lilium's betrothed.

"Shopkeeper," she sniffed. "I need something for a broken heart."


"My love has been sent to India for twenty years! He was certain he'd be able to talk his father round but… but the words failed him, he said."

"Oh dear," he said as sympathetically as he could whilst filled with relief. Even if he'd realised what happened, the Lilium was unable to do anything about it. "I'm sure I have something that will help. And please, do stop crying. Time and reasonably priced magic heal all wounds."

Monday 12 December 2011

Photo Prompt 63

New prompt available!

If you want to use the prompt, all I ask is that you include a link to this entry and a credit to me for the photograph, and that you post a link to your story in the comments box below so I can see what you've come up with! If you don't comment on this entry, then I can't comment on your story.

The 63rd prompt is Christmas Tree.


All photo prompts are my own photography - you can find more of it on Flickr. You can also buy my prints from Deviantart. 20% of all proceeds go to charity - the other 80% go towards my PhD fees!

Sunday 11 December 2011

Why I Suck At Marketing

I've been posting regularly to my Blunt Pencil for a while now, and after much thought, I've decided I don't want my blog to be nothing but flash fiction or posts about writing. I'd like to start sharing more about my experiences as a writer - you never know, maybe you'll be feeling the same way and we can all offer each other support. Plus, I think it's about time I starting admitting to a little vulnerability, don't you?

Well, I was at an event on Saturday night where I had an opportunity to try and sell a few copies of my pulp Western, The Guns of Retribution. A grand total of two were sold, and it's really made me examine just why I'm so appalling at self-promotion. I mean, who better to sell my story than me? The only person who knows it better than I do is the main character, and unless I get a ouija board out, Grey isn't going to be talking to anyone any time soon. I should be able to walk up to someone and start talking about my book...but it's not that easy, is it?

The first stumbling block is the fact that I'm abysmal at engaging strangers in conversation. I was never the most gregarious of folk to start with but seven years of living in London have conditioned me not to speak to those I don't know. I don't find myself to be in the best position to recommend myself, and the idea of randomly walking up to someone fills me with a small degree of alarm. Of course, it's all about context. Were I to be walk into a knitting group, and find myself among a group of film scholars, things would be different, but to walk up to someone with the intention of trying to sell something? Well, that just brings us onto the second stumbling block.

I'm not the type of person who likes to harrass people about what I do. I see some people in my Twitter stream who seemingly post nothing but tweets reminding us of the availability of their book, and after a while it becomes white noise. Sure, I'll post occasional links to my own stuff but I don't want my Twitter account to become the cyber equivalent of the incessant TV ads that go from "mildly annoying" to "downright abhorrent" due to the frequency with which they are aired. I like to talk to new people on Twitter because I like the conversational side of it, and if they happen to buy a book after chatting to me, then great. But to start talking to someone with the sole intention of selling something? Eek.

The problem is, I know it has to be done. The Guns of Retribution won't sell itself. I can tell you that it's a story about a young man named Grey O'Donnell, who flees his native Arizona after a run-in with the local heavies, only to return six years later as a fully-fledged bounty hunter on the trail of a murderer. His path crosses that of Jasper Roberts, his former adversary, who is now the crooked sheriff of his hometown, Retribution. Roberts has no intention of letting Grey get away from him for a second time, and a collision course is set between the two. I can tell you that it's got train robberies, shoot outs, hangings, fist fights and a femme fatale. I can ask you not to be put off by the fact it's a Western, and rather to view it as an action tale set in the Old West.

Or I can point you towards what others have said. Paul D Brazill described it as "a joy, containing all the action and adventure of an old school western", while Heath Lowrance called it "a strong Western full of action, honor, betrayal, and fast guns". Old West maestro Edward A. Grainger even said "If you buy one book today, make it The Guns of Retribution". Pulp Serenade gave me this wonderful review, the highlight being "The Guns of Retribution is at its best when the excitement runs high. There’s a visceral, tangible element to Sedgwick’s writing that gives the story added punch."

So why can't I market my own book? Obviously it's something I'll be working on in the New Year, particularly as I work on the sequel, but how about the rest of you? Anyone got any hints or tricks they use when promoting their work?