Lots of people collect autographs — books signed by their authors, photographs signed by famous people, etc. I’ve even seen some people getting body parts signed. Sometimes even a fleeting association with fame is enough for someone to want your autograph. I remember attending a Star Trek convention many years ago and watching dozens of people lining up to get the autograph of an extra who also doubled for Data’s hands in close-up on Star Trek: The Next Generation. There certainly seems to be a high demand for autographs. Check out eBay to see how many autographs there are on sale. Expos like Armageddon are chock full of people standing in line to get an autograph, or trawling the dealers’ tables for signed photos of their favourite TV/movie star.

Although I do not collect autographs as such, I do like to get books that I’ve read and liked, or am about to read, signed by the author. Especially if I am attending a book launch. It makes a nice memento of having met the person. I don’t often get signatures from actors, as these days most of them charge for autographs. I’ve been attending science fiction conventions since the mid-1980s, and this trend for paid autographs seemed to slowly take hold in the late 80s/early 90s, as Star Wars actors discovered they were having difficulty getting acting work and turned to the convention circuit as a way of earning a crust. Now days it appears that most actors charge for their autograph (or will only sign photos purchased from them) even if they are still working actors. The days of autograph signing as promotion for actors, rather than income, are long gone.

Authors, on the other hand, still seem happy enough to sign things for free. Granted, in most cases they are signing copies of their books, which have been purchased. But they also often sign programme books and other publicity material.

Over the years, I’ve had quite a lot of books signed. Since becoming an author myself, this has increased as I’ve had the opportunity to meet many of my favourite authors at launches and other writing/reading events. I have two particular signing highlights…

Many years ago I had the good fortune to attend an Age Literary Luncheon, where Douglas Adams was the guest speaker. He was in Australia at the time, promoting Last Chance to See. I remember him being a very witty and thoroughly charming speaker. After the luncheon, he stuck around for quite a long time, signing books and chatting to people. I got to meet him, although I have no memory of what I actually said to him. Probably some stupidly incoherent fan-boyish comment. But I still have the large hardcover edition of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: A Trilogy in Four Parts, which he signed for me on the day.

Quite a number of years ago I attended a science fiction convention where William Gibson was guest of honour. I’d never read any of his books before, but after hearing him speak, I rushed into the dealers’ room, purchased a copy of Neuromancer and went to stand in line for an autograph. Oddly, he signed my book with the words: “Thanks for helping me stick up that 7-11!”

Being on the other end of a signing is rather surreal. I’ve been a reader way longer than an author, so I’m much more comfortable asking for an autograph than being asked. But signing books is part of the whole promotion thing, and it is rather nice knowing that there are people out there who like my writing enough to want me to scribble my name onto their property. I particularly like doing school signings. I’ve signed all sorts of things at these events, from actual copies of my books, to proper autograph books filled with the signatures of people more famous than I; from notebooks and school exercise books to tattered scraps of paper.

Anyone out there collect autographs? Anyone have any interesting signing anecdotes they’d like to share? Leave a comment!

And tune in next time for… something!

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Follow me on Twitter.


The first sentence

A writer needs to get the attention of his/her readers as soon as possible — to make them want to read further, to make them not put the book back onto the bookshop shelf in favour of another book. There are many ways to do this and it can take anywhere from a single word to an entire chapter. But what I want to write about today is that all-important first sentence.

A book’s first sentence can be long or short, descriptive or elusive, intriguing or demanding, full of purple prose or stated matter-of-factly — but its purpose is to begin the story and hook the reader. Some writers do this better than others.

Today, I simply want to share with you some of my favourite opening sentences — some with comments, other without. These are not necessarily my favourite books, these are just sentences that I found had grabbed my attention and made me remember them. I am presenting them in splendid isolation from the remainder of the text to which they belong. Have a read and see if you can guess from which books I have extracted them — I’ve listed the books at the end of the post.

1. I’m going to start with my all-time favourite — a truly memorable and intriguing sentence that sets up reader expectations. It’s a very recognisable sentence and also a rather long one — far longer than is fashionable to write in this day and age.

“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”

2. Another absolute classic:

“The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

3. A little gruesome, but memorable.

“Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own.”

4. “I heard a story once about a little kid who came home from school and found his mother dead on the kitchen floor.”

5. “I keep thinking that I have a tunnel in my chest.”

6. What I love about this sentence is the way ‘dæmon’ is written with such everyday matter-of-factsness.

“Lyra and her dæmon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.”

7. “I know a place where there is no smog and no parking problem and no population explosion . . . no Cold War and no H-bombs and no television commercials . . . no Summit Conferences, no Foreign Aid, no hidden taxes—no income tax.”

8. “When the doorbell rings at three in the morning, it’s never good news.”

9. Okay, okay — this is one sentence plus one extra word. But that one extra word makes all the difference.

“It wasn’t even five o’clock and Milo had already murdered Mrs Appleby. Twice.”

10. “Aubrey Fitzwilliam hated being dead.”

11. “Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.”

12. “All children, except one, grow up.”

13. “Later, while I was facing the Potter Moth, or fleeing for my life from the First Ones, or helping man a cannon aboard Jack Havock’s brig Sophronia, I would often think back to the way my life used to be, and to that last afternoon at Larklight, before all our misfortunes began.”

14. “Through the ruin of a city stalked the ruin of a man.”

15. “Something eerie came over European civilization in the early twentieth century and led to a madness which was called ‘the Great War’.”

So there you have it — some of my favourite opening sentences. They probably say more about me than the books they come from. There are probably other ones out there that I may like better… but either I haven’t read them yet, or I read them so long ago that I can’t remember them, or I was simply unable to get my hands onto a copy of the relevant book to check the quote.

But what about all you people out there in the blogosphere? What are your favs? Leave and comment and share an opening sentence.

And tune in next time for some random quotes.

Catch ya later,  George

PS. Here are the books:

1. The War of the Worlds by HG Wells, 1898.

2. Neuromancer, William Gibson, 1984.

3. Angels and Demons, Dan Brown, 2000.

4. The Inner Circle, Gary Crew, 1986.

5. After the First Death, Robert Cormier, 1979.

6. Northern Lights, Philip Pullman, 1995.

7. Glory Road, Robert Heinlein, 1963.

8. Stormbreaker, Anthony Horowitz, 2000.

9. The Slightly Skewed Life of Toby Chrysler, Paul Collins, 2009.

10. Blaze of Glory, Michael Pryor, 2006.

11. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Dauglas Adams, 1979.

12. Peter Pan, JM Barrie, 1911.

13. Larklight, Philip Reeve, 2006.

14. Doctor Who and the Dalek Invasion of Earth, Terrance Dicks, 1977.

15. The First A.I.F.: A Study of its Recruitment 1914-1918, LL Robson, 1970.

Why The Customer Isn’t Always Right

Reading the open letter posted up on Teleread this week made me realise something. When it comes to new technology, the customer isn’t always right. This open letter, addressed to ‘publishers’, covered ebook issues as varied as sales tax and ebook pricing, formatting of books and ebook reader firmware. Why Joanne, the author, believed she would achieve anything at all with this meaningless plea to the internet is beyond me.


… I know a fair amount about being a customer, and I know it shouldn’t be this hard … Why does it have to be this hard?

It is understandable that consumers are frustrated with the publishing industry’s speed of change. I am too. But the process cannot and will not be hurried along by gnashing of teeth, stamping of feet, and throwing your toys out of the pram. The reason things aren’t all working perfectly at the moment cannot be chalked up to one organisation, person or even one industry. Nobody has the power to enact the changes Joanne wants to bring about, let alone bring them about right now. To expect any different makes you little better than the archetypal ‘consumer’ described below by the brilliant author William Gibson:

Something the size of a baby hippo, the color of a week-old boiled potato, that lives by itself, in the dark, in a double-wide on the outskirts of Topeka. It’s covered with eyes and it sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes and makes them sting. It has no mouth, no genitals, and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote.

Why is it that arguments like Joanne’s are cropping up more and more in the blogosphere? My theory is that digital books, unlike dead tree books, are unique in that the process of getting recommendations, acquiring books and reading them are all achieved in one place. With a dead tree book, a friend might talk about a book, or perhaps you’ll read about it in a newspaper. Then you go into a bookstore, ask someone where you might find that book and then buy it. Then you take it home and read it. The process of finding out about a book, buying it and reading it – when it comes to ebooks – can all happen from your lap, perhaps even from one device. This is not conducive to a nuanced understanding of the industry.

So what are your other options? Read a lot. Ask a lot of questions. Find out who’s really to blame, and for what exactly. But most of all? Have a little bit of patience. Those of us reading ebooks right now are early adopters. Try to keep in mind that we’re not living in the future.

What are your chief complaints about ebooks – regardless of whether you read them? Ask me a question, and I’ll do my best to answer it in a future post.