The hard facts …

… from Joe Konrath:

No matter how talented you are, no matter how hard working, no matter how awesome and committed your publisher might be, statistically you are far more likely to lose the game of publishing than you are to win it. This isn’t a bad thing. Nor is it good. It’s just the nature of the beast. You could argue it’s the nature of life itself. Our job is to do what we can to influence the odds, but it’s foolish at best to argue the odds don’t matter, or don’t even exist.

(Incidentally, the whole (long) post is worth reading.)


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Context is everything! Cats and dogs in the Bible

I spotted this quote in a magazine this week …

“The dog is mentioned in the Bible 18 times — the cat not even once.”
–W E Farbstein, on the Old Testament

… so I thought I’d check it out with a quick free download from Project Gutenberg, and a text processing tool that’s built into Linux (called AWK, if you’re interested). I discovered that dogs actually get mentioned 41 times in the Bible. Here’s the breakdown:

Old Testament:
   “dogs” 18
   “dog” 14
New Testament:
   “dogs”   8
   “dog”   1

But Farbstein is right about cats; not a single mention. There’s a lot of cattle (153) and even nine caterpillars, but no cats.

The quote seems to suggest that this is a good thing — for dogs — but the unsavoury context of many of the mentions I found led me to investigate further. Here’s what Wikipedia’s List of Animals in the Bible says about the subject:

Dog — The dog in the East does not enjoy the companionship and friendship of man as in the western countries. Its instinct has been cultivated only insofar as the protecting of the flocks and camps against wild animals is concerned. In the towns and villages it roams in the streets and places, of which it is the ordinary scavenger; packs of dogs in a half-wild state are met with in the cities and are not infrequently dangerous for men. For this reason the dog has always been, and is still looked upon with loathing and aversion, as filthy and unclean. With a very few exceptions, whenever the dog is spoken of in the Bible (where it is mentioned over 40 times), it is with contempt, to remark either its voracious instincts, or its fierceness, or its loathsomeness; it was regarded as the emblem of lust, and of uncleanness in general. As some Muslims, to the present day, term Christians “dogs”, so did the Jews of old apply that infamous name to Gentiles. A greyhound is mentioned in Proverbs 30:31.

To which Bible History Daily adds:

Dogs in the Bible were not well loved. To be called a dog was to be associated with evil and low status.
There is evidence in the Bible that physical violence toward dogs was considered acceptable (1 Samuel 17:43; Proverbs 26:17). To compare a human to a dog or to call them a dog was to imply that they were of very low status (2 Kings 8:13; Exodus 22:31; Deuteronomy 23:18; 2 Samuel 3:8; Proverbs 26:11; Ecclesiastes 9:4; 2 Samuel 9:8; 1 Samuel 24:14). In the New Testament, calling a human a dog meant that the person was considered evil (Philemon 3:2; Revelation 22:15).

So mention of dogs in the Bible isn’t a positive thing at all. In fact, it’s quite the reverse!




My cat says she could’ve told me so.


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Check your popularity with n-grams

Y’all know about n-grams, right? Wikipedia nails ’em:

… an n-gram is a contiguous sequence of n items from a given sequence of text or speech. The items can be phonemes, syllables, letters, words or base pairs according to the application. The n-grams typically are collected from a text or speech corpus.

So there you go.

Hmm, right …

My introduction to n-grams came in the form of a question: which is used more, leaped or leapt (as in the past-participle of leap)? And the answer came back very quickly: both, depending on your market.

Google’s Ngram Viewer is the perfect tool for this sort of question. Simply input the two words separated by a comma, choose the years to search and corpus (the group of texts) you want to examine, and hit the Search Lots of Books button. Here’s my result for US English from 1800–2000:

And British English for the same period:

So two winners, depending on your market.

Often there’s only one clear winner. When it was first published in 2011, a couple friends thought the title of my book Too Many Zeros was misspelt. Surely it should be Too Many Zeroes? Not according to Ngram Viewer, for American …

… or for British English …

Of course, the answer you get will depend on the question you ask. The old GIGO principle — Garbage In, Garbage Out — applies. For example, if I add ones to my list of search terms, the book was hopelessly misnamed:

Not that I’d ever be fooled by that …






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Literary Putdowns

In America, only the successful writer is important, in France all writers are important, in England no writer is important, and in Australia you have to explain what a writer is.
Geoffrey Cottrell

It was one of the dullest speeches I ever heard. The Agee woman told us for three quarters of an hour how she came to write her beastly book, when a simple apology was all that was required.
P.G. Wodehouse

He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.
William Faulkner (on Ernest Hemingway)

To say that Agatha Christie’s characters are cardboard cut-outs is an insult to cardboard cut-outs.
Ruth Rendell

If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.
Dorothy Parker

What a man Balzac would have been if he had known how to write.
Gustave Flaubert (on Honoré de Balzac)

An editor should have a pimp for a brother so he’d have someone to look up to.
Gene Fowler

From the moment I picked your book up until I laid it down I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it.
Groucho Marx

A great many people now reading and writing would be better employed keeping rabbits.
Edith Sitwell

You’ve got the brain of a four-year-old boy, and I bet he was glad to get rid of it.
Groucho Marx

This is not a book that should be tossed lightly aside. It should be hurled with great force.
Dorothy Parker

Thank you for sending me a copy of your book. I’ll waste no time reading it.
Moses Hadas

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Reasons for not writing #5: I meant to, but I got distracted

The problem: You’re looking at it!

In some ways, computers with word processors are the best writing invention ever. Until quite recently, writers wrote by hand. Imagine War and Peace, written out in longhand. Or A Tale of Two Cities. (You can still see some of Dickens’ original drafts and corrections here.) Now imagine being the printer, setting out each line of type, letter by letter, while trying to read some barely decipherable scrawl …


A lot later, typewriters came along, which simplified the process to a degree. The scratching of a nib was replaced by a mechanical clackety-clack and the end of each line was prefaced by warning bell, at which point the writer hit a lever to advance the paper a few millimetres and physically throw the carriage back to its starting point. (The origin, by the way, of that obtuse term Carriage Return.)


There were still problems with typewriters. Making corrections was awkward. So was making copies. In the days before photocopiers, carbon paper was the only way to go; tissue-thin stuff that you interleaved between your pages. If you struck each key firmly enough, you could get three or even four copies simultaneously, although readability disappeared rapidly with depth and just handling the stuff left you looking like you’d been fingerprinted by the police.

Word processors emerged in the 1960s as an offshoot of the computer revolution. (The term “word processing” was one of the New York Times buzz words of 1971.) They really were a revolution. You could cut and paste paragraphs without a glue pot, move things around without having to renumber all your pages, and even search and replace text. What’s more, you always had a copy on file and could print out a pristine draft (on your dot-matrix printer) any time you liked.

There were still problems though. Screens were green and the only character set on them was monospace. While a whole range of fancy printout formats were available, before graphical user interfaces and WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) displays, you had to add strings of arcane control characters to layouts, and the only way to check you had exactly what you wanted was to actually print the document.


In the early ‘90s, I was the project manager responsible for putting PCs in the Wellington City Council. We had a budget of just under a million dollars, and after we’d selected a vendor, set up the servers and sorted out an implementation and training regime, we selected a pilot group to see how things would go in real life. We chose the council secretaries, a dozen or so women who did all the typing (as it was called in those days) for senior managers and councillors. They were no slouches when it came to word processing. They’d been using 80-character wide DEC terminals for years – along with all those arcane character codes – but were new to GUI interfaces.

I sat at the back of the classroom, observing, while one of the trainers introduced them to Word, a screen image beamed on to a whiteboard so they could all see it in action. They were clearly impressed. Then one of them asked, ‘What about doing columns?’

‘No problem,’ the trainer said. ‘Just select some text, click here, click there and choose the number of columns you want.’

In an instant the text reformatted into three perfect columns and there were gasps of astonishment around the room. It was the first time I’d seen people left speechless by the way technology can turn a complex task into a trivial one.

And that pretty much brings us up to date. There have been some modest improvements since the first GUI word processors, and I really wouldn’t be without one, but the problem for writers is that computer word I mentioned earlier. They’re just another program on your computer, one of many, probably running simultaneously. If Dickens or Dostoevsky wanted to check the latest news or tomorrow’s weather, they’d have to send out for a copy of the newspaper. All we have to do is flick to another window. Easy. And horribly distracting!

Have you ever walked into a room intent on doing something, then forgotten what it was when you got there? It’s a common experience and apparently has an evolutionary explanation. To our brains, changing rooms is equivalent to a sudden change in our environment and it causes our attention to be reset. Are there any threats here? Food sources? Friends or foes? Our previous mental state is overridden – at least temporarily.

Now consider research dating back as far as 1927 that shows humans are rubbish at multi-tasking. Each time you swap tasks on your computer, your brain does a mini reset. Each reset might only take a fraction of a second, but it can add up to 40% loss of efficiency. At that’s just mundane office tasks, not the peculiar focus and concentration that creative writing seems to demand.


People who claim to be good at multi-tasking are really just fooling themselves. All they’re actually doing is several things at once, poorly.


Think about that next time your email program pings to say you’ve got a message or you flip over to check Facebook or text messages on your phone.

The solution: You know this already

Yep, it’s simple: shut it down or turn it off.

If you want to send and receive emails, fine, do that. Browse the web? Go right ahead. Play a quick game of Solitaire? No problem. But if you want to write, properly and well, shut everything off but your word processor. Hell, even disconnect from the internet if really can’t trust yourself not to take a peek at Twitter or Facebook. And shut off your mobile phone too. If you’re really so important that you absolutely have to be available 24/7, you should probably focus on that role and come back to writing later.

Seriously, will the world stop turning if you can’t be reached for an hour?

And shut off your word processor’s built-in distractions too – its grammar and its spell checker. You can do all that stuff later. It’s not writing! Get your story out first in all its rough glory. Only writing is writing.

But I see this all the time – hell, I do it myself! My brain goes, Would Victorians have used the term pickpocket? Look it up. It won’t take a second. So I do. Online Etymology shows the word dates back to the 1590s, became a verb in the 1670s, and was had its origins in the term “pick-purse” from the late fourteenth century. Fascinating stuff, but it’s not actually writing.

Remember, only writing is writing.

Now shut off your browser and get back to work!


I wrote the first draft of this novel in six weeks, starting from a blank screen. (Here’s where I’d got to after 30 days.) It was rough and needed a lot more work, but that was so much easier once I had the thing in front of me.

More reasons for not writing: #1, #2, #3, #4

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Memories of James Siers

Jim Siers

I first met Jim Siers when my flatmate, Mike – a dab hand with a soccer ball (or should that be “dab foot”?) – got talked into coaching an eleven-year-old boys’ soccer team by a workmate.

‘Sucker!’ I told him.

‘Laugh all you like,’ he replied. ‘I put you down as Team Manager.’

Me? With two left feet …?

Coaching took place on Thursday evenings with games on Saturday mornings. I remember our first one in particular. We rolled up late, disorganised as usual, (blame the manager), and had a last minute scramble to get our guys organised, into jerseys and on to the field while the opposition – immaculately turned out – did warm-ups on the sidelines under the eagle of a track-suited coach. Eventually our guys ambled on to the pitch still tucking themselves in … and slaughtered them.

There was one notable feature in every game and every coaching session. One parent was always there: Jim Siers. His son Conrad was part of the team.

We became friends, the four of us, and would play long games of Frisbee in the little park below their house on Ottawa Road. Like everything else he did, Jim threw himself into these games with intensity and vigour. You might just catch one of his killer throws, but it would leave your hand zinging for minutes afterwards.

Jim was a photographer. He’d published more than 20 books by that time, many of them through Millwood Press, a company he and his wife Judy owned and ran. (Judy Siers was later a Wellington City Councillor.) This was decades before digital publishing and ebooks. Producing a book, especially a photographic book, meant real upfront expenses. I remember him giving us the proofs for a new book one day and asking what we thought of it.

‘Think it will sell?’

We both reckoned it a winner.

‘That’s good,’ he said, ‘cos we’ve had to mortgage the house to pay for it.’

That book was New Zealand / Dramatic Landscape. At a time when books about New Zealand were slim volumes with gaudy, high-gloss slip-on covers, this was a game changer. Landscape format, (what else?), matt-art paper pages, cloth bound with a hard linen-bound case, it was elegant, understated and superb quality. If my memory serves me right, it retailed for $60 – in 1979 – and sold like hotcakes. The book won a Tourism Design Award and was reprinted in 1981 and 1983.

New Zealand - Dramatic Landscape

Mike and I helped unload the container containing the very first shipment, and were rewarded with signed copies for our efforts. I still have mine. It’s a treasured possession.


I too was a photographer at that time, working for the National Art Gallery. One day, Jim asked the question that every photographer dreads; ‘So, what do you think of my photographs, Geoff-rey?’

(Three of asides here:

#1: I like the name Geoff but I hate the name Geoffrey. Jim was one of the few friends to get away with calling me that because he broke it into two distinct syllables, giving the second a sort of whimsical, humorous inflection.

#2: Jim had a vast amount of equipment, all 35mm. (He shot almost exclusively on Kodachrome 25). Everything from 24mm wide-angle lenses up to super-telephotos – including a Canon 600mm f/4.5, no less. A lens, for the uninitiated, that makes your camera look like an optional attachment …


He also used a Widelux – a clockwork panoramic camera that took eight shots on a 36-exposure roll. In fact, he had so much gear that I recall seeing an old Canon F1 body used as doorstop in the house.

He took a huge number of photographs too. Thousands for Dramatic Landscape, though only 300 were finally used. I recall him in his studio at the bottom of the garden, flicking slides off his light-table into an already overflowing bin.

#3: Jim could spot disingenuousness across a crowded room and bullshitters from ten blocks away. Not only that, he’d call them on it! An eye-to-eye stare and, ‘I think you’re shitting me.’ It might sound intimidating, but it was also one of his endearing qualities: absolute honesty.

Now back to that question … )

‘So, what do you think of my photographs, Geoff-rey?’

‘Well,’ I said cautiously, ‘given all the gear you’ve got and the amount of time you spend taking pictures …’ (Did I mention that in the preface to one of his books, possibly The New Zealanders, he reckoned he’d spent two weeks in light aircraft photographing from the air?), ‘… and the number of pictures you take, pretty much anyone could get those shots.’

I braced myself for a verbal battering (at least!), but Jim laughed and said, ‘A lot of people tell me that. And they’re right. But do you know what the difference between them and me is, Geoff-rey? They talk about it. I do it.’

It’s a simple philosophy, but one that’s stuck with me to this day.

They talk about it. I do it.’

Remember that next time someone tells you they’re going to write a book one day, or that they’ve got great idea for a story, or they’re sure they could write a bestseller.

Talk, talk, talk …

Real writers write. It’s as simple as that.

Thanks, Jim.



Years passed. I went to England, my friend Mike moved to Nelson and we lost touch with Jim. I always meant to look him up again, but you know how it is …

A month or so before Christmas last year, Mike and I were on the phone, talking, remembering Jim. ‘I wonder what’s become of him,’ Mike said. So I looked him up on the internet and learned that he’d died three years earlier.

There’s a fine obituary to him here on the Stuff website, and a more personal one from Lindsay Shelton here. He also has a modest entry in Wikipedia.

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Why Key is going now

john_key_february_2015Executive Summary 1: There’s a crash coming.
Executive Summary 2: Poisoned chalice, anyone?

Whatever you might think of John Key and his performance as Prime Minister, there’s one quality he has in abundance; a gut instinct for the rise and fall (and sometimes crash) of markets. And that’s why I believe he’s going now.

There’s an old comedian’s mantra about leaving ‘em laughing and begging for more. That’s what Key is doing. Getting out while the going’s good. Before the shit hits the fan.

Key began his working life as an auditor, moved on to project management, then, quite literally, talked himself into a job as a foreign exchange trader.

Soon after Roger Douglas and David Lange had floated the dollar in 1985, they [Key and his wife] were watching TV in their flat. “It was a day in the life of a foreign exchange trader,” remembers Key. “I said to Bronagh, I could do that!”

“Yes,” she said. “Probably.”

That was enough. Key started writing to banks.

In Search of John Key, Eugene Bingham, NZ Herald, 19 July 2008 (Online version. Original.)

He quickly developed an instinct for opportunity.

“… I turned on car radio and Radio New Zealand was saying ‘Roger Douglas is going to be sacked at 2pm this afternoon’,” explains Key.

He went back to the dealing room and it was really, really quiet. “I said to them ‘Roger Douglas is going to be sacked, the Kiwi’s going to collapse! What position have we got?’ They all looked at me, ‘nah, no, no … ‘

“So I went out and sold this massive amount.

He draws his breath in through his teeth at the memory of the victory. “It was mayhem after that – we were there to about 9 o’clock. But I knew I’d made a lot … it was millions. I remember Gavin coming over and asking ‘is it a half million?’ ‘No it’s way more than that.’ I don’t remember if it was one, two or three million.

“It was a record for what I’d made, and certainly the firm did very, very well.”

Key’s strategy was to sell New Zealand dollars, which were relatively highly priced, before the rest of the world realised the impact of Douglas’ sacking. Then, when they did catch on, and the dollar fell, he could – and did – buy them back at a cheaper rate. As he says, “It’s a bit like housing. If you think you can sell a house and buy it back a month later at a cheaper price – you sell high and buy low.”

By1995, he was global head of foreign exchange at Merrill Lynch in London, making around NZ$5 million a year in salary and bonuses.

In 1998, when Merrill Lynch suffered heavy losses from the Russian debt crisis, Key was told to sack hundreds of staff and did so with his usual cheerfulness, earning himself the nickname “the smiling assassin”.

Here, from the same article above, is the man who took him to Merrill Lynch in London’s assessment:

“His career’s a good lesson in life when it comes to risk management. Most people don’t know what risk versus reward – or return – is about. John does. One weighs up the odds, balances the situation, measures the people, balances the evidence. John Key totally understands his environment and the outcomes. He transcends the market, geography and people.”

We’re in a post-Brexit, pre-Trump world. The impact of the UK’s decision to leave the EU hasn’t really bitten yet, and Trump doesn’t become president until January 2017. After both elections, the markets dipped a little then bounced back, but I’m sure Key’s gut is telling him this phoney war can’t continue indefinitely.

Then there’s the local situation. When he came to power in 2008, government debt stood at $10.3 billion. Today it’s $61.9 billion. Even as a net of GDP, it’s still five times what it was eight years ago:


In 2008, the average house price in Auckland was around $500,000. Today it’s close to a million. And 10% of the country’s population owns 60% on the nation’s wealth, while the other 40% own just 3% of it.

If there is a crunch is coming, it’s a good time to get out. And from a CV perspective, it’s a win-win for Key. If the economy continues its stellar growth, he can sit back and say, “See, look what I started.” And if, it tanks, he can say, “Nothing to do with me.” Or, what I think’s likely, “Yeah, I saw that coming.”

So go out on a high, leave ‘em laughing and begging for more. Someone else can clean up the mess.

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