Friday, 20 April 2018

So by Sandra Horn

So. I hope you’ll notice how on-trend this is. It is the latest thing, to begin a statement or an answer with ‘So.’ It’s peculiar, but with any luck it will supersede the idiotic ‘like’, which Alexander Armstrong twitted so nicely in a sketch set in (I think) 18th century: ‘I fear the speech of the young has fallen off sadly of late; I can remember when they would commonly use as many as six similes in a single sentence: I was like, and he was like, then we were like...’ etc.  I can’t remember the exact words so this is an approximation. 

Why bother about these things at all, I hear you ask. Because I’m at a loose end, that’s why. Bad case of the dreaded Writer’s Block. Too much time on my hands in which to nitpick and grump. The garden has been too sodden to do anything much. I’ve tried taking up knitting and I’m very proud of the sweater shown here, made of leftover yarns and bits and pieces. Not as proud as I would be if I didn’t know about all the mistakes, but the overall effect isn’t bad.  I’ve just finished it, in time for the weather to warm up.

It has occurred to me that perhaps the knitting has prolonged the Block. It’s all spatial and demands a lot of concentration. My spatial abilities don’t bear thinking about, so maybe I’ve shut down my word-making brain because I’ve been battling so hard with them there’s been no room for anything else.

Alternatively, having recently got to not-quite-the-end of the 52 poems challenge, perhaps I’ve just run out of steam.  I got as far as poem 47, Learning Your Lesson and I wrote about learning to knit, sitting on my Great-grandmother’s knee; in, round, through, JUMP him off! And she would bounce me up and the stitch off.  It was delightful and I was quite pleased with the poem, but the next one, macaronic verse, finished me. It is, in case you haven’t come across it, a form in which ‘two languages co-exist, often in alternating form, so that one implicitly comments on the other.’ I couldn’t hack it in Italian and English, so went back to schoolgirl French and English, but all I could come up with was a sorry little 4-line jingle. Depressing. After that, I couldn’t face the last four themes: 49, Everything is Illuminated, 50, Pulling Punches, 51 Year of the Goat and 52, A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning. They are an absolute gift, or would be if my brain hadn’t seized up.
I still hope to complete all 52 sometime. It’s been a stimulating and illuminating exercise and to some extent, it did what I’d hoped: it immersed me in poetry. There was always something to read, often new to me, as part of the exercise, and on most days of every week I was thinking about the task. It also produced extra poems not on the to-do list and enabled me to confront and write about some deeply personal things I hadn’t been able to deal with up to then.  That was a surprise.
As I went on through the tasks, I added some things I’d already written which seemed to be relevant to that week’s theme. I’ve ended up with a folder of about 70. 

I know some of them are bad or very bad, some need more work, and some are not for public consumption, they just filled a need, but I’m hoping that in amongst the dross there may be some twinkling nuggets. I’m pleased with some of them, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. The next step will be to subject them to members of my Writers’ Group for some critical feedback (or do I mean subject the writers to the poems?). So. We’ll see.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Stereotypical by Jan Edwards

Stock images are something we are used to. Images from magazines and advertising hoardings have been presenting us with images of this and that for centuries.
The representations in art are a subject all of their own and their roots stretch back as far as the first paintings etched into a cave wall. Yet the word ‘Symbolism’ was first coined in 1886 by the writers Gustave Kahn and Jean Moréas, and is something much discussed in the arts.
In recent times, however, symbolism is often misused where ‘Stereotype’-  a word first adopted in the printing trade in around 1798 by Firmin Didot to describe a printing plate that duplicated any image - would be more accurate. 
Symbolism and stereotypes often appear to be interchangeable in advertising and have taken on a whole new level in the printed word. Something we need to be aware of as writers.
In simple terms, take cats for example. Even before the internet full of clips showing feline antics with boxes, we have been fed images of cats curled up in any receptacle they can find.  And the commonly held fallacy is that if you put a box down a cat cannot resist the temptation to dive into it. There are several children’s books that promote this myth. My Cat Likes to Hide In Boxes by Eve Sutton and Cat in a Box by Jo Williamson to name just two. 
Yet I have three cats, all of whom ignore and refuse to conform to that stereotype. (I tell myself this is because they are cats; which is a stereotype in itself.)
How often do we hear that old saw of ‘judging a book by its cover’? The skull for horror, gun for crime, pink for romance etc. Yes the symbolism is a very handy tool but when does it become a stereotype? Or, dare I say it, cliché?
Covers aside, that use of stereotype often creeps into the writing itself with shorthand descriptions such as; ‘she was mumsy’ or ‘he had a military bearing’.  Obviously there are books and films that are all about turning those precise images on their heads. In Shirley Valentine   by Willy Russell a middle-aged couple book a holiday on a Greek island,  but when the husband decides against it Shirley throws aside expectations of a wife and travels alone; finding personal fulfilment in the process. Conversely Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford portrays a man struggling to maintain his image as ‘lord of the manor’ before the Great War, a life that is subsequently changed despite all he can do; symbolic of how the Great War changed the entire world.
Symbolism is rife in both, and also stereotypes in the ‘mumsy’ Shirley Valentine and ‘traditionalist’ Christopher Tietjens. In both cases the stereotyping is a part of that symbolism as they undergo metamorphosis against their own expectations.
In many books, however, the use of stereotypes veers dangerously into cliché. Do all builders ‘whistle merrily’? Do all young women drink Chardonnay and obsess about shoes?
I am rambling a little as my mind leaps from one aspect to another but my point (and there is one – honestly) is that it is so easy to sketch out a character and their actions in simplistic terms in order to portray something we view as important; and so much harder to fill our pages with well-observed people in realistic settings within original plots.
There are times when I know I have been guilty of using the odd stereotype. It’s almost unavoidable when I am writing in the well-trodden path of Golden Era Crime. Readers have expectations and they are the final judges when all is said and done, yet originality is still something to strive for. I can only try.
Jan's crime novel Winter Downs : Bunch Courtney Investigates  is available in paper and kindle formats. In Her Defence : Bunch Courtney #2 is scheduled for an autumn release.
Jan Edwards can be found on:
Twitter: @jancoledwards

Other Jan Edwards titles in print (all available in print and eformats) Fables and Fabrications;  Sussex Tales;  Leinster Gardens and Other Subtleties

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Judge A Book by its Cover -- J. D. Peterson

While perusing the hallowed website of Amazon for an Edith Wharton book; ”The Age of Innocence”, I’m struck by how many different versions of the novel have been published. Some are revised additions, some have footnotes, but most all present different covers. I find it interesting that traditional publishers frequently change the covers on publications.
This fact is not lost on me  – or you, I’m sure. We’re taught to ‘not judge a book by its cover’, but clearly when it comes to book marketing that is exactly what we do. Myself included. None know that fact better than the indie author, struggling to get noticed in a sea of novels.
So, taking a note from traditional publishers, I gave serious consideration to the idea of new cover art to accompany a re-launch for the AMERICAN GILT novel trilogy. That is not to say I don’t like the original covers – I do. Very much. My graphic designer went for a timeless, classy look, and I think we succeeded in achieving that goal. All three covers work great together with the use of historical photographs. But, the bottom line is… well, the bottom line. Sales are in a slump, although those that have read book one, go on to read all three books, sometimes in as little as a week’s time. (Getting fans of the novels to leave a review is quite another topic.)

After much pondering and debate, I decided to move ahead with new covers designs. Part of me feels as though I’m abandoning some aspect of the original publication. A visit to Amazon reminds me that traditional publishers have no problem putting out new versions of books – and if it’s good enough for them, then it is good enough for me!

Referencing the idiom "every picture tells a story", Cambridge dictionary  says it is "said when what has really happened in a situation is clear because of the way that someone or something looks."
Once again I am reminded that in our world, looks are everything! The goal is to catch the eye of new, prospective readers (who are most probably looking at a tiny thumbnail version of the cover.) I have been working for several months going through photos and rewriting the cover text. In spite of the countless times I have rewritten the text, I never seem to be satisfied with the final draft! The project is challenging because it is a trilogy – so artwork, photos, text etc. must be done three times, while remaining cohesive and, most of all, enticing. My small team of trusted helpers are great sounding-boards for ideas and opinions, yet I am consistently second-guessing decisions.

The new covers are shaping up, but not without some original angst regarding the process. Stock photos felt like they were ‘cheapening’ a project I had worked long and hard to complete. I had to stop the designer’s work for over a month to reassess my ‘vision’. I’m glad I did because now the project is going much better. 
And now – I’m getting excited!
With the experience I gained through the work of the original publication, I’m now making plans for various promotions to re-launch the trilogy. All of this while working on a new novel. (It seems we authors are great at juggling multiple projects at one time!) 

Hopefully, the re-launch will be ready in a month. The initial response to those involved in the project has been very positive. As I work to complete the cover for book two, I look forward to gaining new notice for a true story from the past. And we shall once again reaffirm that readers do indeed judge a book by its cover!

J.D. Peterson

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Fire and Water, by Elizabeth Kay

On my way out today I saw the aftermath of a horrific road accident. It was probably the worst I’ve ever seen on that stretch of road – two vehicles on their sides, one still burning. There were several police cars and one ambulance in attendance, and the road behind the incident was now closed. As I continued on past I realised the traffic was at a standstill for several miles. But the most distressing part was that, although it was a three lane carriageway, there was no hard shoulder. Two fire engines and another two ambulances were trying to work their way through the stationary cars, but were making no progress. It was a very upsetting scenario. And I couldn’t help myself, I mentally filed the details for future use.
            We see fictionalised disasters all the time on the screen these days. But the information for the writer doesn’t come out of thin air – either it’s researched, rather than experienced, or it really is experience. One of the questions I was asked on MA course, many years ago, was what are you not prepared to write about? And the answer was – and still is – very little. It’s only the events that directly impact the lives of people I know that remain out of bounds. The impersonal ones, the ones seen through the windscreen of my car, are the ones with which I can achieve an effect because I’m not emotionally involved with the outcome, and can observe as objectively as possible. If it had been a narrow country lane and I’d been the only one around to get out and help it might have been a different story, so to speak.

            Many years ago my daughter used to light scented candles in her bedroom. I did regard this as potentially dangerous, and asked her to make sure they were in a safe place. She didn’t, and some paperwork caught fire. This rapidly spread to other things on her desk, including her printer, and although we were able to put the fire out very quickly the effects were far more widespread than I expected. The door to the hall had been open, and the hall needed completely redecorating. So what did I do afterwards? Wrote it all down, and used it in a book. I would never have remembered the details three years later, when I decided I needed a house fire in a plot. I extrapolated, of course, and made the event far more severe than it actually was, but it gave me a clue as to what it must actually be like to be in a burning house. This is what I wrote:

The speed with which the thick black smoke was filling the room was terrifying; the flames looked very bright against it, too yellow, cartoon yellow. I pulled my scarf across my face, but I had neither the time nor the wherewithal to do the same for Angela. There was a smell of burnt plastic, sickening, horrible; the computer seemed to be deliquescing, strands of it were dripping over the edge of the desk like melted cheese and sticking to anything they touched, and the keyboard was turning into rows of yellowing molars. Even the wallpaper was burning now, curling up the wall and flaking off in shreds. We reached the door. It was still open, which was just as well; the door-frame was warping in the heat, and when I tried to kick it open a bit further it refused to budge. The dog squeezed through first, then the two of us followed, single-file, coughing like chain-smokers. I felt for the light-switch and, miraculously, the light came on.
There were flakes of smut within the smoke, but there wasn’t nearly as much of it in the hall as there had been in the sitting room. The stuff had a granular consistency, not the smooth dark smog I’d have expected, and curling slivers of charred paper wafted down the hall like evil fairies. The hall ceiling already had feathery patterns of soot all the way along it, and a spider’s web over the front door was picked out in black, the absolute opposite of  what the frost outside would have done to it. I tried to open the front door, but it wasn’t going to cooperate. My eyes were streaming with tears, my chest was tight...

My geography teacher at school taught us about wadis, and said that unsuspecting campers got swept away in the middle of the night. On a trip to Morocco, with a guide who should have known better, we did precisely that. We watched an electrical storm in the Atlas Mountains, and failed to put two and two together as the rain has to go somewhere… I used this in Back to the Divide.

It was Felix who woke first. It took a moment or two to register what was happening, as he was still half-asleep and he was vaguely aware of a warm dampness. His first thought was that he’d had an embarrassing accident, which was something he hadn’t done since he’d been cured of his illness. Then he realised that there was far too much water for that; it had reached blood-temperature because it had picked up heat on its long journey from the mountains. The wadi was flooding, and the river was getting deeper with a frightening rapidity…
Then everything seemed to happen very quickly. It wasn’t a sudden wall of water, like a tidal wave, but it was much faster than a tide coming in, and it was carrying twigs and branches that knocked against him as he stood up.
“What is it?” gasped Betony, now also on her feet.
“The river!” yelled Felix. “We’ve got to get out!”
The side of the wadi was quite steep. By the time they reached it the water was up to their waists and it was getting hard to make any progress, especially with the rucksacks on their backs… The deeper the water got, the faster it seemed to flow. Felix got a toehold on the bank, climbed up a little way, and stretched his hand down to Betony. Hauling her out was harder work than he’d have thought possible – every muscle seemed stretched to breaking point, and both their hands were slick with mud. He could see her face in the moonlight, twisted with effort, and for a while there was just pain and panting and slipperiness. Then she was out, and the two of them scrambled up the bank on their hands and knees and out of danger… The river was in full spate now, and it wasn’t just carrying twigs and branches any longer – whole tree trunks were tumbling along, catching on promontories, and freeing themselves again.

I remember watching the Japanese tsunami on television, and being appalled at the damage water can do. Fire or water? If you’re lucky you can put out a fire, but you can’t stop a wall of water.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Write to Music, By Wendy H. Jones

For many years I worked in education as a lecturer in both nursing and teacher training. During this time I was fortunate to undertake training in NLP. This, amongst other things, opened me to the possibility of using music in different ways. 

What, I can hear you ask, has this got to do with writing? The answer is this, many studies have shown that music can have a profound effect on the brain. This can aid learning, alter mood and, in the case of the writer, provide the optimum state for writing. 

Think about your own music choices and how you feel when listening to them. Would you use stirring music for a romantic meal or romantic music to keep you awake on a long journey? 

So, back to writing. Music can be used to get you into the right state of mind for writing. I am currently using songs from the movie ‘The Greatest Showman’. This gets me pumped up and ready to take on the world. This is especially pertinent when writing fast paced crime books. 

Do you use music to help you write? If so it would be great if you could share in the comments how you do so. If not, why not give it a try today. 

About the Author

Wendy H Jones, President of the Scottish Association of Writers, is the Amazon Number 1 best-selling author of the award winning DI Shona McKenzie Mysteries. Her first Young Adult Mystery, The Dagger’s Curse was a finalist in the Woman Alive Readers Choice Award. She is also an international public speaker, and runs conferences and workshops on writing, motivation and marketing. Wendy is the founder of Crime at the Castle, Scotland’s newest Crime Festival. She is also the editor of a Lent Book, published by the Association of Christian Writers.


Amazon Author Page



Sunday, 15 April 2018

I Should Have Been a Romance Writer By Jane Thornley

I should have been a romance writer. Really.

Long ago, I briefly considered it. When I spoke of my writing dreams, friends and colleagues alike teased me about the possibility of me writing "bodice-rippers", which was probably the only kind of romances most of them knew or read. Since I remained a covert writer, nobody knew what I was getting up to between the covers (of my books).

Regardless, the message was clear: in terms of intelligent genre writing, historical fiction was excellent, mystery was fine, science fiction even better, but romance hung outside the acceptability quadrant in some tawdry back alley. The fact that it was mostly written and read by women only contributed to its lowly status.

One of my professors stated that romance was merely the "masturbatory fantasies of middle-aged housewives." Ouch. Knee-deep in the classics at the time, I did not challenge his assessment of the genre so much as its chauvinism. As time went on, we became friends regardless. He, a historian, wrote historical novels recounting the minutiae of the rise and fall of the Roman empire. Romance, sex, or any human interactions that had not taken place without the deployment of weaponry, preferably with an entire legion, did not grace the pages of his weighty tomes. I read his manuscripts though refused to let him read mine in case he found my secondary plot lines too ... heated.

To me, his books were pedantic and lacked the glue that keeps the species and most readers, going. I suggested he stir in a little human interaction (male-female, male-male--who cares? The Romans did it all) to liven things up, enrich the characterizations and, if nothing else, provide a little break between battles. Apparently he tried but his attempts were so awkward, his wife and editor made him remove every scene.

If he'd read more romance, maybe he'd have gleaned the techniques. Not everyone can write romance or good sex scenes. It takes skill to compellingly craft the growing attraction between two complex characters, especially when there's a strong secondary plot line running concurrently. Written well, romance involves deep characterization, a profound knowledge of human nature coupled (puns intended) with an understanding of how men and women relate another across the centuries. Good romance is nuanced, intelligent, and, if done well, powerful. Very powerful. Considering that love literally perpetuates the species and makes the world go 'round, why is this genre be so universally undermined?

Because romance writing remains primarily the domain of women. If men had traditionally written sizzlingly love stories, maybe the genre would have been more respected. Culturally, we might have celebrated its study of human dynamics and pointed to the feel-good endings that generally end with a wedding. Is it enough that Jane Austen and the Brontes made it into the classic literature category?

Regardless, that doesn't change a thing for me. I am still not a romance writer. I wish I were. Providing I was any good at it, and providing I had started publishing way back when, maybe I'd have hoards of eager fans waiting for my next title right now, not to mention money in the bank. Romance is still the best-selling and most profitable genre of all and appeals to a huge swathe of passionate readers who don't care if the same old tropes play out book after book. Those tropes still work.

What's better still, instead of focusing on murder and destruction, romance writers get to delve into multiple versions of happily ever after time after time. In current the quagmire of global affairs, that alone sounds like a job worth doing.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

An old dinosaur - Louise Boland

Every morning (ok, some mornings...) I follow a spin class on you tube. There is a particular one I turn to which is just the right pace and length for me, and which is taken by a cheeky chappie who always makes me smile. As you cycle, the camera often turns upon the class members, who look like a young cycling team in training. 

This morning, as I followed the class, I suddenly realised I’d always misheard one of the leader’s jokes and that realisation led to something of an epiphany moment for me.

Towards the end of the class, when everyone is hot and bothered, the trainer jokes, 'check your hair looks ok..' when he spots one of the young lads tidying up his hair.  Then I always thought he said next… 'check the girls look ok.'

I always found it funny, if a bit sexist, as the exhausted boys in the class shyly turn to look at the exhausted girls, the tension is broken and everyone, though tired, smiles.

But this morning I must have had slightly less blood pumping in my ears, because I realised what the coach actually says is 'check the girls are ok.'

I re-evaluated: not a sexist joke, but a trainer making sure the weaker team members were ok - which is when  I had my epiphany.

At first I thought what he said was nice because girls are physically less strong than boys, he was being chivalrous, but then it occurred to me that among those young people I would bet anything that the best of the girls were faster and fitter than the worst of the boys, and if the trainer had wanted to teach them to work as a team and look after the weaker members he could have said 'check your team mates are ok.'

Now I've never been very politically correct. I roll my eyes at speeches from right on feminists, I chuckle over Rod Liddle and Camilla Long's columns and I'm the sort that would write to the Telegraph about how ridiculous it is to use the word chairperson rather than chairman, but now I've had a change of heart. 

As someone who identifies as a writer, surely I should understand how powerful language is, across even those five words little words, 'check the girls are ok'.

I was once taught by a very excellent creative writing tutor, called Patrick Collins, who teaches writing for theatre. He was insistent that we use no stage directions in our writing, and believed that by forcing us to convey status and conflict through dialogue alone we would come to understand how powerful the words that are said can be. 

And how right he was. By saying 'check the girls are ok,' the coach created status (the girls are all now in a team B, with everything that follows from that) and undoubtedly from there, comes conflict - for those girls are now going to have to fight twice as hard to get the sponsorships, the kit, the training...

So I think it's time for this old dinosaur to mend her ways. I'm not going to stop laughing at politically incorrect jokes, but I am going to admit that I was wrong to roll my eyes in the ‘80s at people who say it should be chairperson rather than chairman.  Its not good enough for me to tell myself that when we say ‘chairman’ we mean ‘chairman and chairwoman’ because we don’t.  That isn’t what the word is, and as I learned from Patrick words convey status. It follows that if you want to change status – fix the glass ceiling and the pay differential between men and women that still exists here in the UK – you have to start with the words.