Sunday, 11 December 2016

Listening by Misha Herwin

Take me to a café or a restaurant, put me on a bus or a train and I’m the quiet one in the corner, the one with seemingly not much to say. It’s not because I’m shy, or don’t like being with people, it’s because I’m watching and listening to the people around me.

For me, this is as vital as reading. It’s the way I get my dialogue right, the ebb and flow of the language, the non-sequiturs, the sentences that trail off into what is assumed is a shared understanding. Of course, all this will be edited. Real speech with its hesitations and repetitions doesn’t work in fiction, but the feeling and the flavour will be there.

Dialogue too reflects character and life story. Language too is constantly changing. Words like “cool” and “wicked” are current one year, tired and dated the next.  Which is one of the difficulties when it comes to writing for children or young adults.

When I was working in a middle school it felt natural to write for the age group I was teaching. After all I spent my time with 9-13 year olds. Once I left, however, I found it harder to key in not only to the way they spoke, to adults and to each other, but also to the things that worried and concerned them.

I’d lost a source of stories, because that is another of the benefits of listening. From the smallest snippet of conversation can come the germ of an idea that will grow into the novel, the short story, or the play.
“Picking up thePieces” my latest novel, which is for adults, not kids, started with a single sentence and this one was reported back to me by my husband. He was standing in the supermarket queue, after a long day at work, when the somewhat harassed woman in front of him exclaimed, “What I really need is a wife.” 

And from that came a novel how Liz, Elsa and Bernie women, of a certain age, whose lives suddenly and unexpectedly fall to pieces, have to find new ways of earning a living.

One of the strands of that novel comes from an incident that happened during my teaching life. It isn’t my story but I did ask if I could use elements of it in the book, because I feel there’s something wrong about using this sort of material without the person’s permission. 

Of course how much I hear actually goes into the sub-conscious and reappears without my even realising it, it’s difficult to say. One of my readers told me that she thought Liz, in Picking up the Pieces” was me. I didn’t think she was, but then who knows what we inadvertently reveal about ourselves in our writing.

The other side of listening is to listen to your characters. I find that once I’ve got the way they speak, the dialogue flows and the story goes in the way it should and not necessarily the way I originally thought it would.

It’s all part of the process. As is reading the Work in Progress out loud, which can be both helpful, when it’s going well and painful when it’s not. Even writing this blog I’ve been reading it out aloud. So, while in public I might sometimes appear quiet, walk past my office door and you’ll hear me talking and I’ll be listening intently to every word I say.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

The Power of Stories - dammit! by Julia Jones

THANK YOU KAREN BUSH / MADWHIPPET for this extra day's grace and for your brain-blowing alternative alphabet.  Do your whippetties play it with you? They look intelligent enough...

I blame my delay on the power of stories, their power to break their bounds and invade our minds and knock our lives hopelessly off course.

The John's Campaign logo
by Claudia Myatt
It was two years to this date (yesterday) that I wrote my first John's Campaign blog post on this site. My friend Nicci Gerrard had, over that previous summer, been telling me the story of her father's catastrophic decline and eventual death following the period he had spent in hospital, severed, by Visting Hours regulations, from the loving support of his family. I'd also been reading Sally Magnusson's narrative of the night she and her sister were banned from remaining in hospital with their mother when she had broken her hip and I was selfishly determined to ensure that nothing like that was going to happen to my mother, if she were ever forced into hospital. If she were there, I'd be in there with her.

I considered carrying a short length of bicycle chain in case I needed to padlock myself to the hospital bed but, at that time, it seemed to Nicci and I that changing the system would be simpler.  After all, hospitals had been persuaded to welcome parents to support their sick children so surely when the equivalence of the situations was pointed out to them, it would be perfectly straightforward for rules to be amended so that the family carers of people with dementia would be equally welcome to support them...?  Think of it as pay-back time: that generation had campaigned successfully for change to parents' visiting in the late 1950s and 60s (when I was a child) now that they are in their 80s and 90s, overwhelmed by what feels like an epidemic of cognitive impairment and frailty, surely the least we children can do is be there with them as often as we can? "Until there's a cure, there's care." Sometimes we simply can't be there - we have our own lives to lead and conflicting responsibilities -- but when we can, and if we are willing, it is surely MADNESS to put any official impediment in our way?

John's Campaign Voices
So one would think. Nicci and I blithely began our campaign for change with her heart-rending account (published in the Observer newspaper) of her father's involuntary separation from the people he loved and who loved him -- and of its devastating consequences. "I expect he forgot who he was," said my mother sagely when I told her John Gerrard's story. The response was phenomenal -- the Observer features editor said he had never known such a wave of comment and sharing for a single story like this. The Observer is a campaigning newspaper, this wasn't something new.

Thousands of people were touched by this single tale, beautifully told, and they came forward with stories of their own. Recently we held a Conference (generously sponsored by Imperial Healthcare NHS Trust, whose lead dementia nurse had listened to Nicci's words with open ears). It was a memorable day but I've a feeling that the sessions that will stay in the hearts as well as the minds of all those who attended were those where people told of their experiences. My son Bertie, who is our webmaster, produced a lovely little booklet, Voices, to capture some of these tales. You can download it as a pdf or go to the YouTube channel on our website and listen to people reading out their own stories.  I defy you not to be affected.

We met with such understanding and good will
when we visited the CQC. But can they even make
these changes?
The conference was meant to be the beginning of Nicci's and my graceful withdrawal from campaigning. It's had two years of our lives. We are exhausted, a bit broke, we have other things clamouring for headspace and we are glad of what has been achieved so far. Take a look at our website, read the Observer list, watch the conference videos (if you have several hours to spare!) Over 400 hospitals in all parts of the UK have pledged their support. Okay - there are many more yet to sign-up nevertheless we're sure it's time this campaign was owned by the Establishment, by Everyone, instead of two lined and scatty writers who are struggling to find the time and energy to ply their basic trade.
So we thought. We'd even planned a meal out together with our wonderful, long-suffering and supportive partners to mark the occasion as we stepped back.

But the stories kept on coming. I was at a conference in Worcestershire where several  people came up in the course of the day with stories of being denied access to their own relatives in care and nursing homes. I couldn't bear to listen -- the residential sector is huge. Nicci and I couldn't begin to take it on. But then there was that Panorama programme and then, most powerfully of all, a woman called Brenda got in touch. And what Brenda said, eloquently and undeniably, was that the improvements sparked by our campaign had (almost) made things worse. She and her partner Donald had experienced the gradual humanisation of access and care as their local hospital in the Isle of Wight embedded the principles of John's Campaign but then, when Donald was transferred to a nursing home where Brenda was no longer welcome, the shock of separation was grievous. Worse than it had been before? I hope not, but Brenda's account was enough to force us to accept, what we knew was true, that the change in attitude, the breaking down of barriers cannot be restricted to any single sector, it must be a universal social change. (We have postponed that dinner - but we have not cancelled it.)

My mother's nursing home pledges to welcome
and work with families at all times.   And they do.
Donald has now died. His funeral was this week. I won't write more about Brenda's story here as I hope to persuade her to write it for us herself.
The Isle of Wight Press has picked it up in two articles, which function as chapters in an on-going tale. file:///C:/Users/GT6/Downloads/IWM1Dec02P008.pdf
Clearly there must be a third chapter and a happy ending, though it'll come too late for John Gerrard or for Donald Simmonds.

Julia Jones's most recent book is Beloved Old Age - and What to Do About It 
(and the real reason she's late this month is she's in the throes of a new one - and it's NOT about dementia)

Friday, 9 December 2016

Games People Play - Karen Bush

Are we going yet?
Faced with a long and tedious drive to visit friends and relatives over the Christmas period? Why not try the Alternative Alphabet game? Also known variously in other circles as The Swing Alphabet, The Silly alphabet and the True Alphabet, and it's a lot more fun than the NATO phonetic alphabet.
I was introduced to this many years ago by my lovely friend Dilys - sadly no longer with us, but the game lives on. An American acquaintance of my Dad did try to get us onto Inky Pinky (the English version may be more familiar to you as Wonky Donkey) but The Alternative Alphabet is far, far more fun, and has helped me wile away many a weary motorway mile. Can be played by 1 or more ...
Here are some of my favourite examples to get you started:

A for 'orses: cadopear:  ism: Gardner
B for mutton: brook: honey
C for miles: looking: yourself
D for rent: Kate
E for Adam: lump: or: so careful
F for yours: so nice; vescent
G for boss: police:
H for beauty
I for you: an eye: the engine: luting
J for oranges
K for restaurant
L for leather: orc: bet
M for ever blowing bubbles: size
N for a stretch: a penny: a dig
O for done: joyed: the rainbow
P for England: ration: a whistle
Q for ages: snooker
R for cider: King of the Britons: mo
S for you
T for aching: golf
U for me: nerve
V for la France: voce
W for a quid
X for breakfast
Y for mistress: runts: biscuit
Z for 'is 'at: breezes

Your turn now ...

Are we there yet?
PS Still searching for the perfect gift?
Why not buy Another Flash in the Pen (accompanied by our first anthology A Flash in the Pen if you are feeling generous) for the person who has everything except this stuffed into their Christmas stocking. Also (as Christmas is traditionally as much a time of year for telling ghost stories as Halloween) don't forget to add Ghosts Electric (another scintillating read from Authors Electric) to your gift list too, maybe with Haunting Hounds as a perfect side dish ...


Thursday, 8 December 2016

Lessons plans may help you sell more books – Lynne Garner

I'm going to assume that as a published author you want to increase the sales of your books. If so then have you ever considered trying to increase your sales into schools? If your answer is yes then a great way of encouraging teachers to purchase and use your book in their class is to write a lesson plan they can download (you may even wish to make a small charge – after all it’s going to save them a lot of time).

Now as well as writing I also teach on a part-time basis, so have written loads of the things. So as Authors Electric is all about sharing I wanted to share with you a little info I hope you find helpful if you want to explore this route for boosting your sales. So here goes…
Basic lesson plan template
Before I write a lesson plan I need to know:
  • What book I’m going use as the basis for the session
  • What age range I'm working with
  • What part or parts of the curriculum I’m going to focus on (this is why you need to know the age range, so you research the subjects they're studying)
  • How long the session is going to be

Once I know the answers to this I can start to plan. My basic ‘recipe' for a session is:
  • Introduce the topic and why it's being covered
  • Discuss what's going to happen or give a demo or show samples if they are going to be completing a task (getting them making or writing is always good)
  • Do this as a group, in small groups, in pairs or individually (show in the lesson you will be giving feedback/providing suggestions/asking open questions and giving support as needed) 
  • Peer feedback - if they create some art work then ‘gallery time’ works well (they all put their work out for everyone to see and give positive/constructive feedback). You could write questions on the board that they could bear in mind whilst looking at the work e.g. What do you think works well? What do you like? Is there something you would change and why? Or if it’s something written give time for a percentage to read work out and gain feedback (set the expectation there isn't time for everyone to read out their work) 
  • Round off

Note: The organisation I teach for loves to see us including a little ICT in the session, so we’ve been given tablets to use. So I now have a bank of writing apps loaded onto said tablets. Click here and here to read about those I use.  

I’ve recently had some coaching and three things I discovered you should include in your lesson plans are:
  • Lots of open questions being asked - to aid memory I either place these in the body of the lesson plan or add to the tutor notes at the bottom of the plan
  • Include different levels of differentiation - so perhaps include an idea for something simple (a bolt on to the previous task) then something that will push the brightest (something slightly different but still linked to the book – apps are good here)
  • For older children they like to see peer feedback taking place. Tip: Include in your tutor notes what the ground rules are for this (which is a great way to embed tolerance and respect BV - see below).
I also have to include embedding of the following:
  • British Values (really big in schools at the moment - these are democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs)
  • Equality and Diversity
  • English
  • Math
  • ICT
Thankfully not all of the above have to be included in the single lesson but they have to be included at least a couple of times in say a five-week course.

I hope this information is of help to those who feel lesson plans may increase their sales.

Lastly if you write lesson plans on a regular basis for a particular age group and I’ve missed anything, please do share your knowledge below.


Now for a blatant plug - don't say I didn't warn you:

My latest short story collection Coyote Tales Retold is available on Amazon in ebook format. Also available Meet The Tricksters a collection of 18 short stories featuring Anansi the Trickster Spider, Brer Rabbit and Coyote is available as a paper back and an ebook.    

I run the following online courses for Women On Writing:

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Writing for Performance 4 – the Language of Theatre by Bill Kirton

In the theatre, masks worn by skilled actors can be even more expressive than real faces. War Horse on stage was infinitely superior to the screen version because of the magic of the puppetry. Theatre has its own reality which draws on elements different from those of the everyday. And one of its masks is language. Othello’s wrong when he claims ‘It is not words that shake me thus’ because they’re exactly the things that show us his disintegration from:

Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th' ear-piercing fife;
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!


Lie with her? lie on her? We say “lie on her” when they belie her! Lie with her—that’s fulsome. Handkerchief—confessions—handkerchief! To confess, and be hanged for his labor. First to be hanged, and then to confess—I tremble at it. Nature would not invest herself in such shadowing passion without some instruction. It is not words that shake me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips. Is ’t possible? Confess!—Handkerchief!—Oh, devil!—

Dialogue in plays is artificial; naturalistic rather than natural. Part of the writer’s job is to control, exploit and hide the artificiality. Nearly fifty years ago, I saw Albert Finney in E A Whitehead’s Alpha Beta and I still remember him saying he was just ‘lurching from one derelict sunset to another’, which is a great image but hardly the sort of thing you'd hear in the pub or even Jane Austen's withdrawing room.

On the other hand, how’s this for some everyday chat? Mr and Mrs Smith, a typical English couple, are at home. She’s knitting, he’s reading the paper and he sees that it says Bobby Watson’s dead. They exchange a few lines about him being well-preserved, not looking his age, being the best-looking corpse in the country, having been dead for four years and yet still warm, describing him, in a nice inversion, as ‘a veritable living corpse’. Then comes:

MRS SMITH: Poor Bobby. What a shame for her.
MR SMITH:   What d’you mean, ‘her’?
MRS SMITH: I was thinking about his wife.  She was called Bobby too.  They had the same name.  That’s why, when you saw them together, you could never tell which was which.  It was really only after he died you could see the difference. But you know, even now, there are still people who mix her up with her dead husband and offer their condolences.

It’s Ionesco and Theatre of the Absurd, of course, which is about language rather than people, but shows how language controls and defines the characters. Simultaneously, this exchange is totally natural, grammatically and linguistically correct, intellectually and emotionally challenging, and yet complete nonsense. Language in the theatre is a very muscular element – writers, directors and actors can all use it for much more than mere dialogue. As long as it’s running smoothly, the audience is lulled, satisfied, but if the register or its rhythms change, rhymes fail or come more frequently, it’s the breakdown of language and the power of silence that creates the necessary effects. Pinter, remember, ‘wrote’ brilliant pauses.

In France, where the Aristotelian ‘rules’ for theatre were strictly applied until the Romantics came along, supporters of the two schools actually fought one another in theatres. The first night of Hugo’s play Hernani was famous as ‘La bataille d’Hernani’ (the battle of Hernani), and the gauntlet was thrown down by the opening line.
‘Is he here already? That sound from the secret
The verse form – the Alexandrine – demands 12 (and only 12) syllables in a line and insists that each line should be self-contained in terms of meaning. Here, though, you get enjambement, i.e. the meaning runs past the end of the line. Not only that, the line break comes in the middle of what’s effectively a compound noun. As soon as they heard it, the classicists went crazy, yelling, booing, preventing the actors from continuing.

Eventually, a sort of order was restored but, only a few lines later, one of the characters, the King, asked, ‘Quelle heure est-il?’ And got the reply, ‘Minuit bientôt’. (‘What time is it?’ ‘Nearly midnight.’) Cue more mayhem. Kings don’t say, ‘What’s the time?’ They say things like, ‘Doth Time’s dark finger touch the witching hour?’ And even if they did breach protocol so grossly, no courtier would dare reply in such a familiar way. No, they’d say, ‘The bell swings heavy with the knell of yesterday’.

Night after night, the battles raged, not over characters or themes but over versification, linguistic forms and theatrical conventions. And all of it just a month or so before the 1830 revolution. I’m not sure we still see that sort of passion in theatres, although in Italy some opera-goers tend to get rather excited now and then. But it does have the capacity to create its own, sometimes bizarre reality.

One of my favourites comes from the year after the battles of Hernani. Alexandre Dumas’ melodrama Antony was a huge hit. In it, Antony and Adèle are passionately in love, but she’s married. In the final scene, he bursts into her room and wants to take her away. Despite the fact that they're deeply in love, her honour forbids such an action.  He’s just about to drag her off by force when there’s a knock on the door.  It’s the husband.  Adele says Antony must kill her to preserve her honour, so he kisses her, stabs her, the door crashes open, the husband sees his dead wife and Antony says, ‘Yes, she’s  dead. She was resisting me. I killed her’. And the curtain falls.

That final line became famous. Crowds flocked to hear it, but one night, an over-eager stage manager dropped the curtain when the husband came in.  The audience went wild, demanding to see the correct ending and, most of all, hear the line. The actor Bocage, who played Antony, was already back in his dressing room. However, Marie Dorval, the actress playing Adèle, saved the day. She adopted her dead pose, the curtain was raised, she got up, walked downstage and said, ‘Yes dead. I was resisting him.  He killed me’. Cue ecstasy from the stalls to the Gods.

In its way, that incident is as absurd as the conversation between Mr and Mrs Smith, but it demonstrates the intensity that theatre can generate and the gap between our day to day language and the words we put into our characters’ mouths. It’s also a powerful reminder that, on stage, words have a different impact and meanings can be compromised in all sorts of ways.

If you want to take advantage of the excitement that implies, your writing needs to be informed by a thorough knowledge of the medium and its potential. So volunteer to work on shows to learn the business and the craft of putting on plays.  Help backstage, build sets, make costumes or even just go to watch some rehearsals. When it works, theatre has an intensity and an intimacy that transcends 'normal' communication. It’s about identity – a ‘real’ actor suppressing him/herself  and ‘being’ someone else. It accesses responses beyond the merely conscious bits of your mind. If you want to experience that as a writer you need to know and use its overt and hidden conventions.

Even then, though, it’ll still have the capacity to surprise you.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

The Times Are A'Changin' by Debbie Bennett

2016. A year of change. I wonder when they look back on 2016 in the years and decades to come, whether they will say that 2016 was the turning point, the pivotal moment when the world reached some kind of critical mass? I say they because I’ll be 53 in January and while I’m not planning on leaving anytime soon, this isn’t my world anymore – this world belongs to my daughter and her generation, to make the best of as they see fit with whatever legacy we’ve left them.

Brexit and the US elections. Neither gave the result that was expected and both, I think, made people sit up and realise the complacency with which we live our lives. Whichever way you voted in either election or referendum, we are on the cusp of something new – and we won’t know what it is, or what it may become, for a good many years yet.

On a smaller scale, the indie revolution is turning and changing. Music, arts, ebooks – whatever your flavour – I believe it’s becoming harder now to make your mark. Those who built their platforms in the heady days of the noughties are reaping the benefits; firmly embedded in Google, they pop up at the top of searches and they seem to know effortlessly how it all just works. I wish I knew the magical formula. Those of us who followed after have found it harder, and those who are only now beginning their self-publishing journey will be scrabbling for a slice of the Amazon pie as the crumbs get even smaller.

And online isn’t forever – no matter what I've said in other posts about protecting your privacy. The digital footprints in the sands of the internet are washed constantly by the waves of technology and what was once permanent is now obsolete. How many of us have photos on CDs? I have footage from my wedding from 1990 – back then not many people had video cameras and I was lucky in that my boss was a bit of a geek and had all the latest technology. His camera was a huge thing you had to balance on a shoulder, and my video is on VHS tape. I no longer have a VHS player and my new pc doesn’t even have a DVD or CD drive. These days we store everything on USB sticks and SD cards. Easily lost and easily forgotten.

What of our ebooks? How long before mobi and epub formats are unreadable and we are simply a mass of digital code somewhere. Our own kindle ‘libraries’ aren’t even our own – they are simply licenses to read certain books – so when our kindle is obsolete, what of the thousands of books stored on it? Paperbacks at least have a permanence about them. I have some treasured paperbacks from my childhood and despite my book-cull earlier this year, I still have several hundred physical books I couldn’t bear to lose. As well as my own paperbacks, of course!

Various prophets and predictions have always imbued times of great change with tales of second comings, of apocalypses and revelations and the end of the world as we know it. Society has never been more secular and yet fiction loves to deal with pre- and post-apocalyptic worlds. An omen, maybe? Can we all be Katniss or Triss? Horror is fashionable once again – exploring our fears within the ‘safe’ world of fiction?

What will the world look like in 2026?

Monday, 5 December 2016

After the Flood - Kathleen Jones looks back on a rather soggy year.

What do you expect if you live in an old water mill?
One year ago today my house was full of water - like the houses of thousands (6000 alone in Cumbria) of other people across Cumbria, Lancashire and North Yorkshire.  It’s not a good memory.  A year later, most of us are still living with the consequences.  Insurance companies were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers and even when settlements were reached, there just weren’t enough builders in the north to repair the damage straight away.  Roads, bridges and railway viaducts were swept away, and some of the infrastructure is still waiting to be restored.

Work in Progress! the green mould marks the water level on the outside wall.

The little cottage we rely on for part of our livelihood is still drying out - the ceiling beams were sodden and we’ve only just been able to get the place re-wired so that we can put some heating in.  But the floors are newly laid and the kitchen on the way to completion.

On the ground floor of the mill itself, there’s still a gaping hole full of rubble, boarded up windows and warped doors, but that is all going to change in the next few weeks.

Ground floor of the mill - way to go yet. Check the arched windows with the pic below one year ago.

Upstairs in the workshop (almost three feet deep a year ago) the floor has been repaired, though there’s still a lot of work to do.  I live in hope of the damp and the mould being gone and the windows and doors being secured.  But at least I’m in my own home, comfortably on the top floor, where I can shut the door on the mess.  Hundreds of others are still living in temporary accommodation. I’m one of the lucky ones this Christmas.

Ground floor windows about to disappear in December 2015, the footbridge in the distance disappeared completely underwater.
And soon it will be the end of 2016 and I can’t say that I will be sorry.  I will be saying goodbye to one of the most stressful years of my life, which I would never have survived without the help and support of wonderful friends and family.

My son-in-law pitching in
Or without the support of the Royal Literary Fund, the charitable organisation set up in the 18th century to help writers in trouble.  They have employed me as a Fellow throughout this year, so that financial anxieties were not too pressing.  Working for them, visiting universities across the UK for a research project, has kept me sane as well as solvent.

As you can imagine, it’s been difficult to write, through so much chaos, but I have been writing poetry and have just heard that a small collection of it is to be published next year, though the contract hasn’t been signed yet - fingers crossed!

And I’ve been re-writing my biography of Catherine Cookson - one of the authors featured recently on the BBC's ‘Books that Made Britain’ series - with a view to re-publishing it.  The original, published by Times Warner, was blocked by the Cookson Estate who withdrew permission to quote from her novels because they thought the book was too controversial.  I’m hoping I can get it back into print next year, so watch this space. Being a natural optimist, I’m looking forward to 2017 as a new beginning and a year of repair and renewal.  Though how that will work out with Trump and Brexit, I don’t know.  We live in ‘interesting times’!

Kathleen Jones is a biographer, poet and novelist who lives in the Lake District - most of the time on dry land.  She blogs at 'A Writer's Life' can be found on Facebook and Tweets incognito as @kathyferber 

Her website is