Thursday, 23 February 2017

On Meeting Neil Gaiman by Lev Butts

I have met a lot of writers. Like real, published-by-big-houses, award-winning, best-selling novelists. Writers you know, writers that your kids have tests on, and writers that your kids read to avoid studying for tests on the writers your kids have tests on. Writers with Wikipedia pages

I once had dinner with Joseph Heller because I told him at a signing that I was writing my Master's thesis on his work. I had to explain to Kurt Vonnegut at the same dinner that no, it wasn't because Slaughterhouse-Five wasn't good enough for me.

I didn't have a camera, so this picture of them with their wives
(from an entirely unrelated event) will have to suffice.

I used to play D&D with a World Fantasy and Bram Stoker Award winner. I correspond regularly with another Bram Stoker Award winner. I've eaten several lunches with T.E.D. Klein. I used to work with the guy who wrote the Wishbone books. I am also good friends with both Kelley Wilde and our own Reb MacRath, and you all know of my friendship with Richard Monaco.

I was asked a few weeks ago which author I'd most like to meet, not meet at a signing and shake hands with, but meet for reals. Hang out with, become friends, invite to each others' houses. My initial answer seemed simple and obvious:

Neil Gaiman.

I would love to meet Neil Gaiman, have a few beers with him, walk around the woods with him, and talk about sprites and elves and The Endless.

I mean, of course it would be Neil Gaiman.

But over the last few days, I've thought about it, and I'm not entirely sure if I would. Here's the thing about meeting our idols: They inevitably turn out to be just like us and not the gods or demigods our imaginations make them out to be.

Some of them are petty, some of them are annoying. Most, though, are all genuinely good people, people you'd really like to know. People you'd have a beer with, walk around in the woods with, and talk about sprites and elves and The Endless with.

But people nonetheless. They are not magic; they are mundane. And I'm not sure I want Neil Gaiman to be mundane.

For me, the charm of Gaiman's writing is the way it seamlessly blends the real, mundane world with the enchanted world of Faerie. Our world may not be the world evolved from J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, but Gaiman's worlds damn sure are.

And only a person who was truly touched by Faerie himself could conceivably create such worlds with his words. And if Gaiman is truly touched by Faerie, it does not matter if I am not. It means that magic is really real as are sprites and elves and maybe even The Endless. It means that the world is not really as mundane and boring as it seems most of the time. There is a chance, albeit small, that I might actually see fairies dancing in the woods by mushrooms or see a ghost or converse with a raven.

I know, I know. It seems like it would be hard for Neil-freaking-Gaiman to be mundane.

After all,

he lives in a fairy-tale house.

He writes in a wee little turret in the deep green forest.

He has a Narnia lamp post in his woods.

Hell, he even knows real, honest-to-god-wizards.
If I met him, though, that would change. As soon as he had to slip off to take a leak or belched or smelled of sweat, I would understand that he is a regular person, just like me, with bills to pay and worldly obligations to meet. His house is just really pretty, his gazebo has a screen door, and if I dug deep enough, there'd be wires under the lamp post. I would know, too, that his world is the same old mundane world that I live in, complete with global warming and questionable politics and murdered children.

So I think I prefer the hope of magic over the certainty of decay.

Oh, who am I kidding? I'd totally meet Neil Gaiman if given the chance.

Neil, if you're out there, I'm on Facebook, man. Look me up. I got the first round.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Historical fiction: words from the wise, by Ali Bacon

The audience at Novel Nights in Bristol
A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to read at Novel Nights, a regular event in Bristol where local writers get the chance to air their work in progress.  I’ve been a fan of these evenings for quite some time and have followed them over two changes of venue.  Since guest speakers have been added to the programme, there’s the bonus of  picking the brains of a writing or publishing expert. And the cosy vibe encourages serious questions rather than the celebrity worship of high profile literary events. In January, the guest was Celia Brayfield and the theme historical fiction, the module Celia leads on the Bath Spa M.A. As the guest is last to take the floor on these occasions, it gives writers (if they're anything like me!) the chance to recover from the anxietyof reading to an audience and take in the words of wisdom. So here are Celia's edicts for writing Historical Fiction, at least as I recall them.

Fiction first
'Minor' character centre stage
Well, this is advice I have ignored more than once, which is probably why I have so far failed to write a historical novel. But being a slave to history rarely leads to anything satisfyingly novel-shaped, no matter how compelling the original story. I can also think of a number of historical novels by respectable and respected writers who have fallen in to the trap of not putting fiction first and, probably out of respect to their historical heroes/heroines, left me distinctly underwhelmed by the whole undertaking. I think this is particularly the case where the main character is a well-known historical figure. The use of a fictional or little-known minor character can be a useful alternative. (e.g. Tracy Chevalier's Girl with  Pearl Earring works much better for me than Burning Bright or Remarkable Creatures). At the moment I'm finding in my own work that increasing the fictional material really does free up the narrative without requiring me to give up on what I know to be true. 

Get the dialogue right

Eccentric masterpiece
In my short career at Bath Spa I wrote an essay (remember those?) on dialogue in historical fiction, based on a reading of The Help (yes, this is history, folks) and Ulverton (if there is such a thing as extreme historical fiction I think this might be it).  Sadly I can’t remember my exact conclusions but I think Celia was right to point out there is no one right way to make historical dialogue work, but somehow you have to find your own way of doing it. Of course now that we all follow in the footsteps of Wolf Hall, the challenge is even greater. 
All I can say on my own behalf is that I know how I hear mid-Victorian Scottish voices and will just have to hope for the best it works for other people!

Exposition is the enemy
Here I have no argument whatsoever. The difficult thing for me, having immersed myself in this particular time and place, is to notice when I am indulging in it! Which is of course where my writing group and all other sources of feedback, including Novel Nights, are an absolute godsend – only fresh eyes/ears can spot where I have been unable not to tell the reader something I think is fascinating and germane to the plot when it is actually just a distraction.

*But how did they talk?
I’m not sure that Novel Nights changed my views of historical fiction, but it was a very valuable reminder of the things that matter. With hindsight, I also think my current approach of switching to short stories rather than a novel, does help with the main difficulties. Somehow in a short story it’s easier to let go of the historical events and create fictional scenarios. In the narrower focus of a short story it’s also easier to spot and excise unnecessary exposition. That just leaves us with the dialogue. I think I’ve already written about using indirect speech as a way of compressing dialogue, but that has limited application. So I’m falling back on my gut feel - seems as good a place to start as any! 

Ali Bacon writes contemporary and historical fiction. At the moment she's working on a collection of themed short stories inspired by the life of a Scottish artist and photographer. 

*Image of D. O. Hill and George Bell  courtesy of St Andrews University Library (ALB-24-15)


Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Is your wi-fi killing you? - Katherine Roberts

As electric authors, chances are that we (and you, our readers!) are using various electrical gadgets - computers, smartphones, etc - and swimming in wi-fi signals every day without thought to the consequences. Like me, you've probably suffered the occasional lapse of concentration and general brain-fog, putting it down to overwork and the mass of data coming in from all angles, 24-7. But there's another scarier possibility... that our wi-fi might be killing us, or at least killing our creativity and general well-being.

I first noticed these 'brain-fog' symptoms about 7 years ago, a few years after I'd moved from a 17th century cottage with 22-inch thick stone walls in the Wye valley to a brick-built bungalow in Torbay, which might be within walking distance of one of the best beaches in south Devon, but is basically an urban environment with a rapidly-growing collection of masts at the top of the hill. There's a sign on the gate advising people not to enter. Along with other worrying warnings, it says: "IF YOU HAVE A CARDIAC PACEMAKER OR BONES REPAIRED BY METAL/PLASTIC BONE IMPLANTS YOU MUST SEEK MEDICAL ADVICE BEFORE ACCESSING THIS SITE". Rather worrying for the older folk whose bungalows are just down the road, I should imagine!


These 'necessary evil' masts are about a mile up the hill from my house, but there is a smaller version at the end of my road diverting signals down into the valley, and of course all my neighbours have personal wi-fi in their homes which they never seem to turn off, not even at night. Wi-fi generates an electromagnetic field (EMF), along with mobile phones, digital TV, the new smart meters, and just about any electrical appliance - invisible, tasteless, odourless, but still working on your body, and (presumably to an even greater extent) your brain. I am not paranoid enough (yet) to possess an EMF meter, but even my ancient 3G Kindle that barely connects to 3G any more dutifully lists up to 18 wi-fi signals in my bedroom, some of these stronger than my own - though annoyingly padlocked so I can't simply cancel my broadband and use them! I always turn my wi-fi off at night, but I can't go around turning off all my neighbours, or I imagine they'd have something to say about it. It's rather like passive smoking, only you can't see the smoke.

So is too much (and too strong) wi-fi a problem for creative people? Well, yes, I think it might be. I've noticed a slow decline in my creativity and ability to concentrate since I moved. If I have my broadband on at home and use my laptop for any length of time, not only does my head turn to fuzz, but my legs actually start twitching... although, admittedly, taking the machine off my lap and using it on a table helps. OK, forget the twitching, that's probably just bad posture and the warning signs of repetitive strain injury. Probably.

Now, before you think I'm one of those old-school authors who shuns modern technology and bemoans the passing of the quill pen, I should point out that I was a computer graduate in the early 1980s, before anybody had even heard of home computers let alone got two or three gadgets in every room. I appreciate that I couldn't have re-published my out-of-print backlist titles without a fast broadband connection, as we've had in Torbay ever since I moved down here - in fact, I was one of the first UK authors to take advantage of amazon's (then) DTP, now the KDP. So I'm not against technology, I make too much use of it for that. I'm merely old enough to have lived with these technologies for a while, and to remember what it was like to be an author/creative human being before they, along with the associated constant connectivity, became an unavoidable part of our lives. So bear with me, because there just might be something in this.

I did not have broadband, or its associated wi-fi, until I moved to Torbay. I used a dial-up internet connection for emails, and did not surf the web very much at all - it was deathly slow, and many newer websites would not load, anyway. Also, we did not have digital TV in the Wye valley, just analog. In fact, we went digital down here in Torbay a couple of years earlier than the rest of the country... were they experimenting on us, maybe? If so, nobody did any studies as far as I am aware. Analog was much easier on the eyes in my opinion, also less prone to annoying interference from people's hairdryers etc - anyone else noticed that glitch where people's mouths open and close a couple of seconds before their speech comes out? Weird.

But let's not get distracted. I can control my 'brain-fog' symptoms by walking on the beach when the tide is out, or taking a cycle ride out into the countryside, where I can breathe and think, away from people and their endless gadgets. I feel better if I go away to the mountains, the moor, anywhere there are fewer houses and fewer people. I feel at my worst when I visit a large city. London was always stressful to visit, but even local towns have this effect now. Up to now I have resisted buying a smartphone, because the thought of being connected to wi-fi at all times is slightly alarming, though probably everyone else's phones are doing me just as much damage, or - more likely - all the wi-fi hotspots springing up everywhere. It might be my imagination (as a fantasy author, I've got quite an active one), but I just can't think straight in an area with too many EMF signals. Oh, I can still do the maths puzzle in the paper, and work at my writing, but I don't feel sharp, at least not like I did before. And it seems I am not alone.

The biospiritual wellness site
claims: "Exposure to EMFs of specific frequencies and intensities has been linked to depression, memory loss, loss of energy, irritability, inability to concentrate, chronic fatigue, headaches, weakened immune system, cancer, brain tumours, Alzheimer's, autism, childhood leukemia, birth defects, accelerated aging and miscarriages."

Sound familiar?

Other people think so too, including scientists and medical doctors. Here is one of the more balanced sites talking about EMF:
The research page in particular reminds me a little of the film Erin Brockovich, based on a true story in which a large water company tries to cover up the harmful effects of adding hexavalent chlorine to their water cooling towers. (I'm not suggesting there's a similar EMF cover up, just not enough research and not enough time to know the effects yet.)

click here to see the current EMF research

Finally, if this post resonates with you, here's a short film from the EMF Refugees page regarding one woman's search for a home that does not make her ill. Although it might seem a bit extreme (thankfully I don't have EMF sensitivity to that degree, at least not yet!) I think it's a warning of where we might be headed if we keep on building all those masts and covering the greenbelt with wi-fi signals.

So am I simply crazy/menopausal/lacking some essential mineral/making excuses for not being a mega-bestselling author yet? Or is anyone else out there also suffering from a dose of suspected 21st century brain-fog?


Katherine Roberts is an award-winning UK children's author, and (just in case you are now a little bit worried about your children's e-health) some of her best-loved backlist books are now re-available to read as print-on-demand paperbacks:
Spell Spring
I am the Great Horse

More on the way... keep an eye on Katherine's website.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Releasing the inner poet by Sandra Horn

So, after twelve up-and-down (mostly up) years, the Clucket Press is winding down. This year, we will re-publish The Silkie with beautiful new illustrations by Anne-Marie Perks, using PoD. That will fulfil a promise I made to myself a long time ago. We also plan to bring out Rainbow! A colour-it-yourself picture book with glorious pictures by Bee Willey, and that will be it.  The other surplus books have already gone to Book Aid International and I can now walk round my workroom again. Hooray! 

What now, then? Scary freedom... I may have mentioned before (ahem!) that I’ve always had a yen to be a poet. When I did mention it, and my shortcomings, someone responded that they thought poets were born rather than made. Gloom! Was I doomed, then? Wrong genes? Also, I’d once sent a tentative poem to a friend who is a well-known poet and her response was ‘Your gift is other.’ Boo hoo. But lately, thinking about it, what we are born with or without isn’t the be-all and end-all or many of us would be sunk at the moment of launching. There’s learning stuff and practising and getting it wrong and trying again, harder, isn’t there? Furthermore, while I’m getting up a head of steam, what is success? I’m not thinking in terms of a collection, a submission to the Forward prize, etc. Just to be able to capture that moment, that thought, that feeling, in a way that is pleasing and, with any luck original, and that makes people see it or feel it anew. At worst, for ‘people’ read ‘me’, although sharing and provoking reactions is a lot of the fun. Fun! Yes, in the middle of all this agonising I’d forgotten what a joy it is to write poetry. The first thing I can remember writing, as soon as I could write, was a poem. I’ve been doing it ever since, mostly just for the sheer enjoyment of creating something.  It can be deceptively easy to crack out a rhyme, a piece of doggerel, though, and I’ve done plenty of that kind of thing. Now I want to move past the ‘easy’ and into the challenging. How?
I came across the 52 Project, created by Jo Bell and guest poets. It is to write a poem a week, from prompts and ‘trigger’ poems, for a year. Not just to write, but to read lots of poetry too (no hardship!) and to spend proper time over it and stretch yourself as a writer. 

I roped in a writer friend as I thought if we both did it we could encourage each other to keep going and also act as critical readers. Here we are at week 8 and it has been much harder than I thought, but marvellous – not only am I writing regularly now I have more time, but it is spawning other unrelated poems as I work and some of the themes and prompts have resulted in two poems. The only downside is that it is a rush - NOT the way to do one’s best – but of course there is revision and re-revision and...etc.  Total immersion!
Because I’m a writer and that’s how a writer’s life is, I’ve submitted one or two here and there and had the usual complement of successes and rejections, but that is not what matters. It is the absolute joy of working hard at a craft and seeing the thing grow and take life under my fingers. It’s letting myself be what I want to be.  Yeayy!

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Says Alice by Jan Edwards

In moments of idleness random subjects frequently leapfrog through my mind in rapid succession, turning subjects not merely on their heads but morphing them into something else entirely.
Today, whilst making tea and boggling at the latest news headlines drifting from the radio, the process was begun in recalling the quote from Alice that runs, “Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” (Through the Looking Glass, ch 5.)

 I am a lifelong devotee of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and its companion Through the Looking Glass.  I loved these books as a child and again in my teens when they were must-read volumes of the ‘flower child’ revolution, and I have loved them ever since. So when I came across a gloriously OTT reading of Carroll’s Jabberwocky’ by Benedict Cumberbatch I was delighted and shared it around with glee. In the very same week  the great actor Sir John Hurt passed on, and in the plethora of obits and postings on social media I spotted a clip of Hurt reciting the same poem on the Charlie Rose show. I was blown away.

It set me wondering if, despite a lifetime of avoiding designer and celebrity culture, I had connected them through synchronicity, or familiarity, or a combination of the two.  Had I viewed either link because it was ‘The Jabberwocky’ or because it was recited by two favourite actors?  Are we pre-programmed to be a member of the pack?
That question in turn reminded me of a recent conversation amongst fellow writers discussing the merits of a series featuring a specific protagonist against stand alone novels. And the conclusions of that particular debate? That there is much to be said for fresh and innovative fiction, which stimulates the imagination with the joyous exhilaration of venturing into the unknown. On the other hand which of us has not settled in front of the tv to watch a favourite cop show or soap because nestling in that comfort blanket of familiar faces and scenarios is often every bit as enjoyable.
I have, for example, read and reread the SF ‘Pern’ books of Anne MacCaffrey avidly over many years; likewise, Christie’s ‘Marple’ and Sayer’s ‘Wimsey’. These are fictional characters whose exploits are all the more exciting because the lead character is an old friend.  In my case this extends not merely to the Dragon Riders of Pern, Miss Marple or Lord Peter Wimsey, but also (amongst many others) to Paul Finch’s deep and frenetic ‘Heck’, Chris Fowler’s delightful ‘Bryant & May’ or our own Debbie Bennett’s dark tales of ‘Michael’ or ‘Lenny’. We read them because we care about the fate of well drawn fictions and, not withstanding whether or not we’d invite those characters around for tea, we do want to know what happens to them.
Those points led me onto my own specific problems with a planned crime series that starts with Winter Downs which is currently swirling around in the vortex of editing hell.  It is not unusual to hear writers denounce the editing process as an outrage to their authorial integrity. But I am of the school who believes in the necessity of the skilled pair of eyes that is the editor. They spot not only repeated or misspelled words and phrases but also those clich├ęs and continuity glitches which the writer is invariably too close to the script to see.
That said the whole process is a long slog, one which can easily take up as much time as the original first draft. And once a manuscript has shuffled back and forth between myself and my editor for the umpteenth time... I for one begin to wonder what the hell I think I am doing. Surely I can’t be the only one who begins to doubt the book and themselves at this point in the process?  That feeling of having been through every word so many times that they begin to feel not merely familiar but positively suffocating. A rhetorical question as I know others have voiced the same feelings of reaching the end of that long tunnel and (with apologies for the cliche) beginning to pray the light at the end really is a train.
Time to step away, I am told. Time to indulge in something fresh, and, by distancing myself from individual words and phrases, attain some perspective and see it as a whole.
All of the above flitted through my mind in less time then it took to boil the kettle for tea - from Jabberwocky to missed commas in under a minute in my butterfly mind, which makes such immediate and perplexing connections between tenuously linked subjects.  Not something to inspect too closely, I suspect.
It is time for me to move on to something new, at least until the editor has passed final judgement; time to get those juices flowing with a totally fresh project.  Or there again... Maybe I can go over that tricky passage in chapter ten just one more time.

Jan Edwards can be found on:
Twitter: @jancoledwards

Titles in print – all available in print and dig formats
As author: Fables and Fabrications;  Sussex Tales;  Leinster Gardens and Other Subtleties

Saturday, 18 February 2017

The waiting game by Tara Lyons

Yes, nail-biting takes place
in the run up to publication
I never appreciated how frightening publishing book two in a series could be. If I thought the days and weeks leading up to the book birthday of In the Shadows was nerve-racking… No Safe Home has trumped it.

It’s a strange feeling, because I know an author cannot please everyone, or cater to all reader’s tastes, or might miss a hook for a blogger. As a reader, I’m fully aware I’m not going to enjoy every book I read, or relate with every character I meet. Yet, despite this knowledge, I still found myself in author limbo – and it’s a scary place to be.

I’m the kind of person who needs to know. I like answers and reasons and feedback (I was called nosey as a teenager, but I prefer the word inquisitive). I love to know why. I love hearing people’s thoughts and reactions to things and, no surprise, this includes my books.

At the end of last year, In the Shadows received a one star review on, and while it’s never a joyous occasion, sometimes you can learn something from them. However, this time I was left mostly disappointed. The review, in its entirety, read: “very strange.” That was it. Just two words and one star. The desire to understand what exactly felt strange to that reviewer – was it the whole book or just snippets – left me questioning my writing ability for quite some time. It’s amazing how just two words can distract you for so long.

I soon moved on from that one star review, of course I did; I had too, if there was any hope of writing the next book, and the next, and the next… But, every so often, I’ll revisit the review pages for my books and remind myself what it is readers love – or don’t – about my work. They always entice a concoction of emotions, and they always spur me on. 

When I started writing In the Shadows last March, I had no concrete plans to create a series. But, some bloggers and reviewers said they wanted more of DI Denis Hamilton – and by the end, I did too. It was great to have that endorsement – to know that other people yearned for more of my characters’ story. And that's why I have to keep thanking the readers who have taken a chance of my books and spurred me on. My second book in the series was born because of the readers.

I’ve learnt that whatever stage your series is at, or whichever number book you’re publishing next, the feeling never changes – I’ll always be waiting to know what you all think. And know this, butterflies would have been fluttering like crazy in my stomach on publication day. 

If you'd like to see what No Safe Home is all about, click here to visit Amazon

Friday, 17 February 2017

Using animals as a basis for human characters, by Elizabeth Kay

I’m often asked how to invent a human character. Of course, you can use someone you know, or a facet of yourself. But sometimes that simply won’t fit, and you’re floundering around for inspiration. Really memorable characters aren’t just about outward appearance, they’re about personality and motivation and idiosyncracies. Appearance is important, though, and we all know that people are meant to grow to look like their dogs… You can be quite subtle about it, or completely blatant, as in this line from my book The Divide:

Tansy always reminds me of a stabber-bird, thought Betony, with her long nose and her snaky neck.

And it’s fairly clear that this imaginary bird in a magical dimension was based on one from our own world.

So here are a few ideas for animals you could use, taken from my own photographs.

The crane hawk - an elegant and efficient killer

The Gorilla - a family-minded gentle giant

The tortoise - a thick-skinned survivor

The chameleon - slow and thoughtful, but adapts to whatever.
The Curassow - always has a mad hair day

The lynx - a lazy sunbather with teeth and claws.

The Crab - tackles things sideways-on.

The Crane Hawk

Always clean, smart and well-dressed. It's extremely difficult to work out what he's thinking, but he can be ruthless and kills swiftly and efficiently. Has a surprisingly melodious voice, a real smoothie. A good model for a hit-man.

The Gorilla

Much maligned in the past, but now shown to be a gentle giant who is very fond of his family. Only ever roused to anger in defence of his loved ones. A bit hairy, with a brooding expression, but a real softie. A prime example of someone who gets framed for someone else's crime.

The Tortoise

A figure of fun due to his slow and ponderous gait and thick-skinned personality. Although vegetarian he can nip with his little beak-like mouth. However, he is a survivor and can reach a grand old age. A good candidate for an old retainer, or the elderly lord of the manor.

The Chameleon

Well-known for her ability to blend in with her surroundings. Moves slowly and deliberately, but can strike with that tongue of hers at lightning speed. She can be extremely attractive, as she wears colourful and beautifully-designed clothing. She would make a good socialite.

The Lynx

Rather fond of sunbathing, and likes a lengthy and lazy afternoon nap. Known for her sharp hearing, and beautiful eyes. Don't be fooled by her long legs and her fur coat, though. She's a killer, and can't be trusted with anything small and vulnerable. She's also rather randy when the mood takes her, and strikes me as a bit of a good-time girl.

The Curassow

Always the first with a new and outrageous hairstyle, which doesn't really conceal the empty head beneath. Rather fond of fruit, and always wears black. A party animal if ever there was one, but can easily get herself into scrapes.

The Sally Lightfoot Crab

Wears the gaudiest of clothes, eats just about anything, and has a distinctly sideways-on approach to life. Very nimble and agile, Pretty sociable when young, but become a lot more solitary and crusty as they age. Might make a good disillusioned old dandy.

Of course, there are many more animals you can find for yourself. Have fun!