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!

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Declutter and Regroup by Wendy H. Jones

My desk post declutter
I appreciate this blog should have been out about 12 hours ago, but I hope you will understand. My post is now the tale of why it is late.

It's been a busy time in the Jones household lately and writing has been interrupted. The circumstances around this were unfortunate and unavoidable. However, I am now, this week, back in fine fettle.

Add to this the fact my office used to be the garage in my house. It looks nothing like a garage and completely like an office. It has bookshelves galore, desk, computer and filing cabinet.  However, when it comes to weather it resorts to full blown garage mode at the sign of a temperature drop. Despite having a lovely big radiator, which I sit next to, it is freezing. If I add an extra electric heater into the mix, I am lovely and toastie but my daily energy costs are higher than the GDP of Australia.

Therefore, I did what any sensible writer would do and decanted to the living room. So what has that got to do with your blog being late I hear you ask. During the heating hiatus my office got used as a general dumping ground. It looked like armageddon had taken place in there and I couldn't dig my way to the computer. I was thinking of hiring an excavator but decided to do it using my own fair hands. So for the last 5 hours I have been decluttering my office and my desk. The computer is free of all shackles, my pens are lined up in a nice soldierly manner, notebooks are stacked ready to be cracked open and used and I've even put a nice new pinboard up.
All set and ready to hand

You'll probably notice that what I haven't done is  any writing. Well, never fear. All this decluttering has got me energised and ready to bash out my next opus. I'm one of those people who can't work in clutter. I need order around me to be able to make sense of what I am doing. Maybe it's my military background. Physical clutter just clutters my mind. It depresses me and makes me feel like I can't do anything. Restoring order to my office has made me feel much more positive and much more ready to take on the world. Or at least a couple of chapters of my WIP.

I'm wondering if others feel the same way. It would be interesting to see in the comments how people write and what stimulates them or blocks them. I'm going to leave you with a little bit of advice. If you're feeling stuck, try a bit of tidying up and see where it takes you.

By the way I'm off to tidy up the rest of the house which now looks like bombs exploded. I can see a visit to the dump in my future. Yes I really was tidying up.

About the Author 


Wendy H. Jones is the author of the best selling DI Shona McKenzie Mystery series of crime novels set in Dundee. Killer's Crew, the fifth booking the series was released in November, 2016. Dagger's Curse, the first book in her Fergus and Flora, Young Adult Mystery series was released on 10th September, 2016.  She also has one non fiction book, Power Packed Book Marketing: Sell More Books.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Mightier than the sword? by Jan Needle

I've never been absolutely certain, as a writer, if I'm doing something useful or wasting mine and everybody else's time. Two big questions of our age, Donald Trump and Billy Brexit, have brought it into diamantine focus. I suppose I could boil it down, personally, to comedy or assassination.

The best thing Bertolt Brecht could come up with about one piece of appalling behaviour by the government of East Germany he was pledged to support, was to remark dryly that it might be a good idea if they dissolved the people and elected another one. He recognised that assassination is not easy, whereas elections, rigged or otherwise are maybe not so hard.

We've seen the future. It's orange
Like most people reading this blog, I imagine, it was beyond my wildest nightmares that Trump would win. I’d half guessed the Brexit vote might happen, because the level of ‘debate’ was horrifying, and the level of downright dishonesty was worse. But Trump? Oh no, no no, no no.

There's a piece in last Saturday's Guardian (February 11, the day after Bert Brecht’s birthday as it happens) that argues that we haven't yet realised just how bad it's going to be. Here's a little extract. Thank you, Joseph O’Neill.

”To make matters worse, Trump rejects any kind of institutional control. He has shrunk the executive branch of government into a private dictatorial clique. He has excluded from his decision-making process the cabinet secretaries, civil servants and members of Congress who would ordinarily be consulted. The intelligence agencies have been marginalised, and the White House record-keeping rules ignored. Trump has ridiculed journalists, judges, protesters, senators, ethicists, spies, diplomats, chief executives, Oscar winners and Arnold Schwarzenegger. He daily undermines the very idea of objective truth. If the Richter magnitude scale were applicable to the terajoules of dictatorial seismicity, Trump would register as a six.”

Less succinctly, though, I had my own intimations of disaster. On the morning of the result I sketched out a short story, just because it's the sort of thing one does over breakfast. It was about how to get rid of the lunatic before it was too late. It happens at his inauguration, before anyone had worked out a coherent plot to kill him. Here’s the note:

Kill the Donald.

The only people who could get close enough to do it would be top government officials. Everyone else would be body searched to infinity.
So someone shoots him at the inauguration. One of the Democrat (big wigs) has terminal cancer? When he is told (of his condition), he is sad – then delighted. And decides to do his bit for humanity.

Out on Brecht's birthday. Three in one
But does someone else get there before him? Maybe the best of the new young secret service guard? The cream of Ammurican manhood? Newly promoted, newly lionized?

He has been detailed, as it happens, to shadow the cancer man, who has already been suspected of being flakey on the patriotism front. The secret services are very good: We are not stupid. We can work it out. We are one jump ahead. Always.

But the young guard shoots Trump himself.

And the Democratic cancer man shoots the guard, before he can do any more damage. Because he is a patriot; he could never have killed Trump in reality. It was a sentimental fantasy.

But why, he asks the dying guard, did you do it? Surely secret agents are chosen for being right wing to the point of infinity?

Indeed, the young guard intimates, with his dying breath. It is because the new POTUS was too left wing. He was a pinko. He marries Yoorupean women. God bless America.

I didn't bother writing it – I had more important things to do – and it probably wouldn't have brought the Donald down. Anyway, I feel sorry for him, deep down. There doesn't seem much chance that he is a normal man, or that he can survive for long.

I just hope he doesn't take the rest of us with him when he goes.

The real problem with my story outline, I think, is that it's not funny enough. When push comes to shove comedy is far better than assassination, and more likely to succeed. The best thing in the Guardian piece, for me, was the placement of the words Arnold Schwarzenegger.’ Just loved it.

Anybody want to use my story outline, btw, just don’t credit me. Who knows how good the US secret service is?

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Nearly there, by Dennis Hamley

It's February 13th today and my schedule time is dangerously close. But there's a reason for that which I'll come to in a few minutes. Meanwhile, we're coming to the end of our annual two months stay in New Zealand, which is turning out as lovely as ever even if the weather has been pretty rubbish. In previous years my Kiwi blogs have been mainly rants about the appalling 'reconstruction' process after the Christchurch earthquakes and I don't retract a word of them. But, after six years of persistence and watchfulness  Kay has reached a satisfactory settlement for her property, so in future I can justifiably shut up about it.

And this morning we attended a small ceremony of a sort which is now distressingly unlikely  to happen in Britain. We are in New Brighton, a part of Christchurch which, as I have said before, is almost a ghetto, especially since the earthquakes. When the post-earthquake goodies are shared out, Brighton is always the last in the queue. But it  was not always so. Long-ago ambitions for it to become the local seaside resort are nw forgotten, but in 1999 there was a brilliant exception to this rule. A magnificent new building rose up by the beautiful sandy beach, next to the pier. The  Library by the Sea. A building of distinction, a library of reach and purpose, wonderfully equipped, a beacon of knowledge and culture and a centre of local history, of which there is much. And fascinating it is as well, largely because of its material wconcerning the meeting of two very different cultures and their subsequent relationships.

A year ago, it closed, for refurbishment and repair to earthquake damage. There were those who suspected it was closed for ever. But this morning it opened its doors again, refurbished, re-equipped and, not five minutes after the ceremony, full of happy users once more. And we came out into the sunshine again feeling that a little lamp had been lit in he increasingly dark world.

Oh, if only Alan Gibbons had more occasions like that to report in 'Campaign for the Book'.


Anyway, enough of that. Here is why I'm writing this so late. Some of you know that for the last two years I have been working with the wonderful Ganev family from Bulgaria, telling the story of their escape and defection in 1976 from the Communist regime and of the grim, sinister events which made this escape essential if they were to  stay alive. Now, for forty years they have lived a calm and prosperous life in New Zealand and it was there that I met them, Stojan, Kamen and especially, Dora.

Dora Ganeva (properly named Dorka) is an indomitable lady who is now 94. This is not the usual age to write your first book. But she had always wanted to do it and I resolved to make it happen for her. It's taken a long time. It's longer than anyone, including me, ever predicted. It will, when completely finished, be more than 40,000 words. And this afternoon we are going to that strangely European-looking house set among sleek New Zealand bungalows to meet Dora again and discuss and even finish the very difficult missing link, the death of her dissident husband.

So off we go.

Well, we're home again now and taking stock of our afternoon's work. And yes, the book is nearly done. A few tweaks, some editing and rearrangement, a cover to produce and a new title to find because Dora's Story sounds too much like a children's book, like, for example, the old Scholastic series Everystories. It even has overtones of Dora the Explorer, which would never do!

And then publication. I shall use Creatspace, naturally. But here is a problem. Dora first intended this as a private book for family members only. But - especially now, in these troubling days - it is a story which should be read widely.  So do I publish it on my account, with a Createspace ISBN, and make sure that only author copies are printed or do I open an account for the family, remove the book from my list, transfer it to the family's with our own ISBN from Neilsen's so that Createspace is only the printer, the book is part of a publisher's list and theirs to do what they like with? After all, we have 99 Blank Page Press ISBNs still unused. We shall see.

The book has an interesting and entirely fitting construction. The Ganev family has a background mainly of farming and teaching. They are about as normal and typical as you could find anywhere. And yet they are unique. In a sense they are  Bulgaria. So the book begins with, in cinematic terms, a panning shot, a wide panorama on which a drama will be acted out. It starts with a short account of Bulgarian history which sets a context for the whole story. It becomes steadily more detailed and precise until it reaches one man, Hadgi Radi Kardjilov.

In the 19th century, Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire. The small town of Kesarevo had no Christian church any more. Pleas to be allowed to build one fell on deaf ears. So Hadgi Radi traveled alone to Turkey, managed sonehow to have an audience with the Sultan himself and come back home in 1857 with permission granted. A significant act. And Hagdi Radi was Dora's great-great-great grandfather. So there is the link between history and family and once made, generations and lives can be portrayed so that the later link with the thrust of Bulgarian history becomes not just personal but significant in this wider structure.

There's a lovely passage in the account by Kamen and Stojan, Dora's sons,  of their own separate escape out of Bulgaria. through Jugoslavia and Italy. Before they made their final plan they surveyed the mountains which they would have to cross to reach the border. And here, Stojan has an unexpected encounter.

We moved very quietly under the cover of the forest. We must have been quiet because once we got within metres of a wild red deer browsing on some shrubs. I suddenly felt really excited. This deer was wild and free. Sharing, even for a moment, its freedom was inspirational. I know that Kamen felt this too. Was it a foretaste of what was to come?

Well, yes, it was and this little extract in many ways sums up the whole book.

Dora and I worked steadily through the afternoon. Kay took some lovely pictures of us but sadly we have failed to load any of them onto the little Samsung tablet with Bluetooth keyboard which I'm using here. They'll be I hope, in the next blog, even if the text has nothng to do with it!

Dora corrected many of my mistakes and misunderstandings in the text so far. And then we came to the last piece of the jigsaw, the death of her husband Stefan. I know why Dora wrote this last. The story at this point becomes harrowing and must have been cruelly difficult to write. 

Stefan had been declared 'an enemy of the people', and had stood as an opposition party candidate in the first 'free' elections after the war, which brought the Communists to power. He had spent three years in a concentration camp and then been offered good jobs in government if he would join the Communist party, which he refused to do, He spent long periods on the run and in hiding.

And then he was killed in a car crash.  Accident? Who knows? It's left open at the end. But, as the Kiwis who surround me would say, 'Yeah, right.'

We didn't come away with everything I needed but we're seeing Dora again before we leave on March 1st so I'll be able to complete the text for the whole book pretty quickly. And then, when all the other elements are in place, I'll aim for it to be out by June at the latest.

PS. My three latest books on Kindle and Createspace are looking very lonely on the Amazon review pages. So if anyone would like free copies as PDFs in exchange for full and fair reviews, please let me know and I'll send them as soon as we're home.

They are:  

Bright Sea, Dark Graves 1. The Guns of St Therese, 2. The Nightmares of Invasion

Yan Tan Tethera: five stories and a very tiny novel.