Saturday, 20 January 2018

Mene Mene Tekel Upharsin by Sandra Horn

May 2018 be a good one for you, folks! Peace, love, joy and creativity in ample measures! Here are some early daffodils to lift your spirits.

So far, 2018 hasn’t really lifted my own spirits. I can only hope it will get better. I’d had a burst of energy towards the end of 2017 and had sent out several poems and short stories and a children’s novel, mostly in response to call-outs and competitions. The rejections/non-acceptances came in thick and fast with the new year. There was one really nice one – just about the nicest rejection I’ve ever had, from an agent: ‘Thank you for giving me the opportunity to consider your work. This was a difficult decision as I was really impressed with your submission. The writing is engaging, the idea is appealing and you write with real energy and imagination. However, while there was a lot I enjoyed about your submission, ultimately I did not feel convinced I could find a publisher for it.’ She went on to say she’d be keen to read anything I write in the future. So far, so not too bad – but as for all the rest, silence or shortlists on which my name was not. How to deal with it all?

Once, years ago, I won a prize for best writing for television. There was a nice cheque and the promise of the script being read by a TV producer. I waited. Waited. Waited and then sent out a tentative enquiry, which resulted in an invitation to go to the studio for a meeting. Yay! BAFTAs here I come! When I got there, the script was produced very mangled and covered in coffee-cup stains and general uggle. ‘So sorry,’ said the Producer, ‘it had fallen down the back of the desk, hence the delay – we didn’t find it until we got your enquiry.’

There were encouraging comments but it didn’t get produced because it didn’t fit their needs – too short for a one-off. What it did was make me twitch every time I sent work anywhere and didn’t hear anything. It must have fallen down the back of the desk! This is not a rejection, they’ve simply lost it...haven’t they? Or, nowadays, they’ve deleted the email by mistake. Nobody has read it, or they’d have taken it up. Obviously. Such little delusions don’t last long, though. I’m not in the habit of embarrassing myself by phoning to ask if they, whoever they are, actually received my work and actually read it. I allow myself the wild thought and then let it go. Nobody else needs to know what goes on inside my fevered head. 

Other private thoughts include: Bastards! They’ve got something against me! Jobs for the in-crowd! What’s the matter with them – are they stupid, or what? I indulge one or the others of these for a while and then let them pass. If there’s a list of the successful work, I’ll look at it. I’m usually humbled. Yes, I see why those works were chosen and mine fell short. Occasionally – very occasionally – I’m indignant, especially if it’s poetry aimed at children. There’s a lot of poor stuff out there. Short stories are another minefield. Often, I just don’t get it. I have to face it, it’s not my métier, but that doesn’t seem to stop me trying! Daft, isn’t it? Why keep trying, only to fail? Because the alternative is unthinkable, that’s why.

James Fenton takes a good look at failure in ‘The Strength of Poetry’. ‘It’s not enough to fail,’ says Fenton, ‘You have to come to feel your failure, to live it through, to turn it over in your hand, like a stone with strange markings. You have to wake up in the night and hear it whistling around the roof, or chomping in the field below, like some loyal horse – my failure, my very own failure...And the horse looks up at you in the moonlight and you feel its melancholy reproach. ..why are you neglecting your failure?’

Fenton goes on to say that ’Many people live in such horror of failure that they can never embark on any great enterprise...this is the worst kind of failure because there is truly no way out... In the end, nothing is achieved by this timidity. Or you can permit yourself one failure in life and devote your remaining days to mourning...This failure, it would seem, has been kept like a trophy, lovingly polished and always on display. But for a productive life, and a happy one, each failure must be felt and worked through. It must form part of the dynamic of your creativity.’

Wise words indeed. Now, how to implement them?

*The writing on the wall at Belshazzar's feast: you have been weighed in the balance and found wanting

Friday, 19 January 2018

I Remember... by Jan Edwards

Recently (20th Dec) the author and editor Diana Athill was interviewed on the Today programme for her 100th birthday. Happy birthday!
One of the things Ms Athill mentioned in her interview was her first memory, which was of falling into a puddle and being hauled out again. It set me musing on my own earliest memories. I can think of several, and because we moved house two weeks after my 4th birthday I can accurately date them as being three or even two years old at the time.
Most of those images involved getting into trouble with Mother. And most often came out of trying to keep up with two elder brothers (then aged seven and nine) who did not want their tiny little sister to tag along in the first place.
Memory 1/ Throwing a monumental hissy fit because I could see my brothers building a snowman in the garden. I clearly recall standing in my cot and shaking the bars, whilst my mother stood at the sink washing up. (I was sick often and the kitchen was heated overnight by the Aga stove.)
Memory 2/ Crouching in the mud, with the younger of those brothers, at the edge of the duck pond; situated just opposite the farm cottage where we then lived. We were sailing little plastic boats that had been free gifts in cereal packets, and we were having a great time. But... going outside the gate was forbidden of course- going near the pond doubly so. When Mother caught up with us we were not popular. (Conversely Mother wasn’t too popular with us because we’d been having a lot of fun.)
Memory 3/ Standing alone in the grain store (another forbidden destination) in a thunder storm all alone. My darling brothers had left me there after first telling me that thunder was made by lions on the roof looking for somebody to eat. (Yup... that’s brothers for you.)
The thing that I have to ask myself next is how accurate are those memories? They are very clear in my mind. Not merely as images but also as vehicles for the emotions invoked at the time; anger, frustration and fear respectively.
Yet, as a discussion with another writer recently showed, our recall can be defective. She used a memory of her own the draft for a story in which her main character was listening to a particular record in a specific year. When she checked the dates for her final draft she realised it was impossible because that particular track did not appear for another two years. Not a false memory as such, more a case of the record being so evocative of an important period in her life that is felt like a perfect recall. The way in which music can and does evoke powerful emotions is another issue altogether.
Memory is a strange thing and often proves to be inaccurate. There have been many scientific papers in Scientific American and other publications on the accuracy of eyewitness accounts in trials and how people’s own background and biases can and do affect the way in which they process recall of events and perpetrators of crimes, which is something any crime writer needs to be aware of.
We all ‘think’ that we recall X or Y so vividly, but if it’s possible to check it’s often a memory influenced by so many other factors. Writers draw on memories a great deal, whether consciously or not, and those experiences are what make their fiction a far richer mix.
My own examples of recall are probably based on actual events but I have no idea how truly accurate they are from this distance. I have to assume they happened because I have no way of checking them.

And is there a point of all this waffle? Two in fact. ‘Beware of the false recall’ and ‘research is our friend’.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Authors in the Digital Age by J D Peterson

The digital age. Love it or hate it, the digital age is here to stay. Do you remember when you got your first home computer? Your first smart phone? In the past 25 years we have moved into a time when nearly all homes have at least one computer, and cellphones are a fixture in our world. Correspondence, business, entertainment and nearly all aspects of our lives are input into our digital files.
                                                        To me, as an artist, the digital age is a double-edged sword.
I first encountered this creative shift as a singer-songwriter and recording artist in the mid 1990’s. Music went from being recorded on magnetic tape to being stored in a digital computer file. MP3’s, a compact (and poorer) version of the original recording, made distribution, copying – and eventually pirating – very easy. I could create a professional recording at home with minimal cost.     

And, just like writers, I was responsible for mixing and mastering my songs, manufacturing the CD, completing cover artwork, and the final kicker – distribution and marketing. As authors, we are faced with similar changes as the world permanently shifts into the computer age.

But it’s not all bad.
On the one hand, drafting ideas into our computer programs has made writing easier – particularly for formatting, editing and rewriting. Maybe J.K.R. likes to write by hand, but not me. Give me the speed and freedom of the keyboard any day to a cramped hand! Computers give us the ability to research ideas with information at our fingertips, readily available to explore on the world wide web. In the digital age we can publish our own books and retain total creative input, as well as a larger portion of the profits.
            But, the freedom to publish in the digital age doesn’t come without its complications. Learning new programs, uploading to various distribution channels, creating social media profiles, blogging, email lists, video trailers… on and on and on. These have become the job of the independent digital age writer. The responsibility for promotion, marketing and distribution has landed squarely in our hands and make no mistake, it is a full time job.
Many of you excel in these areas. For me, marketing has created an entire new area of focus for education. To complicate matters, the landscape is constantly changing. New marketing websites with new ‘rules’ for promotion, as well as an ever changing array of social media platforms have created an entirely new job description for the writer in the digital age.
            Those that have mastered the challenges have gone on to do well. Some have developed computer programs or written books on marketing to help those of us that need guidance. Many writers have done so well in the digital age that they’ve launched businesses, creating an income solely by helping independent authors publish books and/or find promotional outlets and distribution channels.
Lately, I’ve heard complaints from writers whose novels have been pirated, some in foreign countries. Again, this is following the pattern of events for musicians. My album “Rhythm of the Dream” is on iTunes, but I was informed by a fan that Spotify had several tracks in their library – without my knowledge or consent. Add ‘protecting against copyright infringement’ to the list of duties of the modern writer.
            Finally, I must mention the issue of a real product vs. a virtual product. Alas, the digital age threatens the physical enjoyment of holding a book in our hand; the smell, the weight, the texture of
the paper. Welcome to the world of ebooks. Remember music album cover art? Oh, the joy of the 12” visual 'canvas' of an LP cover. The excitement of opening a new vinyl record and quickly checking for lyrics and more photos on the inner sleeve. LP records aside, when is the last time you bought an actual CD? For now, the printed book is holding it’s ground, but e-readers are growing in popularity. If we look again to the music industry, we get a glimpse of the possible fate of the printed word.
            Gaining new readers in the digital age can be exciting. Now we can reach people outside of our immediate city, state – even country. In an effort to gain readers many of us give away our books for free. I will gladly give my ebook in exchange for a review, but if we continue to offer books free, we run the risk of devaluing our work as authors. Again, a double-edged sword of the digital age – how to gain readers in a deluge of novels without devaluing our work.
            In the end, as a writer and musician, the digital age has enabled me to explore my creativity and produce products without the confines of traditional publishing. But, quite frankly, I’m exhausted from the work of promotion, marketing and distribution – and it distracts me from focusing on my writing. As a creative muse, these areas of the publishing industry are not my strong suit - but I plow along, learning and implementing new knowledge to increase awareness of my novels while trying to increase sales.
Admittedly, knowing that marketing will be a huge part of any completed novels, has dampened my excitement and enthusiasm for the modern day business of publishing as an indie author. Such is the life of a writer in the twenty-first century digital age.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Writing Cold Environments - Elizabeth Kay

Personally, I love the snow, but I know not everyone feels like that. Something that can transform the world overnight into a fairyland (as long as you’re not in the middle of a city) is just simply magical. But I think part of it is a childhood memory of my first time ever trip abroad. It was with my father in 1964, when I was fifteen. We went for a month, over Christmas and New Year, and the Cold War was in full swing. I stared open-mouthed at soldiers with submachine guns, at bullet holes in windows, at streets filled with trams and lorries and horses and carts, and hardly a car in sight other than those driven by party officials. It was my father’s first visit back to the Poland he’d left during the war, and it was a dramatic experience. I was lucky in that my relatives lived in Krakow, a beautiful historic city – but better still, for me, was that it was within reach of Zakopane, in the Tatra mountains. We took the train, which zig-zagged uphill for four hours (it’s two hours by bus these days) carrying two pairs of pre-war wooden skis. As the weather grew colder and the trees began to be dusted with snow I caught my first sight of real mountains, and I was hooked on foreign travel from then on. When we came out of the station to my astonishment and sheer delight the taxis turned out to be horses and sleighs. We hadn’t arranged any accommodation, so my father asked the cabbie if he knew somewhere we could stay. Off we went, zipping along the snow-covered streets until we came to a little wooden house amongst the trees, where we spent the following week.
            I’ve been back several times since, and I still get that thrill as we approach Zakopane and smell the woodsmoke and spot the mountain called Giewont in the distance. Those sort of memories are indelible – and the easiest to write – because I was so aware of everything at an impressionable age, and early memories stay with you the longest, especially if they involve all the senses. The sight of the snow, the touch of snowflakes, the sound of jingling harnesses, the taste of pierogi, the smell of leather.
            I’ve also been to Iceland and Norway since, and used them in books I’ve written. One of the aspects of C.S.Lewis that has always impressed me was the way he used different environments in The Chronicles of Narnia, which makes each book memorable and separate from the others. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is winter in a temperate country. Prince Caspian is the same environment, but in summer. The Horse and his Boy is desert. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a sea journey. (Yes, all right, it’s also the Acts of the Apostles). The Silver Chair is underground. The Magician’s Nephew starts in historical London, and The Last Battle is the afterlife. The only environments he didn’t tackle were jungle and outer space! (Although he did write some adult science fiction.)
            In the Divide Trilogy I tried to do something similar. The first book has a temperate setting, the second goes into the desert – and the third is my arctic setting, Jinx on the Divide, which I self-published as an e-book. Rhino is the school bully, who finds himself catapulted into the magical world on the other side of The Divide.

The landscape was changing, for they were going uphill all the time. They passed gigantic frozen waterfalls, and lakes waxed with ice. There didn’t seem to be any trees any more, just great expanses of shoulder-high bushes with silvery trunks and snow-laden branches.
            Although Rhino had seen tundra on television, actually being in such a bleak environment was a very new experience. The sunrise was far more protracted than it was in England, and the light was strange – a pearly lilac-grey.

Gradually the greyness seeped away, until the sky was streaked with turquoise and pink and the sun appeared, red and raw. They stopped at a roadside café for breakfast. When they came out a blizzard was in progress, but five minutes later it was bright sunshine again. A bit later the sky darkened to a bruise, and then the mountains disappeared behind a veil of white. Rhino pulled up his hood, but once again the snowstorm didn’t last long.

The publisher asked me to write some notes for the back of the book about how I researched the landscape, and this is what I said:

The landscape is bleak, but I like bleak. Black volcanic soil, with areas of yellow-brown dead grass. Patches of snow sculpted into dunes by the wind, and sprinkled with earth along the ridges, like the powdered chocolate on the froth of a cappuccino coffee. In the distance, terrines of striated rocks with dustings of snow clinging to them. Now and again we see shining lace curtains of icicles festooned across the rock face at the side of the road. When the sun shines, the icicles start to melt. Particles of mud run down them like beetles, the ice acting as a magnifying glass. When you walk across the snow it’s like walking across a crème brulée; sometimes you crack the thin layer of ice on the top, and sink into a deep marshmallow drift.

Next time it snows, make sure you go outside both in the day and at night, and write down your impressions as soon as you get back inside, for the memories melt pretty quickly once you’ve left the subject matter behind.

Monday, 15 January 2018

I Write, Therefore I Knit. By Jane Thornley

We are writers and yet we each have lives. Maybe we have families, spouses, jobs. Our bodies require fuelling and sometime we even have to get up from our computers or we'll literally bottom out. All that is understood.

But what else do you do that fuels your passions besides write? And I'm not talking about hobbies. I've always rebelled against that word. The term "hobby" can't be applied to activities which are so necessary to one's being that they are placed in priority slightly to the left of breathing. I'm speaking of activities which require full-frontal commitment, something so important to your well-being that you can't imagine going without.

I knit.

So, are you thinking socks, patterns, long pokey needles, or scratchy things you mom used to make? Fair enough, but that's not what I get up to these days. I prefer something more off-grid, something unpredictable, unfettered, even wild.

Just like writing, I knit as a way to unfold a story with multiple threads, colourful characters, and a distinctive beginning, middle, and end. Stitches are my words, yarn the story elements. The combination of stitch-plus-yarn creates character, with color adding the mood and shape adding the plot. The metaphors are so ripe for the picking here and I could pun away until you scream.

Instead, I'll tell you that I simply need to knit the same way I am compelled to write. Here's a counterbalance to the cerebral world in which I inhabit while writing. I crave something tactile with an almost physical hunger. My writing worlds come alive inside my head but my knitting can be manifested between my hands and fingers. Sometimes the two are so interconnected, the transition feels seamless.

Lately, I've taken to knitting plots, sometimes literally. I am a panster in knitting as well as writing--no outlines and no patterns. I create as I go, visualizing my story the way I do a fabric, totally within my imagination. I hold the big picture of both story and textile in my head, sensing what needs to be done where and when. It's a process I can't explain, much like writing. I even see weaving in characters in terms of colors--where to add a bright element, where to add something dark. Most of this is in no way plotted or even sketched. In fact, a plan for me is only something I can veer away from, leaving me feeling guilty for not sticking with it, what ever "it" was.

This was not always the case. Like most of us, I was taught to draft, plot, and plan but even as a child I'd write my stories and then do up a draft after the fact. Maybe I fooled my teachers, maybe not. As I grew older and plans were still required as part of grown up life, my knitting appeared much more visually regimented, too, but it was all a sham. I did not count, I did not follow a pattern. I did however have a picture in my brain, the idea of which I transcribed in stitches onto my fabric canvas. It was all visual. That's the point: writing and knitting for me are both visual processes translated by a different means.

As writers, we all find our own way and are probably wise enough by now to just do what works for us. Occasionally I still allow myself to be distracted by experts telling me how things should be done and I'll even give these alternate techniques a try. This may involve trying these prescribed methods for about two days until I inevitably slip back into my old raggedy default position. Maybe its time I just accept it. I write and knit in the same vein: I just tap into my creative artery and let it all flow, shaping as I go and weaving in my ends in the final stages.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Golden Rules of Writing that should be treated with extreme caution - Louise Boland

I’ve been into this writin’ malarkey for a while now. 
In my time I’ve been on writing courses, good and bad, and I've read at least a dozen books on how to write (the best actually being How NOT to write a Novel by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittlemark) - but as a consequence of crossing over to the dark side quite a few things I've held to be truisms over my 'writing' years have been thrown into a new light now that I'm on the other side of the fence.
So here are three Golden Rules of Writing that I now think new writers should treat with extreme caution...

1.  Read More

It’s easy for new writers to translate this to mean: ‘Read more books by historical literary greats, because if you could learn to write like them, you will become, de facto, a great writer.’
Once, on a diploma writing course, our class was asked to pick over that famous opening scene of Bleak House… the one with London in the fog.  For our little writing group, for many years after the course, that opening became the embodiment of all we aspired to for the first page of our novels.  We would hold each other’s opening paragraphs up to Dickens and find them lacking in comparison.

It did of course help us improve our prose style and better our writing ability – but we did it regardless of the type of book we were reviewing and with no thought to today’s book purchaser.

And my question is - would an agent or commissioning editor today become excited at receiving an opening page with prose as dense and wordy and lengthy as that fog scene however beautifully written it is? Would they take a red pen to cut down Bleak House's 350,000 words? And... as is often asked, would Dickens today have actually abandoned novels and be writing for Netflix?? All highly debateable and any views welcome, but I guess my point is that the rule really should be…

Read brilliantly written books to improve your prose style, but also…

Read more of today’s bestsellers in your genre.

That way, new writers can know what it is that current readers like, what agents and commissioning editors are wanting (as they often want what they already know sells), and where current trends are heading.

2.  Write What you Know
This can sometimes be taken by new writers to mean: you should write about something that you do – so if you are a doctor, you should set your book in a hospital, if you are a Uni teacher you should write a campus novel, etc.

But of course if everyone stuck to this rule, we would be missing half of fiction – as most novelists are not murderers, detectives, alien hunters, eighteenth century prostitutes and the like.

The important thing is not to write what you know, but to know what you are writing about.

You can tell within a page or two whether a submission has been properly researched or not. When an author knows the world of their novel inside out, it sinks into the page - it becomes imbued in the writing. When you read a Hilary Mantel not one word, person, object, background, building seems out of place – it appears effortless, but of course it is not.
So this rule should really be:

Know about what you are writing.

3.  Write Drunk, Edit Sober
New writers beware.  This isn’t really a rule – more a cautionary note.  Trying to be a published writer is likely to turn you to drink...