Saturday, 17 February 2018

Rediscovering books from your childhood, by Elizabeth Kay

When I left home in 1968 at the age of nineteen to go to art school, like most students, I couldn’t take very much with me. Three weeks later I went home for the weekend. My mother led me up to my bedroom and said, “Surprise! Isn’t it lovely?” The room had been completely redecorated, and most of my possessions had been thrown away. She had no idea what was materially valuable or nostalgically important, and I had to stand there and say how nice the room looked. All my drawings went, and my writings, and most of my books. It used to upset her that I read the same books over and over again – not to the exclusion of anything else, but because I loved them and wanted to re-enter that world. So – thank goodness for the Internet.

I have just started to look for those lost books again – in the early days of the web, my searches were pretty fruitless. But not now! To my delight, if I could remember the title, someone, somewhere, has probably put a copy up for sale. My first rediscovery was The Silver Brumby, by Elyne Mitchell. The Australian Outback was so different to the smog and grime of London that I drank in every detail. Tam the Untamed, by Mary Elwyn Patchett, with a similar setting. And who remembers 20th Century Short Stories, that O/level text which introduced you to so many wonderful writers? Katherine Mansfield, D.H.Lawrence, Saki, E.M Forster, Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene. All these books were published in the fifties.
            But what has been particularly interesting has been re-reading these now. I notice things I never saw then, understand things that were completely beyond my experience. 20th Century Short Stories really did give a snapshot of life in the first half of that century. The absolute authority adults had over children – young ones, as in the case of the rebellious and enterprising Nicholas in Saki’s The Lumber Room, and older adult ones, as in the downtrodden and indecisive sisters in Mansfield’s Daughters of the Late Colonel. Lawrence’s Odour of Chrysanthemums was totally alien to a na├»ve sixteen-year-old only child from suburbia. References to pregnancy and descriptions of laying out the body of a dead miner when I didn’t even know what a naked man looked like went right over my head. As did life in a back-to-back house in a mining town. To me, it sounded like something out of Dickens – which in, those days, we did at Junior School when we were ten! I had no idea Science Fiction existed until I read The Machine Stops, by E.M.Forster. The casual callousness of the teenage gang in The Destructors, by Graham Greene, opened my eyes to the fact that not everyone thought the same way as me, although losing a house means far more to me now than it would have to me then. A terrific collection.
            But more interesting, in a way, are the two Australian brumby books. Friends who have tried re-reading their childhood favourites have told me that they’re nearly always dreadful disappointments. But when I re-read Tam I was struck by how extremely well-written it was. It wasn’t sentimental or sloppy, and gave a vivid picture of life and death in the outback. Mary Elwyn Patchett (1897 – 1989) grew up on a cattle station in Queensland, but moved to England in 1931. The first book she had published was Ajax the Warrior, about a dog owned by a young girl, and Tam the Untamed was the second in the series, about a horse. At one point Tam goes off to join the wild brumbies in their secret valley, a lush green oasis that can’t be overlooked from above – at least, it would be possible from a plane but as the book was probably set in the early part of the twentieth century this is fair enough. My clue for this is that one of the books has Mary, the heroine, getting lost in a forest of giant prickly pear. This cactus had originally been introduced from Spain to feed cochineal beetles – and then spread out of control, with devastating consequences. The destruction of this forest is the first example of a successful biological control – Cactoblastis caterpillars were introduced in 1926, and the moths died out once they’d eaten all the cactus. But the secret setting rang a bell – as exactly the same valley occurs in all the Silver Brumby books by Elyne Mitchell. Mitchell (1913 – 2002) lived all her life in Australia, and wrote many more books than Patchett. Was the valley a coincidence? Or was it a real place that they had both visited at different times? Or had Mitchell read Tam the Untamed, and decided to use the location?

Tam is written in the first person from a human perspective:

…The steep rocky cliff sheered away beneath us for fifty feet or more, then it began to crumble and lead less steeply into a great, rock-ramparted hollow. Grass grew on the floor of it, and from where we were we could see the gleam of water in a rock pool, evidently caught when the heavy rains stormed down the cliffs. In this secluded spot, so completely hidden from the outside world, which could see only the hard, bare outline of the mountain, a herd of brumbies cropped the sweet grass…

The Silver Brumby is written in the third person, with a certain amount of anthropomorphism:

Of all the horses running in the mountains, Bel Bel alone thought she knew the secret hiding-place that enabled Thowra and his herd to disappear from all their hunters… she wondered if he had found again the deep valley that was like a cleft in the hills at the back of Paddy Rush’s Bogong, the valley with the grassy Hidden Flat that could not be seen from the top…

There are occasions when we writers honestly think we have invented something, but in reality we’re remembering it without realising it. It’s a minor issue – I was delighted to discover that I’d been reading some quality writing, and it’s a pity that the only way to get hold of the books is by searching online. The Silver Brumby series has been reprinted every so often, and an e-book version is available. But I don’t suppose anyone remembers a book called Claud the Seahorse, do they?

Friday, 16 February 2018

It's About Time- 10 Super Helpful Tips, by Wendy H. Jones

In our modern hustle and bustle world I would venture to say that one of our most precious commodities is time. The more labour saving devices we acquire, the more we seem to fill our days and the minutes just slip by. As the picture suggests our time just slips away. 

My last post on this blog was Motivation Matters and this post takes that theme further 

Whilst the principles are the same for everyone, this is a writing blog so I am going to focus on time and our writing. By using even just a few of these you will find your writing time expands and your word count will rise.

1. Schedule important tasks - while this might seem like a no brainer, how many of us actually do this. My regular contribution to this blog is a perfect example. I know I am scheduled for the 16th of each month and yet the date sneaks up on me and can often slip by unnoticed. This should have been out at 00:30 and here I am at 09.40, still writing it. So, taking my own advice, there is now a reminder in my diary for the 15th of every month. I've blocked off an hour to write and research the blog. Job done. I've done the same for all the collaborative blogs I belong to. 

2. Switch of social media and emails - one of the biggest time sucks today is social media. It's funny how you can open up a social media site saying 'ten Minutes Only' and before you know it you've spent 3 hours looking at pictures of kittens. Seriously, switch off the internet on the computer you use to write. If you ache to do research do it on a different computer. Even better put a red note in your WIP and go back to the research later.

3. Use free time you have wisely - By this I mean waiting time. If you are on the underground, the bus, or waiting in the car for the kids to get out of school, instead of playing games on your phone, (yes I'm guilty of this) use an app such as Evernote to jot down ideas or even write some of your WIP. When you return to your computer the notes will be waiting for you. If you did some writing, a quick copy and paste will bump your word count up nicely.

4. Write in 20 minute bursts - It's easier to think about writing for 20 minutes than 8 hours. Set a timer and focus on your writing. When the timer stops get up, walk around, drink a glass of water, do some stretches. Anything to get you moving and hydrates. You'll go back to the keyboard energised.

5. Schedule in time for answering emails - use this wisely. It will help you to concentrate if you re not always thinking about that urgent email that may be waiting for you. Set a block of time, say 20 minutes (ideal concentration time) and again set a timer. 

6. Get up earlier - this one is a struggle for me, but for some of you reading this it may be the only way to carve out writing time if you've got the constraints of a family and a job. 

7. Give up just one television programme - use the time you would spend watching that as writing time. I find myself watching hours of mindless telly instead of doing things that will help me to be more organised. Again, it can be a time suck. I'll watch just one episode turns into an eight hour binge watching marathon.

8. Schedule in reading time - this might seem a strange one if you're trying to save time. Hands up how many of us say I don't get time to read these days? In order to be a writers we need to be readers. This tips up our creative juices. 

9.  Prioritise your writing - set goals e.g. daily, weekly, monthly targets. Give yourself a deadline for completion. Get the creative stuff done early in the day.

10. Don't be afraid to say no - This is a biggie. Most of us don't want to disappoint people so we say yes to everything. Tell people you will think about it, weigh up the pros and cons and make a considered decision.

I hope I've given you some food for thought here. These are just ideas and you may have many more. It would be helpful if you could share them in the comments. I'm always keen to learn new things. 

Before I go here's a bonus 11th Tip - employ a cleaner. This has been one of the best moves I've made. Now, where do I find someone to do my ironing?

Coming soon
First book in the Cass Claymore Investigates Series

About the Author

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

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire ...

Apparently I was a troubled child. My parents worried about my character, maybe even my sanity. Not only did I have an imaginary friend who I talked to endlessly but I was also a compulsive liar. According to my teachers, I "made up stories" about everything, a gentle way of saying the same thing.

Either way, faced with reality or something more interesting, I'd always choose the latter in order to work it up into a really good tale. I didn't lie to avoid punishment so much as to enhance the world in which I lived. When you're a perpetually reading child plunged into imaginary worlds peopled by dynamic personalities, waking up every morning in a tiny conservative city on the edge of nowhere just doesn't cut it. For me, embellishment has always been a survival strategy.

So, I lied and imagined my way through childhood and lying in color was my specialty.

I recall reading the Trixie Belden series and thinking now there's an interesting life, not that in the world of children's literature that series was particularly stunning. Still, the protagonist rode horses and had fabulous adventures so, naturally, that's what I wanted, too. Only it wasn't happening in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I marched off to grade school one day and managed to convince all the friends I didn't have that I owned a stable. I gave all my imaginary horses names, could describe them in detail, and even paired them off with the cooler kids I wanted to impress. "You can come to my place and ride Sugar Drop." No invitations ever came, of course, but until the truth came out, I kept everyone entertained.

At least I didn't give my horses wings. I saved that for university when I found a Masters in Library Science so unbearably boring, I'd embellish my notes with flying Equus. If the lecture grew too tedious, I'd imagine dive-bombing the professor's head with a variety of malodorous objects just to stay awake. Let it be known that I was as ill-suited for cataloguing as I was for math but by then I learned to take my imagination underground. That's where I writing novels in earnest.

 And here I am as my adult self and still find my alternate universes preferable to reality. Who doesn't? How many times have I listened to the news, longing to edit the truth before someone else does? And then there's the little matter of the happy ending: if I want one, it may only be of the imaginary variety.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

A love affair with Literary Fiction? - Louise Boland

The Prince of Mirrors - Alan Robert Clark
At the end of the last year, just before Christmas, the Arts Council released a report confirming something everybody already knew but had been too scared to say.  

Finally, the elephant in the room was pointed out and someone took a sharp intake of breath at the sight of the emperor’s new clothes.  Yes, I am talking about the Arts Council’s report, Literature in the 21st Century: Understanding Models of Support for Literary Fiction, In case you missed it, the report concluded that… literary fiction in the UK is officially in ‘Crisis’.

Actually, it never said the word ‘crisis’ in that context, that was how the press represented it. What it really said was that ‘this was not an easy time for literary fiction’. 

Art Council Report
It calculated that print sales of literary fiction in the UK are significantly below where they stood in the noughties, and that there has not been a corresponding increase in literary fiction ebook sales to offset this (as has been the case for the genre and commercial fiction which currently predominate in ebook format).

Anyone who has been paying attention might know that last year we started up Fairlight Books with the specific aim of publishing literary fiction in the UK (crazy fools, I know!). We did it because we could see how difficult it was becoming for writers of literary fiction to get an agent and to get published.  We felt that self-publishing didn’t work as well for literary fiction as it did for genre writers and that, ipso facto, the end result of all this would be readers purchasing less literary fiction. So it was reassuring, if a little unnerving, to see that belief quantifiably demonstrated in the Art’s Council release.

The report suggests a number of reasons for why the above has occurred, all good views and all definitely part of the puzzle. My personal view (and I’m very open to arguments against this or to hear how things stand in comparison in other countries)… is that literary fiction faced a perfect storm over the last ten to fifteen years in the UK – arising from the phenomenal success of Fifty Shades, the phenomenal success of Gone Girl, and the phenomenal success of the near-constant innovator, Amazon, in promoting series and genre fiction.

As agents and commissioning editors became fixated on finding the next Fifty Shades / Gone Girl or in finding books with which to feed Amazon’s genre/series-loving algorithms, literary fiction took a back seat.  But is this just a blip? Or have UK readers permanently ‘dumbed down’ so that they can no longer on average / on mass / in the median cope with complicated fiction?

I guess starting up Fairlight Books had to that come from a belief that the problem wasn’t that there was no longer a market for readers who want to read ‘literary’ fiction, but that there was a market failure that was making it less accessible to them (ie see the perfect storm theory above).

One of the interesting things that came from the report was the debate it started on social media about what ‘literary’ fiction actually is, whether there is a need for it, whether it should be subsidized and whether people actually want to read it anymore.

One commentator asked ‘Why should we subsidise writers who have lost the plot?’ and quoted Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing as an example of writing that had ‘lost the plot’.

Personally, I think that’s a little unfair as it belies the sweep of what ‘literary fiction’ entails and because there will always be (and should always be) occasional novels which challenge boundaries in terms of content and prose style and move literature forward.

But for every award winning, experimental, literary fiction novel in existence, there are many beautifully crafted, readable, well-researched literary works which are huge sellers. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bringing up the Bodies being obvious examples.

These books show that there is still a market for literary fiction out there – but that we need to support the UK’s writers of literary fiction so that they don’t give up their craft and turn their creative energies elsewhere, and we need to make sure that literary fiction is accessible to readers.  

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

A Blogging Block! By Ann Evans

Lynne Garner’s blog post on the use of the senses struck a chord with me, as I’ve just been writing up my ‘tip sheet’ for the writing class I run on a Monday evening, which is all about using the senses in writing. I was thinking about calling it: Making Your Characters Smell. It’s always good to start off with a bit of a laugh!

Lynne’s link to the sounds of wildlife was really useful, and I’m sure I’ll be looking at that again and again. It’s funny the sort of websites you need to look at in the course of a day’s work. I’ve been writing thrillers recently and have been trying to check out security levels at MI5’s Thames House. As Big Brother is no doubt keeping tabs on what everyone is looking at on-line, I’m wondering if I’ll have the men in black knocking on my door one of these fine days.  

I even came across a site that listed the Top 10 Spy Sites in London which was quite interesting, and probably quite inspirational if anyone is looking to write something about espionage.

Of course, the biggest writer of espionage was Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. This year sees the 110th anniversary of his birth. And as we all know he was able to base some of Bond’s activities on real life experience. His novels and short story collections have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide.

I feel I’m rambling slightly in this blog, and there’s good reason, as I can’t quite hit on an interesting topic. It’s obviously Blogger’s Writer’s Block, because I’m not struggling on my various writing projects. I’m happy as Larry getting on with them. But today’s blog – knowing I’ve got a deadline of my own making looming, (I have to go out to my writing class soon) I need to find a topic to write about for this blog.

Plenty of nibbles to ward off writers' block at my writing class.

So, the joy is I now have it! Blog about beating writer’s block! And thanks to Lynne Garner, reminding us about research, here’s what the good old internet suggests:

There are certain foods that will give the brain a kick start. Avacados, kale, pea-pods, salmon, dark chocolate. Ah! I had some dark chocolate yesterday when out at a family celebration. It was an Italian restaurant, and their Cioccolato Divino was a bit too dark and bitter for a girl who likes Cadbury's cream eggs and Mars Bars! So, I have no dark chocolate in the house to nibble at.

Coffee, it’s said, helps sharpen alertness and focus, but don’t overdo it. The less we consume the more effective it is. But, I’m more of a tea person, and after boiling the kettle, do I reach for the coffee jar or a tea bag? Sorry, it has to be tea. The good news is that medical research shows tea being good for the brain. New research by the National University of Singapore shows that regular cups of green or black tea cut the risk of dementia among older adults by 50%. So that’s good then!
So what else does researching on the internet throw up to beat writer’s block?

Which to choose?

Go for a walk. Yes, I always find that’s a good one, but I haven’t time.

Eliminate distractions. I’m already in a quiet room, And I’m not popping over to Facebook every two seconds, honestly.

Read a book. If only!

Change your environment: Okay, I will go downstairs to the kitchen, make a cup of tea and get this blog done!

The internet also suggests play and do something to get the blood going. So, I’ve just played with my cockatiel, Georgie for five minutes but she was really only interested in admiring herself in the mirror. Took a photo of tea versus coffee (see above); and got the blood going by doing the dishes. The internet also says a good way of beating writer’s block is to free write. Which is what I seem to have done for this blog.

Apologies everyone and will try harder for next month.  In the mean-time a bit more research into what other writers say about writer’s block.

‘Writer’s block is a fancy term made up by whiners so they can have an excuse to drink alcohol.’ Steve Martin, American actor

‘The scariest moment is always just before you start [writing]. After that, things can only get better.’ Stephen King.

‘Writing is easy: all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.’ Gene Fowler American journalist and author.

‘There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.’ Terry Pratchett.

Do you find blogs easy to write? And what’s your best tip on beating writer’s block?

Out now: my latest crime thriller Kill or Die

Monday, 12 February 2018

We Need a Smaller Boat! -- Reb MacRath

Hey, no kidding. Listen up! My own Great White was out there-- online invisibility-- waiting to devour my next book like the twelve before. But I'd grown extra-protective, you see; the new book was so different from all of rest. And I'd pledged my life to save it-- when the Great White finally surfaced after showing its dorsal for years. And it surfaced more than once.

First, my cover artist declined to work on the new book, citing her 'moral objections'. The title included the last name of an actor she didn't approve of. Neither did I but the actor, who doesn't appear in the book, sells a giant stick that does. Next, I learned that I'd been dropped from an April radio interview that would have helped market the book. And the path to blurbs for life support was paved in equal parts with Yays, Nays and silent snubs.

I'd started to wonder if I should jump ship. But then I heard Chief Brody's cry, followed by the captain's roar to start getting rid of all ballast, including all worries and negative thoughts.

This took some doing but, at last, I had the learn vessel required:

The wee ship's components included:

1) A spin-off series from my Boss MacTavin series: a lighter shade of Noir starring the diminutive DB. 5'4" but tall on 'tude. A pleasant treat, I hoped, for those who've surfeited on Reacher and the many sons of Jack. 

2) A cool series hook. I'd changed the intended title from The Big Seagal to The Big Bopper. Not because of moral objection above, but because I'd improved on the stick. And the new title refers to my star's nickname, not the former weapon. The series itself will list, on Amazon, under Seattle BOP, the name of a Seattle branch office.

3) A strong bridge between the Boss MacTavin mysteries and the new spin-off series. New readers will find a brief Boss primer at the start of each spin-off entry. Furthermore, Boss appears in half of this first entry. Holf 

4) A completely legitimate way of countering past dearth of reviews. This tack costs both time and money, but it beats the alternatives of begging help from anyone...or feeding more books to the shark.

5) A new production team. Just as I'm exploring the market, I have a new cover designer and a new formatter at Hold Fast Press.

6) A new look to signal the bold and bright new direction.

The Big Bopper comes your way in March, both as an ebook and a print edition. It's for all sizes, including the tall ones still able to think small. Want something totally different? Try this.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Why Writers need Reading Groups :Misha Herwin.

A couple of months ago a message was sent round on Nextdoor Basford, our neighbourhood website asking if anyone would be interested in joining a reading group. I already belong to one which I’ve been going to for about eight years, but this was local and I decided to give it a go.

My reasons for joining were various. I liked the idea of connecting with more of my neighbours, finding people I have interests in common with and possibly even making new friends. On a more pragmatic level, the more people I got to know the greater the pool of potential buyers and readers of my books.

Also and this is what swayed me, every writer needs to belong to a reading group and this one was not going to be exclusively female so there should be a variety of viewpoints and attitudes to books.
And it is what readers think and expect of books that should matters to a writer, at least if you want to sell your work.  

At our first meeting people talked about how they needed to relate to a character in a novel, or they lost interest. They talked about the hooks that got them into the story, what kept them reading and what they think of series of novels. This last was of particular interest. One person said that she likes series, gets into the books and enjoys the first few, then after a while as the characters and situations become more familiar the novels lose their tension.

In subsequent sessions I’m hoping that we will be discussing books in detail, so I will learn more about what works and doesn’t work and more importantly why.

So, here’s looking forward to our next meeting. More stimulating company, cake and conversation.