Thursday, 28 July 2016

Interesting Words, Horror, and Pipeline Theatre, by Enid Richemont

Recently I was given this delightful book by my daughter who thought (quite rightly) that it would amuse me. LOST IN TRANSLATION, by Ella Frances Sanders, is a collection of single words  describing mostly, but not always, familiar situations for which, in English, we'd use several. There is, for example: MURR-MA, from an almost extinct Australian language, which means searching for things under water with your feet.
     There is the lovely-sounding TIAM, in Farsi, meaning the twinkle in your eyes when you meet someone special, and on the downside: KUMMERSPECK, in German, which literally translates as 'grief-bacon', meaning the excess weight gained by emotional over-eating. The illustrations are fun, too - do check it out.

For authors specialising in crime and horror,how are you responding to recent global events which seem to surpass anything dreamed up in a novel? Which of us, writing futuristic fantasy twenty or so years ago, would have invented a lethal and brutal theocracy? Margaret Atwood in THE HANDMAID'S TALE comes close, and I'm sure there must be others, but sometimes I feel I'm actually living inside a horror movie.
     I'm sure the late and much-lamented Ruth Rendell would have done something amazing with this - her deep knowledge and understanding of disturbed minds would be so illuminating right now, because this is a sect which actively recruits psychopaths. So how do you write in times of horror? I think of the First World War poets, and the literature that came out of the Holocaust, and as readers, we still care about individual deaths, and we continue to care about the reasons why. Below is a copy of my recent post on Facebook in response to the inevitably ominous: 'News Coming In'. A fantasy, of course, but who knows? And I can 'see' the pictures, and that laughing baby.


My Cornish family's theatre company - - will be in Edinburgh with a brand new production: SWIVELHEAD - in August. For those of you already impressed by TRANSPORTS and SPILLIKINS - this will be a treat. For others who don't yet know them, if you're in Edinburgh you're in for a treat.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Playing Literary Games - Andrew Crofts

Like many writers I am not a natural games player; firstly because I have terrible trouble remembering the rules to anything and secondly because I seldom care whether I win or not, which rather removes the fun for those with competitive urges that need scratching.

When I received an email out of the blue, however, asking if I would like to take part in a literary panel game called “Ex Libris” which would be recorded in front of a live audience at Blackwells in Oxford and then put out as a pod-cast, my interest was piqued.

Ex Libris was invented by Oxford Games who also invented, among many others, Jenga, and has been available as a board game for some time. Quite why it hasn’t yet been snapped up by Radio 4 I can’t imagine. Anyhow, the BBC’s loss is Blackwells’ gain.

The rules are simple. There are four contestants. One reads out a book title and author, with a very short plot synopsis. It could be anything from Blyton to Byron, Wodehouse to Wordsworth, Henry James to E.L. James – you get the idea.

The other three panelists are then asked to write their imagined first line of the book, (or the last line). While they are doing that the one who has been singled out is interviewed for five minutes about their career or their latest book.

All three forgeries are then read out, along with the real one, and the three panelists have to guess which the genuine one is. They get points if theirs is thought to be the original one or if they succeed in guessing it correctly. They can play to win or they can play for laughs, or, in an ideal world, a combination of the two.

To be honest, it is pretty much a test of the panelists’ ghostwriting skills, so it seemed like a challenge I could hardly turn down, plus Oxford is always a pleasant place to while away a night and there was a free dinner on offer for all involved.

It was a dark and stormy night – no, it actually was, and it was the night of the Brexit vote. (One of the chosen books was Nigel Farage's autobiography). Everyone in Oxford was campaigning wildly through the wet streets for “remain” and there seemed to be little awareness that outside this happy academic bubble things were about to turn very ugly indeed – such innocent times. In fact “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

        sorry, but you see how catchy this “opening lines thing” is?

Not only was the night “dark and stormy” and not only was the European Union about to start unraveling, there were also floods and overturned lorries on the roads into Oxford, which kept one of the panelists away and a substitute had to be found fast from the Blackwells staff, (and a very impressive performer she turned out to be).

You’ll have to listen to the pod-cast of episode 4 of Ex-Libris Live ( order to find out if I managed to keep my ghostwriting credentials in tact; but if you work at Radio 4, for goodness sake don’t dither too long for fear that Simon Cowell will get his hands on this format!

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Recognising a Diamond in the Rough by Sensei Ruby Barnes

A few weeks ago I attended a session at the Irish Writers' Centre in Dublin (many thanks to Valerie Ryan for organising) with some of my writing colleagues from our Kilkenny writers' group. We spent several fascinating hours in the company of acclaimed novelist Mia Gallagher who kindly shared her knowledge of writing and editing, and the varying experiences of being published by large (Penguin) and small (Little Island) publishing houses. Mia herself offers editing services and was able to clearly articulate both sides of the author / editor equation.

We listened, asked questions and made the occasional furtive attempt to grasp the elusive goal of writing a manuscript that agents and publishers will want. Or, as was freely admitted for those who might dare to venture into the modern world of self-publishing, the goal of writing a novel that readers will want to read. I felt confused for the first hour or so as my feeble brain struggled with which hat to wear. As an "independent author" I have self-published seven novels and that escapade has morphed into micro-publishing with twenty-eight titles (from four individual authors plus three multi-author anthologies) under the Marble City Publishing banner. Editing and formatting is what I do for sedentary fun when I'm not writing or fighting. My perspective during that workshop was flip-flopping from author to editor to publisher.

Mia continued to talk, telling us about the publishing process with her first novel, Hellfire, and how the manuscript changed substantially between Penguin's acceptance of the book and eventual publication. Then it struck me. Penguin had seen Hellfire for the raw diamond that it was and were prepared to invest in structural editing to get the novel to become the multi-faceted jewel they believed it could be. I thought about the nineteen submissions received by Marble City in the previous twelve months, all of which we had rejected. Did we lack the imagination or ability to spot a diamond in the rough? Had we passed over work which deserved more attention? I have to be honest and say I’m very quick to take against a manuscript if it exhibits unrealistic dialogue, excessive word echo, unbelievable plot twists and turns, etc. I’m not saying Hellfire had any of those faults when Penguin accepted it. Having listened to Mia’s advice on editing and her track record in script writing, I very much doubt she had any such authorly ticks. What Penguin most likely did was to add to the pot with their developmental editing skills and turn a very good novel into a great novel. Hellfire did receive critical acclaim although, by Mia’s own admission, the book wasn’t a commercial success. It took Mia another nine years to produce her next novel, Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland, by which time the publisher with interest had changed to the smaller Irish house of Little Island.

As soon as I arrived home from the workshop I went about snagging a copy of Hellfire. provided a second-hand copy for a couple of quid. It soon arrived and I dived in. The novel was nothing like I had expected. It was written in vernacular Dublin language, a stream of consciousness life account from a narrator with a complex personality and substance abuse issues. A kind of mix between The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks and Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. I really enjoyed Hellfire but I could understand why Mia hadn’t become a prodigious name for Penguin. Hellfire is a standalone tome, the like of which cannot be easily repeated. The narrative voice is unique and the character’s story has been told with the conclusion of the book. Hellfire was a long time in the making, having started life as a short story / play. Mia, during the workshop, mentioned her long journey with the book and compared the experience to another Irish writer – John Boyne, who wrote The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (commercially successful as both book and film) in just a weekend.

But I digress. The point I’m pondering is not how long it takes to write a bestseller. Rather, what is it that defines a publisher’s ability to spot a nugget of gold, and is their capacity and willingness to work that manuscript into something truly praiseworthy a feature of the publisher’s critical mass? Are micro-publishers capable of seeing the potential in a manuscript and willing and able to invest enough time, effort and skill to produce a result? Or are micro-publishers only good for copy editing?

Monday, 25 July 2016

Flashing Pens - by Susan Price

Another Flash in the Pen
I know it's not the done thing to favourably review a book in which you yourself have a story. It's understandably seen as biased. Well, I would say it's good, wouldn't I?
          So I wasn't planning to review Another Flash in the Pen here. I reckoned I would post the fact of its existence on Facebook and then keep schtum.
          And, to be brutally honest, I had muted expectations.
          I like short stories. I've read lots of anthologies and what I've come to expect is a few stand-out pieces studding a book full of perfectly good but underwhelming stories. Or, perhaps, stories that would be stand-out pieces for someone else but just don't do it for me.
          That's what I expected from Another Flash in the Pen and, had it been so, I would simply have kept quiet.

          What I actually found was a book full of stories that I tore through, enjoying each and everyone. I found I was looking forward to picking the book up again, because the last story had been so good... And putting it down, having finished another story, thinking, "That was good! What's the next one called?" - And finding that I didn't want the collection to end.

          I knew, of course, that my Electric colleagues are good writers but familiarity takes the edge off everything. I'd forgotten just how good they are.
          This book acted as a refresher course. There's laugh-out-loud funny. Elgaic and atmospheric. Haunting - though not always by ghosts.
          Vivid snap-shots of life. Tales of the sea. Stories of life on other planets in the future and stories with a sharp awareness of life as it is here and now.

          When I finished the book, I felt that I had very rarely read a collection of short stories where I enjoyed all of the stories so much.
          So I'm going to stick my head above the parapet and say that I think this is an unusually good anthology which would keep most readers happy - whether because they like short stories or because they want something short to read during commutes or on the beach. I stayed at home and read it over several days, whenever I had a few spare moments.
          It has me looking forward keenly to the AE collection of ghost stories because I love a good ghost story and this collection had raised my expectations.

          Thanks to all the great writers who donated stories, and an especial thanks to Karen Bush who - despite having a great many other things to do - found time to put it together, edit and format it. Though she was helped by whippets.

Another Flash In The Pen

Paperback           UK              US
Kindle                 UK              US

Sunday, 24 July 2016

What do you look for in a travel book? - Jo Carroll

What do you look for in a travel book?

One of the most memorable pieces of advice I was ever given was 'don't write about things people can see on the telly'. And so I have never written about hearing Rigoletto at the Sydney Opera House as both can be found online without too much difficulty (even though it was wonderful).

That mentor also told me make sure I involved my own experience - which meant writing about things I hadn't told my daughters about. I'll never forget steeling myself to tell them about the man with a gun in Lucknow.

But my last trip took me to Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands. I spent a few days deep in the upper Amazon basin, where caimans hide in the shallows and tarantulas creep up the hut walls. Google any nature site and it's easy to see pictures of the Amazon (though they can't capture that wet mud smell, nor the wake-up call of the howler monkeys).

I took a road trip through the mountains, where the ground trembles for so much of the time that roads are constantly cracked. Volcanoes spurt steam high into the sky. The air is thin, and clear, and raptors soar on the thermals. I'm sure you can see that if you google 'Andes'. Though that moment when you discover dragonflies copulating is very special:

And so the Galápagos Islands - easy enough to find pictures of tortoises and iguana and parading frigate birds online. But nothing can replace that feeling of being humbled by the whole experience - being so close to creatures like this that are so rare and so precious:

Having said all that, when I read about travels it's the people who intrigue me. How they live and work and raise their families in the mountains or in the depths of the jungle. What stories do they tell? What sense do they make of me, a white woman wandering around and often unable to contain my curiosity about their ways of life? And, because I'm even more interested in people than I am in places, I write about them.

But you - when you pick up a travel book, what are you hoping to find?

You can find examples of my travel writing on my website: And if you want to know what I got up to in Ecuador, there's always Frogs and Frigate Birds

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Make Good Bad Guys by Lev Butts

Characters are the soul of fiction. They are the first movers of story. Imagine any story you've ever read, then take out the characters. What you have left is essentially a lunatic's National Geographic article: a description of a fantastic landscape or a discussion of a particular group or species daily habits.

Without characters, The Hobbit, for instance, would read something like this:

Chapter 1: Hobbits live relatively peaceful lives, reside in modestly decorated holes in hills, and like to eat. Like a lot. They have seven meals a day, and do not like to be surpised by unexpected visitors.

Chapter 2: Trolls will eat anything and turn to stone in the sunlight.

Chapter 3: Elves are wise, and kind of pompous assholes.

Chapter 4: Goblins are just assholes.

Chapter 5: Caves are dark and scary, and sometimes people lose jewelry there.

Chapter 6: Wolves and Goblins are friends and often team up to terrorize villages, but giant eagles will sometimes put a stop to those shenanigans.

Chapter 7: Shape-shifters can, indeed, count.

Chapter 8: The woods are ugly, dark, and deep.

Chapter 9: Elves are pretty much pompous assholes wherever they live.

Chapter 10: Humans are generally trifling and gullible, but can also be quite generous.

Chapter 11: Dragons are really sleepy, and can count better than shape-shifters

Chapters 12: Dwarves live in mountains...

Chapter 13: ...and really, really like treasure.

Chapter 14: Humans really are a mixed bag. Thank Eru some of them can shoot.

Chapter 15: When I say dwarves like their treasure, I mean it. They like other people's treasure, too.

Chapter 16: Hobbits make good thieves when they are properly motivated.

Chapter 17: When five armies of various species fight, things get messy. Hobbits generally nap through it.

Chapter 18: Return trips are boring.

Chapter 19: Hobbits will sell all your shit if you vacation too long.

The woods are ugly, dark, and deep.
And I have promises to keep,
So bye.
Clearly then, character is the single most important part of any story. So how do we make good ones? "Good guys" are generally easier to create. We mainly look at ourselves in the mirror, nip and tuck our unsightly flaws, and write down what we see.

This is why so may of the best protagonists appeal to us: they are glorified versions of ourselves. No, we don't make them perfect; we know we, ourselves, are flawed, so imbue our heroes with a few of those flaws or make them relatable: Bilbo Baggins is kind of a passively shy, regular guy until he gets dragged into an adventure and learns he is really brave underneath. Nick Carraway is really just a nobody who is star-struck by rich people until he realizes they are a pretty self-centered lot. Ishmael is a bored twenty-something with no direction looking for adventure.

The point here is that in order to make compelling heroes, you need only give them a character flaw that they must overcome in order to grow into the hero we all know they really are. They are us, after all, and no one really thinks of themselves as the bad guy.

Shut up, Jesse.
Here's the problem: If characters are the most important aspect of fiction, the bad guy is just as important as the good guy. More important in many ways. You don't need nice characters to make a story. Thanks to the concept of anti-heroes, you can have protagonists who are complete and utter assholes.

Tolkien wrote a whole book about them.
Bad guys are a little harder for most of us to do, though. We have a tendency to paint evil in big, broad, mustache twirling strokes.

Indeed so many of our bad guys are just variations of this guy:

Ties young girls to the train tracks.
We have the Western bad guy:

Ties young girls to the train tracks

Fantasy bad guy:
Ties elves to the train tracks

Space bad guy:

Ties Jedi and Rebels to the train tracks

We even have History bad guy:

Ties Jews to the train tracks

But for the most part, these are all guys who are so clearly evil, that they may as well be the same person. And ultimately, with the exception of the last two, they are. Don't believe me? Ask yourself the following questions: What's the name of the impressively mustachioed fellow tying the girl to the tracks? Who's the cowboy? Is the fantasy guy Morgoth, Sauron, The Black Lieutenant, or Shai'tan? Most of us don't know. Because these villains are so interchangeably similar, it doesn't matter. We just need to know they're baddies, and that the goodies are going to defeat them.

So why are the other two different?

Because to a great degree, we can see ourselves in them. Darth Vader is intriguing to us because, like a good hero, he is flawed. We understand what he wants: He wants order, he wants to protect his family, he wants to make the galaxy safe. That he has to destroy all impediments to this in his quest is unfortunate (especially since the impediments are our well-meaning heroes), but unavoidable. He is evil, not by nature, but by circumstance. He cannot balance his lofty goals with fair action. He believes, like many of us (like all of us from time to time, if we're really being honest) that our lofty ends justify the horrible means we have to use to attain them.

So what about Hitler? Surely we generally don't see ourselves in him. Well, we do, but in a way that is perhaps way more disturbing for us. Darth Vader (or Silence of the Lambs' Hannibal Lecter or Breaking Bad's Walter White) represents our own ideals taken to the extreme excluding all other moral concerns. He represents what we can do if we myopically focus only on our own initailly laudable goals and desires.

We cannot say the same for Hitler (or Charles Manson or Norman Bates), though. The argument that Hitler let the laudable goal of fixing Germany get out of control falls kind of flat when you consider that there was never a time in his career when his solution to the problem was anything short of skull-kissing crazy. Why, then, are we so fascinated with him? Because even he, even Hitler, had a tee-tiny spark of humanity in him. He loved dogs and children. He was a vegetarian. He was an artist.

Though not the best boyfriend, I guess.

We are fascinated by bad guys like Hitler because unlike Darth Vader's type of bad guy, these guys didn't let their virtues become so powerful that they became evil. These bad guys became evil in spite of their humanity, not because of it. And that is, in many ways, a far more frightening concept.

These two types of bad guys are far more intriguing to us because they do essentially the same thing as the fascinating good guys do: They reflect on some level aspects of ourselves. Good heroes reflect an idealized version of ourselves; great heroes reflect that but also keep some amount of our flaws. Good villains reflect flawed versions of ourselves, great villains do that but also retain some spark of humanity or pathos within them that makes their evil tragic instead of completely terrifying.

All this is a long-winded way of saying if you want to make charismatic, believable, and unforgettable villains, you have to make them at least somewhat sympathetic. You have to understand that they are the heroes of  their own stories. And you have to care about them just as much as you care about the heroes.

P.S. If you think it is impossible to make Hitler a sympathetic villain without somehow excusing the horrors he created, I urge you to read Unto the Beast by Richard Monaco. It truly is a perfect example of what I've been talking about here.

Though you might wait a bit until Venture Press re-releases it 
and Monaco can make a little cash from it.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Feelings not facts - from novel to short story, by Ali Bacon

Since my recent post which touched on the early photographs of Hill and Adamson, I’ve not only paid a flying visit to St Andrews (my old university town and always a good place to go) but also been invited to read a selection of my historical fiction at the St Andrews Photography Festival. This is a huge thrill for me and has given me the nice job of making sure that by the time of my event on Sept 9th. I've assembled the right words in exactly the right order. 

Reading Silver Harvest in April at  Stroud Short Stories
I’m planning to read five or six pieces which have already been written in one form or other, but I don’t want to read for more than 10 minutes at a time  - i.e. 1500 words max - and although the pieces are linked in theme, I would like each one to stand alone. 

Looking at my raw material, only Silver Harvest fits the bill exactly. The others are either too long or, on closer inspection, betray their origins as fragments of a novel. ‘Repurposing’ them is proving an interesting task and one that’s making me aware of the strictures of short story writing. 

Here are a few rules I’ve made for myself in my reverse-engineering project of cutting my cloth to suit my new coat!

  1. Stay in the moment.
    I'm trying not to hark backwards to previous stories or things I know happened, and since there is no option for the audience to read on, I'm avoid ‘foreshadowing’, i.e. hinting at what’s to come (or even jumping ahead to tell people!)
    St Andrews Cathedral, an iconic ruin 
  2.  Make sure each short story has a structure of its own, i.e. each one should have its own story arc, however brief. A piece of narrative which is there to fill a historical gap will just be exposition.
  3.  Avoid too many scene changes. I don’t particularly like ‘static’ short stories, but in 1500 words there are only so many places we can go without things feeling rushed. If necessary, history can be compressed!
  4. Examine minor characters and decide who is really needed. Short stories traditionally have a narrow focus rather than a big cast of characters. If a character is required, don’t linger over a description, just let them play the role that’s required. It might be they don’t even need a name.
  5. Strip down the dialogue. Every word counts so skip yes’s no’s and maybe’s – just let them agree or otherwise! If it’s just for plot, you could use indirect speech which holds things up less. ‘He thanked them but said he would leave that night,’ is slicker IMO than, ‘thank you, but I will leave tonight,’ he said.
  6. Feelings not facts! i.e. beware exposition/info dump. I’m writing historical fiction and would like my audience to know how much I’ve found out about these people and their time, but sticking in extra facts, events or characters is either insecurity or showing off. An eagle-eyed beta reader has found one of these I didn't see for myself.

In writing down these rules I can see I have broken quite a few of them (3 and 4 especially!) so it’s time for another look at the writing  - or maybe the rules!

Finally, I can also see that most of them could be applied to a novel, which confirms my belief that the process of writing a novel and short story are not so very different. However a novel takes a lot longer!

If you would like to know more about the St Andrews Festival of Photography, please visit their Facebook page or my own website.

Ali Bacon was born in Fife and lives in Bristol where she writes, reads, reviews, and occasionally takes to the stage. Her novel A Kettle of Fish is available in print and as an e-book.