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Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Dictators, little gods, laughter, and Virtual Weapons

I'm opening this post with a seriously silly Christmas image of my totally anarchic Cornish family, very expertly photoshopped (they don't actually look like this!) There's something Lizzie Borden and rural America about it, and I do feel that one of the adults might be about to run amuk with an axe! I haven't yet played with Photoshop, but must, one day.  The possibilities it presents for serious mockery, or even libel, are endless.

 The subject of serious mockery inevitably leads to the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. We lived in Paris for two years, and have good friends there, so it felt very personal. Ruthless dictators, and the nastier of the invented deities, have one thing in common: they cannot bear to be laughed at - which is why we have cartoonists brave enough to do it. What a murderous, unfunny thug Hitler was, and such a gift for another Charlie - Charlie Chaplin.  Charlie Hebdo picks on everyone, not just Islamic extremists, and its style is brutal - not a style I warm to, but I wouldn't commit murder to stop the magazine. I'd just not buy it. However, the extremists needed the publicity, which is precisely what they got. They also love the word 'spectacular', which we normally apply to musicals, or firework displays - how in love with 'celebrity' they are.

My totally inoffensive book for very young readers came out this month - the story of a spider's increasingly frustrating attempts to construct a web, with delightfully funny illustrations by Gabriele Antonini. And, once again, this month, I'm working to a brief, which is always challenging - I much prefer setting my own agenda.

Back to murder - the fantasy kind. I do have a couple of (nameless) publishers on my hit list. There are the ones who never respond, no matter how impressive your track record, and even having an agent seems to make no difference. There are those who, due to delicate feelings, or, more likely, forgetfulness, cannot bring themselves to say 'no'. One of mine, a very major publisher, put a novel out of print, and then proceeded to republish it in a tiny, low-quality version. They are big, and I am small, so no point in pursuing it, but I do have a large arsenal of virtual nuclear weapons some of which I'm more than happy to donate to any mistreated author.

Finally, there are the small presses that get taken over by slightly less small ones, and who, in the process, seem to lose a book entirely. The fate of this one, I think, I shall never know, which is rather a shame because it's good. Indie authors may have their problems, but at least they are in charge of their own work. And, happily, none of my re-published ebooks will ever go out of print.

Writing to a brief, Terry Pratchett, gods small and big, Paris and matyrdom, on loving winter, BPWB publishing

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The Secrets of Claudia Winkleman's Charm - Andrew Crofts

A couple of months ago I wrote about the hiring of Midas PR to launch “Chances”,  the erotic memoir which I had ghosted for an anonymous European lady who was going under the names of Penny.

Last week the mighty Midas machine picked up speed and I found myself writing articles and doing a succession of interviews to promote the book, culminating in an encounter with Claudia Winkleman on her late night Radio2 arts show.

Whenever I mentioned to anyone that I was going to be meeting Miss Winkleman I always received the same response - “Oh, I love Claudia Winkleman”.

It didn’t seem to matter what age or gender the person was, or whether they were likely to be fans of reality shows like “Strictly” or cultural offerings like “Film 2015”, her puppyish glamour had somehow worked on all of them. It appears the woman is fast-tracking towards being a national treasure. What, I wondered, could be the secret of this magical spell she was casting over the nation?

Listening to so many paeans of adoration rang alarm bells too. How could the reality possibly live up to this awesome reputation? Was I going to have to report back to all these devoted admirers that in reality the woman was a monstrous confection of insincerity and vanity, propped up by armies of sycophants, hangers on and make-up artists? Could she possibly live up to everyone’s heady expectations?

I have to report that fifteen minutes in a studio with Miss Winkleman is like being enveloped in a particularly cosy nuclear explosion, flattened by a steamroller of charm and wit so overwhelming that you barely notice the pain when she skewers you with an unexpected stab of journalistic enquiry. All in all it was the most exhilarating and enjoyable quarter of an hour I can remember ever spending with a total stranger. I felt like we had been friends for ever and that, I suspect, is the secret of Miss Winkleman’s magic.

Monday, 26 January 2015

The Epub is Open! Mine's a Pint, Please by Ruby Barnes

When it comes to e-books I'm definitely a Kindle kind of guy. I read on my old basic Kindle, on my iPhone Kindle app and sometimes on my laptop Kindle app. When it comes to e-book formatting of new releases (the bulk of that sort of work at Marble City Publishing Ltd falls at the door of Mark Turner who is me anyway), I use the KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) process to proof e-books. Those kindle editions of the Marble City books are as clean and shiny as I can get them. Hyperlinked contents pages (when they are needed), back matter with links to other titles, hyperlinks and QR code to the publisher social media platform etc.

But wait! There's a whole world of people who don't worship at the altar of Kindle. The ePub file is their staple diet. Nook, Kobo, iTunes, Google Play and a bunch of others all fire up on ePub files. Their readers deserve just as much care and attention put into the finished ePub product.

For indie-authors and independent publishers there are several ways to convert a manuscript from (what is usually) MS Word to ePub. The popular distribution hubs such as Draft2Digital and Smashwords have conversion software built into their process. There are also standalone software programs such as Calibre that offer ePub conversion.

The problem for me is how to view these ePubs to proof them. And also how to read ePub editions if a book I want to read is presented in that format. I do have an e-reader that takes ePubs - a Kobo Touch that I won online a couple of years ago. But it's not great to use, to be honest. I have an iPhone and various apps but that means side-loading onto my iPhone or emailing to myself. Not easy as I use a laptop which doesn't recognise the iPhone when I connect it. And my primary laptop has security restrictions that prevent me from installing e-reader apps on it (yes, it's a day-job machine). So proper review of ePub editions has remained a challenge. Until now.

If you use Firefox-Mozilla internet browser you may have periodically noticed the program telling you that it is "updating add-ons". My recent discovery (and forgive me if I'm the last to know) is that there is a new updated EPUBReader add-on for Firefox Mozilla. And it's great!

EPUBReader add-on for Firefox-Mozilla
Figure 1 - the EPUBReader Firefox-Mozilla addon

Once installed (and it installs without Administrator privileges!) it will add an ePub-Catalog entry to your browser Bookmarks. Any ePub file you download with your browser or click to open in your browser will feature in that bookmarked catalog.

 the EPUBReader ePub-Catalog in Bookmarks
Figure 2 - the ePub-Catalog in Bookmarks

The on-screen appearance of e-books with this add-on is similar to other apps I've used on our other computer (which I can't get near because the kids use it for gaming) but somehow clearer. If the e-book has an index then this is shown clearly to the left with a double page display to the right (these are the standard settings but you can set preferences).

layout of the EPUBReader add-on
Figure 3 - layout of the EPUBReader add-on
There's a save function which allows for saving of the opened ePub to a folder (local, cloud etc.)

While this is great for me when I'm reading an ePub for recreation, it's brilliant for the ePub formatting process. Currently I'm using Draft2Digital for all ePub markets. [Previously we've gone direct through Apple (needs a Mac), Kobo (horrible results) and via Smashwords (sometimes nightmares with their Meatgrinder) - and Barnes & Noble still doesn't give Irish residents a direct option despite Nook Press reaching Europe.] This Firefox-Mozilla add-on allows instant checking of the ePub file. Those intricacies of layout, style, spacing etc can be checked within seconds.

EPUBReader The Sadness of Angels by Jim Williams
Figure 4 - checking the formatting of The Sadness of Angels by Jim Williams

This is very helpful for texts which are relying upon layout to give a custom "look and feel".

Converting manuscripts to e-books can often be quite a challenge. Fonts and styles may disappear, white space in the original MS gets eaten up, page breaks don't occur where they are supposed to. Draft2Digital, for all its other benefits of ease and speed, is a particular culprit in these things. The EPUBReader add-on provides instant visual feedback on the success or otherwise of formatting efforts. This is particularly important if you want to add front or back matter in a controlled and managed fashion. (D2D hint - feature a section title in the Index in order to force a page change).

Marble City Publishing back matter on EPUBReader
Figure 5 - checking back matter in EPUBReader

So there you have it. A great way to read ePubs. A quick and easy way for authors and publishers to check their progress with ePub formatting. Maybe you knew about it already. Maybe you know of a better solution. Let us know.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Call Me Big-Headed - by Susan Price

     "In the Ghost World, beyond Iron Wood, lay all that was
Ghost Dance by Susan Price
left of the Northlands; and in that timeless Northlands' forest there is a gyrfalcon. It has been a gyrfalcon so long, it has almost forgotten that it was once a mortal baby, and then a shaman's apprentice and a shaman, and a Czar's black angel.

     And that is the end of this story (says the cat).
     If you thought it tasty, then serve it to others.
     If you thought it sour, sweeten it with your own telling.
     But whether you liked it, or liked it not, let it make its
own way back to me, riding on another's tongue."

This is from the ending of Ghost Dance, the third book in my Ghost World Sequence. I've just finished turning it into a paperback, so now all three books are available as paperbacks again.

I wrote these books a long time ago, and it's been a rather odd experience, going back to them.

When you first begin a book, and the idea is alight in your imagination, it's a wonderful, exciting time. New ideas and images spring into your head, seemingly unplanned, from some other place... They jostle and fight for attention, almost too many to get down on the page.

Then tying the images together and making the plot work becomes difficult and frustrating, a chore...

By the time you've finished rewriting it several times, you're sick of it. There are no longer any surprises in it for you. Passages that were meant to be beautiful seem merely mundane and dull. Surprising revelations are anything but - trite and well-worn. You lose all judgement about the thing.

With conventional publishing, the book may be taken away from you for several months - and then the proofs are suddenly sprung on you. With luck, this is rather cheering. The break from it has renewed your interest. You've forgotten some of the details, so it seems fresher. Your faith in it perks up a little.

By the time it makes it into the shops, you've usually moved on to some other fantastically shining, wonderful new idea, and you've done with the old book. If it gets reviewed well, that's rather nice - if it sells well, even better, because then you have some money to live on while you write - but you're really not that interested by then. Or so I've found.

But let twenty years go by... Then re-reading the book is like reading something written by someone else entirely. I was startled by Ghost Dance. The power of the occult scenes took me aback. I'd forgotten the chill of the descriptions of the dying Northlands. Did I really write this powerful book? - Well, that's my name on the title page.

Call me big-headed if you like. Maybe I am - but I'm being honest about the experience of re-reading this book, which I wrote a long time ago. I suppose it's one advantage of growing older.

    Paperback                                                                                            e-book

                    The Ghost Drum                                                                           The Ghost Drum

                        Ghost Song                                                                                     Ghost Song 

                        Ghost Dance                                                                                   Ghost Dance 

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Sometimes we all need a plan B - Jo Carroll

Sometimes we need a plan B.

I'm travelling in Malaysia at the moment. The weather, though hot, has been thundery at times. But I am undeterred. I take the bus from place to place, potter down back streets and find stories.

I came with a sort-of plan. The Internet has brought great changes to travelling, and only the young and endlessly optimistic arrive anywhere with nowhere to stay these days. Which means I have a rough itinerary and some hotels booked.

And then I had the email to say the resort (an optimistic term for collection of huts on a river bank) in the rainforest is flooded. They have given me my money back.

I haven't realised how much I was looking forward to the rainforest until I knew I couldn't
go. There must be a way, another place to stay ... I googled but found nothing. It took a while for common sense to set in. I've been there before - my hut (I know I have to share it, but you know what I mean) is about thirty feet above the river in the dry season. I wanted to sit in the doorway and watch the boats potter up and down the river. Look for hornbills - I saw one last time I was there. But if my hut is underwater, half the rainforest is under water. There might, of course, be one little hut, isolated on higher ground - who would be willing fetch me in his boat? And the floating restaurants - they must be half way to KL if the river is in flood. I can't expect a local family to feed me.

Besides, local people obviously have more important things to do than look after one recalcitrant traveller. The nomadic Orang Asti have probably gone deep into the forest - they understand the trees and the animals and will be fine if they can stay dry enough. The Malays - what of them? The hoteliers? The restauranteurs? Their livelihoods as drowned. I don't expect they have much in the way of insurance.

And so I've given myself a talking-to. Because sometimes we all need a plan B. Whether we're writing or travelling or wondering what to have for supper, rigidity helps no one. Just as the world is full of words and we can combine them in countless creative combinations, there are thousands of other places for me to discover.

So I think I'll have a beer and thumb through my guidebook. Find a plan B.

And know that my dilemma is insignificant besides those who make a living looking after travellers to the rainforest.

Friday, 23 January 2015

And Now A Long-Distance Dedication from Lev Butts

Please don't hate me.
Dear Casey Kasem,

I was supposed to reveal the last two books in my "Lev's Top Ten" list this month, and I had every intention of doing so except that I was struck down this past weekend with what others have told me was the flu, but I am certain was some kind of mutant/zombie virus.

Seriously, I looked just like this
I fought bravely, and it was touch and go there for a little while (I was at one point reduced to eating an unholy mixture of canned chicken noodle and cream of chicken soup), but I pulled through.

Three days later.

Just in time to return to work.

As I write this, it is 11:38 PM on January 21, 2015, which means over there across the pond, it's roughly Oh-My-Frakking-God-It's-Early O'Clock January 22, 2015. I have just quit getting ready for bed because I realized that my post is due in just a few short hours. About three hours before I get home from work tomorrow, in fact. So my countdown is going to have to be delayed, I'm afraid.

I'd like to take a few minutes, though, to thank all the fine folks at Authors Electric for allowing me to be a monthly contributor. I want to thank Reb MacRath for recommending me to the group; without his good word, I never would've gotten this chance to share my ideas outside my immediate circle of friends. I'd like to thank Susan Price for being so helpful, especially in my early days, with helping me learn the ropes of the blog site.   I want to also thank those of you who log in every month and comment on my posts, especially Bill Kirton, Madwippet, Dennis Hamley, and a whole slew of others whose names have escaped me.

I couldn't ask for a better, more supportive group of writers to share ideas with.

You people rock.

Casey, would you please dedicate "Rick the Kasbah" by The Clash to all these fine folks because apparently there is no such thing as a thank you song that isn't overly saccharine and cheesy (a taste combination that will surely make me sick again), and because The Clash are awesome?



Author's Electric, here's "Rick the Kasbah"
because "thank you" songs all kind of suck.

Next month, I promise. We finish this thing.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

D is for Dementia, by Ali Bacon

Sometimes it feels as if the modern age is defined by health problems, conditions that stem from our living longer, or in a different kind of society, or sometimes it’s just a case of being able to use technology to redefine something that always existed. And so we now have anorexia, depression and obesity,which had different names or no names at all in previous generations. 

After my granny had lived with us for a few years, she began to be ‘wandered’, a state that progressed to confused, difficult and eventually downright aggressive. We knew here was a physical cause but could not have explained it. Now it's called dementia and we know a great deal more about the many forms it can take, although there's still not much we can do about it. And as a modern concern it's cropping up more and more in memoir (my moan about this one was nothing to do with the subject matter) and in fiction.  

In fact the first novel in which I saw this addressed directly, Margaret Forster’s Have the Men Had Enoughis over forty years old now but I suspect if I reread it I might still think it’s the best. The Scottish Granny is an unforgettable character in her own right as well as the catalyst for a family crisis. If you're at all interested in this topic do check it out. And for those who don't know Forster or would like to be reminded,  Kathleen Jones has written a useful and interesting overview of her life and work

But the last year has seen a spate of new interest. In Kirsty Wark’s The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle (feels like a Scottish theme is developing!)the heroine’s mother Anna has just got to the point of needing looking after and this situation and its effect on the family make a poignant sub-plot to the main theme of the book. (Elizabeth Pringle is a comparative stranger who bequeathed her house  to Anna). In fact I did wonder if Anna's dementia began as a plot device to give her daughter the power of decision-making, but if so it still worked in terms of the family conflict it provokes. Maybe the solution to caring for Anna is found a bit too easily and the ending has a rosy glow, but this isn't a hard-hitting kind of a book. The main story of Elizabeth Pringle is very touching, though, and the locations had me itching to go to Arran.

Hard on the heels of this one, I read Costa first novel winner Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing. It’s very much in the modern vein of combining mystery with psychological drama but Healey’s trick is to put us in the head of Maud, the dementia victim, and to show us how everything she does makes sense from her point of view, although to any outsider – including her daughter - her memory lapses and aggressive behaviour are frustratingly incomprehensible. Maud’s quest to find out what has happened to her friend Elizabeth is intercut with an episode involving her sister which she remembers in vivid detail from the post-war years. I found this a convincing - and unsettling - portrayal of dementia, and although there is a kind of resolution, there’s no shying away from the fact that Maud is not going to get better.

And finally .. over Christmas I spotted Quartet on the box, a beautifully produced and acted ensemble piece about the residents of an old-folks home. From the trailers I expected some light relief, but what struck me most was Pauline Collins' portrayal of, you guessed, a woman on the threshold of dementia. Maybe it's just my age, but despite the presence of Billy Connolly I found it more sobering than  'wickedly funny'. But then it is a sobering subject. 

Ali Bacon
Up to now our knowledge of the disease hasn't produced any cure and maybe it never will, but as time goes on we are beginning to see ways of halting its progress or ameliorating its symptoms. Meanwhile we are at least acknowledging its existence and the impact it can have on so many of us.