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Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Mind Your Own Business! - Valerie Laws Helps Us Out - Again.

           On the 29th, we try to post a 'How To' blog - but it's hot, and all the electrics are off sunning themselves.

          So, since many of us are gearing up to the dreaded tax-filing ordeal, here's 'another chance to see' this How-To post from Valerie.

Why writers don't see themselves as businesses? No bird-feeding or kite-flying.

Following on from Catherine Czerkawska’s excellent post the other day, asking why creative writing courses don’t prepare would-be writers for the business side of writing and promoting, I’m going to come out now right here in front of you all.

I am a business.

There, I’ve said it. Many of you are already businesses, but perhaps you don’t know it yet. Perhaps you are in denial. You don’t want to photocopy your bum at office parties or wear boring suits or behave like Mr Banks in 'Mary Poppins'. Or as a writer, you work mostly alone, and think of yourself as an individual, a maverick, a wild card, a free spirit, and anyway your office parties would be embarrassingly sparse.
Not that businesslike, really.
But think about it, if you get royalties (sometimes, and often not much, but still...) from book sales, fees for performances or talks or play commissions or other writery things. If this is the case, you may be a business, and there are benefits out there in the form of paying less tax (yay!) and having less bother (woohoo!) which you might as well have, whether you’re struggling to afford a new ink cartridge or deciding on which model Audi to buy.

Yes, despite my unbusinesslike demeanour, I’m self-employed which makes me a business called ‘Valerie Laws’, and I’m also a ‘sole trader’ which sounds more romantic and a bit piratey. I’m sure you’d like to be that (paging Julia Jones!)
Wouldn't mind photocopying HIS bum..

How can you tell if you are self-employed? First of all, you say you are. You don’t have to get a t-shirt printed or owt. Then you become ‘self-assessed’ for your taxes (even if you are also employed a bit as well by someone else) and hopefully you pay some NI contributions at the fairly low rate of the self-employed. The self-assessed bit is important as it’s how you prove you’re a business to tax people and Amazon. It cuts no ice with them that you want to be alone like Greta Garbo, a creative soul in a garret forgetting to buy cornflakes. You can do all that in your spare time.
I said you DON'T need a t-shirt!
Why is it worth dipping your tootsies in the vile river of commerce?  Now for another confession. For years, I was a complete fool. An idiot. Yes, me, with my first class maths degree. I filled in my own tax return, shaking in my shoes, terrified of making a mistake, so stressed out that I just declared my income as a writer, made a cup of tea, and collapsed sobbing in front of the TV. I ignored the bit about business expenses as I just couldn’t cope with that as well.

As a result, for years when I was, surprisingly, making a living as a writer, I paid far more tax than I should have, from a not very big income. You see? Stupid. I’d heard you could claim things like heating your study and the like, but it all seemed a bit scary and complicated. Then I found an accountant, through a writer friend.There are some who specialise in writers and artists, and know what we are entitled to claim as business expenses, some of which may surprise you. You can do your own tax return without one, having learned all about the exact details of how much of each category you can claim for, but it may be worth paying (perhaps about £350 per year) for an accountant to do it.

If you are a professional writer (‘sole trader’ remember) you can claim as business expenses all or part of such things as: phone/internet/mobile bills, equipment like anything computerish or paper or stamps or ink cartridges... but there’s much more. If you are a writer, a lot of your life is research for writing, and you can claim all or part of that. All the books you buy in whatever form.

'Not now, I'm working.'
Tickets to theatre, literary events, films; petrol/mileage/capital costs of car/tyres etc to all of those events; travel to work-related trips away from home too(performances, festivals, signings, meetings with other writers/publishers/agents/potential payers for your services, research for novel/play; including hotel bills, all food and drink and cups of tea, taxis, railfares...)

If you appear in public (signings, readings, talks) you can claim for clothes, shoes, accessories, hair do’s; subscriptions to charities or writing-related bodies; costs of producing your books (editors, books you buy from publishers to sell at your events...): all this and more can be totted up by the accountant and the total is subtracted from your income, effectively ignored for tax purposes.
It might save you thousands a year. You need to be strictly honest of course and to have proof, in the form of receipts and tickets, so start collecting them now (all of them!). Start listing your trips and mileages, or just get them from your calendar/diary.

That’s just a brief glimpse of the world of business expenses, the honest kind, not duck-houses and moats and second homes down the road from first homes, we’re not MPs! Some of you will already be doing this, and wondering if such innocents really exist, making voluntary presents to the Revenue. But I was one such. And I believe many other writers are too, from what happened when we Brits faced our tax situation in the US. If your books sell on, yes even a few of them, the IRS over there will grab 30% of your earnings before that cheque with ‘Wells Fargo’ incredibly printed on it (cowboys and sole trader pirates! How cool are we!) plops through your door. 


Very nice people really.
They go on doing this until you have proved you are actually paying tax over here, and would rather give it to UK Revenue bods, especially as it would be a lot less, because we are actually exempt from paying tax in the US once we’ve proved who and where we are. When I began the Byzantine process of proving this to the IRS, we had to do it all ourselves, now Amazon are helping with some of it, as you will know, as we had to declare our tax position in October. Forms had to be filled in, definitions had to be learned, categories decided.

In order to do all this you need a special number. This number could be gained in two ways, one (ITIN) as an ‘individual’ and one (EIN) as a ‘business’. The first one involved not only filling in forms but actually travelling to American embassies and all kinds of bother. The second could be done in half an hour and a nice chat on the phone with a lovely lady at the IRS. Yet even I, knowing I’m a sole trader, nearly chose the ‘individual’ route, so powerful is our self image as writers. Doh! Quite a few people did it the hard way though, and on facebook some very successful best-selling writers were lamenting about having to do that until I broke the news that they are in fact businesses. There’s a very helpful blog post for doing all this which may still be useful to some of you. So it’s not all briefcases and pinstripe trousers and gold fob watches. Being a business can be a Good Thing. And you still have plenty of time to languish, create, write, mess about on facebook, and forget to buy cornflakes to your heart’s content. And to go fly a kite. 

Visit my website to see my books (crime fiction, comedy fiction, poetry,several on Kindle), plays, installations, etc at 
Follow me on Twitter @ValerieLaws 

Monday, 28 July 2014

It Was a Dark and Stormy night... by Enid Richemont

Weather, drama and emotions seem to go together, so whichever unfortunate would-be author who first wrote these infamous words did have some idea of what he/she was doing. Rain and tears seem to go together. I remember seeing a film in which a disastrous marriage played a major part, where the camera focussed, during the wedding scene, not on the bridal couple, but on the raindrops 'weeping' down the stained glass windows of the church.

For the last few days, we've had heat and humidity in London, but only one dramatic storm. It's felt like being around someone who bears me a grudge, but won't come out and say so. The sky is sullen, and there are distant rumbles of thunder, but nothing happens. Later, there might be a storm when we can really sort things out - scream, yell and hit each other - oh the relief! But in the meantime, there's this grey, silent, endless, hot, debilitating SULK. And while I often cringe at  forecasts that anthropomorphise the weather - fronts 'trying' to edge their way further south etc. etc. - I do it myself, and I think most writers do.

A couple of weeks ago, I submitted my first screenplay to the BBC. It's a screen adaptation of my first published novel, THE TIME TREE (Walker Books), and writing it was an enormous challenge. Writing for the screen or for the theatre is so very different from straightforwardly writing a novel, and where the admonition 'Show, not tell' really comes into its own. You can't get inside character's heads in a screenplay - it has to be shown via dialogue, physical movement, and setting. You have to visualise your plot like you never did before! The story is a time-slip one, focussing on the relationship between a profoundly deaf Elizabethan ten year old, and a couple of contemporary girls facing the transition between Primary school and Secondary (or whatever terms you use to describe that). Please wish it luck - it was a much-loved book, and stayed in print for ages.

I went to the National Portrait Gallery not long ago, because I never miss the annual BP Award exhibition - I love it. This time I bought, not the catalogue (as always, I wanted the real paintings, not reproductions), but a delightful book by Andrew Marr - A Short Book about Drawing. I simply couldn't resist it. I draw so infrequently these days, and should do it more often. Just before I lost my beloved David, he came in one day bearing one of his many presents to me - a small sketchbook, AND I HAVE NEVER USED IT! I write better than I draw, so in spite of my Fine Arts background, I stopped doing it. But really, it's not about 'better than' - it's about another way of being, and Andrew Marr expresses this so wonderfully. This is the last drawing I made of David, VERY badly photographed - sorry. In it, he looks sad, but he wasn't - he was reading (you have to do something to occupy your mind if you're being drawn.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Stepping into The Spotlight - Andrew Crofts

“So, when are you going to write your own memoir?” people ask whenever I tell stories from my many, many years of ghostwriting.

“Never,” I have always assured them. “I can’t because of all the confidentiality agreements I have signed, all the relationships of trust I have built up with clients over the years.”

Well, now I have done it. Not every story can be told, of course, but for those that can, names have been changed, stories and locations mixed and matched, permissions sought and surprisingly readily given. In the days when I started ghosting, around thirty years ago, secrecy was everything. No one ever admitted they used ghostwriters, no ghostwriters were ever credited or talked about in polite publishing circles. That seems to have changed and most people now get the fact that books need to be written by professionals, edited by professionals and published by professionals.

So on August 14th, “Confessions of a Ghostwriter” will be coming out from Friday Project, an imprint within HarperCollins which started life finding material for books from blogs and other electronic media, (one or two of the stories have appeared before on this website). The cover sports a cartoon of me looking extremely bookish, (my family tell me it is a good likeness), and I must now ready myself to stand by my own words and my own stories after hiding behind more famous and more commercial names for most of my career. It’s exciting, but a little scary.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Have E-books Breathed New Life Into Anthologies? by R.A. Barnes

Warning: this blog post contains diabolical and excruciating similes - like a man who grows long black moustaches and greases them into twirls to make himself look more evil, whereas they just make him look like a lion tamer.
          Ah, anthologies. The Frankenstein of the book world. Someone’s torso, a leg, an arm, all stitched together and with a bolt through the neck from the editor. Oh, don’t forget the head, and other parts.
          My first anthology foray was a piece in our writing college collection Original Sins. That title was original in the way a fat man in a bright orange shirt is individual at a party attended by lots of other people in bright orange shirts, except the other people are all slim.
          I’m not a short story writer, I’m a novelist, and my contribution was a cheat in that it was the first chapter from my (at the time unpublished) psychological thriller The Baptist. The wisdom of this choice became apparent when I read out my opening pages at the book launch in the exquisite St Kieran’s College, Kilkenny, to a heaving crowd of friends, family, colleagues and associates. My lasting memory, just before my father hurled me across the bathroom and into the tiled wall, was that Ray’s superior penis had grown embarrassingly large in his death throes. Hushed silence like the noise birds don't make during a total eclipse of the sun and I moved on to introduce the next author who had written a poem about a pigeon, or was it a dove?

          We were twenty-two authors, the Original Sinners. Each piece was perfect in context but the result was something of a Frankenstein. My part was the ugliest, the sneakiest, the creepiest like a bearded man in a meeting who lecherously eyes up all the female attendees before remembering that he's wearing his new varifocals and not his sunglasses.
          We flocked to that anthology like Catholics to a confessional. That’s actually not a bad simile and I apologise – not to Catholics as technically I am one, albeit with a small c these days, but for not keeping the simile standards down - like a butcher who promises mechanically extracted meat sausages and they turn out to be 100% beef sausages. We have such devious butchers in Kilkenny. It’s the country air.
          The objective of Original Sins was to teach us about the publishing process – the refining, crying, arguing over block alignment or hyphenation like twenty-two ants in Hackney arguing over who is going to carry the leaf back to the nest just before a size twelve Hindu policeman’s shoe accidentally crushes them into rebirth as new recruits for the London Met. And other joys of the publication process. What it did deliver in spades was validation. We all became published authors overnight. Well, it took about a year. The book became available on Amazon (currently unavailable) and, although it was hardly ever sold via Amazon, garnered a perceptive review on the UK site for posterity - The book was fine, and delivered quickly and efficiently. I only bought it because my cousin had written one of the stories. They were not really good stories but that is not Amazon's fault.
           A print run of one thousand copies of Original Sins was hawked around South East Ireland, mostly by Jane who seems to have never recovered, and we split the profits among those of the twenty-two who held out their hands. I reinvested mine in the focussed development of novel ideas, which are best fuelled by alcohol – like a car that runs on an alternative fuel and does 0 to 100 mph in two seconds on pure poitín when the inventor forgot that environmental friendliness and fuel conservation were his goals and not alternative uses for moonshine. Original Sins is now ultimately unavailable like a super model who men won’t ask out, not because she’s aloof and too good for them all, but because she’s an android with no private parts. Actually, I do have ten copies of Original Sins lurking darkly on my bookshelf.
          The bright light of that anthology waxed and waned in the sunny South East of Ireland and I figured Robert Aloysius Barnes you are done with masquerading as a short story writer. I had been exposed – like a fake sign language translator at the funeral of a Nobel Peace Prize winning world leader, except less publicly. Then MarbleCity (my publisher) invited me to contribute a guest piece to their 2013 KnifeEdge Anthology. I was one of twenty-three authors this time, one of them a Booker Prize nominee, the majority of them winners in an online story competition. I was like a black sheep bathed in flour in a herd of white sheep, praying for no rain to fall, moving with the herd and trying not to rub off on any other sheep.
           With Knife Edge the publisher made a proper go of it, making the publication available as an e-book on different channels as well as paperback. I murmured about the release on social media – like a hard-of-hearing person who lip-reads others but talks with a hand in front of their own mouth to level the playing field.

          Knife Edge sold well around the world and continues to sell, giving exposure for all of the participating authors. My piece in the Knife Edge Anthology was Vendetta, a chapter that had been edited out of my picaresque novel Peril. As a result at least one reader went on to read and review my other books - I first read an unrelated short story by Ruby Barnes. It had promise, but didn’t seem quite finished. It left me hanging, wishing for just a bit more. Well, both Peril and its sequel, Getting Out of Dodge, give a bit more and then some. I felt I had learned a lesson – like someone who has put their hand into the fire when someone else has told them to put their hand into the fire, and has concluded they shouldn’t have done what they themselves in the first place thought was a bad idea. I should have put a proper short story in Knife Edge.
         Was R.A. Barnes’s anthology odyssey over with Knife Edge? Far from it. The esteemed Authors Electric convened to produce a cookbook of recipes, both real and metaphorical, and as a recent entrant to the group I was invited to get out my apron and spatula. Twenty authors contributed to CookingThe Books, beaten into shape by the wooden spoon of Debbie Bennett et al. The result was a vast banquet of culinary delights – like a smorgasbord that causes taste orgasms for diners who turn up in latex outfits because they think it’s one of those restaurants like the Blinde Kuh where everyone eats in the dark and no one can see you, but it’s not.
          My recipe for Cooking The Books was Preserving The Victim in Alcohol. Bringing together my recurrent themes of fratricide, private parts, home-grown herbs, chickens and booze, I described our family favourite Chicken Saltimbocca in the voice of my serial killer John Baptist. Cover your dissecting table with a double layer of cranial membrane. Totally appetising – like a guest who continually quotes Hannibal Lecter when you’ve served them your best rack of lamb dinner. I haven’t had a lot of feedback on my recipe apart from the appreciative slurpings of my offspring, although that may be to do with the sherry in the sauce.
          Cooking The Books hadn’t even gone off simmer when MarbleCity announced their upcoming 2014 anthology Edge of Passion, again with guest pieces and competition winners, nineteen authors in total. As I twirled my locks trying to work out how to get out of this predicament, Marble pressed ahead with another short story collection Twelve Curious Deaths in France from their new signing, Emmy nominee John Goldsmith, and the literary standard of John’s stories left me feeling inadequate – like a boy who has long fantasised about a sexual encounter with his friend’s mother and finally gets her in the right place only to find that he hasn’t yet grown a single hair under his arms and his motorbike engine won’t start when he turns the key.

          My contribution to Edge of Passion? Yet another cheat to fit the crime / mystery / romantic suspense brief. I took a little known but personal favourite chapter from The Baptist and worked it up into The Heirloom. A jolly little suicide pact by a couple of octogenarians. I felt like a person who deliberately mishears the lyrics of pop songs and regurgitates them to suit the moment. I’m a fake. I’m a weirdo. What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here – Radio Fred.
          Inspired by this trail of anthology destruction, portrayed by me as evidence of my literary success, the Original Sins authors have decided to go for obscure validation once more and will hit the road with a new collection, this time to be e-published. No escape for yours truly, I have to contribute and this time, finally, I have written a new piece. I know they are all going to be cheery and happy smiling people holding hands stories, so mine is a funereal ditty wherein John Baptist doesn’t outlive his brother but delivers a reverse eulogy from his open casket – like a predictable vampire who is really a comedian vampire because, when all his vampire-doubting relatives come to his monthly fake funeral, he likes to lie in the coffin then jump up and say boo.
          Now, there are rumours abroad that the Electric Authors are planning another foray into the anthology outback. But they are just rumours. Which isn’t the same as gossip – like an apple isn’t a pear, even though they are both fruit.
          So, back to the title of this post from which I had wandered like a man sent upstairs to get his wife a scarf and coming back down with no trousers on. Has e-publishing breathed new life into the Frankenstein concept of the anthology? Like an Amazonian warrior giving mouth-to-mouth to a hideous monster made of salvaged body parts even though some of the vital ones are missing? Have low production costs, digital technology and social media made story collections more accessible? Like a shopper who suddenly discovers healthy eating and says look, there are chick-peas, alfalfa sprouts and mung beans available in my local store when, in fact, there have always been chick-peas, alfalfa sprouts and mung beans in their local store, well at least for the last few years. Does the modern e-book reader have the memory span of a goldfish and prefer short things? Like how a very short man will look at a very tall man on a bicycle and laugh at how ridiculously high the tall man has set the saddle so that it looks like a monocycle, except it has two wheels? I say yes, if you sit on that metaphorical saddle and your knees touch the ground then either your bike is too small, your legs are abnormally long or it’s not yours and you’ve stolen it from a child. Anthologies are great for quick reading opportunities on mobile devices. Bikes are not for giants.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Page the Consultant! - Or, A Guinea-Pig's Tale - by Susan Price

  RLF Consultant Fellows

The  Royal Literary Fund Register of Consultant Fellows


        Here we are, then. 

          This is the reason I've been pleading that I'm too busy, for the past year. I've been an RLF guinea-pig on their latest project, the Register of Consultant Fellows, the aim of which
Dr Trevor Day
was to turn twenty writers into people capable of 'operating with appropriate training and to high standards of professional and ethical practice, to facilitate writing-related activities with groups of students or staff.' This is a quote from Trevor Day, the highly qualified educator and writer (and marine-biologist who swims with sharks) who devised and led the training-course.

          I think the Consultant's Register is part of the wide change taking place in publishing, and to the position of writers in the industry. The Society of Authors is concerned about the drastic fall in writers' earnings. This is, after all, the reason why many of us began to self-publish. (This blog about writers' earnings is interesting too.)

          My own income - which had never been all that enormous, because if being rich is your ambition,you don't become a writer - went off a cliff as soon as the recession hit in 2008. It was the Royal Literary Fund, fondly known as 'The RLF,' which kept me afloat for three very enjoyable years as a Royal Literary Fund Writing Fellow at De Montfort University. My contract required me to be on campus two days a week, and give all the help I could to students studying any subject, at any level, to improve their writing.

          I soon became aware that there were many bright, lively students, interested in their subject and knowledgeable about it, who nevertheless couldn't write a grammatical English sentence, couldn't construct an argument or an essay, couldn't write in the 'academic voice,' and couldn't punctuate or spell. It never occurred to many to redraft or edit. They hadn't a clue how to reduce their 5000 words to 2,500. They were stymied by writers' block.

          RLF Central received reports like this from all over the country, from every university where they had a Writing Fellow. In response they came up with the Consultancy Training Scheme, and the Consultant Register. The idea is not only to provide help for the students, but also to provide another income stream for the writers who gain accreditation as consultants.

          All of us RLF guinea-pigs had been RLF Writing Fellows, so we thought we knew what to expect. (There are, by the way, many photos of guinea-pigs wearing mortar-boards and even specs, on the internet, but none of them copyright-free. I thought you'd like to
know that. Make do with one of my favourite LOL cats instead.)
             I think I can speak for most of my fellow guinea-pigs when I say, we thought we knew, roughly, what we were in for - and blimey, were we wrong. The course was between three and five times harder than anything we'd braced ourselves for. We were punch-drunk before the end of the first 3-day training weekend.

          Quite rightly, the RLF intend their consultants to be able to pass muster in the world of Higher Education, so they didn't mess about. We were taken through Educational Theory, ways to approach universities, how to structure workshops, how to devise 'interactive exercises' and why they're necessary. We got tips on how the lay-out of a room influences learning, and how to build a relationship with the students. 'It starts outside the room, where they're waiting to come in,' said Max. 'Introduce yourself. Find out their names - and you've started a relationship, started to build a bond.' There was a lot more, over the 6 days of training, but my space here is short.

          We were provided with mentors to wail to and, being writers themselves, they were unfailingly supportive, helpful and
My lovely mentor, Katie Grant
understanding. I was lucky enough to be appointed to Katie Grant, author of the brilliant 'Sedition' and also of this fascinating piece in The Guardian. As a mentor, she was not only kindly and unfailingly soothing, but consistently offered truly constructive advice that steered me in the right direction. I'm not sure that I would have got through without her.
          At each step of the training, we had to do nerve-wracking 'presentations' to other trainees, or to real, live students bribed into taking part by the RLF. (But all the students reported that they'd enjoyed the experience for itself and would volunteer again.) After the workshops, we were given feedback, by mentors, other trainees, and students. We were told what our strengths were, and our weaknesses.

          At the end of this 'core training' came the 'work-experience.' We had to persuade some seat of learning to host us for a workshop, or workshops, which had to add up to at least three hours, and we had to devise and deliver a workshop, with 'learning activities'. The RLF paid us a fee for this, plus expenses, and also dispatched a mentor to observe our workshop and report on it. (A hardened Head of
Max Adams
Science of my acquaintance winced in sympathy and paled behind his beard when I told him this.) The RLF observation was made a little less painful, though, by the fact that the observer was another writer, and someone we knew. In my case it was, for my first workshop, the ex-archaelogist and historian, Max Adams, author of 'The King of The North.'

           For my second workshop, (I did one of 2 hours, and one of an hour) it was the Big Cheese himself, Trevor Day, who did the observing. So I felt I was thoroughly observed.

          We also had to hand out feedback forms to the students taking part, and get feedback from the 'client,' and all this feedback had to be forwarded to the RLF.

          After this, we had to complete a 2000 word 'reflective' account of how we'd designed the workshop, our thoughts on the experience, and how our thinking had changed. With at least 6 academic references.

          We had to pass on all these sections - the in-training presentations, the observed workshops, the reflective account, before we could gain accreditation. And I passed. There were times I was certain I wasn't going to, but I finally did.

          So what do I, and the other RLF Consultants, offer?

          There are many different approaches. Some consultants, such as Trevor himself, aim their workshops at academic staff and post-graduates, with the aim of helping them to improve their communication with the general public or potential employers.

          Others, like me, are more interested in sixth-formers and undergraduates. I want them to have a clear idea of what 'academic writing' is - what 'active' and 'passive' voice are, and how to use them. I want to arm them with some idea of how to structure an essay, and how to redraft one. This is one reason why I was assigned to Katie Grant, because she has been working like this with schools in Scotland for a while now. Much of the material I adapted in my work-experience work-shop came from Katie's 'Bridge' project. (I was also helped, with advice and material, by Authors Electric's own, our very own, Bill Kirton. Thanks, Bill!)
Author Electric Bill Kirton

          Another approach, and one I'd very much like to take part in next year, if I can, is the 'Immersive Essay-Writing' course. This was developed by Babs Horton and Tina Peplar, and has been a hit wherever it's been done. It involves two weekends, and one-to-one sessions during the week between.

          On the first of two successive Saturdays, a group of students come together with two consultants, bringing an essay they actually need to write. They are taken through exercises which get them started on their essay. At the end of the day, they are sent  away to write it.

          During the week, they can meet up with the consultants, for one-to-one advice and help. On the second Saturday, they come together as a group again, and there is a review of their work and more exercises. The aim is for them to lose their fear of essays, and to provide them with some of the skills they need to tackle any future essay or writing project that comes along.

          Here's my entry -
          I used what the RLF taught me about workshops to devise a three-hour session on 'how to build a scary story,' using the powerful (and very scary) 'Mr. Fox' story as a model. I feel it could be adapted to teach a better understanding of the structure underlying any story - or essay, for that matter. I had originally
intended to use it for school children and students, but Trevor suggested that school teachers might find it equally useful, to better their own understanding of creative writing.

          At the moment, Trevor Day is working with the RLF on improving their Consultancy Training, based on feedback from us guinea-pigs.

          Anyone wishing to learn more about the consultancy service can either contact a consultant individually - their contact details are on the site - or, for a more general question, fill in the form on the site's 'contact' page.



Thursday, 24 July 2014

Why writing matters.

I'm not going to pretend that writers can change the world. There are very few books that have had a
monumental impact on thinking - the works of Marx excepted, and maybe Plato, and Rousseau, and Thomas Paine ...

I'm not going to destroy my argument by listing philosophers. Besides, I'm not thinking of them - but of the majority of us who tap away at our computers, teasing out stories from the general confusion of our ideas, and sending them out for some to read. They aren't earth-shattering; few will be remembered when we're gone.

Even so, I would argue that writing, even apparently trivial little stories, can contribute to big ideas and ways of looking at the world. For in the reading we employ our skills of curiosity, and of empathy - with characters, with the problems that face them in the contexts of their challenging settings. Imagine our reader, sitting up in bed, a partner ready to turn out the light, and yet she must read one more page, one more page. Not simply as an entertainment, but because in that moment it matters to her what happens to characters - who don't really exist!!!

The next morning, on the News, she hears of girls abducted in Nigeria. These girls do exist. They are living, right now, in terrible limbo. Our reader, empathy intact from last night's reading, is able to despair for them and their families.

Then there are stories of boys press-ganged into serving as soldiers. Our reader can shed a tear for them.

And then the hard one. Young men brought up in unremarkable Cardiff appear as terrorists. Our reader might well shudder at the thought. But, night after night, she has been putting herself in someone else's shoes. Now she can use those skills again - to wonder, not only what it is like for these boys's families, but also for the lads themselves. She can resist knee-jerk condemnation and speculate on their dreams and feelings - she doesn't have to agree with them to do that.

For this is why reading - and therefore writing - matters. It feeds curiosity, asks questions, invites the reader to explore a world outside him or herself and try to understand it. Given the state of conflict we are presented on the television, I'd argue that a bit more reading could go a very long way.

You can find links to my writing on my website here.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Lev Butts Beats Another Dead Horse by Lev Butts

Earlier this month, North Carolina made history when its governor, Pat McCrory, appointed the first self-published poet laureate, signifying what is certainly one of the first public and official acknowledgements of the value of independently published authors to the world of letters. Indeed, his remarks on her appointment seem to imply exactly this kind of acknowledgement. He claims his objective was to be more inclusive in his appointment, to look outside "the standard or even elite groups" that normally take these positions. "It's good," he continued,  "to welcome new voices and new ideas."

In short, July 11, 2014 is a date that every independently published author should memorize; it's the date when the game changed.

WAIT for it....


She resigned less than a week later.

If you've been reading the articles I've linked above, you may well be thinking "Well, that's awful nice of her. After all, she was appointed without the input of the Arts Council, which has traditionally (if seven previous poet laureate appointments can really be called a tradition) provided recommendations."

You could think that, but you'd be wrong.

Technically, the recommendation of the Council of Arts is a courtesy, not a requirement. Something the Council was made very aware of with this appointment. And something they've been stewing over ever since.

Ms. Macon resigned after the literati of North Carolina took issue primarily with her status as self-published. As soon as her appointment was announced, writers and English faculty all over the state howled as if their chai lattes, Smart cars, and Mumford and Sons LPs were being taken away. They have since behaved towards Ms. Macon with all the class and decorum of gun-nuts a Chipotle restaurant.

Who are you to deny me my right to deny others their right to a peaceful dinner? 
While many avoid using the phrase "self-published" directly, the subtext is clear:

Jaki Shelton Green, a former Piedmont Laureate and a member of the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame, claims that Macon's appointment makes her sad: because “It’s an affront to all the hard work so many of us have done,”

Apparently, Green, like another Green I have mentioned, seems to think that virtually no work goes into self-publishing. That Ms. Macon simply inhaled deeply and belched two books of poetry while working with the disabled at the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (becasue we all know how lax and easy those jobs are) and helping to raise money for the homeless (the proceeds of her latest book are going to support a farm that raises food specifically for the homeless community).

Richard Krawiec, a poet and publisher from Durham, NC claims that the “Laureate is for people with national and statewide reputations." He further argues,  "If you don’t honor that basic criteria of literary excellence and laureates being poets at the top of their game, than [sic] what’s the purpose of the laureate position?”

If the assumption is that the laureate should only go to those with national and statewide reputations, it seems unlikely that indie writers could ever be poet laureates, regardless of how good their work is since it is virtually impossible for someone to promote their work statewide (much less nationally) without either being independently wealthy or having the backing of a publisher. Thus the laureate belongs, according to Krawiec's own argument, to the "elite" literary groups the governor mentioned earlier.

The irony is that raising a self-published writer to the position would have greatly improved other independent writers' chances for recognition. It would have said that literature is for everyone, that writing literature is for everyone as well. 

And therein lies the real problem:

The truth no one has the guts to voice is the tired old classism that rears its head throughout human history, sometimes as racism, sometimes as sexism, this time as literary snobbery. Independent authors should look up to the eliterati and strive to be like them though they can never actually join their ranks.

Self-publishers, know your place. Send us your membership dues for our writing societies and support whatever "real" author you enjoy, but until you get traditionally published, stay the hell out of our poet laureate seat.

Stop! Stop! Now that's just silly.
This started out as a nice little post about the disrespect of independent authors,
but now it's gotten silly.
You're making it sound like these liberal writers and faculty are just as bad as racists, and
anti-marriage-equality bigots,
and that's just silly.
I'm sure they believe black and homosexual independent writers deserve just as much disrespect as WASP independent writers.
I've written about this before, and I expect I'll be writing about it many times again. The only way attitudes toward independent writers will ever change is if more of us write and speak out about it. 

Is Valerie Mason a good poet? I have no idea. And quite frankly I don't care since, apparently, few of her critics do. In the admittedly limited research I have been able to do on this post, I've only seen complaints about her status as a self-published writer. I've found very little that discusses her actual, you know, poetry.

Clearly, her detractors assume that since we are a country that absolutely adores poetry (as evidenced by our hugely popular reality shows American Poetry Idol and Rhyme Swap) if she were any good, she'd be traditionally published (as it is ever so easy for poets to be published in this country where poetry books sell so well).

Should the governor have appointed her without other input? Probably not the best idea he's had, but his stated goals, of allowing more diverse candidates to fill seats normally reserved for "elite groups," would have more than likely been thrown out had he done so. If you're going to protest this appointment, though, stay focused on that. Harping on the self-published angle is just petty and mean-spirited.

The point is moot, though, as Ms. Macon resigned her position last week, after serving a grand total of six days, to avoid having this flustercluck divert any further attention from the importance of the poet laureate position.

Yes, while the North Carolina eliterati were busy defending the honor of the poet laureate seat by debasing it with mud-slinging, name-calling, and all-around whining, Valerie Macon took the high road for sake of the very position she was accused of defiling.

In her response to this news, Kathryn Stripling Byer, herself a former the North Carolina poet laureate, after criticizing Macon for having the unmitigated gaul to allow herself to be named in the first place, urged her readers to make sure not be insensitive to the poor dear and to place the blame squarely where it belongs.

I intend to do just that. 

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the true instigators of this whole fiasco:

The North Carolina Eliterati:

Vivian Smith-Smythe Smith

Nigel Incubator-Jones

Gervais Brook-Hamster
Simon Zinc-Trumpet-Harris
Oliver St. John-Mollusc

Valerie Macon served less than a week as the North Carolina poet laureate, but she still served. She is still, to my knowledge (and if I am wrong, it's even better news), the first independently-published writer to hold a laureate position in any state. 

No one, not the governor of North Carolina, not the upperclass twits of the Council of Arts, not the other members of the North Carolina literati, can take that away from her.

She still wins, and that win is a win for all independent writers everywhere.