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Monday, 3 August 2015

Making It Up As We Go Along - By Umberto Tosi

Back in the 80s, when Madonna was like a virgin, Michael Jackson thrilled, Milli Vanilli lip-synced and Ronald Reagan practiced plausible deniablity, I tested the murky bottom of clinical depression. Everything seemed blacker than black. The view from my San Francisco apartment only cued me to its exorbitant rent and guilt about feeling sorry for myself in such splendid surroundings. My shrink advised me do at least one positive thing each day, even if it were only to write one sentence. Frequently I couldn't even manage that. Oddly enough, however, I kept dragging myself to improv workshops twice a week, sometimes three.
Madonna, 1987

I had signed up, paid my money. The classes, usually with eight or ten attendees – non-actors like myself – and a coach, took place at Fort Mason – a cluster of San Francisco Bay-side, concrete-block, World War II loading docks converted to a cultural center, with classrooms, small theaters and galleries. I would arrive at 7 pm., numbly immersed in my glumness, and force myself through the usual warm up exercises, wondering why I had bothered to come. Then the games would begin. No matter how stubbornly bummed out I had been, the fog would lift. For three hours, I'd be engrossed – in the moment, imagination engaged, like a plane climbing out of a cloud bank. The euphoria of forgetfulness would last the rest of the evening.

That's the way improv games work. “It's body-mind induction,” explained one of my coaches, perhaps sensing my need for intellectual embroidery. “You have a problem. You play a game. Get it off the hamster wheel of your mind and into the body. You step over memory into intuition.” The object of the game engrosses you so that, in the moment, you find yourself being spontaneous in spite of yourself, which then leads you into worlds of weird and wonderful possibilities, or sometimes just blank space, which is okay, because that's when one of your fellow players takes the ball and goes on with the show.

I'm not saying that playing improv lifted me completely out of my depressive funk. That took a lot of other work, most of it having to do with re-framing what had gotten me there in the first place. I'll spare you the details. 

We weren't exactly in show biz anyway. “Loose Association,” the group I performed with the longest, off-and-on – led by my ex-wife, Cynthia Chapa, a clinical social worker – did volunteer community performances for county mental health agencies. We would play job fairs, professional conferences, hospitals, fund-raisers of all kinds, schools, even jails. We had to win over some tough audiences, shy, sometimes hostile, not eager to give us suggestions on which to build scenes – unless you count catcalls.

But the show – even in such circumstances – must go on. Personality, looks, wit and even one's native talent made poor shields, but diving into spontaneous improv games with fellow players always loosened people up. No matter the crowd or venue, they would soon start giving us suggestions and warming to the show.

It was also a great deal of fun – if terrifying at times on stage. Over the next ten years, in face, it became my avocation.I took workshops and eventually, performed on stage regularly with three successive groups. I don't rate my theatrics as particularly memorable. Neither I, nor my fellow performers – with a few exceptions – could match the lightening agility of those TV wits on “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” I didn't win any prizes and never got the most laughs, but going for laughs can be a trap in improv. It turns to showboating contests that bore everyone.

It all sounds San Francisco airy-fairy new age, but the principles actually were developed on the gritty streets of Chicago, and have deep political, social and artistic roots, as I was to find out.

In retrospect, I had great training, even though I remained rough at the edges. I was lucky enough to have stumbled onto a couple of extraordinary instructors who ran the workshops I attended back then. An always perky, ever witty ex-teacher, Sue Walden, ran the workshops. She was leader of a the long-running San Francisco improv group, Flash Family, along with her then chief assistant trainer, Doug Kassel, a jazz drummer – nephew of the late, beloved piano artist Marian McPartland. Doug had been a protégé of Chicago's legendary Viola Spolin, the godmother of American improv theater herself.
Flash Family, c. 1988.
Sue Walden, center,
Doug Kassel at far right.

My fascination with improv had started several years earlier with reading Something Wonderful Right AwayAn oral history of the Second City and the Compass Players by Chicago playwright Jeffrey Sweet, published in 1978. This lead to my writing a magazine story about The Committee, a 1960s-70s San Francisco improv group (later on Broadway, with an incarnation in L.A.) known for its political bite, founded by alums of Chicago's famed Second City. Sue Walden had played with The Committee as well, before founding her own group. 

Maybe, without my realizing it, my interest went back even further to the brilliantly improvised social satire of Mike Nichols and Elaine May whose still-hilarious LP albums I found so refreshingly inspiring as a kid in the 1950s. I was just a dumb Hollywood High School senior then. I didn't know that the comedy duo – each to become celebrated film writer-directors – emerged from the Chicago's early improv scene – namely the Compass Players – along with Barbara Harris and Shelley Berman – steeped in Spolin techniques and coached by Paul Sills, Spolin's son.

Sills, in turn, founded and directed Second City in 1959, which, in turn, matriculated, as they say, a galaxy of American film and comedy stars, including Alan Alda, Paul Mazursky, Valarie Harper, Stiller and Meara, Alan Arkin, Robert Klein, David Steinberg, Gilda Radner, Joan Rivers, and along with offshoots in Toronto, New York and the West Coast, practically every Saturday Night Live cast member since the 1970s, and more recently, through its various venues, Steve Carell, Halle Berry, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Jimmy Fallon, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, Tim Meadows, Bonnie Hunt, Stephen Colbert, Amy Sedaris and Jon Favreau – the list goes on. Spolin-Sills-improv had greater
Elaine May and Mike Nichols, c1958
influence in modern American theater and films than Actors' Studio, though less appreciated.

Reading up on the Spolin process took me beyond that magazine story into something far more compelling than TV and movie stars, however. Spolin's theater game process, in fact, wasn't aimed at producing actors per se. It discourages stardom and turns out not about performance at all. It is about play – in most creative sense – involvement, collaboration and spontaneity. Trust cooperation and support are the bywords for improv players, even if we players sometimes stumble and forget them.

Sue Walden kicked off the first workshop I ever took with a simple exercise that demonstrated much of what was to follow. About a dozen of us showed up. Sue told us to line up in a semicircle and, one-by-one, walk around the perimeter of the room to the back of the line, then one-by-one move to the front, repeat, and walk around the room again. This went on for about ten minutes. The only rule was that, with each turn, you had to walk differently than the last, without forethought. At first it seemed a little awkward, then it got very funny while people surprised each other with unique movements – some slapstick, odd, or simply walking in ways that displayed intriguing attitudes. Soon we were all engaged, and laughing. It dawned on all of us that there was virtually no limit to the ways each of us could circumnavigate the room. Lesson: your imagination is limitless and doesn't need preparation, calculation or a script.

Viola Spolin's Improvisation for the Theater (1963) is the movement's bible. Yet there is nothing esoteric about it. Spolin's book spells out two hundred and twenty accessible games and exercises, in which magical things happen – characters and scenes emerge spontaneously, discoveries are made. They don't result in “great” moments every time, but something wonderful does invariably happe as long as the players focus on the object of each game. You can sample dozens of these theater games on videos at Spolin Games Online, by the way, along with discussions and videos of workshop sessions, some by Spolin herself.
Sue Walden master class after-show party, c.1988.
I'm in the white cap, back row.
Sue and Cynthia Chapa, center, 

Doug Kassel, far left, bottom row.

Eventually, I moved on from improv and San Francisco. Did my improv experience help me to be a better – or at least a more productive writer, as it apparently inspired so many creative artists?

I'll give that a yes, but it's difficult to say exactly how. Writing remains a solitary undertaking. It's never going to be as much fun as playing “story-story-die” on stage with a bunch of other jolly misfits. (In case, you're wondering, “story-story-die” is a game in which several players make up a story, bit-by-bit, passed on one to another. The audience – or coach – shouts “die” when a player hesitates. Then he or she must “die” spectacularly on stage, leaving finally one winner to finish the tale. The rule that makes it work is you always “yes-and” to the content that other players pass to you, no matter how bizarre. The moment you get in your head and wonder about it, you “die.”)

Playing Viola Spolin's games with all those wonderful motley players did teach me– in a very basic way – to trust my imagination much more than before I walked into my first Sue Walden class. Also so, to let go of the process and trust others more. I still play those games in my head – and use them as writing exercises.

I never thought I'd end up living in Chicago, where it all started, but I enjoy the serendipity. I leave the improv workshops to those considerably my junior these days. Sue Walden heads Improvworks, an international creative training and consulting firm based in San Francisco. Doug Kassel is on the faculty of  Leela improvisional theater and training company, also in San Francisco, and performs with a jazz band. As for me, I have plenty to occupy my creative imagination writing every day (at least in theory)  - including a sequel to Ophelia Rising - and as a consulting editor with Chicago Quarterly Review. I have, however, found ways to practice the art of improv - albeit obliquely -  right here at home.

When we're on a drive, my partner, narrative symbolist painter Eleanor Spiess-Ferris, like to riff off people and situations we see on the street. It's always a trip how this little games weaves engaging stories so swiftly out of the air. Back when we were long-distance lovers – I in California and she in Chicago – we used to email story fragments back and forth to each other, adding on each time – using “yes-and” Spolin rules.

We started off with a randomly selected theme – just as improv players field an audience suggestion (in this case, “storms.”) To our surprise, the game went on for months and the story riff turned into a complex narrative – a novel-in-progress we entitled “Storm Cycle” – with complex characters, themes, plot and subplots, scenes, poetry and descriptive passages.

The sweetest layer of this cake, however, is experiential, not based on performance, goals, ends, analytics, evaluations and such. I have to say that I enjoyed every minute of it, including the stage fright. I recall fondly how reticent strangers would come together, become an ensemble and light up. A few remain among my dearest friends.
Viola Spolin

Viola Spolin, who died in 1994, at age 88, said she created her book full of transformational games by trial and error, in the midst trying to help people communicate and work together during her Depression Era community work. Maybe that's how all great inventions happen.

In a 1972 speech, Viola Spolin referred to her games “an oracle, that we can evoke to answer our questions.” She foresaw a day when “people can meet to play the games” not necessarily for show, but to find answers to the essential human questions: “Who am I? Where am I and what am I doing?”

I'm still trying to figure those out. 
Okay, folks, suggestions, please. What's a common object you find around the house? And, what's a life-changing event?

Sunday, 2 August 2015

The Dreaded A-Word - Mari Biella

Consider these three different scenarios:

1. The hero of a Regency romance stalks into a drawing-room and greets his bewildered valet with the words ‘What’s up, dude?’

2. A generally well-researched novel set in Mediaeval Europe has a scene in which the protagonist gets out of bed and puts on his underpants. (Underpants, so I’m told, were not commonly worn in the Mediaevael era.) 

3. An author deliberately and knowingly introduces anachronisms, such as spaceships or the internet, into a novel set in Tudor England.

Which of these scenarios is worst, or best? Do all of them set your teeth on edge, or just some? Do anachronisms wreck historical fiction, or not? How much difference is there between an anachronism that is introduced by design, and one that is the result of shoddy research? 

Historical fiction often (but not always) strives to be realistic, and this realism sometimes extends to a horror of anachronism. The argument seems to be that readers need to be able to suspend their disbelief, and that anachronisms puncture the illusion. G. K. Chesterton put it wonderfully: ‘Tell me that the great Mr Gladstone, in his last hours, was haunted by the ghost of Parnell, and I will be agnostic about it. But tell me that Mr Gladstone, when first presented to Queen Victoria, wore his hat in her drawing-room and slapped her on the back and offered her a cigar, and I am not agnostic at all. That is not impossible; it’s only incredible.’

G.K. Chesterton. Image c/o Wikimedia Commons.

The dreaded anachronism, eh? Having had a few tussles with it myself, I sort of know whereof I speak. Once, years ago, I attempted to write a novel set during the English Civil War. It was dire, and will never see the light of day, but it did present me with a few interesting problems regarding my portrayal of the era. The novel was in a realistic vein, and I spent much time researching the period, attending re-enactments, visiting a country house that was furnished much as a house of the period would be, and so on. Such was my commitment to realism, indeed, that I attempted to reproduce the speech of the period. You can imagine how successful that particular enterprise was; the characters sounded like they were reading from the King James Bible. In the end, I reverted to more or less modern English – an anachronism, but a reasonable enough one in the circumstances.

My novel The Quickening is set in Victorian England – and again, is largely realistic. Yes, it’s a ghost story; yes, lots of more-or-less improbable things happen, as they generally do in ghost stories; but I made a conscious decision to position that ghost story within a realistic setting. A framework of realism would, I hoped, help to make the rather unrealistic supernatural elements stronger, would allow readers to suspend their disbelief. Perhaps I was also conditioned by the expectation that historical fiction should be realistic. I’m sure a few anachronisms crept through, but hopefully they were small enough not to drag the book down.

Anachronisms can certainly be annoying on occasion, especially when you’re a neurotic geek like me. One of my particular non-favourites is the scene in Titanic in which a young Rose cheekily tells Mr Ismay what Sigmund Freud would make of his preoccupation with size. For one thing, I’m not sure that a well-bred young lady of the era would possess such daring chutzpah, though I could be wrong about that. Secondly, Freud didn’t publish said theory until several years after Rose’s hair-raising encounter with a giant iceberg, which leads me to conclude that Rose had been doing a spot of time-travelling on the side.

But then again ... there’s another strand of thought, according to which historical fiction does not only reach back into the past, but forwards – into the present, and perhaps into the future. We see the past through the prism of our own times, unavoidably so. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is generally realistic, for example, and yet in its examination of power – how it is gained, how it is used and abused, and how the power of the few impacts on the freedoms of the many – it seems to be addressing a very modern concern. In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, some of the cities described take on an oddly anachronistic modern character. It hardly matters; the cities described are metaphors for states of mind, attitudes, beliefs. Marco Polo describes his story of one city as ‘an approximate reflection, like every human creation.’ 

The question, perhaps, is this: if an author deliberately introduces anachronisms into a work, does that work then step out of the realm of historical fiction, and become speculative or experimental fiction? This is more than a matter of theoretical concern for me. I’ve recently been brushing the dust off an old manuscript that I once despaired of, and now think might work after all. It’s historical, in a sense, being set in Victorian London. This is, however, a slightly alternative Victorian London, and the protagonist has a strange connection to our own times, for reasons that I couldn’t explain without entering spoiler territory. Anachronism is the name of the game here, as this cheery collage that I put together to illustrate the novel suggests:

Oh well. It’s not pure historical fiction, so hopefully any prospective readers wouldn’t be too dismayed by its anachronisms. It belongs, perhaps, under the bracket of sci-fi or speculative fiction; I’d opt for steampunk, but it’s not technological enough to fit easily into that category. Maybe it belongs to that group of novels that don’t fit easily into any genre at all.

I leave you with an example of anachronism as God surely intended.

Saturday, 1 August 2015


Man wielding his mighty plunger

You know, we all get bunged up now and again. No, I’m not talking about constipation, I leave that to cringe-making TV ads. However I might be using plumbing metaphors, partly, ok, largely so I can write about men with enormous tools (yes I know there are female plumbers, and small tools, but those are for other blogs, other times).
Man with enormous tool. Just because I like writing that. 

There have been many discussions of Writers’ Block online, and responses are reminiscent of those about sea- or morning-sickness, or gluten or dairy intolerance, in that those who’ve never had it (YET), often seem to assume it’s imagined or just other writers being over-precious weedy wets chiz chiz. Just apply bum to chair, fingers to keyboard, and keep going, they bark like Sergeant Majors. Those of us with livings to earn can’t afford to have WB! Well those who lay bricks can’t afford to have bad backs, and yet they do. Others, at all levels of fame and success, however measured, are haunted by the condition to varying degrees.

It could be you’ve run out of ideas. It could be you’ve exhausted your resources, and need to live a bit, get out and ‘fill the well’ with experiences before writing some more – those contracted to write more books/poems/plays than their brains want to may be in this position. I don’t tend to run out of ideas, in fact I sometimes have too many. I work in many genres, and at times, masses of creative ideas for art installations, plays, blogs, poems, crime fiction, comedy, one-woman shows, flood in, and the result is a standstill as they get wedged in the revolving door of my available time and attention. Snatches of dialogue, brilliant plot points, beautiful images, stories aching to be told, pester me like a brood of demanding toddlers, each jealously stopping me from giving my time to the others.
Ever get this?
But sometimes, it’s good to stop and let things flow for a bit. Whatever your reason for being blocked, bunged, bewildered or even bored by writing, one possible tool for clearing the drain is a book detailing twelve weeks of activities to aid the creative in anyone, not just writers. THE ARTIST’S WAY by Julia Cameron has been around a good while, and I’ve begun to realise how many people on facebook have done it. Not a self-help book fan normally,  I’ve done it twice, once some years ago at a traumatic time and once again just recently.
Available in paperback or on Kindle. 
There are some potentially off-putting things about it, but it can have some powerful effects if you just get on and do it. The main tool is the three pages a day free writing or ‘morning pages’. There are also ‘affirmations’ where you are allowed to say nice things about yourself (in private of course as is only decent) and spot the ‘blurts’ as your nasty inner voice starts trying to cut you down to size. There are tasks to choose from, and ‘Artists’ dates’ – much of the book is about carving out space for yourself in a life often given to our roles in others’ lives – and lots of inspirational quotes.

A warning: the tone of Julia Cameron’s narration is New Age-y, hipster and quasi-religious. Though she makes it clear that what she calls ‘God’ is the creative principle at the heart of the universe, and you don’t have to subscribe to it as a deity to do the course. It’s not about believing anything, just doing it and seeing what comes up. If you can let that side of it pass, it can bring out not only lots of new creative ideas and useful insights into how you think about yourself and your work/play and how you allow yourself to be a writer/musician/potter: but also, it can be a way to bring out latent memories, quite surprising some of them, issues you never resolved and have almost forgotten, but which are still slowing you down and nibbling away at your self-esteem. The words of a spiteful bully, or ex-lover, or teacher. Connecting with your ‘inner child’, who is the creative person inside you with all a child’s needs, irrationality, joy and fragility, is a large part of it.
Oops, found my inner child...
A lot of it is fun. The tasks will suggest you try new things – I went and did a Chinese flower painting course, I bought adults’ colouring books (very fashionable these) and basically got away from doing things I felt I had to be ‘good’ at or finish or do ‘well’ at. This time round, a few new insights came up. And it’s left me with even more creative ideas written in my months of morning pages, but it has also cleared the way for new ways of thinking, the possibility of change and reinvention, not just in the writing arena. I've started working on several new directions for my poetry and am not panicking, quite so much, about all the other ideas lined up. I’d say The Artist's Way is worth a go.

Another source of inspiration if your well has temporarily run dry or you'd like a kick start in a new direction, Marie Lightman who runs Writers' Cafe in Newcastle upon Tyne, has taken on the challenge of blogging a new writing prompt every day for  a year, so pop in here any time

Find out more about my various projects and productions on 
Some of my thirteen books are now on Kindle UK US, iBooks UK USKoboNook and more, on all platforms worldwide.
Follow me on Twitter @ValerieLaws or find me on facebook 

Friday, 31 July 2015

Don't Be Afraid - by Kristin D Van Risseghem

Hello! I’m guest posting today. My name is Kristin D. Van Risseghem and I’m an author. Don’t be afraid to say it. Writing isn’t my day job, but I do write, so therefore I am a writer. Sometimes you may have to say this a few times. Try it out, then say it again.

I didn’t start out thinking I would be a published author. When I was little, I wanted to be a lawyer. Even went to school to be a paralegal and was supposed to go onto to law school, but for some reason I didn’t. I stayed as a paralegal for 19 years. I know some of you may have always wanted to be a writer … so, be one. I hadn’t written anything since high school. Sure I wrote memos or depos for college, but nothing like a story. Now later in life, I tried my hand at a YA Urban Fantasy story.

Don’t be afraid to push the boundaries. By this I mean if you want to write about something, do it. If it’s not something you’ve ever tried, do it anyway. Try it. Maybe the topic isn’t what’s hot right now. So what? Or maybe it’s a passé topic, write it. Tell the story you want to tell. And sometimes it is the need to tell.

Don’t be afraid to listen to your characters. For me, they do talk and I listen. I am my characters and they are me. Whether it’s a trait, or characteristic, or their appearance … as the writer, we do incorporate ourselves into them. Let them speak because you might be surprised where they take you. And if they get out of hand, threaten that you’ll kill them off. There is nothing wrong with that either.

Don’t be afraid to surround yourself with like-minded people. Your friends and family just doesn’t understand about the whole writing thing. So find people and make friends, who are in the same boat as you. I found them by asking my public library, a local coffee shop and on Sometimes these people aren’t the right fit for you in what you need. That’s okay. There are plenty out there. But there will be some who you’ll make as lifelong friends. Keep them close!

Don’t be afraid when you’ve finished your WIP and are subbing or querying. Remember those people you’ve met? They’ve all been there or are doing the same. When you get your first rejection … yes, it’s going to hurt. The second? Still going to hurt. The fiftieth … yes, I’m not going to lie, it’s going to hurt. It’s not you, your writing, or your story. You just haven’t found your partner, whether that’s an agent or a publisher. The writing community will support you.

Don’t be afraid if the traditional route doesn’t work for you. The advancement of Print on Demand (POD) and self-publishing, your story can still get out there. You will have to learn a lot, but ask around. There are many authors who have self-pubbed and are willing to help.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. You aren’t alone. You aren’t the only one to go at this and you won’t be the last.

So if you haven’t gotten the gist of the post, I’ll tell you one last time: Don’t Be Afraid.

Kristin’s first book, The Guardian, a Sword, & Stilettos, is published by Kasian Publishing. Her books can be found on Amazon, Kobo, and Smashwords.

Kristin D. Van Risseghem grew up in a small river town in Minnesota with her parents and older sister. And after receiving a double Bachelor of Science degree from Winona State University in Paralegal and Corrections, she worked as a Paralegal for various law firms around the Twin Cities for 14 years. Then she left the legal field and is now a Senior Buyer for a technology company.

Currently, Kristin lives in Eagan with her husband and two Calico cats. She also loves attending book clubs, going shopping, and hanging out with friends. She has come to realize that she absolutely has an addiction to purses and shoes. They are her weakness and she probably has way too many of both.

In the summer months, Kristin can usually be found lounging on her boat, drinking an ice cold something. Being an avid reader of YA and Women’s Literature stories, she still finds time to read a ton of books in-between writing. And in the winter months, her main goal is to stay warm from the Minnesota cold!

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Getting together ... - Karen Bush and Authors Electric

Someone asked me recently about collaborating on a book with another author. I’ve done
quite a few and so far they’ve all been a joy to do and I’ve always learned a lot during the process. The best advice I could offer though, was to only write with people you like, respect and get along with: it’s a policy I’ve always followed and has allowed us to thrash out disagreements over content in an amicable way, to have a happy time doing the book and to remain friends afterwards.

Creating an anthology should be a piece of cake in comparison, but it requires a different sort of collaboration: it’s more to do with organisation than actual creative input. First of all there is the tossing up in the air of the idea of doing one in the first place – to be honest I can’t understand why we haven’t produced one before, as we all write fiction … 

Sue Price: I can't, either, Karen. I mean, we all write fiction - what better way to introduce our work to a new audience than an anthology of short stories? - All credit to you, for seeing what none of the rest of us did.

Then, after the initial enthusiasm there is the need to find someone daft enough to impulsively stick a hand in the air and volunteer to oversee it from start to finish and put it all together. Followed by deciding on titles, organising a vote on it, setting deadlines and word lengths, finding more volunteers to design covers and write blurbs: there is the chasing up of those who are not on Facebook and have no idea of this project even being in hand, gentle persuasion of those who are unsure about doing it at all, and merciless nagging of those who are behind schedule or considering dropping out – followed by the grind of checking all the stories submitted, carefully scanning for accidental typos, deciding on and adding a house style, sending proofs of each story out to its author, putting them all together in the right order, formatting and then proofreading one more time.  Doing the technical stuff may be tedious but is actually the easiest and least blood-pressure raising part of it all as you have control of everything.  The challenging part is the rounding up in the first place of all 29 of the stories that make up our bumper anthology; there have been times when yes, it really has felt like herding cats. Collaboration is so much simpler when working with just one other person: and
oh! the lists involved … 

Sue Price: There's a little known Greek legend, where Zeus offers Hercules an option on persuading 29 playwrights to produce a scroll collection together - 29 playwrights who all write in different styles and in geographically scattered places, have different temperaments and a great variety of other committments. Hercules says, no thanks, he'd rather wrestle with the Nubian Lion and behead the Hydra. It was an enormous, difficult job, and you managed it with good humour and patience - but never skimped on quality. I'm so impressed. (Especially when compared to my bumbling efforts to put the book up on CreateSpace as a paperback.)

But on the whole it has been fun; I’ve got to know my fellow Electric Authors a little bit better while working on it, have enjoyed reading each and every story as they arrived, and as a result have added more books to my ‘to read’ list. That is of course, one of the pleasures of an anthology – it’s a bit like a tasting menu, where you will find yourself reading some stories that may be outside your usual genres, and is the perfect way of discovering new writers. Bon appetit!

Sue Price: I know we're partial, Karen, as members of Authors Electric ourselves, but I was so impressed by the high quality of the stories as I read through, while doing the paperback version. There is such a variety of styles, that any reader is bound to find something that's right up their street, and something that's a little different for them. There are longer stories that create a world, and quite short stories, of a couple of pages, which pack a big punch. I'm really proud to have been a part of it.

I love your title pages, too, Karen, a handful of which (randomly chosen) decorate this blog. There are 23 other stories to enjoy!

With thanks to all the wonderful and talented Electric Authors who contributed … plus special thanks,  in no particular order as they say, to Valerie Laws (book description and flyers) Lynne Garner (cover design) Susan Price (creation of paperback edition) and Chris Longmuir for virtual cocktails and party food at the online launch party. I've probably left people out - apologies if I have, but I've lost the list ...

PS As well as a 'best of' blog collection (SPARKS 2) due out in time for Christmas (watch this space), there’s another anthology in the pipeline for next year … 

A Flash In The Pen, the Kindle edition: UK

Coming soon in paperback!                                                              


Wednesday, 29 July 2015

More rambling through the wilderness: N M Browne

I fear that all my posts here have been a bit writing obsessed. That’s because I am a bit writing obsessed.  I am still wading through the quagmire of story, still in the wilderness trying to hack back the undergrowth with a blunt machete to find my way.

I am sorry if that makes my posts a bit samey. It is making my life a bit samey too: like a video on loop. I keep returning to the same sentences, changing them, then rereading them and changing them again.  You see, I have to sound like a twelve-year old boy and the prolix middle-aged woman keeps on sneaking out through inappropriate qualifiers, peeping out through syntax that ought to have died with the Edwardians. She is a pain this middle aged woman. She will keep mucking up the flow of the story with random passages of overwritten prose. Then when I walk away from my desk, make yet another hot beverage I take pity on her. She’s doing her best, not everything she does is dreadful, she’s just out of touch. Oh shit! She’s me.

How can someone in this state have anything useful to share?

 I am sadly not a writer who can think about the sales pitch before I have the book. Maybe I’d be a best seller if I could.

In this particular story I’ve had to tease the plot out as I go, extruding it through some subconscious mechanism I don’t understand but which seems to run on an unhealthy mix of coffee, wine and youtube videos. I am not complaining, I am very happy to be working. I am however apologising for doing EVERYTHING WRONG. If you are or have ever been a student of mine - cover your eyes.

I don’t know what my story is about. If you were to ask me, as kind people occasionally do because its nice to take an interest in the weirdo in the corner, I say;’ It’s a children’s book,’ then, ‘It’s a magical thing about a boy. It’s a bit of a strange story. I’m not expecting much of it.’ THIS IS NOT THE WAY TO DO IT. We must all have an elevator pitch rehearsed ready for that question. We never know who might ask it so we must, like literary girl scouts, always be prepared. Similarly, the same gentle, patient interrogator, valiantly making conversation with this dippy woman pretending to be a writer might ask:  ‘and who is it for?’ Sadly they will get by way of garbled reply something like‘ Well, it’s younger, not YA but not very young maybe nine or perhaps twelve.’ They are entitled to regard me as a rank amateur. A children’s writer should know their target market, should gear the text to meet the needs of a particular kind of reader.

My way is not the way to write. It is definitely not the way to sell but sometimes it is the only way you can proceed. 

 Obviously after this last round of word wrangling, and plot untwisting I will be able to share helpful stuff about how to bag a million readers with nothing more than a facebook page and a digitised arrangement of well-ordered words. I’ll explain how to negotiate film rights and build an audience on twitter. Or not. Till then all I have is the wilderness and my blunt machete…

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Alzheimers, SPILLIKINS and THE TIME TREE by Enid Richemont

A little while ago, I was sent a signed copy of Tabitha Suzuma's Young Adult novel, Hurt. As with many online writer 'friends' on Facebook, ours has grown into something gratifyingly like a real friendship, and since we both live in London, I have no doubt that, one day, we will meet. Pain is something we share - mine from losing David and hers for very different and more complex reasons.

I rarely finish reading a complex and challenging novel in a day, but that Sunday was a bad day for me - Sundays tend to be - so because it was an unexpected gift, I began reading it. I am a slow reader (David, by contrast, was a book-gobbler) so I didn't expect it to occupy my whole day, but it did. The writing is exquisite, and the plot brilliant. It's not easy to grab a reader's attention right up to the last word, but she did it. Please don't be put off by its "Young Adult" labelling - so many Y/A novels are crossover, and this one certainly was. Incidentally, might there be an "Old Adult" genre? Silly responses, please. And as for the "Adult" genre, well that word has been well and truly corrupted - might well be re-named the: "Oh look, I've got genitals" genre.

This is the first cover image for my first published book: The Time Tree. It took me almost ten years to get it accepted, mostly because I was very busy doing other design-orientated things, but also because I really had no idea about the children's book market apart from the fact that I absolutely loved reading to my children. I'd had quite a decent small publishing career via short stories for magazines, and even acquired an agent, but writing a book was something else, and only came about because I'd made up a lengthy story for my daughter and her best friend, and they both wanted me to write it down so that they could read it again.

The Time Tree seemed to grab people, and it stayed in print for ages, acquiring a new cover image in the process (the first one was deemed to be old-fashioned). It attracted film interest - first from a small and very niche film company in Switzerland who wanted to translate it into the Bernois dialect and manipulate the plot. Thankfully, it didn't happen. At present it's with a company called Wild Thyme Productions, which is, fortunately, London-based, but whether it happens depends, as usal, on money, and making films is expensive. The story's about a profoundly deaf Elizabethan child, treated, of course, like an idiot, in spite of her well-meaning family, who somehow makes contact with a couple of very 20/21st century girls, best friends who are on the cusp of leaving primary school.

Lastly, I want to tell you about Pipeline Theatre's extraordinary play - first, because Pipeline is our daughter's company, but secondly because Spillikin has been conceived and written by playwright Jon Welch.

Alzheimer's seems to be the topic of the moment, with the best-selling novel - Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. Spillikin is a love story - yes, you have to believe it. It opened briefly in Cornwall, will be moving to Latitude in Suffolk, and then on to Edinbrough - the festival. It features a real, working robot. If you can, go and see it, and having seen it, if you're moved by it, tell people, tell the world. Alzheimer's made off with one of my favourite writers, the incomparable Terry Pratchett, and it's time we put a stop to it.