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Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Not everything we write is wonderful - Jo Carroll

Not everything we write is wonderful.

There, I've said it. And I think it's particularly relevant for memoir writers - including travel writers. So I'm going to give myself a bit of a kicking here, but hopefully some of it will echo in your chambers too.

There are many who can write beautiful sentences. The basis of our craft is sentences. We can perfect our grammar and absorb the thesaurus and create images that leave a reader bewildered by our erudition.

Yes, but is it interesting? I could describe, in glorious detail, my hotel room in Killarney (I've just got back from Ireland) but I won't because - let's be honest - who the hell cares? It was clean and comfortable, and there were no rats or cockroaches (very relevant given some of the places I visit), so what more do you need to know; I ate great food (Irish cuisine has improved hugely in recent years) and drool over the Guinness (oh the Guinness) but my readers - if any have stuck through this ugly, convoluted sentence - will fall asleep.

For our challenge is surely two-fold - to write beautifully, but also (and I would argue more importantly) to be interesting, or funny, or original. And how can we know? There is always someone, even if it is only Auntie Nellie, who will tell us we are wonderful. And there may even be someone on tenterhooks waiting for details of hotel rooms and what I eat for breakfast. You might even suggest that I should write about it, just to please the reader who has got this far in the hope of such nuggets.

Up to a point we must rely on the advice of other readers and writers. But I think we must also look to ourselves. Not everything I do or think is of interest to anyone other than me. My reader doesn't really give a toss about me and my little world; he or she wants something that touches them in some way. A what-would-I-do moment, a goodness-me moment, a glimpse of something different or glorious or funny. A titbit that will lead them into a different way of thinking, or feeling, or looking at the world.

All of which doesn't mean that I can't have a wonderful time, wherever I am. It simply means that I only write about it if I think it has relevance in your lives as well as mine.

And here, just for the one person who might be interested in where I've been, is a photograph from Ireland.

You can find more if you play about on my website here follow the links to the travel and then Ireland pages.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Lev Butts' Top Ten (Part I)

Recently I found myself tagged in one of those Facebook chain posts that make the rounds every few hours or so. You know those posts: Somebody tags you and you have to post a status that says exactly how you met or you have to tag the first five people on your friends list and they are your survival team when the zombies attack during a nuclear war caused by an asteroid crash or if you're tagged you have to post the answer to some kind of secret question and when you do the answer seems some how dirty ("I like it hot and steamy in the morning on the porch." Secret question: How, when, and where do you like to drink tea?).

I think you're a semi-illiterate moron.
Anyway, I usually try to avoid these things unless I'm bored or grading papers, but this one I liked. 

So much, in fact that I didn't do it. 

It was too good a challenge to waste on Facebook, so I decided to do it here instead:

List ten books (or series) that have stayed with you throughout your life.

I am assuming by "stayed" they mean have had a lasting impact, otherwise you're going to be bored with a list of encyclopedias, outdated cookbooks, and Gideon new testaments I just can't seem to get rid of.

When even Goodwill won't take your books, you know there's a problem.
I chose to write my list here in order to also discuss these works instead of just listing ten random books. I'm dividing it into multiple posts because I don't want to lose you halfway through.

Also I'm lazy and this will get me off the hook for next few posts.

So, here we go in no particular order (though I'm counting backwards because it gives the audience a false sense of anticipation):

10. The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan (James Oliver Rigney, Jr.)

Before I became a literature teacher, this was an afternoon's reading.
I first came across this epic fantasy series during the second half of my senior year of high school when the first book, The Eye of the World, was released in paperback and the second, The Great Hunt, was released in hardback. The series tells the story of three young men and two young women from a backwater nowhere named the Shire the Two Rivers who find themselves at the center of literally world changing events.One of the young men is destined to be The Dragon Reborn, a male wielder of the One Power (this series version of magic, or the Force, or whatever), who will destroy the world when he defeats Shai'tan,the ultimate personification of evil (Shai'tan, Satan; get it?).

Several critics of the series decry its obvious debt to Tolkien, and they aren't wrong, especially in the early sections of the first book. However, I defy them to find a work of epic fantasy written after 1955 that doesn't owe something to Tolkien. I would argue that Jordan borrows far more from European and Asian mythology, especially the cyclical nature of time found in Hinduism and Buddhism, the concepts of balance, duality and a respect for nature found in Daoism, and the Islamo-Judeo-Christian creation story. More importantly, Jordan manages to take these concepts, as well as historical events, personages, and folklore, and weave them into a tightly written (though expansive) epic tale of good and evil. 

I loved it from page one, and despite my somewhat snarky plot summary above, I still do.

At the time, the series was supposed to span six books. By the time I was a senior in college, Jordan had just published the fifth book, The Fires of Heaven, and the series showed no signs of wrapping itself up at the end of the next installment.

I decided to wait to read it until Jordan finished the story before I tried again. Six books became seven; seven became nine. I know his author's bio at the back of every book claims he "intends to continue writing until they nail shut his coffin," I often thought, but surely he doesn't intend to be writing the same book!

Well damn.
Thankfully, his estate hired fellow fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson to complete the last three books of the series based on Jordan's notes, and in January of 2013, almost 30 years after Jordan first began writing the series, A Memory of Light, the fourteenth and final book (fifteenth if you count the prequel novella, New Spring), was released.

So perhaps, this entry fits both interpretations of "stayed with you" since I have literally been waiting my entire adult life to read the damn thing.

I restarted the series over last October. I aim to finish before they nail shut my coffin.  

9. All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren

Don't let the new edition fool you;
this is the version that won a Pultizer.  
When I was a grad student working on my Masters of English degree, I met the man who would become one of my most important academic/professional mentors, Dr. Randy Hendricks (Ha! bet you thought I was going to say Richard Monaco, didn't you? Hang in there).

Dr. Hendricks was (and is) everything I ever hope to be as an English professor: soft-spoken, encouraging, brilliant, a literary memory like a steel trap, and one hell of a funny guy after a few drinks. Every grad student I knew wanted to be just like him when we finished our programs. 

He was (and is) a Warren scholar, and in an attempt to jump start a conversation with him one night after class (I was taking a Melville course from him) I asked him what I should read if I wanted to read Warren. He recommended I start with All the King's Men.

This book tells the story of the political rise and fall and the moral decline and rebirth of Willie Stark, an idealistic hick who eventually becomes the corrupt governor of Louisiana during the Depression. It also tells of the story of Jack Burden, Willie's friend whose primary job is to blackmail Willie's opponents, his descent into world-weary cynicism, and his eventual acceptance of his world and its flaws. While the story ostensibly follows Jack Burden's attempt to dig up blackmail material on his godfather, Judge Irwin, the plot, in good noir fashion, quickly spirals into mystery after mystery. How did the judge get his money? Why did Jack's father leave his mother? As the story progresses, it becomes clear that the every aspect of Jack's life is interwoven with Stark's career: "the story of Willie Stark, " Jack claims at one point, "and the story of Jack Burden are, in one sense, one story."

Willie Stark is equal parts Huey Long and Julius Ceasar. Jack Burden owes much to Phillip Marlowe, Sam Spade and other hard-boiled heroes of the 1930's pulp magazines. Their story, though uniquely Southern, is also uniquely human.

As a Warren scholar myself, I realize this plot summary does not begin to do justice to the rich plot and intricate philosophical themes of this political novel, but it's the best I can do without giving away too much. 

All the King's Men, is not my favorite Warren novel (that honor goes to his next novel, World Enough and Time), but it is the one I come back to the most. It's also the one that I, like Dr. Hendricks before me, recommend to anyone who wants to read Warren's work.

Avoid this edition, though. "Restored" here does not mean"put 
back into its intended form." Here the publishers intend its less 
common definition: "fancy word so you'll buy the book twice;
actually it's mostly a rough draft."
To Be Continued . . .

That's about all I can squeeze into one post. Join me next month for numbers 8-6.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Does it pay to advertise? by Ali Bacon

A Kettle of Fish book cover
Ali Bacon's debut novel
Well does it? Until recently I hadn’t even considered it.  When A Kettle of Fish was published in late 2012, I already had a healthy online presence. Using my ‘platform’ to sell my wares, I could also call in online favours to shout about my new e-book without spending a penny. But two years on, while reluctant to conjure up images of deceased equines, that’s pretty much what I feel I’m dealing with. Surely my online audience and real-time contacts have by now either bought it or decided against?  Yes, I think it’s time to find a new audience by doing some advertising. Will it pay? Maybe I should have consulted my blogging associates first, but having woken up one day with a sudden desire to go for it, here’s what I’ve done so far.

The first thing I considered was a listing with one of the increasing number of e-book marketing services. With these your book is  emailed out to readers who have usually indicated a genre or set of genres that interest them. To test the waters, I signed up as a reader to three of these, Fussy Librarian (well I used to be one!) E-book Soda (nice name) and Bookbub (not a nice name but seems to be the biggest). Emails arrive daily with listings in my chosen genres with links to retailers and I have even bought one or two, so I can see that the system works. All of these services have or claim to have a basic quality control mechanism for submissions and some of them insist that the book is discounted from its normal price or have an upper price limit. The cost of these  services is usually linked to the circulation stats  for the chosen genre. These examples are all for a single day listing in the women’s fiction category.

Cost per listing



Free book    $220
$1 book       $440
$1-$2           $660


Bookbub is the only one to give estimates of sales.  They claim a paid-for book will sell an average of 2000 per listing but the spread is from 400 to 4000. Even if I make my book free (average downloads 19000) it’s a lot of money for a business with minimal profits. And no guarantees of the uptake. On the day I checked, the E-booksoda price was only $5 and I took the bait. It will be mailed in two days time on September 24th. If there’s limited impact, at least I won’t have broken the bank!

Ali Bacon writer
Author, salesperson, ex-fussy-librarian
Meanwhile my POD publisher Feedaread was offering an advertising deal via Writers Magazine and Writers Forum (combined subs 13000 plus retail distribution 33,000) in which readers will visit Feedaread website and choose to read an extract from any of a number of novels for the chance to win a substantial prize. I have some reservations about this and would not have taken part if I hadn’t negotiated that the e-book as well as the paperback will be mentioned in the promotion. (Yes, there’s hard woman in there somewhere!) Let’s say the cost is a lot more than $5 but still considerably less than the cheapest Bookbub deal.

I have to confess my approach in all of this has been far from systematic and you can probably see there are other factors I haven’t gone into here. I’m also hoping that by the time these promotions run, I’ll have access to my own detailed sales figures which are at present only seen by my (micro) e-publisher. 
I’d be fascinated to here how others have dealt with any of this and how they have fared. I do have other marketing plans including face-to-face events, but I’m also aware that the best plan of all might be to bring another product to the market. 

Yes, never mind the sales pitch, time to get writing!

Ali has her own website at or follow her on Twitter @AliBacon

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Of Birds and Butterflies, Books and Differences! - Pauline Chandler

Do you love birds? I wouldn't have one as a pet in a cage, but I love to see them in the garden, especially finches. They're like bright little jewels.

Recently, I was struck by how different birds pick out different foods. Usually we fill up the feeders with sunflower hearts, to the delight of the finches. Then, one morning, we put out a pile of stale bread, pulled into chunks. The finches weren’t the least bit interested, but a great flock of jackdaws came down and took the bread away, every last scrap, within a couple of minutes, like pro burglars on an easy-peasy heist, in and out, roundabout, thank you very much. They left a most confused squirrel, frozen, beneath the bird table, eyes lifted to the skies and a speech bubble issuing from its mouth: ‘ sort of a cheese sandwich was that?’ (Love that ad!)
Put that bread back or else!

There ain't room in this town for both of us..

Did you know that butterfly larva eat their own special plants? No, neither did I, until I read about it in the paper this week. 

For instance, 
the Grizzled Skipper lives on agrimony 

 the Brimstone on buckthorn 

and the Fritillaries on dog-violets

It’s all very specific, which makes it easy to see why some butterflies are at risk, when their food plants are decimated.

But to the point of this post: all my reading life I’ve had a worry at the back of my mind about reading the 'right' books. Maybe this was planted in my school days when we had lists of ‘suitable’ books to read, to prove that we were well-educated.

As a teacher, I’ve often been asked by anxious parents and students what books to read, in preparation for exams or university entrance, in other words, what to read to impress.

Look, I’d like to state publicly now, that, in spite of having spent my working life as an English teacher and writer, that I have not read War and Peace, Proust or Ulysses. Nor have I read the complete works of Dickens, Thomas Hardy or Shakespeare. I’ve read some of each, of course.  Yet, always at the back of my mind, was this prodding anxiety: ‘You should know it all…you should have read more…learned more’.

What codswallop! It’s only now in my sixth decade, that I'm able to take a step back from the rush of a working life and see things in a more balanced way.  

We are all different, with different appetites for different food plants and different books. 
I used to be disappointed when friends hated the books I loved and confused when I just couldn’t see what the critics were raving about in the bestsellers. Now, I know it doesn’t matter a jot. 

We’re all different. I have a catholic taste in books and read all sorts from murder mysteries to humour to biography, to historical fiction to ‘how to’ books. I like what I like. (Look, I just wouldn't admit that to everyone. (And, no, I haven't read '50 Shades of Grey'.) 

Currently reading:

Kate Atkinson : Life After Life, which is beautifully written, in an almost spoofy way, verging on caricature at times, considering the subject matter. (Is that the point? I still haven’t quite squashed that worm of doubt in my own judgement). The book’s incredibly dispiriting, though. Just when you’re in love with the characters, they pop their clogs! It’s upsetting me no end. Superb writing though, so I’ll persevere.

Just read:

Marc Levy: The Children of Freedom, a gut-wrenching account of resistance fighters during Hitler’s occupation of France. Absolutely rivetting.

Pauline Chandler
September 21st 2014          

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Mostly about cheese by Sandra Horn

Chalk or cheese?
Sandra Horn
     Susan {Price} posed this question, so in the absence of any other inspiration I’m blogging about it. Well, cheese, obviously. Chalk isn’t good for much except making dust and shrieking against the blackboard fit to loosen all your fillings at once. Cheese, on the other hand…how can I extol thee?
     Here’s my favourite cheese joke, from Al Murray: ‘The French make 300 types of cheese. Keep going, chaps – one day you may get to cheddar.’ Except of course, he should have said Wensleydale. The crumbly sort, as was served on a slab of Yorkshire tea bread in the little café in the wall at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, in the old days. Sigh.
     My one-time boss, a formidable woman of strong opinions her whole team were supposed to share, once remarked, ‘I think we all agree that the French make the best cheese.’
     ‘Not all the time they can't make Wensleydale, they don’t,’ I muttered, thus putting myself in her bad books for evermore.  An attempt at a light-hearted Wallace and Gromit reference didn’t help. I didn’t care. And while I'm at it, bad cess to anyone contaminating it (Wensleydale) with such ridiculous fol-de-rols as cranberries or apricots. What are you thinking of? There will be a special circle of hell waiting for you, mark my words.
     I wish I’d put cheese in more of my books. I can only think of one, and it isn’t finished yet and might never be.  Mice, now… but their association with cheese is dubious, as you will know if you’ve ever tried baiting a (humane, I hope) mousetrap with it. Mice are largely indifferent to cheese, being somewhat low down the evolutionary scale.  Bacon will do, or chocolate.
     Once caught, we take the mice for a walk onto Southampton Common and release them, with the trap flap pointing away from our house.  Sometimes it takes them several days to find their way back, during which time we’ve grovelled about covering airbricks and any other outlets we can find with fine mesh. It doesn’t work. I do have a soft spot for them, though – in Nobody, Him and Me, they outwit the dreadful cat, Biter the Fighter.
     It got me accused of being a cat-hater, which I’m not, as witnessed by my lovable old tabby cat Miss Minkin in The Hob and Miss Minkin stories. She is too busy looking after her beautiful fur and taking refreshing naps to do more than just think about chasing mice and birds.
     Not like our local mob, who stalk round the bird feeders and get yelled at on a regular basis. Sometimes I shy my garden clogs, which are always within reach, at them, being careful to miss, naturally.
     Speaking of birds, which I was a moment ago, I seem to have a lot of them in the books . There’s The Crows’ Nest, Goose-Anna, birds galore in The Tattybogle Tree, a slew of pengiuns in I Can't Hear You! I Can't See You!, a crucial jackdaw in The Stormteller, a yellow canary in Babushka, an important seabird in The Silkie, and a special crow song by Ruth Kenward in Tattybogle the Musical. 
     You may not know this, but birds like cheese. They get our chopped-up rinds every day and always come back for more.They are clearly further up the evolutionary scale than mice. Or people who put cranberries in Wensleydale. And don't even get me started on mustard with cheese. Blurghhh!!!!!

Friday, 19 September 2014

Gatekeepers – You Choose – Publishers or Readers? by Chris Longmuir

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about gatekeepers, and who decides what readers should be allowed to read. I suppose this has been instigated by the Hachette/Amazon dispute, with Hachette wanting to maintain high prices for their e-books and Amazon stubbornly resisting this in favour of a discounting model. Now, I’m not going to get into an argument of who’s right and who’s wrong, let the big boys slug it out. However, the niggling thoughts about gatekeepers keep on invading my mind.

It has long been accepted that publishers are the gatekeepers, but is this a good thing? It is generally accepted that in order to be accepted by a publisher a book has to be well written and that the badly written books will be weeded out. Excuse me for a moment while I have a snort of derision as I think about Fifty Shades of Grey and all those celebrity memoirs. You see, it’s not really about quality. It’s about money, and whether the book will sell in sufficiently large amounts to earn the publishers shed loads of cash.

Thinking back to when my saga A Salt Splashed Cradle was rejected by one of the big publishers – a book which is now selling very well and is popular with readers, thank you very much – the rejection was on the basis that historical sagas had gone out of fashion. Now this book had survived the many layers of the RNA (Romantic Novelist Society) probation scheme for new writers which involved the thumbs up from three different professional readers and placement with the said publisher. So, to be rejected on the basis of changing fashion in the world of readers was, looking back on it, strange. Did all the saga readers suddenly stop reading this genre overnight? Or was the publisher acting as a dictator, deciding what readers could or could not read? I would lay bets it was nothing to do with what readers wanted and more to do with sagas not bringing in as much money as the other genres. Was any thought given to the devoted saga readers? No, they would just have to make do with whatever the publisher dictated was the new fashion in reading.

The same thing happens when a publisher decides a mid list author is no longer reaching the publisher’s ever increasing targets. They are dropped without any thought given to the readers who may be waiting anxiously for that author’s next book.

This poses the question – should publishers be the gatekeepers? Or should the industry allow their readers to be the gatekeepers? Somehow, I can’t see that happening because, as I said, it’s all about money and profit. So perhaps it’s just as well the gatekeepers are getting competition from the independent authors who are very aware of who are the most important people in the publishing equation. The readers.

Chris Longmuir

Thursday, 18 September 2014

A Message From Scotland by Catherine Czerkawska

Today is Referendum Day in Scotland and this country where I have lived and worked – on and off – for the past fifty years, is torn in two in a way that I would hardly have believed possible. Way back at the start of the year, my husband said, ‘It will get very much worse. It will be terribly, tragically divisive.’ I didn’t believe him. Well, I hoped he was wrong. But he was right. 

Every morning, for the past few weeks, as the debate - often between otherwise close friends - has become more bitter, more insulting, more angry, I have woken up at three or four in the morning with words practically bursting out of my head. I have, so far, resisted the urge to write them down. They are too angry, too insulting, too divisive in themselves to be committed to paper or screen. But I’m feeling sleep deprived and rather ill. Because here I am, living in a divided country. And make no mistake, it is divided. Horribly so. People speak about winning and losing, they speak about an inspiring and peaceful campaign and all pulling together whatever the outcome, but where more or less half the population are in absolute and occasionally violent disagreement with the other half about a country’s future, the only answer to that is the useful, cynical, Scottish double negative:

‘Aye right.’

I’m working on a new novel. Or trying to work on a new novel. It’s a fictionalised account of the life of Jean Armour, the bonnie Jean who became Robert Burns’s wife and who has been very largely sidelined by a string of mostly male academics, commentators who seem to think that she was somehow ‘unworthy’ of the poet’s towering intellect. I’ve never felt that way. I’ve always been on Jean’s side. In fact, I’ve written a couple of plays in the past, one for Radio 4, about the writing of Tam o’ Shanter and one for Glasgow’s Oran Mor venue, called Burns on the Solway, ostensibly about the last few weeks in the life of the poet, down on the Solway coast. Except that both plays turned out to be quite as much about Jean as about the poet. And the more I wrote about her, the more I heard her voice inside my head, the more I realised that I liked her enough to be able to live with her for the time it takes to complete a novel.

For those who don’t know, the couple had a difficult start. He promised marriage and they signed a document to that effect which in those days, in Scotland, meant that the marriage was legal. Her father fainted at the news and then ‘persuaded’ her to go back on her word. The names were cut out of the document. This didn’t invalidate it but perhaps he thought it did. Robert was outraged as only a handsome, self-regarding, self-dramatising poet could be. Jean was pregnant. She gave birth to twins. Robert took the boy to his family farm, Mossgiel outside Mauchline, and left the girl with Jean. The girl died. Robert took up with Highland Mary of unjustifiably saintly memory. Then Robert went off to Edinburgh to be lionised and Mary died as well. Jean’s parents tried to marry her off to a Paisley weaver but she wasn’t having it. Undoubtedly she loved Robert, truly, madly and deeply. On one of his return visits to Mauchline they met up but didn’t make up. They did something though, because Jean fell pregnant again and was turned out of her father’s house in disgrace. Robert relented enough to take a room (and a bed) for her. She gave birth to another set of twins but the babies didn’t survive for long.

And then, quite suddenly, the poet, who had been dallying in Edinburgh with ‘Clarinda’ aka pretty but prudish Nancy McLehose, came back to Ayrshire, married Jean without further ado and set off to Dumfriesshire to establish a hearth and home for his new wife at Ellisland.

It is an intriguing story with a certain amount of mystery about it. On the one hand, it reads like a conventional romance: nice girl goes through hell but tames bad boy who turns out to have a heart of gold. Except that she didn’t and he didn’t. Nor did it really end happily ever after. But it’s a complicated story and one that has huge potential as a novel. I could have written it as a piece of non-fiction but I want to be able to make up what I don’t know, and there is an awful lot we don’t know about Jean. All we have are hints, intriguing suggestions, possibilities. What ifs. 

So what does this, if anything, have to do with the dread R word. Well, the other day, I was chatting to a friend who said ‘how’s the work going?’ and I said ‘It isn’t, really. I’m working around the idea rather than through it.’ And she said she felt much the same. When, as I do, you write with a very strong sense of place, a strong sense of history, your own attitude to that place as a writer makes a difference to how and what you write. I have loved living here in Scotland. But I was born in England. My parentage is Polish, English, Irish. And now, increasingly I find myself putting a little mental distance between myself and the place where I currently live. I think I am doing it for the sake of my health, as a matter of self preservation. I had written ‘have loved’ there, well before I thought about it, about what that might mean for my future.

Meanwhile, I have to find a way for Jean and her story to take precedence over everything else that is going on, that will go on over the next year or so. It’s a very strange thing to say, but I may have to find a way of buying some time in isolation to write this novel. Some time elsewhere. Not here. Otherwise, I know that all my perspectives will be skewed by the nasty mixture of conflicting emotions that is Scotland today.

Pictures of Jean and Rab are by Leslie Black, from the Oran Mor's excellent production of my stage play Burns on the Solway with Clare Waugh and Donald Pirie. If you want to read the play, it's available in eBook form on Kindle - and it should be available pretty much everywhere else too in due course.