Saturday, 30 July 2016

Leader of the Pack by Bill Kirton

I’ve had a career-change idea. If I’m honest, I want something which doesn’t involve that strange concept of a work ethic. I’m not looking, either, for a luxury yacht, a Monte Carlo pad (do people still say ‘pad’?) or a cellar full of Château Pétrus. And, despite my unflagging egocentricity, I want to keep my carbon footprint as small as possible.

So I think I need to become a guru. It’s nice having followers on Facebook, Twitter and blogs but it’s no substitute for followers in the flesh who’d come to my hut to ask for guidance, waft about singing ethereal songs, making Peace signs and, basically, worshipping me. Or not even that. They can worship someone else if they like. The only problem with that is, if I’m their guru, then it’s up to me to tell them whom or what to worship, and I don’t want to create a religion. All I want is a little sect. (Ah, think of the gags I could have written if, grammatically, it had been legitimate to make that noun plural.)

So, how do I get to be a guru? I don’t think there are courses or degrees in it yet but it seems that all I need is stuff to preach and a few gullible people. Well, thanks to Simon Cowell, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom, Nigel Farage, etc., I know there’s no shortage of gullibility. And the stuff is easy; I’m a writer so I can just make it up. So I’d start with a few gnomic utterances, such as ‘The sweetness of the butterfly is the only true way’. It’s not great, though, is it? And to some people it might even seem to make sense. OK, let’s add a bit more gnomicness. How about ‘The sweetness of the butterfly drowns daily in the morning’s echoes’? Bingo.

So a follower (let’s call her Doris) stands at the open door of my hut. I smile and beckon her in. She sits beside me on the goose-quill bed (I don’t know what that is, but I think it’s the right sort of thing for a guru to have) and says: ‘I’m troubled’.
     I smile again, stroke her hair and say ‘The sweetness of the butterfly drowns daily in the morning’s echoes’.
     She nods quietly, head bowed. ‘I know,’ she says, ‘but what does it all mean?’
     I take her hands in mine.
     ‘Doris,’ I say. ‘Feel the swan in your blood.’
     We sit there for twenty minutes. Not another word passes between us. At last she smiles again, kisses my fingers and says ‘Thank you’.
     ‘No sweat,’ I reply, before realising that’s not a guru thing and adding ‘Inhabit the crystal’.
     ‘I will,’ she says, and goes to water the cannabis.

See? It’s not hard. I might have to expand on some of these little pearls, make them into sermons. No, not sermons – they explain stuff, draw conclusions. Parables are better. Just have to remember to get the context right. None of the labouring in vineyards, baguettes and fishes or Good Samaritan stuff. They’d better be IT consultants or media studies tutors. Something like…
‘A lifestyle coach was walking along a country lane when she passed a garage. Inside, a mechanic was leaning over an engine. She stopped and asked him what he was doing. “Cleaning a carburettor,” he said.
     “Have you cleaned many?” she asked.
     “Hundreds,” said the man.
     “Different types?’ she said.
     “SUVs, Jeeps, Dodge 58s with the old-style overhead camshafts, more or less everything,” he said.
     The woman stepped towards him and laid her white hand over his.
     “I have a collection of over three hundred Barbies,” she said.
     The man looked at her and a tear formed in his left eye. The woman raised her finger, collected the tear, placed it on his grease-smeared lip and turned away to continue her walk.
     The mechanic watched her go, the tears welling in his eyes once more. He reached for a hammer and began hitting the carburettor with fierce, unrelenting blows.’

OK, I think I’m ready. Just need some followers and a hut.

Friday, 29 July 2016

How Not to Write a Novel: N M Browne

Every serious writer is a master of procrastination. I am sure that, if you are reading this, you are already on track. However, if you are running out of ideas, I would like to share with you my top procrastination tips. I can guarantee that if you follow these, you will never finish a novel again.
1.     Make a ‘to do’ list.
If you think list-making helps avoid procrastination, you are doing it wrong.
    There is only one possible pad you can use for list making and only one pen. You keep them in any one of several places about the house. To find them you will have to clean your office/workspace, reorganise your bedside cabinet and clear all kitchen surfaces. Clearing kitchen surfaces necessitates making room in your cupboards. Your pen is obviously a cartridge pen which takes only one (obscure) brand of cartridges which are rarely in stock anywhere, necessitating several hours online and/or a shopping expedition.
     Once you have the correct pen and pad for list-making, begin with at least four tasks that are impossible. I suggest things like getting to the bottom of the laundry basket, upgrading your website, filing your emails and preparing your tax return. Do no writing until they are done.
2.     Research.
Before writing a book you must research broadly , particularly if you don’t know what the book is going to be about. This may involve foreign travel, shopping trips, visits to the cinema/gym/art gallery/theatre etc in order to overhear interesting conversations, get a feel for a possible novel setting etc. It is essential to engage in random internet trawling, facebook interaction, and book buying. 
     You will need to read everything and, if you are really serious, take notes. Always keep notes in a special notebook (as above.) Draw lots of maps and diagrams and make lists of possible character names. Write all notes illegibly in longhand so that, in the unlikely event you ever want to access the information in your notebook, you will have to track down the original note source and read it again. Under no circumstances have a plan.
In order find the best agent/publisher and sell your book in shedloads read all the posts on internet chat rooms that deal with writing and the publishing industry. Sign up for mailing lists and join online writing communities. Blog and read other bloggers. Post compulsively about your ideas and worries. Ask for advice and dispense it. Get into arguments. 
Change your mind about the marketability of the book you might like to write. Think about writing another one. Repeat as necessary.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

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

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

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


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

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Playing Literary Games - Andrew Crofts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Recognising a Diamond in the Rough by Sensei Ruby Barnes

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 25 July 2016

Flashing Pens - by Susan Price

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

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

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

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

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

Another Flash In The Pen

Paperback           UK              US
Kindle                 UK              US

Sunday, 24 July 2016

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

What do you look for in a travel book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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