Thursday, 30 November 2017

It ain't what you tell, it's the way that you tell it: in which Debbie Young tries not to lose the plot

English author Debbie Young
Most authors at some point in their writing lives will come across the advice that there are ONLY SEVEN BASIC PLOTS - or maybe nine, or thirty-six, or various other numbers, depending on whom you consult. 

If you're the glass-half-empty type, it's easy to think:

"Oh no, how can I ever hope to be original? Someone will have got there before me!"

Whereas glass-half-full types like me may think:

"Well, Shakespeare just took existing stories and upcycled them into his plays - if it's good enough for Shakespeare, who am I to complain?"

Those who can't even see the glass are probably best advised to throw down their pen and take up golf instead.
The BEST thing to do is, of course, to take your choice of basic plot and wrap around it your choice your characters, themes, setting, etc etc to produce a final story that only you could write

How Shall I Write It? Let Me Count the Ways 


(Photo by MJS on Unsplash)
I took as my starting point for my latest cosy mystery novel, Murder in the Manger, one of the oldest stories in modern culture, the nativity. Sophie Sayers, the central character in this series, writes her own version of the classic Bible nativity story for the village primary school and local amateur dramatic association in the Cotswold village of Wendlebury Barrow, to which she's recently moved.

The performance of her script is a story-within-a-story, or rather a play-within-a-play (yes, Shakespeare got there before me on that too, with the "rude mechanicals" in A Midsummer Night's Dream). It's a plot device which complements the themes of transformation and restoration that are wrapped around it in the novel's main plot and various subplots.

Sophie's Choice of Story


Sophie's telling of the nativity includes a lot of humour, including in-jokes for the villagers, (the Innkeeper is the school admissions officer, for example), without ever being disrespectful of the Bible story or offensive to believers. At the end, the vicar even compliments her on making the story more accessible to the audience than a more erudite approach such as the medieval mystery plays, which also get a mention in the story.

I don't know how many other novels have retold the nativity, as I have in this book - but I think even such a well-known and simple plot can be endlessly reworked and still be compelling. As Sophie's friend Ella reassures her, when she's worrying about whether her play will work:

You’re on to a winner, no matter what. No-one can complain that the plot is flawed, or that they can’t work out which character is which, or what their motivation is. Your audience will be determined to enjoy it, come what may. They’ll mostly be related to someone in the cast, so they’ll be willing the production to succeed. You don’t have to worry about technical hitches, because you’re not using any technology – no lights, no microphones, no recordings. What could possibly go wrong?

Of course, this being Wendlebury Barrow, things do go wrong - and by the end of the first chapter, the whole congregation gathered to watch the play is accused of murder by a mysterious stranger.

But my point remains:

a basic plot can be retold in numerous different ways without losing its power 
Rather than run through a list of other written interpretations of the Christmas story, I thought I'd go visual to reinforce my point...

Stained glass windows were one of the earliest means of telling the nativity story
- postcard images of the Burne Jones windows in Winchester Cathedral by Dr John Crook

And into three dimensions...

Not far from where I live, St John's Church in Chipping Sodbury has just started its annual Crib Festival, which each Advent displays over a hundred different models of the stable scene, contributed by all kinds of people from toddlers to professional craftsmen, with materials as diverse as Lego and coconut shells. I'm looking forward to my annual visit there to remind myself of the many different ways to tell a story.

Click here to view the church's gallery showing the nativity story told in countless ways - each of them engaging in its own right


The Story Around the Story

And if you'd like to find out what happens next in Murder in the Manger, you can order it from all good bookstores, on the High Street and online, in paperback or as an ebook.

Here's the Amazon link for the UK:
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Murder-Manger-Village-Mystery-Mysteries-ebook/dp/B074SZLZ6P/

Here's the Amazon link for the US:
https://www.amazon.com/Murder-Manger-Village-Mystery-Mysteries-ebook/dp/B074SZLZ6P

For more information about my books and my writing life, please visit my website: www.authordebbieyoung.com







Wednesday, 29 November 2017

The need for speed ( awareness): N M Browne

I have to go for a speed awareness course today. Mea culpa. 
   I wouldn’t like you to get the impression that I’m unaware of speed: I am all too aware of it. I hate running or cycling down hill, skiing is impossible because I’m frightened of being out of control. I’m not some wild boy, or even girl, racer, I am just confused about the speed limits in my new locale. I moved to Cheltenham recently and Gloucestershire  has a surfeit of cameras and a deficit of speed signs: much like life, in fact. 
 In general, driving apart,  I am prone to doing things too fast and too carelessly  - cooking, child rearing, shopping, form filling even on occasions novel writing. I don’t think I ever learned the right speed for any of them because if anyone gave me any advice I wasn’t paying attention: I missed the signs and had to make it up with a bit of guess work, and a hazy memory of something I read in the highway code thirty years ago.  Well, I’ve already confessed how well that worked out.
  I’ve been thinking about speeding and novels partly because of the awareness course and because of Nanowrimo, or 'National Novel Writing Month' in which the speed of writing is everything. Never mind the quality feel the word count. Participants are supposed to write 50,000 words in a month. I think I will have only done around 40,000 by the end of the week, but I’m not beating myself up because novels like cars can be driven too fast: they can plough through country lanes at a pace which misses all the interesting scenery. The fascinating character hitch hiking, can be overlooked when a novel is too intent on getting to the motorway.  The narrative advantages of meandering B roads  with their varied vistas and useful twists and turns are too easily ignored if the main concern is speed.  With my current story I’m not sure I’ve found the most scenic route yet or the most compelling destination, but that’s OK. I have been writing a long time and I seem to be marginally more familiar with narrative speed rules than the highway ones. I know there is no correlation between the speed at which a novel gets written and its quality. I also know that it takes time and patience to get the speed of the story right and that the fastest, high action parts of the story are often the slowest to write as they take more page time. I am aware that the slower, more contemplative parts often have to be quicker so that the reader doesn’t get bored and the story doesn’t lose all tension. Of course, a novel which is too fast  doesn’t cost the writer penalty points,  but it may prove impossible to enjoy or to sell. 
  Of course, as in large parts of Gloucestershire, there is no sign to tell you that your story has been captured proceeding at seventy miles an hour in what should be a built up area with lots of detail and character development (and probably some street lights) which requires a maximum of thirty. Or maybe there is a sign and you just have to be more alert in order to discover it.

 I have been driving a long time and I need a speed awareness course. I have been writing a long time too and a reminder of the need to curb my speed is no bad thing either.   

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Back Burner texts, Wishes, and Educational Publishing by Enid Richemont

This is the first cover image of my new little book which forms part of one of the reading schemes from Franklin Watts at Hachette.

The story began life as an idea for a picture book - subtlely  different from these illustrated 'readers' which are also lavishly illustrated (the artist hasn't completed the inside illustrations yet). It's the story of a very anti-social old man who actively tries to exclude people from his life with "KEEP OUT" and "TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED" signs around his garden. He even mistakes his fairy godmother for one of his hated intruders, but when she grants him three wishes (with a sigh because she's stuck with her traditional obligation), he immediately spots a business opportunity, and wishes for more and more wishes, ending up with a hundred, but he has no idea how to use them except for maybe barbed wire, or guard dogs to keep people out, or, of course, money which he likes to count. In reality, what he needs is human warmth and a cuddle, which he finally gets.

In my original picture book version, I took a lot more risks, and the plot was more complicated. The picture book version was called: "A Thousand and One Wishes", like the Arabian "A Thousand and One Nights", so an enormous number of wishes, not just a hundred. And when, with that much energy, the old man's house finally explodes, he's catapulted out into Space, where, in panic, he's forced to grab a flying wish and beg to be sent back to Earth. He's then duly dropped into a tropical sea where there are mermaids, and ends up on an island, being hugged by a large cuddly lady in a grass skirt. I could 'see' the pictures in my head, and I'm sure you can, too - his original towering grey grim house with its black crows etc, the fairy godmother in the guise of an old lady, then the starry sky, the turquoise ocean, the palm trees.

That text never quite made it as a picture book, so eventually it was put on the back burner in the hope that, one day, its moment would come, and indeed, it has - it's always handy to have a Blue Peter moment and pull out 'something I made earlier'. It will be coming out without its original magic and fantasy, because the old man's house has been changed from a Gothic horror into a very depressing but very ordinary terraced house in an urban street. The Space flight, mermaids, tropical seas etc have all been cut - the eventual happy ending occurs during a street party. The original title had to be changed as well - it seems that "One Thousand and One" is beyond the grasp of readers at this stage - much too big.

The 'educational' theory behind this is that, even if magic (reluctantly) is happening, the setting needs to be a familiar one in order for young readers to 'get' it (they seem to be totally oblivious to the existence of a young boy called Harry Potter...) In my original plot, the unused wishes went out to people who really needed them - a cash-poor doctor in a Third World country, a small boy with a very sick mum etc etc. These all had to be turned into things more ordinary and every day - a damaged bicycle etc etc, but hey! the book will be out there in a few months, and working with illustrators is always fun.

Financially, educational texts are not big earners, and agents actively dislike them. Basically, the author receives a one-off payment for the text and no royalties, and they rarely appear in bookshops. However, they do do very well via PLR, and are a wonderful re-cycling outlet for that treasure store of back burner stories.

Finally, I'm currently reading "Alexa's Song", a novel by Rosalie Warren, another member of Authors Electric. I'd meant to reserve it for when I recently had a brief hospital stay, but then got seduced by Margaret Atwood's "The Edible Woman". I can't give this book a proper review as I haven't finished it yet, but so far, I'd strongly recommend it - a story of two very different brothers, and their complex relationship with a female musician.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Books that should put you off the Creative Life - Andrew Crofts


 9780143787242.jpg (400×609)
I have just read First Person, Richard Flanagan's new novel about a hungry young novelist struggling with ghostwriting the life of an impossible con-man for a demanding publisher. It captures exactly the sort of despair we have all faced at times when trying to make a living in the creative world.

I think perhaps texts such as this should be recommended reading on any vocational creative writing course and in every art school, (and every drama school come to that), in order to test the mettle of the would-be creatives.

I remember as a teenager reading Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell and Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham and being both excited and appalled. Excited by the prospect of escaping an ordinary life in order to be a great poet/artist like the heroes of these books, and simultaneously appalled by the poverty and rejection that they have to face as a result of their choices.

 51zzJmaZQGL.jpg (304×500)
orwell.keepaspidistraflying.gif (579×940)


If you can read books like these and still want to be a professional creative then the chances are that nothing will ever stop you having a go.    


Sunday, 26 November 2017

Crossdressing and the Macho Author: Dipika Mukherjee visits Ernest Hemingway's birthplace in Chicago

Two days after Thanksgiving, the day dawns beautiful in Chicago. Brown autumn leaves strew the colonnaded streets of Oak Park, but it is a warm nine degrees celsius in the bright sunshine when I join a group of writers gathered at Ernest Hemingway's birthplace.

Poets and Patrons of Chicago has organized this tour, to be followed by lunch and some writing time. I have lived in this city for six years now, but it is the first time I am visiting this stately Queen Anne building, with the turret and wraparound porch and inside rooms all lovingly restored by the The Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park.
 
Ernest was born in this home -- in an upstairs bedroom -- in 1899. His father, Dr. Clarence Edmonds Hemingway was a physician, and presided over the births of all his six children.

Ernest's mother, Grace, was a remarkable woman. Despite the constraints of her time, she had moved to New York to pursue a musical career and was a well-respected artiste who out-earned her physician husband.

We meet in the parlor, which has been recreated from photographs left by Dr Hemingway and the descriptions left in the writing of Ernest's sister Marcelline. The rose on the cornices match the wallpaper exactly, and dappled sunlight falls on the writing desk, cluttered with books from that era.

This is the house of Ernest's maternal grandfather, and Hemingway spent the first six years of his life with his Grandfather Abba, teller of tales and hater of war.

His formative years were spent within the arms of a family that embraced new technology as well as godliness; his physician father had one of the first three telephones connected in Oak Park. The home was wired for lights even before electric power was introduced into Chicago homes, so the lights in this home allow for gas lighting (with valves) that face upwards, as well as electric lights which face downwards.

This is a home filled with music and books and light streaming through the ancient trees. Years later, Dr. Hemingway would commit suicide with a shotgun, and Ernest would end his own life at the age of 61 in a similar manner. Ernest would lose two of his siblings to suicide, and his son, Gregory, would be found dead in 2001 as a transsexual named Gloria, in very suspicious circumstances. 

Hemingway would marry four times, write sparse prose on war and bullfighting which Virginia Woolf  would describe as "self-consciously virile".

He would build a cult of performative masculinity that writers like me find virulently misogynistic. 

Yet this house -- Ernest's home until he was six years of age -- frames the image of a gentle boy, his crib placed close enough to Marcelline's so they could hold hands through the bars at night.

There is also this picture: Ernest, aged about 1, is dressed like a girl, in frilly lace. 

This in itself was a fashion of the times, but Ernest's mother was also inexplicably determined to present her two eldest children as twin girls

So Ernest, younger than Marcelline by eighteen months, was dressed as a girl until he was at least five years old; Marcelline was held back in school by their mother so that the impression of twinhood could persist.

It is a matter of speculation of course, how much of Ernest's later hyper-masculinity was a rebellion against his mother, whom he hated and blamed for his father's suicide.

This home in Oak Park, filled with family memorabilia and photographs, is a poignant reminder of the early years of Ernest Hemingway. He was born into an elite family which revered learning and words and painting and music and modern gadgets, but there is also a pervasive sadness.

In the library, a pair of owls peek at the visitors from below the books. Dr Hemingway (also an accomplished taxidermist) shot the pair of birds dead during his honeymoon -- their nightly hooting was too noisy-- and stuffed them as a gift for his bride. The owls perch there, an enduring legacy, even after death. 



Dipika Mukherjee's second novel, Shambala Junction, won the UK Virginia Prize for Fiction (Aurora Metro, 2016). Her debut novel was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize and republished as Ode to Broken Things (Repeater, 2016). She was a Juror on the the Neustadt International Prize for Literature 2018 and founded the D.K Dutt Award for Literary Excellence in Malaysia. More here.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Making Much of Little - by Susan Price

 Last month, my colleague, Griselda Heppel, wrote about how annoying it is when people make wild unsubstantiated guesses about Shakespeare's life, based on very little evidence.

For instance, he left his wife his 'second best bed,' so, obviously, he didn't think much of her. And she was eight years older than him so, obviously it was an unwanted marriage of convenience. And he went away to be a playwright in London, so quite plainly, he hated the sight of her.

Any of these statements may be true. But it's just as likely that they aren't. They are much made out of very little.

The idea that Bill didn't get on with Anne because he was young and carefree and she was such a grumpy old hag is based solely on a line in Twelfth Night: 'Let still the woman take an elder than herself.' This is seized on as a hot-line to Shakespeare's heart. Aha! This is him regretting his unwise marriage and letting slip what he really thought.

Never mind that Shakespeare was putting words into the mouths of characters and making stuff up, never mind that it's just one among thousands of lines that he wrote. Perhaps he did believe that it was a mistake for a man to marry an older woman. But I have just as much evidence (none), to state that it was an in-joke between Shakespeare, Anne and their crowd. In my small circle of friends - to take a random sample - there are three very happy marriages where the wife is several years older than the husband. They sometimes joke about it - one older wife recently promised her 'boy' some pocket-money for sweeties from her pension.

Then there's the 'fact' that Shakespeare ran away to London to escape the crone. What's this based on? Nothing. We have exactly no idea how often Shakespeare went home to the country, or Anne made a trip into town. We have plenty of marriages today where one partner lives away from home for part of the time, perhaps even in a different country and yet some of those marriages survive. Travel was harder in the past, but people still travelled long distances very often - recent archaelogy has shown that animals raised in the Orkneys were eaten during feasts at Stonehenge. How did these animals get from the Orkneys to Salisbury Plain? Clue: they didn't go by Ryan Air.

In the past there were also plenty of marriages where one or the other partner was absent for a long time. Ships made long sea-crossings, Vikings viked, fish-wives travelled from town to town, drovers were away for months as they droved cattle to market. It's certainly not out of the question that Shakespeare went home quite often -- and he obviously didn't cut all ties with Stratford, since he returned there and built himself a big house. His wife was one of those ties.

And that infamous 'second-best bed.' We only know of this bed because, in his will, Bill bequeathed it to Anne. From this, some people have concluded that, since he only considered her deserving of second-best, Bill didn't like Anne very much. Reading of this, my uxorious father commented, "Maybe it was the most comfortable bed." Which is entirely possible. Beds were a bit of a status symbol at the time -- if you were nobody, you slept on a straw-filled mattress on the floor. The 'best bed' would have been the most showy and expensive, the one with the most carving and the most embroidered curtains. The one you put guests in. 'Best' doesn't always mean the most comfortable or the favourite.

It never seems to have crossed the minds of historians who take this line that Shakespeare may have discussed his will with his wife and the bed known in the family as 'the second-best bed' was the one she wanted. There is exactly as much evidence to back this view as the one that supposes it was Bill being spiteful.

Then there are all the guesses made about Shakespeare's 'lost years.' He must have spent them as an ostler because his plays reveal knowledge about horses. Some nautical terms are used in The Tempest, so he must have been a sailor. He mentions some weaponry and tactics, so he must have been a soldier.

I think anyone who's done any writing can see through these arguments. Writers are experts in making much of little, so I doubt Shakespeare was a slouch at it.

I have myself been praised to my face for the knowledge of riding and weaponry revealed in my Sterkarm books and I don't know how I kept my face straight. Riding and weaponry -- two subjects of which I know even less, I would guess, than Shakespeare knew about sailing.

The Sterkarm Handshake
My riever family, the Sterkarms spend a great deal of their life riding, so I knew I was going to have to mention horses now and again. There's one dodge always available to a fiction writer -- when something is so much a part of a character's life, they take it for granted and don't often gab on about it. As I type these words, I'm not thinking about the pros and cons of Microsoft versus Apple. So if the POV is Per Sterkarm, he's not going to detail every step in saddling and bridling his horse, or grooming it. He just does it, in his sleep if necessary, and goes on his way.

What's needed is not pages of detail but a few little telling points to mention in passing, to slip in between lines of dialogue, that will give many readers the impression that I know all of what I write, while, in fact, knowing almost nothing. Someone mounting, say, and then leaning down from the saddle to tighten the saddle-girth. And a bit of terming, like 'girth' helps as well.

Where do I find these details? Well, some are cribbed from books and, these days, from the internet. But the best little tid-bits always come from talking to people who know far, far more than you do. So, a big thank you from me to Karen Bush and Katherine Roberts of this parish, who are both excellent riders and know all sorts of good stuff. Karen, in particular, did me a big favour in reading A Sterkarm Tryst and correcting everything horse-related as well as giving me a few more details (like the herb that you can stick through a head-strap to discourage midges.)

A Sterkarm Tryst
Shakespeare didn't have to work as an ostler to gain knowledge about horses. In his time and until quite recently, 99% of land transport involved horses. (The 1% involved dogs, donkeys, mules and oxen. Percentages entirely invented.)

My grandfather was an ostler, which is how I  learned that odd word. ('Your grandad's first job was as an ostler.' -  'What's an ostler?') Grandad worked with the giant percherons who pulled the delivery carts of a local brewery and I learned a few odd little horsey facts from stories about him. When Shakespeare needed a few similar pointers, I doubt he had to search very hard for an ostler to chat to. It must have been impossible to turn round without bumping into one.

The same goes for his 'knowledge' of ships and their ways. He lived for at least part of his year in London. Wharfs and warehouses lined the north bank of the Thames near London Bridge and the Tower. Ships came and went all the time. There would have been sailors of different ranks in his audiences.

And my own vaunted knowledge of weaponry? For a while I was friendly with a couple of fellas who seemed to spend their every spare minute re-enacting. Most of the time they were Roman legionnaires and had impressive suits of very accurate Roman armour. But they often helped out another group at by pretending to be Americans in WW2. At the drop of a helmet, they would go and be Vietnam Vets. Now they were very knowledgeable about weapons. So I asked them: If it was necessary to equip mercenaries at short notice and on the cheap, what weapons would be supplied?

Without taking a moment to draw breath, they said, "Kalashnikovs." And went on to explain why. And, generally, the pros and cons of kalishnikovs. They did even better -- they borrowed a replica kalishniknov and let me feel how heavy it was, and showed me how to take it apart and slam it back together.

I lost touch with them but remain grateful and hope they are still happily marching behind the eagle all these years later. I went home and wove all they'd told me in and out of dialogue and background in my book. I made much out of little.

The joy of it is, that people who know far more about these subjects than I will ever do, read these little asides and often conclude that I know as much about riding or weapons as they do. Because, when people get involved in a story, they put themselves and their experience into it. A passing mention of something like a girth taps into all that experience and they no longer draw a sharp line between their own extensive knowledge and the content of the book.

Making much of little. I'd put money on Shakespeare being a master of it. No clues or hints about his life taken from his plays can be trusted. All you can conclude from some mention of horse-doctoring or cannonades or sails being shortened is that Bill had probably been chatting in the pub again.

"You know when you're, like, out at sea, right? And a storm blows up, yeah? Like, whaddaya do?"


Susan Price is the award-winning writer of the Sterkarm Trilogy

And the Ghost World Sequence beginning with the Carnegie winning Ghost Drum
  
Ghost Drum   


  






Friday, 24 November 2017

Has the internet eaten my concentration? - Jo Carroll

I’m possibly speaking only for myself here - but when I read a blog or a newspaper online I read the title and the opening argument and then decide I’ve got the gist of it and decide if I want to skim from there or if it’s going to repay the time investment to read it thoroughly. These days more and more pieces are skimmed - it’s so easy to get the general idea and then click on something else. Many online newspapers make the process easier by confusing sentences with paragraphs - everything is divided into three-line chunks. Facebook posts - if someone has something deep and meaningful to say, they need to grab me in the first couple of sentences. 

And then I sit down to read a real book. I curl up on the sofa with tea (or wine). I have an hour or two to wallow in real print on real paper. But after half an hour I’m restless - it’s time to move on to something else. A few years ago I could read the clock round and move only when I needed a wee.

I sit down to research something I’m trying to write. A few years ago I could surround myself with books and papers and notebooks and wallow in the way bits of information from here there and everywhere slowly unfold into a new story. But now - I find my mind wandering long before that story evolves. I want answers - it’s hard to hang in there, even though I know that’s the only way to find what I’m really looking for.

Even the writing - I need to be truly drowning in a project if I’m to hang in there for hour after hour and resist the lure of emails.

Is it just me? Is it that I’m getting older? Or is it the internet, with its soundbites and instant gratification, that has eaten those brain cells that used to revel in the hours I could spend delving into stuff in real depth?


You can find links to my fiction and travel writing at jocarroll.co.uk - some of it easy to dip even into if you, too, have the concentration of a gnat.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Lev Butts Is Not Giving Thanks

Yeah, it's that time again.

Another holiday season is upon us. Here in America, the season is ushered in on Thanksgiving. The day families all over the country come together to break bread, share turkey, and alienate each other as soon as Uncle Frank (damn you, Frank!) shows up with his MAGA hat and "Lock her Up T-shirt" and berates Cousin Mike (Jesus, Mike!) in his hemp-woven parka and Bernie 2020 button for being a godless socialist all in the name of celebrating a bunch of ill-prepared Europeans almost dying of pneumonia and dysentery before a bunch of Natives took them in, showed them how to farm, and promptly died of the common cold caught from a snot-nosed baby Puritan.

That's one solution.

It's also that time when we show our thankfulness and goodwill toward mankind by engaging in the Black Friday Hunger Games: Shoppers run the gauntlet of shopping mall crowds and limited-supply, one-day-only-sales while dodging crying children and the fists, feet, and teeth of other, equally driven contestants in their quest for one (or ten) of a woefully inadequate stock of this year's hot ticket toy*.

May the odds be ever in your favor.
It's also the time of year when the otherwise self-absorbed take time to hone their humble-brag skills as they share what they're most thankful for. This is when we learn that Karen (that shrew) is oh-so very thankful that her McMansion and new Lexus have not made her forget her roots and that Rick (with a silent "p") is grateful that his promotion and raise make it possible for him to give more generously to the local soup kitchen.

Emerson, that jackass, perfecting the humble brag since 1841.
Well, I'm not going to do it this year. This year, I'm talking about a couple of things I am decidedly NOT thankful for.

People Who Don't Understand the Difference Between the Artist and the Art

In 2012, convicted cult-leader, mass-murderer, and admittedly under-appreciated musician, Charlie Manson was denied parole for like the bazilliongillionth time, and this week, uncontent to wait until his next hearing in 2027, he decided to take the matter to a higher court.

The title here says it all.

Anyway, while many of us took the day to celebrate (and others, mostly the younger folks, took the day to mourn the wrong guy), comedian Norm MacDonald, learned the hard way that sarcasm is really hard to convey via the written word (especially when that written word is limited to 140 characters).


The replies were, shall we say, less than aware of MacDonald's verbal irony:


Here's the problem with many of today's readers: They are so accustomed to being outraged by anything that doesn't fit with their own schema that they have lost the ability to stop and think about the purpose behind a piece of writing. Did the author really mean this apparently insane thing he wrote? He must have. He wrote it.

This problem appears in book reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, too. When an author includes, say, a bad guy who is a racist and member of the Klan, some reviewers will accuse the author of himself being a racist if he allows this backwards, racist antagonist to use a racial slur.

Don't believe me? Check how often Mark Twain, William Faulkner, and Robert Penn Warren have been accused of racism because of the actions of their obviously racist characters.

Unconstructive Criticism

Look, it's not that I don't like bad reviews (I mean, I don't, but that's not the point I'm making here). If I have to get a bad review, I'd like to know more of what you don't like about my book. Who knows? Maybe I will make a change in my next effort. It's not really likely, but possible.

Here's what I mean:


Despite the insulting tone, at least this reviewer tells me something specific about the work he or she found unappealing. I mean, clearly they are wrong, and couldn't be more wrong if they studied for being wrong and snuck crib notes into the being wrong test, but they gave me something to think about.

Here's another one that kind of works:


This one even gives some positive points about the book before giving specific issues he has. Of course, his problem with there not being Volumes 3 & 4 in a book clearly marked Volumes 1 & 2 seems a bit self-explanatory, but still...

This guy, though:
Really? Well thanks for sharing that razor-sharp insight, Bob. I'll get right on that for you. My next novel will be 300 pages of blank pages so you can stop reading it much sooner. I mean seriously, how is anyone supposed to make an educated decision on whether or not this book is for them with this?

And this one?

This one is just mean. Don't be this person. I mean, at the end of the day, the joke's on them: Every review, good or bad, helps get my book more recognition and exposure on Amazon, but still...

My grandmother always said that if I didn't have anything good to say I needed to keep my ignorant pie-hole shut. I disagree. Tell me the bad stuff, but give me something to refute or work with.

So that's it for this Unthanksgiving post. If you live in America, I sincerely wish you a happy Thanksgiving. May your day be full of dressing and empty of bodily injuries and emotional blackmail. If you live anywhere else, happy Thursday!


Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Carnegie's Gold: Ali Bacon visits her home town and remembers its benefactor

Over the past two years I’ve spent time and energy defending libraries here in South Gloucestershire and neighbouring local authorities where they are being subjected to ever more drastic cuts. This is partly because as an  ex-librarian (working mainly in the academic sector) I feel for the staff, but more because our local library played such a formative part in my childhood. So much so that it won a starring role in my first novel A Kettle of Fish (which I always hasten to add is nothing to do with my childhood - apart from the locations!)

Of course the library in Dunfermline wasn’t ‘just any library’ but the very first Carnegie Library and we were always being reminded of our debt of gratitude to our famous benefactor. (Andrew Carnegie was a native of the town).

Staircase to the new museum
Having moved south in my twenties, it's a while since I had darkened the door of my old library, until last month, when I was invited to speak at  the Undiscovered Dunfermline conference which was to be exactly there. I was already aware the original building of 1883 had been redeveloped and recently reopened as the Dunfermline Carnegie Library and Galleries and so I was both excited and apprehensive to see what had happened to my old stamping ground. 

Well I have to say I was totally wowed, and I don’t think it was just the librarian in me. DCLG won ‘Best building in Scotland’ for 2016 and although I haven’t seen the others I’m not surprised. I took some photos myself, but for the overall feel take a look here

The library now incorporates a museum and art gallery and has a stunning research reading room where its special collections can be accessed. The original lending library is still there for me to have a whiff of nostalgia and I can also say the café (great coffee, home-made cakes!) with its new view of the very ancient Dunfermline Abbey came in pretty handy in the course of our weekend stay.

The new reading room
It’s hard to imagine anything like this £12 million investment happening down here and I wondered if Scotland is just better funded for libraries and culture? Or is it the answer more obvious? Some quick and dirty research revealed funding was shared by the Local Authority, the Heritage Lottery fund and – yes, the Carnegie Dunfermline Trust, custodian of the fortune left behind by ‘Uncle Andrew’. 

Of course capital investment is one thing, running costs another, and I see the opening hours of the new place are adequate rather than generous, so even this architectural gem is subject to normal restrictions.

New view of the Abbey and the library garden
Of course Carnegie gets mixed reviews beyond my home town. I was shocked as a teenager to hear of his other reputation as an anti-unionist who built his fortune at the expense of labourers. This reminds me that here in Bristol many of the city’s benefactors are having their names removed from public places because of their involvement in slavery. Putting the rights or wrongs of this to one side, I don’t think it would be possible to remove Carnegie from Dunfermline without dismantling vast swathes of the town, not to mention its collective consciousness : the traditional endearment to children was  ‘all Carnegie’s gold couldna buy ye’.  

Or has that changed now? At least we can see that Carnegie’s gold is still buying quite a lot.

Ali with her display at Undiscovered Dunfermline 

Ali's historical novel In the Blink of an Eye, inspired by a Victorian artist and photographer, will be published in 2018 by Linen Press.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

If Writers Were Bakers and Candlestick Makers - Katherine Roberts

There has been a brilliant hashtag running on Twitter this month called #IfWritersWereBakers. I'm not sure who started it, but if you missed the fun then try a Twitter search and you'll find a whole string of publishing truths that writers encounter sooner or later in the course of their careers.

One of my favourites is this If-Writers-Were-Bakers-style reader review from @Joannechocolat:
"I bought this chocolate cake from you, but when I got it home I found it had chocolate in it. One star."

While @say_shannon tackles the perennial curse of the children's author:
"Ah, so you're a CHILDREN'S baker. Anyone can bake cakes for children. When are you going to bake a proper cake?"

And, with National Novel Writing Month upon us, @MrsTrellis obviously has the right idea:
"I’m taking part in NaNoBaMo. I’ll add an ingredient a day for the whole of November, then I can call myself a baker."

The perfect way to let off steam! Since other writers on this blog have probably encountered more of the same (and bakers have been tackled on Twitter already) I thought I'd extend the concept slightly and let you add you own #IfWritersWere creations in the comments. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

#IfWritersWereCandlestickMakers: "Your candlestick is too long for today's candles."

#IfWritersWereJockeys: "My horse has been handicapped by the computer because the last horse I rode didn't win."

#IfWritersWereAstronauts: "Three, two, one... sorry, when did you say your spaceship came out, again?"

#IfWritersWereAstronauts: "To explore boldly where no astronaut has ever ventured... love, the copy-editor."*

(*You need to be old enough to remember the original Star Trek to understand this one!)

Over to you...

*
Katherine Roberts is writing a book about a Roman racehorse to follow in the hoof prints of her Alexander the Great epic "I am the Great Horse", which is now available in this bright orange cupcake - I mean, paperback - edition on demand in time for Christmas.




Monday, 20 November 2017

Running out of juice by Sandra Horn



I’m in a terrible flat spot. I got to poem 38 of the 52 poems challenge and just came to a stop. I made notes for the next two and wrote one verse but just couldn’t go on. For all these past weeks, I’ve just fiddled about with old stuff – poetry and prose – but have not been able to be creative at all. It’s a familiar dilemma, but doesn’t usually last this long. Often in the past, walking somewhere beautiful starts the process going and recently, we’ve been in the Lakes, in glorious sunny weather. Blue skies above just-turning autumn leaves reflected in the water. The roar and magnetic pull of a waterfall in spate. Saddleback blueish in the distance. Evenings around a log fire. A squelchy walk from Pooley Bridge to Barton Church to rescue a wren that might have been trapped in there (it wasn’t). Everything, in fact, to gladden the heart and get the creative juices flowing. Except they didn’t. 

This is a lake, not a story

  

At one point I put it down to that kindly-meant but deadening thing,  ‘You should write a story about that,’ ‘There’s a story for you, Sandra.’  Etc. I have written about the Lakes walks and other happenings, but they are reports, not stories. It’s curious how often the difference isn’t appreciated by people who are, after all, trying to be helpful and encouraging. It’s quite likely that there is something waiting to be written, but it will take traces of those experiences and transform them into something other. I don’t know what it might be yet – and might not know until the writing is finished and I read it through and it dawns on me where that particular passage could have had its origins. 

This is a sunset, not a story


I was thinking of the difference between reportage and storytelling last night, watching and listening to ‘My Country’, which relied very heavily (and heavily is the operative word) on verbatim speech. It’s a fashion in writing for the theatre too. At the risk of offending large numbers of people who know more about it than I do, I think it’s lazy – and rarely as challenging or engaging as it might be. We know that daily chat is often repetitive, can be clichĂ©-ridden and has not been thought about for long, if at all, before it is uttered. What can we learn from it, much less be excited by it? I think it is the job of a writer to take the raw material, listen hard, think harder, then let the creative forces loose on it. This transformative process is mysterious but it is crucial in the making of stories, which can then be transformative/informative/entertaining/thought-provoking in themselves – or what are they for?
Of course, I could just be riding a hobby-horse here, in a state of total ignorance, but in this long unproductive spell I’m having, I’ve had plenty of time to think about it. I have written about the Lake District walks to friends, describing such events is not a problem. Give me a topic, and even better, a deadline, and I’ll come up with something. With any luck it will be readable and I can make it amusing  if need be – but what I can’t do at present is the alchemy. I can polish the base metal nicely but it won’t turn into gold. I’m knitting instead! I’m knitting worthily, moreover. Little hats for smoothie bottles (for Age Concern), ‘bonding’ squares for the prem baby unit at St Thomas’s, fingerless gloves for my daughter’s outdoor craft activities. Anything absorbing but not requiring too much skill. And waiting. Waiting for the gleam at the back of my mind, the fiery spark, the – Oh, you know the stuff I mean. It’s elusive because, I suspect, I’ve never tamed it by setting proper time aside each day and being disciplined about writing. I’ve just bumbled along until something sets it off. I have, in the past, tried that business about ‘writing something every day’, ‘write for ten minutes, it doesn’t matter what you write’. The trouble is, it does matter! Ten minutes of uninspiring garbage is ten minutes down the drain. Never yet has it produced anything worthwhile. Back to the knitting. And waiting. And hoping.