Friday, 21 September 2018

Save the Cat! - book recommendation by Katherine Roberts

Like many writers, I have a cat living with me. At least, she lives with me when she feels like it... which means when it's feeding time, or when she's had enough of being wet and cold and fancies a warmer place to sleep.

Her name is Jasmine, by the way, and I saved her from having to move out of her territory when my neighbours got a new puppy and needed to re-home their cat and her unexpected kittens. They, in turn, had found Jasmine as a skinny stray hiding under a parked car and had no idea she was pregnant until the night she gave birth under their son's bed... so she's been 'saved' at least twice in her life so far. Seven more lives to go, then.

And you're still reading this! Which proves that saving cats must be deeply buried somewhere in our psyche as a Decent Thing To Do, and brings me to my book recommendation for this month.

Save the Cat! is a book about screenwriting by Blake Snyder, who has written successfully for Hollywood so presumably knows what he is talking about. You won't learn the basics of how to format a script from this book, but you'll discover how stories are put together for a popcorn-popping audience, which translates equally as well to the page, particularly if you're writing genre fiction.

I have only just started my screen writing journey (I'm experimenting with a screenplay of my Pendragon Legacy series, if you're curious). But while I was reading Blake Snyder's book, I was working on the first draft of my next book for teenagers, and saw at least three areas where my story could be improved, one of which has transformed my hero from an ordinary, brave-ish young character into someone with much higher stakes to play for. When I've finished the draft, I will check how well the story works using Blake's famous 'beat sheet', hopefully without making it too formulaic and killing the soul of my book in the process.

A word of warning. I'm sure a new writer with enough determination could follow the 'Save the Cat!' formula and come up with a half-decent story - but I suspect that if you'd given me this book twenty years ago, when I was starting to think about writing for publication, I'm equally sure I'd have tripped over my debut-author feet by thinking about the process too much, and probably never finished my first book. It's like asking a cat to explain how it leaps from the roof on to a rickety fence, and from there to a fence post too small for all four paws and safely down to the ground without falling... does the cat even know? As a guide to story structure for those who already have some experience, however, it could be just what you need to refresh those creative batteries.

Not dead yet - I'm just recharging.

But that's enough about saving cats. Do check out this book if you haven't come across it already - if nothing else, printing out a few beat sheets will keep you entertained while you are watching all those replays of 'Game of Thrones' in preparation for the final series next year. Oh, and it doesn't have to be a cat that gets saved... you got that, right?

Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction for young (and older) readers.

Her Pendragon Girl logline is:

"King Arthur's secret daughter battles her evil cousin Mordred for the four magical Lights that can bring her father back from the dead and save Camelot from the dark."

Find out more at

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Death and angels by Sandra Horn

To Music (An Die Musik,) by Franz von Schober, set by Schubert

You, noble Art, in how many grey hours,
When life's mad tumult wraps around me,

Have you kindled my heart to warm love,
Have you transported me into a better world,
Transported into a better world!
Often has a sigh flowing out from your harp,
A sweet, divine harmony from you

Unlocked to me the heaven of better times,
You, noble Art, I thank you for it,
You, noble Art, I thank you!

It’s a bit clunky and sounds much better in the original German, but it gives a flavour of what music may mean. I’m writing this still on a high from days of the glorious stuff, after one of the great joys of our year, the Purbeck International Chamber Music Festival. It’s brilliant!

It started this year with three concerts in three venues in one day, beginning with Schubert’s Winterreise - sung by a mezzo, which is unusual, I think. She was absolutely wonderful. We were given the words in German and English – great idea. The final song is Der Leiermann, a haunting, spine-tingling evocation of death as an old man playing a hurdy-gurdy in the cold. No-one is listening, and the dogs growl at him. His fingers are so stiff he can hardly play, but he does the best he can, and the singer asks him, ‘Strange old man, shall I come with you? Will you play your hurdy-gurdy to accompany my songs?’

It’s a long way from death as The Grim Reaper or Old Snatch, or the Erl King for that matter. The only other similar(ish) piece of music I can think of is Sibelius’s Valse Triste, where the dying woman is seen by her son to rise up from her bed and dance in kindly death’s arms, becoming a young girl again as she leaves her old body. It’s gentle and haunting, but unlike Der Leiermann, wordless.

Later in the week, after the music had ended, we went to RSPB Arne. It’s a magical place and ospreys are nesting there – among hordes of other lovely birds, I should add. We sat for a while beside one of the lakes, watching the wading birds and listening to a curlew singing, as I fancied, the start of a farewell song. There were lots of people trying to spot an osprey. Apparently there was one sitting in a dead tree but you couldn’t see it unless it moved its head. We couldn’t see it at all through quite reasonable binoculars! I watched all the people focussing so narrowly on the tree while missing everything else around them and this popped into my head:

The angels keep their ancient places; -
Turn but a stone and start a wing!
‘Tis you, ‘tis your estrangéd faces,
That miss the many-splendoured thing.

It’s from Francis Thompson’s poem In No Strange Land, and I misremembered it – I thought it was ‘your averted faces’, which is why it seemed to apply to the osprey-spotters. They were missing  egrets, curlews, greenshank, cormorants (or shags, whichever – you know, the ones that lay their eggs in paper bags), ants, beetles, butterflies, etc.  There was a rowan tree blazing with berries almost in front of us, but everyone was peering at the dead one with the almost-invisible osprey. Bagging a trophy instead of basking in the glory all around. Missing the angels.
So, no photographs of ospreys, but here's a random wren from my garden. So small, so easy to miss...

What ever is she on about now? I hear you cry. Death? Angels? Has she finally flipped, poor soul? I hope not. Something about the scenery, the music, the sunshine, the sea, the days of freedom from the tyranny of my computer, gave me space to ponder; got me musing about how we personify the ineffable, the invisible, the mysterious. We grasp at them by giving them words, music, images we can relate to in some form or another. Even when we have a scientific explanation for some phenomena, it doesn’t stop us holding a magical one at the same time – rainbows, for example. I know about raindrops acting like prisms and splitting the ‘white’ light into its components, and I bet Alice Oswald does too, but in her Hymn to Iris she tells it like this, capturing its transience:

Quick-moving goddess of the rainbow
You whose being is only an afterglow of a passing-through
Put your hand
Put your heaven-taken shape down
On the ground. Now. Anywhere.

Likewise, I could give you an explanation of the aurora borealis, involving solar wind, charged particles, magnetic poles, but it is also firefoxes swishing their tails across the sky, mirry dancers, spirits leading souls to heaven and a myriad other images. These things are not ‘true’ in a scientific sense, but they hold another, important kind of truth. We are, in Yeats’s words, the music makers, the dreamers of dreams, and we just can’t help conjuring images to give form to and illuminate all the things in us and around us. Thank goodness.

Here's a random sunset, or whatever you want to make of it:

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Opening Salvos by Jan Edwards

I am just coming to the end of the editing marathon for my next crime novel In Her Defence, and nervously awaiting final corrections and comments. As always the section that has been poured over and fretted upon is that first chapter. Yes, the end matters almost as much, but I am very aware, to the point of near paranoia, of the need to start with a hook. Those opening few pages are all important, and increasingly so when so many potential readers will be using the ‘look inside’ feature on Amazon to sample your wares.  
So what constitutes the opening hook? The first page? Two pages? Three?
Taking a quick glance at Kindle books the Amazon Look Inside function varies on how much of a taster you are allowed and depends on the quantity of prelims, but three to five pages of story available to read seems to be the average. When a page is around 300 words on average it’s a scary prospect to realise that the decision to read my many months of work will be judged by the first 1000 words or less. For most people that is sufficient to know if they like the writer’s style, and whether they’ve been well and truly gaffed. For me in the final stages of editing hell that is truly terrifying.
Three years ago Misha Herwin and I were trying to promote our books and finding it next to impossible to obtain slots at local libraries in the evenings - when the majority of people would be able to attend.  I am sure most people, writers and readers alike, have been frustrated by this. It is no fault of the librarians themselves however. They are only to happy to help writers of all kinds when they are able, but cuts in government budgets  have forced libraries to axe evening opening hours; or in some cases close their doors entirely.
So what to do? We knew of evening reading cafes in other cities (Birmingham and Manchester for example) but it is not easy to reach those places from here after a day’s work. Anyone who has tried to travel the M6 between 5 and 7 pm will know exactly what I mean! The only answer was to approach Central Library in Hanley and ask if we could run a series of quarterly Reading Cafes. They agreed, but with the stipulations was that we were done and dusted by 8.30pm and that to ensure we finished on time, to limit choices to just six writers, each being allowed six minutes each to strut their stuff – thus 6x6 was born!
What has that to do with my editing jitters you might ask?            
Audience feedback from these events has pretty much confirmed that need for the much-talked of hook. Flash fiction at 6x6 will invariably work well because most writers can get a story across in that permitted 900 (approx.) words. 

As the point of 6x6 has always been to allow authors to promote their current published titles we also receive a lot of opening chapters (or parts thereof) - and of course these still need to fit into that 6 minute (900 word) package - which is about the same space allowed on Amazon's Look Inside feature.  

Do the 6x6 author’s opening salvos – those crucial first three pages (900 words) – entice the listener (reader) to want more? Or have them drooping in their seats and fighting to stay awake?
There is no mistaking the latter at 6x6 by the feet shuffling and Meer cat impersonations as attention drifts and people start looking around the room for a distraction. Six minutes may not sound long but it can feel it. Get the piece right, however, and it flits past in an instant.
Which brings me back to my own edits and that final read through.

I shall tackle it with my 6x6 head on and ask myself that big question. Does it pass the six minute test? Or am I girding loin for the umpty-ninth draft in that unending search for the golden hook? 

Only time and editors can tell.
More about Jan Edwards and her work can be found on:
Facebook: jan.coleborn.edwards
Twitter: @jancoledwards

Titles in print – all available in print and dig formats
As author: Winter DownsFables and Fabrications;  Sussex Tales;  
Leinster Gardens and Other Subtleties

The award winning Winter Downs is first in the Bunch Courtney Investigates series. Book two, In Her Defence, is coming soon!

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

When words are not enough

Last month saw the release of my latest book. I put my heart and soul into it, and despite amazing reviews, it's not selling. Why? Because of visibility.

Visibility is the curse of all writers. You can write the best book in the world, but unless it can be seen by others then it will disappear into obscurity. Take Amazon for example, where you are competing with millions of other titles, all seeking that holy grail of appearing in the search results.

I know that I have spent many more hours attempting to market the book than went into writing it. I've done Facebook takeovers, live readings from the book on Facebook, paid for advertising in newsletters on websites and social media sites, paid for Amazon and Facebook adverts. I've posted on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram. 

Hour after hour and certainly £ after £ was spent creating eye-catching graphics, video trailers and more. More hours were spent posting on social media, thanking others for sharing and then completing advertising submissions.

The result of all that... very little indeed.

What did I learn? That the art of book marketing is some weird form of alchemy with an ever-changing recipe. What worked six months ago doesn't work now.  By the time I've figured out how something works the algorithm has changed and I'm back where I started. 

I learned that the more money you spend on an advert is no guarantee of success, in my case I got better results from the low-cost adverts that were $10 or less. The two very expensive adverts produced very few results and returned barely a fraction of the investment. These were adverts that had been recommended by other authors. Right now I'm glad I got rejected by Book Bub as the thought of having no sales after spending over $400 on an advert is heartbreaking. That's right, the holy grail that is Book Bub doesn't actually guarantee you a return... I only found this out when I got rejected and bemoaned the fact to some author friends. Lucky escape or missed opportunity? I honestly can't afford to find out.

So what are we to do as Indie authors, how are we to achieve this nirvana of visibility? I'm afraid that's a question I still need to learn the answer to, although I would welcome your input. There seem to be a plethora of specialists out there happy to show me the way, but they all want me to exchange thousands of dollars for the privilege. Whilst I appreciate the old adage you need to speculate to accumulate, I'm already severely out of pocket with no prospect of a change in sales figures going forward. 

With some readers bemoaning the fact they have to pay for our work, and the mass of pirate sites giving our work away for free, I suspect that a lot of writers will quit. Between work and family and just trying to have a life, they cannot spare the time that writing requires, much less the additional time required for marketing. This saddens me as there are some truly amazing indie authors out there who deserve to be seen.

What can you do as a reader? Like and comment when you see their posts on Facebook (liking is no longer enough apparently), follow their author pages on Amazon and Book Bub, buy their books and leave a review. They're all simple things that will help increase the visibility of the book, that the author cannot do for themselves.

So whilst I sit here writing my next book and wondering when I'll have to find a more lucrative occupation, go have a look at what you last read and leave the author a review. It's the little things that count.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Photographs I’ve taken which I have used in books I’ve written, by Elizabeth Kay

Since the advent of digital photography I’ve been an addict – and I’ve used a lot of the photographs I’ve taken in different books. Here are a few, with extracts from the book concerned.

I decided to open this book in the most magical place I had ever visited, which was the humming bird garden in Monteverde, Costa Rica.

…the humming birds returned to the sugar-water feeders that were hung around the outside of the Study Centre. They used their beaks as rapiers, fencing in mid-air as they tried to knock one another away from the rim. The ones that won looked smug, and the ones that lost zoomed around the garden pretending they didn’t want a drink after all.

Although this description comes from The Divide, lot of the action in the second book is set in the library of my alternative world. I based it on a café in Bristol.

This one was made of wood, with asymmetrical window-frames and doorways. Pear-shaped windows, kidney-shaped windows, twisted beams, sloping walls, an undulating roof. It was almost as though the place had grown there, like a tree. The wood went from cream to chocolate, with every shade of coffee and caramel and butterscotch between. Each piece of timber was as smooth as a polished pebble, though whether it had become like that through craftsmanship or weathering was difficult to say. The structure was very big, although it was only one storey tall.

The jinx box, the shape-changing villain of the book, takes on the guise of the biggest pitcher plant in the world, which I photographed in Borneo.

“Look at that pitcher, over there,” said Betony. “It’s absolutely enormous.”
Felix looked. It was so huge it had to rest on the ground. “What do you think it eats?” he asked.
Betony looked shocked. “Eats? What do you mean?”
“Pitcher plants are carnivorous. At least, they are in my world. Ours are much smaller than these; they catch flies, which drown and then get digested.”
Betony made a face, which quickly turned into an expression of horror as the implications hit home. “What do you think these ones eat, then?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” said Felix. “Some pitcher plants have been known to eat frogs. Perhaps this one’s big enough to tackle small birds?”
“And not necessarily that small,” said Betony, backing away. “I think you’re right about Rhino not being here. Let’s go.”
But Felix was overcome with curiosity. Although physics and chemistry were his favourite subjects at school, biology came a very close third. Insectivorous plants fascinated him, they were just so weird. Despite the lid of the pitcher plant being firmly shut, he couldn’t resist going over to peek inside.
“I wouldn’t,” said Betony, but it was too late.
As Felix lifted the oval green lid a voice said, “Well hello.” It was so sudden and so unexpected that he nearly jumped out of his skin.

This wasn’t the biggest elephant I saw in Kenya, but it had attitude…

There, blocking the path, stood the biggest elephant I had ever seen. Its tusks almost swept the ground.
“Out of the way!” yelled Snyman, raising his rifle.
No-one moved.
Snyman made an angry noise, and pushed me out of the way. Because the track  was going uphill the poachers were right in his line of fire. Changa started to take off the heavy backpack. The eyes of the other two stayed fixed on the elephant as, very slowly, they put the tusks on the ground. I was quite sure that the huge grey beast in front of me knew very well how the poachers had got their ivory.

This eleven-year-old Mongolian girl was the best rider I have ever seen, and out to prove she was at least as good as the men.

“My name is Zul,” she said. “What is your name?”
            “Max. How come you speak such good English?”
            “I go to school, of course,” she said. “I love school. We get people from other countries who come to teach us, and then go home again. Chinese. Russian. And for the last three years, English. Can you ride?”
            I realised she had her hand looped through the reins of a grey horse. “Of course I can,” I said. I’d only had a few lessons, but I wasn’t going to tell her that.  
            “Get up behind me, then,” she said.
            She swung herself up into the horse’s saddle. It took me three goes to climb up behind her. The reins were really long, and she whirled them round her head like a lasso to get the goats to go where she wanted. There were about twenty of them, all different colours and sizes. We set off after them, but as soon as the horse started to trot I fell off.
            “I thought you said you could ride?” she said.

This is the Castle in Prague.

“This is very famous room,” said Svetlana. “When Mongol Hordes bring Black Death to Karetsefia, king and his family leave city and seek refuge here. Then they catch the plague anyway. Mongol Hordes take over castle, but they do everything on horseback, so they build audience hall for men on horses.”
“You mean they rode right into the castle?” said Julie.
“Yes. When Mongol Hordes leave, new king turns it into room for dancing. There is painting of him on wall at end. There are many paintings here, including very famous one of poet being shot by firing squad.”

The scenery in Iceland is truly inspirational.

It was Plume who noticed the change in the weather first, prancing sideways and clacking his beak. The blizzard that had reduced visibility to porridge had stopped as abruptly as it had started – and there they were, on the other side of the pass, and their track was about to split into two. The sky was a brilliant cloudless blue, and a delicate patchwork view was laid out below them like a chieftain’s carpet. It took a moment or two for Kura to really grasp what was odd about it, but it was Joeli who put it into words.
“It’s deepest winter out there,” he said, in an incredulous voice. “The colours – they’re all pastel blues and greys and white. There’s nothing but snow and ice. But on our side of the mountains the leaves are still red and gold and only just beginning to fall.”

And last but not least – Grimspite, my favourite character from the Divide Trilogy. Hyenas are terrifying. I once had one padding around outside my tent, and I didn’t dare go outside to the loo until daybreak, when I heard the cooks start to prepare breakfast…

Saturday, 15 September 2018

What is with you and those notebooks?

People make fun of me because I keep at least one pocket notebook on my person at all times. Most times, it’s at least two, one in each back pocket. And I have at least two pens with me, one blue, one black. The easy answer to the question “Why?” is, “Hey, I’m a writer.”

That usually gets one of those “Ohhhhh…” comments and a nod, one of those nods like you get when you trip for no reason, but look back at the ground for the non-existent object you trip over.

Truth be told, I keep the notebooks because I constantly have little ideas, bits of dialogue, and the like just pop into my head. Driving around, I see things, people on the street, almost anything can throw the switch on the proverbial “light bulb” of an idea, and I HATE having a really good idea pop into my head and losing it three minutes later.

I have two file folders in my desk drawer that are full of napkins, receipts, back covers of old paperback books, you name it, if you can write on it, I have at least one of them in those folders. I would buy notebooks, mind you, but I never remembered to actually put them in my pocket. Somewhere in the clutter of my writing room closet, there are probably boxes full of pocket notebooks that have one page used and nothing else in them.

Look, there’s no shame in keeping notebooks, or even those file folders full of assorted paper with ideas on them. Every writer seems to have that desk drawer or file cabinet that has dozens of unfinished stories, half-a-novels, opening paragraphs of works that petered out after those first sentences. Some might tell you to throw all those things out, keep everything fresh, never look back, pick your pithy saying. And that might be a good way for some people to work.

I can’t, though.

Every morning, when I start my writing time, I spend an hour or so just free writing. Think of it like unloading all the baggage so you can restock the shelves. Just start writing, pure stream-of-consciousness, whatever pops into your brain, put it on the paper. Type it onto the monitor screen. It doesn’t have to be complete sentences – I mean, let’s face it. If you are honest with yourself, nobody really thinks in complete sentences. But the point is, just let the words fall out of your brain. Then, when your shelves are empty, start filling them again with whatever project you are working on.

But, instead of discarding that baggage, save it. Stash it on your desktop or tuck the papers off to the side. When you are done writing for the day, go back, and just read through all the things you filled those pages with. You might be surprised to find that, while you thought you were just getting rid of excess garbage, you uncovered a gem or two amidst the rubbish. Those gems are the ones you save. You get enough gems, you have a treasure.

I keep a print of a photo of Walt Disney on one of the walls of my office. It’s a familiar photo, one of a young Disney in a doorway, and on the wall beside him is the shadow of his most famous idea, Mickey Mouse. The phrase he loved to tell people the most – “We must never forget, it all started with a mouse…” – is written in that beloved Disney font in one corner. I keep that print where I can see it because it’s a true statement, one that inspires me to keep those notebooks, those napkins and book covers and receipts, and all those pages of free writing. All Disney started with was one very simple idea, a cartoon of a mouse.

If you think one idea can’t change the course of your life, your career, or even the way the world sees things, just think about that mouse.

It was just one idea.

Friday, 14 September 2018

In and Out Images -- Jay Sennett

I’m working on a novel and mostly working on understanding what the heck I’ve gotten myself into. Long a nonfiction author, I had believed the shift no more challenging than moving from an essay to a book. 

Fiction requirements like plot points, story arcs and character development do exist in nonfiction, I knew, so hard could it be, really? (I will wait for all the fiction writers to wipe the tears from their eyes.)

Having written screenplays in the past I understand plotting fairly well and loving mysteries and thrillers as I do makes plotting easier, for me at least.

The biggest bugaboo has been character development. 

The best thrillers possess great character arcs, too. "Silence of the Lambs" ranks as one of my personal favorites and combes both a great plot and a great character arc. 

But again and again character development and character change has left me scratching my head. I’ve written outline upon outline, character sketches, mini-drafts, and stream of consciousness documents. I had no hook through around which I could understand character development and change.

Then, as if the Muse and her minions took pity on me, I read within two days Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat” and a series of blog posts on the In and Out by Steven Pressfield. 

Here is Pressfield, in his first post, What’s The In? What’s The Out?:

In the movie biz, there’s a question that studios and development companies often put to any screenplay they’re evaluating: 
What’s the in? What’s the out? 
What they mean is, “What is this script’s opening image and closing image? Do the two work together? Are they cohesive? Are they on-theme? Are they are far apart emotionally as possible?”

Here is a rule, if you will: 
The first rule of Ins and Outs Club is  
The Opening and Closing Images of our story should look as alike as reasonably possible.  
The second rule of Ins and Outs Club is  
At the same time, the Out should be as far away as we can make it, in emotional and narrative terms, from the In.

Pressfield uses the movie Shane as an example of the perfect Hollywood In and Out:

Last week we cited the opening and closing images from the 1953 Western Shane.
In the In, our hero, the gunfighter Shane (Alan Ladd), enters the Valley carrying aspirations for a better life. He hopes that in this new place he will be able to hang up his six-shooter and start afresh, be a normal person, maybe even find a wife and raise a family. 
In the Out, Shane departs the valley by exactly the same route he entered. Only now he knows that that dream will not come true for him—not now, not ever. 
In other words, this is exactly how an In and an Out should work. 
The closing image resonates powerfully with the opening image—they are bookends really—but in emotional and narrative terms they are as far apart as they can possibly be.
Pressfield’s explanation of the In/Out images has transformed everything for me. I’ve reread this last line about a dozen times over the last two weeks. At some point both the In and Out images of my novel materialized in my head. 

Every question I’ve had and struggled with regarding my main character’s development fell into place once I had the novel’s in and out images.

Fiction doesn’t come naturally to me. I’ve never been a voracious reader. Don’t get me wrong, I love to read. But I think of myself as the world’s slowest reader. To have this suggestion at the ready has made all the difference for me. I feel like I’ve just got my ticket punched and I’m now sitting in the third-class car of the great train of fiction.

I’m happy to finally be aboard.