Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Kick those leaves and light those fires. Ali Bacon celebrates Autumn.

Seriously, is there anyone who doesn't like Autumn? There are those who puff and pant their way through summer complaining about the heat, or who like me dread the dreariness of winter with its cold feet and chilblains - ugh! And however lovely spring can be, how many days of it do we usually get between the blizzard and the heat-wave? On our wedding day in Scotland it actually snowed -  and that was in April.

But autumn! I feel a collective sigh of appreciation going round. Even for those without a personal orchard, mellow fruitfulness can be found in abundance in the hedgerows: - sloes, damsons and blackberries. Scavenging - we love it! Then there's that feeling of pleasant wistfulness that goes with misty mornings and low sun through the trees as one year dwindles into another.  Kick those leaves and light those fires. Autumn perpares us for what is to come - soon I might be ready for hygge after all.

All these meanderings were brought on by our trip on Saturday to St Werbug's City Farm in Bristol which was celebrating its annual Apple Day, a well-named event as there were  apples everywhere: some still on the trees, some rotting underfoot but the majority being put to good use in apple tastings, apple cake, mulled cider and apple juice. 
All kinds of Heritage varieties were being put to press, covered in toffee or just boxed up ready for us to try. Yes there was a shower of rain but nothing too severe and no one was too hot - or too cold to stand for a while and listen to the traditional music in the mini- amphitheatre.

Apple tasting

In early autumn particularly I also have a sense of new beginnings, September/October a better time than January, I always think, to take stock, declutter and move forward 'leaner and fitter' before the onset of the mince pie season. And with that in mind I've made the difficult decision to gve up my place on Authors Electric to devote my time to other things. I've really enjoyed being here (I must be one of the longest serving members by now!) and also benefited from the discipline of these monthly posts. But nothing is forever (no, Justin Hayward, not even autumn!) and I 've recently joined another writing cooperative with its own demands on my writing time  - not to mention the need to get on with another book.

Welcome Clare/Mari
Luckily I have persuaded another writer friend to take my place, and either from next month or sometime soon you will be meeting Clare Weiner. I have met Clare, who writes as Mari Howard, in the real world as well as online, so I am very happy she will be taking my place and bringing you her perceptive thoughts.
I can also recommend her two Mullins family  novels which are engaging and thought-provoking, exploring the crossover of science, religion and genetics.  Clare/Mari is an artist as well as a writer and I think you will find her excellent company.

So that's it from me! Many thanks for your excellent company in the last few years.  As it happens, I am off to another harvest tomorrow, helping bring in the grapes at a small local vineyard. If you want to know how that and other things turn out, do keep in touch via Twitter @AliBacon or Facebook.

Ali Bacon writes contemporary and historical fiction, mostly with a Scottish flavour. 
Her latest novel, In the Blink of an Eye appeared on the ASLS Best Scottish Books of 2018

Monday, 21 October 2019

Winning the Branford Boase Award - Katherine Roberts

Bored of Brexit, I was wondering what to write about this month to cheer everyone up, when I noticed Sandra Horn's lovely post (yesterday) about Henrietta Branford and her books.

Unlike Sandra, I never had the privilege of meeting Henrietta in the flesh, since she died the year my first book launched me into the magical world of children's fiction. But I have much to thank her for, since that first book - Song Quest, originally written as genre fantasy for adults - had just been picked off the slush pile by Barry Cunningham, who was then children's editor at Element Books following his high-profile acquisition of Harry Potter for Bloomsbury, and following publication it went on to win the inaugural Branford Boase Award.

Branford Boase Award
Apparently, Barry wasn't particularly looking for fiction at the time, so in some respects my ignorance in sending him my manuscript worked in my favour. After some sympathetic editing by Barry and editor Helen Wire to make the story work better for younger readers, Song Quest came out in hardcover with a modest print run of 1,000 copies to reflect its modest advance.

Element hardcover (1999)

When I was invited to London for the glittering award ceremony, I had no idea what a big deal this was. I must have seemed a bit starstruck when children's author superstar Jacqueline Wilson presented me with my book-shaped award with the Branford Boase silver butterfly set into the 'cover'. Since this is a first novel award, it also recognises the editor in memory of Henrietta's editor Wendy Boase who died the same year, so Barry received one too. Here we are, grinning for the camera. (The massive bunch of flowers did not last as long as the little book-shaped box, which still sits in pride of place on my bookshelf to remind me that dreams sometimes do come true - if not always in the way you imagine them.)

Barry Cunningham and Katherine Roberts
Branford Boase Award ceremony, London, 2000.

That was 20 years ago, and if you Google the Award you'll doubtless find several more "what it's like to win" posts by other first-time children's authors... but what happens after you win an award?

Obviously there was some nice publicity at the time, and the hardcover - which enjoyed an impressive display of 100 copies around the foyer of Waterstones Piccadilly - sold out. Element quickly produced a paperback edition, but sadly went into receivership before they could reap the benefits of selling it. Authors are at the bottom of the pile where receivers are concerned, so my share of a Japanese advance never materialised, and nor did any of the paperback royalties - an early lesson for me in the ups and downs of the publishing business!

Chicken House paperback
Meanwhile, on the strength of Song Quest, I found my perfect agent - Maggie Noach, who ran a small independent agency with some high-profile clients such as Antony Horowitz (of Alex Rider fame). Maggie soon secured me several more publishing deals, including a contract with Barry's new company, The Chicken House, for two more titles set in the same fantasy world: Crystal Mask and Dark Quetzal. While Song Quest was being extracted from the receivers at Element so that Chicken House could publish the entire trilogy, she also secured me a seven-book contract with HarperCollins for a series of historical adventures called the Seven Fabulous Wonders. Quite suddenly, I was a full time author with a fierce schedule of deadlines to meet, at the same time being whisked around the circuit of school visits to help promote the books. All a far cry from working with racehorses, which is what I was doing before Song Quest got published.

Then, in 2006, my agent Maggie sadly and unexpectedly followed Henrietta Branford and her editor Wendy Boase into whatever afterlife awaits those who work with children's books... There's an old joke about a writer arriving at the pearly gates and asking to see what Author-Heaven and Author-Hell are like before deciding which one to choose. St Peter shows the writer a vision of Author Hell, where rows of authors are chained to their desks with flaming whips falling on their backs. Horrified, the writer asks to see the other place, where rows of authors are chained to their desks with flaming whips falling on their backs. "But I thought this is supposed to be Heaven?" the writer says, alarmed. "Ah," says St Peter, "but in Heaven your books get published." (I'm not sure what Editor-Heaven and Agent-Heaven would look like, but I'm sure editors and agents out there can tell us.)

Anyway, my glittering career as an author took a bit of a dive that year with the loss of my agent. But books never really die... they just change their covers. Happily, Barry had by then sold all three books in the trilogy, now known as the Echorium Sequence, to Scholastic in the US, and they produced the whole trilogy for the American market with these super fantasy covers:


The trilogy sold quite well in America and Canada, but eventually all books run their course and publishers need to focus on newer titles, and a few years later the rights reverted back to me. The UK rights were immediately snapped up by small publisher called Catnip, who produced this golden paperback edition with a cover designed by the same artist who designed the cups for a famous brand of coffee.

Catnip paperback

Song Quest enjoyed a modest second lease of life in the UK, but a couple of years later the rights reverted again. Being agentless and largely publisherless by then, I had plenty of time to investigate the brave new world of ebooks and print on demand, which overnight made self-publishing (or indie publishing, since not everyone who takes this route goes it alone) a reality for authors, rather than an expensive hobby for those with enough cash and vanity. So I reissued the trilogy myself, first as an ebook, and later as a POD paperback, since younger readers still seem keen on paper books despite the rise in screen use. Song Quest now looks like this, with a cover I designed for the digital edition using my own mermaid artwork combined with stock images from my favourite design site Canva.

print-on-demand paperback (2018)
It feels as if this book has travelled a long way with me, from when I first wrote the story as a possible adult fantasy featuring blue-haired Singers who could control people's emotions with their Songs of Power, its winning the Branford Boase Award as a first novel for young readers, through its incarnation as a mass market paperback sitting on the young adult shelves of bookshops on the other side of the world, to its digital existence today as a book for young readers and adults who enjoy genre fantasy - digital shelves are more flexible than physical shelves so it can easily sit on both.

Why was Song Quest such a lucky book - to be picked off a slush pile by a famous editor, win an award, secure me a lovely agent, be internationally published, and still be available 20 years later bringing me welcome (if much reduced) royalties in its digital form? I'm afraid I still don't know! You'll probably need to find someone who has read the book and ask them.

Meanwhile, I'll leave you with the Echorium Anthem, which incorporates the five Songs of Power the young Singers of my fantasy world learn in their school of bluestone on the remote Isle of Echoes, and should give you a flavour of these books in case you missed them the first time around.

Find out more about Song Quest and its sequels http://katherineroberts.co.uk/echorium-sequence

Sunday, 20 October 2019

Remembering and Celebrating Henrietta Branford by Sandra Horn

I was ‘tidying’ the bookshelves the other day (ie moving things aimlessly around trying to find a non-existent space) when I came to my treasured set of children’s books by Henrietta Branford. I picked up her first one, Royal Blunder. It’s signed with love to The Horn Quintet – that’s Niall, me and the three offspring – and dated 1990. That gave me a jolt. Almost 30 years – can it be, really? Oh yes.

I first met Henrietta at a creative writing class. We went to it for two successive years but it was getting to be very ‘samey’ and we had decided to give it up, but were reluctant to give up seeing each other and a few more like-minded members of the group. At the last meeting of the class we agreed to go on meeting informally ‘from time to time’. This turned out to be weekly, in my house (at first, we circulated later on). We were nervous and excited about where this enterprise would take us, but set down the rules straight away. Anyone with work was to bring copies for everyone and read out loud. Comments would then be taken and noted, but the final decision about what, if any, action to take rested with the author. We were free to write about anything and everything, and there were experimental novels, poetry, plays… and chocolate biscuits and wine.
Henrietta was under some pressure to earn from her writing. Her husband Paul was a freelance photographer and there were three children of school age. There was an agreement that she would work on the writing for a year but then would need a paid job if no publishing contract was forthcoming. We all felt this pressure! The year came and went while ideas came and went, and then she wrote Royal Blunder and sent it to agent Gina Pollinger, who loved it. The first publishing contract came shortly after. Our group cracked open the first bottle of bubbly.

Royal Blunder is a magical cat. He has secret powers. Nobody knows where he comes from. Nobody knows where he goes. When Julie meets him in the hedge, a very fine friendship begins. 

The stories in the book are warm, funny and enchanting. They also show, underneath the fun, Henrietta’s strong sense of fairness and concern for those with relatively little power in the world, such as children.  Royal Blunder and the Haunted House followed, and then a whole series of books with bright, inventive and determined girls at the centre, girls such as Clare, Ruby Red and Dimanche Diller. My personal favourite amongst these early books for younger readers is Dipper’s Island, the first book in which all the characters are not drawn from the human world but are imaginary creatures living in and around the Dockens Water, a stunning wetland area in the New Forest, where Henrietta spent part of her childhood:

Up and down the Dockens, everyone was waking up. Trees drank deep. Leaves unfurled. Crumpled insects that had hidden all through the winter crept out and counted their legs.
The stream was in spate, brimming over with melted snow and ice. Dipper sat on the point of his island, facing the rush and bubble. Off in the woods a bird squawked. A fox barked.
‘Who’s there?’ Dipper called, but nobody answered. Springtime can be like that. You hear someone, and call, but no one answers. Something is going on, out in the woods, but it stops just before you get there.

There followed the Space Baby books, the very funny adventures of an alien trapped in the body of a human baby, and later, she went on to explore darker themes for older children, with White Wolf, in which the narrator is the wolf:

A wolf needs water that splashes all summer and turns to ice when the sun goes red. A wolf needs sun on his pelt in the springtime and snow on his snout in the fall. A wolf needs live food with warm blood and running feet. A wolf needs a pack. All I had was a cage.

 Fire Bed and Bone, set at the time of the peasants’ revolt, in which the narrator is a dog:

The wolves came down to the farm last night. They spoke to me of freedom. I lay by the last of the fire with my four feet turned towards the embers and the last of the heat warming my belly. I did not listen to the wolf talk. This is no time to think of freedom.

and The Fated Sky, the story of Ran, a girl left alone after her father and brothers were killed in a Viking raid:

There was a dragon in the sky the night before the stranger came. It flamed across the red west from the cliffs to the black road of the sea. Its jaws were open, showing its curved teeth tinged with yellow. The single eye it turned towards me glowed like an ember in the darkness of its face.

My copy is signed, Dear Sandra: writing and chocolate biscuits for ever! Lots of love, Henrietta, August ‘96.

There are some heart-stopping moments in these later stories; Henrietta did not shrink from the bloody realities of life and not all the endings are happy, but after those stories came the picture books – original, enchanting tales for small children – a complete contrast again. Birdo, Little Pig Figwort, Six Chicks, Someone, Somewhere, Splash! All of them quirky and all of them as brilliantly written as ever.

Henrietta died in 1999. An immeasurable loss to her family and all others who loved her and her work, and to the world of children’s literature. In those few years she produced many wonderful stories. I have tried to give a flavour of some of them here.  Her unique, loving spirit shines through them all. She and her inspired and much-admired editor Wendy Boase died within a short time of each other but, apart from the books, have left us the Branford-Boase award, an annual prize for the writer and editor of a first children's book.

Apologies for the rotten quality of the photos

Saturday, 19 October 2019

Hat Trick for October - Jan Edwards

Three things to celebrate this month
Firstly the pARTyLines Literary Caberet on Tues 8th Oct at The Old Joint Stock Pub & Theatre.  This was organised by Writing West Midlands as part of the Birmingham Literary Festival.
The range of performances was tremendous and depth from performance poetry to prose and songs
You will notice I am not in the photo…  
There is a reason for that. Those who know me well may recall that this is the third occasion when I have been called upon for curtain calls and the cry of ‘she’s in the bar’ has gone up. Its becoming something of a habit!
It sounds bad – but hand on heart I had one drink all evening and happened to be at the bar buying it at that very moment.  In my defence if the nerve wobbling act of reading to a full house (standing room only) and little old me being sandwiched in the running order between two professional actors didn’t earn me a large G&T I don’t know what would. But hey – no big deal – I was there and had a wonderful time.
The drive home was... interesting.  M6, M6 Toll and M42 all closed at crucial junctions with next to no signage, which doubled our one hour journey time… Midlands people will recognise my pain but I shan’t bore the rest of you with the gory details.
The second event was the annual Ghosts at the Gladstone evening at the Gladstone Museum in Stoke-on-Trent. This is (I think) the fifth GATG that we have taken part in, and  possibly the most successful to date. Another full house (we had to put out more chairs) and a fabulous array of spooky readings. A bit of an IT glitch when the antiquated *sound and vision* at the Museum refused to play nicely with the fabulous graphics that had been prepared - but we coped. (I am in this picture (above) but then the Gladstone doesn't have a bar.)
In passing – if you have not been to the Gladstone it is worth a look. Finest historic collection of porcelain toilets you will find anywhere in the world!
The third event may not have quite the same news value to the world at large, but I have been celebrating the first draft of my next crime book with extreme vigour!
This had been an odd year, following on from an odd year before that, and coaxing this book to its conclusion has been felt positively  Sisyphean at times and there was more than one occasion when I wondered if it would ever get written at all!  But its done - first draft in the bag!
Okay - I have the rewrites to plough through, and that is a fresh hell in its own right,  but Listed Dead : Bunch Courtney Investigation #3 now exists and on course for launch next spring.  I shall now go and lie down in a darkened room for a bit…
To read more about Jan Edwards and the Bunch Courtney Investigations click  HERE

In Her Defence is available through most leading booksellers in print and digital formats.   AMAZON (PAPER)   US  / UK/  /  AU INDIE BOUND / BOOK DEPOSITORY  / WORDERY /  Waterstones  /  Foyles Barnes & Noble  / Digital sources: Kindle  US / UK / AU/   Apple/  Nook  / Kobo  
Indie Bound /Book Depository /Wordery Digital sources:

Winter Downs : Amazon (paper and kindle)  US  / UK/  /  AU Apple /  Barnes and Noble Nook  /Kobo / Kindle' Overdrive
Listed Dead (mock-up cover on right of banner above) will be available in early 2020.

Thursday, 17 October 2019

Using Biological Curiosities, by Elizabeth Kay

There’s a wonderful clip on YouTube that shows an octopus disappearing into the background and becoming, as a consequence, invisible. This is an attribute shared by other cephalopods such as the cuttlefish, one of which I met whilst snorkelling in Indonesia.
The water there is very clear, and the colourful marine life is plentiful and varied. I had a great time, swimming through shoals of tiny iridescent green fish, followed by shoals of even smaller blue ones. The seabed was packed with anemones and clams and coral and seaweed, in every colour and design you can imagine. Absolutely beautiful. And then, it seemed to me, a part of the sea floor about the length of my forearm detached itself and started to move in a sedate fashion beneath me.
The cuttlefish is bottom left, using a fetching brown attire,
and its tentacles are facing right.
Intrigued, I swam closer, only to realise that it was a creature of some sort, as it seemed to have some small tentacles at one end. Eventually I got bored, as it wasn’t doing anything interesting, and I swam off. I continued my tour of vivid pink starfish and lemon yellow seashells until I realised that something was behind me. I turned in the water to get a better look, only to see my piece of sea floor had transformed itself into a stripey thing with two round blue eyes that were watching me with great interest in what seemed like rather a friendly sort of way. We remained like that for a couple of minutes, sizing one another up, and then it turned and swam lazily away. I had no idea what I’d seen until I mentioned it to our guide, who got quite excited and told me I’d had an encounter with a cuttlefish.
And here it is again, watching me.
This started me wondering about what might happen if a land-dwelling creature with malevolent intentions were capable of the same act of disguise. I wrote a book for reluctant readers called The Tree Devil, which I illustrated myself and was published by E-Print, and I base the story around a mad scientist who decides to rid the world of human beings due to their catastrophic impact on the environment. He had used an octopus’s invisibility ability to create a dedicated predator that will only eat human beings. Unfortunately it’s not available in digital form, but it starts like this:

I was on my way home from school when I saw the oak tree move. I don’t mean it lifted up its roots and walked. I don’t mean it tried to hug me to death with its branches. It wasn’t like that at all.
The bark of the tree began to bend in an odd sort of way. It was as if there was another shape inside, trying to get out.
I just stood there, and stared. The bit that was moving looked exactly the same as the bark. Brown and grey, with zigzag cracks. Then I thought I could see the body of an animal. It wasn’t any animal I knew. The legs ended in big flat feet, like flippers, with claws on the toes. It looked a bit like a toad – but a toad that stood on two legs, and was the size of a grizzly bear. Then it saw me, and froze.
            The moment it stopped moving, I couldn’t see it any more. I wondered if I was going mad. In the end I decided it must have been a trick of the light, so I stepped right up to the tree, and ran my fingers over the bark. It felt cold and hard, just like a tree trunk should feel. And then it started to feel a bit different. Smooth and slimy, like frog’s skin…

There are all sorts of wonderful senses and abilities that animals have that we don’t, and there was a paper published by American philosopher Thomas Nagel, called WhatIs it Like to Be a Bat? For lots of other ideas about weird biological oddities, I’d like to recommend Olivia Judson’s book Dr Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation. Witty and humorous, this is the blurb:

If you have ever wondered why women always bite your head off or why one guy gets all the girls, if you have ever pondered why some men bring you balloons while others leave you their genitals, then this is the book for you. It explains all this and much more. It discloses the best time to have a sex change, how to have a virgin birth, when to seduce your sisters or eat your lover. Quirky and brilliant, it takes as its starting point all creatures great and small worried about their bizarre sex lives, and the letters they write to the wise Dr Tatiana, the only agony aunt in all creation with a prodigious knowledge of both natural history and evolutionary biology.

I’ve messed around with a lot of creatures in my fantasy books, and sometimes combining several different characteristics can give you really bizarre animals that are uniquely your own. Try it. It’s fun.

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

On Change and Writing by Wendy H. Jones

There is always one thing you can guarantee in life, that being, change will inevitably come. The world is changing at a rapid rate. Technology is changing at a rapid rate. Life moves ever faster and often it feels that the changes are propelling us. The reason I am thinking so deeply about change at the  moment is because I own apple everything. iPhone, iPad, MacBook, iMac - there's an apple on the back of every piece of technology I own. 

This forced me into a lot of change recently due to the fact apple has updated all its operating systems - IOS, the new iPad OS and OSX Cantana. If this sounds like double dutch to you and you're an apple owner, you'll soon find out what it means. How, I hear you ask, does this affect me as a writer. The first impact of this universal upgrade is the time it takes. I had a small window of opportunity, whilst I had a cup of tea, to upgrade my iMac. Or so I thought. I duly clicked download and, before my very eyes, a message popped up. This is an 8 megabyte download and will take three hours. What? that's a heck of a lot of cups of tea. I should have known better as my iPad had also taken, what seemed like, forever to make the changes. It won't be as long as that thought I. How wrong can one writer be. It did take three hours and then a further 20 minutes after that. By this point I was grumpy.

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don't resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” 

Lao Tzu

I'll let you into a secret. The quote above is absolutely right. After I'd moaned (the poor souls I was staying with is all I can say), mumped and waited the requisite 3 hours and 20 minutes, I discovered I liked these changes. Yes, funnily enough, these were for the better. All the issues I moaned about before have now miraculously been resolved. I am blown away by the new photos app, making it much easier for me to find photos for my social media posts. Everything is newer, shinier and works more quickly. I can now see the advantages of the upgrades - isn't hindsight a good thing. I wasted three hours of my life complaining and fretting instead of using the opportunity to read a good book or plot a new book. Embracing change would have saved me a lot of angst and worry and mean the enforced break from writing was productive. 

I also feel that change is good when it comes to writing. I am now writing multiple series for both adults and children. I believe this keeps my writing fresh and stops me getting bored. If I am bored, the reader is bored. I have deliberately made all the series different, so my writing style is different. The DI Shona McKenzie Mysteries are gritty crime. Cass Claymore investigates is comic crime. The Fergus and Flora Mysteries are a cross between The Hardy Boys and Scooby Doo. The Bertie the Buffalo books are rhyming picture books. Then there's the series for writers. This stretches me as a writer and allows me to use my full creative palette, something which is important to me as a writer. I am also working on a new series - yes, I do like a challenge. 

So, let's think about embracing change and harnessing it to make out writing even better. Grasp it by the horns and let it take us where it will. It is so much more productive than butting heads with it, and a lot less exhausting.

About the Author

Wendy H Jones is the Amazon Number 1 best-selling author of the award winning DI Shona McKenzie Mysteries. Her Young Adult Mystery, The Dagger’s Curse was a finalist in the Woman Alive Readers Choice Award. She is also The President of the Scottish Association of Writers, the Webmaster for the Association of Christian Writers, an international public speaker, and runs conferences and workshops on writing, motivation and marketing. Wendy is the founder of Crime at the Castle, Scotland’s newest Crime Festival. She is the editor of a Lent Book, published by the Association of Christian Writers as well as the editor of Christmas Anthology form the same publisher. Her first children's book, Bertie the Buffalo, was released in December 2018. Motivation Matters: Revolutionise Your Writing One Creative Step at a Time, was released in May 2019.


Amazon Author Page