Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Lev Butts Does It Again

It's been a good bit since I went on a diatribe about dissing the self- and independently-published writer. Almost four years, in fact. I thought I had put it all behind me. I thought, naively, that I had won.

I really did.

I had hung up my shootin' irons, beaten my sword into a ploughshare, and turned my spear into a pruning hook. I was all ready to sip tea on my porch and reminisce with the young'uns about the ol' days fightin' the good fight for writer equality.

Then I saw a social media post from a writer I respect (who shall remain nameless, partly to protect his privacy and  partly because he's a local poet, so you wouldn't know him anyway) that advised his followers not to take writing advice from self-published authors who think high word counts equal quality writing. I'd share a screen shot, but I can't find it now. It has either been edited, deleted, or is buried so far down his news feed that it finally hit China.

It's just too far to look.
Now there's a lot to unpack in that statement: don't take writing advice from self-published authors who think high word counts equal quality writing.

As an English professor, I understand the importance of qualifiers. One interpretation of this statement, then, could be that one should ignore only those self-published writers who think high word counts equal quality writing. The implication being that it is fine to take advice from self-published writers as long as they don't think high word counts equal quality writing. Indeed, the lack of a comma after "authors" makes this the literal interpretation of the sentence.

However, this is still a problematic idea. Are we then free to take writing advice from traditionally published authors who think high word counts equal quality writing? If so, the implication is not that the word count thing is the problem, but that the self-published thing is the crux. Otherwise, why not say "Don't take writing advice from authors who think high word counts equal quality writing"?

On the other hand, the phrase "who think high word counts equal quality writing" could be read as a defining characteristic of self-published writers. Admittedly, if there were a comma after "authors," it would literally mean just that.

Apparently how at least one traditionally published author views self-published authors
Either interpretation, however, implies that the crux of the problem with taking writing advice from self-published authors is the manner of publication, more so than the counting of words.

Underlying all of this vitriol towards self-publishing seems to be at least one of two misguided ideas:

1. There is some kind of competition between traditionally-published and self-published authors. 

This is, of course, patently absurd. It assumes that readers only buy one book, and if they buy a self-published book, it means a traditionally published author has gone hungry. However, we all know as readers, that we are going to buy exactly as many books as a) strike our fancy and b) can be covered by our cash, our debit cards, and/or our credit limit.

Look, with only a few exceptions, nobody is getting rich off of writing. There's plenty of poverty to go around for all writers. In fact, if any writer is making a living at it, much less getting rich, you can bet he or she is traditionally published. Even if it were a competition, then, clearly the traditionally published are winning.

Killing it along with literally every one of his characters you love.
2. Self published writers are lazy hacks with no talent.

This is probably the most common insulting stereotype about self-published writers. The idea that they are either too unashamedly lazy to do the work of getting traditionally published (an idiotic assumption given the amount of extra work a self-published author has to do, beyond writing, in order to sell books) or they are so abysmally without talent that no publisher will touch them.

Of course, this last assumption implies that traditional publishers only take good writing, so every single book on the shelves of Barnes and Noble must truly be a breathtaking masterpiece of literary genius.

Clearly this isn't true.

Which brings me to the next thing I am going to do that I haven't done in a while. I haven't done a countdown in a bit, so starting next month, I am listing the best self-published books I have read.  I will discuss one a month, in no particular order (so it's not technically a countdown, I guess).

If you have any suggestions that you'd like me to take a look at, send them to me in the comments and tell me why they are worth a look between now and then, and I will try to to read them before I finish the list.

I will show you that self-published does not necessarily equal a lack of quality.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Sci-fi season: Ali Bacon reads out of her usual box

Recently a writer friend (who it has to be said ranges widely across genres)  remarked on how people wilfully discount huge swathes of  literature because of an apparent antipathy to one particular genre. In this I count myself guilty since, pace John Wyndham in his pomp, I have pretty much avoided sci-fi all my life.  And I doubt that this throwing down of the gauntlet would have stirred me to change my ways if three sci-fi books  hadn't come my way this year, all by writers whose work I knew in other contexts and which I was eager to read. So how did I get on? Avoiding any arcane discussion of what constitutes sci-fi and its near relatives, these books were remarkably different in the style of the narrative and the worlds they created and so I think I picked a good sample for my tour of future worlds.

I found The Space Between the Stars by Anne Corlett (recently out in paperback) a gripping read, especially the opening in which heroine Jamie  contemplates the possibility that in the wake of a deadly plague she might be the only person left in the universe. There's also a brilliant plot twist quite near the beginning which I loved because it  changes the whole nature of her quest and I enjoyed the Starwarsy (?) feel of her journey to Earth with a motley band of survivors.  There are thriller elements in the book but Jamie brings a thoughtful presence to the action and what it means for the future of humanity. It may not be for the sci-fi purist, but it has something for everyone else.

The book I've just finished reading is a very different proposition. More dystopian than sci-fi, Heather Child's Everything About You takes as its back-drop a near future in which data (which we hear about so much right now) is the driver for - well, everything. I found this entertainingly inventive - your toothbrush makes your dental appointment, your shower stops running when you're clean - as well as distinctly scary in the scenes where an entire personality as well as a personal history can be learned by and from the Cloud. (Go check those privacy settings!) But again this is a strongly personal story in which heroine Freya is both haunted by and hunting for the half-sister and role model Ruby who disappeared several years earlier but seems to inhabit Freya's new virtual assistant: think Alexa with some very special powers. Freya's quest takes her into the world of a Virtual Reality game she already has reason to fear, and although I struggled a bit with the concepts here, the tension is racked up convincingly.  I'm not sure there was quite enough emphasis on plot for the label of thriller, but it is a thought-provoking page-turner with a distinctive edge. 

Finally, an out-and-out scifi book I wouldn't have picked up if I hadn't already been a fan of Lania Knight's spare but poetic prose. Stylistically The Remnant  more than lived up to this promise. The McCarthyesque bleakness of its dystopia is truly chilling and the world ruled by the dying life form of The Maitris is brilliantly constructed and evoked. Just a word of caution - this is not a book to read if you need cheering up! It also differs from my first two reads in not having a single hero(ine).  Remnant  (naming of characters and tribal groups is brilliant) is a girl destined to take on the life form of the evil Maitris and many individuals and factions have an interest in her fate, all of them reaching ultimately to exchange their barren landscape for a land, maybe not of milk and honey, but at least capable of sustaining life without scientific interventions (like synthetic food and even synthetic people.) I occasionally floundered amongst the many competing interests and characters but I did feel immersed in this highly imaginitive rendering of the future.

So, phew! - I'm back from the future. The question is, will I be going back?  Well I don't think this will ever become my particular thing, but as an eclectic reader I'm not sure exactly what is. When faced with this kind of variety I do at least see it's rash to turn my back on a whole league of writers. 

So what other genres should I be exploring? Chick lit, YA, any other takers? 

Ali Bacon writes contemporary and historical fiction - no sci-fi just yet! 

In the Blink of an Eye is available in e-book or paperback, also from Linen Press

Monday, 21 May 2018

Turning History into Fiction - Katherine Roberts

Historical fiction. Guaranteed to make children's publishers nervous, unless it's about World War II, the Roman Empire or Ancient Egypt - in other words unless it's on the school curriculum. Adult publishers take a broader view, but there are still branches of historical fiction that sell better than others (romance, epic adventure) and periods of history that are more popular than others. For me as a reader, the most successful historical fiction takes an interesting period of history and gives it a fictional twist. While I admire accurate historical background and detail, the last thing I want in my fiction is a history lesson - when I need that, I'll read non-fiction instead. So here are some tricks for turning history into successful fiction:

1. If your hero or heroine is a well-known historical character, you could tell the little-known story of their youth or teenage years. This is the approach I took in Bone Music, my novel about the teenage years of Genghis Khan based on The Secret History of the Mongols. I also threw in a bit of fantasy and paranormal romance for luck.

2. Take a well-known incident in history, and include (or tell the whole story) from the point of view of a fictional character so that the reader has someone to root for but doesn't know the outcome until the end. This is the basis of the 1997 film Titanic, where the hero Jack wins his ticket on the doomed liner's maiden voyage in a game of poker just five minutes before the Titanic is due to sail so is not on the official passenger list, which means you don't know if he survives until the very end. The film is also a romance, which always helps in fiction destined for the YA or adult market.

3. Making a minor historical character into one of your main characters can work nearly as well, since your readers are unlikely to know much about their story already, although then you might be constrained by what actually happens to that character in history, and in my experience real life never quite fits into the plot of a good story. To get around this, you could take an animal's viewpoint of history, such as Michael Morpurgo's popular War Horse about World War I.

4. Rewrite history from the point of view of the losing side. This is not really cheating, since most of history is written (and sometimes rewritten) by the victors - for example, when I was researching my own horse viewpoint novel about Alexander the Great I am the Great Horse, I discovered Alexander employed an official historian to travel with his army and write his story. At first, when Alexander was acting like a young hero, things were fine - later, when he turned into more of a tyrant, the reluctant historian was locked in a cage and threatened with torture unless he wrote exactly what Alexander wanted him to write. Digging up the truth of what actually happened can reveal some interesting characters and plot lines, but the research is likely to be more difficult, and there's always the danger readers who know the popular version of history will gleefully write to tell you you've got it all wrong.

5. Add an element of fantasy to the history, which is a popular approach in children's historical fiction. My Seven Fabulous Wonders series mixed history with magical creatures from ancient Greek and Egyptian myths to create a seven-book historical series for teenagers based around the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Or you could take this approach even further and disguise the history entirely, as in the hit TV series Game of Thrones from George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, which is based on the Wars of the Roses but marketed firmly as fantasy.

6. Legends lurk in the mist between history and fantasy (King Arthur and Robin Hood are popular here in the UK) and can give you more wriggle room to invent magical creatures and characters. Because they're not really history, you shouldn't get the historians on your neck, but the danger is that younger readers might actually think your story really is history, as happened when I gave talks in schools for my series of middle grade adventures about King Arthur's fictional daughter, Rhianna Pendragon: The Pendragon Legacy

In a similar manner, Rick Riordan took the Ancient Greek myths as a basis for his Percy Jackson series, setting his stories in modern times and only touching on the history. Revealingly, rather like Game of Thrones, Riordan's series has been far more commercially successful than my Seven Fabulous Wonders with their carefully researched historical backgrounds... you live and learn.

7. Finally, you could go the full science fictional route into alternative history, which takes a pivotal point in history and imagines what the world would be like today if the result had been different. For example, what would our lives be like if Germany had won the Second World War? (Robert Harris' Fatherland). Or what if the Roman Empire had not collapsed and ruled in Britain today? (Alison Morton's Roma Nova series).

There are many other examples. Please add your favourite historical fiction - book or film - to the comments below!


Find out more about Katherine's historical and fantasy fiction for young readers on her website

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Some random musings about corvids by Sandra Horn

There’s an old saying that if you see a flock of crows, they’re rooks, and if you see a solitary rook, it’s a crow. It has been claimed by those who know these things that it isn’t true but it’s true-ish, as many of the old tales are.  Black birds congregating in large numbers in trees are mostly rooks, and crows are more likely to be alone or in pairs. 

I remember being fascinated by a book about raven behaviour when a carcass is discovered by scouting birds. They report back to their clan by distinctive cries and then there’s a hierarchy of who feeds first, regulated by patterns of calls. I was enjoying the book very much but it descended into a miseryfest by the writer. He was cold, it was hard to find roadkill, the water ran out, etc. etc... It reminded me of my bĂȘte noir, him off the tele who goes off on ‘adventures’ all over the world and then moans into the camera because he’s all covered in boils or he’s left his horse in a field in Mongolia and they’ve all died of fly-strike. It makes me throw things at the screen and counsel him very loudly and in no uncertain terms to Stay At Home, You Inveterate Plonker! Rant over. Where was I? Oh yes.

One of the many delights of staying with our friend Di in Cumbria was the evening drink in the garden, watching the twilight deepen as bats flitted above our heads and the rooks came home to the trees nearby. I’d never appreciated how conversational they sounded until then. They don’t just caw and quark, they make soft gossipy noises and sometimes sound like questions-and-answers. I put some of the sounds into The Crows’ Nest, in which Mo and Jo Crow are looking for a home and constantly being thwarted until they find the perfect place in a city. Unaccountably, it won an award for a non-fiction picture book! Apart from the rook noises, there was one real event woven into it, when birds dropping a wet twig onto a nest on a pylon caused a short and plunged half Southampton into darkness, but they were pigeons, not crows. 

I’ve put other members of the family into books, too. A jay plants the acorn that will grow into the oak that will eventually become ship’s timbers and then the cottage in The Furzey Oak.

In The Stormteller, a jackdaw picks Marietta up from the beach, attracted by her sparkly costume, and is the unwitting cause of her reunion with Zeke.

Jackdaws like nesting on chimneys and cause mess and sometimes fires when their casual attitude to nest building makes loose twigs fall down into the smokehole. I used that idea in The Hob and Miss Minkin stories.

My latest venture into the world of corvids is artist Bonnie Helen Hawkins’ 52crows project. She is creating an illustration of a crow every week for a year, and they are stunning. I sent her my poem ‘Crow’ which contrasts the ordinary black bird we see around with the powerful myths associated with them: 

I see you, Crow,
side-stepping, neat along the fence,
head down, wings folded just so,
tentative, polite –
‘May I have just that little crumb?
May I? Really? How very, very kind.’

I know you, Crow,
I’ve seen the lightning flash behind your eyes,
Heard you call up thunderclouds,
Topple trees with one clap of your wings,
Open your beak and shatter the sky.

 Humans seem to have a long love-hate relationship with corvids. In the countryside, rooks have often been killed – eaten in pies or hung up along fences as a warning to others to keep away from crops. There’s a plan in a part of Scotland to cull ravens to improve the survival of wading birds. Many other members of the family, such as magpies, are nest-robbers. Then there are songs like ‘The twa corbies’-  Eek! They do what they must to survive and it isn’t always pretty, but it is often impressive.
Many writers have woven  corvids into fiction and poetry. Edgar Allan Poe’s strange and melancholic poem The Raven, in which it croaks ‘Nevermore!’  - delightfully borrowed by Joan Aiken in Arabella and Mortimer, with all the darkness in Poe’s original taken out. Then there’s Ted Hughes’ fascination with crows, which he sees as mysterious, powerful, dangerous in a series of unsettling poems. In contrast, in the Norse myths, Odin is accompanied by two crows, Hugi  and Munnin (spirit and memory) who symbolise the creative spirit. In ancient Greek myths, a crow is a devotee of Apollo and was once Athena’s bird, but proved to gossipy for her liking and was replaced by an owl. Bad mistake! One of Athena’s attributes was wisdom. She’d have done much better to stick with the crow – infinitely smarter than any owl.  Crows are sometimes seen as agents of darkness and death in folklore, but also as symbolising divine providence, fighting evil spirits, bringing bread to a man alone in the desert. There’s a story of St Cuthbert reprimanding crows for stealing nest material from a newly-thatched roof, and they fly off but come back with bowed heads, wings trailing in the dust, repentant, bringing a gift of lard (also nicked presumably!)

We may dislike the corvids’ methods of feeding themselves and their chicks, but on the other hand, we admire their ingenuity. Scientists have often devised complex puzzles for them, involving several manoeuvres to get at food, and they are very quick to find solutions. They also play. There’s an amazing clip on YouTube of a crow using a flattened tin as a skateboard, with no other obvious purpose than fun.They delight, disgust, frighten and intrigue us in turn. They are awesome!

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Giving the Right Signs

Last week Peter and I decided to walk to the Bloggers and Authors meetup, as it was a sunny day, and noted an oddity that had not struck either of us before when driving that route. Two roads that we passed had been renamed.
Clifton Street is now Gerard Street whilst Hall Street has at some point been renamed Floyd Street. I have no idea when these renamings took place but from the age of the signage one would imagine it took place some time ago. But in both cases the old signs had not been removed. Is this a local thing? Or do other cities just never get around to removing old signage
Nothing so very unusual about roads changing names as such of course.
For many years I have lived very close to a stretch of the old roman road through Ockley in Surrey that still bore the name of Staine Street. This ancient thoroughfare led from Chichester to London Bridge and was a major route in its day. 
Those stretches of Staine Street that are still in partial use closer in to London have gained all manner of alternative names, and often these are the high streets of various towns, which gives an idea of how relevant that ancient way remained. But so far as I know none of them bear road signs giving both the modern label and the old roman one at the same time.

The main road through the village of Rudgwick was known locally as simply ‘Roman road’; apparently a spur of Staine Street, leading to a large Temple complex a few miles away.
The relevance of these old street names made my think about how important names and titles are. I have the second in the Bunch Courtney books coming out later in the year and have had the working title of In Her Defence in mind since its inception. A new name had occurred to me a few weeks ago, but as the ‘working’ title is already out there it would probably be a mistake to change it now.

Jan Edwards 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

Friday, 18 May 2018

The Creative Muse -- J.D. Peterson

Oh, the joy of being a writer! The journey of shaping a story, of bringing our characters to life and watching them dance across the pages. At times the writing is frustrating, other times it is motivating. Writing is a process custom-made for our creative brains and the visions we translate
into language and words.

After our manuscript is complete, we dive into the process of creating a cover design. Finding the perfect artwork or a photograph, choosing fonts and colors... This can be frustrating, but it can also be so much fun!

Watching thoughts take form and materialize into the real world.  Holding our newly released novel in our hands for the first time as our creative process comes to fruition – Isn't that what really sparks our creative soul to life?

At the heart of what we do as writers is CREATE. The dictionary defines 'create' as something "to come into being, as something unique that would not naturally evolve or that is not made by ordinary process. To evolve from one's own thought or imagination as a work of art or an invention."

Where would this world be without the creative mind?

The classic novels that carry our imaginations into the world of Frankenstein, or down into the center of the earth – or to experience true love and a happily-ever-after. But novels only address the written word facet of the creative muse. Artwork, clothing designs, floral displays, and Tesla inventions, all arise from the inspiration of the creative mind.

As we sit down at our writing station to bring our ideas into form, we are delivered a box full of real and mental 'rules'.
Don't write like this or you break a rule!
Don't punctuate like that, or you'll break another rule!
No one wants to be called a dummy, so we follow along.

Of course, our writing must be coherent, but we should also develop our own style as we strive to develop a scene or resolve a conflict in our story. More often than not that means breaking free of the toolbox we hold so dear.

Here is one idea I picked up from Stephen King, who certainly has penned enough novels to break the writing rules. Stephen says: "Do write one-word sentences." I really like that advice. I'm certain there are many other suggestions that would appear to break the mold of the common writing form and sentence construction, which we so carefully and mindfully pen.

In the world of art, Pablo Picasso comes to mind with his misshapen figures and faces. Mr. Picasso certainly did not follow any set rules, and yet his artwork goes for
millions of dollars (GBP and Euros for my friends across the pond.) What a risk he took by expressing himself in such an unusual and controversial fashion!

I must conclude that creativity involves courage. The courage to follow the creative muse down a path that has never been explored. I can only imagine how many negative opinions Pablo encountered along the way in his creative journey.

May I congratulate you on finding your courage and delving into the adventure of writing. Of putting your ideas down on a piece of paper for all the world to witness, read and experience! Kudo's! Good, Bad or somewhere in the middle – you did it!

Today, let me reignite the idea of creative freedom in your heart.
Dump out your box of writing should's and should not's – if only for a moment.
Abandon patterns and techniques you hold most dear – if only for one sentence.
Let your inner child take over!
Write something just for fun!

Now that's a NOVEL idea!

Photo Credits:
Man in Box Photo - Tony Porter
Writer writing - Jo Michaels Blog

Thursday, 17 May 2018

And finally... Russia by Elizabeth Kay

Several years ago I wrote a book set in an imaginary ex-USSR country, Karetsefia. It drew on my experiences in Poland, the Czech Republic, and Ukraine. It was called Beware of Men with Moustaches.
I had a lot of fun with it, and it was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize in 2013. The story concerned a group of poets who have been invited on a cultural exchange, but it turns out there’s a hidden agenda. As the daughter of a Polish refugee I have always regarded Russia with suspicion – it’s in my blood. Nevertheless, I felt the time had come to see it for myself. I have O level Russian, but I got that fifty years ago, and was pretty sure I had forgotten it all! I booked the holiday some time ago, long before the events in Salisbury, and was bitterly regretting my decision. However, everyone was very nice, and seemed rather unaware that there was anything going on elsewhere. Moscow seemed friendlier than St Petersburg, although the cabin crew on the BA flight said it was the other way round for them. They are not allowed visas, so the only people they meet are the ground crew, which may explain it. The electronic noticeboard in St Petersburg Airport was rather a surprise, though. It read:
Church within The Kremlin

Beware. A propaganda bullhorn is at work here.
The longer you watch the more upset Hillary Clinton becomes.
Come closer, and find out who we are planning to hack next.
Missed a plane? Lost an election? Blame it on us.
The CIA calls us a propaganda machine. Find out what we call the CIA.
Yes, we are the ones the French president is lying about lying about him.(sic)

St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square

I was part of a group, and we went to all the tourist places – in Moscow, the Kremlin, Red Square, and the Moscow Metro, which is amazing. 
The Moscow Metro
 The Tretyakov Gallery was a revelation, as very little seems to be known in the UK about Russian art of the past. I discovered to my surprise that I remembered quite a bit of the Russian language, that I understood a certain amount of what was said to me, and I was always understood in return, even though my grammar was execrable. Everyone was surprised that it had been possible to learn Russian at a state school in the UK, and my efforts at communicating were always very well-received. This is not at all true in other countries, which shall remain nameless! In St Petersburg we visited the Winter Palace, with more chandeliers than I've seen in my entire life, the Hermitage, the Summer Palace and the Faberge Museum. By the time I got to the Summer Palace the extravagance was so over-the-top, with gold leaf everywhere, that I could quite see why they had a revolution. I had been aware of this penchant for extreme decoration in my previous visits to Ukraine – even extending to shoes. Here are a few excerpts from my book:

A middle-aged woman with bright pink lipstick spotted the four of them immediately, and arrowed over. She was wearing ludicrously high heels, decorated with what appeared to be barnacles and seaweed. She stopped in front of them and said, “Professor Stevens?”

…Julie bought some perfume. She didn’t normally wear it, but all of a sudden it seemed like the thing to do. Then she went completely mad and bought a pair of blood-red high-heeled shoes, decorated with sea horses.
“I bet those sea-horses are real,” said Sybil, as they left the shop.
Julie looked at her in horror.
“Of course they’re not,” said Ferris, giving Sybil a dirty look.
They had lunch at their previous venue, and when they returned to the hotel the journalist who was to interview Steve and Ferris was already waiting for them. She was wearing a pair of shoes with golden ammonites embedded in the heels.
“Are those fossils real?” asked Sybil immediately.
“Of course,” said the journalist. “They’re pyritised Hildoceras.”

Neva River, St Petersburg, with ice floes.
…The cakes were divine. There was a strong similarity between shoe design and cake decoration; it was easy to believe that people switched from one profession to another, taking their themes with them as they went. The barnacle and seaweed motif was equally at home in either leather or marzipan.

It is well-known that the Amber Room in the Summer Palace was dismantled and removed by the Nazis, and has never been found. It has been re-created since. The walls are amber, the floor is amber, the chandeliers are amber… When you consider that amber is only found in relatively small pieces, being fossilised resin, the amount of work that went into creating just one wall was considerable. Our guide suggested that the original might be found in Fort Knox. But when she told us that Rasputin had been murdered by the British Secret Service she was greeted with laughter, which did not go down well. The Faberge Museum is small, but fascinating. and it's very easy to spend a lot of money in the gift shop.
Amber Room
            I really enjoyed my visit. Russian champagne is still only £4 per bottle, twice the price it was in Ukraine ten years ago, but I wasn’t complaining and it is very good indeed. And caviar is a fraction of the price it is over here. So once more, I discovered that you really can get fed up with champagne and caviar for breakfast.
A Faberge Egg
            Our biggest extravagance was going to the Bolshoi. There’s a link below to YouTube, of the same production that we saw of Spartacus. It was breathtaking. The tickets were very expensive, but a third of the price they’d have been if we’d bought them online over here. Our guide had a contact…