Saturday, 29 October 2011

Festival of Romance

I spent last weekend The Festival of Romance.  This was the first time the Festival has been held, and the first time I've been to an event like this.  I haven't even been to any of the RNA conventions yet, although I hope to do so at some stage.  (I have to limit myself on 'treats' since I have two much loved horses and a dog to support and the cost of feeding and stabling doesn't get  any cheaper)

Although the the Festival was actually on Friday and Saturday, we had a 'pre-Festival Panel' at Watford Library the night before.  I went along, thinking I would have a nice relaxing evening listening to other authors, and found myself on the Panel myelf, with  PamelaStrange,  Kate Allan, Annie Burrows, Lynne Connolly and Juliet Archer.

I knew Kate but hadn't met the others, so it was nice to make their aquaintance and although I hadn't brought any of my books, (my novels are published in print as well as e-Books) I had at least had the foresight to bring along 
some flyers and postcards, and the tables were tastefully set out with books and promotional material, and a rather lovely vase of roses.  I was a little nervous  but I soon relaxed and really enjoyed it. The chocolate biscuits and wine which were laid on went down rather well, too!

The actual Festival was held at the beautiful Hunton Park Hotel, Kings Langley.

After registering and receiving our name badges,  we were were able to indulge in light refreshments (laid on all day in the coffee lounge and very welcome) with biscuits, cereal bars, coffee, and for tea drinkers like me, several kinds of tea, including my favourite Earl Grey. Then off to enjoy and learn from the many panels, talks and chats available.  *Gulp* somehow I'd put myself forward to sit on the Panel entitled 'Romance That's Out Of This World' (Well I had to really with a title like that, since it's also the sub-title of my author blog).  Unfortunately this clashed with Sue Moorcroft's talk on writing Romantic Fiction, which I would have dearly liked to attend. but obviously with so many things going on, some were bound to clash.

MC Charlie Cochrane, standing, me
sitting on her left.

Despite  my inherent nervousness, I enjoyed the session very much. My fellow panelists, authors Lynne Connolly,  Tara Newlands and Berni Stevens were fascnating to listen to and we had some very interesting questions, followed by a general chat with other authors attending the festival, before an excellent lunch with a charity quiz. After a full afternoon of events, including another stint on a panel where I talked about horses in fiction, and several other authors shared subjects dear to their hearts.

Saturday started for me with another panel where several authors read the first 150 words of one of their novels. It was fascinating to  hear how other writers started their books to 'hook' the reader.  One of the highlights of the day, was a 'fashion show' where various authors dressed as their characters.

Mandy Baggot - Sue Moorcroft - Jean F - Christina Courtney - Kate Allan -Talli Rowland
A full programme of afternoon events included a talk and 'one to ones' by a Mills & Boon editor, a fascinating interview with Carole Matthews, Internationally bestselling author and Festival Guest of Honour with Elle Symonds, editor of Trashionista and cupcakes all round served by a tall, shirtless 'Loveswept' hero. (The cupcakes themselves had pictures of actual 'Loveswept' covers but I'm not sure if they got as much attention as he did!) Other publishers at the Festival included 'total.E.Bound',  'Choc Lit', 'Excite Books', 'Myrmidon' and 'Rouge'.Jane Judd Literary agent was also at the Festival.

I wasn't able to attend the ball in the evening, unfortunately, but I understand a great time was had by all. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the Festival and learnt a lot.  Thanks to Kate Allan whose 'baby' the event was and to everyone else behind the scenes for all their hard work.  I can't imagine how much work must be involved in puttingon an event like this.  The location was beautiful and   I'll leave you with some pictures of the grounds.

Kate Allen 'in costume'

Although the Festival included Paperbacks and hardbacks many of the authors there including myself were electronically published as well and there were some lively discussions about the future of Ebooks. I was pleasantly surprised at how many people had e-Readers.  I certainly feel the future looks good for romance fiction and for books in all formats.

Festival of Romance 'Ning'  site
Hywela Lyn's website:

Friday, 28 October 2011

October blog

Our trees are silhouetted against a John Martin apocalyptic sky to the west of us - orange, gold, crushed strawberry and purple. It's October and I love it, as I always have, when the days get excitingly short, and each day (when it isn't raining) ends in this visual drama, and Old Man Winter's breathing his exciting cold breath down the back of my neck.

I've spent some of the past few weeks collaborating with an illustrator on an online picture book text: CHIP HEAD, which will be published by uTales - a company which enables its customers to access a large number of picture books online. A proportion of its profits go to a Third World educational charity which I'm happy to support. What's been so interesting about this project, for me, is that it sets up a contact page on Facebook where authors and artists can connect and collaborate on work. I've been working closely with illustrator/animator called Duncan Beedie ( on a totally daft little text about a chip-obsessed little boy who turns into an outsize version of one of the chips he can't stop eating (and yes, since you asked, it does have a happy ending).

It would have taken me ages to get (even!) a response from a conventional publisher for this, and I'm very well agented. This way, I feel exhilarated by the immediacy of finding and working with a visual artist and of us developing the whole thing ourselves with the very real prospect of publication. I have two picture books coming out conventionally next year, and the whole process, at least for one of them, has taken an aeon... feels like the awful daisy-plucking question: 'do they love me or do they not?' - which is debilitating, and I'm tired of it.

This leads me into the problem, for me, of moving into this challenging picture book area, because I started out as a children's novelist, and I deeply miss that total involvement with characters who became, in the course of writing, very real people I still relate to. And while I'm still in the process of e-publishing some of my out of print books, I'm also playing with the idea of e-publishing one of my YA novels I feel passionately about. SIRIUS RISING is a thriller about an inter-sex adolescent caught up in a sect, and I want it to be read.

This afternoon I took part, along with a number of other children's authors and illustrators, in the 80th anniversary celebrations of my local London library - Muswell Hill. It was a fun event, supported by our well-known Children's Bookshop which stocks most of my books. There was a cake, which I was chosen to cut - excruciatingly embarrassing for me because I'm hopeless at cutting cakes and always hand the task over to someone else. Press photographs will show a woman with a frozen and probably terrified smile attempting to apply what looked like a large fish knife to an elaboratedly decorated cake with ribbons an' all. My private big moment came when a small boy called Fred confided his passion for pirates, and persuaded his mum to buy my Franklin Watts story - PIRATES OF THE STORM. I did warn them that the pirates in question were female, but that didn't seem to deter them.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Bringing Your Electronic Characters Out To Play

Maybe it’s because I spend most of my life as a ghost that I am always more comfortable hiding behind someone else, be it a ghostwriting client or a character telling a fictional story in the first person. Now I find that the electronic media provides me with a whole new playground for games in which I can continue to hide behind my characters’ masks, stirring together fiction and reality in a variety of combinations.

While in Zurich a couple of weeks ago for a non-fiction writing workshop, I met a lady on a parallel fiction course who had been commissioned to review “The Fabulous Dreams of Maggie de Beer”. We managed to navigate this potential social minefield without controversy but she did say that she felt there should be “more sex” in the book – given that Maggie obviously enjoyed a great deal of the stuff during the years that she was chronicling in her memoir.

I know one of the “golden rules” is never to respond to the comments of critics, but once I’d had time to ponder the matter I felt there actually were reasons why Maggie would not wish to describe herself having sex. It seemed potentially undignified for me to come back to the very charming critic involved and protest, (especially as I don’t yet even know if the remark is going to be included in her final review). But it occurred to me that there was no reason why Maggie herself should not explain her thoughts on the subject in an interview with a literary journalist.

Since my blog, (http/ ), is my main platform for promotional activities of this sort I posted, (on October 12 should anyone be tempted to track it down), an extract from Maggie’s interview and alerted the critic to it. She very graciously responded that Maggie’s responses to the interviewer’s questions had indeed increased her understanding of why Maggie had chosen not to describe her sex life in any detail.

So now, as well as being Maggie’s ghostwriter, I am also blogging on her behalf – which takes the fine art of hackery, (my dictionary defines “hack” as “a person who makes his living by hiring himself out …. especially writing or journalism”), to a new and shameful level. Good fun though.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The only way is ethics - by Nicola Morgan

As authors who publish our own ebooks, how do we deal with the ethical issue of having to direct our readers to Amazon (etc) rather than physical bookshops? Obviously, we don't have a choice with our ebooks if they don't have physical versions, but I still think there's an issue, because if we end up writing more and more of our own ebook-only books and fewer and fewer books for trade publishers, then we are in effect shifting our business model away from supporting the traditional book-selling industry. Now, I sometimes hear indie-only writers sounding rather gleeful or at least careless about that prospect but I hold no truck with that glee or carelessness.

I do know that some independent bookshops feel worried and even a little bit hostile to us when we choose to self-publish in e-format. I would hope that they understand that authors are struggling financially too and that we need to do what we can to earn a living. But doing what we can to earn a living might hurt someone else. Even, ultimately, ourselves.

I wholeheartedly believe that writers - published and self-publishing - need to support physical bookshops. And libraries. We need to do this if for no other reason (and there are other reasons) than that bookshops and libraries feed the reading needs of children and without reading children we will have no reading adults. I call bookshops and libraries the mothership for writers and anyone who loves books cannot possibly celebrate or call for their demise. And I know none of my fellow Electric Authors do.

Yet bookshops, particularly indies, are unable (at the moment - and yes, I know there are plans afoot but the plans may not be enough) to sell our ebooks. So we have to use their big hungry predator rival, Amazon, instead. Or one of the other e-stores, if we're happy to sell fewer books.

Another ethical problem is Amazon Associates. As you know, anyone can become an Amazon Associate. If you do the technical bit properly, any time someone clicks through to Amazon from the special link on your website or blog and buys a book - any book, or indeed any product - you get a little commission.

So I have. In fact, I've set up an A-store. But I feel bad about this. Because I love physical bookshops and I do all my own physical book buying from them. But I need the income, because my income from my physical books is so paltry.

So, I have a little solution to my ethical tangle. On my website and blog I give the following message:
  • I don't mind where you buy my books - I'm just happy when you do.
  • I personally buy from physical bookshops because I believe in their importance and their fabulousness.
  • But if you, for whatever reason, prefer or wish or need or choose to use Amazon, please do so from my own Amazon store (or from the Amazon store of whatever writer you want to support).
  • And if you buy from Amazon through my store, I promise to spend ALL the commission I get in a physical bookshop. My choices in Edinburgh will be the Edinburgh Bookshop, Blackwells and Waterstone's. 
I think that's a good compromise. I'd love to know your thoughts about all this - supporting bookshops, ethical decisions or anything else. You may like to know that I coined the phrase Fair Reading, to describe ethical book-buying choices.

Actually, you know what? I still feel bad. Damn ethics. I am now contemplating removing my Amazon store and losing even that little bit of income... In fact, I'm going to call for a vote. Please everyone leave your honest comment below: should I remove my Associates link or to carry on as above?

PS I apologise enormously for the title of this post. I couldn't resist.

Nicola Morgan is the author of books for teenagers and children, most of which (the books, not the teenagers etc) are available in physical bookshops and on the internet. Her latest books are Write to be Published and Tweet Right - The Sensible Person's Guide to Twitter, which is only available as an ebook. Her Amazon store is here!

Tuesday, 25 October 2011


'Ghost Dance' by Susan Price.  Cover by Andrew Price
          'Outside the circle, where the candlelight edged into darkness, two figures stood in talk, a man and a devil.
           The man… (says the cat) was Master Richard Jenkins, an Englishman and a wizard.
          The devil was a red and furry devil, its fur rippling in the candlelight like red velvet. Its tail had an arrow's point on the end, and was long, and coiled and bounced like a spring as the devil moved. Its head was fearsome, large and round with staring, glittering eyes and ram's horns; and all around its head and shoulders hung a shimmering red mist.
          'Are you listening to me?' said Master Jenkins to the devil… 'Take off the head when I talk to you!'
         The devil… wrenched off its tight-fitting head. Underneath was another: the head  of a boy… He clutched the devil's head in his velvet-suited arms, and fingered the wire spikes, hung with strings of red sequins, that decorated it. These sequined spikes… trembled in the light and made the red mist around him. This devil (says the cat) …is a very obedient devil, because he is much smaller and thinner than Master Jenkins, and he is afraid of him.

          Master Jenkins, the wizard, is employed by the Czar Grozni, to discover the Elixir of Immortality.  He has promised to raise a demon, which will tell them the elixir’s recipe.

          The Czar trusted no one fully because he feared, always, that someone was planning his murder. So he feared to be alone and unprotected, but he also feared to be in crowds, where many people who meant him harm might be gathered together. Perhaps most of all he feared the future, which was like a long dark corridor, with an even deeper darkness at its further end. In this dark corridor, into which he must go, assassins and attackers might be waiting at every step…

          Master Jenkins does not rest easy of nights…

           Master Jenkins dozed comfortably for a while. But then, in the darkness behind his closed eyes, there appeared a vivid picture of the Czar: a perfect picture.
          There was the long, greasy hair; the large nose; the shadowed hollows for eyes. And the expression on the Czar's face said: I know you lie to me… I am waiting to see how big a lie you dare to tell me, and …how big a fool you dare to think me. And then my executioners will - Master Jenkins bounced upright in bed… and turned cold to the centre of his bones.
          Master Jenkins was like a man who has ridden on the back of a tiger for so long - and the tiger has been so gentle and meek for so long - that the man has fallen into the habit of thinking himself for ever safe. But now and again… he remembers with a horrible shock that it is a tiger he is riding; and he is forced to consider what will happen if the tiger ever tires of the game.
'Ghost Song'

GHOST DANCE is the third book of the Ghost World sequence and, I think, the most sinister of the three.  I re-read it as I turned it into an e-book, and there were passages that raised my hair.

           The book’s subtitle is ‘The Czar’s Black Angel’, and the angel is the heroine, a witch, mistaken by the Czar for an angel – ‘black’ because of her dark hair and skin, so different from the blond angels painted on the Czar’s walls.

           But I am out of space, and if you want to discover what happens to the wizard, the devil, the Czar and the black angel, you’ll have to go here.

          Susan Price is the award winning writer of 60 books. More information on her and her books can be found at her website.  She also blogs here.
         Find all three of the Ghost World books, and her other e-books here.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Keeeeeep dancin'! - Simon Cheshire

I know this is way off-subject, but I hope you're all playing the Strictly Come Dancing Bowl Of Nibbles Game every Saturday night. The rules are very simple. You must eat:
  • one handful of peanuts each time Alesha uses the word 'story-telling'
  • two handfuls of peanuts every time it looks like Len is about to stand up and walk out mumbling 'sod the lot of you'
  • one twiglet for each Brucie joke which doesn't get a laugh, OR for each time you think Brucie's going to fall and break a hip
  • a bag of ready salted crisps every time Anton clearly wishes he was doing Brucie's job
  • one cheesy wotsit for each square centimetre of naked skin shown by Ola's new outfit (up to a maximum of seven party bags)
  • a square of chocolate every time Anita Dobson smiles and frightens the children
  • three doritos for each time you shudder either a) because you get an uneasy feeling that there's something sinister about Robbie the footballer, b) at the realisation that Artem and Holly have the same size breasts, or c) when you catch a glimpse of the searing need to win which lies at the heart of Katya Virshilas's soul.
  • Finally, you have to down an entire pack of kettle crisps every time Russell Grant gets through to the next round and the judges have to pretend they want him back every bit as much as the public does.
You'll be stuffing your face non-stop. It's hilarious. Actually, I don't want to give you the wrong impression: I adore Strictly, seriously. I want to become semi-famous, just so that I can qualify to BE on Strictly. I reckon I'd be quite good at the tango.

Oh, before I go, just time for one of my utterly shameless plugs: my new ebook formatting and design service for self-publishers is now up and running at Ah, got back on-subject in the end after all!

Saturday, 22 October 2011

The trail of a tale - Joan Lennon

Telling stories round the fire, out in the wilderness, holding back the night ... That's pretty much where it all started, I guess, at the beginning of the human era.

And one of the great joys of childhood is still being told a story. Being read to. The theatre company, White Rabbit, tries to recreate that joy for grownups. In an evening performance called Are You Sitting Comfortably? the actors (Bernadette Russell and Gareth Brierley) read aloud stories written by local writers, on a set theme, in a tea party setting. (This was in the Byre Theatre in St Andrews but they go all over.) I loved what Gareth did with my story! It needed to be read by a male voice, but Gareth does a crooked smile like no one on earth, and he just lit the tale up.

It was an exhilarating, slightly atavistic evening. At the end each writer was given a booklet of their story, tied up with red ribbon - AND an invitation to submit their tale to Ether Books to be made into an app.

So "Dissidents and Distilleries" - 700 words of magic meets industrial sabotage - has gone out into the world in both the most old-fashioned way and the most new-fangled. Both audibly and app-ably. From the fire to the phone. From ape to app.

And that just makes me smile.

Cheers, Joan.

P.S. I don't have an Iphone - if any of you do, and would like to download "Dissidents and Distilleries" for free from Ether, this is the link:

P.P.S. And if you do, please tell me if it looks all right! Thanks!

Friday, 21 October 2011

Pauline Fisk: FEAR OF FLYING

Back in the late sixties, I lived on a hillside on the Worcestershire border in a cottage without electricity or running water. It was what we now call ‘off the grid’. For two months I never saw a car and the only transportation that passed by was a hot air balloon which one morning flew over the roof.
I was there to write. I was very young, and hungry to be published. Seated at a packing-case desk overlooking a damson orchard, I worked on a story involving hot air balloons and sky gypsies. Decorated hot air balloons - not like the one which had flown over me, but ones painted like gypsy caravans or narrow boats. I came up with a sky gypsy called Ben the Balloon Man but, before I could bring him to life, winter was suddenly upon me and I ran out of money and was forced to move and get a job.
Fifteen long, non-writing years later, not long after the birth of my fifth child, I read a book called ‘The Flight of Condor I’. It told the story of a balloon flight in Nazca, Peru, by balloonists, Julian Nott [reckoned to be the father of modern ballooning] and Jim Woodman who, using only locally-sourced materials and technology, were attempting to prove that human flight could have taken place thousands of years ago.
The description of their launch - a dramatic process involving fire pits, smoke pits and underground channels - took me straight back to my balloon story. One of the problems I’d had was that its elements of fantasy sat awkwardly with all the paraphernalia of modern balloon flight. But fire and smoke - I could work with that! Suddenly, at probably the worst time in my life for getting inspired, I had a story that wanted to be written. And write it I did. ‘Midnight Blue’ was born.
Having said that, though, I never made my own balloon flight until four years ago. At the time of ‘Midnight Blue’, I wasn’t brave enough. Some people think that courage is the province of the young, but my experience is that it comes with age. Certainly, with the subject of ballooning returning for a cameo appearance in the novel I was writing at the time, I decided to give it a go.
And thank God I did. To fly over the hills of home and see them as the birds do was extraordinary. I’d always known the Shropshire hills were beautiful, but they were astonishing from the air, and the sky above them was astonishing too. Our balloonist took us up until the land below was blurry and I found myself in another world of strange misty vapours and castles in clouds. Then he took us down and I saw swimming pools I’d never known were there, and hidden quarries, and ribbons of rivers and birds in trees sitting in their nests.
This is how the schoolgirl, Charis, describes her experience in ‘Flying for Frankie’, the book which prompted the flight: ‘Going up there changed me. It changed the way I look at life and the way I think. Once I let go and dared to fly. And I did it for myself, not anybody else. I didn’t fly for Frankie. She flew for herself. And I lost my fear and, out there on the far horizon of everything she’d known, she lost hers. We made a few discoveries about ourselves.Everything was different from what we’d thought. We’d peeled back the edges of our world and found out there was more.’
It’s this more that has always interested me, especially as a writer. Scrolling back through my writing life, I’ve always had an interest in children of vision. There’s Jack, in ‘The Beast of Whixall Moss’, who awoke one day to find his garden full of fabulous beasts, and Vee in ‘The Candle House’, who discovered her motor-biker boyfriend could fly, and there’s Bonnie inMidnight Blue’, who travelled in a smoke-filled hot air balloon just like the one that was launched at Nazca, and found a land beyond the sky and lived to tell the tale.
The twenty-first anniversary launch of my first book - soon to be my first e-book, and I’m hoping the others won’t be far behind - can’t help but send me trawling back through the years to where it all began. My writing life’s like a landscape which I’m viewing with new eyes. And soon ‘Midnight Blue’ will be flying too, peeling back the edges of the publishing world and finding out that there’s more.
Watch my website for announcements of its launch. Or become a Pauline Fisk Facebook friend or look me up on Twitter @paulinefisk. Also, if the subject of flight interests you, click this link to read about the fascinating email conversation I had yesterday with the founder of modern ballooning, Julian Nott:

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Susan Jane Smith: A Blogging Virgin Stops to Think!

This post has been published in Sparks, A Year In E-Publishing - An Authors Electric Anthology 2011-2012. It has therefore been temporarily reverted to draft status to comply with amazon KDP Select's requirements.

I swear I made you up - Apology to Vellanoweth, by Roz Morris

It’s a funny thing, releasing a novel. You think you’ve made everything up, then someone informs you that it’s not as fictional as you’d hoped. And moreover, you got it wrong.
The other day I had an email to say that the fusty village where I’d set the action in My Memories of a Future Life was not spelled Vellonoweth but Vellanoweth.
‘No it’s not,’ I replied, thinking my correspondent had a cheek. ‘I made it up.’
‘It’s near Penzance,’ he said.
Oh dear. It was.
I honestly had no idea the place existed. My Vellonoweth, with an o, was inspired by a stand-out surname I spotted in a magazine. It embodied everything I needed for my setting - a fusty, sleepy hell full of dreary people. If I used a real town I couldn’t take it to the stifling depths I needed.
But it turns out there is a real Vellanoweth. So I may have some apologising to do. Here it is.
  • 1 I’m sorry I gave you a terrible amateur dramatics society, which was performing a musical they’d written themselves about a lost hat.
  • 2 I’m sorry I gave you so many atrocious singers and musicians and I’m sorry my narrator didn’t find that endearing.
  • 3 I’m sorry your only watering hole was the Havishamesque and immense Railway Hotel with its curry-coloured carpets and paintwork like melted royal icing. In earlier drafts it was much worse so I’ve spared you a lot.
  • 4 I’m sorry I gave you a dismal 1950s high street with concrete shoebox buildings.
  • 5 I’m sorry I made it rain most of the time, which made the precinct even more depressing.
  • 6 I’m sorry about the spiritualists.
  • 7 I’m sorry no one could pick up TV or radio, except for the barmy local station in the old wartime fort which most of the time played industrial whalesong.
  • 8 I’m sorry the electricity supply was as bad as the weather and the singers. But on the plus side I did give you a decommissioned nuclear power station which attracts more tourists than Glastonbury Tor and allows the locals to sell home-made radiation detection badges. See, it wasn’t all bad.
  • 9 I’m sorry the people I despatched to this hell from London behaved so bizarrely and upset these good folk, who as you can see had enough to contend with.
On the other hand, as the novel is about other lives, perhaps you’ll enjoy Vellanoweth’s literary alter ego. To allow some respite, I did give you the neighbouring towns of Nowethland and Ixendon. If they really exist I’ll eat my atlas.
Yours sincerely, Roz
(Thank you for the pictures, Hydra Arts, Angelhead and Abode of Chaos)
My Memories of a Future Life is out now on Kindle. A print edition and audiobook edition are also available.
Roz Morris is a ghostwriter, editor and the author of Nail Your Novel - Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Her website is and she blogs at You can follow her on Twitter as @Roz_Morris.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The Written Word

According to an article in the Daily Mail, a newly-discovered bendy substance called graphene that weighs next to nothing could be used to make 'mobile phones that you roll up and put behind your ear and bendy electronic newspapers that can be folded into tiny squares'

So, feasibly, we won’t need either bulky printed books or ereaders as whole collections of the Britannica Encyclopaedia could be printed on sheet of grapheme, folded up and slipped in your pocket. Just imagine, from this:

To this: 

As small as a disc but you don't have to insert it into a computer, you can simply unfold it and read it.

Does this add to the current fear that books – and newspapers and magazines – will disappear forever?  

I don't think so. With new technical discoveries happening all the time the electronic world is developing in leaps and bounds but whatever the media, there will always be writers needed for it and I expect we’ll learn to rise to the challenge and adapt to the new media sources.

The written word will never disappear, although the form it appears in may change, people will always want to read to be informed or entertained. And someone has to write that material, which is where we writers come in. Our craft will endure even if the way we present it and the public reads it changes.  It might takes us a little time to adapt to writing for these new devices but we’ll get there in the end and wonder what the panic is all about. 

As Edward Bulwer-Lytton said ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’.  So, anyone running a course on how to write for bendy books and newspapers?

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Bird of Passage - ideas behind a new novel: Catherine Czerkawska

When you write with a strong sense of place, as I think I often do, there are some settings which prove to be more inspirational than others. You just can’t leave them alone. They gnaw away at you and you feel compelled to write about them in different ways. For years, I’ve written about the small Scottish island of Gigha, off the Kintyre Peninsula, a place I know well and love dearly.

I’ve set several radio plays and a novel called The Curiosity Cabinet on a fictional Scottish island called Garve, which is like Gigha in size and appearance, although not in location. God’s Islanders is a detailed popular history of the real place and its people from prehistoric times to the present day and now I’ve set my new novel, Bird of Passage, on a vaguely similar (but this time unnamed) Scottish island, although the landscape focuses on a single hilltop farm called Dunshee and a tree-shrouded ‘big house’ called Ealachan, nearby.

The novel shifts between the two locations, with occasional sorties to the mainland and – more importantly - to Ireland, to visit the past of one of the main characters, Finn O’Malley. None of this intensity of focus on an island was intentional – it was just the way the ideas came to me. But if you like the place where The Curiosity Cabinet is set, then you may well enjoy Bird of Passage too.

                                                                                                                                                                            The novel has had three or four different titles over the years and the same novel has been through literally dozens of drafts, throughout which it has changed, dramatically. But then, I think most novels do undergo these kind of changes. I never thought it was finished until now. Well, more or less finished. No writer ever thinks that a piece of work is finished! But there was always more to be teased out, more to say, and this uncertainty was reflected in the way previous titles never felt right.

Now, Bird of Passage seems to encapsulate exactly what the book is about. It starts in the present day with a young and successful Scottish musician called India Laurence, returning to the island where she grew up, on an impulsive but brief visit, during which she is handed a 'pandora's box' in the shape of a folio of old drawings. But the story proper begins in the early 1960s when Finn O’Malley is sent from Ireland to Scotland, to work at the potato harvest as a 'tattie howker'. He forms a close friendship with Cairistiona (Kirsty) Galbreath, the farmer’s grand-daughter. Later on, when Kirsty moves away from home, the threads that have bound these two friends so closely together begin to unravel, and Kirsty realises that only her ambitions as an artist can give her the fulfilment she seeks. But her work is inextricably tied up with her love, not just for Dunshee, but for Finn, who comes and goes like the mysterious corncrake which visits the island every summer. When tragedy brings her back to the island, the consequences for both of them are momentous.

Tattie Howkers by Alan Lees
Finn himself is damaged by a childhood so traumatic that he can only recover his memories piece by piece. What happened at the brutal Industrial School, to which he was committed while still a little boy? For the sake of his own sanity, he must try to find out why he was sent there in the first place, and what became of his mother. As he struggles to answer these questions, his ability to love and be loved in return is called into question. He is the Bird of Passage of the title – a wanderer from place to place, a summer visitor who can call nowhere home.

Looking back at the progress of the novel, I can remember that it began as a more boring version of Kirsty’s story. But gradually, over successive rewrites, the character of Finn became more and more important. It was as though he was insisting on telling his story and the more I wrote, the more central it became. Now, I think the balance is probably right.

The novel also started out as an unashamed homage to Wuthering Heights, which I love. I'd always wanted to dramatise it for Radio 4, back in the days when I was doing such things regularly. But although I successfully dramatised everything from Ben Hur to Treasure Island, (still available from Amazon but - I notice - uncredited to me!) - with The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Bride of Lammermoor in between, nobody would ever let me try my hand with my beloved Wuthering Heights.

Gradually, what began as my own novel about obsessive love within a remote rural setting, turned into an exploration of the reasons why those obsessions might arise – the events that might so traumatise a child, that he became a terribly damaged adult. The more I wrote about that, the more I needed to know and the more interesting and involving for me, at any rate, the character of Finn became.

If all goes according to plan, Bird of Passage will be my next major eBook publication and should be available for download on Kindle some time in November 2011. (Virtual Launch planned for 18th November, I hope!) I'm working on final edits of the manuscript and liaising with a young digital artist to produce a cover. 

This should be my last Scottish island project for a while, at least. My next novel is a big historical epic called The Amber Heart, set in nineteenth century Eastern Poland - a sort of Polish 'Gone With The Wind' - about as far away from a tiny Hebridean island as it's possible to get. My agent is still trying for conventional publication for that one but I'm not holding my breath. Following that, I'll be returning to Scotland for my themes and settings, but this time to early nineteenth century Glasgow for a work currently in progress called The Physic Garden. After that - who knows? I have outlines and lots of notes for at least three more novels, none of them set on islands. But one thing I've learned after all these years in the business of writing is - never say never. That's exactly when an idea starts to intrigue you, and then there's nothing you can do except buckle down and get on with it!


Monday, 17 October 2011

According to this article in the Daily Mail, a newly-discovered bendy substance called graphene that weighs next to nothing could be used in the not-too-distant future to make 'mobile phones that you roll up and put behind your ear and bendy electronic newspapers that can be folded into tiny squares'

So, feasibly, we won’t need either bulky printed books or electronic ereaders as whole collections like the Britannica Encyclopaedia could be printed on sheets of graphene, folded up and slipped in your pocket. Just imagine, from this:

To this: 

As small as a disc but you don't have to insert it into a computer, you can simply unfold it and read it.

 Does this add to the current fear that books – and newspapers and magazines – will disappear forever?  

I don't think so. With new technical discoveries happening all the time the electronic world is developing in leaps and bounds but whatever the media, there will always be writers needed for it and I expect we’ll learn to rise to the challenge and adapt to the new media sources.

The written word will never disappear, although the form it appears in may change, people will always want to read to be informed or entertained. And someone has to write that material, which is where we writers come in. Our craft will endure even if the way we present it and the public reads it changes.  It might takes us a little time to adapt to writing for these new devices but we’ll get there in the end and wonder what the panic is all about.  Just like writers have always done.

As Edward Bulwer -Lytton said ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’.  Anyone running a course on how to write for bendy books and newspapers?

Sunday, 16 October 2011

When Bookshops Meet Electric Authors (with a nod to Murakami) by Dan Holloway

So I was talking to some of the lovely people here about bookstores, and saying how I was lucky to have a great relationship with not one but two of my local stores, The Albion Beatnik and *the* Blackwell’s, both in Oxford. And I was saying how both relationships had been forged not despite what I do online with ebooks and all kinds of things digital, but because of it. They said that’d be a really good thing to blog about, the way embracing digital can work for the author and the store.

(l-r me, slam poet Lucy Ayrton, Sophia Satchell-Baeza of Dissocia, and Oxford International Women's Festival and Oxford Pride poetry MC Anna Hobson pose outside The Albion Beatnik for the poster for This is Oxford, wherein we take over Blackwell's for the night on October 18th)
And I thought yeah, fantastic, and I can talk about some great shows I’ve got coming up at those stores at the same time.


How could I possibly talk anything else when we’re two days away from one of the most talked-about publishing events of the year and more to the point something I’ve been chewing my nails off about for two years: the release of the English translation of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84?

(I love Murakami so much that my novel Songs from the Other Side of the Wall could be described as Norwegian Wood set in Eastern Europe. The cover, which depicts an art installation form the book, was designed to conjure the ethos of Murakami's UK paperback titles)

What to do? Go for a run? Boil some spaghetti? Hide down a well? Spend the whole post reeling off Murakami references?

And then one of those convergences happened. A couple of us were talking on twitter with the lovely Euan from Blackwell’s, badgering him about what he was planning to do to celebrate 1Q84 (several US stores have announced the kind of midnight openings I haven’t seen since Harry Potter). Within an hour or so, this was the result, a jazz and cocktail evening with 3 for 2 on all Murakami books and local fans all pitching in with readings of their favourite Murakami moment.

(Rabid Gravy does a unique electronica remix of Kerouac at this year's Not the Oxford Literary Festival at The Albion Beatnik)

Hmm. Rewind time. For over two years I have enjoyed a fabulous relationship with The Albion Beatnik, the best bookstore I’ve ever been in (one of my many waxings lyrical is here). It’s a relationship based on a common love of passion for the arts (the store is the cultural hub for a whole raft of collectives, publishers, and zinesters). And it’s a relationship built more on what I do online than physical books. Well, there’s the fact I hang out drinking sencha out of a Sylvia Plath mug and slowly working my way through their Anais Nin stock, but the basis of our working (as opposed to lounging on their sofas shooting the breeze with them) relationship is that the store lets me put on all kind of live shows as well as stocking my books, and in return I send everyone I possibly can through the door, and those events bring new audiences both online and in person. I benefit from the fact they are a must-go-to destination for people who love all things Beatnik. They benefit from the fact that I’m rather gobby around the internet.

(New York writer/model/photographer/publisher Katelan Foisy entertains Oxford at Lilith Burning, a wonderful laid back mix of art and literature we put on at The Albion Beatnik in 2010)

Maybe it was to be expected that an innovative independent would be welcoming of our online activities. But earlier this year, I was delightfully surprised how Oxford’s most famous bookshop, Blackwell’s, embraced my online antics. This spring, The Company of Fellows was for some reason enjoying popularity with a Kindle audience (it has sold around 6000 copies so far). Right in the middle of this, I came across the following, a competition run by Blackwell’s to find their readers’ favourite Oxford novel. I posted on Facebook ad twitter, and to my consternation, a group of its fans voted for it and it won, despite not being on the original list.

Which put them in a rather awkward position. What to do with this upstart from the interwebs? Well, what they did was make a poster for the book and give it a table display, selling 70 copies of the paperback. Rather than deciding I was an oik, the lovely Euan, Zool, Steph and the lovely Blackwell’s team took me under their wing and decided it made rather a jolly story. They even invited me to take part in Rising Literary Stars, a panel on which I got to sit next to some fabulous debut authors like the wonderful Rachel Genn, and one of my heroes, Lee Rourke.

(l-r Rachel Genn (The Cure), Naomi Wood (The Godless Boys), John Butler (The Tenderloin), Euan Hirst (Blackwell's tweeter in chief), Lee Rourke (The Canal), and me)

The night brought together a shop I have to confess I’d thought of as academic-oriented (maybe because I was constantly maxed out on my store card during my student days) and readers and writers of contemporary urban literary fiction. To the benefit of both, I hope. And the lovely people of Blackwell’s enjoyed it so much that on Tuesday they’re letting me have the run of their world-famous Norrington Room for This Is Oxford, a show featuring the very best of Oxford's thriving underground literary scene, the poor fools!. And on Thursday it’s Murakami night.

So there we are. Bookstores and Murakami. It doesn’t get better than that. So where does that leave the electric author? An author should work to build their platform. And they should also be at the heart of their local literary community (or at least that part of it where their readers hang out – though it doesn’t hurt to cast the net wider).

Saturday, 15 October 2011

A nose by any other name... By Jan Needle

I went to a charity folk festival last week (as Teresa May might say, I'm not making this up) but not, for once, to play slow Irish airs on my whistle. I donated my "services" as a children's author to help raise funds to save the Barlow Memorial Institute in the Lancashire village of Edgworth from the cuts. It's Cameron's Pig Society, innit?

Good fun it was, too - worth every penny that I didn't get. The assembled children were suitably shocked and delighted by the adventures of Wagstaffe the Wind-up Boy, and some of their parents were suitably horrified by some of its content, as well as Roy Bentley' s wonderfully gruesome pictures. {Above and below you can see Carl Grose as Waggie in Kneehigh Theatre's lovely version. I'd have done captions, but computer says no, due to my technical incompetence, no doubt.}

Anyway, the Edgworth folk festival started with a specially written poem, and - inevitably - I was featured in it as a woman. Any kids' writers who dream of fame, let alone fortune, think on. Even after all these years, at least half of any audience I ever speak to expects me to be female.

My mum's fault, of course. She was a strong-minded lady, and knew for certain that she was pregnant with another girl to join my sister Valerie. When I turned out male, she simply called me James Albert, to go with Needle, to make me Jan. That's what she'd always called the bump. My dear departed friend Jan Mark and me used to amuse ourselves at joint gigs by playing on this confusion. Jan once told an organiser, pointing at me: "She's the one with the beard."

At school I was called Needle (Direct grant grammar school; they actually have girls there now, and female teachers!), in the sea scouts I was Pooch. When I became a reporter on the local paper they would not let me put Jan on the "business cards" they issued, I was J.A.Needle, Esq. (No, honestly, Teresa!) And when I started getting short stories published I could not use my name at all, because the paper had a lineage agreement. What I wrote belonged to them - fees and all - which I didn't like a lot. So I became J.W.Urquhart, and I didn't give a damn. As Harry Cohen paraphrased the Bard: "If I call mein tukhess bunch of wiolets, would she smell so sweet?"

I did a huge spread in a national daily once, with my name all over it, big. A few weeks later, at home in Portsmouth, my parents referred to this terrific story that they'd read - had I seen it? But I wrote it, I said - my name was on it. They denied it. When I'd rummaged through the papers on the piano (a file that made Colindale look anorexic) and showed them their little boy's name - in twenty four point! - they were still strangely unconvinced. "We would have seen it," they insisted, a shade illogically. Again, so much for fame.

Fast forward a few years, and I was writing children's novels. J.W.Urquhart was forgotten, Jan Needle had emerged. But my first two, Albeson and the Germans and My Mate Shofiq, were pretty rough and searing stuff for kiddie-lit, while my third, The Size Spies, was a ridiculous comedy. My favourite ever review was garnered by this book. A lady in one of the Sunday heavies wrote: "Mrs Needle has written two thoroughly unpleasant books. Now she is merely being silly."

Pam Royds, my publisher, had already gently warned me that if I ever wanted to earn a living as a writer I shouldn't give free rein to my butterfly mind, but I was too dim and arrogant to take much notice. What critics want, of course, is genre books from authors - or preferably the same book over and over again, with minor differences. Mine ranged wildly over worlds and ages - kids, historical, naval, tragical, comical pastoral, tragical-comi-- Oh dear, back to Shakespeare, sorry. It wasn't until I started writing big, dirty thrillers for HarperCollins that I was persuaded a name-change would be a good idea, and by then, unfortunately, it was too late. Frank Kippax, the new Jan Needle, was beginning to do very well indeed, and had also been commissioned to do a big block of episodes for The Bill, when I had a car crash and the light went out. I couldn't write a word for eight years or so.

Most of my recent children's books have been with Walker Books, and published by Pam Royds's equally delightful daughter Caz. Kippax was dead, so Needle it was again. Then I wrote a book about the British Army, which might have caused a fair amount of damage under my own name. So The Skinback Fusiliers was by Unknown Soldier, and exists as a Kindle and a real book. Like the others, though, I hope Unknown Soldier is no more.

So, with the electronic age, comes a new dawn. (Perhaps.) I'm in the process of writing new books for the cyberworld - cut out the middle man, I say! - and revising and/or rewriting the best of my traditionals for Matti Gardner to process for the modern age. I bet my mum and dad still wouldn't notice, though...

Wagstaffe will be out as an ebook soon, but in the meantime you can get him on Amazon.

Albeson and the Germans (86p)

My Mate Shofiq (86p)