Friday, 31 January 2014

Under The Influence - Simon Gould

When a band comes along that ‘sounds’ like another band – one that has preceded them by some years, it is generally regarded as acceptable; a knowing nod to those bands that have influenced and inspired that particular band. With no Beatles, there would be no Oasis, with no Black Sabbath there would be no Metallica and, well you get the drift. Did these bands sound a little like those that had inspired them? Absolutely. Did Oasis get criticised in their early days for sounding too much like Lennon and McCartney? Yes, one more than one occasion. Did Metallica use the template of hulking riffs pioneered by Sabbath’s Tony Iommi (among others) as a blueprint for how to construct a great heavy metal song? Yes, Sabbath’s impact on them is undeniable. Both Oasis and Metallica have gone on to inspire and influence many, many other bands that are active today and would not even exist if not for the aforementioned bands.

Yet when a writer draws on their influences, and sources that have inspired them, it sometimes ceases to be construed as a respectful homage to other films, television programmes, articles and the like and becomes something akin to plagiarism – a crime that many critics believe should be dealt with using the harshest punishment available! I’m sure many would have a writer who has used some ideas that have been used before in the dock, next to the latest soap start that has been arrested for god knows what, believing their crimes are on an equal footing. 

Take a review I had for Playing The Game – the first of my detective thriller series featured Michael Patton of the LAPD (in itself a homage to one of the greatest, most versatile vocalists of modern times; Mike Patton from alternative band Faith No More). In Playing The Game, one of the characters has their toe cut off and the severed toe is then mailed to another character. Upon reading this, one reviewer accused me of ripping off a John Locke novel called Vegas Moon, as it apparently used a similar plot device. When I pointed out to the reviewer that I had in fact borrowed this from, for my money, the greatest Coen Brothers film of all time, The Big Lebowski – he hastily backtracked and apologised.
Throughout the four books in the Playing The Game series, there are numerous plot devices that have been seen and done before. In Playing The Game, the captive being held in an underground coffin? See the CSI episode directed by Quentin Tarantino. In the same book, where Patton has a stare down with the main antagonist, before the antagonist flees – I remember recalling a scene between Clint Eastwood and John Malkovich in In the Line of Fire. My second book, Viper Trail, features a rogue cop unit called the “Street Team” – a distinct homage to the best television series of all time, The Shield. And get this – when I messaged one of the principle actors in The Shield, Kenny Johnson, on Facebook and gave him the rundown of the plot he told me it was awesome!

Paying The Price, the third in the series, features a rooftop death that I wrote recalling Jimmy Beck’s death in the ITV series Cracker, and as for my fourth book, Locust? Well let me just say that if I hadn’t re-watched The Fugitive whilst I was writing it, then there would certainly be no train in the thrilling finale!

Would any of my readers put two and two together and pick up on any of these references (and there are many more throughout – The Sopranos, The Usual Suspects, Reservoir Dogs … even the underrated Michael Keaton film Pacific Heights )? Maybe, maybe not – but my point is this; to come up with something that has never been done before and is completely original is nigh on impossible. And I don’t think it’s really about using bits and pieces that you have seen or read and thought how good that would fit into one of your books. It’s about how you take those pieces and put them together to make something that is greater than the sum of its parts. Something that the reader can’t put down, even if you seem to be treading over well-worn ground.

Hell, even The Hunger Games can’t possibly be called original! Now, I don’t know if the author had seen Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale, or Paul Michael Glaser’s The Running Man … but, well, if you have seen The Hunger Games and seen neither of the other two films (which predate Games by many, many years) then I would suggest you check both out and ask yourself two questions. Does Games bear too many similarities to these films to be considered co-incidental? But more importantly, does it really matter?

Now, if I can just find a way to work a throne, with seven different factions battling for control, into my latest book in the Playing The Game series, Gemini, I’ll be laughing. I’m sure that hasn’t been done yet …

If you fancy checking out the first book in the Playing The Game series, you can do so using the links below – it won’t even cost you a pound!


Thursday, 30 January 2014

Guest Post - Harriet Steel

I was thrilled when Debbie invited me to come and talk to her on her blog but I must admit that latterly, I’ve been looking forward to the experience with some trepidation as well as pleasure. The prospect of being interviewed by a crime novelist who’s also in the police force is slightly alarming. Still, here goes – wish me luck.

DB.* Tell me about your writing.

HS. I started out, as many authors do, by writing short stories and sending them in to magazines. I was lucky enough to have a few accepted which was encouraging. I’ll always remember the day my first cheque came in the post, I wasn’t sure whether to cash it or frame it. After a few years, I decided to try my hand at a novel. Ever since my schooldays, English and History have been my favourite subjects. Historical novels are my staple reading diet so that genre seemed the obvious choice.

If you’re so fond of history, why don’t you write non-fiction?

That’s a fair question. I suppose the answer is partly that, although I enjoy research and try to give my readers accurate historical detail in my work, I also love storytelling. Readers’ expectations of historical non-fiction are pretty exacting these days too. Months, perhaps years, of spending my all days in libraries wouldn’t fit in well with my private life. That said, my first novel Becoming Lola was a biographical one about Lola Montez, the nineteenth century’s most notorious adventuress.

So what made you think you could write?

A tricky one that, I hope I’m not setting myself up to fail here. I won my school poetry prize when I was nine - my mother still has my winning entry somewhere. It owed a lot to Hilaire Belloc who was a popular comic poet at the time. I should probably have been sued for plagiarism.

In my twenties, life and work took over and I didn’t write much although when my daughters were growing up I occasionally made up stories to tell them. I started to write seriously about twelve years ago.

In 2004, I entered a competition organised by the BBC. It was called End of Story and the idea was that amateur writers would finish one of six short stories begun by professional authors. I chose a rather lyrical, magical story by Joanne Harris and to my amazement, several months later, a charming young man from the BBC rang to tell me I’d been shortlisted. Would I like to take part in the programme the competition had spawned? Do turkeys hate Christmas?

A wonderful weekend followed as three out of six of us (in the end I came second) who had finished Joanne’s story survived a judging panel in London and were whisked off to the Dartington Literary Festival to read our stories and talk about them in one of the events. After that, we were flown up to Manchester and driven on to Joanne’s home in the surrounding countryside. She couldn’t have been more welcoming and we all had great fun talking to her as well as seeing round her lovely early Victorian house (built by a wealthy wool merchant.) We filmed our pieces with her in the Japanese garden. It dates from just after the house was built and had been badly neglected when Joanne and her husband moved in. They spent more than a year unearthing the beautiful rhododendrons and azaleas which had survived under the tangle of weeds and reconstructing the steep, narrow watercourses and paths. I remember that the programme’s presenter, Claudia Winkleman, wore killer heels. How she managed to negotiate those paths without injury I’ll never know.

So, there were a few encouraging episodes even if there was still a long way to go. I think Joanne’s advice to us aspiring writers was the best thing. ‘Just drop the word “aspiring” and write.’

Do you have any formal training as a writer?

I once took a short course taught by a wonderful author called Beth Webb, but otherwise no, I don’t have a creative writing degree if that’s what you mean. I’d be the first to agree there’s always more to learn as a writer but I’m a little wary of too many rigid rules. That said, the maxim ‘show not tell’ is, I think, a very good one. After all, people like Jane Austen or Wilkie Collins never did creative writing degrees, did they?

You say your first novel was set in the nineteenth century, but for your next one, Salvation, an adventure story, you went back three hundred years to the sixteenth century. Why make life hard for yourself?

I didn’t really. Tudor times have always fascinated me and over the years I’ve read a lot about them. With the rise of the possibility of being a self-made man, they represent such a huge departure from the feudal, rigid medieval world. In the religious sphere, the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII overturned hundreds of years of church domination. The New World was also being opened up. In the medieval world, the extent of maps tended to stop abruptly with pictures of fire-breathing monsters and the words ‘Here Be Dragons.’

Are you a disciplined writer? Routines? Rituals?

I try to be but it’s easy to day dream about one’s characters and their doings then not get around to writing it down. When I get stuck, I usually go for a walk or tidy my desk, throwing away all those little bits of paper with illegible scrawls on them that were probably brilliant ideas if only I could read them.

My rituals tend to revolve around tea and biscuits, with the occasional glass of wine (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it) as a reward for pounding the keyboard.

You haven’t told us a lot about your personal life. What are you hiding?

Sadly, not much, I’m very ordinary. I live in a Surrey village about twenty miles from London. I’m a retired solicitor, married to a retired solicitor – they clone them round here. I have two grown-up daughters. The elder is a vet and the younger an editor for a large publishing house. She occasionally casts a professional eye over my stuff but her field is really fiction in translation, notably Scandi crime.

And are you working on something at the moment?

Yes, it’s another historical novel set once more in the nineteenth century but this time in Paris. It gives me a wonderful opportunity to write about the glamour that made Paris the most envied city in Europe at that time, but also about the city’s darker side, familiar to everyone who has seen the musical, Les Misérables. My heroine, Anna, has come from her home in Russia with her dashing new French husband. She’s thrilled at the prospect of living in the city of her dreams. What will happen to her? That’s my secret. There! I do have one after all.

Becoming Lola and Salvation are available in paperback or on Kindle. Harriet’s collection of short stories, Dancing and Other Stories, is available exclusively on Kindle. It includes Dryad, the story co-authored with Joanne Harris.

Follow Harriet on Facebook or Twitter @harrietstee1 or visit her blog for more about her books, author interviews and features.

* Debbie is of course far too kind to ask the blunter of these questions, but they are ones I have often asked myself. HS

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

How not to give the IRS 30% of everything you earn! - Cally Phillips

This information applies to those of us who DON'T live in the US - or as we are prosaically known by Amazon etc ALIENS.   So if you are an alien, read on.  I've put it up just in case there is anyone out there who still does not know that if you aren’t on the ball then selling either books (Createspace) or ebooks (KDP) on Amazon in America will result in them taking 30% of your royalties… I thought I’d just run through this little lesson in confusion. It's not simplez. You do have to keep your wits about you, but then it's saving you money so...

Step One.  In order NOT to pay tax to the IRS (that’s the US Tax service) you first have to register with the IRS.  Yes, I know… what can I say? It is the most ridiculous thing in the world but then if you don’t, you’ll be giving 30% of everything you earn to the US Tax system. And since you are already giving at least (probably) some 30% to Amazon (and therefore corporate America) you may want to think twice before giving away any more.

So. You need to gird your loins. It’s not what one would  call TOTALLY straightforward, but if you ever filled out benefits claim forms in the 70’s or 80’s (or more recently tried to get any kind of pension entitlement form filled out) then you’re well on the way there.  Get a large beverage. Put on your reading glasses (for the small print) and do whatever you need to do to tell yourself you’re not going to ‘lose the plot’ for 20 minutes and you’re ready to go.

Step Two. Download the Form.  I always think of this as a FFS form, though it’s actually called a FSS4 form.  I’d seriously advise that you also download the INSTRUCTIONS because without them you’ll spend time wondering how to fill in all sorts of boxes only to realise later that because you are NOT paying tax to US you don’t actually need to. Sigh. Again.

Step Three.  Okay. Got the form. It looks like this

And you need to fill in only certain lines. (They call them LINES) 

Step Four.  Decide whether you are a BUSINESS or an INDIVIDUAL.  Well, really, you need to decide that even if you are an individual you are actually a BUSINESS because it’s much quicker and easier. And if you are an author then you should be SELF EMPLOYED as such and in that case YOU are your business.  What of it? Well, this means that you can apply for an EIN.  It asks you that in line 7b. 

Step Five.  Let’s run through those first lines. I’m assuming you are capable of filling in your (or your business) name, address and post code etc.   So that’s got you from Lines 1-6.  Oh, you must write UNITED KINGDOM in 6  - not UK. They can’t handle shortening things. Not the IRS.  (more cack handed irony?)

Step Six.  Deep breath. Fill in EIN in line 7b.  Now you are committed (and probably should be)

Step Seven.  Line 9. You have to decide what you are.  Probably other if you are a self employed or limited company (UK)

Step Eight.  Line 10. You need to fill in COMPLIANCE WITH IRS WITHHOLDING REGULATIONS for this. Ignore everything else.  You can then whizz down to line 18 where (assuming it’s the case) you can let them know you HAVEN’T applied for an EIN before – or their system will blow up.
Then you have to SIGN on the non dotted line and you’re good to go.
NOW. How to actually get it to them? Well, if you are in a hurry and have the skill to work out international numbers you can call them and talk through the ‘lines’ you filled in.  Personally I’m too mean to pay international rates.  If you have a FAX machine (wow, do they still exist) or can work out how to fax from your computer (and can work out the international code) you can do that. OR you can simply send them the completed form in the post.  The first option takes as long as a phone call. The second option takes about 4 days. The third option takes about 4 weeks. So it’s up to you.  How quickly do you need your EIN number? 

Word of warning. When you DO get the number you should put it somewhere safe, probably tattoo it on your forehead or something because if you LOSE it or can’t REMEMBER IT ever you will incur the full wrath of the IRS and that’s unimaginable.
Once you’ve completed these several stages you have up to four weeks to have a nice cup of coffee, recover from the procedure and prepare for...  

PART TWO of the great adventure.  This is the form you have to fill in for Amazon in order that THEY KNOW you are not a US taxpayer and will therefore not take off the 30%. 
This form is called W-8BEN And you do have to fill it in accurately or they’ll kick it straight back at you.  Courteously of course but none the less, it’s a pain.
So. This form. Also has downloadable instructions.  Here’s the form in all its glory.

Part 1 goes along much like the other one. YOU are the beneficial owner (go figure?) and you are probably either an individual or corporation (company)  Fill in your name and address – remember UNITED KINGDOM not UK and the important line which you can’t fill in till you get the response to your FSS form is LINE 6.  Here you need to fill in the NUMBER they send you and check the EIN box.
Part 2 you just have to check a and b and then you’re good to go.  Sign it under pain of perjury and this one you have to mail to them. And wait.

Oh. And of course you have to do this SEPARATELY for Kindle Direct Publishing AND CREATESPACE. They are fundamentally different businesses and so you have to deal with each one direct.  But after all that fun filling out one W8-BEN why wouldn’t you want to fill out two?  Fortunately, the IRS FSS form only has to be filled out once.  When you become a TIN (which is effectively just the EIN umbrella name) you are that number for EVER.  So, remember, don’t lose that number.!

For those who want to go into more detail,  here is the CREATESPACE information direct from source.  (Well hidden in the royalties section)

Tax Withholding
Tax withholding is calculated based on the gross amount of your payment, before taking into account any costs associated with receiving payment., CreateSpace eStore, and Expanded Distribution
The U.S. IRS requires CreateSpace to collect up to 30% from royalty payments issued to non-U.S. entities. The tax withholding will automatically be deducted from your royalties when they are paid.

You may be eligible for a reduced rate of U.S. tax withholding if your country of permanent residence - the country where you claim to be a resident of for purposes of that country’s income tax - has an income tax treaty with the U.S. The list of tax treaty countries and applicable rates can be found on pages 40 and 42 of the IRS Publication 515, in the “copyrights” column.

Amazon Europe
If you provide a Form W-8BEN to certify that you are a non-U.S. person, U.S. tax withholding will not be applied to your non-U.S. royalties from Amazon Europe sales. If you do not certify that you are a non-U.S. person, you may be subject to U.S. taxwithholding on your Amazon Europe royalties.

CreateSpace is required to collect a Form W-8BEN from all non-U.S. publishers who are receiving royalties. The purpose of the form is to:

  • Establish that you are not a U.S. person
  • Claim that you are the beneficial owner of the income for which Form W-8BEN is being provided or a partner in a partnership subject to section 1446; and
  • If applicable, claim a reduced rate of, or exemption from, withholding as a resident of a foreign country with which the United States has an income tax treaty
Steps to Submit Form W-8BEN 

1. Complete Form W-8BEN using IRS W-8BEN Instructions  (see examples below).
2. Sign the form in Part IV - an original signature is required
3. Write your CreateSpace Member ID in the top margin of the form to match it to your account (found on your Member Dashboard)  
4. Send the signed original version to:
c/o AP Tax
PO Box 80683
Seattle, WA 98108-0683
You will receive confirmation by email once your form has been processed. Forms received on, or before the 10th of each month will be processed for regular month end payments. Forms received after the 10th will apply to the following month’s payments. Refunds will not be issued for taxes withheld.

Examples of Completed W-8BEN Forms 

Tips for successfully submitting your W-8BEN

  • Write the Member ID in the top margin of the form. Without this information, we’re unable to process your form.
  • If you are applying for a reduced rate of U.S. tax withholding as described above in “Claiming a lower rate of withholding”, a U.S. TIN is required.
  • Be sure to enter your information in the correct fields and don’t abbreviate country names.
  • Provide an original ink signature in the appropriate section (we’re unable to accept copies).
  • Sending the form via regular mail can take several weeks. We recommend sending the form with tracking information to confirm its arrival to our office.
Applying for a U.S. TIN (Taxpayer Identification Number)
A U.S. TIN may be an EIN (for individuals and business entities) or an ITIN (for individuals only). We do not require non-U.S. persons to provide a U.S. TIN. However, entering your “Payee Country” and selecting a “Business Type” in the Royalty Payment Profile is required before royalty payments may be initiated.

For Individuals and Non-Individual Entities: Employer Identification Number (EIN)
An EIN may be obtained by filing Form SS-4, Application for Employer Identification Number. The application may be completed over the telephone in one session by calling (267) 941-1099. The application may also be completed by fax in approximately 4 business days and by mail in approximately 4 weeks. For more information, see:

How to Apply for an EIN 
Form SS-4 Instructions
Example Form SS-4

You can get the forms from the links here and then just fill in another W8-BEN for KDP when you get your EIN through.

Enjoy. When you've completed this, relax with a good book for a while and wait for the royalties in their entirety to just flood in!!! 

This horror was brought to you by Cally Phillips.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Bereavement, and a Christmas goose (not for eating).

          It was a Christmas I'd been dreading - the Christmas of 2013, and my first one without David. I refused to acknowledge it. I bought no tree, put up no decorations, and sent only the obligatory minimum of cards. I wanted to go nowhere, and do nothing.

           However, my daughter, Jude, put a tough, daughterly boot in, and booked me a rail ticket from Paddington to Truro (she lives in Falmouth). Neither of us were to know that I'd be travelling on the day of the Great Storm, and that, when she picked me up at Truro station (the train was delayed by two hours, and was the last one to get into Cornwall that night) we would face the most white-knuckle drive of our lives!

          Those five days of Christmas went unexpectedly well. I re-acquainted myself with her amazing puppet of Borka the goose, from John Burningham's classic picture book which is currently being developed as a children's opera by The English Touring Opera Company. Jude, and her husband, Alan, were working on Borka's goslings while I was there - naked goslings then, who have since been given their coats of untidy down, and discussing how to create the eggs from which they would eventually hatch.

          Coming back to London, I had to face New Year - not a festival either of us ever much cared for, apart from the fireworks. This time I was solitary, by choice. Sometimes one has to be, but it was not easy. Meanwhile, in Cornwall, Jude has been working on the backdrops for "Borka".

          The book that took me through Christmas and the long journey back to London was Kathleen Jones's "THE SUN'S COMPANION" - a lengthy  novel set in the 1930s-1940s - a disturbing period of European history, part of which I lived through, as a child. I probably wouldn't have read it in any other format but the Kindle... as a paperback, it would have been fat, and physically cumbersome to travel with, but the Kindle's 'one page at a time' format made it very accessible. I found her research of that period impressive - there were details I could touch,  feel and smell. I think it would make an amazing film for TV, split into about four episodes, and infinitely more moving and authentic than Downton.

          At present, I'm making inroads into David's vast library of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and reading: "HARM'S WAY", by Colin Greenland, an alternative version of Victorian Britain, in which ships sail into interplanetary space. Love it. He's a fantastic writer.

           My second picture book: "QUICKER THAN A PRINCESS" (TopThat!) comes out this March, and, because of 'Borka', I find myself thinking more and more about the translation from written words to other media, and fantasising that "PRINCESS" might make a ballet, featured a very pregnant princess (how many of those do you encounter?) and quite a lot of dancing animals. I'd love to show you the cover image, but, unfortunately, it's in a format Blogger won't accept. However, I can tell you that the illustrator is the very talented Inna Chernyak, from the Ukraine.

           I'm currently working on 2000 word novels for very early readers. Like Alice, I seem to be getting smaller and smaller, but it's challenging.

          I also need to re-publish more of my out of print children's books, most especially "KACHUNKA", and with eleven e-books out there, it seems to me that I have what constitutes a 'list'. Any takers?

Monday, 27 January 2014

A Little Lone Wolf - Andrew Crofts

          “The eagle is probably the most powerful bird in the world, always flying alone, never in a crowd,” The Middle Eastern merchant prince I was ghostwriting for was talking with his eyes shut, a habit which, when coupled with long pauses, sometimes made it hard to tell if he had fallen asleep mid-thought.
          My recorder was taking care of preserving his widely spaced words, his closed eyes giving me the opportunity to look around the Aladdin’s cave of a room. Every inch of the mighty floor space was filled with objects elaborately decorated in gold. Anything that wasn’t gold was white or cream, from the endless sofas and the cushions of the heavily gilded thrones that we were sitting in to the tissue boxes that were carefully placed in order to be constantly within reach of anyone wishing to expectorate unexpectedly.
Around us were panoramic views of Hyde Park from the windows of one of the apartments in the newly built Knightsbridge block which was reported to contain the most expensive homes in London.
          As a child I had often visited the site in its previous incarnation as Bowater House since it had contained my father’s office. Bowater House was one of the ugliest modern office blocks to go up in London after the Second World War. The building was demolished in 2006 and replaced with this equally controversial structure which seems to many to typify the dangerous gap that is opening up between the global super-rich and the rest of us in the Twenty First Century.
          “Birds that move around in flocks make easy targets for any lone predator,” my client resumed his musings without lifting his eyelids. “If you move in crowds you often end up being punished for the sins of others.”
          He fell silent again, his eyelids still lowered and I pondered his words. I remembered an afternoon soon after starting at my first boarding school. I was seven years old and walking on my own in the grounds in one of the few moments of the day that was not crammed full of sport, lessons and pointless regimentation. One of my school reports of the time, which my wife sweetly unearthed from the cellar recently to amuse the children, claims that, “Andrew believes his contemporaries offer limited intellectual stimulation – he is not always an easy person to deal with but one that is learning to be more tolerant”, which could explain why I was walking on my own, at several levels.
          Rounding a corner I bumped into a teacher on routine patrol duty.
          “Why aren’t you with friends, Crofts?” she asked in a voice that was not without a hint of kindness. “You’re a funny little lone wolf, aren’t you?”
          I preferred my client’s analogy of the lone eagle soaring proudly across open skies. 

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Dexter Eat Your Heart Out

A couple of weeks ago I had the great fortune to be pointed in the direction of a free online Introduction to Forensics course at Strathclyde University (many thanks to Chris Longmuir). Without hesitation I enrolled and proceeded to develop a thin veneer of forensics knowledge, having noticed my deficit when recently starting to write a murder mystery.

If someone in your street today tried to commit the perfect murder they would surely fail. In the old days only Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Columbo and Miss Marple had the honed detective intellect to deduce motive, method, perpetrator, weapon and time of event from the few scant clues. Nowadays, thanks to the proliferation of modern entertainment media, we are all experts. True crime documentaries, CSI, Criminal Minds, Dexter, Sherlock and other TV programmes contribute to the societal knowledge of methods of murder, criminal profiling and forensics.

We congratulate ourselves on having already identified the killer before the on-screen characters manage to do so. A dodgy-looking individual lurks in their van near the schoolyard, looking at the kids. Kidnapper. A man smoothes his greasy hair, smiling as he ascends the stairs from the cellar, boning knife in hand. Serial killer. A woman smiles encouragement at her distraught injured child but drops the expression when she looks at the camera. Psychopath. The question for the consumer of these delights is often not who did what, where and when and how, but rather the why. We know who did it because we’ve been presented with enough evidence to convict an elephant. What we want to know is why they did what they did.

Red herrings are thrown into the fray for viewers to feast upon. The dodgy-looking individual is there to pick up his kid and just happens to look dodgy by nature. The greasy-haired man has been preparing some legitimate meat in his downstairs kitchen. The woman who drops her smile of encouragement is simply tired by motherhood.

Screenplays have the luxury of being able to visually present those fake and bona fide clues to viewers through the actors’ body language, appearance, actions and words. For a fiction writer things are more subtle. A one second piece of throwaway behaviour on-screen becomes a string of words when written. The reader can sit and stare at that sentence for as long as they like – it’s not time-bound.

It could be argued that all good fiction contains components of suspense – what, who, where, when, how, why. The reader turns the page to find out the answer to one or more of these questions. Even the most literary fiction is a study of the human condition and begs questions about the why.

I recently watched a TV series called Crocodile Tears, describing several instances where parents had appeared in the media, pleading for their children or their children’s killers to be found, when they had themselves committed the crime. Each case described what had happened, when and where, and concluded with the who – which we knew already as it was Crocodile Tears. The series of programmes was ultimately unsatisfying because it didn’t deliver on how the crimes were perpetrated and why the parents did it. That is often the case with true crime, whether visual or written. As a fiction writer the challenge is to maintain the suspense of withholding at least one of the answers but to eventually deliver on all or most of them.

So, back to my murder mystery WIP and the ongoing Introduction to Forensics course at Strathclyde Uni. Principles and practice of crime scene investigation, fingerprints, DNA (including blood spatter analysis à la Dexter and worst part of the week – “we will now look at semen”), footwear & toolmarks, firearms, drugs, silent witness, all wrapped up in a real life case study. All good technical stuff. Being the possessor of a mind palace I will store all this great info away and try to apply it in my writing without getting my DNA in a twist and making the reader choke on the post mortem.

What I have learned from Strathclyde so far are two very important lessons.

Firstly, almost everyone (as witnessed in the virtual chat rooms of the course, myself included) leapt straight into detective mode at the outset, trying to solve the case rather than observe the facts.

Secondly, the what-where-when-how-who-why conundrum is the key to successful plotting of a mystery, to the plotting of almost any fiction. At 25% in, my WIP had already answered all these crime scene questions for the reader and I was floundering. Now I know why.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Cats, Gorillas and Ebooks by Susan Price

          Have a look at this. Click on the link below, to go to the 'book.' Turn the pages by clicking the arrow at the sides, or by using the black tabs.

           It's a simple little story about the famous Koko - the gorilla who learned to communicate using American Sign Language (it's claimed) and had a pet cat.
          It's part of the library being developed by my friend, Alan Hess, a teacher, and myself. (Look along the toolbar at the top of Koko's page and, just to the left of the question mark and printer, you'll see a stack of books. Click on them, and you'll find the other books in the library.)
          It's still a work in progress at the moment, but please bear with us. We're still knocking through and laying wiring, our hair is full of virtual plaster dust.

          Try hovering your mouse over the words in the book. Some are highlighted in red, some in blue, some in green.
          These demonstrate 'blocks of meaning.'
          Every sentence is about a Who or a What. (Traditional grammar might talk about 'subject and object' but 'Who or What is easier to understand. Language is about communication, not rules and jargon.)
          Take the first sentence, 'Koko is a gorilla.'
          Who is the sentence about? - Koko.
          What is the sentence about? - A gorilla.
          The green blocks are what traditional grammar would call 'verbs' - they are words which describe actions or processes. So 'is' in the first sentence is highlighted in green.

          The next sentence, 'She lives in America,' contains a blue highlight on 'in America.' This is because How, Where and Why words, or Circumstances, are highlighted in blue. So 'in America' is blue because it is where Koko lives.

          'The little words' are often what most frustrate people trying to learn English - all those prepositions: in, on, up, at. When I was a Royal Literary Fund Fellow, I frequently met students who were driven half-mad by 'the' and 'a'. There is often no equivalent in their own language. "Where do you put them?" they would ask. "Why is it sometimes 'a' and sometimes 'the'? Why do you sometimes miss them out?"

          This system helps a lot with that. 'A gorilla' is given as a red block. 'In America' is given as a blue block. The blue gives the visual clue that 'in' is about where something is placed, or where someone is situated on the earth. The red gives the visual clue that the 'a' is part of saying what Koko is.

          Try clicking on the 'Hot Potato Brick' on the tool-bar. The screen-shot below shows you where to find it - the scribbly pink arrow points to it. The black and white striped brick with the brownish spot on it is the one you want.

          Three 'hot potatoes' appear at the end of each sentence. Click on the first - it takes you to a game.
          The words of the sentence have been cut into blocks and jumbled. Directly above the game are three buttons - Check - Cheat and Exit.
          Exit takes you back to the book.
          Check is for checking how well you did after you've played the game.
          Cheat lets you see the sentence as it should be written. Click on it and try.
          Alan tells me that his students love the 'Cheat' button because they think they're getting away with something sneaky. In fact, clicking means they read the sentence again. They can 'cheat' and read the sentence again as often as they like. Every time they 'cheat' and look at the sentence again, they are reinforcing its patterns in their minds.
          As with any learning, whether it's baking a cake or dribbling a football, 'Practice makes perfect' - and practice means repetition. The more you practice dribbling, the better you will become. The more attempts you make at choux pastry, the better your profiteroles or eclairs will be. Alan's students play the 'hot potato' game until they can score 100% and a happy face every time.

          Then they move on to the second hot-potato - try it. This cuts the sentence into individual words. Finally, the third hot potato cuts them into syllables. You can program it to cut the words into individual letters, if you like.

          There are other games - this memory game, for instance.
          Click one of the play buttons at the bottom, listen to the spoken English words, and then click on the question marks above to see if you can find the object named.
          Go HERE, and you'll see that there are also word-building and word-search games. They're all quite easy. Because they're easy, it's no hardship to repeat them. Repeat something, and you learn it.

          But all this has been a mere introduction. The teaching potential of this software is enormous.
          There are ready-made books on Alan's site, but it is also possible for anyone, using this system, to program their own texts. I have been doing this as part of my training to be an accredited Royal Literary Fund Consultant. As part of this, I need to do a ten minute workshop.
           As an RLF, I met lots of students who lost marks because they were embarrassed by apostrophes. They didn't know where to look or what to do when they met one. So I've written a text (My Sister, Brother and Me, in the library) specifically designed to illustrate this, full of phrases such as:
 'my sister's dress,'
'I didn't tell her.'
 'my brother's car,'
'He didn't know.'
          The possessive apostrophes, related to who owns what, are red. The ordinary apostrophes, which are shortened verbs, or shortened negative associated with verbs, are green.
          I was able to very quickly code this up myself, and add
illustrations (with acknowledgement) from Wikimedia Commons.
          I think Koko is even better because some of the illustrations are by one of Alan's students, the very talented FG. This has resulted in teacher and student working together to produce something which can be used world-wide. The student feels an added sense of involvement and ownership, learns a great deal, and grows in confidence.
          As with my apostrophe lesson, a teacher could write and code up a text on any subject that might interest students, or to teach any point of language. Or both.
          Students and teacher could work together to make an interactive book on anything they found interesting. And, in so doing, learn a great deal.
          Go back to the book - here's the link: KOKO
          Turn to page 2. Here there is an illustration of the finger-signs used for spelling in American Sign Language - but also an embedded video (from Wikimedia Commons) giving examples of ASL in use.
          Further on, there's a Google map showing the Isle of Man. It's there because Koko's pet cats were Manx cats, and the video makes clear where the Isle of Man is.
          In my own short text about apostrophes, I have the narrator drive 'my sister's car' to the Orkneys and onto the ferry - which sinks and, 'my sister's car is at the bottom of the Pentland Firth.' An embedded Google map shows where the Pentland Firth is.

          Go to the top left hand corner of Koko. See the speaker-bar? Click on it. (Have your computer volume turned up.) Those are Alan's pupils reading the Koko text. The first to speak is FG, who also did the illustrations.

          Alan is already working on blank versions of these books, which retain the illustrations, but have no text. The students write in their own text from memory - and expand it as they please, making descriptions more florid, and having fun with it.They can change or add to the illustrations - if they learn how to do it.

          The possibilities for teaching here, I think, are boggling. Take a student's interest, write some text - it doesn't have to be long or difficult. Get them researching (and reading) for pictures. Get them talking, and helping each other. Let them rewrite and expand the text they've worked on. They're adding to their vocabulary and knowledge of the world, learning by teaching each other, gaining in confidence.

          But you also have the option of using a ready-made text from the library.

          Being a cynical type myself, I can hear other cynical types saying: 'Yeah, you say it's easy. But how easy is it, actually?'
          Let me show you how to code up a sentence, so that it will highlight in different colours, and turn into hot-potato games.
          Here's a screen-shot showing a blank book.

          First, I go to the tool-bar, and click on the icon at the far right: (EDIT). Then I get this screen.

          Don't worry about the coding down the left-hand side. It says <fgnp> and is a piece of code which tells the programme to create a new page.
          So go the pointy end of one of these piece of code and press return.
          Then go to the control bar at the top and click on the two symbols circled in pink.

           Doing that will enter two pieces of code, like this:-

           The first piece, which looks like a 'p' in point brackets, tells the book to begin a new paragraph. The second, <hotpot> enters the code to create the 'hot potato' games, where the words are cut up and jumbled.
          Now I put my cursor at the centre of this code, and write the time honoured test sentence: 'Mary had a little lamb.'
          To enter the code that highlights the words in different colours (and also underlines them in red, blue or green), I use the coloured bricks at the left of the screen.

          Using my cursor, I highlight 'Mary', and then click the red brick. I then highlight 'a little lamb' and click the red again. I highlight 'had' and click the green brick. This enters the code for the colours.
          To finish the coding for the hot potato game, I use the vertical bar circled in blue in the screenshot below, which also shows the colour coding in place. I place the cursor where I want a word to be snipped into syllables, (or letters, or punctuation signs) and click the bar. Each individual teacher can decide how they want to do this.

           If I want to put in a title, I use the H1, H2 or H3 icons to the right of the coloured bricks. I can write the title first, then highlight it, and click one of the Header icons. This will automatically 'top and tail' the highlighted words with the code for larger, heavier title lettering. H1 gives the biggest letters.
          Or I can click H1 first, put my cursor at the centre of the code, and then write my title.
          The Eye icon at the far right gives a preview, so you can check things.
          Then you click 'Update Main Text.' Save. And you have text coded up like the Koko book at the beginning of this post.
          Of course, you can write the text first, copy it into a Stories4Learning book, and then code it.
          Inserting the illustrations is a little more tricky, but not very much.
          If you want to see how it's done, Alan has put up videos HERE, giving demonstrations.

          The advantage of the system is it provides a cheap and endlessly variable supply of teaching material tailored to the needs of an individual class or student.
          It can be projected on a screen for the whole class to see and work on together - or each student can work with it on their own computer or tablet.
          You don't have to adopt the Functional Grammar method of teaching, although it is proving immensely successful worldwide. - A teacher can simply use the colours to highlight any part of the text they want to draw attention to.

          If you want to hear more about Functional Grammar, from the mouth of, perhaps, its leading expert, follow this link to my own Nennius blog, where I'm posting an interview with Dr. David Rose, who developed his Reading2Learn method in Australia.

          Or find out more about the Swiss-Anglo approach - a PriceClan production! - by following this LINK.

Friday, 24 January 2014

I'm not here! - Jo Carroll

I’m not here.

This is weird, writing this. I’m sitting at my computer, in my little room at home with a view of the garden. The wind is fierce – it is very late autumn and the last of the leaves are soggy on the wet lawn. The sky is unforgivingly grey. Beside me I have Christmas lists: things to buy, to cook, to pack up and post.

What!! You’re reading this in mid-January! Christmas is long gone. I know – but when you read this I’ll be in Cuba. I can’t tell you exactly where, as I don’t know (I’ve not been there before, and don’t do much travel planning anyway). It will probably be hot; I hope I will have drunk plenty of wonderful coffee and probably some wonderful rum. I will have given balloons to children, and tried my wretched Spanish on their mothers. And I may well have very limited access to wifi (hence writing this so far in advance).

Which got me thinking – as writers, we spend hours with our heads in another place. I’ve retraced my steps with every travel book I’ve written. When I play with fiction I can leap from my Wiltshire Downs to the wilds of Antrim in a couple of sentences. Those of you who write fantasy face even greater challenges: at least I can take my mind off to real hills and valleys, while you have to make the whole lot up. But it must still be real, and convincing – or the reader will throw up her hands and return to the reality of her own world.

Do you have 'tricks' to help you? Photos or pictures of your setting on the walls of your writing room, maybe? Do you have maps? House-plans? Do you wait for rainy days to remind yourself of the smell of wet pavements? Or can you hold it all in your heads? I'd love to know - though I'll not be able to join in the discussion till I get home.

I like to think I’ve got better at these leaps of imagination. Even so, while I may appear to be in two places at once today I cannot promise to spend too long wondering about your rain and cold, or even the state of my soggy lawn. Instead I shall be collecting stories: you never know, there might be another travel book when I get home …

Thursday, 23 January 2014

The Double-Edged Paper Cut of E-Books

          Asking a reader about e-books can be a risky business. The topic is almost as touchy as asking someone about sports or politics. Worse even, its like asking a sixteenth century Christian how many fingers one uses to cross himself. I have a writer friend who makes absolutely no bones about her disdain for ebooks. Another writer friend thinks they're great since that is where most folks are buying his books.

          I fall somewhere between these two extremes. I far prefer reading a tangible book (further, I prefer hardcover to paperback, but paperback to e-book) since to me reading is far more than an exercise for the brain. It's a physical thing, too. I like how different books feel, Vonnegut books are light as a feather, for example, but a John Irving novel is heavy. Older books have rough pages that have turned tan with age and flipping, but new books are fresh and slick. And each book has a different scent to it that can have the ability to evoke powerful, long forgotten memories in an instant and without warning. (I recently discovered while creating a test for my English grammar course, for example, that our textbook, Understanding English Grammar, smells exactly like sixth grade. Exactly.)

My name is Lev Butts, and I am a book sniffer.
All ebooks, whether Kurt Vonnegut, John Irving, Anne Sexton, or Kate Chopin, look, weigh, and smell exactly like the same ebook reader.

          However, this is not to say I hate e-books; I don't.  In fact, I love them, despite the fact that some have accused me of playing both sides in the literacy wars. Apparently, if I don't choose one format over the other and forever shun the less worthy, some consider me a kind of traitor to All That Is Good And Holy About Literacy. My preference for hard-copy books coupled with my love of e-books is not hypocritical. I prefer crème brûlée to chocolate cake, but I still love chocolate cake.

          So when I first thought about tryng the electronic book format, it seemed as though every bookstore from Barnes & Noble to Hastings to the local mom-and-pop indie store was pushing its own version of ebook reader, so I had plenty of platforms to choose from.

I'd like to talk to you about my new e-reader blue. It's awesome.

          Amazon had arguably the most popular platform: the Kindle available in several formats:

Ranging from their ever-popular Kindle Fire tablet (right)
to their slightly less useful "door-stop" model (left & center).

          Barnes & Noble also had their Nook e-reader and tablet:
Complete with handy side loop so it attaches easily to your keyring
(a dubious feature at best since the reader will not fit in your pocket).

          Even Sony got into the e-reader wars by fielding its own reader named, originally enough, the Sony Reader:

The 8-track cassette player of e-readers

          Hell, even Borders joined the fray by backing the Kobo Reader (perhaps the final coffin nail in Borders' business strategy):
The Betamax of e-readers

          Ultimately, I decided to go with Apple's iPad since it not only came with its own e-reader, iBooks, but it also allowed you to download other e-reader programs as well. Admittedly, the iPad cost about twice what a Kindle or a Nook cost, but since I was able to put the Kindle, Nook, and two other ebook readers as well as a couple of comic e-readers on it, I felt it was like getting six readers for the price of two. 

          For the most part, I have not regretted either decision: to try the ebook format or to buy the iPad.

          E-books have at least one distinct advantage over hard-copy books:They are tiny. I have literally hundreds of books on my iPad including all fifteen books of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, all eight books in Stephen King's Dark Tower series, as well as his The Shining and Doctor Sleep, all six parts of Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy,  every single Star Wars novel up to last October, and every selection for my Ancient World Literature, American Literature, and fairy tales courses (about 25 to thirty books and essays). And I still have room to have the first season of Farscape loaded into my video ap and  three or four computer games.

          No matter what I want to read, it's there waiting for me. When I was in high school and college, I used to carry around a copy of Richard Monaco's Parsival in my satchel just in case I wanted to read it suddenly. Now I have all of Monaco's work (at least all that has been converted to electronic format), as well as Catch-22, All the King's Men, and nearly countless others with me. Just in case. It's like having a public library in my satchel:

Yay! Look at all my choices!
         However, e-books also have one distinct disadvantage over hardcopy books, too:

Holy fartballs! Look at all my choices.
          They are tiny. I have literally hundreds of books on my iPad including all fifteen books of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, all eight books in Stephen King's Dark Tower series, as well as his The Shining and Doctor Sleep, all six parts of Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy,  every single Star Wars novel up to last October, and every selection for my Ancient World Literature, American Literature, and fairy tales courses (about 25 to thirty books and essays). And I still have room to have the first season of Farscape loaded into my video ap and  three or four computer games.

          Now I never know what to read because it's all there waiting for me. I have been known to read two or three hard-copy books at a time (usually something for school or work and a couple of novels). With hard-copies, you are limited by what you can carry conveniently. I couldn't read a Wheel of Time novel and The Brothers Karamazov while I was reading Gone With the Wind, for instance because I'm just not physically strong enough to carry those books everywhere. My reading practices were able to remain fairly focused because of this.

          Now, though, I'm like an ADHD kid in a popcorn factory.

Like this but with more popcorn.

       I am literally reading about fourteen books right now, and I had to stop myself from starting a fifteenth and sixteenth earlier when I came across a collection of Mary Hood stories in my iBooks library and a Neil Gaiman graphic novel in my kindle library while writing the paragraph discussing all the cool shit I have in my e-book libraries.

          A few months ago, Reb MacRath sent me a complimentary copy of his re-worked 1980's horror story The Suiting. It's in my Kindle library, and I've been reading it ever since he gave it to me. As you all know, I'm a big proponent of reviewing books when you're given free copies, and I fully intend to, but then I got Doctor Sleep for my birthday, and before I read that, I have to re-read The Shining, so I've been reading it, too, and before all of this I had started on Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series since his estate had finally released the very last book last October (about twenty plus years after he started the series), so every now and then I sneak in a few pages of it.

          And so on and so forth, until it seems like I never really read anything, I just start a bunch of books, throw them into a battle royale of sorts, and see which ones emerge from the fray completely read.

          Reb, you will be glad to know that The Suiting is holding its own better than any of the other books. It's closest rival is The Shining, which is holding a firm second place. That your book is holding firm and besting Stephen King's arguably finest early novel, will hopefully serve as positive review for now until I can finally turn the last virtual page and write something more official.

The first rule of eBook Club is no one talks about eBook Club.