Friday, 28 February 2014

Pregnant princesses, and re-working stories.

          My new picture book, 'QUICKER THAN A PRINCESS', has had its publication date postponed because certain key buyers weren't impressed enough. It was supposed to be coming out next month, which would have been a mixed occasion emotionally for me because it will be the first anniversary of David's death. Now the already illustrated book will be doing the rounds at the book fairs, where we all hope it will fare better.

As so often with these things, friends who've read it, love it, but hey-ho, that's the way publishing is these days (the image of baked bean salesmen comes to mind).

          The theme is of a whole lot of creatures showing off because they can gestate their babies much faster than our very pregnant princess, and I love the illustrations which were done by Inna Chernak, who lives in the Ukraine (and I am currently fearing for her safety, and hoping that she lives somewhere deeply rural and far away from all the disturbances).

          I spent the whole of January re-working some existing stories. There's great pleasure, for me, in doing this, because the basic material already there, so, in a strange way, it feels like sculpture. I wasn't just doing this for the sake of some abstract pleasure, though - there was an ulterior motive. Just after New Year, when I was feeling particularly low, I received a brief from one of my publishers for some short 'chapter' books aimed at six to eight year olds. Being reminded by the pleasurable thought that I was still on their list of authors to contact, I set to work re-shaping these stories, cutting, expanding and dividing. It's astonishing how something like that can get the juices flowing - with no ultimate certainly of anything being published.

          This story does have a happy ending, though, because one of the manuscripts has now flown, and will be coming out in September. It's called: THE NIGHT OF THE WERE BOY, but I'm not giving anything away about the plot. It will be illustrated, though, so when I get a cover image, I'll post it. Watch this space.

          All of which leads me into the question of motivation. Nearly everything I've done in recent years was written in the hope (often vain) of publication, but my first published book, THE TIME TREE, began as a story I told to my daughter and her best friend during a very long, dusty walk in Paris. It stayed in print for ages, and has now attracted film interest, although when that might happen is anybody's guess.

          So how do we stay motivated and inspired when nobody out there gives a monkey's? And how do we go on publicising our work, when once it was done for us? I find self-publicity the hardest part of the Indie route, and have somewhat dropped off the radar as far as my children's ebooks are concerned. As (possibly) a result of this, my sales have been negligable, and looking at them reinforces my desire to do nothing at all. I'm also troubled by the thought of online piracy. Original work is very vulnerable online, and I've already found a very dubious 'library' edition of one of my books. Comments are very welcome.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

The Soporific Brothel - Andrew Crofts

          "Of all the advantages that ghosting offers, one of the greatest must be the opportunity that you get to meet people of interest."
          The idea came from the girl’s husband, a British engineer who had been working for several years on a project in the Far East. He’d met her through mutual acquaintances. They fell instantly in love and married despite the fact that they didn’t have a language in common.
          Over the following few years, as he taught her English, he learnt the story of his young bride’s life from the simple village where she was born to the brothels of Bangkok and eventually to freedom and security through marriage to him, a kind and gentle foreigner. He was proud of everything she had achieved and he thought that she deserved to have her story recognised, so on a business trip back to England he made contact with me.
          “I would need to spend time with her,” I explained, “would she come to London?”
          “It would be better if you met her in Thailand,” he said, “then you could see the actual places where the events happened.”
          Nobody paid any attention when the girl and I checked into the reception of the “hotel” in Bangkok where she had worked as a teenager. They were used to local girls and foreign men using the rooms upstairs.
          One wall of the reception area was made of glass, behind which a selection of scantily clad girls and women sat or lay or wandered around, like bored specimens in an exotic aquarium. One of them was actually knitting as she waited. Every time a man moved towards the glass they would all burst into a frenzy of flirting and pouting, putting on performances that they hoped the shadowy figure behind the glass would find attractive, all wanting to be the one who was chosen to go upstairs, to be given a chance to earn an hour or two’s wages.
          Having paid the receptionist, my tiny guide and client led the way up to a small room furnished with nothing but a double bed and a bathtub. The ancient air conditioning unit wedged in the window was stubbornly silent and the heat was overbearing.
          “We can talk here,” she said, climbing onto the bed, sitting cross-legged and opening her handbag. “You want a coke?”
          Grateful for any sort of fluid I accepted the proffered bottle. When I unscrewed the lid a jet of warm sticky liquid sprayed out in a 360 degree arc, soaking the already grubby sheets. She covered her mouth with dainty fingers, prettily smothering an involuntary giggle.
           I took the tape machine from my pocket and laid it on the pillow.
          “You sweating bad,” she said, pointing to the dark patches on my t-shirt. “You take off shirt.”
          As I struggled out of the clinging t-shirt she took a swig from her bottle and lay down with her head beside the tape machine. I pressed the record button.
          “Okay,” I said, “let’s start from the beginning.”
          I stretched out and propped my head up with my arm, so that I could watch her as she talked and show her that I was listening, encouraging her to keep going even when the words became difficult. Both of us sipped from the cokes. Once the bottle was empty my head was beginning to feel uncomfortably heavy on my arm and my cheek stuck to my palm with a slick of new sweat. She had her eyes closed most of the time so I thought it would be okay to put my head on the pillow too. When my eyelids also grew unbearably heavy I thought it might be a good idea to rest them, after all I could continue talking and listening.
          By the time her husband showed up to see how we were doing the recorder lying between us had run out of tape and both of us were so deeply asleep we didn’t even hear him coming into the room, only waking up when he sat down on the end of the bed and coughed politely. 

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Cry of the Heartwood by Ruby Barnes

           February 12th 2014 on the island of Ireland. The January weather had battered the coasts and destroyed stretches of coastline enjoyed by countless previous generations. Unusually high tides, low pressure with rising sea levels and gale force winds resulted in crazed, crashing waves that ripped out miles of sandy beach, turning them to pebbles. Just before Valentine's Day the elements returned to attack the land. Storm Darwin brought hurricane force winds across the counties of Munster and Leinster.

         We had forty shades of green long before fifty shades of grey, and there's a reason why the Emerald Isle is so lush - it's mostly raining. And we're no strangers to high winds with many a tree, shrub and bush habitually leaning away from the prevailing storms. But no one was ready for Darwin. We're not familiar with hurricanes - this is a temperate island off the north west of Europe - but Storm Darwin evolved from a lineage that dashed the Spanish Armada to its destruction.

          I drove home in a zig-zag through the wind and rain that lunchtime in Kilkenny. The summer parasol - left in the middle of the patio table as I'm so bad at house husbandry - had been sheared off and lay on the grass. Lucky for me it didn't go through a window. Then there was a big bang and Alfie the dog went ape. I stepped outside, nearly lost the back door in the wind, and found some broken tiles around the side of the house. They had fallen from the neighbour's roof and bounced off my dining room window. Testament to the strength of modern glazing. Both Alfie and I realised it wasn't a good place to stand and went back inside, just as another four concrete tiles bounced off the window and smashed on the ground. I locked the back door, took the key out of the lock and put it in a drawer to prevent wife and children from having a bad experience. Then I got back in the car to return to work because an emergency weather conference had been called by my health service employer.

          The circular road to Kilkreene Hospital was blocked by fallen trees and a Garda car squatted across the road to prevent bravado. I turned tail on sight of the squad car - usually good enough to make the Gards give chase, but they weren't up for it. I took the country side road and then a lane, but the dip in the way was full of a good two feet of water. So I turned back up the other larger lane. A mile further and that was blocked too by fallen trees. In the end a major detour was necessary through town on the only remaining access road to the hospital and regional ambulance centre.

          My dramatic recounting of events on the teleconference was quickly squashed by the real misfortune of others. Fifty-two elderly occupants of a nursing home in Killarney were being evacuated as the roof was removed by the storm. Miraculously no one was killed or seriously injured. So I went home early, as you do. The fire engine which had been blocking the opposite end of the road to the Garda car had gone so I took the turn only to find two men hopelessly trying to wrestle another freshly toppled tree trunk off the road. Back through town and all my usual short cuts through the city were blocked by fallen trees.

          Eventually I made it home to find seven houses in the street missing tiles. Things had calmed down but a lot of places would never be the same. 215,000 people were without electricity for days and Kilkenny Golf Course lost one hundred and fifty trees in the storm.

          A week later and I was dropping my son at soccer practise out on the Bennettsbridge road when I saw another storm victim.

          This old oak had been sheared off at the base and a couple of others lay nearby. My first thought was heartwood. How could I salvage the magic heartwood of this old tree and make something wondrous of it? Then I realised - this tree died a terrible death and the twisted torture of the heartwood could only yield the worst kind of magic.

And a note from our Reb MacRath on a forthcoming treat for March: - 

How Elvis Murdered Princess Di

          Contents under Rock and key.

           The blue suede truth revealed on 12th March 2014

          And now handing you back to storm-force Ruby...

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

My Brother, My Sister and Me - by Susan Price

Susan Price, Authors Electric,
Susan Price
     Here we are again. Have a look at this. It takes you to another of those interactive e-books.

     This is one I put together for the RLF Consultancy Training Course I've been taking. I had ten minutes to give 'a presentation' or 'mini-workshop' on a subject of my choice. It had to have 'interactive exercises.'
           Ten minutes!
          Since I met so many students whose eyes became glazed with terror at the mere mention of apostrophes, I invented a 'story' that deliberately used the apostrophe several times.

                           I borrowed my sister's best dress.
I didn't see the chocolate bar on the bus seat.
I sat on it.
There was melted chocolate all down the back of my sister's dress.
I didn't tell her.
I just hung it back in her wardrobe.
It wasn't my fault!
lime green dress, wikimedia

     The pictures come from Wikimedia Commons. You copy their location into the Stories4Learning programme and it appears on the page of the 'book.' Amazingly, they didn't have a picture of a melting chocolate bar - so I had to make do with what looks like a chocolate fondant.

I borrowed my brother's smart-phone.
He didn't know.
I dropped it in a fountain.
I didn't tell him.
I just put it back in his pocket.
He wonders why it's lost all its smarts.
I'm sorry, really!

         I tried to write a passage that was amusing, and didn't talk down to anyone. You can see that, besides giving practice in things like 'didn't' and 'wasn't', the text features the fearful 'it's' and 'its', as well as abbreviations like 'I'm.'
       Here's the link again -
       Click on the red and green bricks on the tool bar. You'll see that some of the text is underlined in red, and some in green. (Since I posted this, Alan has made the page less cluttered by tidying the tool bar away. So, to find these red and green bricks, click on the little coloured gear-wheels in the top left-hand corner.)
        All the possessive apostrophes fall into the red blocks - because they're always associated with 'Who or What' words. That is, Who or What the sentence is about.  The thing or person owned is tied to its owner by that possessive apostrophe.
     It could be: The child's mother or the dog's paw, but it's always going to be Who or What.
         Some of the apostrophes fall into the green blocks - because they are 'Doing or Being' words that have been shortened, and the apostrophe marks the missing letter.
         Then we have - 'He wonders why it's lost all its smarts.'
          And, 'I'm sorry.'
         'It's' and 'its' are differentiated by colour - and it's clear that 'I'm' is made up of a pronoun, 'I' and a shortened verb, 'am.' Visual clues like these are a great aid to memory. (For those with red-green colour blindness, the green words go into italic when you click on the bricks.)
         (Those of you wondering why 'why' is blue - it's because 'why' is a 'When, Where, How' word, and they're coded blue.)
        Click on the 'hot potato' brick in the toolbar - it's the black brick to the left of the white ones. This puts a row of 'hot potatoes' against each sentence. Click on the third one alongside 'He wonders why it's lost all its smarts,' and you get a puzzle where all the words are cut into bits and jumbled. Drag them back into position, and you get practice in using 'its' and 'it's.'
         Ironically, where I tried to teach many English students how to use the apostrophe, my cousin, in Switzerland, is trying to unteach the apostrophe to his German students. It isn't used in German - but they're picking it up from the Mcdonalds' ad, 'I'm lovin' it.' Another reason to hate Mcdonalds, as if I needed any more.
The brother's smart-phone
     Oh, and by the way - click on the little playback button at the end of those hot-potato sentences, and you'll hear the sentence spoken aloud  - another little repetition to help those learning a foreign language. 

      I can't say that I covered myself in glory when I did the presentation. I was up first, always unnerving, and there were - inevitably - computer problems. I was so conscious of time flitting past that I skipped things - and then found that I had time in hand which I didn't know what to do with.
         Feedback said that I shouldn't have spent so much time explaining how the S4L system worked, and should have concentrated on apostrophes and covered them more thoroughly - which my own shrewd Davy had said, at home, and I ignored him, as I so often do. ("You will not be told, Suzzie!")

        (I should make it clear that the RLF, as an old and well respected charity, do not endorse, or support, or in any way associate themselves with S4L. They do not support any teaching method in particular.)

      Now what? - Well now, instead of writing, I am planning and preparing workshops for the work-experience section of my training. It's not something I've really done before. Talks, yes - lots of talks. But workshops, as one of my training mentors said, 'are a very different breed of beast.' At the moment I'm preparing a sort of dry-run workshop on 'How To Construct A Scary Story', using 'Mr. Fox' as an example. I've been watching YouTube vids on how to use Powerpoint.

      If I can manage that, I'm then looking at designing the real thing - a workshop for 6th form students on how to write a good essay, covering title deconstruction, essay construction, language and anything else you can think of.
       Please wish me luck! 

Susan Price won the Carnegie Medal for her book, The Ghost Drum, and the Guardian Award for The Sterkarm Handshake.
She was an RLF Fellow, based in De Montfort University, for three years.

Her website can be found at

Monday, 24 February 2014

The literate is the political? - Jo Carroll

     As some of you know, I'm just back from Cuba. I've never been so aware of catching just a snippet of a country. I can (and probably will) write about the Cuba I met, but cannot extrapolate to assume it's the Cuba anyone else might meet, or make any assumptions about the lives of the Cubans themselves.

     Which is unusual. And why? One reason (among many) is the complex political situation in Cuba, with a socialist government firmly in control but the teeth of capitalism are gnawing away at the edges of society - and ready to take great bites should America lift the trade embargo. As a result some people are already looking forward to the possibility of being able to buy bread without queueing, while others will continue to live on farms and eat what they grow.

     Just in case you need a picture to make the point, here is a crooked picture of Che Guevara - on the wall in a bus station:

     I cannot write about Cuba without grappling with that. Which set me thinking: I've also played with a novel set in the nineteenth century, with a backdrop of the famine in Ireland and deportations to Australia. I've written short stories with a modern setting, with its flexible family ties and instant messaging systems. I take for granted that context is part of the writing.

     Many years ago, in the early days of feminism, there was a saying that, 'The personal is political.' It brought the domesticity of many women's lives into the political arena, making it part of our discourse to discuss the roles of women and how they may or may not change.

     Can we, as writers, escape the same construct? Is it possible to ignore political contexts in our writing? I know we get into definitions here - where does politics end and culture begin? I'd argue that the line is too indefinite to be useful. That one feeds and nurtures (and occasionally overfeeds) the other.

     As a travel writer I cannot escape the politics - nor the history that has shaped it. And as a fiction writer? Here I'll be interested to see what you think. I would argue that any piece with a defined and recognised historical context (which includes the present day) cannot ignore cultural and political realities, even though this may not be explicit in the writing. And that this is as important for those writing for children as for adults.

     But does that change for fantasy writers? Do vampires need to nod in the direction of David Cameron? Or can they sail blissfully into the blue without paying any attention to the preoccupations of those with our feet on the ground? Is the whole point of fantasy that it can, and does, transcend culture and politics?

     (If you want to see how I tackled this in other countries, there are links on my website, here.)

Sunday, 23 February 2014

The Overlooked Job of a Writer by Leverett Butts

There are several writing concerns that new writers instantly understand. The most obvious concern, of course, is where to get ideas.

Ask any veteran writer and he or she will tell you:
Every night around midnight, Tinkerbell craps pixie dust on your sleeping head
and inspiration is born. 
Another common concern is whether or not you need an agent (which is itself a question deserving of its own topic blog).

YOSSARIAN: So in order to get published, I need an agent, but I can't get an agent unless I've been published?
DANEEKA: You got it. That's Catch-22.
YOSSARIAN: That's some catch, that Catch-22.
DANEEKA: It's the best there is.
Royalties are another concern new writers seem to have. Everyone wants to know how much money they're going to get for their magnum opus. Probably somewhere between diddly and squat, honestly.

Unless this is your Opus; then you'll have royalties coming out of your ears.
Unfortunately, most of these concerns are usually out of your hands as a writer. You either have an idea or you don't; you can't go shopping for them. An agent will either pick you up or not; you can't force one to.
Unless you kidnap Qui Gon Jinn's daughter and force him to use the 
Jedi mind trick on the agent.

You will not live off your royalties, nor should you expect much (read: any) of an advance if your name is not Stephen King.

One concern, though, that many new writers overlook is, ironically, one of the few they have direct control over: promoting their work. This seems to be something many feel will take care of itself. Either the publisher will drop boatloads of cash on book tours and full-page ads and billboards and professional book trailers for your unknown first novel, or people will simply wake up one morning, magically understanding the beauty that is your genius and flock to Barnes & Noble cash in hand demanding their copy.

Pixie poo is apparently good fertilizer for more than just ideas.

Sadly, this is not the case. Whether you are traditionally published through one of the major houses, published by an independent firm, or self-published, the onus of promotion is going to fall squarely on your shoulders. 

Thankfully, you have Dr. Uncle Lev to offer up three suggestions that have worked well for him.

3. Share Your Work

Sometimes this means giving away free copies, but that's not really what I'm talking about here. I mean giving out free samples of your work in the form of public readings. It is insanely easy to get local readings. There are venues aplenty in your town, regardless of size. Does your town have a coffee shop? If so, they will, more than likely, be happy to host your reading. It doesn't even matter how good you are. After all, readings and coffee shops have gone hand-in-hand ever since the beatniks doo-wopped their gasses in a crazy hep patter over java and joe:

If you're worried that your writing's no good, fear not. It has to be
better than beatnik poetry, and they practically invented public readings.

There are plenty of other venues for a reading as well. Your local library will almost certainly be perfectly happy to offer you a stage for a reading. While you're there, offer them a free copy of your book for their shelves.

Ask your local independent bookseller for a reading as well. What better way to sell books than at a bookstore? Even more important here is that the bookseller will almost certainly sell your books for you on a consignment basis (which just means the store gets a small cut of your sales).

If your local college has a creative writing group, offer to give a reading for them. Or if they host an open mic event, take part in it.

In other words, make yourself visible in your community and its environs. These people are, after all, going to be your primary audience, and if they like your work, they will buy it, and hopefully recommend it to their friends.

2. Contact the Media
Admittedly, as an unknown author, the New York Times Book Review is unlikely to care about your new book. Your local papers, though, will almost certainly want to know about it. You can write up a press release for them and ask if they'd be interested in running it (if they ask for money, consider it. It is, after all, advertisement). If you have a reading coming up, ask the paper if they'd like to cover it. 

Hell, if they'll run this boring story, they should jump at the chance to cover you.

You might also ask if anyone on staff would be interested in reviewing your book for the paper. If so, give them a free copy for review.

If your community offers a local access cable channel, consider asking one of the hosts to interview you.

Again, the point here is to make yourself known to your community and the surrounding area. However, it's not a bad idea to try to spread your name out to a wider audience, which brings me to my last suggestion.

1. Create an Online Presence

Since we now live in the digital age, it is easier than ever to grow your name beyond your geographical area through the use of social media. 

Consider creating a Facebook page for your author persona. Post status updates about your latest project, reading, or media appearance. However, also post online articles you find that have to do with writing or the subject matter of your work. Essentially, use it just like you would your "real" Facebook page, but without all the politics, religion, passive/agressive cryptic rants, and cat pictures.

Well this one's okay I guess.

Consider doing these same things on a Twitter feed as well. You can even set up Twitter so that it automatically posts to your Facebook page

If you are selling your book on Amazon (and if you aren't, you really need to fix that), be sure to set up your free author page. You can link your Twitter feed to this page, post upcoming reading dates and venues, and host online discussions of your work.

Finally, consider writing a regular or semi-regular blog. This blog does not necessarily have to be about writing at all. It can be about anything you find interesting. 

Or uninteresting for that matter.
This guy set out to write a boring blog
and reaped over 350 replies to a post about straightening pencils.

The long and short of it is that you need to be online, and in multiple areas. If you are online, you are instantly available to people around the world, and while you may not reach as many people worldwide as you do in your community, even one person overseas who notices you is one more than you would have had.

Except for this guy. You're probably not available to this guy.

If you're very lucky, you might even be asked to contribute regularly to a European writers blog.

Saturday, 22 February 2014


That's not strictly true, as half the country is still under water and likely to be for many months, but - there are loads of colourful little flowers popping up in the garden, birds are showing their faces at the feeder again and the new season lambs are arriving daily. So all in all, something to look forward to. It's been an awful month weather-wise and I hope no one suffered too much, if any, damage to their homes, self, and cars. Apart from some of the fascia under the roof tiles blowing off and a small branch falling onto my car bonnet, we fared well here and consider ourselves very lucky. And looking on the bright side, we haven't had snow - yet…

The month of February started off really well for me. On the 1st, my favourite female crime author Mandasue Heller, did a book signing at the local Waterstone's and I got a copy of her latest novel Respect, signed. This is the second time I've met Mandasue and she's such a nice lady to speak to; very friendly and patient with all her fans. I don't buy many paperbacks these days, but I do love a signed copy to keep safe. 

On the 3rd it was the 55th anniversary of the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens. As I
write sixties rock'n'roll based romances, I ran a half-price sale of all my books on my Facebook author page to commemorate the anniversary, and it was a great success. Lots of nice sales. Which brings me to the subject of - how many people use their FB author page to full advantage? A few discoveries recently have led me to boosting certain posts for around £3 a throw. It's amazing how many extra views, likes and sales this can bring in. It's certainly worth thinking about. I've started to use my page to chat with readers about everything and anything, not just the books. I've posted old photographs of actual places that feature in my novels, clubs, and record stores etc. The readers/followers engage really well with this and the ones that enjoyed the stories will let others know. Word of mouth is your best selling tool. In fact, I'm finding the FB page a better bet for exchanging comments than my website blog or Twitter. Although I still do the odd Tweet or two I'm gaining new followers on FB by the day. You can also add your book links via the READ MY BOOK App, so your readers can go straight to the page to buy. Saves them searching around. So many authors don't include a link to their work, missing real sales opportunities.

Earlier this week, after a sudden unexpected burst of sunshine showed up the cobwebs on the wall above my desk, I had a bit of a spring clean. I've shredded so much paper I can actually see my computer and desk again. I was feeling bogged down and uninspired, sitting here surrounded by a ton of rubbish. Now I feel like I've got space, and a serious urge to crack on with Ruby Tuesday, the second novel in my fairground romance series.

And last but not least, take a look at the photo below and feel inspired. Two new-born lambs, named Ritchie and Buddy, after my heroes. Just look at the contented face of their mum, Ally. If they don't make you smile and feel that spring is just around the corner, then nothing will!

Have fun. Bye until next time. Pam. 

Friday, 21 February 2014

Mentors and Mantras – How I Became a Writer by Pauline Chandler

There were lots of little steps along the way to my becoming a real writer, from getting my hands on notebooks and pencils at primary school, to joining a writers’ group, to getting my first novel published, but I didn’t do this by myself. Like a ball on a bagatelle board, I’ve often been pushed to the next step by something I’ve read, words that became mantras, or by mentors, wonderful people without whom I doubt I would ever have become a writer.

Like thousands of others, I’m a huge fan of the ‘The Voice’.
 The Voice UK judges 2014: courtesy of
For anyone who hasn’t seen this tv show, it’s a competition to find the next superstar singer, judged by four famous singers who don’t set eyes on the contestant until they’ve chosen them to go on, solely on the sound of their singing. I like the banter among the judges, I like will’s mad metaphors and Kylie’s rain dance, even Tom Jones’s name-dropping. He’s sung with Elvis, you know! But what impresses me most is that underneath all the glam and glitz, these people are survivors, who know how to bounce back from the knocks that the artistic life presents. You hear it time and again in their advice to the losing singers: ‘Don’t give up!’, ‘Keep Going!’,‘Bounce back!’ If I had to choose one mantra that's essential to any writer, it's this one.

It was this advice that helped me to get my first novel published. When publishers rejected my story, one of my mentors said, ‘Keep going. Ask them if they’ll look the story again, if you work on it.’ So I did. It took me four years and many drafts, but eventually the story was published and became my first novel for OUP, ‘Dark Thread’.

In print, but not yet in ebook form, ‘Dark Thread’ is also about spinning, real spinning, of cotton thread, in the first manufactory in the world, Arkwright’s Mill in Cromford, Derbyshire, near where I live. It’s also about weaving, metaphorical weaving, of those dark threads in your life that can either finish you or make you stronger. In the book 15 year old Kate has to cope with the feelings of anger and guilt that haunt her, after her mother’s death.  
One of my new friends at Authors Electric reckons you have to be mad to be a writer. So true. There’s definitely madness in refusing to give up, when publishers, constrained by accountants and a shrinking market, can no longer support lower-to-mid list writers. I know it’s not logical to keep trying against the tide. Look, I’ve tried giving up, I’ve tried telling myself to bin the book I’m writing and enjoy the garden and my new exercise bike, instead, but I can’t give up. And now, we have the chance to publish our work online, so I'll just keep going!

Pauline Chandler

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Foremothers by Sandra Horn

     Someone once described Elizabeth Jane Howard as 'a writer's writer'.
     It got me thinking how many other writers I'd put in the same category: those who, above and beyond being excellent and engaging spinners of tales in precise and delightful prose, create an empathic bond with the reader.
     I'm a huge fan of EJH, Rebecca West and Dodi Smith, among many others now no longer with us except in their books. They were writing about a time that is no more, and yet we can immediately enter into the lives of their characters almost as if they are people we know.
     In The Fountain Overflows and I Captured the Castle, the young female narrators struggle with the eccentricities of their families and are often angry and muddle-headed about how to survive the chaos created by around them by their adults - so far, so not different from now, then - but I fall in love with them every time I read the books (yes, EVERY time; they are in the pile by my bed for reading and re-reading, for pleasure, for comfort, for little specks of light in the dark).
     Both West and Smith were extraordinary women who led unconventional lives. They were misfits, defiers of convention, unwomanly in times when to be 'feminine' was defined by prettiness and meekness and having few aspirations beyond being good wives and mothers and not drawing attention to oneself. Seemliness.
     I don't think of EJH in the same way. She was moulded and pushed around by the conventions of her day, particularly when it came to men-women relationships. She wasn't an exact contemporary of the actress Irene Handl, who once said that when she was young, if someone wanted to rape you, you felt you should let them rather than be thought disobliging, but there is a sense in her autobiography Slipstream, that obedience to the wishes of others, particularly men, was ingrained in her. This is apparent in her female characters, particularly the Cazalet women in the early books, and the emancipation of  the younger generations is not won easily either. Their lives may be richer but they are harder, once they step out of the shackles of convention.
     Of course, all three women were writing about a particular stratum of society; for all its difficulties, and even through times of relative poverty, it is middle-England, middle-class and in some sense protected from the grinding nitty-gritties of life. Somehow the characters reach out from those other times and other social mores, though. A deep sympathy with and understanding of the human condition runs through the work of all three writers. I think that's why I love 'em - and loathe the cold and sneery take on humankind espoused by the likes of the Amis ilk. Hats off and a deep respectful bow to these our literary foremothers.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

PLR - What is it? by Chris Longmuir

     The inspiration for my blog post this month came from a comment I posted on Facebook. That comment attracted so much interest I did a little research on how PLR works, and that is what I want to share with you.

     So what was my comment on Facebook? Here it is, written in the heat of the moment, “Spitting nails this morning. Just got my PLR (Library loans) statement and there are no payments for Night Watcher or A Salt Splashed Cradle despite the fact that Angus libraries’ waiting lists for both books are massive.” I knew my third book in the Dundee Crime Series would not earn anything because it wasn’t in the libraries during the qualifying period, but the other two books should have earned something. So that set me off on my research trail.

     To start with, perhaps I should clarify what PLR is. PLR is short for Public Lending Right. Until fairly recently PLR funding was managed by the Registrar of Public Lending Right, but from 1 October 2013 the UK PLR office became part of the British Library.

     On the British Library website, it says, “Public Lending Right (PLR) is the right for authors to receive payment for the loans of their books by public libraries.”

     This is governed by legislation, and payment is made from government funds. In order to be eligible for inclusion in the PLR scheme, authors are required to register, but that is easily done either by post or online at the British Library website. You will find the conditions for registration on this link as well as a downloadable application form

     However, it is not enough to have your books available for loan in a library, because the PLR system works on the basis of statistics taken from a sample number of libraries. So, if your books are not available in any of the sample libraries, then your income will be nothing, irrespective of how popular your books are in other libraries. Now, I’m afraid this is where I have to admit that my understanding of statistics is abysmal. I have a creative brain rather than a logical mathematical one, so you can understand why statistics remain a mystery. So I will quote what the web site says “Payments are made annually on the basis of loans data collected from a sample of public libraries in the UK.”

     This sounds simple enough but when they mention how they gross-up the loans, I am lost. The best I can do is quote again, “Because PLR loans are derived from a representative sample of library authorities, a grossing up calculation is applied to the actual loans at the end of each PLR reporting year, in order to provide a national estimate of loans for the whole of the UK and Ireland.”

     There must also be a calculation taken from previous data as well because when I checked whether my own books were in the sample set of libraries for Scotland, I was not surprised to find that none of them were stocked. However I did get a small payment for Dead Wood, despite the fact it was not in the sample libraries. This must have been calculated from a previous sample set of libraries. The payment, however, was only half the amount of previous years.

     To look further at book loans data. This is collected over a twelve month period, from 1 July to 30 June. So this year’s payment is based on July 2012 to June 2013. This is why I know Missing Believed Dead would not have been included in the sample because it was published and registered in July 2013. The payment for each loan is the massive sum of 6.2 pence per loan, and a librarian friend told me that on average a reader will keep a book for a month so that would work out at twelve loans per year. I have had 79 loans in Angus libraries for my non-earning books. I have not included the one which did earn the massive amount of £8.18. I’m still pondering what to spend this on. I wonder if it would buy me a ream of paper?
My PLR  Payment this year - I wonder what I'll squander it on? 

     I did wonder why, in this technological age, the PLR system was based on statistical sampling, rather than collecting information from all libraries, but according to them it would be impracticable and expensive to do this, although I don’t quite see the rationale for this given the vast improvements in technology. However, the size of the sample has improved over the years, apparently starting off with 16 individual library branches in 1982, to the current 30 library authorities, with approximately 1,000 individual branches.

     For the purposes of PLR the country is divided up into regions into which library authorities are grouped. Each grouping may include between two to four different library authorities. The libraries included for sampling have to be public libraries operating as part of the statutory library service, provided by local authorities. Community libraries and those set up by independent groups are not included.

     There are nine PLR sample regions in England, one in Scotland, one in Wales and one in Northern Ireland. The current English PLR regions are East, East Midlands, London, North East, North West & Merseyside, South East, South West, West Midlands, Yorkshire & The Humber. The majority of these regions cover several library authorities with London having the majority listed under London Libraries Consortium.

     Scotland is a single PLR region, and because I live in Scotland I was interested in which library authorities were included. The grouping is, Midlothian, North Lanarkshire, and Scottish Borders.

     Wales, also a single PLR region has three local authorities included. But the one I found most interesting was Northern Ireland, because the whole of Northern Ireland is included in the sample. If you want to check the authorities included for 2013-14 you can do so here

     I checked back on the previous year 2012-13, this is the year which applies to present payments, and Scotland’s region included East Ayrshire, North Lanarkshire and Scottish Borders, a change of one local authority. The last time Angus (my library authority) was included was the PLR sample year 1996-97. Gulp, that was 17 years ago, I wonder how long I will have to wait for Angus to be included again. Edinburgh and Glasgow are featured fairly regularly, although unlike London, they are not included every year. Here is the archive of sample authorities from 1982 to 2013

     That begs the question – how often do they change the sample authorities? Well, according to the web site, at least seven of the library authorities are replaced each year, and no authority can stay in the sample longer than four years.

     So there you have it. If you are lucky enough to live in one of the sampling authorities and the libraries in that authority stock your books, then you will get PLR payments. However, if like me, the reverse is the case, then I reckon you should not count on PLR as part of your writing income.

     But in conclusion, if you were to ask me whether it is beneficial to register for PLR in the knowledge you may get nothing, then my answer would be yes. You see, if an author does not register then this reduces the amount of authors on the PLR database, and who knows whether a future decision might be that these payments are no longer necessary, and as a result, the scheme will be scrapped. So, I would encourage you to register.

     Before I go, can I just say that if you like a specific writer’s books and want to support them, then please put a request into your local library for their books, irrespective of whether you have the paperback or kindle version already. It will get the books onto the library shelves, and hopefully they will be included in a sample, sooner or later. After all, every little £8.18 helps! I’m off to check the price of computer paper now, I might just have enough to pay for a couple of reams if I'm lucky, but certainly not for a full box!
How much paper will my £8.18 buy?

Chris Longmuir

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Writing for Video Games - A Virtually Untapped Market, by Catherine Czerkawska

     This post is adapted from a piece I wrote for the Author, the Society of Authors magazine, in 2013. I thought it might be worth a second airing here, since it isn't something that will occur to most writers or aspiring writers. The only reason I know a bit about it is that it is 'in the family.' My son is a game designer and as I’ve followed his progress in video game design, it has become clear to me that this is a growing but virtually unexplored market for writers.

     Charles grew up with the industry, beginning with early hand held games. Later, I remember trying to install PC games for him, but he soon graduated to dedicated consoles. Two things stand out in my memory: his obsession with games of all kinds, board and card games too, and the point at which his ability to play computer games far outstripped my own efforts. He just seemed to get the hang of them in the way that kids invariably do.

     As a young child he was very fond of Richard Scarry’s incident crammed books with their superb mechanical detail. He spent hours with paper and pencils, making books of his own and drawing heavily annotated pictures. Even back then, he was thinking in terms of scenarios for games. His first degree, from Glasgow University, was in pure mathematics, after which he managed to secure some work in quality assurance for the games industry. This was followed by a postgraduate year at Abertay University in Dundee, studying for a Professional Masters in Game Development.

     A couple of years ago, he and three colleagues started their own small company - Guerilla Tea - with Charles as designer, a role which involves aspects of writing and maths, handling the imaginative, the creative and the functional sides of the game. I detail this mainly to highlight the kind of background from which people might enter this field, but there are no hard and fast rules and increasingly young writers are prepared to engage with this world too, especially those with an interest in film.

     Early video games did not involve much of a story and it was assumed that the role of writers would be minimal. It is only relatively recently that some games have begun to include larger environments with more complex game-play and correspondingly realistic characters and scenarios. Cut-scenes - in-game sequences over which the player has no (or very little) control - often mimic scenes from films and serve to enhance character development and drive the story forward. This has resulted in more opportunities for writers but the differences which set games apart can most clearly be characterised by the notion of interactivity. In some ways, the world of game seems closer to theatre, where a symbiosis between audience and actors often creates the sense of a ‘new’ performance each time.

     Some years ago, the adventure genre developed which centred on a narrative involving slower paced, non-confrontational game-play; problem solving rather than fighting. It was always something of a niche genre although many older gamers still retain a nostalgic interest in it. Not surprisingly, this genre has developed into the interactive film-like experiences we see in modern video games, and has of course spawned films themselves although the influence can work the other way. Heavy Rain - a moodily atmospheric psychological thriller, written by David Cage - is a title which aspiring game writers might usefully explore. It was inspired by film noir but with a strongly interactive element. It was perceived to be a ‘grown up’ game, described by Cage as being about ‘normal people who have landed in extraordinary situations.’ The complex choices the player makes throughout the game change the nature of the experience and the ending. It is possible to replay, making different decisions, but this was never Cage’s aim. He is quoted as saying that he wanted people to play it once and accept the consequences.

From Heavy Rain by David Cage
Because the player generally assumes the role of the hero, the main protagonist used to be seen as an empty shell into which the gamer could project his (it usually was a ‘he’) fantasies. Another common perception of only a few years ago, was that the hero was conceived as a pawn, there solely to be influenced by the other characters. But when we realise that big ‘Triple A’ games will have a minimum of twelve hours playing time, we can see how desirable it is for the player to be able to relate to the hero or heroine on a much more personal and realistic level.

     Playing time influences another aspect of game creation. The parts of a film the audience neither needs nor wants to see are essential to a game: how a hero explores the world in which he finds himself, how he or she gets from one place to another, solving certain problems along the way. It is the difficult job of the writer to make these things interesting, working in close collaboration with the designers responsible for the game-play to create a consistent and engaging storyline.

     In many ways, technology still rules, so the writer may even be asked to write for scenes which have already been created from a technical standpoint. For example, the development team may have created a section where the player character chases another character. Presented with this, the writer must find believable ways of weaving it into the story. At present, the demands of playability, of gamer engagement, are paramount. On the other hand, games don’t have to be linear and this can be a liberation as well as a challenge. There can be multiple narrative pathways, and some tasks may not need to be completed in a specific order, although the actions the player carries out may affect subsequent story sequences and outcomes, as in Heavy Rain.

     There are no easy routes into writing for this industry but immersing yourself in the medium helps, as does a background in writing for film, television and/or theatre. Some UK universities run Film courses alongside Video Game modules, but there seems to be disappointingly little cross fertilisation at present. A spell in quality assurance (which doesn’t demand programming skills) can give the necessary knowledge of what works and what doesn’t, as well as contacts. This is an industry where networking is vital. Fairs are held throughout the UK where working relationships are established, opportunities discussed.

     Income is variable. A writer may be commissioned on a self employed basis, for one project at a time. Royalties are not normally paid, unless you have formed a partnership with other professionals, in which case payment will be on a profit share basis. Some of the bigger companies may employ writers, but this is rare. David Cage, who made Heavy Rain, is a studio director who also writes and in this case there are obvious parallels with the world of film. Most writers within the industry are self employed, with a portfolio of skills and projects.

     Charlie’s company, Guerilla Tea, has just been working with Cancer Research UK on a game called Play to Cure: Genes  in Space. A new and highly original concept, this is a game during which the players help CRUK to analyse great masses of data – just by playing the game! Passionate gamer Dara O'Briain launched the game in London earlier this month. As a company with a conscience – but with a great love of gaming for its own sake too – Guerilla Tea are hoping to be involved with more of these very worthwhile cutting edge projects over the coming years.

     There are other, perhaps more intriguing, options for writers to consider. A couple of years ago, my son introduced me to a game called Flower, designed by Jenova Chen of thatgamecompany. He downloaded it onto his Playstation, showed me how to use the controller (a simple matter of tilting it this way and that) and left me to it.

I was captivated.

     There have been few experiences, literary or theatrical, that have moved me so much. This is a game with no characters except the player herself (unseen – you are who you are), extraordinary visuals, no dialogue, but with a beautifully interactive soundtrack in which the music corresponds to changes within the game world. It is clearly a work created by somebody who is both artist and poet. Chen, brought up in China but now living in the USA, says that he was aiming to create an interactive poem exploring the tension between the urban and natural worlds. I would recommend that poets especially seek out Chen’s work. This is all so new and exciting that who knows what a little creative collaboration between writers and game developers might produce?

From the amazing Flower by Jenova Chen

     Catherine Czerkawska is a novelist and playwright.
     Charlie Czerkawski’s company is called Guerilla Tea.
     His eBook, Breaking Into Video Game Design, A Beginner’s Guide, is available on Kindle

Most important of all, do please download Genes in Space and give it a go. It's available for Android and iPhones and if you spend even five minutes playing it now and then, you'll be contributing immeasurably to cancer research. 

Monday, 17 February 2014

When to go it alone – Elizabeth Kay

Five of the six books I’ve converted for the Kindle have been books that were conventionally published in the first place, and the rights have reverted to me. The sixth, Beware of Men with Moustaches, was one that had been accepted for publication and then the whole series was cancelled by the publisher. So my latest book is the first I’ve dared to do without the security of a previous history.

            I wrote it eight years ago, and my agent handled it. It got very close to acceptance several times, and then fell at the last hurdle. The main reason seemed to be that accountants don’t like birds – they’re not cuddly enough. It’s aimed at the same audience who read The Divide, so I’m hoping to pick up readers that way. How come a talking griffin is acceptable, but an intelligent parrot isn’t? They’ve both got beaks and wings…
            I’ve always been interested in the concept of really clever birds – ever since I was walking down a perfectly normal suburban street some years ago, and saw a magpie watching me. To my surprise, it flew down onto the ground in front of me, and regarded me with great interest. Always polite, I said, “Hello.”
            “Hello,” replied the bird – quite clearly, and in a friendly sort of way.
It wasn’t until someone came round the corner looking for their escaped pet that I realised I wasn’t going mad. And recently the programme by Chris Packham demonstrated that birds, unlike a lot of other animals, have a concept of the future. And as for the New Caledonian crows… they solve puzzles faster than small children!
The premise of Ice Feathers is as follows: It’s set in Antarctica, ten thousand years ago, when for a short time just the coastal strip is ice-free.  All the evolutionary niches have been filled by birds; the main predator is a giant eagle and copper-feathered parrots are just as intelligent as man. Kura’s thirteen, and her aunt wants to marry her off to get rid of her, so she steals her uncle’s flightless riding-bird, the vicious and unpredictable Plume, and sets off to find her real parents.  Her search becomes entangled with an attempt to thwart the plans of a tyrannical and unprincipled chieftain, The Varka, and puts both her and her friends in grave danger. Can they outwit The Varka, and save the copper-feathers from extinction? And who really is Kura’s father?
            When Jurassic Park was being filmed it was decided to make the velociraptors twice the size they really were. If you look at the fossil skeletons in the Natural History Museum, you’ll see that they really weren’t all that big, although they looked more than capable of tearing you to shreds in the blink of an eye. And then, right on cue, a new species was unearthed in Mongolia that was twice as big.
Something similar happened with Ice Feathers – I was half through it, having decided that a civilization buried under the ice could be rather good fun, when my elder daughter told me about The Piri Reis map. This was drawn on gazelle skin in 1513, and recently rediscovered in a drawer in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul. It suggests that the coast of Antarctica really may have been ice-free in relatively recent times. This is disputed, of course, but it was enough for me to look at the creatures it suggested lived there and take those as a starting point to depict a land that could once have existed. Any evidence of an earlier civilization would now be buried beneath the ice. I chose to populate this place with the prehistoric fauna of New Zealand, where every available evolutionary niche was filled by birds. Haast’s eagle really was powerful enough to kill human beings, and the grazers and browsers of other continents were represented by different species of moa – I think about eleven have been discovered so far. The huge carnivorous
phorusrhacos once roamed South America, the other land mass close to Antarctica, and the terror cranes that my characters ride are based on these birds. Parrots are extremely intelligent, and individual birds have been known to use language appropriately. Therefore, postulating a species that was, in many ways, more intelligent than man doesn’t seem too implausible. But human beings don’t like competition, whether from their own species or another one entirely, and so it’s reasonable to suggest that some years after this narrative ends man did indeed succeed in wiping them out. And finally, I have shown climate change in reverse where, at this point, the world was getting colder. Whatever the weather, it’s a good idea to plan ahead…

            My agent has been very ill recently, so this seems the right time to try out something new. One of the things I really love about doing a Kindle book is that you’re completely in control. As I’m also an illustrator the cover was my decision, and I really enjoyed doing little illustrations to scatter throughout the text. No one is telling me that I can’t have an elf going off with a pixie she’s just met because of stranger danger, nor is someone else depicting my characters as being years younger than they are in the book. I’ve really enjoyed preparing Ice Feathers – I’m already thinking about the next one I might do. Times have changed so dramatically in the last eighteen months. The first book I converted was an adult one – I didn’t think parents would be happy about their children carrying around electronic reading devices which could so easily be lost or damaged. How wrong I was. A lot of kids have Kindles or iPhones or even iPads – they’ve grown up in an electronic world, and mostly they don’t abuse their equipment. And with the advent of colour, it’s just as worthwhile doing children’s fiction as it is books for adults. So I’m going it alone – and I’ve dedicated the book to my agent despite the fact that she won’t be getting any royalties from it!