Friday, 31 October 2014

THE X-FACTOR CURSE & CRYBABY COLE: it’s catching! by Jan Ruth & John Hudspith

X-Factor Fiction, Halloween, Ho ho ho & hugging Dermot O’ Leary and saving the world.

John: It’s that time of year again, when writers send an avalanche to the ebook shelves hoping for a festive bestseller; when big-boobed slebs offer up their latest ghost-written
shenanigans; when agents and publishers hire staff to handle the increased numbers of rejection notes. Had any good rejections lately?

Jan: Rejection is a tough lesson. I grew up with plenty of it. (I’m talking creatively; as in, go away and do this again it’s not good enough). At primary school I was told it’s vital to experience rejection in order to improve. Character-building, even.

John: Did you sob, like an X-Factor reject?

Jan: I don’t remember sobbing or clinging on to Dermot O’Leary when my first manuscript thudded back through the letterbox for the umpteenth time; it had morphed into a hefty wedge of dog-eared paper with mostly derogatory scribble in the margins by then -  but I guess if Leery had been available, I might have been tempted into a bit of clinging.

John: Is that because you fancy him? Did you know he’s only 3 foot in his underpants?

Jan: He is quite short, isn’t he? That’s suits the midget that is me; I’d still look up to him. I’d have fallen into his arms but only because he’s cuddly, not because I thought my life was over.

John: Was it that bad?

Jan: This work has promise but it is overwritten and the scene where the shop blows up is ridiculous.

It was, actually. Those times draw a fair comparison with past X-Factor winners who’ve taken the prize initially but then sunk without trace. And yet, those who’ve come in third or second have scooped the best prize of all: by going away to think, then coming back with quality material. In my case, I went away for several years and did it again, and again and again. In fact, I kept on re-writing until I was sick to death of it.

John: And prospective agent snapped you up?

Jan: No chance, I really could have wept: Congratulations on producing a novel that is fully engaging, the narrative is sharp and the dialogue excellent. However, we cannot see where we would place this book in terms of marketing.

John: Ah, yes, the worried agent … talent doesn’t matter, simplicity does.

Jan: Right. I learnt that I wasn’t actually sick to death of it, more puzzled by these powerful gatekeepers, the agents and publishers who could make or break your day – your life! But this was traditional publishing BK. (Before Kindle, and before X-Factor)

John: I do like X-Factor, and it’s a good comparison; the machinations of voracity versus real quality - the psychology of it all.

Jan: We need the same show format for fiction, imagine the panel! Simon would be thrillers and crime with a strong leaning towards mafia bosses with lapdogs.

And Louis Walsh: I t’ink you should give her a chance, Simon. I t’ink it’s got something. He always ends up with the groups and oddballs, so, anthologies and something daft?

John: Yep, the requisite annoyance. Remember Jedward? Maybe Louis could have sex with dinosaurs. The books, I mean. Big sellers, apparently. I love, love, love, your book “T-rex on Top”… it looks good, it’s freaky, it’s got everything, it’s what this show’s all about!

Jan: You know, I was amazed those dino-sex books actually exist. Who the hell reads dino porn?

John: Louis Walsh, probably. What about Cheryl? I do like Cheryl, she’s a canny Geordie like me.

Jan: Crybaby Cole? A was blown away by ye’- sob - but a have to turn ye doon cos o’ the typos, like -  romance and true-life stories.

John: She’s not Cole anymore though, is she? Some weird-sounding long name. When Dermot announces it, he sounds like he’s casting a spell, Cheryl Fazhawazzfini or something like that.

Jan: She should have gone back to Tweedy for her stage name, shouldn’t she? Simon and the panel get a far bigger intro than any of the wannabe artists. The judges - or let’s say, the book bloggers and reviewers and the big promotional sites - are set to become more important than the author, much like disc-jockeys did in the seventies. They just played the records but their endorsement and their inane chatter made them into far bigger celebrities than the actual artists.

John: DJs from the seventies have a creepy image these days, though. Creepier than clowns, even.

Jan: True story. Let’s not go there.  

John: So, for the initial auditions, they have to read a blurb? Then, at boot camp they’d get to read one page, then whine There’s better to come when they’re told the narrative voice is out of tune, repetitive and boring. Oh, and at the 'take a seat' stage, they’d read a longer, random section and provide evidence of social marketing skills before submitting the entire book to get to judges’ houses.

Jan: Where Simon isn’t happy with the lineup:

Simon: Hold on, you’ve all picked books that are well-written, we need a couple of dumbed down ones to get the bookworms annoyed, so they’ll hit the phones and vote. Remember guys, it’s a pound per phone call, so I’m going to swap The Extraordinary Life of a Turtle for She likes it with Next Door’s Dog by Crystal Balls.

Louis Walsh: No one wants to read badly-written erotica, Simon!

Simon: Fifty Shades of Grey would disagree with you. Louis, you’re out of touch.

Louis: *blinks, grins, does the orangutan clap*

John: Yeah, Simon likes his quota of weirdoes.

Jan: Talking of weird, what about Sinitta? Where would she fit in? 

John: She’d appear at Simon’s house wearing three strategically placed bookmarks. Then she’d judge the books by their covers.

Jan: And people do, don’t they? Although, as in the real show, they’d be looking for raw talent they could manipulate... I mean mould. So maybe all the books in X-Factor Fiction should start with brown paper covers. On the live shows the backstory footage would include the authors getting professionally designed covers.

John: But some would want to use their own ideas,

Simon: What – the bloody hell – is that? (looking at an image of yet another bare torso with pecs like Cameron’s forehead)

Louis: It’s all the rage, Simon.

Cheryl: Divint worry, pet. Simon’s just jealous.

Mel B: Phwoaaaaaaar, let me hug that boowk.

Jan: Yeah, Scary Spice does like to wrap her arms around the fit ones.

John: Talking of scary, what about the Halloween show?

Jan: For Halloween, the contestants would have to sit it out in a haunted castle overnight, then write up a short story or flash-fiction. I’d be hugging Dermot alright! If I didn’t write contemporary, I think I might gravitate towards historical. There’s an amazing ruined castle in my neck of the woods and it gave me the idea to write something with a paranormal feel for my Christmas collection.

There’s a much bigger story in the history of Gwrych Castle though... so maybe one day. There’s recordings of hauntings and you can sign up for an evening of spookiness on the 31st. To be honest, the place is creepy enough in the daytime!

Anyway, what will you be wearing for Halloween? I still shudder when I think about the nun with no legs being washed in the sink by the way. (*wait ’til you read John’s new book, folks!)

John: That nun deserved all she got! For Halloween I shall be wearing the standard drunken fug, hidden away at the back of the house with the lights off so the sprogs in their crappy get-ups will think no one’s in.

Jan: Bah humbug!

John: That’s Christmas, you dillweed.

Jan: Hey, maybe you could give the kids humbugs?

John: Laced with chili and laxative. Good idea.

Jan: Actually, maybe the panel should consist of notables like Stephen King. How would you feel reading your work-in-progress to him? And, would you cry if he said it was a three-star book? I think the 3* is a much maligned rating. Not even close to rejection is it, really? I think it’s important that authors take-it-on-the-chin with good grace when someone says they didn’t really like the material. It’s not personal, is it? The personal enjoyment of a book is just that, personal.

John: I’d love to read my WIP to the King. He rarely gives opinions on books, though. And you’re right, reading is subjective and you will never please every reader. Maybe for the Halloween show, the X-Factor fiction finalists should be made to read their early stuff, that would be a scream.

Jan: Oh, that would make me cringe, showing anyone the contents of my bottom drawer.

John: Is there much crap in there? Plot holes? Cardboard characters? Predictable? A bit like the X-Factor, really. Hey, you could win it! And, of course, the winner goes on to have a Christmas no. 1 bestseller.

Jan: It’s much tidier now you’ve been in there, John. My lingerie has never been so soft, the words flow like silk, and you’ve removed those annoying frills. I wouldn’t mind a Christmas bestseller actually, or any kind of seller! Is this an opportune moment to mention my trio of Christmas shorts? There’s even a hint of the paranormal in there with a touch of ho ho ho. Santa versus Satan. If they were a box of chocolates, the paranormal one would be the brazil nut. The first one would be a caramel. Is the last one a soft-centre do you reckon? Got to have something sweet at Christmas...

John: Yeah, coffee cream, laced with after dinner mint. Your latest shorts are in great shape.

Jan: There’s always one filled with Cloaca. Chocolates, that is. Okay, here’s goes, it’s Halloween and we have to read a chilling paragraph to the panel.

He carried her to his bed. Clothing was removed, some of it snatched and torn in the process as if their connection had disturbed something feral. A hundred different thoughts, a hundred different reasons not to sleep with a man she’d only just met, a hundred different voices shouting in her head and yet, she slid beneath him, her underwear in disarray. They both seemed in perfect tune, one moment caught in the delicious intensity of anticipation, and then suddenly laughing at the craziness of it, laughing at the red freckles sprayed across his hands and face.

He kissed every inch of her face, she kissed every inch of his face…

Maybe it was then when she knew; that moment when she tasted that unmistakable metallic tang.


Louis: You looked amazing, you sounded amazing, it was amazing.

Simon: You need a new script, Louis.

John: Wise words from Simon. So many books, so many writers, but not enough depth, originality or imagination.

Jan: Stop being grumpy. Readers will always determine what writers write, right?

John: Very true. Teaching the next generation how to read is a must, not only for the future of decent storytelling, but, you know, that old save the world from humanity thing.

Jan: Yes, there’s a long way to go with that.

John: And it starts with the written word.

Jan: Once upon a time…

Useful Links:

*SALE* A Long Way From Home: Short Story Collection, one with a hint of Halloween: 77p/99c

New! Home For Christmas by Jan Ruth out soon:

Editing & more by John Hudspith at:
“In the northernmost spire of his black-brick chateau, John Hudspith edits novels by day and scrawls scary stories by night.”

Halloween Spooky walks North Wales:

Thursday, 30 October 2014


What's a catfish? Well, I have two in my aquarium - beautifully weird creatures with odd little faces who have trebled in size since they moved in with me about three years ago.

But catfish appear to have taken over a whole new meaning in the days of the internet. It's all to do with creating fake online identities in order to con people - see the definitions in Urban Dictionary and on Digital Trends.

Which leads me on to this Guardian article that's been doing the rounds recently. Am I being catfished? Author publishes book. Gets talking to book blogger and alleges that book blogger has been publicly trashing her book anywhere and everywhere. Author engages with blogger. World explodes very messily online...

But then it all gets sinister, as author apparently thinks that blogger may not be who she is purporting to be. Author - take a deep breath here - finds out where blogger lives and pays her a visit! Yes, really. And then ... well, read the article. You couldn't make it up. Unless she did, of course. That's the thing with the internet isn't it? You never know what is and isn't real in the virtual world of cyberspace.

And we go one step further here with  a public condemnation of the whole event and the Guardian for giving it life...

It's a common-enough experience, responding to book reviews. I remember way back in 2011, the story of indie author Jacqueline Howett and her book review on Big Al's Books and Pals that went viral. Now Big Al says it like it is. I should know - I got a very meh book review from him a while back. Did I say a thing? Good God, no. Opinions are opinions and in any case several people contacted me later to say they'd bought my book after reading the review to see what the fuss was about and they didn't agree with him. But go read all the comments to the review - if ever there was a perfect example of why you should never, ever respond to a book review...

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Rewriting by Nicky Browne

According to John Green ‘All writing is rewriting.’ Yeah, I know and a first draft is only the
beginning of a process. I explain this to my creative writing students and tell them to get anything down on the page because it can all be fixed in edit. I am utterly sincere and a total hypocrite. I hate rewriting. I grew up in the twentieth century (without a type writer) I want to do as little of it as possible.
I vividly remember the first day I realised that editing was a necessity. I must have been about  twenty-seven and working with a real live journalist on a press release for an international oil company. Reader, he changed my words!

I was horrified. I’d said what I wanted to say. It made sense, what was his problem? He peered at the printed text and chewed on his lip. ‘Now, how can we say this better?’ he asked. Reader, with that polite question he changed my world! What? You can change things and make them better? I was a lesson I needed to learn, but years on I remain a reluctant, recalcitrant, heel-dragging, chocolate-consuming, ill tempered procrastinator when it comes to rewrites. 

Over the years I have published nine novels and like most writers  have four, maybe five, completed novels knocking around that need fixing. Periodically I go back to them. I reread them, pleasantly surprised to find that they aren’t that bad, that with a little bit of tweaking they could almost be good. All I need to do is edit them and get them out into the world.  So I try to fix them. One is now 10% fixed - the rewritten section has a moderately engaging first person voice with an  entertaining ghost as a side kick/ conscience and  some commercial potential and the rest of it  hasn’t. I won’t bore you with my inadequate attempts to fix the others. I know what they need. I just balk at doing it. Even short novels are long when all the words in them need changing and all the words need changing  because I know I can make every line  better: I wish I’d never met that journalist.

I will be honest, I have been overwhelmed with the weight of these unfixed words: the switch from distant third to intimate first person, the dream sections to be excised, the new characters to be introduced, the witty apercu I am required to invent, and all that honing and polishing! Frankly it makes housework look interesting.  So, this week, I put the endless rewrites to one side and started something new. 

Oh. My. God. As I would write if I were twenty years younger. I remember now, this is what I do. I take a blank page and make stuff happen. At the beginning of the day there is nothing, at the end, a growing story: characters, conversations, complications, motivations, proliferate like weeds and there isn’t time to prune or tidy because this thing is growing so fast. Who would stop? I don’t care about the uncrossed ‘t’s, the slightly dodgy phrasing, the overuse of ‘ slightly’ and probably ‘dodgy’, this thing is alive and thrusting all over the place.

Yes, proper grown up writing is all about rewriting, but this other thing, this mad tumult of ideas and words, the wild moments of making things up, for me is what writing is all about. It is raw and messy and unexpected and probably a bit rubbish but it is joyful and fun and, if I’m honest, the reason I am a writer at all. So, it will be a little bit longer before my four or five unfixed novels get fixed. Sorry.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Old stories, Typewriters, Decay and Resurrection, by Enid Richemont.

Many, many moons ago, I used to write fiction for women's magazines - in fact, that was how I was first published (books were going to happen quite a long time in the future).

I still have copies of these stories, written on a typewriter (remember those?) and also the published versions - so unbelievably antique now. I stopped writing them, partly because I became pregnant, but also because one of my stories just wouldn't sell because it broke an important taboo. Explicit sex? No, I wouldn't have dared.

What put editors off was the supernatural - my female protagonist was a second wife who became convinced that the vengeful spirit of the previous one was embodied in the family cat. It was, in fact, a very short psychological thriller, and it did have a happy ending. When I wrote it, I thought it was good. Whether I would think so now, I don't know, because the manuscript has long since vanished, but the experience put me off  writing for quite a long time.

Re-reading these things now, the required stereotypes were glaring. Career women had to be portrayed as hard, superficial and glamorous, selfish, too, rejecting, as they did, of course, the joys of love, marriage, babies, plus the kitchen sink. Contrast this with anthology in which I published a story a few years ago, called: Don't Kiss the Frog, full of dismal princes, disappointed knights and very undesirable frogs. We have come a long way since then.

Two of those early stories, though, are relevant today. My first published one featured a model who always dressed and made up exquisitely for her lover until one day, things went pear-shaped, and hey! it didn't matter, because it was her inner self he loved (sorry, that does sound naff, but it's still expressing something important). 

The second is very much more serious, and was published, unexpectedly, years later in a magazine called 'She'. It's a Romeo and Juliet story set in a grim but well-meaning 50s residential care unit for children with learning problems, and one day I plan to re-write it as a screen play.

Re-cycling work is like any other kind of re-cycling - old stuff goes in and new stuff comes out. Here's one I did earlier. As a book, it did very well when it was first published, but eventually it went out print, so a naggy friend who loved the story bullied me into re-writing it as a screenplay (we never turned it into an e-book). Writing a screenplay is very challenging for someone like me, used to writing straight narrative, but a wonderful excercise for the mind. Not long ago, I submitted it to the BBC. It didn't make it, but did attract the attention of a small film producer. Whether anything comes of it remains to be seen.

So good work needn't ever be wasted. The raw material is waiting there to be re-worked and transformed, and then who knows what might happen? I'm very much into re-cycling at present, because I've been working on a picture book text based on transformation through decay and resurrection (oh, you can play with very sophisticated ideas in picture books, and no, it's not religion-based, although this stuff permeates through most major religions). My agent doesn't think it will go, so I'm submitting solo, and offering it as a 'rubbish book'.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Writers as Human Hoovers - Andrew Crofts

“You’re like a human Hoover,” my wife complained as we drove home from the dinner party. “That poor woman…”

“What poor woman?” I truly didn’t know what she was talking about. I had been basking in the afterglow of what I thought had been a pleasant evening out.

“The one you were cross examining about her love life.”

“I wasn’t cross examining her,” I protested, “I just pressed the button and everything poured out. She was a human Nespresso machine.”

“You do it all the time. You’re like the Spanish Inquisition. Some people like to preserve a little privacy, you know.”

She was right, of course,  I do it all the time, but in my experience most people love talking about themselves, and those who don’t pretty quickly clam up or tell me to mind my own business. It was a secret I learned at the age of seventeen when I was heading for London in search of streets paved with gold with virtually no social skills at all.

How, I wondered as I watched those around me socialising with apparent ease, did people find things to talk about to strangers at parties? How did you find things to say to young women on first dates? (Bearing in mind that my early romantic education had come from the regency novels of my mother’s Georgette Heyer collection, since when I had been incarcerated in single sex boarding schools). The adult world seemed a daunting, if exciting, place and I was desperate to discover the secret of all the grown-ups who seemed so self-confident in every social situation.

In my search for a magic formula I came across “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie. The book had been written in 1936, so was already more than thirty years old and more than forty years later I can still remember the key message. Mr Carnegie explained that virtually everyone loves to talk about themselves and about their pet subjects. If you keep asking them questions they will keep answering them and the more they talk the more material you have for follow-up questions. The vast majority of people will come away from the conversation thinking you are the most charming and interesting person in the world, even if they have not asked you a single question about yourself, (and it is my experience that a shocking number of people will fall silent the moment you stop asking the questions, even at private dinner tables where you would assume they wanted to be polite).

For a self-conscious teenager setting out to enter the adult world this one piece of advice was priceless, for someone wanting to make a living as an author and ghostwriter it has proved invaluable.

Over the years it has become such an ingrained habit that there is more than a little truth in my wife’s fear that the technique can be intimidating for those who might be unused to talking about themselves. Of course it should be applied with some sensitivity, but at the same time there are so many questions which are so fascinating they are irresistible, even if they are considered impertinent: How much do you earn? Why did you divorce your husband? Are you having an affair with that man over there? Why do you suppose your children hate you? …. It’s amazing how many people reward straight questions with extremely full and revealing answers. 

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Tweet Dreams Are Made of This by Ruby Barnes

Social media fads come and go. Step back in time ... remember MySpace? There are kids now who never heard of MySpace. Google+ was going to be the next big thing and the predicted demise of Facebook had people scrabbling for footholds on Pinterest, Tumblr, LinkedIn, Stumbleupon and goodness knows where else. Now everything is becoming a bit blurred in a whirl of social networks, blogs, photo collections, discussion forums, online chat and update feeds. Isn't this all too much?

So, why bother with Twitter? What is the point of a 140 character message which might not get read by anyone before it sinks into the 500 million daily tweets? On the face of it, unless you are looking for personal interaction or are a microblogging wizard and manage to get your tweet to go viral through retweeting or on TV shows, Twitter doesn't seem to offer much. Unless you are a blogger.

Content is the key to good blogging. Some folk blog about their daily life, others  about a book release / product review / competition. Authors engage in round-robin writing challenges, give updates on their WIP and share writing tips. People tend to follow or bookmark the blog if the content has value for the reader: well written, entertaining and pertinent.

If you write a good blog post it can pull in considerable traffic to your platform and you might even sell the odd book or two (although the jury is out on whether there's any real correlation between blog traffic and book sales). Write a great or controversial blog post and it could go viral, even be the catalyst that catapults your writing from relative obscurity to Amazon top 100 (John Locke, of purchased review infamy, believes his viral blog post about baseball was the tipping point for selling a million).

The killer is this: when you've written a good blog post, it's still there and will pull some traffic through tags, keywords, SEO stuff, but it soon becomes old news, after a week or so. Right? Wrong. How many people viewed that post? A hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand? That's peanuts. Goodreads alone has over 20 million members. The majority of your target audience haven't read your stuff. My Compulsive Communication Syndrome post has had over 17,000 pageviews (mostly by people Googling elephants) but, until I start getting irate emails telling me to shut the hell up about those elephants, I haven't reached saturation with it. That post is still news. 
So how best to leverage all that great content you've slaved over when you should have been writing your latest novel? Send a killer tweet. Use keywords, hashtags and a link to the blog post. Sounds easy, it can be done. Did anyone spot it on Twitter? Any increase in page views? Now it's disappeared again into the 500 million daily tweets.

You need a way to share your best tweets about your best blog posts with people around the globe, in different time zones and on different days. I discovered (yeah, discovered - I'm always the last to know) how to do this while away from home having a Bunfight at the Breaffy House Hotel on the west coast of Ireland. Trawl through your old tweets and find the best one you sent for that post, the one that was retweeted and favorited by others. Do that for all your best blog content and build up a list of tweets in excel, notepad or similar. Make sure you check the tweets don't refer to expired competitions or offers, and click all links through to be sure they still work. Now you need to schedule those tweets using something like Hootsuite. Watch the stats on your blog and see the numbers grow. Try scheduling at different times to catch the Americas, Europe, Australasia and Asia. Look at the audience and work out what's effective for you and your content.

Your blog traffic should have multiplied with this little exercise, but your twitter dementia will be escalating. Try scheduling nothing for a couple of days (if you can bear it) and see your blog traffic drop. You'll soon be back on the scheduling, trying to build the numbers back up and keep your content live. Oh, talking of content, shouldn't you be writing a new blog post? And how's the new novel WIP coming along? Feeling stressed? Don't panic, we have a couple more cards up our sleeve that will exorcise this compulsive communication demon.

Semi-automate your top tweet content, driving traffic to your blog back catalog. Your twitter and blog followers are increasing so use some tool like JustUnfollow to drop unfollowers and follow back new fans, and everything is dandy. Until someone unfollows you, a someone you value as a top tweep influencer. Are they fed up with your play list of repeats? Are you swamping their twitter feed? It could be that they followed you for interaction and aren't getting it from you anymore. Unfollow them and then follow back, in case it was a mistake by them. They'll come back to you if it was. It's always a good idea to keep putting those personal tweets in manually, those run-to-the-computer moments when something great pops into your head. And don't forget to say thank you to folks when they mention you and reply to any valid direct messages.

Feed140 was a very useful too for autoscheduling of tweets but has become a victim of its own popularity. The number of users swamped the architecture of this free tool and it’s currently offline pending redesign. An automated schedule of tweets linking to evergreen content (blog posts, book reviews etc) is a real boon for any author who wants to drive traffic through their social media platform. Are you already autoscheduling your tweets? What tool are you using, what’s the cost and would you recommend it?

I’ve blown Triberr’s trumpet several times and I’ll blow it again. Triberr is a great source of expanded coverage for new blog posts. It can be a bit tricky to get yourself set up and connected with the right people but it’s worth the effort in terms of additional traffic. Connect your blog and twitter to your Triberr account (and Facebook and LinkedIn if you wanna go the whole hog). Join a tribe that has members with blogging interests you want to share on your social media platform (this is important - their content should be pertinent for the people in your network). When you post on your blog it will automatically be shared with the tribes you are a member of. They have the option to share your posts with their social networks (Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, Google+, Stumbleupon).

Example: I have 7,988 Twitter followers, I'm a member of 16 tribes on Triberr with 400 tribemates and a reach of over 2 million Twitter followers. When I blog around half of those tribemates will share my content to their networks. Depending upon how well my blog post title works as a tweet (and it can be edited on Triberr to put in a hashtag or extra keyword) I'll get a boost of extra traffic on my new blog post for every day the post remains active on Triberr.

Conversely, in the spirit of give-and-take that is Triberr, I go onto the site once a day and share every post in my tribal stream that has content I consider relevant to my network. I share writing and publishing tips and news, good book reviews, author interviews, tasty-looking recipes, relevant competitions and beautiful / clever writing on any topic. Those posts enrich my tweet stream with something new at a maximum frequency of every half an hour. I read most every post that I share and have benefitted personally from a lot of that content too.

Phew! Sometimes it all just has to come out. It's easy to set the machine running and keep it ticking over. Does it sell more books? The only way to be sure is to switch your platform off for an extended period. Are you going to take that risk? See you on the other side.

Ruby Barnes is the author of Peril, Getting Out of Dodge, The Baptist, Koobi Fora and The New Author, all on Amazon.

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Consulting Sprint Education by Susan Price

I've been too busy this month to come up with a blog, so here's
The badge of the RLF
some notes on what I've been up to.

I've mentioned before how I trained with the Royal Literary Fund to become one of their accredited consultants.

Well, I decided that I'd better do something with the accreditation. Long ago, when I first started earning a living as a writer, I made more money by going into schools and talking about what I did, than I did from actually selling my writing.

I've continued to make part of my income from school visits ever since, but gradually the writing income overtook the school income... but since the recession both have fallen off sharply. As, I think, almost everyone posting here has found too.

I decided to do something about this. I needed income but, obviously, it was no longer sufficient to wait for schools to seek me out. I had to go out and grab them by the lapels, even if only metaphorically.

Sprint Education
So I gritted the teeth and paid a hefty sum (£500 plus VAT) to Sprint Education, a marketing company specialising in marketing to schools. I reasoned that I only had to get two bookings to break even, and I reckoned I could manage that.

If you check out the Sprint Ed link, you'll see that they give away, for free, an awful lot of information about the best way to approach schools and get their attention.

Using this advice, I crafted my email, sent it to Sprint Ed - and they advised me on how to improve it before sending it off to 8,400 teachers in the UK. The email goes directly to a teacher, not to an office, and Sprint Ed use coding so that each email is personalised.

The advert went out at 9am on September 11. At 12-10 I had my first phonecall. After that, the emails and phone-calls continued to come.

I broke even by the second day. My bookings now take me well into profit. I'm on course to earn, once again, as much or more from school visits as I do from writing.

The downside is that I spent over a week doing almost nothing but answer emails, providing quotes, and more details about what I could do in schools. (Susan Price in Schools)

I'm glad of the work and income, but I can't remember the last time I did any of my own writing. I spend my days devising workshops - which is interesting work, and will pay bills. But I have a book to finish.

I'm also trying to get my Ghost World books published as paperbacks in time for Christmas, which means a lot of finicky revisions.

We're never happy, are we? 


Hallowe'en soon - and if you're looking for some suitably ghostly reading...

Overheard In A            Hauntings                 Nightcomers

Friday, 24 October 2014

On Not Being Paid - Jo Carroll

My first degree is in history and politics - and I dreamed of
Authors Electric Jo Carroll
becoming a journalist. That would be me, I thought, rubbing shoulders with the great and the greedy in the House of Commons and sitting in a garret writing about them.

Except I failed the interview. This was in the early 1970s, when there was no training for interviews, and no post mortem, so I've no idea why. I was certainly a bit shaken - there was almost full employment for graduates at the time and it was hard to turn my attention elsewhere. But events took over, as they do, and I drifted into social work and child protection - and am proud of everything I achieved so cannot suggest those years were anything other than satisfying.

But now our local online newspaper has asked me to be a columnist!

Oh what fun it is! All that adolescent enthusiasm is still there. I know, it's the council and not the MPs I'm having a pop at. And I've got a real house and not a garret. But the feelers for stories are out. No longer can I simply whinge over coffee about the infantile behaviour of our town councillors - I can write about them. No more will I grumble about the lack of opportunity for young people in the town (dominated, as it is, by perms and cardigans) - I can write about it. I know it won't change the world, but it might just tweak a corner of it.

Does it feel like turning the clock back? I suppose so, just a little. More than that, it feels like coming full circle. Because now I draw on my determination to make life better for young people, and my research skills - once used for ferreting out the truth about abuse. 

And no, I'm not paid. 

That's where I hear a collective intake of breath. Writing for free - surely that's against our mutual understanding about valuing our writing. We matter. Our writing matters. We should be paid for it.

Before you gang up and beat me with birch twigs, I'll tell you why I've agreed to do it.

Nobody working on the newspaper is paid. Not the editor, not the news reporters, not the sports reporters, not the columnists. It's a community project, undertaken for the benefit of the town. We make money from advertisers, which pays for the upkeep of the site; any that is left over goes into local projects such as the food bank and support for young families. 

I'm retired. I have a pension - enough to live on. And I'm healthy. I am in a position to 'give back.' But I can't face working in a charity shop or helping with meals-on-wheels. I felt I was underpaid for my skills when I was working and am not going to give them away for free now. But this - I can do this; it is my small contribution to the town that has contained me and my family for so long.

So - in my shoes, would you have agreed to write a column, or would you stick to your writerly guns and refused to work for free?

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Lev Butts' Top Ten (Part II)

Last month I started to count down my top ten books or series that have "stayed" with me (whatever that means) throughout my life.

I may have bitten off more than I could reasonably swallow.
It was a bit of an undertaking, and I only got through the first two.

These books aren't going to read themselves, so let's cut the introductory fluff and get right to it then:

8. The Hobbit/The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

As far as I'm concerned, these are the best covers ever bound.
As a kid, I loved the Rankin/Bass cartoon version of The Hobbit. I watched it every time it came on television. This was so long before DVD's, mind you, that we didn't even have VHS yet.

This is how we DVR'ed back when the world was young and dinosaurs ruled the earth.
This meant that I could only watch it once a year if I were lucky, so for the weeks before it aired, I was the best behaved kid you ever saw. I'd eat all my vegetables and possibly even liver to avoid running the risk of being restricted or sent to bed early on broadcast night.

I'd sing the songs along with the television. I'd climb over the furniture while the dwarves were in the lonely mountain. I didn't miss a minute of it.

Except for this guy; I hid behind the couch for him.
And this is why I'm arachnophobic to this day.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I found out there was a book, too!

And a sequel!

Three of'em!

And they all came in one convenient box!
It was the only thing I asked for that Christmas. I finished the entire series in a month.

And that's when Tolkien ripped out my still beating heart and stomped on it.

In short, The Hobbit tells the story of a little guy who goes off with some dwarves to regain their treasure. On the way, the little guy finds a magic ring that makes you invisible. The Lord of the Rings tells about the little guy's nephew who has to go on a journey to destroy the ring in a volcano. Amid all the walking to and from treasure, the little guys learn that they can affect the great events of the world, but even if they win, they will be forever changed and not all for the best.

The Lord of the Rings wasn't the first time I encountered a story with a sad ending (The Empire Strikes Back did that for me), but it was the first time I encountered a story where the heroes win and are so depressed in spite of this victory that they can't live in the world anymore.

Spoiler alert
It may be the first adult life lesson I ever learned:

Sometimes you can get exactly what you want and still be miserable, and there's very little you can do about that.

7. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

My high school English teacher told us there
was a naked woman on this cover in order to
encourage us to read it. When I found it,
I wanted to punch her.
If The Lord of the Rings taught me my first adult life lesson, The Great Gatsby taught me the first immediately applicable one.

Fitzgerald's book is a searing indictment of the roaring '20's and the decadence of the Jazz Age. It is such a successful and scathing critique, in fact, that anyone who reads the book cannot help but want to go back to the 1920's, and sneer at everyone reprovingly while guzzling bathtub gin and seducing flappers.

On top of all of this, it tells the story of a gangster who's in love with an air-headed rich girl who's married to an asshole of a rich guy who's sleeping with a poor idiot who's married to a loser who kills the gangster in a swimming pool.

Spoiler alert
What makes this story better than your average pulp fiction gangster story is that you kinda feel sorry for the gangster, Jay Gatsby, who really turns out to be a sad (and more realistic) version of a Horatio Alger hero: he's a poor kid from the midwest who impresses a rich con-man and eventually rises through the ranks of his benefactor's organization in a vain attempt to make enough money to deserve the rich girl from old money he's in love with. Sure he makes money and rises through his own efforts and hard work, but unlike Alger's boys, he will always fail to fit in because his money is not the right money. It's new. He will always be outdone by the people with old money.

In fact, Daisy (the poor little rich girl) and her jerk of a husband, Tom, both sit idly by and let Gatsby die because at the end of the day, they don't see his death as their problem (even though they are both to varying degrees responsible for the events leading to it).

Which brings us to my favorite quote form the novel, and the most important life lesson I ever learned in high school:
They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.
After reading that line, I knew with a certainty bordering on the religious, that I did not ever want to be that kind of careless.  I never wanted anyone to think of me the way Nick Carraway, the narrator, thinks of Tom and Daisy. I didn't want to be Nick Carraway either, the poor sod who has to clean up everybody else's mess, and I certainly didn't want to be Gatsby, who is eaten up and spit out by other people's carelessness.

Though, he does manage to look suave and debonair while he's being digested.
I just knew I didn't want to be the kind of guy who left messes for others. I wanted to be the character who isn't in The Great Gatsby: the guy who is responsible enough to clean up his own messes without letting others get hurt in the process.

Though I certainly wouldn't've said no to some swinging jazz, bathtub gin, and a flapper or two.

Next Month: We creep ever nearer the end with numbers 6 &5.

Damn you, Mrs. Clowers.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Everything has its limitations - even e-books? by Ali Bacon

e-book or printed?
During a recent weekend spent with writers old and young, I was in the company of a well-known novelist (no namedropping) and mentioned I was enjoying reading Gone Girl. (I was about half way through at the time).  She said she had like it too and like me had read the e-book. She also happened to say that it was ‘the kind of book that was good for Kindle’. This perplexed me but I let it ride until later in the weekend by which time I had finished the book and  we talked about it again. I wanted to know which novels she considered good for Kindle. I might have misunderstood, but I gathered that she considered the e-format better for quick reads, genre fiction or page-turning thrillers.
I was surprised that she felt this need to differentiate in this way. She has, by the way, been published in both formats and is working now on something that will go straight to e-book, so we are not talking Luddite or literary snob.

I went off to think about my own Kindle reading and consider if in any instance the e-format had detracted from my enjoyment or understanding. With my hand on my heart I can say that my answer is a resounding ‘no’. I have read all kinds of things on Kindle and with the exception of some practical handbooks (which I was just too mean to buy in print!) I had no problem with any of them, including Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which is a whopper of a book, and an illustrated non-fiction monograph which I intended to buy in print but ordered on Kindle by mistake and to my own surprise did not regret it.

The whole idea of e-books being somehow less worthy comes up in research suggesting that e-reading impacts less deeply on our understanding and emotions than reading a print book, i.e. you would not e-read a book that you want to stay with you or that demands particular concentration. Well it’s hard to say if this applies to me, but what I can say is that I don’t retain the detail of books for as long as I would like or expect to but that this applies equally to all books whether in print or on an e-reader. And tell it to my fellow students on the Bath Spa MA who look very attached to their e-readers and presumably hope to retain their reading for quite some time.

When the conversation with the novelist moved into a wider circle there were the usual comments about the difficulties of ‘flicking back’ in an e-book. To some extent I agree with this, but then I’m not much of a flicker-backer. If I can’t understand what’s going on as it happens on the page, I’m likely to get frustrated and give up anyway. Nor do I like a book that assumes I’m going to refer regularly to a family tree, a map or whatever. But actually, a decent e-book (publishers please note!) should have a hyperlinked contents page and is always searchable, so I would have thought that the process of looking stuff up, although different, is perfectly possible. And in non-fiction, dealing with footnotes is actually much slicker in an e-book where they are hyperlinked. (No flicking or marking of pages required!)

Every format has advantage and disadvantages. I never buy fiction in hardback but I prefer hardback cookery books. I love the portability of e-books but will occasionally buy a hard copy of a book I particularly love simply to be able to hold it in my hand. A printed book, as someone has observed, is a souvenir of itself. So the last thing I’m suggesting is that e-books should take over the world. But it’s about choice. The e-format has extended that choice and brought more books to more people and has very little to prove. There are some minor snags, but for me they have been less significant than I expected and are far outweighed by the flexibility and portability of the medium. I don’t see any reason for e-books to be the second class citizens of the literary world. 

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Pauline Chandler asks "Who Needs Stories?"

It still amazes me that many adults don’t read fiction. I used to take it for granted that everyone did, until a chance comment from a friend, an artist, shocked me to the core.  ‘No, I don’t read stories’, she said, ‘in fact I don't read much at all. I don't have time'. She might as well have said ‘I don’t breathe.’

Sadly, I’ve since discovered that ‘not reading stories’ is quite common, even among teachers. Perhaps it’s all that paperwork. No time to read anything other than the latest advice about improving their performance and meeting the agreed ‘learning outcomes'. Pah.

Fiction didn’t feature much on the curriculum in my own school days, during the 50s and 60s, and there was certainly no discussion about what we read in our spare time. We were allowed to read a book, carefully censored, at playtime, as aimless running about was frowned on. In class we read the Greek Myths, Arthur Grimble’s ‘A Pattern of Islands’ (non-fiction) and CS Forester’s ‘The Ship’, which I can’t now recall. Then, because I took Latin, I was not able to take English Literature for O Level, so it was something of an eye-opener when I came to study fiction for A Level. Suddenly, there was a world of commentary on the human condition, from such authors as CS Lewis, Iris Murdoch, George Eliot, Conrad, Lawrence, Hemingway and the ‘moderns’, contemporary writers, Alan Sillitoe, Shelagh Delaney,Alan Paton, Arnold Wesker, James Baldwin, all wonderful authors who spoke about relationships, love, sex, race and  gender, without prejudice. And my cramped wings spread as I started to understand important lessons, under the gentle persuasion of their stories. 
Someone once said to me, ’You can’t learn about life from books, you know’. Pah. You can, you know. 

All the stories we share with our children teach them the real stuff they need to live well. About friends and kindness, respect for the earth and living things, about war and peace, famine and plenty, justice and injustice. About families and how to make things right after a falling out, about serious illness and disability and what life is like when you lose someone you love, about heroism and sacrifice and survival. How to judge what’s worth aiming for, and what’s not, what will stand through time, and what will fade away like mist.  

This magic doesn’t stop when you grow up. The stories just get better, richer, more challenging.

Do you know anyone who doesn't read stories? I wonder what would make them start. Is it too late when you're grown up? 

Pauline Chandler

Coming soon! A new edition of 'Warrior Girl'.
A story set in the time of Joan of Arc.    

Published by Cybermouse Books.       

Monday, 20 October 2014

Nine years on by Sandra Horn

You know those LinkedIn messages telling you to congratulate someone on their job anniversary? 'Ten years at Blithering and Snodgrass'? I usually ignore them because I never know whether the person targetted wakes up every morning with a song in her/his heart and can't wait to rush off to work, or has to mutter 'mortgage, mortgage, utility bills, shoes,' in order to get out of the house at all. Yesterday, I had one: a 'congrats' message, that is. A delightful ex-student congratulated me on nine years at Clucket Press. Really? Nine years since we launched The Mud Maid into the world with but the single thought: we know what we can afford to lose without ending up on the streets, so here goes? Cor, strike me pink. It worked out rather better than we could have dreamed, so we went on to produce The Giant and The Furzey Oak. We've also brought some OOP books back into publication and ventured into e-books and most lately an audiobook. We didn't anticipate any of this - the plan was one book, finish. The very least-anticipated venture was publishing books for other people, but this too has been good. More than good. We make nothing in terms of money, but seeing friends' books through to life has been amazing. We've done it for two members of the writing group, on a they-pay-printing-costs-we-produce-the-book-for-love basis. The latest two are ready to go: a paperback to be launched on Wednesday and an e-book when the cover has been approved. The e-book is the second volume of Vera Forster's autobiography. The first, A Daughter of Her Century, tells of her early years in Hungary and the persecution (Vera was Jewish) of the Nazi years, followed by the false dawn of the Stalinist regime. It concludes with her escape across the border into Austria after the Hungarian revolution. It's a wonderful, witty, compassionate book. Unusually, and  the oft-repeated reason for its rejection by conventional publishers, the factual writing is interspersed with short stories which further illuminate those dark times. That's how she wanted to write it, and the fact that it didn't then quite fit one genre or another was irrelevant.

She died before she could complete volume two, The Free West, and it is this book that we've just put together. It is, as the first one, a mixture of autobiography and stories, but in this case we've put the stories together at the end of the factual writing. Vera arrived here in 1957, speaking not a word of English. A trained  psychotherapist, she could only work as a domestic servant at first because that was the terms of her visa. It is, among other things, a funny take on the English and their incomprehensible ways, and her own struggles to establish herself here. It also contains echoes of the dark past, so again it is impossible to categorise - but so what? That's not a particularly intelligent way to think about a book, to my mind. I've just finished The Cat Who Came in off the Roof - hugely enjoyable, very funny, and (apparently) a children's book. Huh.
After Vera's first book, we went on to publish Jayne Woodhouse's story 'The Stephensons' Rocket'. It's about a retired greyhound and the troubled family who take him in. It is narrated by Anna, a grumpy pre-teenage girl and again, although it could be called a children's book, we know from feedback that people of all ages read and enjoy it. It was followed by 'And Rocky Too, and then the one we are about to launch, 'Rocky's Home Run'. They are the most satisfying and engaging account of a family's ups and downs and Anna's sometimes painful stages of development. They touch on family breakdown, bullying, friendship, mental illness, but with a light, skillful hand.

What next? Who knows? We didn't intend to produce nine of our own books, let alone other people's. so I'm not going to try to predict anything. Let's see what comes along.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Bloody Scotland Could Have Been Bloodier, by Chris Longmuir

It was the day after the Scottish referendum when half of Scotland had been sorely disappointed, while the other half rejoiced, and I was off to Bloody Scotland at Stirling. I’ve been there before, but I wondered if this year it would be bloodier than ever.

Bloody Scotland in case you’ve never heard of it is a crime writing convention for readers and writers of crime fiction. It’s a fabulous event attended by many of the better known, and a smattering of the lesser known, crime writers, and a massive choice of events with over fifty authors giving talks and interviews. The convention is spread over three days, and this year it was from Friday 19th to Sunday 21st September (the voting on the referendum was on the 18th September).

As well as the speakers there was a masterclass on crime writing, a cinema presentation aptly named, Bloody Cinema, in the Old Town Jail, a courtroom drama in Stirling Sheriff Court, Medieval Murder in Stirling Castle, and a gala dinner where the Deanston Crime Book of the Year Award was made to the winning author.

A lively event with Christopher Brookmyre and Denise Mina
The weekend started off with a blast. The first two events had the audience engaged as soon as they started. While waiting for Denise Mina who, we were told, was probably going to arrive on her bicycle, Christopher Brookmyre opened the first one by reading a short story that was, by turns, fantastic, horrific, and extremely funny. This was followed by a conversation with Denise Mina which turned into a humorous and informative pairing.

Stuart Macbride turned Mark Billingham and the audience into zombies
It did make me wonder how the next event would fare following on from this one. I needn’t have worried. The double act that was Stuart Macbride and Mark Billingham provided more hilarity as insults were thrown at each other, and at one point Stuart convinced Mark, as well as most of the audience, that they were zombies, while he read his children’s story Skeleton Bob. Stuart also had Mark mystified by his use of the Doric, particularly when he described his recent award as the world’s stovies champion. His attempt to describe stovies, combined with Mark’s misinterpretations, was hilarious. (Stovies is a Scottish dish comprising onions, meat and potatoes, cooked in beef dripping)

Saturday was packed with events. Three choices for every time slot, so it was difficult to choose. I am highly involved in the digital revolution, so I started off with Digital Detectives, a panel with Allan Guthrie and Ed James, chaired by Alexandra Sokoloff. Allan and Ed described the career choices which led them into digital publishing with both of them approaching it from a different angle. Allan started out traditionally while Ed was entering traditional publishing following his success in the ebook market. Likewise, Alexandra had come to ebooks following a Hollywood script writing career followed by success in traditional publishing.

I took a break after that despite a full programme of events to choose from. This gave me a chance to wander round Albert Halls where I met up with some friends and after lunch and a gossip with them, I headed for an event I had been looking forward to, Alex Gray and Caro Ramsay, ably chaired by Gordon Brown - the writer not the politician. The readings and subsequent panel conversation were so fascinating I made a mental note to shuffle both writers’ books to the top of my ‘to be read’ mountain.

Alanna Knight interviewing Peter May
The next event was chaired by a writer much loved by all, Alanna Knight, and in the hot seat was Peter May, a crime writer with a long list of books to his credit. I remember being hooked on his Chinese crime novels quite a few years ago. They talked about his new book Entry Island, and another mental note was made. That ‘to be read mountain’ was increasing at an alarming rate.

On my exit from the Albert Halls I was astonished at the length of the queue for the next event. But why that should have surprised me I don’t know, because the event was Kathy Reichs in conversation with Ian Rankin, both of them top writers in their genre. The talk was about books and forensics, and was fascinating.

Ian Rankin and Kathy Reichs in conversation

A packed Saturday finished off with the Deanston Scottish Crime Book of the Year Award dinner in the Colessio Hotel. There were ten short listed authors and the winner was Peter May with Entry Island. I was on a table that included Alex Gray and Dirk Robertson as well as readers and it was a good mix. The meal was good, the drink was flowing, and the chat was great. The evening came to an end all too soon, and I left the hotel clutching my gifted copy of Peter May’s, Entry Island, and the new Alex Gray book, The Bird that did not Sing, which she presented to everyone on her table.

Volunteer dusting for fingerprints
The final event I attended was Lin Anderson and Return to the Scene (RS2) – Forensic Fact Meets Forensic Fiction. This was an information packed session as well as an audience interactive one. Volunteers from the audience donned the white forensic suits and tested for fingerprints. Meanwhile the panel discussion ranged between fingerprints and DNA, with input from a forensic examiner, and a fingerprint expert who had previously served in the police force as a crime scene officer. The forensic examiner, Laura Fairley of Return to the Scene (RS2 – innovative crime scene recreation technology) displayed how this computer software worked to allow various professionals to examine crime scenes without the need to be present. Not only was the software able to scan crime scenes, it also had a body map element which produced a 3D model of a human body on the computer screen which could examine for internal damage as well as external. It was fascinating to see the body go through various layers of transparency right down to the bare skeleton. The body mapping was particularly useful in court cases in order to present injuries a victim has received to the jury. Fascinating stuff.

Bloody Scotland was a brilliant weekend, and the only blood in evidence was the fictional stuff – thank goodness. I sampled various panels, but also missed quite a few, and my biggest difficulty was in choosing which event to attend with a choice of three for every time slot. But that’s a good excuse to return next year, although no doubt I’ll still have the same problem.

If you want to check out Bloody Scotland, you’ll find it here

Chris Longmuir